By J.R. Miller
There are blemishes on the fairest human beauty. The best man, has his faults and imperfections. The holiest periods of the church, have their imperfections and dishonors. The history of the apostolic days has in the brightest of its glory--this sad story of Ananias and Sapphira. The spirit of love was reigning in the early Church. It was a true brotherhood. Whatever anyone had--he was ready to share with those who lacked. "All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own--but they shared everything they had." This generosity was voluntary; there was no forced communism. But many of the wealthier Christians sold their possessions and brought the money to the apostles, to be used by them in helping the poor. One of these generous givers named Barnabas, sold a field he owned and brought the money and put it at the apostles' feet. Elsewhere we are told that Barnabas was a good man. His name means "son of consolation," or "son of exhortation." Evidently he was one of those men who have a genius for helping others. He had learned how a Christian man should use his money. He was prompted by love for Christ and for the poor--to sell a piece of land and to lay the money at the feet of the apostles, to be used in helping his fellow Christians who were poor.
The closing verses of chapter four and the beginning of chapter five should be read together. The word 'but' makes a striking contrast between what goes before--and what comes after. One man's good deeds inspire good deeds in others. No doubt the influence of the generosity of Barnabas did much to make others of the first Christians liberal. No doubt, too, his noble act put it into the heart of Ananias to do what he did. He wanted to be generous, too. The people were loud in their praise of Barnabas when it was known that he had made his gift of love.
Perhaps his desire to have the commendation of his fellow church members was the motive, which inspired Ananias. Possibly, at first, his impulse was right and his intention likewise. He may have meant to bring all the money to the apostles. It often happens that under a stirring appeal, a man resolves to give a certain large sum to some good cause. But as he thinks over the matter his enthusiasm wanes, his willingness to make the self-sacrifice diminishes, and he ends by giving nothing at all, or only a small part of what he intended to give. This may have been the case with Ananias. At least we know that, having sold the property, he brought only a small portion of the proceeds, which, however, he represented as all he had received--secretly keeping back a part, while getting credit for the giving of all.
Peter made it very plain that though Satan had put it into the heart of Ananias--but he reminded him that he himself had first conceived the thought, allowed the thought to be born in his heart. Satan may be the author of the evil thoughts which are whispered in our ears--but we make them our own--when we accept them and adopt them. Satan does not work them out--we do that. We cannot, then, throw off the responsibility for our sins--by blaming the tempter with them. They are our own when we commit them, no matter who first tempted us with them. We are not responsible for temptation, for suggestions of evil. Jesus Himself was tempted in all points; suggestions of evil were made to Him--but we are responsible for whenever we accept evil suggestions and let them into our heart. We must resist every temptation, for no matter how fiercely the tempter plies us; if we yield, the guilt and the penalty will be ours. Satan will never help us to bear the consequences of our sins. Peter reminded Ananias further of the terrible nature of his sin. His falsehood was not merely one that had been made to men. "You have not lied unto men--but unto God!"
Is there any lying unto God in these modern days? Was this sin of Ananias' one that can be repeated in Christian service and worship in our day? Have we never come perilously near a like sin? When we unite with the Church we profess, both in act and in words, to dedicate to God all that we are and all that we have. Do we keep back no part? It is told of some old Saxon warrior who came to unite with the Church, that when he was immersed he held up his right hand out of the water. When he was expostulated with, and told that his whole body must be buried, he replied that he would keep that hand to himself for battle with his enemies. He could not give up this part of his old life.
There are too many people who reserve some part of their life undevoted, when they make their consecration to God. We sing hymns not to men--but to God--and yet we frequently come upon lines, which declare our fullest love, and our unreserved devotion to Christ and that promise the most unbounded service. Do we really mean all we say when we sing such hymns? Do we not sometimes profess in our prayers--what we fail to make good in our lives? Are not these things of the nature of lying to God? Men boast of their character for veracity, that their word is never questioned by their fellow men. Are they as careful to keep their word with God, to fulfill every promise and vow to Him? It is a great sin to lie to men. No sin is condemned in the Bible more persistently than falsehood. Liars must be shut out of heaven's gates and shall have their part in the lake that burns with fire and brimstone! But lying unto God is far worse than lying unto men.
Quickly came the punishment, "When Ananias heard this, he fell down and died!" His death was not Peter's act--but God's. It was not merely summary punishment for his presumptuous and daring sin--but being visited thus at the beginning of the Christian Church, it became a beacon, marking a fearful peril and sending its warning down the after ages. Thus God branded hypocrisy in the Church, as among the most fearful of all sins. We should not forget that our Lord spoke no words so bitter and scathing as the words He spoke against hypocrisy. The lesson should be heeded by everyone. Such open penalty may not be visited now upon those who lie to the Holy Spirit as Ananias did. They many live on and die in quiet. But the guilt is none the less because the judgment is not visited at once. There is a day coming when every such sin will receive its just recompense.
Sapphira kept herself in the background, possibly intentionally. She was not present when Ananias brought in the money. Neither had she learned of his terrible death. Three hours afterwards, not knowing what had happened, Sapphira came to the meeting. Peter then asked her about the sale of the property. "Tell me, is this the price you and Ananias got for the land?" She had an opportunity to repent and confess her sin. But she did not do it. She answered, "Yes, that is the price." Then swiftly followed the question, "How is it that you have agreed together to test the Spirit of the Lord?" It was one of the worst exaggerations of the guilt of this deed, that the two had deliberately agreed together to commit it--two people, especially, so closely and sacredly united as husband and wife. This shows that it was not a hasty sin, wrought under sudden and powerful temptation--but a sin deliberated over, calmly planned, and boldly executed. Many people will do things secretly--which they would never do if they were first put to their thoughts and purposes into words for any ear to hear. If men who commit evil deeds would always talk to their wives about them first, fewer crimes would stain their hands. Hearts are very hard when two people conspire together to do any wicked thing!
The effect of this terrible occurrence upon the people, was awe and dread. "Great fear came upon the whole church, and upon all who heard these things." Such examples of divine judgment should deter others from like sin. Though God may not punish hypocrisy in every case by instant death, yet the penalty will be no less terrible. We all should be afraid also of every approach to sin, every smallest step toward it, for the evil that seems little at first, grows at last into a power which binds the soul fast forever!
One day when the tide was out, a man went out to gather sea plants on the rocks, and in stepping from ledge to ledge--his foot slipped down and became jammed in a crevice. He attempted to pull it out--but could not. He cried aloud, he shrieked, he prayed--but all in vain--no one heard him! So the tide came rolling in, and rose up higher and higher until it rolled over him and drowned his last gurgling cry in its remorseless waters. In the same ruthless way--sin clutches men. Even one sin, one secret sin, one evil habit--may hold the soul that indulges it--until the floods of judgment come and roll over it, engulfing it in eternal damnation!
One of the great lessons to be learned from this incident--is that we cannot possibly deceive God. We talk about secret sins, as if any sin were secret when all heaven sees it, when God beholds it and the angels witness it. Sometime exposure will come!
There is a story of a king who had been vanquished at war. His conqueror offered terms, which were satisfactory in every respect, save one--they required him to do public homage to his victor. That, however, was at length so far modified that he was to be allowed to render his homage in the tent of his rival. But when the hour came, and the captive was in the very act of doing homage, his conqueror, by some machinery, which he had prepared, suddenly stripped off the canvas covering, and the men of both armies saw the king on his knees before his conqueror.
Just so, if we allow sinful ambition or evil appetites to overmaster us, and think we can save ourselves from humiliation by doing homage to it under the secrecy of a curtained tent, we may be sure that when we are in the very act of confessing our allegiance to it--the Lord will throw down the covering and unveil our degradation before the eyes of angels and men!