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Author:Rev. Stephen 't Hart
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Melville
 Melville, Australia
Preached At:Free Reformed Church of Baldivis
 Baldivis, Western Australia
Title:Godly Fear
Text:Acts 5:11 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:Life in Christ

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Psalm 95:1,2

Psalm 5:1,2,4

Psalm 95:3,4,5

Psalm 25:6

Psalm 139:13


Read:  Joshua 7

Read:  Acts 4:32 – 5:16

Text:  Acts 5:11

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Stephen 't Hart, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Dear church of God.

“So great fear came upon all the church and upon all who heard these things.”

Great fear.  Such great fear that Luke repeats it twice in Acts 5, in verse 5, after the death of Ananias, and again in verse 11, after the death of Sapphira. 

Great fear.  Indeed, such great fear that it has never really left us.  What happened to Ananias and Sapphira is still a hard-hitting story today.  Life in the early Christian church was so good.  The people ate their food with gladness and simplicity of heart.  They spent their time worshipping God in the temple and from house to house.  They had such love and fellowship with one another that they shared their possessions with whoever was in need.

And then suddenly, Boom!  Ananias drops dead.  And then another Boom! and his wife Sapphira crashes to the floor at the feet of the disciples.  The church at Jerusalem and all those who heard it were shocked.  And still today, it hits us like a thunderbolt from heaven.

We are left with questions, and we want answers to them.  Why wasn’t Ananias given the chance to repent?  Why was he buried so soon, even before his wife got to hear of it?  Why did Peter cross-examine Sapphira in the manner that he did, so that she too fell dead?  And does the punishment really fit the crime?

A major reason for the story of Ananias and Sapphira being so hard-hitting is because we would consider their sin to be so trivial.  Their sin was one that we might be quick to overlook.  They were under no compulsion to sell their land, and they were under no compulsion to give.  What Ananias lay at Peter’s feet was a freewill offering.  Now the problem was that Ananias said it was the total price of the land, when in fact it was only a part.  But so what?  Is that a crime that deserves the death penalty? 

Imagine how it might have happened:  Peter and the apostles are caring for a church that has suddenly exploded in growth to over 5,000 members.  Amongst them are many poor people who have no means of support other than from the church.  The needs are almost overwhelming and they’ve been praying to God, asking Him to provide.  And then in walks Ananias with a bag of money.  “Praise the Lord!” he says.  “We sold the block next door to our house.  Our neighbour has been asking to buy it for years, and even though we loved having the extra space, we love our brothers and sisters even more.  $200,000 is what we got for it.  So here, Peter, take the money and put it to good use.”

Now Peter knows that it was not $200,000, but $300,000.  But does it matter?  Sure, Ananias told a little lie but the money he’s giving to the church is a substantial sum.  Who would have blamed Peter for looking Ananias in the eye with a “You know that I know that you got more money than this” sort of a look, but saying aloud, “Thank you, so much, Ananias.  May you be blessed as Barnabas is blessed!  You have saved the church budget from going into deficit, and there are many widows amongst us who will be thanking God for your generosity.”

But that is not what happened.  Instead Peter asks, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and keep back part of the price of the land for yourself?”  And the next thing that happens is that Ananias drops dead on the spot. 

Is that fair?  Does the punishment fit the crime?

And what makes the story of Ananias and Sapphira even more hard hitting is that it could have been me!  If Ananias and Sapphira were not safe from the punishment of God, then who is? 

“And great fear came upon all the church and upon all who heard these things.”

And that fear is with us to this day.

But where we see God’s justice, His mercy is never far away.  And we can see both His justice and His mercy in the story of Ananias and Sapphira.  What happened to Ananias and Sapphira is not written to cause us, in terror, to flee from God, but rather that in godly fear we might be brought closer to His holiness and safely live there in His presence.

I preach to you the Word of God this morning under the following theme:

The Community of the Holy Spirit Lives in Godly Fear.

1.    The Cause of Fear.

2.    The Fruit of Fear.

1. The Cause of Fear.

When we come before the LORD, there is a fear that He takes away.  In Psalm 56 David sang,

“Whenever I am afraid, I will trust in You.  . . . In God I have put my trust; I will not fear.  What can flesh do to me?”

But the Bible also says that there is a kind of fear that is good.  In Psalm 5:7 David says, “In fear of You I will worship toward your holy temple.”  In fact the Psalms speak many times of the need to fear the LORD, and Proverbs 1:7 says, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge.”

The book of Acts also speaks of a fear that appears to be good.  In Acts 2:43 the Bible says,

“Then fear came upon every soul, and may wonders and signs were done through the apostles.”

The Greek word that is found in Acts 2:43 is the same one as we find in our text of Acts 5.  It is the word phobos, from which we get the word phobia.  And that word means “fear”.  Some Bible translations, such as the NIV, do not speak of fear in Acts 2:43 but awe.  That is OK, because awe is closely related to fear.  Awe is “a feeling of reverent respect mixed with fear or wonder.”  And, by the way, the word reverence comes from the Latin word that means “to fear”.  And so while we may use different words, awe, reverence or fear, we must conclude that there is a certain fear that is right for us to have before God. 

In Acts 2, the fear that came upon the Christians in Jerusalem was because of the presence of the Holy Spirit.  In that chapter, Peter had explained that the outpouring of the Holy Spirit was the fulfilment of what the Old Testament prophet had said in Joel 2.  But Joel 2 also called the people to tremble at the coming Day of the LORD, for, verse 11 says,

“the day of the LORD is great and very terrible; who can endure it?” 

And so for those Christians in Jerusalem in the days after Pentecost, to be a part of the community of Christ and to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit was something to treat with awe and respect and fear. 

But this fear did not turn the Christians into anxious, shivering wrecks.  Rather, it caused them to live before the Lord with joy and gladness, continuing steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread and in prayers.  The church was a vibrant and joyful community and, living out of a godly fear, they came together as the Church of God, the Body of Christ.  They were a multitude of people, coming from different backgrounds and different places, but they enjoyed a fellowship together that was so strong that Acts 4:32 could say that “they were of one heart and one soul.”  And as a consequence of that, the Christians did not only think of their own interests, but also of the interests of others.  Even to the point that they had all things in common.

There was no compulsion to give, and so this was not a form of communism.  The members of the church were not forced to hand over their private property so that everything could be administered from a central source.   As Peter said to Ananias, “While [the land] remained, was it not your own?  And after it was sold, was it not in your own control?”  (Acts 5:4)  The apostles, therefore, did not force the Christians to hand over their goods.  What was happening, however, is that the Spirit-filled community of believers were of one heart and soul to the point that they were willing to share all that they had with their fellow believers.  As the need arose, Christians would sell houses and fields and other possessions so that nobody was left without support.

This then was the community of the Holy Spirit:  A community upon whom the fear of God rested.  A community that worshipped the LORD with all their heart, with all their soul and with all their mind.  A community in which every man loved his neighbour as himself.

And as an example of this, Acts 4 introduces a man called Joses, whom the apostles would call Barnabas.  Barnabas was a Levite who came from Cyprus.  Although the Levites of old were not to own land, Barnabas did own some property – most likely some distance away from Jerusalem.  And Barnabas sold the land, took the money, and laid it at the apostles’ feet.  The Bible holds Barnabas up to us as a man who feared the Lord and who gave all that he had from a heart that overflowed with love for God and his neighbour.  In Barnabas we see how a Christian who is filled with the Holy Spirit, and in Jerusalem we see a church community that is filled with the Spirit.

But in Ananias and Sapphira, there was a different spirit at work.  Ananias and Sapphira sold their land, but not out of true love for God and their neighbour.  Greater than their love for God and their neighbour was their love for themselves.  Perhaps they thought they had good reason to hold on to some of the money:  perhaps they thought that in the coming days when Jerusalem would be destroyed, they’d appreciate the money to help them establish themselves elsewhere.  But they did not want  people to know what was in their hearts.  They did not want to be seen as greedy:  they wanted people to praise them, to say they were just like Barnabas.

But they were not like Barnabas.  Their gift to the church of Jerusalem had not come from the prompting of the Holy Spirit and a heart overflowing with love, but from Satan.  In those early days, Satan was enraged at what was happening in the church of Christ.  Satan had attempted to destroy the church from without, through the chief priests and other members of the Jewish Sanhedrin.  That hadn’t worked, so now he would try from within.  And so Satan entered the hearts of Ananias and Sapphira in an attempt to use the spirit of sharing to break down the very generosity it was supposed to be expressing.  If Satan could get Ananias and Sapphira to lie, the church would no longer be of one heart and one soul.  A little leaven would leaven the whole lump.  When Ananias’ sin came to light, every man would look at the other with suspicion and soon there would be chaos in the church.  And therefore this “little” sin would potentially have big consequences.

But the nature of the sin of Ananias and Sapphira was deeper than a little lie to the apostles.  Peter asked, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit?”  And, “You have not lied to men but to God.”  And in verse 9 Peter said to Sapphira,

“How is it that you have agreed together to test the Spirit of the Lord?”

No, this was not the sin against the Holy Spirit that Jesus spoke of in Matthew 12:32.  That sin is a hardening of the heart which takes place over time in those who wilfully despise and reject Jesus.  But this was still sin against the Holy Spirit.  What was lacking in the heart of Ananias and Sapphira was an understanding that the church is the community of the Holy Spirit.  What was lacking in the heart of Ananias and Sapphira was an awareness that God sees everything and knows everything.  What was lacking in the heart of Ananias and Sapphira was the fear of God.  And so God’s punishment of Ananias and Sapphira was intended to be a strong warning to the early church and a strong warning to us that He is holy, that He is to be feared.  The Holy Spirit who brings joy and gladness also brings judgment upon those who make light of His holiness and His power.  It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the Living God.  To violate His holiness is dangerous.

That was the message that God gave His church when He struck down Ananias and Sapphira.  And for the church of Christ, the community of the Holy Spirit, this message should not have come as a total surprise.  In the Old Testament also, the LORD struck down certain people who made light of His holiness. 

In Leviticus 10, Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, decided to make up their own sacrifices and offered profane fire before the LORD.  In an instant, the LORD struck them down and they died.  And then God said, “By those who come near Me I must be regarded as holy.”

The LORD also struck down Uzzah during the reign of King David.  At that time, in 2 Samuel 6, David attempted to bring the Ark of the Covenant into Jerusalem.  He did this in the wrong manner, and when the ark was about to fall, Uzzah reached up and touched it.  And immediately God struck Uzzah and he died.

And another person who was killed for profaning the holiness of the LORD was Achan.

In Joshua chapter 5, after the people of Israel had finally arrived in the Promised Land the LORD renewed His covenant with the people of Israel.  The sacrament of circumcision was carried out for all the men born in the wilderness and at that time the LORD said that He had rolled away the reproach of Egypt from them.  The LORD’s promise to redeem His people to be His own possession had been fulfilled and now they could live as His covenant community, in purity and holiness before Him.  And then to celebrate this, the people of Israel ate the Passover before the LORD. 

But then after the LORD gave Jericho into the hands of the people of Israel, we read in Joshua 7 that the anger of the LORD burned against Israel because the children of Israel committed a trespass.  The LORD had declared that all the plunder from the city of Jericho belonged to Him.  But Achan took a small part of that plunder for himself and hid it under the ground beneath his tent.  Achan had ignored the fact that God sees all things and knows all things.  Achan had ignored the fact that the LORD is holy and just.  Achan had shown contempt for the LORD by daring the touch the things devoted to Him.  And when Achan took from the plunder of Jericho, he robbed the whole nation of the purity and holiness which it was supposed to have before God.  And so for as long as this sin remained in the tents of Israel, the whole nation suffered.  And so Moses called the people of Israel to purify or sanctify themselves before the LORD and to remove the offence of Achan by having him and all that belonged to him killed with stones and burned with fire.

What God wished to impress upon the people of Israel when they were in the Wilderness, as they entered the Promised Land, and as the Ark was taken to Jerusalem was that we must always live before the LORD in godly fear.  Yes, He had promised to dwell with them and make His home among them.  But He remains the Great King, the Holy One of Israel.  And He must be worshipped as such.

And if that was the situation in the Old Testament, when the LORD dwelt in His Tabernacle, between the cherubim of the Ark, in a room separate from the unholiness of Israel, how much more must we fear God today, when He makes His home within our hearts?

The sin of Ananias and Sapphira, therefore, was that they failed to fear the holiness of the Lord and of His Spirit.  Through their lie they mocked His purity and His power.  And for that reason they were struck dead.  The punishment, therefore, was not extreme.  It was just.  And it was good.

So great fear came upon all the church and upon all who heard these things.

The LORD is not to be trifled with.  We dare not come near the throne of God, except with godly fear and trembling.  For He is a consuming fire.  (Deut. 4:24; Hebrews 12:29) 

The death of Ananias and Sapphira is a hard-hitting story.  And it becomes even more hard hitting when we realize that their sin was not so very unique.  When we realize that we too so quickly fail to fear the LORD as the Great and Holy One.  When we put Him to the test by speaking and acting as if He does not see, as if He does not know.  The wonder of it all is not that Ananias and Sapphira were killed; the wonder of it all is that we are not.  That we are not objects of His wrath, but objects of His mercy. 

“He has not dealt with us according to our sins, nor punished us according to our iniquities.”  (Psalm 103:10)

But He is awesome.  And He is holy. Therefore we must worship Him with godly fear, with reverence and with awe.

2. The Fruit of Fear.

We tend to see fear as something negative.  Fear makes us think of panic, distress, anxiety and terror.  But there is a fear that is good.  There is a fear that is helpful.  There is a fear that is healthy and commendable.  There is a fear that bears good fruit.

When the Bible tells us in Acts 2:43 that fear came upon every soul, and in chapter 5:5 and verse 11 that great fear came upon all the church, it records this as something positive, as something good.  And it is good.

For a godly fear does two things.

In the first place, it makes us cautious.  It was because Ananias and Sapphira lacked a godly fear that Satan was able to fill their hearts.  Satan is a powerful and a formidable enemy.  Satan hates God and hates it when we come before God’s holy throne.  Satan is prowling around like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour. (1 Peter 5:8)

We need a godly fear to be on guard against Satan.  We need to be afraid of his sneaky ways, resisting him and endeavouring to be steadfast in the faith.  So a godly fear drives us away from Satan.

And in the second place, a godly fear drives us not from God but to Him. Acts 5:13 says that “none of the rest dared join them”, that is, the apostles and the church.  Some were indeed filled with terror when they heard about the death of Ananias and Sapphira, for they concluded that the God of the Christians was not to be played with.  But that did not stop those who believed from coming to Him.  Verse 14 of Acts 5 says,

“And believers were increasingly added to the Lord, multitudes of both men and women.”

A godly fear drives us to God.  It creates in us a desire for increasing holiness, and for a renewed zeal to be in His presence.  It drives us to hear His Word.  It drives us to meditate on His Word and to live by it.  A godly fear drives us to come before the Lord in prayer, beseeching Him for His grace and the Holy Spirit.  A godly fear draws us into close fellowship with the Lord.  And a godly fear drives us to join His Church, to worship Him in His church whenever that is possible and as often as we can,  to have fellowship with other believers in His Church and to be of one heart and soul with them.

And that is what happened to the community of the Holy Spirit, to the church of Jerusalem.  The death of Ananias and Sapphira caused great fear to come upon the church.  But it did not drive them away from God; rather it brought them together, so that they were all with one accord worshipping God in Solomon’s Porch.  (Acts 5:12)

But there is one other blessing, one other hope that the death of Ananias and Sapphira gives us.  In the community of the Holy Spirit, in the church, we see the beginning of a world restored to God.  In the church of Jerusalem we see the lame walk, the deaf hear, and the blind see.  And in the church of Jerusalem we also see the destruction of all that is evil.  We see Satan cast out and a community of people who are growing in holiness.  We see a church that strives to be of one heart and one soul.  We see a community that is coming together, united in one Spirit, one faith, and one Lord. 

The Church in Jerusalem was not perfect.  And we are not perfect.  The punishment of Ananias and Sapphira is a stark reminder of how sinful I still am, and of how often I fail to worship the Lord in His holiness.  But the death of Ananias and Sapphira is calling me, is calling you to fear the Lord sincerely, walking with Him day by day.  The death of Ananias and Sapphira is calling me, is calling you, to live in covenant faithfulness before the Lord.  And the death of Ananias and Sapphira and the subsequent removal of Satan from God’s Church is a promise of the time to come when Satan will be banished forever, when we in truth will be completely of one heart and soul, having all things in common.  The death of Ananias and Sapphira encourages us to begin to be such a church today, with the firm hope and expectation that this will be our future.  When at ease our souls shall rest, when we as His children shall be blest, safely in the promised land abiding.  Amen.

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Stephen 't Hart, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
(c) Copyright 2010, Rev. Stephen 't Hart

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