Today we come to week three of our conversation through the book of Acts. It’s been kind of a crazy progression up to this point. After Jesus’ death and resurrection, He told the disciples to wait for God’s Spirit in Jerusalem. He spent 40 days with them and then ascended to heaven. The disciples gathered together at Pentecost in an upper room and the Holy Spirit showed up. Everyone spoke in other known tongues that they didn’t know by the power of the Spirit. Peter addressed the crowd and called people to repent. The believers lived in fellowship and unity, performing miracles, giving to any who had need. Peter healed a lame beggar, speaking with boldness before the onlookers and the Sanhedrin. The believers continued to meet together in prayer, having unity and supernatural generosity.
Things have not been perfect to this point. There has been resistance and persecution. There have been challenges. But I can only imagine that the next window into the early church is Christian church perfection--a Christian utopia--because everything is finally coming together and everything is going to be perfect right? Well…..
Before we turn the page to the complexity, I want us to dialogue for a moment. Think about perfection or utopia in community.
Utopia - an imagined place or state of things in which everything is perfect.
What causes someone to want or pursue utopia?
Let me nudge this thought a little farther. The desire for perfection, for something good, for the ideal--it isn’t that simple. It may not even be achievable. But think about perfection as a Christian community. I know there are many facets to this question--this is the point.
What do you think “Christian utopia” is here on earth?
What do people who are not Christians think “Christian utopia” is?
Now we turn the page into chapter five.
We need to remember that Acts is written in movements--the movements of the living out of the Great Commision:
“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8)
First, go to Jerusalem: the insider, those that love God, the family, the good. Next, go to Judea: the neighbor, the people you know, the people that you have lived in parallel with, but not with. Then go to Samaria: the outsiders, the people you don’t understand, the people that have been misunderstood, the people that culture has rejected. Finally, go to the ends of the earth: to all.
Chapter 5 is still a “to Jerusalem” moment.
While the community is exploding (a great thing), it was not what they may have thought of as being utopia. It was not that clean and simple.
Before we run into Acts 5, let’s remember and feel what Jesus felt when He was with the people that He knew the best--His “to Jerusalem” moment. Not so utopia!
When Jesus had finished these parables, he moved on from there. Coming to his hometown, he began teaching the people in their synagogue, and they were amazed. “Where did this man get this wisdom and these miraculous powers?” they asked. “Isn’t this the carpenter’s son? Isn’t his mother’s name Mary, and aren’t his brothers James, Joseph, Simon and Judas? Aren’t all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all these things?” And they took offense at him. But Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor except in his own town and in his own home.” And he did not do many miracles there because of their lack of faith. (Matthew 13:53-58)
Jesus’ experiences on earth seemed to be anything but utopian.
Was Jesus paralyzed by them? My faith says that Jesus was not and could not be paralyzed by anyone or anything. Then why did he not do many miracles?
Well, I can feel what my guttural response would be in this moment: They don’t like me. They don’t believe in me. They don’t see me. I’d better blow their minds!!! I want them to like me and believe in me and see me!
But Jesus displays His security: What matters is reality. What matters is what the Father sees. I don’t care about utopia here on earth right now but rather unity and God being glorified.
We can be secure or insecure about many things. And some insecurities do come from lack or not having enough of something and wondering when our needs will be met: food, jobs, self-image, relationships, social interactions, safety. Anxious/fearful vs. free and at peace. It’s amazing how our brains are part of the equation, how our experiences affect our senses of security or insecurity.
But we see something really special in Jesus, that even in situations that we’re “secure,” He didn’t seem to become insecure. Maybe he felt insecure at points. But he didn’t act out of it.
Why didn’t Jesus act out of insecurity?
With that conversation in our minds, we have to have these questions rolling around in our thoughts: What did Jesus see that I can struggle to see? Why wasn’t Jesus concerned with having His followers arrive at some perfect, Christian utopia? If He wasn’t going after utopia, what was His goal for His followers?
I hear Jesus’ words from the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Matthew 5:3-12)
What hits me the most about this sermon Jesus gave is that I can tend to think the disciples were somehow excluded from this message, but actually Jesus was speaking this to them as well. And He had seen each of them come from their lives and follow him as a teacher. Poor in spirit, people who were mourning, who were hungering and thirsting for righteousness.
Before we step into Acts 5, with the Beatitudes in front of us:
How does perspective as to what is “blessed” impact security and insecurity?
The perfection is building:
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved. (Acts 2:42-47)
The perfection is building:
All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need. (Acts 4:32-35)
Well… was perfection growing? Or maybe--What was the perfection that was growing?
Now a man named Ananias, together with his wife Sapphira, also sold a piece of property. With his wife’s full knowledge he kept back part of the money for himself, but brought the rest and put it at the apostles’ feet.
Then Peter said, “Ananias, how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit and have kept for yourself some of the money you received for the land? Didn’t it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn’t the money at your disposal? What made you think of doing such a thing? You have not lied just to human beings but to God.”
When Ananias heard this, he fell down and died. And great fear seized all who heard what had happened. Then some young men came forward, wrapped up his body, and carried him out and buried him.
About three hours later his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. Peter asked her, “Tell me, is this the price you and Ananias got for the land?” “Yes,” she said, “that is the price.”
Peter said to her, “How could you conspire to test the Spirit of the Lord? Listen! The feet of the men who buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out also.”
At that moment she fell down at his feet and died. Then the young men came in and, finding her dead, carried her out and buried her beside her husband. Great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events.
The apostles performed many signs and wonders among the people. And all the believers used to meet together in Solomon’s Colonnade. No one else dared join them, even though they were highly regarded by the people. Nevertheless, more and more men and women believed in the Lord and were added to their number. As a result, people brought the sick into the streets and laid them on beds and mats so that at least Peter’s shadow might fall on some of them as he passed by. Crowds gathered also from the towns around Jerusalem, bringing their sick and those tormented by impure spirits, and all of them were healed.
Then the high priest and all his associates, who were members of the party of the Sadducees, were filled with jealousy. They arrested the apostles and put them in the public jail. But during the night an angel of the Lord opened the doors of the jail and brought them out. “Go, stand in the temple courts,” he said, “and tell the people all about this new life.”
At daybreak they entered the temple courts, as they had been told, and began to teach the people.
When the high priest and his associates arrived, they called together the Sanhedrin—the full assembly of the elders of Israel—and sent to the jail for the apostles. But on arriving at the jail, the officers did not find them there. So they went back and reported, “We found the jail securely locked, with the guards standing at the doors; but when we opened them, we found no one inside.” On hearing this report, the captain of the temple guard and the chief priests were at a loss, wondering what this might lead to.
Then someone came and said, “Look! The men you put in jail are standing in the temple courts teaching the people.” At that, the captain went with his officers and brought the apostles. They did not use force, because they feared that the people would stone them.
The apostles were brought in and made to appear before the Sanhedrin to be questioned by the high priest. “We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name,” he said. “Yet you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and are determined to make us guilty of this man’s blood.”
Peter and the other apostles replied: “We must obey God rather than human beings! The God of our ancestors raised Jesus from the dead—whom you killed by hanging him on a cross. God exalted him to his own right hand as Prince and Savior that he might bring Israel to repentance and forgive their sins. We are witnesses of these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.”
When they heard this, they were furious and wanted to put them to death. But a Pharisee named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law, who was honored by all the people, stood up in the Sanhedrin and ordered that the men be put outside for a little while. Then he addressed the Sanhedrin: “Men of Israel, consider carefully what you intend to do to these men. Some time ago Theudas appeared, claiming to be somebody, and about four hundred men rallied to him. He was killed, all his followers were dispersed, and it all came to nothing. After him, Judas the Galilean appeared in the days of the census and led a band of people in revolt. He too was killed, and all his followers were scattered. Therefore, in the present case I advise you: Leave these men alone! Let them go! For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God.”
His speech persuaded them. They called the apostles in and had them flogged. Then they ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go. The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name. Day after day, in the temple courts and from house to house, they never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Messiah. (Acts 5:1-42)
This is a story of two questions: How do you see yourself? -and- How do you want to be seen?
How did all of these different people/groups see themselves and want to be seen by others?
Ananias and Sapphira saw themselves as wise and wanted others to see them as generous even though they weren’t. Sick people saw themselves as outsiders and wanted others to see them as worthy of connection and relationship, to pay attention to their plights. The high priests and Gamaliel saw themselves as leaders, authorities, the ones who were “right” and wanted others to see them as this and as higher up than the average people, to see them as being the ones who were “right with God,” to see them as examples to follow. And the apostles saw themselves as the body of Christ, as equals with one another and everyone else in Christian community, and they wanted others to see them as followers of Jesus and wanted Jesus to be on display through them.
We are going to have a ‘deep end of the pool’ conversation. Listen and share with grace:
How do you see yourself? Why?
How do you want others to see you? Why?
The apostles embodied the beatitudes. And through the beatitudes it seems the disciples saw what was most important. They showed very little care as to how people saw them or even how they saw themselves. The most important thing they saw was their connection to God and how He saw them and what Jesus had already given them, what He had already commanded them to do and who He said they were in Him.
The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name. (Acts 5:41)
I think of Paul and his view of judging himself:
I care very little if I am judged by you or by any human court; indeed, I do not even judge myself. My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me. (1 Corinthians 4:3-4)
How often I deal with self-judgement, but it seems that Paul didn’t even think about judging himself, as he left that up to God. He must have had trust that God’s view of him was full of care, so that he was able to give up self-judging and let God do it.
Today we started with some conversation about Christian utopia. Acts 5 can feel like the utopia was imploding. But really it was displaying that perfection is through Christ and not through us.
All of these groups of people we talked about today tried to gain perfection or to be seen a certain way: Ananias and Sapphira wanting to look generous. The high priests and leaders wanting to look righteous. The sick wanting just to be seen. And the apostles could have tried to exert their will to be perfect, to do everything right, to be the most incredible example of Jesus, to make sure that perfect, problem-less Christian utopia would be realized.
But we see that they understood connection to God, and that other people sensed they were “getting it.”
When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus. (Acts 4:13)
Not well-educated men who learned everything and looked good. Not wise people who knew how to manipulate things for their own gain. Ordinary people who had been with Jesus.
What would it be like to approach God this way? In our ordinary-ness, not wanting to look good or try and get everything right, but just to bring our concepts of how we see ourselves and want to be seen before Him and ask Him, “How do You see me?”
What if Ananias and Sapphira and the religious leaders had taken time to process, “God, how do you see me?” How might their stories have been different?
I think of another person in scripture who was manipulative, who might have had some tendencies like Ananias and Sapphira:
Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy. He wanted to see who Jesus was, but because he was short he could not see over the crowd. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way.
When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly. All the people saw this and began to mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.”
But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.” Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” (Luke 19:1-10)
I could see a possible reality where Zacchaeus could have said to Jesus, “Look, I’ve decided to sell some things and give some money to some people,” in order to look good, just like Ananias and Sapphira. But he had the opportunity to invite Jesus into his home, into his comfortable area, into the place where he felt at ease. And the amazing picture is that in the mess of his own life, Jesus stepped right in and met with him. They shared a meal together. And something in the character of Jesus, the way Jesus saw Zacchaeus, caused this man to see himself differently and, in the midst of imperfection, decide to change some things.
We are ending today with a moment to verbalize super impactful realities--something that the people in Acts had an opportunity to work on or to miss. We have that same opportunity:
How does God see you?
How does that impact how you see yourself?
How does living in life’s imperfections impact the previous two questions?
Take It Deeper Questions:
- Read Acts 5.
- Share a story about a half truth or lie that you shared as a child.
- Why do you think Ananias and Sapphira gave?
- Why do you think Ananias and Sapphira lied about what they did?
- Why do you think the religious authorities were so concerned about what the Apostles were doing?
- Why do you think the Apostles were so encouraged about being deserving of persecution?
- How are you challenged, focused, confused and/or encouraged by this text?
Bible Reading Plan:
- Deuteronomy 4
- Deuteronomy 5
- Deuteronomy 6
- Acts 10
- Acts 11
- Acts 12