Crisis in the Church

Acts 5-6

Alan Lewis
Elon, North Carolina
July 2013

In Acts 2 we saw the Holy Spirit indwell, baptize and fill believers on the day of Pentecost.  The church was started.  We looked at what it looked like when it was started.  It had many characteristics.  It had great leadership.  The Twelve Apostles went to this church.  It had incredible growth from 120 to over 5000 in Acts 4. The first church was a mega church.  It had biblical teaching.  The early church continued in the apostles’ doctrine.

They had supernatural power.  The apostles were doing all kinds of signs and wonders and had such a great reputation that people were bringing the sick to them to be healed.  They were devoted to prayer.  They were completely united.  They were not just devoted to the Lord.  They were devoted to one another.  Acts 4:32-37 reads:

“All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had.  With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need. Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus, whom the apostles called Barnabas (which means “son of encouragement”), sold a field he owned and brought the money and put it at the apostles’ feet.”

This was a loving church. There was so much love in this church that they took take of the poor people in their church.  They had some poor people in the church.  Apparently, it was a big problem and they didn’t just say, “We will pray for you”.  What did they do?  They did two things.  The first things they did was to SHARE their possessions (4:32).

What does this tell you about this church?  It us that people in this church were not selfish.  Some of us don’t like to share.  This says that they shared EVERYTHING that they had.  If someone didn’t have a place to live, they said, “You can come and live with us.  We will share our home with you”.

When that was not enough, the next thing they did was to SELL their possessions to get money to help people (4:34). What does this tell you about the church that they not only shared their possessions, they sold them?

They were generous and sacrificial.  They gave some things up to meet the needs of other people. It worked.  The text says, “There were NO needy persons among them(4:34). We have an example of someone who sold some of his property to help someone.  We call him Barnabas but his real name was Joe.

This was not a religious cult where everyone had to sell their possessions.  It was completely voluntary.  No one forced people to do this and there was no command that everyone had to do this and no other church in the NT did this, so far as we can tell. This is also not some kind of Christian communism.

In fact, it was the exact OPPOSITE of communism.  In full communism, this would be mandatory. Communism says, “What’s yours is mine”. This church said, “What’s mine is yours”. Communism says, “Give all that you have”. The early Christians said, “Take all that I have”.

This was a very generous and compassionate church.  It was a loving church. The Jerusalem Church was a good church.  It was an apostolic church but it was NOT a perfect church.  Even vibrant, growing churches have problems.  Even apostolic churches were not perfect.

They were made up of sinners.  The first century church had problems.  I want to look at two problems that arose in the very first church – the first church scandal and the first church argument.  Let’s look at the first one in Acts 5:1-11.

“Now a man named Ananias, together with his wife Sapphira, also sold a piece of property. With his wife’s full knowledge he kept back part of the money for himself, but brought the rest and put it at the apostles’ feet.

Then Peter said, “Ananias, how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit and have kept for yourself some of the money you received for the land? Didn’t it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn’t the money at your disposal? What made you think of doing such a thing? You have not lied just to human beings but to God.”

When Ananias heard this, he fell down and died. And great fear seized all who heard what had happened. Then some young men came forward, wrapped up his body, and carried him out and buried him.

About three hours later his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. Peter asked her, “Tell me, is this the price you and Ananias got for the land?”

“Yes,” she said, “that is the price.” Peter said to her, “How could you conspire to test the Spirit of the Lord? Listen! The feet of the men who buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out also.”

 At that moment she fell down at his feet and died. Then the young men came in and, finding her dead, carried her out and buried her beside her husband. Great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events.”

The First Church Scandal

Here two members of the first church suddenly drop dead not too long after the church was started. Peter plays a key role in this story as a young married couple drops dead in church.  These were probably charter members of the church.

They were well-respected members of the church.  They had been there since the beginning.  They had been baptized.  Why did they die?  What did they do that was so bad?  What was the first big sin of the church?  It was a financial sin.

It is interesting what the first church scandal did NOT involve.  It had nothing to do with sex.  Nobody ran off with the church secretary. No one was caught with a prostitute. Both Ananias and Sapphira were faithful to one another. Neither one did any drugs.

They did not break any law. They weren’t arrested for committing a crime.  What is so shocking about this is that Ananias and Sapphira were probably well-respected in the community.  They were well-respected in the church.

What was their sin which got them killed?  They told a lie.  Who did they lie to? They lied to the church.  What did they lie about?  They lied about money.  They lied about how much they gave to the church.  It doesn’t seem that serious to us.

It is like cheating on your taxes or saying you gave ten percent to the church when you only gave eight percent.  It is wrong.  It is lying but is it bad enough to die for?  The punishment does not seem to fit the crime.  It seems a little harsh.

Furthermore, they actually did a good deed in the process.  They died right after they gave some money to the church.  They had some land.  They sold it and gave some of the money to the church.  They were sacrificial.  They were thinking of others and they still died.  They didn’t have to sell their property.  The irony is that if they didn’t sell their property, they would still be alive.

Lying is not that big of a deal to us today.  Politicians do it all the time and do not think twice.  God thinks a little differently about lying than we do.  Proverbs 12:22 says, “Lying lips are abomination to the Lord”.  God HATES Them.  Proverbs 6:16-19 says

“There are six things the Lord hates, seven that are detestable to him: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises  wicked schemes, feet that are quick to rush into evil, a false witness who pours out  lies and a person who stirs up conflict in the community.”

God says that there are seven things that he hates.  Two of them have to do with lying (a lying tongue and a false witness).  This is no small deal to God.

Let’s try to reconstruct the events that day.  You have to use a little bit of your imagination to do this.  There are ten steps to the chronology here.

A Possible Reconstruction of the Events

1. Barnabas sold a field that he owned and gave all of the money to the church.

Barnabas was a well-respected member of the church.  He sold some of his real estate and was praised for his generosity.

2. Ananias and Sapphira decide to do the same thing.

They said, “What Barnabas did was a really good idea.  Maybe we should do that.  We have some land we could sell and give to the church as well.”  A number of their friends did this and they wanted to do it as well.  Now they did not have to sell their property.  It was completely voluntary.

Once they sold it, no one forced them to give it to the church.  They could have sold the property and kept the proceeds.  Once they sold it and gave the money to the church, they did not have to give all of it but that was what they decided to do and told others that they were going to do.

3. After selling the property, they changed their mind.

They sell the land and bring the money into their house and then Ananias changes his mind for whatever reason.  He decides that maybe they should not give all of it to the church.  They look at the large pile of silver.  It is a lot of money and they could use some of it.  They may have had some financial needs themselves.

They may have even gotten more for the land than they thought they would get.  The land may have been worth $7,000 and they got $10,000 for it.  Why did he change his mind?  Greed.  He thought if he hung on to the extra money he would be happy.  Instead, he ended up dead.  He should have stuck to his original commitment.

4. They both agree on what they will say to the church.

They are on the same page.  It is clear from Acts 5:1-2 that Ananias was the one who came up with this plan.  His wife just went along with it and became his accomplice.  Apparently, she did not object to the plan or protest.  Now it becomes a conspiracy to deceive the church.  Ananias and his wife both plotted to lie to the church about their donation.

5. Ananias makes a donation to the church.

He gives them SOME of the money from the sale of the property to the church and says he was giving all of it.  “God has really blessed us.  We sold a plot of land and would like to give it all to God to help anyone who is in need in the church”.  So far, Ananias has told a lie but he still has a chance to get out of it before the consequences are fatal.

6. Peter confronts Ananias about the amount.  Ananias lies and drops dead on the spot.

Peter doesn’t kill him.  God does. The application here is that leaders sometimes need to confront people in the church. That is one of the jobs of leaders.  Some do it and some do not do it because it is unpopular.

Peter said in Acts 5:3, Ananias, how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit and have kept for yourself some of the money you received for the land?”. How Peter knew about this we do not know.  God must have revealed it to him but it raises a very interesting question.

Can Satan Fill the Heart of Believers?

Some do not believe that this can happen to believers.  I once had a pastor tell me that Satan cannot get in people’s minds.  This was a Bible believing pastor who said that Satan cannot put thoughts into people’s heads. This passage is crystal clear.  Peter said that Satan filled the heart of Ananias and Sapphira and there is every indication that they were genuine believers.

Satan can and does influence Christians today.  That is a scary thought.  He can fill people’s hearts.  He may fill the hearts of some pastors even.  He can even speak audibly through some preachers.  He spoke audibly through Peter when he instructed Jesus not to go to the cross and he was an apostle (Matthew 16:23).

In the OT, David wanted to take a census.  Where did he get the idea?  He got it from Satan.  Satan incited David to do this (I Chronicles 21:1). Ananias is buried before his wife arrives on the scene.  She does not even know that he died yet.

7. Ananias is buried before his wife arrives on the scene.  She does not even know that he died yet.

8. A three hour gap takes place before Sapphira arrives on the scene.

We know this from Acts 5:7.  What did she do for three hours?  She had all of this extra money, she probably went shopping. She got her hair done, bought some fancy clothes, got some new jewelry.  When Ananias didn’t come home for dinner, she went looking for him.

9. Peter finds Sapphira and confronts her and she drops dead.

The apostles were pretty good at confronting church members.  He asked her point blank how much the land was sold for?  She had a chance to come clean and tell the truth or to lie?  She lied. Those were her last words.  She dropped dead too and they buried her.

10. Then fear came on the whole church (5:11).

Everyone was afraid. Why? They were wondering if they were going to drop dead as well. They looked back to see if they had told a lie in the last week.  God does not do this kind of thing every day.

If he did, there would be very few people in most of our churches.  Donald Grey Barnhouse once commented that if God did this today there would have to be a morgue in every church and a mortician on the pastoral staff. What are some lessons that we can take from the story of Ananias and Sapphira?

Applications from Acts 5:1-11

1) God wants honesty and transparency in his people.

He wants us to tell the truth when we talk to people.  He wants us to have integrity.  This story tells us what God thinks of hypocrites in the church.

2) Genuine believers can fall into sin.

Ananias and Sapphira were genuine believers.  They had been baptized.  They may have been charter members of the church.  They not only lied, they tried to deceive the apostles.  Satan filled their hearts.  He can fill our hearts.

3) Leaders sometimes need to confront people in the church.

That is one of the jobs of leaders.  Some are good at this and some avoid it.  Today when church members fall into sin, leaders often try to cover them up, rather than to try and confront them.  Confronting people is too unpleasant.

4) God judges believers who sin and sometimes they even die.

The Bible talks about a “sin unto death”.  Now he does not do this every day.  Can you imagine how big our church would be if God took out every single person in the church who told a lie the last week?

5) There is no perfect church.

The very first church had problems.  The Jerusalem Church was a good church.  It was an apostolic church.  The Twelve Apostles went to this church but it was not a perfect church.  Even apostolic churches were not perfect.  They were made up of sinners.

The First Church Argument

The second problem in this church is found in Acts 6:1-7.  Church conflict is inevitable.  Up to this point, the church was completely united.  There was no division in this church.  “All the believers were one in heart and mind” (4:32).

Today, we have all kinds of divisions in churches.  No more one heart and one mind.  The Christian church is completely divided today. We do not think about how divided the church is today.

  • The church today is divided by RACE.  There are black churches, white churches, Chinese Churches, Hispanic churches.
  • The church today is divided by TRADITION.  There are hundreds of denominations and what mainly divides these denominations are years of traditions.  Catholics are not the only ones who have traditions.  Protestants have a lot of traditions as well. They will say, “That is the way we have always done things around here”.
  • The church today is divided by THEOLOGY. There are many doctrinal differences between churches.  We have churches that believe you can lose your salvation and churches that believe that you cannot lose your salvation.  There are churches that believe that people can speak in tongues today and churches which believe that tongues have ceased and there are not tongues speaking today.  We have churches that believe in predestination and other churches that believe in free will.
  • The church today is divided by POLITICS.  Some are politically liberal and some are politically conservative.  Some love Obama and some hate him.
  • The church today is divided by DRESS CODE.  Some churches are real formal and everyone wears their Sunday best.  My wife calls those “panty hose churches”.  Other churches are casual, the “come as you are” churches.
  • The church today is divided by MUSIC. Some churches only play hymns and some play contemporary music.  In fact, in some churches it is so contemporary, it hurts your ears.  Music in the black church sounds different form music in the white church.
  • The church today is divided by TRANSLATION.  There are some churches that only use the KJV and other churches that use more modern translations.

There was no division in the first church until we come to Acts 6 and there is a big argument.  The argument has nothing to do with doctrine.  What was the about?  How did it start?  We find out in Acts 6:1.

”In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Hellenistic Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food.”

Notice how the chapter begins – “But as the believers rapidly multiplied, there were rumblings of discontent.” There is a passage of Scripture that says, “Without oxen a stable stays clean” (Proverbs 14:4 NLT).  What is this saying?  It is real profound.

If you have an ox, you are going to have ox poop.  If you want a clean barn, then do not have any animals.  If you want a church without any problems, then do not have any people in it.  The more people you have, the bigger the church is, the more problems you have.  The first church was so big that it started to have some problems.  It had some growing pains.

It was growing so fast, they couldn’t even count everybody.  Eventually, they had a problem. There were two cliques or groups of people in the church.  Both were Christians.  Both were Jewish Christians but there were two kinds of them.  One group was called Hebrews.  They were born and raised in Israel.  They read Hebrew.  When they wanted to read the Bible, they pulled out a Hebrew Bible.  The Twelve Apostles were Hebrews.

The other group of Jewish Christians was called Hellenists.  The Hellenists spoke Greek.  When they wanted to read a passage in the OT, they would read from a Greek Bible.  They were born in a Gentile country and accepted Greek culture.  We might call them native Jews and foreign Jews.

They were both Jews but were divided by language, nationality and culture.  There was tension between these two ethnic groups. They started not to like each other or trust each other. Jews born in Israel looked down on foreign Jews.

The Hellenistic Jews among them COMPLAINED against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food”

What were they complaining about?  Everyone was not being treated fairly.  Before there was no needy person among them and now some in the church were needy.  A whole group of people was being overlooked.  There were certain widows who did not have food on the table, while other widows were being taken care of.

They felt left out and they happened to be from the same race.  The first division in the church had to do with race relations.  Sound familiar?  Why did the two ethnic groups not get along?  One group of the church complained about discrimination.

Lessons for Church Leaders

Now there is absolutely no evidence that this was intentional.  It was an oversight.  The church was so big that too few people were doing too much of the work.  It was an administrative problem but it was still a real problem and they took this problem right to the apostles.

How the apostles handled this problem is very interesting.  Church leaders could learn a lot from what they did here and what they did not do.  The apostles avoided some common mistakes that pastors have today.  What lessons can we learn here from the apostles?

Lesson One: Be Open to Feedback

They did not deny that this was a real problem.  They did NOT say, “How dare you question our leadership.  We are apostles.  We have special authority directly from Jesus Christ”. Some leaders are not too open to criticism or feedback from the congregation.  They take everything personally.  The apostles did not make that mistake.

Lesson Two: Deal with Real Problems

This was a problem and the apostles deal with it.  If you do not deal with division fast, it will split the whole church.  If the apostles did not deal with this problem, there would have been two churches – a Hebrew branch and a Hellenist branch.  Some pastors do not have the backbone to deal with some of the problems in the church.

Lesson Three: Be Willing to Delegate

They also did not try to do everything themselves.  They delegated leadership back to the congregation.  They said, “This is a real problem but we are not going to solve it.  You are.”  Some pastors try to do everything in the church.  They are workaholics and do not utilize the gifts in the body.

So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. Brothers and sisters, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.”

That is very interesting.  God called the apostles to a spiritual ministry (feeding souls, not feeding bodies).  There is nothing wrong with feeding the poor.  There is nothing wrong with doing humanitarian work but that it not what the apostles were called to do.  They were called to prayer, to preaching, to teaching, to evangelism, and to discipleship and that all takes time.

They did not want to be diverted from their mission by spending all of their time, going from home to home, delivering food to hungry people, so they told the church to solve their own problem by picking seven men.  That gave the church some of its own authority.

This was not a church election.  That is how some denominations would do this today.  They would say, “If you want to be one of the seven deacons, put your name on the ballot and people can vote for you”.  They were not to elect people in office but to select people for the job.

The apostles could have said, “Just pick anyone for the job.  Anyone can serve tables”.  They didn’t say that.  They told the church to pick some men but gave them specific instructions and guidelines about who they were to pick.

They told them to pick out people FROM AMONG YOU.  They were to be indigenous.  They were not to bring in experts from the outside but to find individuals from their own church but they had to be qualified for the job.

There were three qualifications for this ministry position (6:3).  They were to be men of good repute (moral requirement – men of integrity).  They were to be men full of the Spirit (spiritual requirement – religious).  They were to be men full of wisdom (practical requirement – useful).

What the apostles did was brilliant.  They did not solve the problem themselves but delegated leadership.  They let the church solve their own problem with some guidelines.  What the church did was even more brilliant. They picked seven Hellenists to solve the problem.

How would we have solve the problem today?  We would have picked half Hebrews and half Hellenists.  Since there are two groups in the church, we would want equal representation on the committee to make sure that both groups of widows were taken care of in the church and no one is discriminated against.  They didn’t do that.  There was no politics here.

The church put these seven Hellenists in charge of the whole thing and turned the whole ministry over to them. They bent over backwards to restore peace in the church.  Someone called this the first example of affirmative action in the Bible.  After that decision, there would not be any problem between Hebrews and Hellenists in the church.  The Hebrews showed how much they trusted them. Next week, we will look at the lives of two of these deacons in more detail.

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