Teaching series from Acts

Obstacles to Spiritual Renewal

Acts 4:32-5:14

Teaching t20619


We are spending this fall in the book of Acts, reflecting on what it teaches us about corporate spiritual renewal (DEFINE).  The early church was the epitome of a spiritually renewed church, and Luke is not just recording historical events—he is revealing key elements of CSR for our benefit.

We also learn that Satan will not let CSR go unopposed—he will throw up obstacles.  Acts 4-6 records three common obstacles, and how the Jerusalem church overcame each of them.  Last week, we saw how he will attack from without through persecution (4:1-31).  This week and next week, we’ll see how he will attack from within.  Let’s look the first obstacle-from-within strategy...

Read 4:32-37.  Here is a key element of CSR that we’ll look at more closely in two weeks—radical generosity.  Luke introduces Barnabas as a positive example.  He will play a greater role in Acts, and he serves as a contrast to two other people whom Luke introduces nextas negative examples...

Read 5:1-11.  OK—the obstacle is members not giving all of their money to the church, and God overcomes this by killing them!  No wonder 5:11 says “great fear came over all the church!”  Actually, it’s not that simple.  There is a deeper lesson for us to learn from this passage—but it offends our 21st century Western sensibilities so badly that we can’t learn this lesson until we first deal with these objections...


“Why does Christianity require compulsory communism!?”  Didn’t Ananias and Sapphira get whacked because they refused to give all their assets to the church?  No, this liquidation of assets was entirely voluntary (5:4).  Radical generosity like Barnabas’ cannot be compulsory—it must be motivated by freely chosen love.

“How can God damn Christians for not giving enough money!?”  The issue is not how much money they gave (above), and there is no evidence that God sent them to hell.  They are described as true believers in Jesus—and true believers in Jesus go to heaven when they die because eternal life is a gift based on Jesus’ death, not a wage based on our good works (Jn. 3:16).  Ananias and Sapphira were sent home early!

“What right does God have to take Christians’ lives!?”  As God, he has every right to do this!  And as the leader of his church, he has the right and responsibility to discipline his church in whatever ways are needed to protect its spiritual health and maintain the integrity of his reputation.  Normally, God does this in less dramatic ways—but he reserves the right to intervene more dramatically because of what is at stake.

“Why did this sin warrant such severe discipline?”  After all, they gave lots of money to the church!  This is the right question to ask.  To answer it, we have to look past the outward action to the inward attitude that motivated the action...

The root sin: hypocrisy

Ananias and Sapphira may have given a lot of money—but they were lying (5:3).  Lying about what?  They were claiming that the money they were giving was the whole amount of the property liquidation rather than part of it.  But why did they lie?  Evidently, because they saw the praise and honor Barnabas got for giving the full proceeds of his property liquidation—and they wanted that praise and honor for themselves.  Maybe the part they gave was even greater than the amount Barnabas gave, so they thought they’d get even more praise than he did (even though it would be a lesser sacrifice).  Whatever the details, they were posturing themselves as more generous than they actually were, and they were doing this to get people’s praise.

What does the Bible call this kind of lying?  It calls it hypocrisy.  “Hypocrisy” is a word transliterated from the Greek (hypokrites).  It was used by the Greeks to describe an actor who had not fully identified himself with his role and thus gave an unconvincing performance.  Thus it came to refer to anyone who put on a false front in order to get acceptance or praise from people.  Religious hypocrisy fakes “good” things and hides bad things in order to get people’s acceptance and/or praise. 

Jesus hated religious hypocrisy—he exposed and condemned it wherever he saw it (Matt.23), and he warned his followers to avoid it like the plague (Matt.6:1-18).  Why did Jesus condemn hypocrisy so strongly? 

Because it is an insidious counterfeit of authentic Christian spirituality.  Christian spirituality is not (like other religions) primarily about ritual or even ethics.  It is about the heart (1Tim.1:5; 1Cor.10:31-11:1)—loving other people freely and sacrificially (not using them), and doing this so people will be attracted to Jesus (not so they’ll be impressed with me).  Religious hypocrisy appears spiritual—but it is actually counterfeit love for others/God in order to get praise for yourself.

It is insidious because it is in the heart of every Christian.  I know it is in my heart!  I am regularly grossed out by how easily this motivation creeps into my spiritual life.  I find myself wanting praise for my teachings, and even deceptively asking for “feedback” so I can hear praise.  As I interact with people who don’t know Christ, I find myself thinking how impressed my Christian friends would be with me if this person becomes a follower of Christ.  When I pray with other Christians, I find myself tempted to pray about things that make me look more spiritual.  It’s so bad that when I tell other Christian friends about my hypocritical attitudes, I’m tempted to tell them in a way that highlights how spiritual I am for realizing this!  The fallen human heart has an endless capacity for hypocrisy, so we shouldn’t be surprised when it arises spontaneously, like a methane bubble breaking the surface of a sewage pond.  But the key issue is how you respond when it arises.  Ananias and Sapphira didn’t struggle against this temptation to hypocrisy—they actively embraced it, conspired together to act on it, and persisted in it even when they were exposed.  This is an extraordinary level of hardness, so God would not let it go unpunished.  Otherwise, it would spread...

This is why Jesus warned his disciples against hypocrisy (read Lk.12:1).  Like leaven (or cancer), hypocrisy spreads and destroys Jesus’ credibility unless it is exposed and disciplined.  When hardened hypocrisy spreads (and especially when it is tolerated in leaders), it kills true spirituality and replaces it with a pseudo-spirituality that misrepresents Jesus and repels spiritually honest people.  Sometimes this results in a public scandal that makes Christianity a mockery (LEADERS IN ADULTERY OR FINANCIAL GREED).  But more often it results in a group of people who “play church” as superficially nice people who are living for self/hiding sin—and this grieves God’s Spirit and makes the church impotent to attract people to Jesus.  I worry about this kind of hypocrisy spreading through our church!  May God do whatever he needs to do to prevent this!

That’s exactly what God did in Acts 5.  He took this extreme measure because he knew how menacing hypocrisy was to the spiritual health of this new-born church.  And look at the result.  The Christians learned to deplore hypocrisy and fear it in themselves (5:5b,11).  This enhanced their unity because it motivated them to relate honestly to one another (5:12b).  It repelled people who were inclined toward religious hypocrisy (5:13a), but it enhanced their reputation as a community of high integrity (5:13b).  And God continued to draw people to Jesus through them (5:14), which is what CSR is all about!

How can we cultivate a high-authenticity/low-hypocrisy church?

Corporate spiritual renewal is always positively correlated with high authenticity and low hypocrisy in Jesus’ followers.  (I say “low” because, as noted above, fallen people continue to wrestle with hypocritical motives.)  What can we do to cultivate a high-authenticity/low-hypocrisy church?

We can treasure God’s grace.  God’s grace is what makes Christianity good news.  “Grace” is the flip-side of mercy.  “Mercy” means not getting the judgment you deserve; “grace” means getting the benefits you don’t deserve.  If I am speeding and a policeman stops me but decides not to ticket me, that’s mercy.  But if he escorts me to his house and fixes me a lavish dinner, that’s grace!   The essence of Christianity is that through Jesus, God offers us lavish mercy and grace through faith in Jesus.  Mercy, because Jesus was willing to take the judgment we deserve for our sins.  Grace, because through Jesus he accepts us and delights in us as he delights in Jesus himself.  This is the great treasure!

Why does treasuring God’s grace promote authenticity and inhibit hypocrisy?  Because we are hard-wired to need acceptance and honor from some other person whom we deem important.  If we build our lives on God’s grace, we become humbly confident of his acceptance.   This frees us to love other people (instead of trying to impress them) because we don’t need their acceptance, and it motivates us to tell them how great Jesus is instead of boasting in ourselves.  Thus, grace cuts the root from which hypocrisy grows.  But if you stray from this focus, you will inevitably pursue other people’s acceptance—either secular people’s acceptance through worldly performance, or religious people’s acceptance through hypocrisy. 

This is why churches that stray from a grace-focus are always seed-beds for hypocrisy.  People hide their sins because they can’t afford to be honest.  Or they engage in ministry—but (like Ananias and Sapphira) they do it to impress others or “climb the ladder” so they can “be someone.”  We are not immune from this!  Only a radical focus on God’s grace can prevent this.  Leaders have to genuinely treasure God’s grace and consistently expound it.  And all of us have to prioritize growing in our understanding and appreciation of God’s grace (Eph.3:16-19) so we stay “full” of his love and acceptance and don’t need to start deceptively earning it from one another.  On this basis...

We can commit ourselves to honest spiritual friendships.  One proof that we actually believe that God’s acceptance is enough is that we build spiritual friendships in which we tell the truth about what’s going on in our lives (Eph.4:25; Jas.5:16).  In such friendships, we commit to this kind of honesty and we give our friends the “green light” to ask and probe if they sense evasion.  We are committed to accept one another, but we are tough on lying.  This commitment to relational honesty nips hypocrisy in the bud, and it enables us to experience more of God’s grace through our friends.  When the majority of the people in a church are involved in such friendships, there is an intangible but powerful sense of spiritual authenticity when we meet together.  And we are much better witnesses for Jesus when we are at work, home, among neighbors, etc.  And God then sends spiritually hungry people to us, because he knows that they will learn spiritual health instead of hypocrisy!

This is one reason why CSR’s are often preceded by an outbreak of honest confession by Christians who repent from their hypocrisy.  This is also why CSR’s proliferate intentional ways of promoting spiritually honest friendships (e.g., WESLEY’S BANDS; WORKER TEAMS).  I am involved in several of these kinds of friendships, and I urge you strongly to commit to this.  HOME GROUPS facilitate this—but they do not guarantee it—you must choose to “walk in the light!”

Are you aversive to this kind of friendship?  Is it because you know you are hiding things that God wants you to bring out into the light?  I urge you to choose someone whose spiritual integrity you trust, and disclose it.  You will experience great cleansing and revitalization of your spiritual life!

We can practice serving God “in secret.”  Jesus warned his followers against practicing their righteousness before people, to be noticed by them (Matt.6:1).  Instead, he urged them to practice much of their spirituality “in secret.”  If God’s acceptance is really enough for us, we will be satisfied to do things for him that receive no human/church recognition.  On the other hand, if we find ourselves unmotivated to serve or study or pray or give unless people know about it, we are succumbing to hypocrisy. 

This is why we should monitor the ratio of our public-to-private spiritual activity.  It is healthy to pray and study the Bible alone (not just with others), to give financially in an anonymous or unobtrusive way, to serve people who cannot give anything back and/or whose recognition cannot benefit you, to turn away from soliciting praise from others and deflect it when it comes your way, etc.  This is especially true for people who have highly public ministries (leadership; teaching; etc.).


We cannot make a CSR happen—only God can do that.  But we can pray for it, and remove obstacles to it, and be individual models and catalysts of it!  Let’s pray that (beginning with ourselves) God will enable us to be a church that truly treasures his grace, that practices real honesty in friendships, and that delights in serving him and others in humble, unobtrusive ways.  Then Jesus may work powerfully through us to show our community that he is real and good!