Well-Intentioned Dragons

Well-intentioned Dragons

Acts 5:1-16

Dr. Jim Denison

This week I found this list of actual label instructions on consumer goods:

On a Sears hair dryer: Do not use while sleeping.

On a bag of Fritos: You could be a winner! No purchase necessary. Details inside.

On some Swanson frozen dinners: Serving suggestion: defrost.

On Marks & Spencer Bread Pudding: Product will be hot after heating.

On the package of a Rowenta Iron: Do not iron clothes on body.

On a Korean kitchen knife: Warning, keep out of children.

On an American Airlines package of nuts: Instructions: Open packet, eat nuts.

On a Swedish chain saw: Do not attempt to stop the chain with your hands.

Good advice, all.

There should be a warning label over the doors of our church buildings as well: Warning: unity attacked here.

That’s an odd warning, isn’t it? But the word of God says as much: “Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour” (I Peter 5:8). And being a great economist, he always attacks us first at the point of unity.

How does he assault our community, our unity? And what can we do when he does, in our personal lives and in our church?

The first dragons (1-10)

“Ananias” means “one to whom Jehovah has been gracious”; “Sapphira” means “beautiful.” Both names proved to be ironic, didn’t they?

Verse one tells us that they “sold a piece of property.” Others have done this to help the poor, and been applauded for their generosity. Now these two want that stage for themselves.

However, Ananias, with Sapphira’s full cooperation, “kept back part of the money for himself.” “Kept back” translates a word which means “to embezzle, to defraud”; sometimes in the New Testament it means simply “to steal” (Titus 2:10). He brings the rest of the proceeds and lays the money at Peter’s feet in a legal act of transfer.

The sin is not in the amount. As Peter makes clear, Ananias could sell anything he liked, and give whatever he wished. The sin is in the intent to deceive: to make the church think he has sacrificially given the entire amount when in fact he has not.

Why is this action so wrong? This is obviously a hypocritical act, pretending to be something he’s not. It is act of pride, putting his own enhanced status before the needs of the poor and suffering. And it’s a dangerous act. If everybody did what Ananias did, there would be no honesty, no objective morality, no godliness left in the church. And this fledgling Christian movement, which has only its character to commend itself to others, would be corrupted and ruined.

No wonder: Satan is the author of hypocrisy, of pride, of attacks on Christian character and unity. He used Ananias to lie to the Holy Spirit (v. 3). This is nothing less than an attack of the enemy himself.

But God doesn’t allow the attack to succeed. He always knows our attitudes as well as our actions. He reveals this deception to Peter, who calls Ananias to account for his sin. And in the instant that he hears his deception exposed, Ananias dies.

Then, three hours later, Sapphira comes in. Peter points to the money still at his feet and asks her, “Is this the amount you got for your land?” Her answer in the Greek is emphatic. She, too, lies deliberately; and the moment her sin is exposed she dies as well.

I know this text is harsh. The same God of grace whose power heals the sick and even the demon-possessed in the verses following, here allows, or perhaps even causes, the death of these two church members. Perhaps they died of shock; perhaps God knew that the fledgling church could not withstand such deception.

But two facts from the narrative are clear: the enemy will attack the unity of the church; and God takes such attacks most seriously.Is it any wonder that “Great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events” (v. 11)?

Dragons today

Where do such attacks originate today? We no longer sell everything we have to give to the poor, so that some can exercise hypocrisy in the same way Ananias and Sapphira did. But while the methods have changed, the intent has not.

Marshall Shelley wrote an excellent book on this subject, whose title I’ve taken for my message this morning: Well-Intentioned Dragons (Carol Stream, Illinois: Christianity Today, Inc., 1985). He identifies several such “dragons” at work today. They were all active in the apostolic church. See if you recognize any of these in our church this morning.

Clearly the first category is the hypocrite, the person who pretends to be something he or she is not. Some are what Shelley calls “bird dogs,” always pointing to where the pastor and church should shoot, with no intention of getting involved themselves. “Pastor, if I were you I would give Mrs. So-and-so a call—she has some personal problems you need to help her with.” “The Lord has laid it on my heart that we need to be praying more for revival.” “We need to do more to help the poor in our community.” But the “bird dog” has no intention of getting involved personally. He appears more spiritual than he is.

Others he calls “entrepreneurs,” using the church only for financial or personal reasons, the person who joins the church for business contacts, or to impress his boss who goes here, or to date the girls or the guys who attend. That’s his purpose, his reason for coming, though he doesn’t want you to know it.

Still others he calls the “sniper”: using spiritual language to attack personally. “Be sure to pray for Mr. So-and-so. He has some problems, you know.” “We need to be praying for our [name the staff member]. He’s just not as effective as he used to be.”