Acts 5:1-16: Fear and Grace
January 8, 2019
TODAY'S BIBLE READING:
The last of Luke’s three pericopes of the ideal New Testament church comes in the second part of this section we are looking at today (5:12-16). We sometimes think that the flourishing and healthy church can only exist in the midst of easy circumstances, or at least is always the produce of the spiritual filling. Certainly the first pericope of the ideal church (Acts 2:42-47) comes after the spiritual blessing of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. But the second description of the ideal church (Acts 4:32-37) comes after a spate of significant persecution. This last description of the ideal New Testament church comes after a serious piece of church discipline. What is Luke saying by arranging his material in this way as he tells the story? It seems likely that he is saying the power of the Spirit is essential to church health, but so is a prayerful response to persecution, as well as leaders being willing to do the hard task of church discipline.
The discipline in this case involves the famous case of Ananias and Sapphira. Having just learned again of the extraordinary generosity of the early church, we find how that generosity movement was twisted by the devil. He prompted this couple to pretend to be generous, when they were not, and to lie about that to the church and ultimately to God too. Their sin was not greed; their sin was lying. They were lying to God’s Spirit and presenting themselves as more holy and righteous than they really were. We do well to take seriously this example of how God will not put up with sin in his house. Yes, the church is a hospital for the sick. But we sick people are not to deliberately infect ourselves and others with spiritual viruses. That kind of behavior cannot be tolerated in any hospital, let alone in a church.
The description of the ideal New Testament church that follows is remarkable for its juxtaposition of two apparently contrary emotions. First, we are told that “no one else dared join them” (5:13). Having heard what happened to Ananias and Sapphira (5:11), there is now a “great fear” about God and about his people. But while we are told that “no one else dared join them,” we are also told that “nevertheless more and more people believed in the Lord and were added to their number” (5:14). How to put those two things together? How is it possible that no one dared to join them and yet at the same time that more and more believed in Jesus and did indeed join them?
Luke is a careful author and for him to put these two things next to each other is surely deliberate. What he is saying is that while on the one hand no one dared to pretend to be a Christian, warned now by the deleterious example of Ananias and Sapphira, on the other hand, the new seriousness about God and his people caused more and more people to actually be converted and therefore truly join the church. This is the biblical order: first we are joined to Christ, and then we are joined to the church. There is no biblical mandate for the practice of “belonging to the church before you believe in Jesus.” Certainly, all are welcome to attend church; indeed, more than welcome. Invited and urged to come that they might hear the gospel and be saved. But only those who are saved may join the church as members. Here is another example in the New Testament that gives support to the judicious practice of responsible church membership in the contemporary church today.
What can we learn from this part of Luke’s story of the progress of the kingdom from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth? 1) Don’t play with God. Take him seriously. Take sin seriously. Repent of any known sin. 2) Pray for a biblical balance in our churches: the fear of God and the invitation of the gospel to be saved by the grace of Christ go hand in hand and are not to be opposed to each other.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Josh Moody (Ph.D., University of Cambridge) is the senior pastor of College Church in Wheaton, IL., president and founder of God Centered Life Ministries, and author of several books including How the Bible Can Change Your Life and John 1-12 For You.
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