There is a portion in the New Testament that puts a lot of Christians on edge. Perhaps understandably so. It is the story of Ananias and Sapphira, the couple from Acts chapter 5 who lied about some money that they donated to the church and were immediately struck down by God because of their deceit. It is perhaps not the story itself that is uncomfortable – God has been known to pronounce immediate and fatal judgements of similar kinds elsewhere in the Old Testament – no, the greater issue is that this text is not in the Old Testament. It is in the New Testament, and so it contradicts the picture that is generally painted of “the God of the OT vs. the God of the NT”. By popular opinion, in the Old Testament, God ruled over the people like a king, instantly rewarding good and punishing evil, while in the New Testament, God is more relaxed and friendly. It is the age of grace, and evildoing does not result in you suddenly going up in flames. Only this pesky account of Ananias and Sapphira contradicts that view (this, and, perhaps in a different setting, the account of Herod’s death at the hands of God in Acts 12), and, oh man, do people come up with creative explanations for this “discrepancy”!
I am not, in this article, going to look at the specifics of that particular incident or the interpretations thereof. The debates around why it happened are not my focus here. It is, instead, a whole other aspect of this account that, I think, deserves our attention right now. While reading that portion the other day, I noticed a verse in the following passage, one that I had never really appreciated, or even noticed, until this time around:
“None of the rest dared join them, but the people held them in high esteem.”Acts 5:13 ESV
It sent a shiver down my spine the first time I really saw it. In a good sense, though. It is hard to describe. It is both scary and awesome at the same time. None of the rest dared join them. Who is “them”? The church. Who are “the rest”? Non-believers. What on earth is going on here? Madness! Non-believers did not dare come near the church! They did not dare associate with the believers out of fear and respect. Aha! Just consider for a second how distant this sounds from what we are used to today, with all the unbeliever-friendly events and “let’s give the people what they want” church services! We do it all under the banner of evangelism, but here is the church – the early church, mind you, where evangelism was more or less the only thing going on at the moment – and they make no effort to help non-believers “feel at home” in their midst. I shall say it again – aha!
Ok, now that I’ve calmed down a bit, I am willing to grant, grudgingly, that a great deal has changed since the early days of the church as recorded in Acts 5. So maybe there are other factors to consider when it comes to the evangelistic endeavours of today, and maybe there is a slightly more nuanced position that can be held here. We shall see about that. However, there are certain aspects of this that are unavoidably and unapologetically clear, and I think they remain perfectly true today. A lot of us are perfectly happy with sticking to the Biblical mandates regarding our association with unbelievers (whether we actually follow through is another matter) from Paul’s second epistle to the Corinthians.
“Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness?”2 Corinthians 6:14 ESV
It becomes a matter of pride, then, that we shun the lawless ones because we are “the righteous” and we are “the light”, and so we shun them. Shun them all! Shun-believers, that’s what the lot of us are. Sorry, not sorry. Be that as it may, how often do we turn around on this and look at ourselves? Or let me put it this way: are you really the light, are you really righteous, do you really believe so confidently that you yourself dare to enter the congregation of the righteous? Or has this reality lost its sting in many ways? We all want to be in the community that believes the right things and seeks the truth, but how much do we care about our own lives changing to reflect those truths? We all want to say that our church “does good things”, but how much do we care about doing those things ourselves? Has it become acceptable to be flippant about our faith, to take it for granted because of grace? Has it become commonplace to not expect holiness in our churches today? I wonder, has it become routine to not have to worry about God showing up there?
The response of the non-believers in Acts 5 is described as a combination of fear and respect. They held the believers in “high esteem”, and did not dare join them. This is profound. This is not like someone saying, “I don’t know what they get up to there, but I don’t think I’ll feel comfortable among them”. It is rather a fear for their own lives. The group is highly respected and I am sure there would be those who would have liked to be known as part of this elite group, but those people did not dare to join because they knew that they did not believe and they knew – the unbelievers knew – that they could not survive in the midst of that congregation (remember Psalm 1:5?). We see this again in the account of the sons of Sceva – Jewish exorcists who heard of the miracles that Paul performed in the name of Jesus Christ, and attempted to invoke the same name to get some of the fame.
“Seven sons of a Jewish high priest named Sceva were doing this. But the evil spirit answered them, “Jesus I know, and Paul I recognize, but who are you?” And the man in whom was the evil spirit leaped on them, mastered all of them and overpowered them, so that they fled out of that house naked and wounded. And this became known to all the residents of Ephesus, both Jews and Greeks.
And fear fell upon them all, and the name of the Lord Jesus was extolled.”Acts 19:14-18 ESV
It’s the same response from the non-believers as before. Fear, and respect. Great fear, and great respect. I ask you, then, dear believer. Forget about the unbeliever. What is your response to this knowledge? When confronted with the reality of the holiness and sovereignty of a very real God working through His very real Spirit, to perform very real supernatural miracles, how do we respond? What happened to Ananias and Saphira served to bring division among the people in that place, as did what happened to the sons of Sceva. But it was not a division within the church. Rather, it served to reveal the true intentions of the people, separating “them” from “the rest”. Here’s how the believers of those days responded:
“Also many of those who were now believers came, confessing and divulging their practices.”Acts 19:19 ESV
How dare you? How dare we! How dare we attend church and ignore God? How dare we forget to pray and not care about it, not be affected by it? How dare we postpone reading the Word of God because we’re busy, and how dare we then expect him to answer our every prayer? How dare we sin in secret and pretend to be holy in public? How dare we lie and cheat in church, or how dare we lie and cheat outside of church and then act like a saint on the day of the Lord? How dare we catch up on our social media during our church service? How dare we fall asleep during the sermon at church? How dare we shy away from praying out loud in church because we are self-conscious? How dare we assume that “someone else will do it”, when it comes to serving in church? How dare we neglect to uphold our brothers and sisters in prayer, and how dare we say that we prayed when we didn’t? How dare we assume that we are better or holier than others in church? How dare we be callous about our words and mindless about our actions? How dare we say that faith is all that matters and proceed to disobey God? How dare we expect only to receive and not give? How dare we think that we deserve something, and how dare we think that others do not? How dare we think that God is in the business of making us rich and healthy?
We are, all of us, a lot more comfortable today in our understanding that God is gracious and merciful, perhaps more than we ought to be. Do not get me wrong, He is slow to anger and abounding in love (Psalm 103:8), in a manner and degree that is unimaginable for us. Simply thinking about my sins alone can convince me that He is patient beyond measure. But I begin to wonder, are we using this as an excuse for complacency? An excuse to tolerate sin within the church? Paul mentions this struggle in Romans 6:1-2, “are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?”, and concluding by saying, “that we too might walk in newness of life”. Our complacency in our carelessness should be a big concern to us today. While supernatural miracles and wonders may not be a daily occurrence in our churches today, that does not make the proclamation of God’s word, the fellowship of His saints, and the fact that God is in their midst enthroned on the praises of His people, any less supernatural. Yet, we tend to treat these as mundane activities because we do not see actual fire falling from heaven. There is so much more to be said. I do not have the space to do so here. This is not everything. This is but one piece. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Proverbs 9:10). The beginning, Solomon says! Solomon says, fear the Lord! The Bible makes it clear that this is not fear of judgement. For perfect love casts out fear (1 John 4:18). And yet, it is something that should give us reason to pause and introspect. You are standing on holy ground. You are in the presence of a holy God. Are you one of “them”, or one of “the rest”?