READ – Acts 4:32-5:11
Many Christians read the book of Acts with all its incredible stories of God’s undeniable work and power in people’s lives and say, “We need to go back to days of the book of Acts! The church today is weak and ineffective, the early church was so powerful and impactful!” Then we read stories about people selling property and giving all the money to the church. We read about people lying and dropping dead on the spot. Then we think, “Ok… everything except that. That’s too much”. What can we learn from stories of such radical (reckless?) generosity and such seemingly unpredictable judgment?
This passage is a study in contrasts. It’s like two ends of the spectrum – at one end we see what God wants to build into churches and lives and, on the other, what he wants people and churches to avoid at all costs. They are glimpses of church at its best and the church at its worst.
1. THE CHURCH AT ITS BEST
In addition to the narrative that makes up most of the book of Acts, Luke (the author) regularly pauses to summarize so we don’t miss what is happening. The first of these narrative “pauses” is Acts 2:42-47. There Luke describes the first church in action. The next pause is here in Acts 4:32-37. When we read these summaries side by side we note 2 things they share in common – there is a focus on doctrine and there is a focus on the poor. The gospel is being preached and radical generosity is meeting needs. This is church at its best according to Acts.
Sometimes we talk about church as if we have to choose between a strong focus on doctrine and a strong focus on helping the needy. Acts tells us both are needed. The best churches are marked by gospel truth + gospel generosity. Notice that this wasn’t communism – nothing was forced; it wasn’t communal ownership. But also notice this wasn’t capitalism. Though everything was voluntary, it wasn’t about private ownership either. In this church, “no one claimed that any of his possessions was his own”. Everything was God’s. It was about God’s ownership of all. Since the church was God’s family, when needs arose, people joyfully used what God had given them to help.
2. THE CHURCH AT ITS WORST
Joseph (4:36-37) was a member of the Jewish priestly class who owned property. This meant he was wealthy man of social standing. Acts tells us Joseph was one of the people who sold land to help the needy in the church. He was a man of generosity and encouragement. So much so, he got a nickname from the apostles. They said, “There are too many Josephs out there – we are going to call you Barnabas! (which means Son of Encouragement). He’s an example of church at its best.
When we are introduced to Ananias and Sapphira the parallels are eerily similar (Acts 5:1-2). But something’s off. They wanted the recognition and honor of Barnabas without the heart of Barnabas. So they lied. They acted like they were doing the same thing he did but they kept back some of the money for themselves. One at a time they “dropped dead”.
Wow. Why did God judge them so immediately and – to our mind – so harshly? Peter is clear. They didn’t have to sell their property. When they decided to sell it, they didn’t have to give any of it to the church. So why were they judged? Their judgment was for lying – for hypocrisy (5:3,4). Hypocrisy is wearing a mask; pretending to be one thing while you are another.
Why does God see this as the worst thing that can happen in the church? Think about this - what happens when God allows hypocrisy to happen in the church unchecked and unaddressed? It means the death of the church. It means the church is a lie; a pretend church. God means to build a real church - where real sinful, broken people don’t have to hide or pretend but can come take the masks off and come to Him. So, God chose this one incident at the church’s beginning to show us the one thing that will kill the church, the worst sin in the church—hypocrisy.
3. JESUS FOR PEOPLE AND CHURCHES AT THEIR WORST
This story teaches that the worst thing we can do is try to hide who we are and where we are at from God. But the truth is at one level or another, we all do this. We are all hypocrites. We all pretend and wear masks. Why? It’s because we are afraid to take the mask off. We are afraid to be seen at our worst.
Here’s where the gospel can cure us of hypocrisy. Jesus brings two things together that we never thought could go together = great grace and great fear. Acts 4:33 says “great grace was on all of them” and 5:11 says “great fear came on the whole church”. We might wonder how can these two things co-exist? But its when great fear and great grace come together in Jesus that we can be free of hypocrisy. How does this work?
1) We need to face the worst about us. This is a fearful thing. We need to be shown our sin, the mask needs to be taken off. The only way it comes off is if something is greater than our fear of being seen at worst; greater than our fear of what people think about us. This is the great fear of God - awe and reverence in light of His holiness.
2) We need to feel the full force of God’s grace for us. We need to be loved when our sin is revealed, even at its worst. When the mask comes off we need to be embraced, approved and accepted. This is the great grace of God in Christ.
At the cross, we see sin unmasked for what it is - deserving of the full judgment and wrath of God. At the cross, we see God’s great grace and love for sinners revealed for what it is - unstoppable, unfazed at our sin at the worst, willing to bear, to take it, to “become” it (Gal. 3:13, 2 Cor. 5:21) for us so we’d be set free from its shame and come out of hiding.
When am I really at my worst? Christianity’s answer is so surprising. It’s misunderstood by those who are not Christians and it should never get old for Christians. When am I really at my worst? Not when I’m a sinner sinning. I’m at my worst when I’m a sinner pretending and hiding. There’s nothing more transformative to the human heart than being seen at our worst and still being loved. That’s what God does for us in Jesus.
QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION
1. What about the sermon most impacted you or left you with questions?
2. One commentator says Acts 4:33 could be translated, “No one staked a claim on his possessions.” The gospel meant a new stake was put down on each person’s life and all they owned. Which of your God-given resource(s) do you most stake a claim on in your life? Why do you think this is? What would it look like to put a new stake in it – “God’s”?
3. What difference would it make if we believed we have greater security and greater status in Jesus than we could ever have in what we own?
4. Why do you think people and churches feel we need to choose between a focus on teaching and a focus on helping the poor? Why are both important? What might it look like for our church to focus on both?
5. Do you agree that hypocrisy is the worst sin in the church? Why or why not?
6. How would you answer someone who said, “I don’t believe in Christianity and I’m not interested in church because the church is full of hypocrites.”? How would this passage help you respond?
7. How does the gospel address our deep fear of taking our masks off and being seen at our worst? How has this happened (or how is it happening in your life)?
8. When am I really at my worst? Not when I’m a sinner sinning. I’m at my worst when I’m a sinner pretending and hiding. What difference would it make if you believed this? What difference would it make in a church if the whole church lived like this?