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Hypocrisy in the Assembly

by Stephen Davey Scripture Reference: Acts 4:23–37; 5:1–11

A Christ-honoring church will have godly leadership, loving fellowship, and a commitment to gospel preaching. But these qualities do not exempt the church from conflict, whether external or internal. Rather, they help prepare a church for conflict that is sure to come.


The Sanhedrin, Israel’s Supreme Court, has just commanded Peter and John to never speak of Jesus again. Now, here in Acts chapter 4, the two apostles report back to their church family what has happened, and the church immediately starts a prayer meeting.

And they are not praying, “Lord, why did you allow Peter and John to suffer? Why did you make them spend the night in jail?” Oh no, they begin praising their “Sovereign Lord, who made the heaven and the earth” (verse 24). He is in control!

Still, their prayers acknowledge the reality of their troubles. They recall in verse 27 that “Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel” were all gathered against Jesus. It was unjust and evil.

But beloved, the church does not start a campaign to unseat Herod or Pilate—they are not picketing the palace. They understand that even evil men are part of God’s plans as He works all things together for good.

We are all prone to discouragement and defeat, unless we understand that trouble never enters our lives without God’s permission. Not everything that happens to us is good. The Bible does not say it is; it says that it all works together for good by the hand of God (Romans 8:28).

Now with that kind of perspective, the church makes this prayer request: Lord . . . grant to your servants to continue to speak your word with all boldness” (verse 29). They do not ask God to make the world a nicer place—to get the Sanhedrin off their backs. They ask God for boldness to continue proclaiming the truth about Christ.

And at this signature prayer event, God dramatically responds:

When they had prayed, the place . . . was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit [they were all under the influence of the Holy Spirit] and continued to speak the word of God with boldness. (verse 31)

God answers their prayer. And by the way, He does not eliminate their problems. The Sanhedrin is not going out of business, and their lives are not getting any easier, but God empowers them to continue speaking with boldness.

The early church is then described in verse 32:

Those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common.

Verse 34 adds:

There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold.

Do not misunderstand what is going on here. They are not starting a commune. People are losing their jobs. They are being kicked out of their homes. They are being disinherited by their families for following Jesus. As a result, the church is now filled with needy people.

Keep in mind that if all believers sold their personal homes and gave all their money away, they themselves would become needy. What is happening here is not communal living; this is community living. Beloved, the Lord does not lead us to escape the world into our Christian community but to engage the world with the gospel as a community that supports, helps, and encourages one another.

Now we are given an example of this kind of community care. Verse 36 introduces us to a man who was “called by the apostles Barnabas (which means son of encouragement).” He is a native of Cyprus and well known for being an encourager.

Verse 37 tells us Barnabas sold a piece of land he owned and brought the money to the apostles. He was not looking for his name to be put up in lights. He was not seeking anybody’s applause; he just wanted to help his fellow believers.

At this point, we are amazed at the love and unity and growth in this early church—it is wonderful. But never think that if a church does the right things, Satan is going to leave it alone. No, that is the kind of church Satan is coming after! And he does not always try to outright destroy it. Sometimes he joins it and works from the inside.

And that is Satan’s next move here in Acts chapter 5, following the sacrificial example of Barnabas:

But a man named Ananias, with his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property, and with his wife’s knowledge he kept back for himself some of the proceeds and brought only a part of it and laid it at the apostles’ feet. (verses 1-2)

Now understand there was nothing wrong with keeping some of the money from this sale; they had not been commanded to sell it to begin with. There would have been nothing wrong with keeping some of the proceeds from this sale—if they had just been honest about it. But they are going to fake it; they want to appear to be as sacrificial as Barnabas had been.   

Isn’t it interesting, beloved, that the first internal problem the church has to deal with is not immorality, embezzlement, disunity, or even defection. It is hypocrisy. This couple is putting on an act in front of the church—and it is a lie.

We are not told how, but Peter recognizes what is going on and confronts Ananias here in verse 3, saying, “Why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back for yourself part of the proceeds of the land?” Then Peter says, “You have not lied to men but to God” (verse 4).

Verses 5-6:

When Ananias heard these words, he fell down and breathed his last. And great fear came upon all who heard of it. The young men rose and wrapped him up and carried him out and buried him.

What about Sapphira? Well, she is part of this scheme. The tragedy in their marriage is that they did not keep each other accountable. One of them should have told the other one how wrong this was. Someone once said to me, “We all need someone in our lives we cannot fool.”

Well, Sapphira comes in about three hours later, and Peter asks her point blank in verse 9, “How is it that you have agreed together to test the Spirit of the Lord?” Within seconds, she collapses and dies and is taken out and buried next to her husband.

Now why such a unique, strong response here? Today hypocrites are alive and well after the church service—and sometimes they are the ones in the pulpit. We are not told why, but you might recall when the Israelites first moved into the promised land that the very first problem the Lord dealt with was stealing and deception. Achan stole money and valuables and tried to cover it up in Joshua chapter 7. Perhaps God is sending a strong message early on that honesty and integrity are not optional for the church today—they are essential.

Verse 11 says, “Great fear came upon the whole church and upon all who heard these things.” Down in verse 13 we learn that others did not dare join them even though they “held them in high esteem.”

The believers had greater reverence; unbelievers were afraid to show up there. Can you imagine? “Hey, where are you going to church next Sunday?” “Well, I’m going over to that church in Jerusalem.” “Haven’t you heard what happens to dishonest people over there? Boom—it’s your funeral.”

Wouldn’t it be great if the world was just a little afraid to attend our church services because of the holy God we worship, and yet at the same time held us in esteem for our integrity and honesty? What if we lived in such a way that the world said of our church, “You know, those people are different, but they are for real. I don’t necessarily want to hang around them, but I sure do respect them. They keep their word; they are honest; they care for each other; they are truly committed to this Jesus whom they love and serve.”

Wouldn’t that be great!

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