Saturday 13 April 2013

Great fear (Acts 5:1-16)

Great growth

What does revival look like? How would God bring about revival here in the Chinese Church?

A number of us have just got back from New Word Alive, a Christian conference in Wales, where three thousand were gathered in one single location. When three thousand voices sing, “How Great Thou Art,” you begin to understand how John in Revelation 19:6, says, “I heard what sounded like... thunder.” Singing in a church of three thousand people sounds more like thunder than it does singing.

“But that’s Word Alive,” you say. No, actually that is Acts 2:41, “Those who accepted his message were baptised, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.”

Overnight, the church grew from the size of the Chinese Church to the size of Addenbrookes. “Three thousand were added to their number that day.” Again in Acts 4:4, “But many who heard the message believed, and the number of men grew to about five thousand.” That’s just counting the number of men.

Friends, let me just say that as I read these numbers, I am tempted to be cynical. I am tempted to say, “But that was then. This is now.” Here in the English congregation with twenty or so gathered on a good Sunday, we aren’t doing so bad, are we?

Yet what we see here in the book of Acts is not simply the growth of the church but the growth of the gospel. As the message of Jesus Christ - his execution on the cross and his resurrection from the dead - as the gospel goes out to the world, so the gospel gathers people into God’s kingdom and the gospel gather God’s people in as the church. Church growth flows from gospel growth.

To cynical people like me, the bible is saying, “Be careful that you are not cynical about the gospel saving men and women from hell.” I need to be reminded that it is God who gives the growth (1 Corinthians 3:6) and perhaps even to pray for such growth, not for our sakes here at the Chinese Church that lots of people might turn up for our events and Sunday services, but that Jesus’ name might be glorified among his people.

What does revival look like? In a word, it is growth. Growth in numbers coming to know Jesus. Growth in love and fellowship with one another, as we see in Acts 4:32, “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.” Growth in numbers, in love and fellowship.

But as we come to Acts Chapter 5, we see that revival results in growth of a different kind. Growth of persecution. Growth of opposition. That, too, is a mark of gospel growth. That God uses even the opposition of sinful human beings - even the opposition of Satan - to bring about growth in his church.

Friends, if nothing else, what I hope for us to see today is a sovereign God. Right here in the Chinese Church, God is in control even when things seem to be out of control. We worship a sovereign God.

In today’s passage, we see this under three headings. Please turn again in your bibles to Acts Chapter 5. We see (1) a great lie, (2) a great fear, and finally (3) a great growth. Those are our three points.

The great lie

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 to men but to God.”
Acts 5:1-4

What was going through their minds, as Ananias and his wife Sapphira went to the local realtor and put their land up for sale? As they exchanged the signed documents and received that final cheque; as Ananias said to his wife, “Honey, I am going to church to drop off all this money.” What was going through their minds?

It is no coincidence that a few verses earlier, we read of a man named Barnabas doing the exact same thing.

There were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone as he 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.
Acts 4:34-37

Notice that Barnabas, too, sold a piece of land. He brought the money and laid it at the apostles’ feet. Yet, while Barnabas is praised as the Son of Encouragement, Ananias is condemned as being filled by Satan.

So what if Ananias kept back part of the money for himself? It was still a lot of money. I dare say, it’s a lot more than any of us put into the offering bag today. Why was Ananias condemned while Barnabas was praised?

It wasn’t because of the money. Notice that in verse 4. “Didn’t it belong to you?” Peter says. Ananias was free to give or not to give. The land was his; the money he got from the land was also his. “Wasn’t the money at your disposal?” He could have spent the money on a new iPad or a nice holiday at Word Alive. Ananias and his wife were free to use the money any way they wished because it was their money.

No, the problem was Ananias and his wife thought they could deceive God with their money. Verse 4, “You have not lied to men but to God.”

Perhaps all they were looking for was some recognition. Some appreciation. The way we might invite a generous benefactor up on stage to present the huge cheque and to pose for photographs.

Joseph got a new name. He got noticed by the apostles and was called Son of Encouragement. The apostles, the leaders of the church, had given this man a nickname. Barnabas, or Barney. “Did you hear about what Barney did? He sold a field. He gave the money to the church!” Everyone was talking about how generous and how loving he was.

So perhaps Ananias was motivated by envy or even guilt. “Everyone is selling their land. What would they think of us if we didn’t do the same?” The offering bag gets passed down the aisle and there is that voice in you goes, “Oops, I‘d better pop something into the bag, just in case anyone’s looking.”

In reality, what Ananias and his wife did was much more sinister than that. Firstly, notice that this was planned. Verse 2, “With his wife’s full knowledge he kept back part of the money for himself.” Verse 9, “How could you agree to test the Spirit of the Lord?” The plan was to put on a show of generosity. The plan was to deceive the apostles.

But secondly, their plan was motivated by the devil. Verse 3, “Then Peter said, ‘Ananias, how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit.’”

Jesus calls Satan the Father of lies in John Chapter 8. “When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies.” Satan lies. The way that Satan tries to destroy the church; the way he tries to attack Christians is by lying to us and by getting us to believe in his lies.

What was the great lie that hooked Ananias and Sapphira? Some of us might be thinking, “They weren’t sincere in their giving.” That was obviously true, but that wasn’t the lie that did them in.

When Peter says to Ananias, “You have lied to the Holy Spirit,” (verse 3) he isn’t referring to some internal struggle in his conscience, as if Satan was tempting him one way and the Spirit was tugging him another. No, it was the act of lying to the apostles that Peter condemned. It was the act of deceiving the church. Peter says, “You have not lied to men but to God.” (verse 4)

Ananias and Sapphira had obviously been deceiving themselves. They had obviously been deceived by the devil. But it wasn’t until they attempted to perpetuate that deception within the church of God that they faced the judgement of God.

We tend to think it was the money. We think they were being greedy or that God was judging them for being fake. No, the great lie of Satan was thinking they could deceive God by deceiving the church.

Friends, lying is that serious because lying strikes at the heart of our relationship with God and our relationship with one another. The most effective way of destroying a church is not persecution. It’s lies because lies destroy the church from the inside out.

Ephesians 4:25 reads, “Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to his neighbour, for we are all members of one body.” Truth-speaking is not merely a means to obtaining accurate information. Speaking truth is the basis of any meaningful relationship - of any marriage, of any friendship, of any church. Friends who can’t be honest with one another aren’t friends.

What is the most important relationship in your life right now?
How honest and truthful are you in that relationship?

Even withholding the truth is a way of withholding ourselves. Of keeping our distance from one another. When someone greets you with “How are you today?” and you answer, “Fine, thank you.” How do you respond when you are not fine? Do you have friends whom you know well enough to tell them, “I’m not fine today. Would you pray with me?”

Satan lies. One clear way we can tell when we have been taken in by his lies is when we begin lying to one another. So seriously does God take the sin of lying to the church that Ananias is struck down dead instantaneously. His wife repeats the same lie to the church and she, too, is struck down by God.

Lying is that serious because the danger is just that real, the truth is just that important and the church is just that precious to God.

Each year, the leaders produce a review of each ministry in the Chinese Church. Would you pray that in writing our respective reports we would be truthful, that we would guarded from trying to look like something we’re not, that we would not be tempted to hold back the truth, especially the truth of the gospel.

Let’s get it in our heads that church is the place where people speak the truth of the gospel to one another. Church is not the place to hide the truth, to play fast and loose with the truth, but to be rigorous with the truth and generous with the truth. We should step into our gatherings expecting to hear truth proclaimed clearly, boldly and lovingly to one another, from God’s word and from God’s people.

The great fear

Secondly, we see great fear.

When Ananias heard this, he fell down and died. And great fear seized all who heard what had happened. Then the young men came forward, wrapped the 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 agree to test the Spirit of the Lord? Look! The feet of the 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.
Acts 5:5-11

There are several questions that might trouble us about this passage. One is, “Was God being too severe in judgement?” Another is, “Will God kill people for the same sin today?”

But perhaps the most troubling question of all is this, “Were Ananias and Sapphira Christians?”

All these questions focus on the individual sin and God’s judgement over the individual’s motives. There is application here for our motives and sin before a holy God, but to focus on the individual would be to miss the context of this judgement, which is the church. Verse 11, “Great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events.”

Twice we are told the direct result of God’s judgement was fear. “Great fear seized all who heard what had happened.” That was the true intention of this visible awesome judgement upon sin. Fear.

1 Peters 4:17 says, “For it is time for judgement to begin with God’s household; and if it begins with us, what will be the outcome be for those who do not obey the gospel of God?” Judgement now reminds us of the reality of the judgement to come. And Peter tells the Christians this is actually a good thing because it means that we will be spared from the coming final judgement. “What will be the outcome be for those who do not obey the gospel of God?”

If you are with us today and you are not a Christian, I hope you see that we are talking about judgement within the church as the people of God. We as Christians are conscious of our own sin and failure before God. The bible keeps reminding us of that and that’s a good thing because it reminds us of our need for a Saviour. Each time we gather as a church, we confess our sin and the bible reminds us God has provided a sacrifice for our sins in the death of his Son on the cross.

1 John 1:9 says, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.”

Whether Ananias and Sapphira were Christians or not, entirely misses the point. Personally, I think they were believers which makes God’s judgement upon them all that more fearful. But the point is, theirs was a public sin committed in the church and theirs was a public judgement carried out upon the church.

As fearful as the judgement was that fell on this husband and wife we miss the point if we think the worst thing God can do to us today is strike us dead.

If that’s all that scares you about this account, frankly, you aren’t scared enough. Peter says, “If (judgement) begins with us, what will be the outcome of those who do not obey the gospel of God?” Be more terrified of God’s coming judgement if you do not obey the gospel. Be more fearful of God’s holiness on the last day when he judges people’s hearts through Christ Jesus (Romans 2:16).

That was the great fear that seized the church. It wasn’t fear over what had happened. It was fear of God who was behind what had happened. That same word “fear” can be translated “awe” or “reverence.” God exposed and judged the sin of Ananias and Sapphira to remind the church of his holiness and presence amongst them.

Are we aware of such a God in our midst? When we pray and when we sing his praises, is it evident that we worship a holy and awesome God? What would God need to do to remind us of the reality of our sin and our need for forgiveness through Jesus Christ?

Brothers and sisters, in speaking about godly fear, I would not want to leave out 1 John 4:18, “There is no fear in love. Perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment.” In Christ Jesus, we have no fear of the coming judgement because he has taken our judgement on the cross. Yet it is one thing to be in Christ and to be secure in his love. It is quite another to be apart from Christ and to be indifferent to God’s judgement.

If you are here today and you conscious of God’s judgement over your sin, the solution to that is not indifference. It’s not turn a blind eye to sin and assume God will do the same. The one and only solution is God’s solution: his love poured out to us through Jesus Christ on the cross.

The great revival

Finally and quite paradoxically, we see revival. That’s unexpectedly, the great lie and the great fear leads to God bringing about the great revival.

The apostles performed many miraculous signs and wonders among the people. And all the believers used to meet together in Solomon’s Colonnade. No-one else dared join them, even though they were highly regarded by the people. Nevertheless, more and more men and women believed in the Lord and were added to their number.
Acts 5:12-14

That statement in verse 13 is just unbelievably amazing. No-one else dared join them. People were afraid of them. They had heard of this sin and the judgement for sin. They had heard of this awesome and holy God who judges people for their sin.

Yet, verse 14 continues, “Nevertheless, more and more men and women believed in the Lord.” Isn’t that amazing?

Only God could have done this. That’s revival, if there ever was one. More and more people staying away. More and more people coming to Jesus.

God is sovereign. He is able to use Satan’s lies, our sinfulness and our fear to bring more and more people to a saving knowledge of Jesus.

Which makes me think: What is it we long for God to do here in the Chinese Church?

We want God to send us people to serve. We ask for God to send more people to our gatherings. We want our church to grow and to spread the message of the gospel to the Chinese. Are these the extent of our prayers? We want God to bless us and keep us from harm and pain and suffering and opposition and trouble?

When was the last time we prayed for God to deal with sin in our church? When was the last time we prayed for God’s protection from Satan’s attacks - not just in the form of persecution and doubt and distress - but protection from his lies?

And most importantly, how often do we pray for those who come to our church to come to know Jesus? Not just to our events, but to come humbly before God, to confess their sins, and to trust in his Son, Jesus.

We trust in a God who does far more abundantly than anything we could ever ask or imagine. By all means we ought to come to him with our concerns for our church, I’m not saying that we shouldn’t do that. We ought to bring before him our needs for new leaders, for revival and for renewal.

But at the end of the day, God is far more concerned for his glory than we are, and when he does bring revival, I think many of us will be surprised. Revival rarely comes the way we expect it. Yet when God does bring revival, no one can deny when it happens.

It is tempting for me to skip over the next few verses which deal with supernatural healing. Yet these are important to establish just how undeniable the presence of God was with his people, especially amongst the apostles, and I suspect from these verses, exclusively amongst the apostles.

As a result, people brought those who were ill into the streets and laid them on beds and mats so that at least Peter’s shadow might fall on some of them as he passed by. Crowds gathered also from the towns around Jerusalem, bringing those who were ill and those tormented by impure spirits, and all of them were healed.
Acts 5:15-16

You can plan for revival and you should pray for revival. But when revival happens, God always surprises us.

What does revival look like? It looks like a God who is sovereign in bringing men and women to himself. Nothing can stop him - not persecution, not our sin, not even the devil. Jesus says in Matthew Chapter 16:18, “I will build my church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”

No comments: