Real or fake? Occasionally I watch the English TV programme called ‘Antiques Roadshow.’ It is fascinating to hear the expert’s opinions of the things being presented for comment, and sometimes the thing supposed to be antique turns out to be a pretender, a copy of the real thing. On another TV show, ‘Bargain Hunt’ we have the same thing happening. Something which looks old and antique turns out to be a much later copy and has no value at all. There is a name for these non-real things – they are fakes. And fakes also turn up in other areas of life and sometimes they turn up in the church. God is very concerned with the purity of the church which is likened to the body of his Son, Jesus and he gives us some ways of discerning between the real and the fake; between the real deal and the pretenders. That’s why I’ve called this message ‘You can’t fool God.’
You Can’t Fool God!
Look at the Book
Turn with me to the book of Acts to Chapter 4 and verse 42. In the passage before us, we note that all the believers were one in heart and mind. (4:32) The early church was made up of men and women who were firstly ‘believers.’ That means that they believed in the name of Jesus and had been filled with the Holy Spirit and that is why God could say of them that they were one, not just in heart but also in mind. This wasn’t just a group of people belonging to a club or a society or an organisation. There was no real or fake here. No, it means that because they believed in Jesus they had been born again and were one in spirit and in truth. That’s what believing in Jesus does. And God shows us how that was evident – no one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had (v32). They were more concerned with relationships, both with God and their fellow believers, than with the possessions they had. In Chapter two we read that all the believers were together and had everything in common and selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need (2:44-45) and the writer, Luke, reemphasises this thought in Chapter 4. In the early days of the church people who became followers of the Way, or as we would say, became Christians came under intense persecution and had their possessions taken from them and in many cases the only way they survived was through the generous acts of the other believers. And so we read that there were no needy persons among them. What a statement to make. As Luke interviewed people about the start of the church and its early life he came to the conclusion that the early believers loved each other so much that there were no needy persons among them. But there was a reason for that and the reason was that from time to time those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet and it was distributed to anyone as he had need (v34-35).
Real or Fake – Theory or reality
All of this sounds good in theory but did it really happen – did the believers actually do this? Did they actually sell their property and give the proceeds to the apostles? And those two questions get an answer in what one man did. This man was Joseph and we learn that he was a Levite who had come from Cyprus. Remember that Jews from every nation under heaven (2:5) had come to Jerusalem for the feast of Pentecost and no doubt Joseph was one of them. He was a descendant of the Old Testament tribe of Levi whom God chose to be priests to minister at the tabernacle in the wilderness and was steeped in the keeping of the law. But he had done what thousands of other Jews had done – he had repented and been baptised in the name of Jesus and he had been filled with the Holy Spirit. And he was such an encouragement to the other believers that the apostles gave him a new name – they called him Barnabas, ‘Son of Encouragement.’ And living up to his new name, he sold a field and brought the money and put it at the apostles’ feet. (V37) Isn’t it amazing that this man is singled out by God to be remembered as an example for future generations? No question of real or fake. In colloquial terms, he was the ‘real deal.’
In my Christian walk, I have come across people who were just like Barnabas – generous and encouraging. When my mother passed away in 2004 I was a student at Bible college with a very limited income and we needed to get from Adelaide to Queanbeyan in New South Wales for Mum’s funeral. Some dear friends in our church sensed our need and without a thought for themselves gave us a gift of money that enabled our whole family to go to Queanbeyan to honour our mother, mother-in-law and grandmother. These dear Christian brothers and sister in a way laid the money at the apostles’ feet because they saw a need. They were one with us in heart and mind. They were a real, living example of true Christianity – they were and are the real deal.
Another side – the pretenders
So far we have seen what happened when the true believers, those who were one in heart and mind did and how each was an encouragement to the others. They displayed the fruit of the Spirit and loved one another as Christ loved them. However, the tone changes when we get into chapter five and in this chapter God gives us an insight into what can be described as the pretenders – those who are not one in heart and mind but who want to be counted with the believers. In colloquial terms these people are fake Christians, they are not the real deal.
So we read that a man named Ananias, together with his wife Sapphira, also sold a piece of property or field. (5:1) That’s what Barnabas had done so in a way they were just copying him. So far so good – on the outside, they looked very much like all of the others and they were just doing their bit to help. But, 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. (5:2) Is Ananias being real or fake? Had other believers done that? In V34 of the previous chapter, we note that those who owned fields or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostle’s feet. They didn’t hold any back. And Barnabas sold a field he owned and brought the money and put it at the apostles’ feet. (V37) Again he didn’t hold any back. But Ananias held some back because he and his wife were not one in heart and mind with the other believers.
And God was not pleased! How do we know that? It’s because of what he did next. He enabled Peter to discern whether the intentions of Ananias’ heart were real or fake. Remember that God always looks on the heart and here he does that through the apostle Peter. Look what Peter says, 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. (v3) Talk about calling a spade a spade! Peter doesn’t mince words and gets straight to the root of the problem – Ananias is not a believer because his heart is not full of the Holy Spirit but is full of Satan and because of that he has intentionally lied to God. That reminds us that the Holy Spirit is also God and to lie to the Holy Spirit is to lie to God. To show that Ananias intentionally lied Peter tells him that there was no compulsion for him to bring any of the money because after all didn’t it belong to you before it was sold and after it was sold, wasn’t the money at your disposal? (5:4)
What God is saying is that Ananias wasn’t forced to bring the money, he did it to deceive. In the first letter to Timothy God, through the apostle Paul says for the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil (1 Tim.6:10). In Ananias, we see how that works itself out. I said that this message is that you cannot fool God, and in Peter’s next words we get a clear picture of that. Peter says to Ananias what made you think of doing such a thing? Ananias you didn’t just make a mistake is what Peter is saying to him – no you deliberately thought it through. You thought you could fool God and pull the wool over the eyes of the other believers and get the kudos for your generosity, but in doing so you have lied to God. (5:4)
You can’t fool God: it’s all over
Luke then records how God reacted to the lie. When Ananias heard this, when he heard that he had been found out as a liar, he fell down and died (v5:5). Jesus once said that is was a terrible thing to fall into the hands of the living God, and that is what we see here. Ananias had fallen into the hands of the living God who withdrew the breath from his body and he died – not of natural causes but by the hand of God. Now we might question God and ask him why he did it. Why did you kill Ananias when all he did was to hold back part of the money he got for the sale of his field? And God’s answer would be that the wages of sin is death (Rom.6:23) and Ananias had deliberately lied to God and got paid his wages. And that is what God wanted the early church to understand. If you don’t believe in Jesus; if you don’t have my Spirit in you then no amount of good works will save you from my wrath. So you can’t fake it! The apostle John wrote ‘And this is the testimony; God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son does not have life.’ (1 John 5:11-12) Did the early church get the message? You bet they did because great fear seized all who heard what had happened. (5:5b) And to show that Ananias was really dead the young men carried him out and buried him.
Pretenders involve others
Yet worse, we find that Ananias didn’t act alone and later on, three hours later, his wife Sapphira came in. Was she real or fake? Peter, knowing how much money Ananias had put at the apostles’ feet asked her if that was the price they got for selling the field. He said tell me, is this the price you and Ananias got for the land? (5:8) And when she agreed with the amount quoted Peter asked her why she had tested the Spirit of the Lord. And then he told her about the death of her husband and told her that the same fate awaited her (5:9). And again we see that it was God who did the judging and we read at that moment she fell down at his feet and died. And the same young men came and carried her out and buried her beside her husband (5:10). It’s then that God tells us that great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events (5:11). And truthfulness becomes central.
What does it mean? Are we real or fake?
Taken at face value it seems that this passage of Scripture teaches that to lie to the Holy Spirit is a sin punishable by immediate death but because there are no further Scripture references to this taking place then it doesn’t teach this. So, what does it teach? It teaches us that right from the start of the church, from those early days of incredible growth and supernatural miracles taking place, God was concerned for its purity because it was the earthly body of His Son, Jesus animated by His own Holy Spirit. To lie to God’s Spirit in the way that Ananias and Sapphira did was to give Satan a foothold in Christ’s body – something that was anathema to God. The reason that Ananias and Sapphire drop dead is God’s way to give a stunning warning to the whole church that phony Christians will all end up this way, sooner or later. That is what Ananias and Sapphira were – they were phony Christians, they were fakes posing as the real thing. They appeared to be living the Christian way but by their actions, they were shown to be just putting on an act.
A modern pretender – a fake Christian
Let me give you an up-to-date example of what I mean. A man who was an elder at a church where Jan and I were members, often led the morning church service. When he did that he dressed in a suit and spoke in a manner that led others to think that he was a Christian. But he never came to a Bible study, or prayer meeting, though he was always there at the elders meeting, and the board meeting, and had his say on all of the matters pertaining to the church. He came and helped out at the fetes and the working bees, and was praised for his good works. But it turned out to be fake, he wasn’t the real deal. His true allegiance was not with Christianity at all, but with the spiritualist church, That particular body does not believe in Jesus Christ and his death and resurrection, nor eternal life for the individual. Instead, they believe that when people die physically an aspect of the personality or mind survives this and continues to exist on a ‘spirit plane’, sometimes referred to as the spirit world.
Now understand this: Spiritualists use the word spirit as a plural which describes all minds and entities who have entered into the spirit world. Then they use mediums deceitfully to provide some ‘evidence’ that a human has survived – by describing the person to their surviving relatives. The degree of accuracy with which the deceased are described goes some way to convincing the living relatives and friends that the medium has some contact with the spirit. There is no real, living, Christianity in what that ‘church’ claims.
And as to the man himself, it became clear to all that this man was not a Christian, he was faking it, and lying to the Holy Spirit. I have to say that unless he repents and receives Jesus Christ and the indwelling Holy Spirit that God gives, there will be no change. But we can take heart; we can all become real through faith in Jesus!
How does this affect you and me in 2020 – pretenders or the real deal?
Are we real or fake? Are we likely to be struck down by God? In the sense that Ananias and Sapphira were struck down the answer is – probably not. But in another sense, the answer is yes, and it will be yes if when we come to the end of our life we discover that because we lived a lie, constantly lying to God by pretending to be a Christian but never allowing his Holy Spirit to indwell us.
The only way to allow God’s Holy Spirit to indwell us is by receiving Jesus Christ, God’s Son, as our Saviour and Lord. That’s what Barnabas had done and it was evident to all as he displayed the fruit of the Holy Spirit in his life and he was blessed by God. Ananias and Sapphira hadn’t done that, and it was evident in their lives and in openly lying they were struck down by God.
Who have you chosen to be like? Like Barnabas or like Ananias and Sapphira? The choice you make will determine your eternity. Choose life!
Acts 4:32 to 5:11
Grahame Daniel June 2020
Edited for on-line publication.