Friday, March 19, 2010

The Uncharitable Charity of the Unsaved

Title: The Uncharitable “Charity” of the Unsaved
Text: Acts 5:1-11

Thesis Statement: Even the most philanthropic act of an unbeliever is an abhorrent attempt to pervert Divine justice and buy God’s favor and should not be admired by Christians.

Interrogative: Were Ananias and Sapphira really Christians? What was their sin? How did God view their act? Why were they punished with such apparent severity? These are the questions we will be addressing in our message today. But, first things first, let’s get a bit of background information on this whole episode.

The Jerusalem Church had such a spirit of camaraderie and brotherhood that they were literally, “spending and being spent,” for each other. The believers, we are told, did not value their personal property as private possessions. Rather, they viewed their own goods as for the public good. By “public,” of course, I mean the Church. People who owned parcels of land began selling them and placing the proceeds at the “apostles’ feet,” – that is, at their disposal. Four things should be said about this:

First of all, there was no compulsion to do so. This selling of property is represented as being entirely voluntary. The Apostles didn’t order the Jerusalem Christians to sell their possessions and pool their resources. This was not an organized procedure.

Secondly, it wasn’t communism. That is to say, all the believers weren’t placed on equal social footing. Nowhere are we told that all of the believers in Jerusalem unconditionally sold everything they owned. This didn’t happen in Jerusalem, nor did it happen anywhere else.

Thirdly, there is no evidence here that the whole Jerusalem Church lived in any sort of commune. There are Christian organizations today that practice a communal lifestyle, which they claim follows the example set by the early church. Laudable as their intentions may be, it is difficult to prove this from Scripture.

Finally, this sharing of each other’s goods was not a failure. Some of the Liberal Theologians have made this out to be a failed experiment, which, they say, is why Paul had to later take up collections everywhere for the poor saints in Jerusalem. This is simply false. We have already pointed out that this wasn’t an organized procedure – so how could it have been a failure? The poverty of the saints that Paul wished to alleviate was the result of civil and religious persecution, not the result of unrestrained zeal. Those who assert this seem to be simply creating an excuse for modern Christianity’s appalling lack of generosity. This is not an unfounded charge. The ranks of Christendom are filled with millionaires and multi-millionaires who have no qualms whatsoever about the fact that they have brethren around the world living in abject poverty.

Now, to return to the story. Among the believers who sold land to donate the proceeds to the Church was a Levite named Joseph, a Cypriot. The Apostles nicknamed him Barnabas, and it’s by this name that he’s familiar to most of us. The name Barnabas means, “son of encouragement.” He may have been given this name as a result of his generosity, since it is in connection with this fact that his name is first mentioned. Ananias and Sapphira were obviously envious of this sort of adulation. They heard the sort of things that were being said about Barnabas and others, and they desired to be publicly revered and honored too. This then, gets us to our passage today. I will now answer the questions we posed earlier.
Were they believers, i.e., true Christians?

I. They were not believers.
Socrates said that the beginning of wisdom is the definition of terms. I cannot stress enough how important it is that we use words correctly. The word Christian is so casually bandied about these days that it has really little, if any, meaning to the minds of most people. If by Christian you mean that you were born in a so-called “Christian country,” then even the neighborhood cats, dogs and rats are “Christians.” But if by Christian you mean a person who has exercised saving faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, resting on His merit alone, then these people were most definitely NOT Christians!

How did I determine that? There are several lines of approach to prove this. Let me say first of all that it’s not my Reformed theology that has forced me into this opinion. But for the sake of argument, let’s say that that is why I think this. I think I’m on good Scriptural ground in doing so. As a believer in the Calvinistic, or better yet, Pauline scheme of doctrine, I obviously affirm the doctrine of the Perseverance of the Saints. I won’t digress into a defense of this doctrine since it isn’t my main line of evidence. But suffice it to say that I am unshakably convinced that salvation cannot be lost. Now, if God killed these people in their sin, it goes without saying that they were not saved – they were not preserved until the end. But for those of you who think that your salvation depends upon your own faithful efforts, this reasoning may not convince you. In fact, you may even find here a proof that salvation can be lost – that Christians can cross the line and fall finally away from grace.

However I do not even need to appeal to anything outside our text to substantiate my claim that they weren’t, then or ever, true believers. First of all, the text opens with the word, “But.” This is supposed to indicate a distinction between Ananias and Sapphira’s act with that of Barnabas. Secondly, they are simply introduced as, “a certain man…and his wife.” This is meant to set them in contrast to the “multitude of them that believed” (δε πληθους των πιστευσαντων). Obviously Luke does not wish them to be mistaken as part of that company. Thirdly, Luke informs us that Ananias’ heart was, “filled by Satan.” (επληρωσεν ο σατανας την καρδιαν σου). The Greek word here meaning filled is the exact same word used of the disciples when they were filled with the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. While we're on the subject, this is essentially the same thing said of Judas Iscariot (John 13:27). A believer’s heart cannot be filled by Satan because it is the abode of the Holy Spirit. God is a jealous God; He will not share the heart of His child with anyone, let alone Satan! Fourthly, they conspired together to put God to the test, clearly a Satanically inspired act (Luke 4:12). The word Luke uses to describe their action is: συνεφωνηθη. It contains the prefix “syn,” which, like its English counterpart indicates agreement or participation between two or more parties. The point I wish to make is that neither of them was merely led along by the other. They colluded together to commit this act of deception. So, I would assert that it is an unreasonable “leap of faith” to imagine that they were believers. It is even unwarranted to assume that they even attended church. Nowhere in the text are we told that they were members of the church. The Christians were always referred to as “disciples.” Luke denies them this title as well. Luke has gone to great lengths to show us that they were not true believers. In fact, to think that they were is to miss the whole point of the story. For all we know they could have been running the local “numbers” racket. The fact that premeditated deception seemed so natural to them – as a couple – is surely intended by both Luke and the Holy Spirit to tell us something about their character. The Roman satirist Juvenal said, “No one ever became degenerate overnight.” We may not be able to say much about them with any kind of certainty, but we can be sure that this was not the first time they had tried to pass themselves off as something they weren’t. Fifthly, Simon the Sorcerer – without doubt an unbeliever – was another “certain man” who sought, by more blatant means perhaps, to buy repute with God, showing that this kind of behavior is clearly that of unbelievers.

Finally, this story has a somewhat parallel passage in Ezekiel 11 where God kills a man while Ezekiel is prophesying. In the introduction to the event, God personally labels the man he killed as a man that “devise[s] mischief, and give[s] wicked counsel.” Obviously, God operates on the same principle of justice with regard to everyone: He is no respecter of persons. He didn’t kill believers in the Old Testament; He didn’t kill believers in the New Testament either. On these grounds alone we have put it beyond all question that they were most definitely NOT believers.

For those who would assert that Ananias and Sapphira were Christians, I would ask on what grounds this assumption is based. You may say, “They were at the church and they were giving a large sum of money.” My question for you then is, “Is that what makes a person a Christian?” Salvation cannot be bought. No one will argue with that statement. But some of you would take church attendance and giving as reliable indicators that a person is a true believer. If you for a second harbor the slightest belief that this couple were true Christians, you need to re-assess what you think a Christian is.

I heard an old country preacher tell the story of a man who died and went to the gates of heaven, trying to get in. He was met by Peter, who asked his name. After failing to find the man’s name in the Book of Life, Peter told the man, “Your name’s not in the Book. I’m sorry, but you cannot enter.” The man was outraged. He asked, “Who’s in charge here? Where’s your boss? I gave $20 in the offering at church last night. How can you tell me I can’t come in?” Peter got tired of arguing with the man and went report the problem. He told the angel in charge of accounts, “Look. There’s a man at the gate whose name isn’t in the Book. I told him that he can’t come in. He keeps insisting that we have to let him in because he gave $20 at church last night.” The angel reached into the cash drawer, pulled out $20, gave it Peter and said, “Here. Give him his money back and tell him to go to hell.” Obviously, not an appropriate illustration for every context, but it does make the point.

II. Now, let’s look at what their sin was. But first let’s see what it was not.

Their sin was NOT the giving of only a part of the proceeds from the sale of their property. At first glance one might think that, but Peter’s comments in verse 4 put this idea out. Peter says explicitly that as the owners of the land they were under no obligation to do anything they didn’t want to do. If they had decided not to sell their land and not give anything to the church, that was fine. The land was theirs; the money was theirs – it was under their power. The Greek word in this passage is εξουσια, which does mean power, but not in the miraculous sense, but in the sense of authority. There was no Communist-like compulsion in the Jerusalem Church to sell everything and put it all at the Apostles’ disposal. Many were doing so, but not because they had to. So we want to make it clear: their sin was not that they didn’t give the whole sale price of their property.

So then, what was their sin (or sins)? First of all, they wanted to be considered distinguished disciples, when they were really not true disciples. Their “philanthropy” was really just a camouflaged form of self-promotion. Secondly, they were covetous and distrustful of God and His providence. How can we tell? They loved their money, and thought it was too much to part with at once, and to trust in the apostles' hands. They couldn’t be certain that they might not need it themselves. Having “all things in common” was a commitment they were not willing to make. They were willing to fake it, but not make it. Thirdly, they attempted to deceive the apostles, and make them believe they brought the whole purchase-money, when really it was but a part.

Real “charity,” that is, almsgiving to the poor, is a beautiful, virtuous act. But, as Calvin notes on this passage, the sacrifices of the ungodly are an abomination to God (Proverbs 15:8). God is not pleased where singleness of heart is lacking. This is why Christ made more account of the two mites offered by the widow than the great sums of money given by others, who of their great riches gave some part (Luke 21:2).

Now let’s bring these points to our own times. The sports and entertainment industries gather several times a year at various functions to hand out awards and accolades in public honor of the “charity” and advocacy of the actors, singers and athletes. (They have received their reward!) But we shouldn’t be impressed by their so-called generosity. So what if Tiger Woods gives $1,000,000 to some charitable organization? He makes that much every time he ties his shoes! Besides the fact that they are “giving out of their abundance,” God isn’t swayed or impressed in the least. These acts don’t spring from true Gospel faith and therefore they are sin. Sin is anything that displeases God. Without faith you can't please God. If you don't have faith everything you do is sin, because everything you do displeases God.

It is for this reason that I have always, to the chagrin of many fellow pastors, refused to get caught up in the adoration of people like Mother Theresa. This woman, as friendly as she may have been, publicly and firmly advocated veneration of Mary and the saints – like any other idolatrous Roman Catholic. These are not the fruits of Gospel faith – they are explicitly at enmity with the revealed will of God! This is not to say that some people weren’t fed and some lepers didn’t benefit. But all this “humanitarian” work is of no account for Mother Theresa! It wasn’t the result of Gospel faith and was therefore SIN! I could multiply my examples; believe me. C.S. Lewis says somewhere that our age seems to have reduced all virtue to “being nice.” We therefore excuse all our selfishness and immorality simply on the grounds that we are “humane.” At the end of our lives, if people can say of us, “He was a nice guy,” then we seem to think that all is forgiven and God can’t possibly demand any more of us. Lewis asks if we think God should we be as quick to overlook the cruelty and brutality of the barbarian ages simply because they excelled in chastity? People may publicly claim that their works of generosity are done out of pity and concern for suffering humanity, but if we take God’s assessment of the human heart seriously – take Genesis 6:5, for instance – we must affirm that privately, perhaps even subconsciously, their true motivation is not as altruistic as they claim. Genesis 6:5 says that every thought of man’s heart is evil – continuously. If this is true, how can there not be vile and corrupt motives behind these “good deeds?”

I remember some of my former co-workers who used to dream about winning the lottery. They would try to mask their greed by saying that if they won they’d give millions of dollars to the, “starving children of Madagascar.” – or something similar. But they were some of the most stingy, unloving people I have ever met. I used to think to myself, “You won’t even give me the time of day, and I’m supposed to believe that you would give millions to some people you don’t even know!” Then they credited to themselves the merit of an unparalleled generosity simply because they said that they would help the needy – if they only had millions of dollars. In reality though, they had never done anything to help anyone, let alone some needy person. If a beggar had come to their house while they were eating dinner and asked for food, they’d have called the police. But they were quick as lightning to credit to themselves the merit of deeds they had never done and never would do.

Some of the great philanthropists were known to be quite different in private with their families and employees than they were in public. Andrew Carnegie, the billionaire steel tycoon, donated millions and millions of dollars to build public libraries all over America. He donated the money for the library in my hometown of Aurora, Illinois. Countless Aurorans, myself included, have benefited from his donation. But Carnegie hasn’t! His own employees knew him to be a hard, demanding and unreasonable boss. Yet he created a worldwide image of himself as a great “lover of mankind” – How? By hypocrisy, by acting differently in public that he did in private. Others may have benefited from his so-called philanthropy; he didn’t. You know this word, “philanthropy,” literally means “lover of man.” It is a bit of a misnomer, in my opinion. It is “love of man” if we clarify that the man being loved may be the giver himself!

Now you may be a bit shocked and maybe even upset with me for “attacking” someone like Mother Theresa. But I must insist that people were mistaken in making her out to be a paragon of Christian virtue. Look. If we let her off the hook for her idolatry, then we are honor-bound to do the same thing for all the Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses who are engaged in “charitable” causes as well. And incidentally, we have inadvertently admitted that we really believe that salvation can be earned by works. If you say, “Do you mean to tell me that you honestly believe that a woman like Mother Theresa, who gave up so much of her life to help the poor lepers of Calcutta did not go to heaven?” I would in turn ask you, “Do you mean to tell me that you believe that you can cast aside the Second Commandment and bow before images and still get to heaven as long as you engage in some sort of apparent self-sacrifice?” Salvation is not for sale! God is not fooled by these things and we shouldn’t be either. If you do not love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and might, it does not matter that you “love” your neighbor as your self. Underneath the exterior of generosity, self-sacrifice and concern for others lies pure, unmixed self-love, self-promotion and self-righteousness. If that sounds too hard or unfair, all I can say is, “That is Almighty God’s judgment.” Whether we like it or not, that’s the way it is and it’s foolish to act otherwise.

III. How did God view the act?

God viewed it as a test. Deuteronomy 6:13 expressly forbids putting God to the test. Before we go on, perhaps we should clarify what exactly it means to put God to the test. Based on Jesus’ interpretation of this verse in His Temptation and this passage we may safely say that it is an attempt to pervert Divine justice and/or to obligate God into disregarding His revealed will. That’s why I took such a hard-line position regarding Mother Theresa. God cannot and will not be bought off of the Second Commandment because we dedicate our lives to helping the poor. God justifies the ungodly only on the grounds of faith alone – sola fide. Acts of apparent faith or sacrifice do not obligate God to disregard His revealed will! He will not receive, honor or even recognize the good deeds of the unsaved. Good fruit does not come from bad trees. The sacrifices of the ungodly are an abomination to God!

Try as they might, they could not deceive the Holy Spirit. Proverbs tells us of the value of a good name, but you cannot buy a good reputation in the Kingdom of God. People may be able to “get ahead” in this world by lying, cheating and fraud. But these principles are foreign to the nature of God and His Kingdom, and He reacts with fury toward those who wish to infiltrate His holy realm with such base actions. If you work for some high-paying international company, you may be able to use your “connections” to help a friend or relative get a job there too. If you are a politician, you may be able to ensure that every one of your friends and family benefits from your position. But such tactics do not work in God’s economy. And I wouldn’t recommend that you try!

IV Why the severity of the judgment?

We aren’t told how Sapphira remained ignorant of her husband’s death for so long. It is a most surprising circumstance, though. Ananias died suddenly – in a very shocking way, I might add. The event had excited everybody. He had even been buried already. Yet, she, who must have been in the vicinity, with absolutely no idea of what had occurred, enters the very place where it happened without a word of it reaching her. Quite amazing! One commentator says that there is, “no way to account for this, but by the supposition that there was a concerted determination on the part of the whole multitude to conceal the facts from her. This was a most unnatural determination, and one difficult of execution, except on the further supposition that Peter commanded the multitude to restrain their natural impulses, and let her know nothing until he himself was ready to reveal it to her. This course was necessary in order to effectually expose her.” I’m not sure that this is the best explanation, but I certainly can’t think of anything better.

It is pretty powerful to realize though, that she only found out her husband’s death as her own death was being pronounced. It is also very noteworthy that there is absolutely no recorded comment, feeling or idea on the part of Peter and the Apostles regarding the judgment. It doesn’t seem as if it were merely passé, or simply expected, but they don’t seem particularly shocked either – unless, of course, if by saying that fear came upon the whole church, Luke meant the Apostles as well.

Was the judgment too severe? The correctness of the judgment can be best appreciated by considering what would’ve happened if Ananias and Sapphira had succeeded in their little scheme. Their success would’ve turned the most praiseworthy feature of the new Church into a source of dishonesty and hypocrisy. But it would’ve also brought discredit upon the inspiration of the apostles by showing that the Spirit within them could be deceived. As a result the whole fabric of apostolic authority, which was based upon their inspiration, would have been ruined. Therefore, their attempt presented a crisis of vital importance, and demanded some kind of a vindication of their inspiration that could not be mistaken or forgotten. The immediate effect of the event was exactly the desired effect: "great fear came upon all who heard these things." If we would ask why others who do the same aren’t punished, I would reply with the words of John Chrysostom, the “golden-mouthed” preacher of the 4th Century: “They are reserved for greater punishment.”

Do we know what we are asking for when we say that we want to see God’s power moving in our churches? Do we really want to have this purifying dunamiv in our midst? Would you like for that unsaved businessman who has promised to donate money for your building project to drop dead in your church? Are you trying to pass yourself off as more generous and kind than you really are? Are you trying to bribe God with your “generosity?” Let the passage we have read today be a lesson to you. God is not impressed with donations. God cannot be bought off of His Word by your good deeds. He will not alter a single letter of His Word because you are such a “nice person.”

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