But a certain man named Ananias, with Sapphira his wife, sold a possession,…
I. A PARTICULAR STATE OF THINGS occasioned by peculiar and temporary circumstances. Many who were strangers in Jerusalem would wish to remain; many would be detained longer than they anticipated; there might be serious consequences to some of them in relation to the synagogue, and they might be in danger of the confiscation of their goods; and perhaps there was an impression that the time was nigh when Christ would come, and when all property would cease. But, along with that, there was the gush of new feeling filling their hearts under the influence of their new faith. And so they clung to one another as really "members one of another"; and they showed it in this way. But —
1. It was never laid down by the apostles as a principle of the Church. This is distinctly stated by Peter. It was necessary, however, for money to be got. The most spiritual society and plans cannot go on without money. Here were many who at this time, and as public men, could not be doing anything, and many who were likely to be drawn into difficulty through their new faith; and the easiest and simplest way, to men who were not political economists, was just to throw the money into a common fund, and to live upon that as long as they could. But it is evident from the Epistles that it never was taught as a part of Christianity, for they recognise differences of rank and circumstance, and they do not call upon the rich to throw everything into a common fund. They prescribe appropriate duties to rich and poor, but they do not say that these distinctions are to be done away. Christianity is not so absurd a thing. If it were a matter of positive obligation upon a Christian to part with private property because wrong in itself, terrible consequences would follow. If it is wrong in me to have house or land, it is wrong for me to sell it to anybody else. True, indeed, you may come in with the idea that it is wrong for a Christian to have these things, and that a Christian (or a church) is to sell house and land. But are you going to doom a part of the earth to be eternally "the world" — unbelievers, to whom you will sell these things? Let us remember that the gospel is intended to be universal, and that you are not to lay down as a positive duty of the Church anything which all men cannot do. And all men cannot do this. As long as the earth lasts, there will be the land and fields and houses and private possessions; and if Christianity is to be a thing filling the earth, depend upon it, it never can do that if all people are to part with their possessions. Why, if Christianity is to be universal, the time will come when there will be nobody to buy. I do not think, therefore, that this is laid down as an obligation, or intended to be permanent, or that it involves in it a fixed principle that can become universal
2. It should, however, be remembered that a strong religious faith will bring Divine and eternal things very close to a man; and under its deep influence he will learn to hold cheaply the possessions of time, feeling that he knows not at what hour the Son of Man may come, when he must pass away from these things if they do not pass away from him.
3. Christians are to feel that they are members one of another, and that if one member suffers others must sympathise. But then the principle should be carried out fully; all men should remember that they are called upon to do this. And in this way the operation and influence of institutions and laws and habits are to be looked at and regarded, and everything which will operate with any crushing power upon a part of society; and the principle of pure humanity and Christian feeling should lead men to take out of the way what will injure a brother, and to impart of their substance and their sympathy for the promotion of universal happiness and tranquillity and comfort.
4. There are extraordinary times and circumstances when very extraordinary things may be required. There may be times when a peculiar and extraordinary call shall be made upon the liberality of the Church. And men in the Church may feel themselves called to a peculiar vocation; they may feel that God is urging them by His providence to the fulfilment of a mission for which they must free themselves from any entanglement. Barnabas had land, and he sold it, and he stood from that time forth a poor man, resting upon the Church; but then he was free to go anywhere — and he did go, fulfilling a mission to mankind. But you cannot make that universal with respect to all men.
II. THIS STATE OF THINGS BECAME A SNARE TO ANANIAS AND SAPPHIRA, AND LED THEM INTO SIN. I daresay a public opinion sprung up among Christians, and perhaps they might look rather coldly upon those that did not do what others were doing. I daresay there was some kind of distinction thrown about those who were conspicuous for sympathy of this sort. And it made Ananias and his wife wish for the distinction without being willing to pay the price for it. And so they agreed to sell their property, and to lay down a part of the price, pretending it was the whole, and then to stand there as if they had stripped themselves, and to be claimants upon the common fund. This sin had some tremendous aggravations. Note —
1. The hypocrisy of the whole procedure. They were pretending, of course, to be moved by a Divine influence; to bring forth the fruit of the Spirit; pretending to give a sacred thing, "Corban," given up for the service of God and of His people — and yet they were not doing it. And it was to get an odour of sanctity.
2. The deliberateness of it. It was not a thing done upon sudden temptation. They had their object; they formed their plan; they determined upon it, and went about its execution. When they met again, could they pray? Oh! what an extinction there must be of everything like personal and conjugal piety when they rose up to do this thing! Ah! when men agree together to do a great sin, all religious exercises, religious intercourse are gone.
3. The public lie to the apostles in the presence of such of the Church as might be standing round, to the apostles as the ministers of God, to God Himself in the apostles by His Holy Spirit. There was the determination thus to tell this lie, and there was the performance of it up to the last point.
4. The dishonesty that would be involved in the after conduct of this man, in his taking (as he would) his share from the common fund, as if he had given up all, and yet he had secreted this something upon which he could fall back. The man had no faith; he could not trust God, nor the Church, nor the apostles of God; and yet he pretended to do it.
5. The source of the sin, which was his giving way to the suggestions of the devil. "Why hath Satan filled thine heart?" And there was the consummation of Satanic suggestion — his presenting the fruit of it to the Church as if it was the result and work of the Spirit of God; for he stood there, not as doing a common act, but as doing a thing which was pre-eminently the fruit of the Spirit, and yet it was the fruit and the suggestion of the devil — as he might have known.
III. THE PUNISHMENT.
1. It was extreme and instantaneous. It was not a moderate act of discipline; the extreme penalty was inflicted in a moment. He was not put away — afforded time for confession and prayer, repentance and return, but he was struck dead as with lightning from heaven. A terrible thing this must have been. Only think of the members of the Church gathered about the apostles, and Ananias coming in with this money in his hand. Perhaps it might have been a considerable sum. Think of the feeling with which he was looked at by the poor and afflicted members of the Church; how they were gazing upon him, and thinking what an act of munificence it was, what a trophy to Divine grace, what a glorious manifestation of the power of faith and of religion and of God upon this man's heart; and in a moment Peter strips him, and God strikes him dead.
2. Observe that Peter merely charges him with the sin, accuses him, puts it to his conscience, and the-man trembles and falls. Peter did not inflict the punishment; Peter had no more power to strike him dead than I have to strike any of you dead. The apostles were not so put in possession of omnipotence. In every instance where omnipotence was put forth, it was not man that wielded it; it was God. The volition of the Divine Mind went through the man, and that did it. It was not the man Peter — aye, and it was not the priest Peter (as some would be disposed to think). We will leave to other priests the pretension to this power; we will leave to the Pope the pretension that he makes to employ the secular sword because Peter did it. We say it was not Peter that did it; it was God employing Peter. Let us see it so done again; and if the Pope with a glance of his eye can strike a man dead, let him do it if he likes; but no priest, no pope is to claim secular power if all that they can do is to fulminate their curses or to put us into gaol. When Sapphira comes, Peter goes further, and he tells her that she shall die, which he had not told her husband. I think the difference results from this — that Peter himself had had a revelation made to him.
3. There is every reason to fear that this outward visible punishment was but the prelude of utter separation from God — the condemnation of both. We can hardly suppose that there was an act of forgiveness at the very same moment with this act of indignation, and that while these persons were sinking down dead under the expression of the Divine anger their souls were in that state that they could be received to the Divine bosom — "meet to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light."
4. Things like these should make us very careful how we push short, general statements too far and erect too much upon a particular statement. It is said, "The multitude of them that believed were of one heart and of one soul." Ananias and Sapphira were a part of that multitude. Was this the "one heart and one soul" that was diffused through them all? God forbid. It is said, "The Lord added to the Church daily such as should be saved." He added these; is this a specimen? They were either converted, or they were not. If they were really converted, and added to the Church, this is the issue; a dreadful fall. Or they were not converted, and yet added by an outward profession; and then they were not in that state in which they could be ultimately saved. Let us not build too much upon a single expression. They might as a whole be "of one heart and of one soul," but there might be many exceptions; the mass of those that were "added to the Church" might be truly converted, but there might be exceptions.
5. The intention of such a punishment as this.
(1) It was a strong manifestation of God's condemnation of hypocrisy in religion — saying one thing and meaning another — religious pretence, profession, without religion in the heart. God can do without your money, but He cannot do without your heart. If you profess to be His, you must be a reality.
(2) Perhaps it might be intended also as a kind of guard and protection to the Church, to keep the Church from being increased and enlarged under the influence of motives that might arise from the temporary state of things in it — motives which might be connected with the casting of themselves upon the fund of the Church. God would rather keep the Church small, if it might be kept pure, than enlarge it by those who might come in from questionable motives and with questionable intents.
(3) Another thing would be to produce a salutary awe upon the minds of the Church. "Great fear came upon all the Church." At the beginning of that He came forth with this majestic demonstration of His presence in order to make them feel how holy He was, and how purely and spiritually He was to be worshipped.Lessons:
1. While extraordinary proceedings in the ancient Church cannot be literally precedents to us, there may be a principle in them worth following. The conduct of the Church is not a precedent to us with respect to property, but yet there is a principle in it, showing how Christians ought to feel with respect to being members one of another. So with respect to the conduct of the apostle, and the manner in which God interfered through him; that cannot be literally imitated, but that is no reason why there should not be discipline and an anxiety to preserve the fellowship of the faithful such as a Christian fellowship ought to be.
2. The seriousness that there is about a religious profession. I suppose none of you would like to be denied the name of Christian. Now I do not ask you what you are giving or professing to give to God, but I wish you to ask yourselves what you are keeping back. Some of you give your bodily attendance — your ear, eye, attention. Where is your heart? Are you keeping that back? and will this be acceptable? Some of you are giving your intellect; are you keeping back your affections? Some of you are professing publicly, like Ananias and Sapphira, to give up all by the manner in which you are associated with the Christian Church. What are you keeping back? Those of you "that are rich in this world" — what are you keeping back of that which the Church needs? In a world like this, in the movements of the Church, this great missionary institution (and that is the proper idea of the Church, moving onward until it embrace the world), money must be had. God must have your money. How much are you keeping back? What driblets are the donations connected with religious societies compared to what some of them might be! And God has His eye upon that which is kept back as well as that which is given. Ah! there are some rich men in the Church who might dread indeed if Jesus Christ were to say, "I will come unto you"; if He were to come with the purpose of going over all their documents, and looking at all their books, and examining all their accounts, and seeing the actual state of their affairs, and marking and pointing out how accumulation was going on after accumulation, and if He were to look them in the face, and say, "Well, now, after all this, what is it you do for Me? I give you all this; it is all Mine; by a waive of My hand I could deprive you of it to-morrow — every bit of it; and I entrust it to you; you are My steward; do you keep anything back?"
3. Even the honours, distinctions, reputation, that may be to be possessed or acquired in God's Church are things that are to be jealously watched lest they become temptations to sin.
4. The perfect confidence that Peter must have had in his own honesty when he acted in this way. If he did not thoroughly believe the resurrection, then he was a "false witness for God," and the apostle, standing up and accusing these persons of lying to the Holy Ghost, would himself be the great incarnation of a far worse lie. I think that impossible.
5. The devil cannot fill your heart and lead you into sin unless you let him.
Parallel VersesKJV: But a certain man named Ananias, with Sapphira his wife, sold a possession,