One of the most striking features of the early Christian Church was what we have come to know as Christian Communism, or as the historian describes it in Acts iv, 32: "And the multitude of them that believed were of one heart and soul: and not one of them said that aught of the things which he possessed was his own; but they had all things common." It is a bright and a pleasing picture that is thus presented. Nor is it difficult to understand how such a spirit should arise amongst men whose hearts were full to overflowing with the new Christian graces of brotherhood and peace. For we must not imagine that there was anything compulsory about this communism. It was entirely voluntary, and was due to the eager desire on the part of the wealthier members of the Church to do all that they could for their poorer brethren. In this particular alone, we can at once see how widely it differed from what is generally known as communism or socialism in the present day. The spirit of much at any rate of our present-day socialism -- so the distinction has been cleverly drawn -- is, "What is thine, is mine": but the spirit of those early believers was rather, "What is mine, is thine."
At the same time, we can readily understand that in a large and mixed community like the early Church, all members would not think exactly alike, and that while many, we may believe most, would cheerfully obey this unwritten law of love, and share and share alike, others would give in to it -- if they did give in, for, let me again emphasise, there was no compulsion upon any -- more grudgingly and hesitatingly.
Of these two classes the writer of the Book of Acts presents us with individual examples -- of the former class, in the case of Joseph, or Barnabas, a wealthy Cypriot, who "having a field, sold it, and brought the money, and laid it at the apostles' feet" (Acts iv.37) -- of the latter, in the case of Ananias with Sapphira his wife, whose melancholy story is now before us.
That story is very familiar, and is often regarded simply as an instance of the sinfulness of lying. And that undoubtedly it is; but it warns us also against other equally dangerous and insidious errors, as a little consideration will, I think, show. For what were Ananias's motives in acting as he did? If we can discover them, we shall have the key to the whole story.
And here, it seems to me, they must, in the first instance at any rate, have been of a sufficiently generous character. Ananias had seen what was going on around him, and he had determined that he must not be behindhand in this ministry of love. But -- and now we get a little deeper into his character -- ambition to stand well with his fellow-members evidently mingled with the pure spirit of charity: though we do not need to suppose that there was as yet any conscious intention to deceive. Acting, then, on these somewhat mixed motives of charity and ambition, Ananias determined to sell a possession, some farm or other which he had, and hand over the money to the apostles. He probably meant at first to hand over the whole price, but with the money in his hand, the demon of avarice entered into his heart. And he "kept back part of the price, his wife also being privy to it, and brought a certain part, and laid it at the apostles' feet. But Peter said, Ananias, why hath Satan filled thy heart to lie to the Holy Ghost, and to keep back part of the price of the land? Whiles it remained, did it not remain thine own? and after it was sold, was it not in thy power? How is it that thou hast conceived this thing in thy heart? thou hast not lied unto men, but unto God" (Acts v.2-4).
The sin of Ananias, then, lay in this, that he gave a certain sum as if it were the whole. There was no necessity for his giving either the whole or the part. Had he hung back, when others were selling their possessions, he would have been pronounced ungenerous in comparison with them. Had he brought a part, making no mistake about it that it was only a part, when they were giving all, then he would have been not so generous. But when he brought a part as if it were the whole, he added to his former selfishness and avarice deceit and hypocrisy. If he did not in so many words tell a lie, he did what was equally heinous, he acted a lie.
It is only when we thus clearly realise the enormity of Ananias's sin, that we can understand the reason of the dreadful doom that followed. "And Ananias, hearing these words, fell down, and gave up the ghost" (ver.5). The judgment came not from men, but from God. As it was in God's sight -- the sight of the living and heart-searching God -- that the sin had been committed: so it was by the direct "visitation of God" that it was now punished.
Nor was the awful lesson yet over. Three hours had scarcely elapsed since the young men had carried forth her husband, and buried him, when Sapphira, "not knowing what was done, came in." "And Peter answered unto her" -- answered her look of amazement as she regarded the awe-struck faces of those present -- "Tell me, whether ye sold the land for so much?" "Yea, for so much," she replied, adhering to the unholy compact into which, with Ananias, she had entered, and adding deceit in speech to his deceit in act. "But Peter said unto her, How is it that ye have agreed together to tempt the Spirit of the Lord? behold, the feet of them which have buried thy husband are at the door, and they shall carry thee out" (verses 8, 9).
It was the first intimation the unhappy woman had received of Ananias's death: and to the shame of her own consciousness of guilt, must have been added the feeling that she had a certain responsibility in what had befallen him. A word of remonstrance on her part might, at the beginning, have prevented the crime: it was too late now. "And she fell down immediately at his feet, and gave up the ghost: and the young men came in and found her dead, and they carried her out and buried her by her husband" (ver.10). And as the sacred historian again impressively adds, showing how deep was the effect produced: "And great fear came upon the whole church, and upon all that heard these things" (ver.11).
Such is the story. Who does not feel its sadness? All before had been so peaceful and happy. The early believers had presented such a beautiful spectacle of brotherly unity and love. And now, all too soon, the enemy had been at work, sowing tares among the wheat. In the very particular in which the Church most deserved praise -- the enthusiasm of its members' charity -- sin had appeared. And thus early had the young Church of Christ learned that truth, which it has been the work of nineteen centuries to emphasise, that her true danger comes not so much from without as from within, and that then only is she disgraced, when she disgraces herself.
For what may we learn from this tragic incident?
We learn the sanctity, the holiness, which Christ looks for in His Church.
The Church of Christ is holy: it consists of those who have separated themselves from the world and its defilements, and who have set themselves apart -- body, soul, and spirit -- for Christ's service. That, I say, is the Church's ideal. But we know, alas! only too well, how far short the Church on earth falls of that -- how much worldliness, and vanity, and ambition -- yes, and even grosser sins -- mingle with our holy things.
But we must keep God's ideal ever before us, that ideal which assures us that God, by His Spirit, actually dwells in His Church, dwells in the heart of each individual believer. Only when we remember that, can we see how great was Ananias's sin. "He lied to the Holy Ghost: he lied not unto men, but unto God." As by God's Spirit his heart had been enlightened and opened to the knowledge of the truth: so now against that Spirit he had deliberately sinned.
Such a sin could not pass unpunished. Had that been allowed, the false impression would have got abroad that God was easy and tolerant of sin. Rather it was necessary "that men should be taught once for all, by sudden death treading swiftly on the heels of detected sin, that the gospel, which discovers God's boundless mercy, has not wiped out the sterner attributes of the Judge."
We learn the reality of the power of Satan.
On this point, Peter's question is very suggestive -- "Why has Satan filled thine heart to lie to the Holy Ghost?"
There is a constant tendency in those days, which are so impatient of all that is supersensible and wonderful, to try and get rid of the personality of the devil, and to tone down the question of man's salvation to a struggle between two opposing principles within the heart, instead of regarding it, as the Bible teaches us to regard it, as an actual contest for the soul of man between real persons -- the Spirit of God from above, the Spirit of evil from beneath. The heart of man is as it were a little city or fortress on the borderland between two nations at war with each other, and which is liable to be captured by whichever at that point proves itself the strongest. But at the same time with this great difference, that every man has the power of deciding into whose hands he is to fall. His will is free: and he is personally accountable for whom he may choose as master.
For, notice how, in the case before us, St Peter, while tracing the fall of Ananias to the agency of Satan, yet prefixes his question with a why: "Why hath Satan jilted thine heart?" There had been a time when resistance was still possible. Ananias might have rejected the suggestion of the tempter: he was not bound to yield: but he had yielded. And very suggestive of why he had fallen so low, is that other word "filled." It brings before us the quiet, gradual manner in which evil takes possession of the heart of man. We have seen already that it was so in the case of Ananias. Ambition to stand well in the sight of others was his first step: to ambition was afterwards added avarice: and then ambition and avarice combined led to deceit and hypocrisy. Or, as bringing out the same truth of the gradual progression of sin, notice how Ananias apparently first thought over the sin in his own heart: then spoke of it to his wife, and agreed with her that it could be done: and then how together they carried it out. Thought, speech, action: how often are these the successive links by which a man is led on from one degree of sin to another? The lesson is surely to resist at the very outset: so much depends upon the first step. We must not give place to even the first thought of evil: nor listen to the tempter's whisper, whisper he ever so softly. How many, as they look back upon a downward career, can trace its beginning to some idle or vain thought, or to some hasty or careless word!
We learn that a divided service is not possible.
"No man!" said our Lord Himself, "can serve two masters: ye cannot serve God and mammon." Not that we are not tempted sometimes to try it. What commoner sin is there amongst professing Christians than the attempt to make the best of both worlds -- to lay hold of this world with the one hand, while we give it up with the other -- to seem other than we are?
But surely with this old story from the Book of Acts to warn us, we must see how vain all such divided efforts are. We may deceive ourselves or others for a while; but the deception cannot last, and in some hour of searching or of trial our true characters will be laid bare. Let us see to it, then, that we may take this awful example home as a very real and practical warning to ourselves -- that we not only "hate and abhor lying," but put away from us whatsoever "maketh a lie"! and that the prayer continually on our lips and in our hearts is, "From the crafts and assaults of the devil . . . from pride, vain-glory, and hypocrisy, good Lord, deliver us."
Dr Oswald Dykes.