About 20 years later, somewhere around the year 2000, my sister was helping her daughter find her first apartment. They saw that an elderly couple had a room to rent and so they went to inquire about it. As it turns out the man who was renting the room, Al Harker, had been chief of the Oak Lawn Fire Department. Upon finding out who he was, my sister said to him, “You would have known my dad, the radioman, Lowell Lundquist.” He said, “You’re Lowell’s daughter?” His eyes filled with tears. He actually had to sit down. Then he said, “Lowell Lundquist was the most honest man I ever knew.”
Growing up, I did not think it was remarkable or unusual or noteworthy that my father was an honest man, or that my mother was an honest woman. Looking back I think I just took that for granted. Of course they were honest - they were Christians. Honesty was something you didn’t even think about. It was just assumed. Christians don’t lie, defraud, deceive, slander with falsehoods, exaggerate their accomplishments to try to look big in the eyes of others. You just don’t do that. That’s what worldly people do. That’s what people do who do not fear God, who do not love Jesus, who do not have the Holy Spirit living within them. But we’re Christians. We don’t plagiarize, or cheat on exams, or embellish resumes. We file honest tax returns. If the cashier gives us too much change we say, “Oh you gave me too much, this is yours.” I recall one time back in the 1970s my mother deposited one hundred dollars in a bank account. One zero zero point zero zero. The bank lost the decimal point and recorded it as 10 thousand dollars. Of course my mother immediately informed them of their mistake, because that’s just what you do. That is what you do if you are a child of God and not a child of the devil.
I am reluctant to tell this next little story about me but I will give myself permission because it seems pertinent. Back in high school a friend made a favorable comment about my honesty relative to other people. And I disputed it. I said, “Bill I’m no more honest than you are. You’re either honest or you’re not. You’re just as honest as I am.” Bill was a good guy, a devout Catholic who led a blameless life. But he said, “No, no.” He said “For example If I’m in my room watching Johnny Carson and my mom says, ‘Bill do you have the TV on in there?’ I’ll say ‘No.’” I can’t remember how I responded to that, but I know that my thought was, Really? You would just lie to your mom like that? Wow. Well, then, I guess I am more honest than you.
The account from our Scripture text in Acts 4:32 – 5:11 reveals to us the mind of God regarding honesty. It is a disturbing, terrifying story, and I have no desire to blunt its terror or mitigate its power. In fact I hope that God will use these few words of mine to inspire fear and repentance in the hearts of sinners so that they will dare to ask themselves, “Could that have been me? Am I Ananias or Sapphira? Could that have been my dead body carried out from apostolic presence in view of everyone and thrown into a grave in instantaneous divine judgment upon my untruthfulness, and as a warning to all? Could that have been me?”
Briefly the story is this. The church in Jerusalem was in its infancy. It had only been weeks or months since Jesus was crucified there, resurrected, and then ascended back to the Father. Then the Holy Spirit came upon the disciples and they began proclaiming who Jesus was, that he was Messiah and Savior and that he had risen from the dead. Thousands believed and were baptized and had begun to form a community - a community of people who loved each other and cared for each other.
Part of that care was shown by the way some of them provided for the poor among them. A Jewish priest named Joseph who had become a Christian sold a field and gave the money to the apostles to be distributed among needy Christians.
Everybody like Joseph. He was generous. And he was such an encourager that the apostles gave him the nickname Bar Nabash – son of encouragement – and the nickname stuck so that that became the name by which he was known through the rest of the New Testament: Barnabas. He is never called Joseph again.
When you have someone like Barnabas in your congregation – kind, generous, worthy, likeable - it is only natural that you honor him. And you would be wise to make sure that he is in a position and authority and influence. You want good people as your leaders, not bad people. When it comes to determining policy you want to listen to Barnabas and give special weight to his opinion because you know his heart. You know that he is considers other people’s interests and not just what’s in it for him. You listen to Barnabas, not to a sneaky self-dealer like Judas.
I think it is fair to assume that Ananias and Sapphira noted the esteem with which Barnabas was held, and they wanted some of that honor for themselves. “Wouldn’t it be nice to have people look up to me the way they look up to Barnabas? You know how everybody says, ‘That Barnabas – he’s such a good guy’? What if they were to say that about me? Maybe they’ll give me a flattering nickname. Instead of ‘Ananias’ I’ll be ‘Bar-emeth’, Son of Truth. Or ‘Bat-tov’, Daughter of Goodness. They’ll listen to me. They’ll ask my advice. So how can I contrive to get the influence and good name that Barnabas has?”
They decide to do pretty much the same thing Barnabas did. They sold a piece of property and brought the proceeds to the apostles to be distributed among those in need. But they kept some of the money themselves. Was it wrong to keep some of the money? No, not at all. The property was theirs, and the money from the sale was theirs. They could have kept some of it, most of it, or all of it. Peter said so himself in Acts 5:4: He said, “Didn’t it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn’t the money at your disposal?” They could have done anything they wanted with it. It was good that they gave away of some of it. The problem wasn’t how much they gave. The problem was that they lied about it. Both of them lied, deliberately. They said they were giving 100 percent of the proceeds when actually they were only giving 70 percent, or 50 percent, or 90 percent – whatever it was.
It was that lie that provoked Peter’s condemnation and God’s instantaneous lethal judgment. First for Ananias. Peter said to him, “Ananias, how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit and have kept for yourself some of the money you received for the land…You have not lied just to human beings but to God.” When Ananias heard this, he fell down and died.
It is significant that Peter said to him, “How has Satan so filled your heart that you would lie?” Jesus said that Satan was the father of lies. In John 8:44 Jesus said to Jewish leaders (presumably Pharisees), “There is no truth in Satan. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies.” And Jesus said to those same Pharisees, “You belong to your father, the devil.”
If you lie, it is because you have permitted Satan to fill your heart. If you go on lying, then the devil is your father, not God. I’m afraid there are many people who pray the Lord’s Prayer beginning with the words “Our Father…” and the devil responds, “Yes, what is it?”
But if you have been born again, and the Holy Spirit has taken up residence within you, then you are a person of truth. If you are a liar, then something other than the Holy Spirit lives within you.
Born-again people tell the truth. Holy terror descends upon them if and when they realize that they have lied - holy terror followed by confession and repentance. That is how Christians respond when they are exposed for having lied. But the sons and daughters of Satan double down on their lies. When they are challenged and exposed for their falsehoods, they don’t grieve and repent in deep shame. They just tell another lie to cover up the first one. By doing that they show that their consciences have been seared, glazed over, and the Holy Spirit can gain no foothold to do his work of moral conviction. People of that sort reveal by their constant unrepentant falsehoods that they have not been born again. As Charles Spurgeon said, “If God has not made you honest, he has not saved your soul.”
Ananias’s wife Sapphira was granted the extraordinary mercy of an opportunity to come clean. Three hours after her husband’s sudden death that she did not yet know about, she came in and appeared before Peter and he asked her, “Is this the price you and Ananias got for the land?” That question is an act of grace, because now she has opportunity to look down at her toes, take a deep dive into the cleansing pool of humiliation and shame and say, “No, it isn’t. I lied. I wanted people to look up to me. I was wrong. I’m sorry. I have no excuse. May God be merciful to me. Would you please pray for me?”
Then, I think, we would have had a different outcome to this story. Because then Sapphira would have been widowed and grief-stricken and ashamed, but not dead. She would have rejoined the living, gracious family of believers. The Bible says God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble. It says if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. It says Jesus will not break a bruised reed, or snuff out a smoldering wick. There is mercy, mercy in abundance, before the throne of God.
But many people don’t want that mercy. They reject it because it comes at the cost of deep humiliation. And some people would rather maintain the lie that they don’t need mercy because they have not done anything wrong.
That is the choice that Sapphira made. She rejected mercy and doubled down on her lie. She stuck to it, and dropped down dead. Her body was carried out and buried next to her husband. Partners in deception united in death.
Why was the lie of Ananias and Sapphira judged so harshly? I think that most would agree with me that their sin seemed relatively minor compared to sins that other Christians have gotten away with, or that perhaps even we ourselves have gotten away with. They didn’t steal money from the offering plate, or commit adultery, or kill anybody or abuse anybody. All they did was tell a little fib, a little white lie that made them look a bit more generous than they really were. Why such a harsh judgment for that?
The text does not ask or answer the question as to why their judgment was so harsh. But because that question seems to scream out at us and demand to be addressed, I will give you my speculation for what it’s worth.
First, it seems clear to me that the motive of Ananias and Sapphira was to get prestige and honor in the eyes of men. That is, the thing that Barnabas had by virtue of goodness they wanted to obtain by scheming. They wanted to look big and important and generous and good. They wanted to seem holier than they were, and so gather to themselves the kind of influence and authority that is rightly bestowed on good people. This was the sin of the Pharisees who hated Jesus so much that they sought to kill him and ultimately succeeded in doing so. The Pharisees were corrupt but they longed to look holy in the eyes of others, and there was no sin that Jesus condemned more regularly and ruthlessly than that – the sin of hypocrisy. Some Bible scholar (I wish I could remember who) said that Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount could be summed up with the words “Don’t be like them.” Don’t be like those Pharisees who seek the esteem of people in whatever way they can contrive to get it, but don’t care about the genuine praise that comes from the God who sees everything, and who knows the heart, and who alone has authority to say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
Now remember that the church at this point in Acts 4 and 5 had just started. It was still in its infancy. What a tragedy beyond reckoning if Pharisaical hypocrisy were to gain a foothold in the very foundation of the church of God. That could not be allowed to happen. You can’t have devious hypocrites like Ananias and Sapphira standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Peter and James and Stephen and (later) the apostle Paul who lost everything including their lives for the sake of the gospel of Jesus Christ. You can’t have conniving self-dealers built into the ground-floor leadership of the church.
Second, the gospel depends crucially on truthful people telling the truth.
The apostles proclaimed, and we who follow in their footsteps go on proclaiming, a message that is likely to be met with doubt, incredulity, derision, contempt and even laughter. We say that the God who made everything - including us - has visited our planet as one of us. He has been incarnated as a human being. He was born of a virgin. He performed miracles like walking on water, healing the blind, changing water into wine. He died deliberately by offering himself up as a blood sacrifice to be murdered maliciously by cruel men. And he rose from the dead. There is salvation in no one else. But whoever believes in him will be saved.
Who is going to believe that? We live in the real world here. Who is going to believe anything so ridiculous as the idea that a man actually rose from the dead? That never happens!
On several occasions in the Bible, from the gospels to the book of Acts to 1st Corinthians, we see that this report that Jesus had risen from the dead was met with disbelief. But more than just disbelief – there was often a kind of snorting contempt along the lines of “No way! You can’t be serious. What’s the gimmick? I’d have to see him for myself to believe that.” Even one of Jesus’ disciples, Thomas, reacted this way. He initially disbelieved all of the other disciples, and the women like Mary Magdalene who said they had seen Jesus alive, and he had even disbelieved Jesus himself who had said many times that he would rise from the dead. Thomas only believed when he saw and talked with Jesus himself. Same thing with the apostle Paul. He did not believe that Jesus rose from the dead until he saw him and talked with him.
So it is natural, understandable and typical to regard the report that someone has risen from the dead as a fabrication, a lie, a story that has behind it some motivating force other than truth. But the apostles who proclaimed the resurrection did so and continued to do so for decades right up to their deaths just because it was true. They did not gain from it. They very evidently did not have ulterior motives. They did not become rich. They did not rise to positions of secular power and influence. Rather they were hunted down, imprisoned, beaten repeatedly, and nearly all of them were eventually killed – some of them experiencing death by torture just like Jesus. It is very hard, in their lives, to find some underlying self-serving motive for their proclamation that Jesus had risen from the dead. They proclaimed it because they saw him alive.
In that context, what if any one of them were found to be untruthful in any other area of their lives? What would that do to the gospel? It would completely undermine it. Suppose for a moment that you are one of these early converts to Jesus. An apostle has convinced you - by God’s grace and by the internal working of the Holy Spirit - that Jesus is the anointed one, that he rose from the dead, and that he is Lord of heaven and earth. But then you find that this same apostle has embellished his resume, or committed insurance fraud, or told a story that happened to someone else as though it happened to him, or sold a defective item to a customer without telling the customer it was defective. What would you think of the gospel then? If you are an honest person yourself, you would find a dark shadow being cast over everything that apostle has ever testified to. What else has he lied about?
On the other hand, if you are a child of the devil, you may actually breathe a sigh of relief and think, “Well, I’m glad the standards aren’t so high here. We can all just kind of wink at each other while we play this religious game to our personal or mutual benefit.” And then if you get enough people with that mindset, you don’t have a church at all but rather institutionalized collective Phariseeism. Sons of the devil masquerading as sons of light.
The gospel of Jesus Christ and the worthiness of the church crucially depend on truthful people being honest all the time.
I explained this principle to a newly-hired youth pastor whom I briefly met 9 years ago. When he introduced himself to the congregation, he related that the pastor had called him when he was graduating from Bible school and asked what his job prospects were. In self-deprecating humor he said that he told the pastor that he had several offers and it was just a matter of picking which was best for him. In reality though he had no such offers. He told this story on himself for a laugh, making fun of himself for the way he had postured before the pastor. A week later in a different context I heard him tell the same story. And then I knew I had to pull him aside privately and tell him as graciously as I knew how, “Look, you’re a pastor. You represent Jesus Christ. You can’t lie or shade the truth about anything, ever. And if you do lie, it’s not funny. It’s not a joke. You can’t pass it off as ‘Boy that was silly of me wasn’t it?’ It is a thing to be repented of as you set an example for the congregation of absolute truthfulness all the time.” I’m happy to say he took my words well. I’ve lost track of him. I hope he is, and remains, honest.
Time would fail me to tell in detail all the stories I would like to tell now of church people, some in leadership, who have related to me instances of their own dishonesty without any hint of remorse or shame or indication that they would now behave differently. As a young pastor I heard an elderly woman in my congregation tell me she had sold her house, and in passing she happened to mention that the prospective owners asked her what the heating bill was in winter. It was about 200 dollars. But she was afraid that would scare them off and so she told a “little white lie” that it was 100. I was speechless. I probably should have said something, but I think I was too gobsmacked to formulate words. I’d like to have the moment back, so that I could find the right way to say, “That was wrong, you know. You can’t lie. You’re a Christian. And if it means you don’t sell the house then you don’t sell the house.”
Or I think of another time when someone at church explained to me how he had gotten his roof replaced for free. The insurance company paid for it. Somebody happened to mention to him that he could claim hail damage. Crucially he had not noticed that the roof had been fine, and then there was a hail storm, and he was able to spot areas where hail had damaged his roof. No, there was none of that. But it was time to get the roof redone. So we'll say there was hail damage. Well what do you know - it worked! Free roof! I hope that every Christian who hears this sermon or reads it online would rather be poor and have a leaky roof than do that.
One more. A Christian man who frankly did a lot for me over the years – and I acknowledge that – I can’t mention his name, but I am indebted to him for services that he performed for me that I never did for him. This man recommended an auto mechanic to me. And he did so on this basis. He said he had taken his old car to the mechanic. And the guy looked it over and assessed what would need to be done, and said “Look, sell this car to someone you don’t know and will never meet again.” And the Christian thought that was great advice. In fact he repeated the story to me later on, and both times, to my discredit, I was speechless. I should have spoken up, but in my cowardice and surprise and fear of appearing self-righteousness I said nothing. So I will try to make up for that by saying something here. If you would foist a bad car on a stranger that you would not sell to a friend, then you should not be an elder in any church. You’re not honest enough.
Read the story of Ananias and Sapphira and be afraid. That is what this story is supposed to do to you. Verse 5 says “great fear seized all who heard what had happened.” Verse 11 repeats that, saying “Great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events.” If you are dishonest, then be afraid, confess, repent, and be honest going forward.
I close with this thought. I guarantee you that honesty will cost you. It may mean that you won’t be able to sell your house. Or that you will be stuck with a leaky roof that you cannot afford to replace, or with a bad car that you cannot palm off on an unsuspecting stranger. Or maybe something even worse than that.
I don’t know why Al Harker said concerning my dad, 20 years after he passed away, “Lowell Lundquist was the most honest man I ever knew.” I don’t know what observations of my father’s character informed that assessment. But maybe, among other things, Al knew how my dad had lost his job a year or so earlier. The company where Dad had worked for many years had been bought out by corrupt new owners who insisted that that he engage in billing practices that he considered fraudulent. He refused to do so, and they fired him.
Of course honesty will cost you. It cost my father his job, and it cost the apostles their lives. But just imagine someone tearing up 20 years after your death at the mere mention of your name, and saying you were the most honest person they had ever met. And beyond that, imagine God your Father welcoming you home with the words, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” Let us pray.
God, whom I dare call Father I hope without guilty presumption, provoke righteous fear in the hearts of Christians who lie, and who stand in danger of revealing themselves to be no sons of yours but rather sons of the devil. May this fear lead to confession, repentance, forgiveness, and the holy joy of living before you in truth. In the name of Jesus your Son, Amen.
Scripture text: Acts 4:32-5:11:
All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. 33 With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all 34 that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales 35 and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.36 Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus, whom the apostles called Barnabas (which means “son of encouragement”), 37 sold a field he owned and brought the money and put it at the apostles’ feet. Now a man named Ananias, together with his wife Sapphira, also sold a piece of property. 2 With his wife’s full knowledge he kept back part of the money for himself, but brought the rest and put it at the apostles’ feet.3 Then Peter said, “Ananias, how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit and have kept for yourself some of the money you received for the land? 4 Didn’t it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasnn’t the money at your disposal? What made you think of doing such a thing? You have not lied just to human beings but to God.”5 When Ananias heard this, he fell down and died. And great fear seized all who heard what had happened. 6 Then some young men came forward, wrapped up his body, and carried him out and buried him.7 About three hours later his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. 8 Peter asked her, “Tell me, is this the price you and Ananias got for the land?” “Yes,” she said, “that is the price.”9 Peter said to her, “How could you conspire to test the Spirit of the Lord? Listen! The feet of the men who buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out also.”10 At that moment she fell down at his feet and died. Then the young men came in and, finding her dead, carried her out and buried her beside her husband. 11 Great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events.