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Deceit and Integrity in the Early Church - Acts 4:36-5:11

Sin is a big deal to God.


Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Acts 4:36-5:11

With everything going well in the church, Satan stirred up some members to try to lie to the leaders about their motives and intentions. God took it so seriously that the offending members died on the spot! Are we more like Barnabas or Ananias, and how does it affect our church?

Why is it that you planned this thing in your heart? You have not lied to men but to God!” Acts 5:5

[Throughout the years, I have produced a newsletter for teachers to help with that week's Bible study. I'm going through the very slow process of online-ifying old lessons in order to easily reference past ideas and topics.]

Getting Started: Things to Think About

Counterfeit!

Start with a dollar bill or some form of currency. If you have a fake currency (like one of those goofy greeting cards or the like), bring that too. Have some fun with “fake money.” Ask how you can tell the difference. Is fake money worth anything? Drop some crazy facts about counterfeit money: the Secret Service was created by Abraham Lincoln to catch counterfeiters! In his day, more than 1/3 of all paper money was counterfeit. You’ve probably heard about all of the measures taken in the new bills to make them harder to fake (ink that changes color in different light, special fabric paper with a holographic ribbon woven in, fluorescent watermark, even magnetic strips). A good fake could probably fool an average store clerk, and that might be all the crook is trying to get away with. And here’s where things get shocking: 60% of all counterfeit bills these days come off of an inkjet printer! Yikes! (Before anybody gets any bright ideas, remind them that in Georgia possessing counterfeit money is punishable as forgery—a felony.)


Here’s where you would go with this: “Why do people try to pass off something that’s fake as something that’s genuine?” Clearly, they believe they have something to gain. In the church, we might not give counterfeit dollars in the offering plate (I hope!), but we might be faking our motives or our actions. In our passage today, two people lied about how much money they gave to the church. Why would they do that? They thought it would bring prestige. What are ways that we can counterfeit our involvement at church? (don’t let this get too serious—it’s just the icebreaker! but I’m thinking of things like take an important position without intending to do the work, talk about tithing without actually doing it, saying nice things in front of people and then gossiping about them, etc.) How do we check our motives to make sure we’re not “faking” on Sundays? Well, if your group knows the game “2 Truths and a Lie” (look it up), this could be a humorous way to get them thinking about counterfeit motives.


Generous People

All of us know generous people. And they make us feel good. Even today, when I’m making good money, if someone comes up to me and says “I just felt like giving you this $20 bill” I’m on cloud nine all day (after I check to make sure it’s not counterfeit). Why? Because generosity is powerful. And because I’m finally mature enough not to be envious when that generosity is directed to somebody else, I’m energized when I hear about generosity to anybody. Talk about generous people or acts of generosity and how they make you feel (and if you can, bring in a little gift as a demonstration). You might have some such generous people in your class—don’t make them feel awkward! But make sure you celebrate generosity and encourage your class members to be as generous as they can be (without being irresponsible).

 

This Week's Big Idea: What Is Church Discipline?

This is one of those topics that we just don’t talk about any more, but it was once a very important part of being a healthy church. Essentially, “church discipline” is the process whereby a church holds its members accountable for sin. Jesus instituted it: the church is His body, and sin corrupts it. Churches should not tolerate open or unrepentant sin among their members, and they should promote love and good works (Heb 10:24), but there is a particular way Jesus told us to go about dealing with sin.


Jesus explained the procedure in Matthew 18:15-20:

(1) Whoever the offended party is should go directly to the person who committed the sin and confront privately. No gossiping. No passive-aggressive behavior. Just working it out between Christians. There’s no bypassing this step, no matter how intimidating or terrifying it might be. If you’re genuinely concerned that this encounter might blow up or get out of control, pray a little extra and arrange it to happen in a public place where witnesses are nearby. My experience has been that if you approach the confrontation in humility and without being inflammatory, you can usually keep things civil (even if the person becomes very angry). The ability of church members to do this between themselves is critical for a healthy church—being able to handle problems before they blow up in the congregation is necessary.


(2) If that doesn’t work—if the sin-committer refuses to repent, acknowledge wrongdoing, or try to restore the relationship—then the offended party should go again with two or three others. Those should be mature Christians whose presence would be calming (not people who would make things worse).


(3) If that doesn’t work—if there’s still no repentance—that’s when the whole church gets involved. This is the step that most Christians today have never experienced; either the sin is simply dropped or the sin-committer just leaves the church to take his sin somewhere else. What Jesus says is that at point, the church brings the matter up (in the equivalent of one of our quarterly conferences) and gives the individual an ultimatum to repent. If repentance does not happen, the church does not kick the person out (Catholics wield “excommunication” like a weapon), but withdraws the privileges of church membership (voting, leadership, the Lord’s Supper) until that person repents. The idea is not to punish the person but to make it clear that such sin is very serious.


One group of Christians I have studied extensively practiced this very effectively. They lived in a time when all non-Catholics were persecuted, and the authorities were watching for bad behavior in order to discredit all non-Catholic churches. They called the outcome “the ban” and it was very serious. Church members would still conduct business with the banned person, his family was still cared for, but all social and church connection was cut off. The church members wanted to make it clear that they could not tolerate open, unrepentant sin. But once repentance occurred, the banned person was immediately reinstated (often amid a celebration). In other words, their practice of church discipline was not punitive but rehabilitative. I do think that’s what Jesus had in mind. This would be extremely uncomfortable today because of the role of social media (it would be very hard to keep the matter a private church matter), but not impossible.

Obviously, not every sin should be brought up for church discipline (else we’d never get anything done). However, every sin between church members should be acknowledged between them with the goal of repentance and restoration. Paul talks about three categories of sin that could be taken to the full-church level: (1) gross immorality (he mentions a man sleeping with his father’s wife), (2) doctrinal heresy (yes, teaching heresy in the church is a very big deal), and (3) and creating divisions in the church. There is also the special case of sin by a leader/pastor in the church: if an accusation can be verified by multiple witnesses (and only if it can be verified), it needs to go before the church.


Paul explains the purpose of the ban as “casting the sinner out to Satan” (1 Cor 5:1-13). What that means is the person no longer has the spiritual protection of the prayers of the church and thus is wide open to Satan’s attacks. That terrible condition should quickly drive the sinner back to the church in repentance.


The Context of Acts

We’re cooking with gas now! The church has been growing. The apostles have been thrown into prison for attracting so much attention. The church has had to band together tightly to take care of one another under such trying conditions. But not everybody in the church had the purest hearts. Not everybody was in it for the right reasons (sound familiar?). In this lesson, we learn the extreme way God dealt with this very important matter.

 

Part 1: Exhibit A: Barnabas (Acts 4:36-37)

Joseph, a Levite and a Cypriot by birth, the one the apostles called Barnabas, which is translated Son of Encouragement, sold a field he owned, brought the money, and laid it at the apostles’ feet.

I would definitely backtrack a few verses to set the stage. We now have thousands of believers in Jerusalem, many of whom are not actually from Jerusalem (they were in town for Pentecost and wanted to stay). There’s not enough temporary work to go around for all of these folks! Plus, many widows lost the support of their Jewish families when they declared for Jesus. So—the local Christians sacrificed to make sure that everybody had food and a dry place to sleep. And as Jesus said, the outside world knew them by their love for one another, so more and more people became Christians, making the needs bigger and bigger. Christians of more means took it upon themselves to meet them by selling property. Very generous!! (Note that it wasn’t all hunky dory! In just another chapter, there will be great complaining that not everybody was being cared for equally.)


One example of this generosity is Barnabas (see below). It’s a nickname which refers to one of the roles of the Holy Spirit—encourager. We would call him “Captain Encouragement” and my guess is he would be pretty popular for reasons you may have talked about in the icebreaker. Make is absolutely clear that Barnabas did this voluntarily. The apostles did not force anyone to give; Barnabas saw a need, decided he could help meet the need, and took it upon himself to do so.


Interestingly, Levites were not allowed to own property. Maybe it belonged to his wife? Or maybe coming to Jesus helped him see that he should not own the field and then had opportunity to do good with the proceeds from it.

It is strongly implied that Barnabas brought all of the money from the sale to the church. The phrase “and laid it at their feet” means that he put no strings on its use. The apostles could do with the money whatever they wanted. This is intended to be a positive example of unity and integrity in the early church.


For application, if you didn’t talk about specific examples of a “modern-day Barnabas” in your life, talk about it here (I’m privy to some things around here as a staff member; I can guarantee that we have church members who sacrifice for one another). We want to encourage our class members to be generous and encouraging so that FBC will long be known as a loving, sacrificing church family.

 

Aside: Barnabas

“Barnabas” means “son of exhortation” and was a given nickname for a Cyprus native named Joseph. Apparently, he was given this nickname in part for his actions in our passage today. But he would go on to be one of the most important people in early Christianity.

When the recently-converted Saul/Paul came back to Jerusalem, Barnabas was the one Christian who was brave enough to reach out to him, get to know him, and vouch for him to the apostles (Acts 9).


When the apostles got word that some believers had started preaching to non-Jews in Antioch and that they had even started a church there, they sent Barnabas to investigate (Acts 11). Barnabas encouraged the new Christians and supported them. He then made the critical decision to go find Paul and bring him to Antioch where they stayed for a year, building up the new church. He and Paul together brought money to support the Jerusalem church.


Later, when the Jerusalem church decided to commission a missionary journey (Acts 13-14), Barnabas (not Paul) was the first leader. Paul eventually became the dominant voice, which seems to have drawn a wedge between Paul and Barnabas’ cousin Mark (the gospel writer!) who would be the reason Paul and Barnabas split up on their second journey, not agreeing whether they should take Mark with them or not. I certainly think that Barnabas’ and Mark’s relationship had more than a little to do with them both rising to prominence in the early Christian community.


All in all, we should think very highly of Barnabas and the role he played building the early church.


Bonus Aside: The Gift of Encouragement

[Here is a section from the resource we give out on spiritual gifts.]


According to the Bible (Rom 12:6, 8; Acts 11:23-24), encouragement is one of the spiritual gifts. That means that although every Christian should be encouraging, some Christians have more help doing it. Here’s everything I have on the “gift.” The word comes from the Greek parakaleo (Rom 12): literally to call near; to comfort, implore, exhort, entreat, console, encourage (the Spirit is the “paraclete”). It describes the special ability to comfort and encourage others by showing them how to apply God’s truth to their lives. It seems to include counseling and motivating. (John 14:16; Romans 12:8; 1 Thessalonians 2:11; 4:18; 5:14; Hebrews 10:24-25; Acts 4:36 (Barnabas’ name means “son of encouragement’)). Someone with the Gift of Encouragement: (1) Stirs up others to love and good works. It is the gift of “stirring speech.” (2) Attaches himself to a person in need and speaks to him in a helpful way. (3) Gives comfort and healing words of counsel to others. (4) Brings a clear and meaningful understanding of another’s life into focus. (5) Does not dwell on others’ weaknesses and shortcomings but lifts and strengthens people (particularly the weak) to become their best selves in Christ. (6) Often warns those who are acting against their faith of the consequences of their sin.


In fair warning someone with this gift needs to watch out for: (1) Becoming discouraged or overwhelmed by those needing encouragement. (2) Confusing practical advice with spiritual “stirring speech.” (3) Using encouragement as a substitute for personal evangelism.

 

Part 2: Exhibit B: Ananias (Acts 5:1-6)

But a man named Ananias, with his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property. However, he kept back part of the proceeds with his wife’s knowledge, and brought a portion of it and laid it at the apostles’ feet. Then Peter said, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and keep back part of the proceeds from the field? Wasn’t it yours while you possessed it? And after it was sold, wasn’t it at your disposal? Why is it that you planned this thing in your heart? You have not lied to men but to God!” When he heard these words, Ananias dropped dead, and a great fear came on all who heard. The young men got up, wrapped his body, carried him out, and buried him.”

Uh oh. This is one of the more controversial passages in the New Testament because it seems so harsh. But we have to understand what’s going on so we can understand why this is so important to God. First of all, there was nothing wrong with Ananias and his wife keeping part of the proceeds for themselves. Peter is clear about that. Failing to give 100% was not the sin! Lying that they did give 100% was the sin; it was a big enough sin that God ended them right there.


Why the death penalty? I’m going to take Peter at his word and say that this scheme was directly from Satan. This was Satan’s way of trying to infiltrate the church. My guess is that Ananias had made it widely known what they were doing in the hopes that it would bring them greater standing in the church. It’s a triple whammy: (1) they were lying to the church and to God, (2) by keeping something they said they had given to God they were stealing from God, and (3) they were being active tools of Satan (this wasn’t just a stupid impulse but a careful plan by Ananias). This is the only specific example we have in the New Testament of God dropping capital punishment for a church matter (although 1 Cor 11:30 hints this is not the only occasion), but it is clearly a unique situation. I believe God accomplished two purposes here. First, He put a powerful act in the Bible for permanent record as to how important the church is to Him. Second, and I am just speculating here, I believe that Ananias and Sapphira were saved. There was no other reason for them to attach themselves to this persecuted group. This death might have been an act of mercy from God before they could bring further disaster on the church as unwitting instruments of Satan.


Anyway. We don’t know exactly how Peter knew the truth, exactly when the couple died, or exactly how they died. Those things are implied to be instantaneous and supernatural. Ananias could have died of shock, but remember that his wife will die in similar circumstances. And everyone around recognized the hand of God in the action. They did not become afraid of the apostles! This reminded everyone of the sacredness of their task.

The burial action is interesting. Bodies were usually buried quickly (warm climate and Jews did not embalm), but not this quickly. There would be a period of mourning and a well-organized ceremony. But not here. The men had Ananias outside the city and in the ground and had returned within three hours. That’s fast. Those kinds of burials were reserved for criminals, suicides, and divine judgments.


This is one of those topics you may have to talk about for a while. Make it clear that God does not usually act in this way; in fact, God is amazingly patient and gracious with us! Just think about your own motivations and actions in the church recently—have you been completely pure and honest? God is patient with us. But in this example, God chose to make a dramatic statement. We need to learn the lesson that God teaches without letting ourselves get paranoid about it!

 

Part 3: Exhibit C: Sapphira (Acts 5:7-11)

There was an interval of about three hours; then his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. “Tell me,” Peter asked her, “did you sell the field for this price?” “Yes,” she said, “for that price.” Then Peter said to her, “Why did you agree to test the Spirit of the Lord? Look! The feet of those who have buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out!” Instantly she dropped dead at his feet. When the young men came in, they found her dead, carried her out, and buried her beside her husband. Then great fear came on the whole church and on all who heard these things.

This just hammers the point home. As the wife, she would not have had the authority to do any of these transactions, but her knowledge and approval of it made her culpable. Peter worded this in such a way as to give her an out (either indicating ignorance or repentance) which she didn’t take. Peter seems to be as incredulous as I am: did they think they could fool God? Or (more likely) did they not take the church as seriously as they should have? The effect on the church is what God intended—great fear. God was present with them, God cared about what they did, and God would intervene in their affairs just as He did in Israel to protect His reputation and the future of His still-fledgling church. If you read the next few verses, you learn that not only did this whip the church members into shape, but it also made the people on the outside take them very seriously—they were held in high regard.


Application. Do you think people on the outside of our church care about our behavior? Of course they do! The world is watching us! When folks on the outside believe that we don’t take sin seriously, or when we excuse the bad behavior of a church member, it brings reproach not only on us but also on God. And that’s unacceptable. So here are your big closing questions: “Why do we give to the church?” If it’s for any reason other than obedience and love for God, we need to check ourselves. “What sinful behavior are we tolerating in our church?” I don’t know that we “tolerate” sin as much as are unable to squash it, so I would put this on your class members: what sins do they need to confess and repent of?

 

Closing Thoughts: Wealth and the Church

I personally consider this a very important matter. For some reason, wealthy people can be looked down upon in a church (jealousy?). But people blessed with wealth can be absolutely vital to the church accomplishing its task on earth! Who had the means to take care of all of these needs in the early church? People who were wealthy!


In the early church, there were only so many rules about wealth because many (if not most) of the early Christians came from the poorer classes. Everyone agreed that the love of money was a deep root of evil, but no one was required to sell their possessions to give to the church or the poor. Those decisions were entirely voluntary. Even Jesus took personal property for granted.


No other church (that we have records for) took the communal approach that early Jerusalem did, but remember that early Jerusalem was a unique situation. The other churches took care of the poor very seriously (there was no welfare). Because most church members were poor, the giving to meet those needs was often sacrificial. A number of early churches had well-established reputations for being charitable and faithful. Their leading members and pastors excelled at being frugal and efficient, so much money could be directed to financial assistance.


After a few generations, Christianity started spreading through the upper classes. Sermons and letters from that time hammered on the wealthier Christians’ responsibilities to give generously to those in need. More than a few Christians decided to sell everything and commit to poverty (which eventually lead to monks) rather than deal with wealth. But there were still many reasonable church leaders who taught that wealth was a blessing of God to be used for His glory.


The point then, which is the same now, was that Christians should not get attached to their “things” or their wealth. It was and is difficult for a rich person to be saved because God might call him to part with that wealth.


Things got complicated when Emperor Constantine became a Christian and Christianity became the state religion. At that point, everybody wanted to be a “Christian,” and the many who were in name only took the same competitive approach to their church buildings as they did their homes. People wanted to claim the most beautiful building, the most ornate sanctuary, the most opulent finery. Because they were approaching things from a secular perspective, it didn’t take long for the simple and frugal patterns to be blown away and replaced by overt demonstrations of wealth (which was associated with power).


As is still the case today, a church that worries about its wealth is vulnerable to the undue manipulation of wealthy people. It happened throughout history in Europe and America and it still happens today to a slightly lesser degree. The challenge is “what is the purpose of a church’s wealth?” Much like early Christians asked themselves what was appropriate to spend on themselves, churches have had to ask the same thing. How much of our wealth should be spent on self-directed things (like facility and staff) and other-directed things (like missions and benevolence) realizing that the two are not mutually exclusive?


What happened in Acts 5 is a strange combination of all of these concerns. Ananias and Sapphira thought they could earn some kind of prestige by giving a large amount to the church, and they inflated their gift through deception. Where giving records are kept private, this is less of a concern. But we always have to watch our personal and church-wide motives for receiving and giving wealth.

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