The Spirit at Work in the Church

The people of Israel had finally entered the promised land. The presence of God with his people had been powerfully demonstrated as he brought the walls of Jericho crashing down. But in the midst of that triumph, Israel is laid low by sin in the camp. That sin has to be dealt with if God’s people are to live in fellowship with him. In Acts 4:32—5:16 the New Testament church encounters a similar crisis.

Live in the power of the resurrection. The gospel touches all of life. Unity, the unity for which Christ had prayed in John 17:22–23, marks the early church. It is more than an expressed concern. It affects the pocketbook. Believers shold property and shared with the needy. The sharing was voluntary, Acts 5:4. An outstanding example was Barnabas, called, “son of encouragement” by the believers. While there is no requirement in Scripture that all Christians hold their property in common, the attitude and motivation ought to continue.

“Luke’s definition of fellowship challenges our attitude toward, and use of private property. One tangible example of the Spirit’s renewal in the early Christians with their attitude of partnership, their bias toward sharing with needy Christians. Their instinctive expression of family love was to give over their own resources into the service of others; and this reaction displayed the grace that ‘was upon them all’ (Acts 4:33).”

Dennis E. Johnson, The Message of Acts in the History of Redemption, pages 77–78

The resurrection empowered the church. Perhaps this was not as mysterious as it may have seemed at first glance. The Word was being preached, and people were responding because of the work, the filling of the Holy Spirit. Central to the life of the church was the preaching of the apostles. They had been commissioned by Christ as witnesses, and they were fulfilling that mandate. The content of their testimony was the resurrection of the Savior. Not only was the message delivered powerfully, but the power of the resurrection was the dynamic that energized the church. The Savior has given his life for you. You are united to him in his death and resurrection. You live in him. The power of the resurrection is connected closely with the work of the Spirit, Romans 1:3,4.

Live in obedience to the Holy Spirit. Satan seeks to destroy the church. In the midst of this encouragement, a terrible sin and the awful punishment that flows from it appear. Ananias and his wife, Sapphira, sell a piece of property and bring part of the proceeds to the feet of the apostles. Apparently wanting the praise of the community, they claim that this is the whole price of the property. This is not a picture of mandated communal property, with Peter enforcing the process with capital punishment. As Peter points out in his rebuke, the property was theirs to sell or to keep. There was nothing wrong with bringing part of the proceeds. But, having claimed they were giving all to the Lord, to hold back part of it amounted to theft, Acts 5:3. Just as their lying was to the Holy Spirit, the theft amounted to stealing from God. Peter uses the same word that describes Achan’s action in the Greek version of Joshua 7:1. Both Acts 5 and Joshua 7 teach you about the insidious way that sin sneaks in and takes over your life. Both passages make clear that sin is first of all an offense against God. Be alert to temptation. John Owen’s famous line is, “Be killing sin, or it will kill you.” Sin in the camp, sin that is not repented of, compromises the community that is holy because it is united to a holy God. So judgment comes, first to Ananias, and then to his wife. Does the penalty seem harsh? Peter reminds Ananias that he has not lied just to men, but to God. The wages of sin is death. That was true in the Garden. It continues to be true. Your sins and mine deserve death, and it is only the substitutionary work of Christ in your place that enables you to live. The terrifying judgment that fell on this couple is an anticipation of the final judgment. It warns you, as it did the church of the first century, that sin is nothing to toy with.

“[T]he point made explicitly is first that Ananias had decided to ‘lie to the Holy Spirit’ (5:3) and then similarly that in lying Sapphira had agreed to ‘test the Spirit of the Lord’ (5:9). Surely the inference to be drawn is that the Holy Spirit is the one who has destroyed them.

“If, to reflect briefly on this passage and its significance, we ask: Why did Luke include it? How does this incident serve his overall narrative in Acts, anchored as it is in the climactic event of the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost? Surely the answer lies in recognizing the perennial warning to the church it contains—as it may be put proverbially, echoing John’s prophecy: to toy with the Holy Spirit is to play with fire.”

Richard B. Gaffin Jr., In the Fullness of Time, p. 108

Beware of the sin of hypocrisy. God is merciful, forgiving all kinds of sins, see. 1 Corinthians 6:9–11. But here is an attempt to deceive, not only the church, but God himself, all combined with self-worship. This passage is a call to you and me to repent!

Serve your God, who is a merciful judge. Great fear comes upon the church and the warning does not escape those outside the church. Acts 5:13 and 14 may seem contradictory, but what seems to be happening is that large numbers do believe in Jesus Christ and are added to the church. But those who do not believe are fearful, and these do not dare join the church. This event discouraged casual, empty professions. It is not a light thing to be part the body that is united to a holy God (2 Timothy 2:19). While the warnings here are important and you must take them seriously, judgment is not the last word. In the face of the revelation of the holiness of God and the implications of that for sinners, how can many believe and be added to the church? Certainly the apostles were preaching the cross and the death of Christ. Like the Passover lamb, he died in the place of sinners. As you believe in him the guilt and punishment of your sin is placed on him. You are forgiven. But there is also another aspect to their preaching, too often overlooked, but emphasized in Acts 4:33—the preaching of the resurrection. As you believe in Christ, not only are you united to him in his death, with your guilt placed on him and his righteousness imputed to you, but you are also united to him in his resurrection. The enslaving dominion of sin has been broken. The power of the Spirit who raised him from the dead is working in you. He is shaping you, from the inside out, to be conformed to the image of Jesus Christ.

Is the Holy Spirit still at work in the church? Absolutely. He is the one who changes hearts and draws you and many others to Christ. He is a consuming fire, and that is reason to be afraid. He shows you the holiness of God and the depth of your sin. He raises a fear that drives you to Christ—and in Christ removes your fear.