REVERENTIAL AWE Acts 5
“Great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events” (Acts 5:11).Fear of God” is another way of saying that we take God seriously!
A husband and wife conspired to deceive the church—and were struck dead by God (5:1–11). An eruption of miracles polarized public opinion (vv. 12–16), and led the Sadducees to arrest the Apostles (vv. 17–18). Released from prison by an angel (vv. 19–20), they preached in the temple (vv. 21–25). Arrested and tried for contempt of court, the Apostles were flogged, warned, and released (vv. 26–40). Yet they “never stopped teaching” of Jesus (vv. 41–42).
Understanding the Text
“He . . . brought the rest and put it at the Apostles’ feet” Acts 5:1–11. Peter has taken a beating by the critics over the story of Ananias and Sapphira. They’ve said he was completely brutal and unkind to cause the death of Ananias, and then Sapphira. Why, he didn’t even give them a chance to repent. Of course, the critics miss the point. Peter had nothing to do with the death of this pair. He did not act as judge. He didn’t pass judgment. He simply stated the case against the two who had conspired to lie to the church, never realizing that they were really lying to God. God passed judgment. Both Ananias and Sapphira dropped dead. And the text says, “Great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events.” Here, as in most places in Scripture, fear of God is not terror, but a reverential awe. The church took even more seriously the fact that God was alive, active, and present with them! Living with God—and being honest with Him!-had a priority it had not had before. I don’t know about you, but I’m not about to pass judgment on God for condemning Ananias and Sapphira to biological death. If you or I were to debate the “morality” of God’s act, we’d totally miss the point. The early church didn’t miss it. And neither did the people living in Jerusalem. God is alive! God is active. And we had better take Him seriously if we are to live happy, healthy—and long—lives! “At the Apostles’ feet” Acts 5:2. There’s so much to be mined in this story of Ananias and Sapphira (see DEVOTIONAL). But just one more thought now. Luke had just told how generous members of the early church were, and how some even sold houses and other property to feed the needy. Luke pointed out Barnabas as an example of generous giving (4:32–37). Well, Ananias and Sapphira wanted to be thought of as examples too. They wanted folks to point them out, as Luke pointed out Barnabas, and say glowing words about what good and generous Christians they were. But Ananias and Sapphira weren’t comfortable giving all, so they kept part of the cash, and made the rest a down payment on the praise of men they hoped to buy. The conspiracy reminds us how important motives are. If we give, let it be because we care about people in need, not money or the praise philanthropy so often buys. “No one else dared join them” Acts 5:12–16. The sense of God’s active presence that the judgment of Ananias and Sapphira produced was heightened by a flurry of miracles performed by the Apostles. Great crowds of country people brought their sick to Jerusalem to be healed—and they were. Note the impact of this obvious moving of God on the people who observed. (1) The believers continued to meet together on “Solomon’s Colonnade” (a long porch running the length of the temple’s outer courtyard). The exercise of God’s power drew the church closer together as a joyous, praying and witnessing people. (2) “No one else” is literally hoi laipoi, “the rest.” Here it identifies unbelievers who did not dare to “join them.” When God works, some people find it most uncomfortable, and draw back. (3) “The people” were responsive, and regarded the Christians “highly” (v. 13). Many of “the people” who remained open to the Apostles and their message, subsequently believed in the Lord and “were added to their [the Christians’] number.” In one sense there are only two groups of people in the world: those who have eternal life, and those who do not. But this second group can be further divided into those who are open and responsive, and those who are closed and antagonistic. While we want to witness to all, let’s give special attention to folks who are willing to hear. “The party of the Sadducees, were filled with jealousy” Acts 5:17–20. This faction in first-century Judaism controlled the higher offices of the priesthood. Its members were wealthy and aristocratic, and had profited from a close association with Herod and the Romans. The popularity of the Apostles and the miracles they performed were seen as a threat by the chief priests, who were also members of the Sanhedrin that had recently engineered the death of Jesus. It’s not surprising that they acted against the Apostles and had them arrested. I’m sometimes surprised, when Christianity comes up on talk shows, that so many people are actively hostile. In just the past couple of weeks I’ve heard Christianity bashed by a popular radio talk-show host, by a best-selling author of advice on how to live successfully, by a “scientist,” and by a pro-abortion advocate. At first I figured they just didn’t understand the Gospel and the Christian message. But on second thought, I concluded several of them do understand—and don’t like it one bit! After all, if they took a biblical view of how to discipline children, live a successful life, view Creation and an unborn child’s right to life, what they promote would have to be abandoned. Like the Sadducees of the first century, some modern pundits would rather die than admit—even to themselves—that they might be wrong. The sad thing is, they will. “Go . . . tell the people the full message of this new life” Acts 5:19–26. What a beautiful way to put it. Peter and the others were not miraculously released from jail to publicly debate doctrine. They were sent by God’s angel to tell the people about “this new life.” That’s what the Gospel of Jesus is. Not a call to join our church. Not an exhortation to subscribe to our doctrinal distinctives. It’s an invitation to receive new life from Jesus, and to live that new life to the full! Let’s keep this focus when we share with others. “They made them appear before the Sanhedrin” Acts 5:27–32. The account in Acts 4 of Peter and John’s first appearance before the Jewish high court notes that the court adjudged them “unschooled, ordinary men” (v. 13). In first-century Judaism an ordinary man called before a court for violating some religious law was warned, and the offense carefully explained. A rabbi or biblical scholar would have been punished, for the court would assume that he knew better, while an ordinary man might not. If there were a second offense, the ordinary man, having been warned, might now be punished. The Apostles had been warned not to speak in Jesus’ name. They had kept on preaching. There was no need for an inquiry. “We gave you strict orders” was all the high priest needed to say. The Apostles did not equivocate. “We must obey God rather than men.” As for the charge that the Apostles were determined “to make us guilty of this Man’s blood,” they were guilty. As Peter responded, “you had [Him] killed by hanging Him on a tree” (v. 30). It’s important for us to remember that we can sometimes do the right thing, be guilty before the law, and innocent before God. Martin Luther King, Jr., whatever his flaws, was willing to take a stand against the evil of racial prejudice and oppression. He broke man’s laws, went to prison, and I suspect that in this he was innocent before God. Many who have chosen to take a stand against the evil of abortion do, in the process, break man’s laws. But I suspect that most of them too are innocent before God. It is never a light thing to break the laws of our nation. But there are times when as the Apostles “we must obey God rather than man.” In this way we do show reverential awe of God. “If their purpose or activity is of human origin . . . it will fail” Acts 5:33–42. Rabban [our rabbi, or teacher] Gamaliel the Elder, whom Luke mentioned here, is revered in Judaism as one of the wisest and most holy of its sages. In this instance Gamaliel’s personal charisma and the respect he had earned in his own day prevented the Sanhedrin from attempting to do away with the Apostles, as they had done away with Jesus. The principle Gamaliel stated shows another way we express reverence for God and the conviction that He is actively at work in our world. Gamaliel’s advice: let history judge. Don’t take too much into your own hands, because you are not able to perceive what God may be doing. History has judged. The Christian movement not only flourished in the early decades of the first century, but matured into a faith that has sustained millions across some 2,000 years. Yet today we may need to show a similar reverence for God in dealing with others. Parents all too often are sure they know just what’s best for their mature children. But there comes a time when we have to back off, and say with Gamaliel, “If this purpose or activity is of human origin it will fail.” If we truly trust and reverence God, at the right time we will let our maturing children be responsible to Him, and not to us.
At Your Disposal(Acts 5:1–11)
Some have argued that the early church practiced a form of “Christian communism.” After all, doesn’t Acts 4:34–35 say there were “no needy persons among them” because folks “who owned lands or houses sold them” and the money was “distributed to everyone as he had need”? Anyone who thinks that should read on. He’d immediately be corrected by the story of Ananias and Sapphira. This pair conspired to sell property, keep some of the cash, but pretend to give all by putting money at the Apostles’ feet as others had. Their immediate deaths came not because they kept the money, but because their act was a lie: a deception to manipulate the Christian community and disguise their true motivations. What’s fascinating is that if they’d kept all the cash, invested it in a shipping venture, and turned into the Donald Trumps of their day, they’d probably have lived “happily ever after”! As Peter said, wasn’t the property theirs in the first place? Wasn’t the money at their disposal? (v. 4) That’s not communism. That’s capitalism! And what’s more, according to Peter, it’s all right! Now, before you get the wrong impression, this isn’t a devotional on the American way, or an exhortation to “invest your way to riches.” It’s simply an observation that whatever you or I have is ours. What we own, we own. When we have money, it is at our disposal. Acts 4 and 5 don’t raise the question of Christian communism at all. But these chapters do raise a question. The question is, are we at God’s disposal or not? You and I aren’t likely to suffer the fate of Ananias and Sapphira, whatever we may do. We won’t drop dead if we deal deceitfully with the church. But we can’t deceive God. And one day, we will be judged.
Our money may be ours. But we are God’s.
“The genius of Christian spirituality is to integrate [the] spirit of possession with the spirit of dispossession. The spirit of dispossession implies that all the good and delightful things of this world are never allowed to own, possess, or shackle me. Dispossession implies that I am always free, my own person, liberated from the tyranny that possession can easily exercise over us.”—John Powell