Sometimes, the stories from the Bible that we most need to hear aren’t the pleasant, uplifting ones about the righteous who overcame through God. Instead, they’re the sobering ones about when God’s people chose to forsake Him and paid the penalty. As Paul points out in 1 Corinthians 10, we are sure to face the same temptations that those people did. If we come to those temptations unprepared, that makes it all the more likely that the devil will overcome us and destroy us as he did those unfortunates so long ago.
As a result, it’s important for us to spend some time considering those stories, but it’s even more important for us to consider our own lives in their light. Could it be that our souls today are imperiled as the souls of the ancient Israelites were, or the souls of the church in Ephesus were? This kind of introspection is the only cure for the disease of self-deception. With this in mind, then, let’s spend this evening considering the first Christians in the entire Bible whom we know for sure were lost. Let’s consider Ananias and Sapphira.
This downbeat story, though, begins with an upbeat narrative about how our first-century brethren were of ONE HEART AND SOUL. Let’s read about them in Acts 4:32-37. Because many of the brethren in the Jerusalem church were only in town for the Passover when they obeyed the gospel on Pentecost, the local Christians had to step up and provide for them. This they did joyfully, even selling their houses and lands when that became necessary to support their brethren.
In this section of the story, I see two main lessons. The first is that good hearts bear good fruit. Luke begins by observing that the Jerusalem church is of one heart and soul, and he is able to point to particular actions taken by brethren, sometimes even particular brethren, to back up his claim. So too for us. We know that this congregation, like every congregation, is supposed to be of one heart and soul too. If we are, that’s going to show up in the way we lavish money, time, and energy on one another.
Second, this is one of several places in Scripture where we see evidence of a church treasury. Sometimes you’ll hear folks arguing that there’s no Scriptural authority for a church to have a treasury. However, in this text, it’s clear that money was being laid at the apostles’ feet for them to distribute in a time and manner that seemed best to them. If an accumulation of money to be spent over time isn’t a church treasury, I don’t know what is!
This takes us, though, to THE SIN OF ANANIAS. Look at Acts 5:1-2. I’ve heard it said that hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue, and so it is here. Ananias and Sapphira see all the acclaim that people like Barnabas are getting for their generosity, and they want that praise too. However, they don’t want to give everything to the Lord, so they keep part of the proceeds back for themselves while claiming they’ve given all.
On one level, this seems like a victimless crime, doesn’t it? We don’t have to imagine too hard to see Ananias and Sapphira convincing themselves that their little white lie wouldn’t hurt anybody.
Indeed, we have to watch out for this trap in our own lives. We must beware of the temptation to give part while acting like we’re giving all. We want people to think of us as super-Christians, as pillars of the church, so we talk a good game around brethren, but we don’t live the way we talk. We wring our hands about how filthy our society is, then we go home and watch the latest pornfest on HBO. We exalt selfless love in marriage, but behind closed doors, we treat our spouses like dirt. This too seems like a harmless pastime, a victimless crime, but we must be aware that God sees things differently.
We see just how much differently in PETER’S INDICTMENT of Ananias’s sin. Let’s continue with Acts 5:3-4. As Peter points out, there was no good reason for Ananias’ hypocrisy. The property belonged to him; nobody made him sell any of it. Likewise, nobody required him to give every penny from the sale. When it would have been easy for him to tell the truth, he chose to lie instead.
In this, I think there are two lessons for us. The first is that when we lie, we must remember whom we’re trying to lie to. I suspect that Ananias didn’t have the slightest thought that his “little white lie” was directed at God. He figured that he was going to fool his brethren and go his way. However, the spiritual consequences of his sin—and our sin too—were much wider than he thought.
Second, we must remember that hypocrisy never fools God. Sure, we might well deceive everybody at church. We might go on fooling them for decades. However, we never should think that we are deceiving the Lord, not for an instant. He knows what we’re up to, and He is not pleased.
The story of Ananias and Sapphira ends with GOD’S JUDGMENT. Consider Acts 5:5-11. The husband-and-wife team tells the same lie, and both of them meet the same fate. God strikes Ananias down, and a few hours later, He strikes Sapphira down too.
Once again, I think there are two applications here for us. The first is that God hasn’t changed since the Old Testament. Of all the myths of pop religion, this is one of the most persistent and dangerous. People say all the time that God in the Old Testament was wrathful and harsh, but in the New Testament, He is merciful and forgiving.
The problem with this theory is that it simply doesn’t match up with the evidence. By the end of this story, Ananias and Sapphira are no less dead than Nadab and Abihu, or Uzza, or any of the other poor fools who put God to the test in the Old Testament. God’s conduct does not change because God does not change, nor will He ever do so.
From this, we can conclude that God will judge iniquity. In fact, I think this is the reason why God did what He did. He destroyed Ananias and Sapphira to leave us with no doubt about what the fate of hypocrites always will be. If we practice hypocrisy, God may not blast us on the spot (although He might!). However, when we choose to continue in sin, secure in the delusion that we will not suffer for the wrong we have done, we do nothing less than make our punishment certain.
As you know, one of my favorite things to do in the pulpit is to preach sermons based on the requests made by members here. After all, the whole point of me being up here is to help y’all on to heaven, and the more you tell me what you need, the better able I am to do that!
This morning’s topic came to me from Billy Tanner, who suggested that I ought to preach on laying up treasure in heaven. This is a familiar topic. I can remember studying Jesus’ teaching on this in children’s Bible classes when I still lived in New Jersey. However, even if we know the words to Matthew 6:19-21 by heart, I think there is still more for all of us to understand about them. Without further ado, then, let’s consider the subject of treasure in heaven.
The Lord opens His discourse on this subject by observing that there are TWO OPTIONS FOR TREASURE. Look at Matthew 6:19-20. As I’ve said, this is a passage that many of us have known all our lives, but because it’s so familiar, I think it’s hard for us to appreciate how amazing the Lord’s teaching here is. We have a mental category for “treasure in heaven”, but that category did not exist until Jesus invented it.
He did so to address the struggle that all of us face when we are presented with an opportunity to be generous. I know that when I put my check in the collection plate, or when I give money to a poor person, that money’s gone. However, if I don’t open my wallet, the money stays with me, and I can use it for whatever I want.
When we think that way, Jesus wants us to understand that we’re looking at things exactly wrong. When we refuse to be generous with our money, all we are doing is ensuring that one day we’re going to lose it. Moth and rust can eat it up, and even if they don’t, one day we’re going to die and leave it all behind. As the saying goes, you never see a hearse pulling a U-Haul!
On the other hand, though, He wants us to see that the money that we apparently give away is the only money we keep. When we are generous, we are actually saving up that money in the only place it will be safe—in heaven. Of course, this is not literally true. There is no First National Bank of Heaven. However, it is true that God will see our good works, remember them, and reward them.
Next, Jesus wants us to consider the connection between TREASURE AND THE HEART. Let’s read Matthew 6:21-24. Before I go on, it’s worth noting that for some reason we want to cut the context off at v. 21. That’s actually not correct. Jesus’ discussion of treasure in heaven continues to the end of the chapter.
In this section he observes that in addition to not being effective, storing up treasure on earth has another problem. Wherever we put our wealth, that’s where our hearts are going to be too. If we store up treasure in heaven, our hearts will be set on heavenly things, but if we store up treasure on earth, our hearts will be set on earthly things.
The next two verses illustrate the problem with this. When Jesus is talking about the eye here, He’s actually talking about our desires, the things we want. Contextually, He’s talking about whether we desire the things of heaven because we have stored up treasure there, or whether we desire the things of earth because we’ve stored up treasure there. If our hearts are set on heavenly things, our whole lives will be filled with goodness, but if they are set on earthly things, those lives will be filled with darkness and corruption.
At this point, we might find ourselves wondering if we can split the difference, if we can make part of our lives about storing up earthly treasure and part of them about storing up heavenly treasure. No dice, says Jesus. He points out that trying to love both God and money is like trying to be a slave with two masters. In the final analysis, we are always going to belong to one of those masters, and if we think that somehow we have managed to set up a time-share arrangement, Jesus wants us to see that we’re wrong. If we think we’re serving both God and wealth, it’s really Mammon who owns our hearts.
After this, Jesus presents us with OUR APPLICATION. Let’s conclude our reading for the morning by considering Matthew 6:25-34. Once again, allow me to observe that a passage we commonly treat as a separate context actually isn’t separate at all. Notice that v. 25 begins with the words “For this reason”.
For what reason? Well, it’s everything we’ve already studied in the previous six verses. It’s because laying up treasure on earth isn’t effective and laying up treasure in heaven is. It’s because our hearts follow our treasure. It’s because if we think that both earth and heaven can be our goal, we’re fooling ourselves.
So if that’s the logic, what’s the conclusion? Jesus says it’s that we shouldn’t be anxious about even the necessities of life. To us, this may seem like a leap, but it really isn’t. Think about it. When we store up money primarily on earth, isn’t that because we trust in money to be powerful? This money will take care of me. It will keep me safe from harm. On the other hand, when we store up money in heaven, that’s because we trust in God to be powerful. God will take care of me. God will keep me safe from harm, and I’m so sure that He will that I’m even willing to give away the money that would otherwise protect me.
If we choose the first path, we’re going to be anxious. You know why? Because no matter how much money we have, it never will be enough to guarantee our safety. The right job loss, the right stock-market crash, the right illness—all those things still can wipe us out. And so we fret and worry and are miserable.
On the other hand, if we are truly putting our trust in God, we won’t feel anxious. We’ll feel safe. Unlike money, God is great enough to fully protect us. He won’t make us rich, necessarily. He won’t protect us from hard times, even. However, He never will abandon us, and He will make sure that we always have enough.
When we seek His kingdom first, we are putting our trust in His promise, and that’s a good place to put it. There’s not one story in the Bible about God abandoning His faithful children, and I’ve never seen it happen to a faithful Christian in real life either. Only God can keep us safe, and He will always do it.
The world is full of teaching strategies and teaching experts, but as Christians, we should be taking our example from the One who is supposed to be our example in everything. Being a disciple of Jesus means believing that imitating Jesus is enough. That’s true in faith, it’s true in morality, and it’s true in teaching. Ph.D.’s in education are all well and good, but no man ever spoke like that Man!
Indeed, as we seek to reach the lost, Jesus must be our guiding light. It is not easy to imitate the Lord. In fact, I think that’s why there have been fad evangelism programs sweeping the brotherhood ever since I was a kid. We want the lost to be saved, but we don’t want to be personally involved.
However, personal involvement is the essence of discipleship. What was the Word becoming flesh and dwelling among us, if not Jesus personally involving Himself with mankind? As His example shows, this kind of personal connection is the only way to be truly effective in personal work. Let’s see what we can learn, then, as we consider the way that He instructs the woman at the well.
The first thing that we should take from Him in this story is the importance of CONNECTION. Look at how He connects with the woman in John 4:1-9. Jesus’ initial interaction with her reminds me of His initial interaction with Zacchaeus in Luke 19. In both cases, what you see on the surface is Jesus asking somebody to do Him a favor.
However, in neither case is that really what is going on. Instead, in both cases, Jesus is using His request to treat somebody better than they were expecting. Zacchaeus is a tax collector, the woman at the well is a Samaritan, and both expect Jews to treat them like dirt. When Jesus asks them for help, He shows them that He believes that they have dignity and value as human beings. That opens the door for everything else He says.
Today, whenever we want to teach somebody, we must begin by showing them that we respect and value them. This can be as simple as getting a child to pass out color sheets in a classroom. It can be as complicated as spending months nurturing a relationship with an outsider. Regardless, people who know that we value them are far more likely to value what we say. When we treat them better than they expect, we stand out to them.
Second, let’s notice how RELEVANCE is central to the initial part of Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman. The story continues in John 4:10-14. Of course, Jesus knew hearts and knew everything about the woman before she opened her mouth, but everything He says here could have been based on keen observation and quick wits.
Apparently, this well is some distance from the village of Sychar, where the woman lived. We know from later in the account that people coming from the village were clearly visible to those at the well. As He was resting by the well, Jesus doubtless watched this woman lugging her heavy jar toward Him, and He knew that she would have to make the return trip with an even heavier jar. She does this not because she’s in desperate need of exercise, but because she’s in desperate need of water. So what does Jesus talk about with her? Water—the one thing it is clear she cares about and needs.
So too, if we want people to listen to us, we need to present the gospel in a way that is meaningful to them. Because it is universally relevant, there’s always going to be a way to do this. However, as Jesus observed the woman with her water jar, we have to observe those we teach. The more we learn about them, the better able we will be to present God’s word in a way that resonates with them.
Third, if we want to be effective teachers, we must have CREDIBILITY with our students. Look at how Jesus establishes His credibility with the woman at the well in John 4:15-19. Through the conversation to this point, Jesus and the woman really have been talking about two different things. She thinks Jesus is discussing literal water, whereas in reality, He’s been talking about the water of life. When she asks Him for water, then, He uses the opportunity to establish His spiritual bona fides by revealing His knowledge of her complicated marital history. She concludes, and rightly so, that He is a prophet.
Today, obviously, none of us are prophets. However, we can establish our credibility by referring to God’s prophetic word. If we want to accomplish this, though, we can’t rely on a series of half a dozen proof texts. Instead, like Jesus adapted His words to the life of the woman, we have to adapt our use of the Scriptures to those we are teaching. As we answer their questions and meet their needs with book, chapter, and verse, we show them that they can trust us as a source of spiritual information.
The final thing that we see in Jesus’ teaching style is CHRIST-CENTEREDNESS. Let’s see how this unfolds in John 4:20-26. Now that the woman has decided He is a prophet, she asks Him to settle the centuries-old religious controversy between Jews and Samaritans. Where should they worship, in Jerusalem or on the mountain? Jesus responds by telling her that the time is coming when the worship of Jews and Samaritans alike will be transformed, so that rather than worshiping in a place, they will worship in spirit and truth. She hears that and correctly concludes that the bringer of truth will be the Messiah, the prophet like Moses predicted in Deuteronomy 18. This allows Jesus to reveal Himself to her.
From the beginning, Jesus’ goal was to get her to accept Him as the Christ. This must be the goal of all of our teaching too. Brethren, if the time we spend teaching in Bible classes and kitchen-table studies doesn’t bring our students closer to Jesus, we have wasted our time. We’re supposed to be engaged in soul-winning, not academics, and if soul-winning is our aim, the more we talk about the Lord, the more we lift up the Lord, the more successful we will be.
Last Sunday night, Clay led the young families’ devotion, and he focused our study on 1 Thessalonians 5:18, which tells us that we are to give thanks in all circumstances. Clay observed, and rightly so, that “all” means “all”. Even in times of sorrow, Christians are supposed to be thankful people.
That raised the question, though, of how we do that. How can I be thankful when I’m in the middle of some horrible trial, when everything in my life is going wrong, and the last thing I want to do is to thank God for anything?
We batted around some answers to that question, but as I was meditating on it over the next few days, it struck me that a different answer appears in the Psalms. As hopefully our Bible reading plan this year has shown us, many psalms are written from dark places. They reveal God’s people grappling with the same kinds of trials we face. And yet, with only one exception that I can think of, even the most downcast psalms are psalms of thanksgiving too. With that in mind, let’s turn to Psalm 77 this evening to learn how we can offer thanksgiving in sorrow.
The first thing that we see in Psalm 77 is THE PSALMIST’S UNHAPPINESS. Look at Psalm 77:1-4. The thing that jumps out from this text is that the psalmist is doing what he ought to be doing, but it’s not working. He’s praying, he’s expressing his confidence that God will hear him, but God is not giving him the peace that he wants.
In particular, the psalm paints a vivid picture of his misery at night. He can’t sleep, he’s praying all night long, but despite this constant prayer, he can’t find any peace. His misery continues, and it so oppresses his thoughts that he can’t string a coherent sentence together.
I don’t know about you brethren, but I identify with this. There have been many times in my life when I felt exactly this way, right down to the insomnia and misery all night long. I think this is a perfectly legitimate place for a Christian to be. We can be righteous and miserable at the same time. Jesus himself was called a man of sorrows, despite being perfectly righteous. When we demand constant happiness from ourselves and our brethren, we are holding up a standard that goes beyond anything that God asks. No matter how faithful we are, all of us will encounter suffering. It’s the nature of life in this fallen world.
Indeed, his predicament leads the psalmist to QUESTIONING GOD’S GOODNESS. Let’s read from Psalm 77:5-9. You know, this is one of the places in the Bible when I have to stop and appreciate God’s compassion for us as shown by His revelation. It’s so important that the Psalms aren’t happy-happy joy-joy all the time. They show that even the most faithful of God’s people go through times of questioning and doubt.
I think there are two lessons for us here. First, for those of us who aren’t going through those hard times right now, but are around those who are, we need to learn to accept faith questions as a natural response to suffering. It is not ungodly for Christians to wonder aloud if God ever will allow them to be happy again!
Second, though, if we are the ones going through the valley, we have to make sure that our questions are genuine. Are we asking these things because we want reassurance, or are we asking them because we are looking for an excuse to leave the Lord?
The first, as I’ve said, is completely legitimate. The second isn’t. There’s nothing wrong with engaging God in our doubt. There is something wrong with refusing to engage Him because we doubt.
What keeps the psalmist from going down that dark road is his RESOLVE TO REMEMBER. Consider Psalm 77:10-12. This is the key turning point in the psalm. Even when he’s in the middle of this terrible suffering, the psalmist says, “I’m not going to think about my horrible present and judge God on that basis. I’m going to remember everything that I have learned about God from the past.”
This is important because it highlights one of Satan’s great deceptions. Remember how last week I said every temptation has a lie in it? Here, we see the lie in the temptation of suffering. When we are experiencing suffering, Satan wants us to get tunnel vision about that suffering. He wants us to make our judgments about God solely on the basis of our current horrible experience. He wants us to conclude that because we are unhappy right now, God is not a good God, and there is no purpose in serving Him.
When we remember the past, we defeat this lie. If we’re going to put God on trial, we’d better make sure we’re bringing in all the evidence, and our current suffering does not provide all the evidence there is. When God’s people have suffered in the past, how has He dealt with them? For that matter, when we’ve gone through hard times before in our lives, how has God dealt with us? If we’re going to be fair, those are the questions we must ask.
This takes us, then, to THE IMPORTANCE OF THANKSGIVING. Let’s conclude the psalm by reading Psalm 77:13-20. Notice that the psalmist isn’t thanking and praising God for what he is going through right now. Instead, he is looking to the past. In particular, he is looking to the time when God delivered the Israelites by parting the Red Sea so they could escape from the Egyptians.
That wasn’t a happy time either. Before God acted, the Israelites were convinced that He had led them out into the wilderness only to die under the Egyptian chariots. However, God confirmed His faithfulness by delivering them with a display of power so great that none of them could have imagined beforehand what He would do.
Even though the psalmist doesn’t spell this out, his conclusion is plainly implied. He is comforted because God’s past deliverance of his people shows that God will deliver him personally. Even though the present is awful, the past reveals what the future will be like.
This is why thanksgiving in sorrow is so vital for us too. When we pause, even in the middle of suffering, to glorify God for His past goodness, it reminds us that He is faithful and will surely bless us once again. Has God ever abandoned us before? For that matter, do we see Him ever abandoning any of His faithful people? If the answer is “No,” we can be sure that He won’t abandon us this time either.
After my sermon last week on the work of the devil today, I figured I was done with the series. However, then I got to talking after services with Wayne and Carolyn, and they mentioned that they were curious about what angels might be doing today.
I think I might have to stretch to get to 25 minutes about the things I was sure angels were doing today, but angels are far from alone in the spiritual realm. We often think of the great spiritual struggle as being between God and the devil, but in reality, things are considerably more complex than that.
There are all sorts of beings about whom we know little, and probably others about whom we know nothing. However, many of these beings either have exerted or still are exerting influence in the lives of God’s people. Let’s spend some time this evening, then, considering the work of other spiritual beings today.
The first class of such beings that I want to consider is the ANGELS. We see the classic statement of the work of angels in Hebrews 1:13-14. Contextually, the Hebrews writer is drawing a contrast between Jesus and the angels. In v. 13, he quotes from Psalm 110 to show that Jesus currently is reigning at the right hand of the throne of God in heaven. On the other hand, the angels are ministering spirits who render service to Christians. Jesus as King is thus superior to angels as servants.
Even though it’s incidental to his argument, the writer in passing also reveals a great deal about what angels are up to today. There’s no time limit on Hebrews 1:14. We’re just as much Christians as our brethren in the first century, so it follows that God sends out His angels to aid us too.
It may be, in fact, that many of the answers to prayer that we attribute to God are really the work of angels. After all, even if they aren’t the Almighty, the angels still are very powerful entities. The same heavenly messengers who slaughtered 185,000 Assyrians in the days of Hezekiah are perfectly capable of keeping us safe on our car trip!
More provocatively, there’s reason to believe that angels continue to work through dreams. I admit to being a little suspicious when people say that they are guided directly by the Holy Spirit because everybody in the New Testament who experienced similar guidance was a gifted prophet. I think promptings from the Spirit are probably associated with miraculous gifts.
However, the same thing isn’t true with respect to angelic visions. For instance, Joseph the husband of Mary had an angel speak to him in a dream, and though a righteous man, he was not a gifted one. There are many others in Scripture, some of whom weren’t even part of God’s people, who were sent true dreams. The wife of Pilate is a prominent example here. Additionally, there is no 1 Corinthians 13-like expiration date for angelic visitations.
However, before we put too much emphasis on dreams, we need to pay attention to Paul’s warning in Colossians 2:18-19. He wants us to understand that focusing on visions can lead Christians away from Christ. However else God may be working in our lives, we know for certain that He works through the gospel of Jesus, and we always must remain faithful to that!
Next, let’s consider UNCLEAN SPIRITS. Interestingly, the most revealing passage about their work today appears in the Old Testament. Turn with me to Zechariah 13:1-3. The first verse of this reading sets the stage. It tells us that everything else in the reading will happen when a fountain is opened in Jerusalem to cleanse God’s people from sin. In context with the last part of Zechariah 12, which is clearly Messianic, it’s easy for us to conclude that this is about things that will happen after Jesus completed His saving work.
In the time when the fountain will be opened, Zechariah predicts that two things will happen. First, people won’t worship idols any more in the land of Canaan. That certainly happened. To this day, all the people who live in Palestine, Jew and Muslim alike, are monotheists.
Second, God promises that He will remove both the prophet and the unclean spirit. This is a truly fascinating prediction for a number of reasons. First, the only way for God to remove prophets is to stop bestowing the gift of prophecy. Thus, along with 1 Corinthians 13, this is a text that foresees the end of miraculous spiritual gifts, and it says that their end will come close to the time of Jesus.
Also, this passage tells us why we don’t have to deal with demons and demonic possession anymore. God removed the unclean spirits at the same time as He removed the prophets. Sure, the devil still can tempt us today, but he can’t send one of his servants to take over our bodies and make us do things against our will. The unclean spirits are not working today. I, at least, find that extremely reassuring!
Finally, this passage implies an equivalency between the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the one hand and possession by unclean spirits on the other. The more of the one you have, the more of the other you have too.
Indeed, this tracks the pattern of demonic possession recorded in Scripture. During the ministry of Jesus, demons were everywhere, legions of them, because Jesus had the Holy Spirit more abundantly than anyone else ever. By contrast, even in the book of Acts, demons aren’t as prominent. This text implies that they aren’t so significant because the apostles didn’t have the Holy Spirit to the same measure that Jesus did. In short, it seems like one of the rules of the contest between God and the devil is that neither side gets to have more of a supernatural presence on earth than the other.
Finally, let’s turn our attention to THE SPIRITUAL FORCES OF EVIL. They make their appearance in Ephesians 6:11-12. Sometimes, I think we’re inclined to read this verse as being about powerful, evil people, but that doesn’t fit the text. Notice that these are cosmic powers. They are spiritual forces. They abide in the heavenly places, which is Ephesians-ese for the spiritual realm. Nonetheless, despite not being unclean spirits, apparently, these spiritual forces of wickedness cooperate with Satan in trying to overwhelm Christians. The devil has his servants too.
Note, by the way, that I think that the spiritual realm is far more complicated than any of us have any idea. In addition to the angels, the cherubim, and the seraphim, when Paul talks about Jesus creating thrones, dominions, rulers, and authorities, I think those are spiritual rather than earthly beings too. They’re part of some heavenly hierarchy that we don’t know anything about because their business does not concern us.
However, we are the business of the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. The bad news is that the devil has helpers, but the good news is that we fight those helpers in the same way that we fight the devil. In fact, the whole armor of God, which we’re so familiar with from countless sermons, is effective in defeating these bad guys too.