This passage of scripture begins with a story depicting the heavy hand of God. Ananias and his wife Sapphira were caught lying and immediately dropped dead. I have to admit when I read this, I feel obligated to explain why God does what he does. Why did God pass swift judgment on these two for an action that on the surface doesn’t seem deserving of death, while at the same time he allows the Jerusalem leaders to continue persecuting the church? It seems like a contradiction in his character, and this is just one example. There are more. I want to understand God. Even more, I want the formula. I always have wanted a formula, whether it was how to study for a test or implement a new strategy at work. Derive a formula, follow it, and experience success.
While preparing this message my son approached me with the suggestion that he skip his homework for the night. I asked him what he planned to tell his teacher when he submitted a blank reading log. He said, “Oh, Mama, I’m going to fill out the reading time.” So I seized the opportunity and read him the story of Ananias and Sapphira to teach him the dangers of lying. He promptly asked me, “So is God going to kill me if I lie to my teacher?” I resisted the temptation to say, “Yes!” He wants a formula too.
What is the purpose of this story? It definitely introduces questions of God’s fairness. Why am I even alive right now, because I’m confident I’ve behaved worse than these two? This story actually fits into a pattern throughout Biblical history, whereby at the beginning of any new “age” or period of time, we see evidence of God’s swift judgment on sin. It’s much like a parent might utilize quick discipline with a young child as he reaches life stage milestones. God wishes to bring “infant” believers into deeper maturity in their relationship with him. Because sin prevents spiritual growth, during these pivotal times in history, God’s swift judgment instilled a holy fear among the community, halting sin for a moment, so that they could grow. For the sake of brevity we’ll look at three examples of this pattern.
A Pattern of God’s Swift Discipline
The Age of the Law of Moses
When God provided the Law to the people of Israel after they fled Egypt, it offered the people an opportunity to worship him on a deeper level through faithful obedience. It laid the foundation for many things, but paramount was for his people to grow in relationship with him. This age of the Law was in its infancy, and we see in Leviticus chapter 10 that the priests begin to perform their priestly duties. Two of Aaron’s sons (Aaron was the high priest), Nadab and Abihu, disobeyed their instructions and burned the wrong kind of fire and incense. Scripture doesn’t indicate their motives, but we can be certain they understood the instructions. It was rebellion, therefore the fire they created “blazed forth and consumed them.” Aaron was silent and his remaining sons did as they were instructed. They were filled with a holy fear. As Barney Fife from the Andy Griffith Show would say, “Nip it in the bud!”
The Age of the Promised Land
When Israel entered the Promised Land, this new age offered an opportunity to go even deeper in relationship with God. It would be a time when God would display his power and love and blessings. Israel had been equipped with the Law and obedience earlier, and now they could live out their purpose in the Promised Land, providing a beacon for the world. Again, this age is in its infancy, and it’s in Joshua 7 we see the story of Achan. While God was leading Israel to conquer the cities within the land of Canaan to possess it, Achan disobeys a direct order from God. He keeps some of the plunder from one of these cities and secretly buries it in his tent. Make no mistake, it was rebellion. God reveals the sin to Joshua, presents Achan in front of the entire nation, and Achan loses his life as punishment. Don’t you know a fear of the Lord passed over everyone that day?
The Age of Grace
Jesus had just conquered death, sent his Spirit to his people, and again everyone had the opportunity to relate to God in an even deeper way. This was much more than a progressive step in God’s story, it was monumental. The pattern that we see is that when God reveals a new aspect of relationship with him, it ushers in a new age and we see that the people are particularly vulnerable to the enemy’s deception; they faced a tremendous temptation to rebel.
This brings us to Ananias and Sapphira, who sold some property and claimed to have given all the proceeds to the young church. When Peter recognized the deception he says in verse 4, “The property was yours to sell or not sell, as you wished. And after selling it, the money was also yours to give away.” Instead of operating within the framework of their new-found freedom, this husband and wife succumbed to the temptation that they needed to live up to an image, fill a quota Isn’t it interesting that in the age of grace, they instead chose bondage and went back to the human limitations of the law? At the end of Acts 4, Luke records that Barnabus sold all of his land and gave it to the church. No doubt his generosity was lauded, and for this couple, it must have set the bar pretty high in their minds. Rather than allowing the Holy Spirit to fill them completely, they unplugged, pushed him to the side, and followed their own plan. The age of grace was in its infancy, and the message of grace so critical, that the Lord took both of their lives that day. He preserved his plan for the early church, and a wave of fear and reverence for the Lord swept the community of believers.
Patterns Can Be Fun
I hope this is helpful in understanding God’s purpose for Ananias and Sapphira’s story. I just love to discover a pattern from scripture like this. The pattern found here shows us that God is still God. He is the ultimate judge and has every right to punish rebellious behavior. In these examples, the point is not that they were punished for their sin, but that the rebellious behavior could very well have become a cancer among these young believers, spreading its toxicity to the entire community before God’s purpose was fully displayed.
Then Moses said to Aaron, “This is what the Lord meant when he said, ‘I will display my holiness through those who come near me. I will display my glory before all the people.’” And Aaron was silent. (Leviticus 10:3 NLT)
When I discover a pattern like this, not only is it fun, there’s actually something deeper stirring inside me. I feel a sense of accomplishment that I might have actually figured God out. These patterns lead me to think that God is consistent, thereby making him predictable, until he painfully shows me he isn’t predictable at all. Wasn’t King David arguably ushering in an age of the Throne in Israel. It would be through this Throne that Messiah would come. Couldn’t one argue that David was being rebellious when he coveted another man’s wife? He then had her husband killed to cover up the indiscretion. Why didn’t God quickly eliminate David like these others? How do we reconcile what seems like inconsistencies? I need to reconcile them, because I desperately want to know the “why’s” of God. But I’ll be honest. I really want to know “why” so that I can develop an algorithm, predict the results, and feel some sense of control over my own destiny. And therein lies the real problem. I want to control my destiny.
The Book of Proverbs is basically one giant pattern of…If you do this, you will live a long and prosperous life; if you do that, you won’t. And God has provided these patterns because he wants us to apply it to our lives as it relates to our relationship with Him. We should recognize the significance of making him the center of our lives. We cross over to the dark side when we attempt to derive a formula from these patterns in order to manage our own destiny. We automatically push God left of center, even if that’s not our goal.
The Hidden Danger of Patterns
Guilty. I went through a period of intense fear as a new mother. Every news report of an abducted child, a sudden infant death, or a major child injury was filed away in my mind. I constructed an elaborate algorithm of do’s and don’ts to keep my children safe. I began obsessing over their future and if I ever heard a story of a mishap, and the parents did everything right according to my algorithm, I was terrified. I had to go through a lengthy process of confessing each and every one of those fears and committing them to the security of my Lord and Savior. I had to admit I couldn’t create a formula to control my destiny or theirs. I had to make God my center and fully trust him in life and death.
When my dear friend, Sarah, lost her husband in October 2014 through a bizarre and tragic shooting, I found myself again trying to file this appropriately in my mind. He was a police officer on an assignment for the Sheriff’s department when his partner shot him. Jeremy was by all accounts a good and decent family man. More than that, he loved God with all of his heart and he had lived life well. Why God? I literally said to myself, “I can easily understand the “why” of Ananias and Sapphira’s death, but my formula doesn’t work here!” He was doing what Proverbs said to do. Why wasn’t he granted a long and prosperous life? Jeremy’s loss exposed my insecurity because I couldn’t explain it away, and therefore I felt at risk. What if tragedy strikes my family? I want a formula to prevent it.
The Only Formula We Need to Understand
God answered my question with Leviticus 10:3, “I will display my holiness through those who come near me. I will display my glory before all the people.” God doesn’t reveal his patterns so that we can create an algorithm to manage our own lives. He reveals it so we will come near to him and understand that Jesus is everything. Everything.
Looking back at the early church in this chapter of Acts, they were filled with a holy fear when they heard of Ananias and Sapphira’s death. They didn’t want to die, but they weren’t afraid of dying either. If they were, they would have stopped witnessing all together. They saw this event appropriately as a sign to place God at the center of everything. Grace says that we are not compelled to make him central, we are free to.
It’s more than merely making Jesus a priority, because he won’t be reduced to the first among a long list of things that are important to me. He’s not something I can accomplish like a level on a video game. He’s not something I think about only on Sundays. Our culture is filled with the sentiment that there’s a time and a place for God. When I can come to a point where I allow him sovereign rule over every room in my life, then the “why’s” in my mind begin to dissipate, and the Holy Spirit takes over.
There’s nothing wrong with discovering and applying patterns in scripture. There’s nothing wrong with rigorously pursing God with works and service to the Lord. There’s nothing wrong with the types of ceremony and praise we apply in worship. From the ancient to the modern, God has always been more concerned with our heart than anything else. Are we allowing Christ to be the only thing? Are we allowing all that we do to flow from Christ and back to him? Every single day?
Turn your eyes upon Jesus. Look full in his wonderful face. And the things of earth will grow strangely dim, in the light of his glory and grace. –Helen H. Lemmel, 1922