The Earliest of the Tares, in the Field of the Church
Acts 4:36-5:11
And Joses, who by the apostles was surnamed Barnabas, (which is, being interpreted, The son of consolation,) a Levite…

The age of the Church numbered as yet only its days. The "good seed" had been sown in the field by "the Son of man" but a few hours, yet "the enemy... the devil" had found a prized opportunity to "sow tares," and uses it not in vain. The names and history of Ananias and Sapphira are among the best known of all those imbedded in Scripture. When the striking episode, however, is detached from its proper place, it loses very much of its significance and force. But, taking the time and place of it into account, the episode is in the highest degree dramatic. And the reality of the history which it recounts, it is which exalts it to that height. It is one of those unwelcome products of human nature which mean, in equal proportions, three things - the painful, the startling, and the too true. A very crisis of glory is dashed by an incident of darkness, sin, and shame. It is dashed thus, however, in the present instance for "about the space of three hours" only, when the majesty and integrity of truth are terribly vindicated. Let us consider -

I. THE SIN HERE RECORDED. Though it may seem desirable to supplement the words of the narrative, the thought and intent of it want nothing. Thus, though it is not so worded in the case of Ananias, it is plain that when he brought what any way portended to be the full price of his vended "possession" and "laid it at the apostles' feet," either interrogated or without interrogation he gave it to be understood that it really was the full price. The ground of Peter's suspicion on the matter is not stated. But a choice of explanations of it can easily be offered. Something in the manner of the man, even possibly some needless asseveration of the entirety of the price, or something disproportionately small in the price brought as the equivalent of the "possession" parted with, or the discernment of the inspired and spiritually sensitive apostle, not set in motion by any external cause, may quite account for it. In this last supposition Peter will remind us, not unworthily, of Peter's loved Master, in the exercise of a certain spontaneous detection, and in preventing any greater mischief by a certain promptness of anticipation. Be this as it may, in the analysis of the sin under consideration it must be that:

1. The first constituent of it is a capital falsehood, and this needs no further comment.

2. Falsehood the deceiving purpose of which suffers no little aggravation from the cruel affront it offers a new-born loving, holy little society, and the august representatives and leaders of it, now known for their inspiration and for the miracles they had wrought.

3. Falsehood in the matter of a religious and voluntary service.

4. Falsehood that was intended to win for those guilty of it a reputation for zeal toward God and enthusiasm of liberal love toward man, when neither the one nor the other was there.

5. Falsehood that meantime was covering, or seeking to cover, no higher style of character than this, viz. to save stealthily something from (what is inwardly regarded as) the wreck for self, and yet share the contributed beneficence of others. The case was presumably this - a man, under the cover of religious motive and resolve, professes to sell all and give all, forsooth that he may secretly store some, and be placed at an advantage for getting more. The rich young ruler was sincerity, honesty, and enthusiasm, all to perfection, in comparison of this exhibition.

6. Falsehood that was deliberate. It was not the result of any sudden gust of temptation. It was deliberate to the extent of being concerted between two. The unhallowed imagination, thought, resolve, of one heart soon grows into the unhallowed covenant of two hearts. Alas, for the suggested picture, for the mournful portraiture of human nature, for the dark interior, too faithfully drawn, of that household! To sum up, then, what has gone before, the direct falsehood of Ananias and Sapphira (to call them for the moment one) was not the whole sin, but, bad as it was in itself, was but the outside covering of sins, too strong nevertheless to be held of it. "Some men's sins are open beforehand, going before to judgment; and some they follow after" (1 Timothy 5:24). The delicacy and exquisiteness of all the fellowship of circumstance amid which the sin of Ananias and Sapphira saw the light, measure the extent of the affront it dared to offer to truth, and augur the fearfulness of the doom that should visit that affront. Hence it comes that we do instinctively understand Peter's inspired estimate of it - that it is a "lie unto the Holy Ghost... unto God," and a "tempting of the Spirit of the Lord." And in thus estimating the sin, in "the light of God's light," Peter reminds us of David, who, bowed in deepest anguish for the sins of murder and adultery, nevertheless cries to God, "Against thee, thee only, have I sinned!"

II. PETER'S OWN DIAGNOSIS OF THIS SIN THAT NOW PRESENTED ITSELF TO VIEW. There is manifestly a deeper treatment of such a presentation of human nature open to us; but especially was it open to the inspired apostle. Let us follow his guidance more exclusively. It was given to him to conduct us deeper down into the retreats of human hearts, and we do well to use our opportunity to follow him. Peter indisputably finds these three things. He finds:

1. A proffered interference of Satan.

2. An accepted interference of him, on the part of Ananias.

3. The issue - a "lie to the Holy Ghost."

We touch here distinctly the things characteristic of revelation. They are, it must be noted, the things resented not by the scoffer only, but by the rationalist, and by science, simply quoad science. The provinces of revelation and science in human life, however, are neither contradictory nor mutually exclusive, but they are complementary. And the Christian is the rich man because he feels and knows them such. We have then here, from the lips of Peter, the first introduction, since the ascension of Christ and the descent of the Holy Ghost, of the personality of Satan as the antagonist of the Holy Ghost. His work is immediately what reproduces itself through the human heart, as not merely "a lie," but a "lie to the Holy Ghost." So much for the intrinsic work and the presumably most prized object of Satan. But, again, it is not now Satan, but Ananias, who is standing at the bar of Peter - Peter, an inspired apostle, and laden with the significant attestation of miracle. And the crucial question upon which Peter arraigns Ananias, and is going to found very shortly his stern condemnation of him, is this (though somewhat obscured in Authorized Version): "How is it that Satan has won what ought to be the stronghold of your heart, so that you have 'lied to the Holy Ghost'? No physical necessity, no moral necessity, no necessity whatever, was laid on you to sell your possession at all. And yet you have taken in hand to do this, and 'taken into your heart' to do it, with such superadded suggestion of Satan, that you have made your deed the vehicle of a 'lie to the Holy Ghost,' and of sharp death to yourself." The supreme event follows for Ananias close upon the word of Peter. And a certain irresistible conclusion also for us follows close upon the word of Peter - that either we are reading a fable and a lie, or that Ananias was the tool of Satan, and was held responsible for becoming so! This is among the very first lessons, in the matter of the spiritual relationships and facts of human hearts, taught under the emphatic "dispensation of the Spirit." And he can scarcely be envied who risks his own opinion against such a lesson. We cannot consent to suppose (though some have supposed, it) that Peter's meaning simply amounted to this, that Ananias lied to the Holy Ghost because he lied to him, who was inspired of the Holy Ghost. No; Ananias lied to the Holy Ghost in three degrees. He lied to him in being false to any genuine impulse that he had at first experienced from him; in being false still when he knew that he had forsaken his guidance and yet pretended to be moved practically to join the new society by selling and giving; and, lastly - and this consummates and sufficiently expresses all - in electing to cast in his lot with Satan, in his capacity of arch-antagonist of the Holy Ghost. Upon the whole consideration of the sin of Ananias, it must be concluded that, by human analysis of it, they must indeed be "fools" who "make a mock of sin." Yet, under the searching and deep cutting of Divine analysis as expressed in Scripture, is not the same conclusion reached with tenfold impressiveness?


1. It was "a swift witness." The tares are emphatically not allowed to grow with the wheat and abide a later judgment. The reason for delay (Matthew 13:29) did not exist here.

(1) An unerring eye detects the bad seed.

(2) A steady, unerring hand can uproot the ill growth without uprooting also the good growth.

2. It was a witness so swift that no time "for repentance," no interval of grace, is granted - possibly because there was literally no place of repentance (Hebrews 12:17). Was it now that a real instance was found of the "sin against the Holy Ghost," to be "forgiven, neither in this world, neither in the world to come '(Matthew 12:32)?

3. It was a redoubled witness. The second instance following so close on the first and in its exact track made impressiveness itself yet more impressive, as the rapid redoubled peal of thunder strikes a tenfold terror into the heart.

4. The witness was timed with a precision that examples how closely the eye, the ear, the hand itself of the supreme Ruler of mankind may be always upon the track of human individual life. That eye sees all and to the time. That ear hears all and to the time. That hand is close upon all and to the moment of perpetration, and might stay the deed, or at once reward it or visit it with swift retribution. This is not what is generally and to practical purpose believed. The absolute, physical proof of it would manifestly take off all its strain from faith, and reduce to nothing the moral government of the world. It is enough if example be given, and if the veil now and then be drawn aside, or, as in this instance, suddenly rent to the revealing of that which is behind.

IV. THE SPECIALTY OBSERVABLE IN THE TREATMENT OF THIS SERF. The swift and conclusive visitation of this sin, with arraignment, punishment, and judgment all in one, was a method new for anything done as under the Spirit of Christ. During the personal ministry of Christ on earth nothing can be instanced to resemble it, except the withering of the fig tree, and that does not resemble it. Christ refused to call fire from heaven or to permit a sword in the hand of a disciple. And when the unregenerate impetuosity of Peter did use the sword, Christ went so far as to undo what it had done. Forbearance and long-suffering were unfailing watchwords with Jesus. Let us observe that:

1. One thing justifies this summary treatment, namely, that the agent in it is without doubt none other than the Spirit of detection, of conviction, of unerring discernment, of perfect knowledge. Whether this sovereign Spirit, the Holy Spirit, led the way rapidly through the instrumentality of Peter, or finally, without any use of even the lip of Peter himself, executed swift sentence, the entire responsibility rested with that same eternal Spirit.

2. One thing may with but little less hesitation be counted to explain the reason of this unusual "course of the Spirit," namely, the exact crisis at which the tender young society had arrived in certain moral aspects. The prompt and peremptory "course of the Spirit" on this occasion was not for any external defense of the body of the infant Church, but for the inner defense of it, of its very heart, of its self. In this swift visitation, whatever of kindness there was, that the communion of the true should not be poisoned by the presence of the false, and whatever of stern example there was to operate as an immediate counteractive and deterrent, alike the one and the other meant mercy and consideration toward an infant heart. The elements which went to make that heart just what it now was have already been passed under review. We know full well that the Church was not permitted to depend long for its purity upon such witness as this. Nevertheless, the memory of it and of the principle contained in it has ever lived, lives still a powerful witness in itself, both for the Church and for the world.

V. LASTLY, THE IMPRESSION PRODUCED BY THE JUDGMENT OF THIS SIN. "Great fear came on all them that heard these things" (ver. 5); "Great fear came upon all the Church, and upon as many as heard these things" (ver. 11).

1. The impression that was produced was one of a healthful sort. Many times as fear finds false occasion, this was an occasion most just. Human hearts need betimes such rousing. "Since the fathers fell asleep all things continue as they were from the beginning of the creation of the world" (2 Peter 3:4), is the languid complaint of the life of far more than those from whose lip it is heard. When God is "strict to mark iniquity" now, men begin to fear, and they think, and they believe, for an hour at least, in the reality of moral distinctions. Pity anal shame it is that men do not understand and believe that there is a sense in which God assuredly is and will ever be "strict to mark iniquity," so that they should "fear before him all the day." It is God's mercy which wakes fear betimes by methods such as that under consideration; for that fear is helpful to remind, and to arrest attention, and to suggest onward thinking. And it is not less God's mercy that he does not use such method very often. For it would make harder those who will be hard. And it would deprive the willing and obedient of the opportunity

(1) of testifying what faith they have, and

(2) of testing that faith, and

(3) of getting greater strength to it.

2. The impression was one that wrought on saint and sinner, on the Church and on "all that heard" of what had transpired. The Divine judgment no doubt aimed at this twofold ministry, in one and the same providence.

(1) Though the "fear were of the nature of a shock to the disciples that formed that cheerful and holy society, yet it tended in the directest manner possible to recover them from the greater shock of such a sight as this, falsehood and hypocrisy and unreality triumphing, or even permitted to breathe amongst them. And

(2) because the fear" was of the nature of a shock, it worked caution and the awe of reverence on the part of those who were outside the Church. These were very forcibly reminded that to be true disciples meant something more and deeper than in an hour's enthusiasm joining themselves to a happy company, whose very earnestness had it in it to enlist a natural sympathy. The sympathy that joins any man to the Church of Jesus Christ must be something different from a natural sympathy. It must be an inward, deepest sympathy wrought by the Spirit. - B.

Parallel Verses
KJV: And Joses, who by the apostles was surnamed Barnabas, (which is, being interpreted, The son of consolation,) a Levite, and of the country of Cyprus,

WEB: Joses, who by the apostles was surnamed Barnabas (which is, being interpreted, Son of Encouragement), a Levite, a man of Cyprus by race,

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