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Lesson 14: The Deadly Sin of Hypocrisy (Acts 4:36-5:11)

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A 12-year-old boy was waiting for his first orthodontist appointment and was a bit nervous. Apparently he wanted to impress the dentist. On the patient questionnaire, in the space marked “Hobbies,” he had written, “Swimming and flossing” (Reader’s Digest [8/94], p. 112).

That’s a humorous example of how we’re all prone to hypocrisy. But spiritual hypocrisy is not humorous; it’s a dangerous and deadly sin. The hypocrisy of professing Christians has served as an excuse for many to disregard the claims of Christ, saying, “The church is full of hypocrites.” The hypocrisy of Christian leaders has caused many believers to stumble. While Jesus was tender with many notorious sinners, He used scathing language to denounce those guilty of religious hypocrisy.

The story of Ananias and Sapphira warns us of the danger of the sin of hypocrisy. It was literally deadly for this couple. Someone has said that if God dealt with all hypocrites in the church as He dealt with this couple, our churches would become morgues!

We are not told whether or not Ananias and Sapphira were true believers in Jesus Christ. Some argue that they were; some that they were not. Perhaps we are not told because if we knew that they were not true Christians, we would shrug their story off as not applying to us. If we knew that they were true Christians, we might say, “Thank God that this was just a one-time occurrence!” We would not pause and ask ourselves, “Is my faith in Christ genuine? Do I need to deal with the sin of hypocrisy?” We do know that Ananias and Sapphira were a part of the early church. Their story applies to us all!

In Acts 4, we saw the enemy attacking the church from without. The Jewish leaders persecuted the apostles and threatened them with more severe measures if they continued to preach in the name of Jesus. But in spite of (or perhaps because of) their threats, the church continued to grow dramatically. There was a spirit of unity, love, and unusual generosity among the believers (4:32-35). In this context, we are given a positive example of a godly man, Joseph, better known as Barnabas (4:36-37). Then we are given the example of this couple, who put on the mask of hypocrisy and were struck dead by God (5:1-11). This threat of seduction from within is much more subtle and dangerous than opposition from without. It is especially a danger when a church is experiencing God’s blessing and power. The lesson is:

Because we are all prone to the deadly sin of hypocrisy, we should diligently pursue godly character.

1. We are all prone to the deadly sin of hypocrisy.

We need to be clear on the exact nature of the sin of Ananias and Sapphira. Their sin was not that they had sold their property and had given only a part to the church. In fact, Peter makes plain (5:4) that it would not have been a sin for them to have sold their property and not given anything to the church. Their sin was that they conspired together to deceive the apostles and the church into thinking that they were giving the entire amount, when in fact they kept back a portion for themselves. In other words, they were trying to impress everyone with a higher level of spirituality and commitment than they really had.

Have you ever done that? I hope you do not say “no,” or we might need to have a sudden funeral this afternoon! We’ve all been guilty of trying to impress others with our commitment and devotion to Christ, even though we know in our heart that we are exaggerating. A pastor had been preaching on the importance of daily Bible reading. He and his wife were invited over to a parishioner’s home for dinner. His wife saw a note on the kitchen calendar: “Pastor/Mrs. for dinner—Dust all Bibles” (Reader’s Digest [3/90], p. 129). Note four things about hypocrisy:

A. The seriousness of hypocrisy:

Liberal commentators are shocked at this sudden, severe punishment. Ananias is not given a chance to repent, even though his sin seems not all that serious. His wife is not even told of her husband’s death and of what will happen to her if she lies. The instant that she agrees with her husband’s lie, she is struck dead. In this age of tolerance, we might think, “What’s the big deal?”

But we need to view this sin from God’s holy perspective, not from our world’s relativistic view. Jesus always hit hypocrisy hard. In Matthew 23, He pronounced many woes on the scribes and Pharisees, whom He repeatedly called hypocrites. He warned His disciples, “Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy” (Luke 12:1). Like leaven, hypocrisy starts small and unnoticed. It doesn’t seem to be a big deal. But if it is not quickly checked, it spreads. It deceives the person into thinking that things are right between him and God, when in reality, things are very wrong.

The leaven of hypocrisy can soon infect an entire church. The church at Laodicea thought that things were going well. They said, “I am rich, and have become wealthy, and have need of nothing.” But the Lord’s perspective was, “You do not know that you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked” (Rev. 3:17)!

Some ask why God dealt with Ananias and Sapphira so severely when He does not do so with other hypocrites in the church. Probably, it was because the church was in its infancy, and He needed to set before us a sober lesson of the seriousness of this sin among God’s people. He did the same thing with Achan (Joshua 7; see also Lev. 10:1-3; 2 Sam. 6:6-7). The word “church” first occurs in Acts in verse 11 (out of 16 times). The word means an assembly or congregation of people. Luke wants us to know that the church should live in the holy fear of God and especially should be on guard against this serious sin, hypocrisy.

B. The subjects of hypocrisy:

This couple that fell into this sin were professing Christians, “members” of the church in Jerusalem. This means that we’re all in danger of falling into this subtle sin. We don’t want other Christians or those outside the church to think that we have problems. That wouldn’t be a good testimony, would it? So we put on our spiritual mask when we’re around others, even though we know and our family knows that we do not live as we profess to live. When a prominent Christian is shown to be a hypocrite, the world heaves a sigh of relief, thinking, “Christians are really no different than anyone else. If they’re phonies, then Christianity must not be true.”

Notice also that this sin affects both men and women. Some sins may be more prevalent in men, while other sins are more prevalent with women. But both sexes are vulnerable to hypocrisy. Ananias and Sapphira had agreed together to this act of deception (5:9). Whether you are male or female, you need to guard yourself against hypocrisy.

By the way, some argue that a wife should submit to her husband, even if he asks her to join him in doing wrong. This story shows the error of that view. When Peter asked Sapphira whether they sold the land for the amount that her husband had claimed, she should have obeyed God above her husband (5:29) by telling the truth.

C. The selfishness of hypocrisy:

Motive is everything in this sin. If Ananias and Sapphira had sold their land and had told the apostles, “We feel led to give half to the church,” it would not have been a problem. Their sin was the evil intent of their hearts, to make others think that they were more spiritual than they really were. They were motivated by love of self, not by love of God and others. God, who always knows the motives of our hearts, judged them on the spot.

Hypocrisy is always motivated by self-love. We want to impress others, to make them think that we are something that we know in our hearts we are not. Kids, by the way, have a built-in antenna to detect hypocrisy in their parents. Nothing turns kids away from the faith as quickly as hypocritical parents. If they hear you put on your spiritual voice around church people, but you verbally abuse them at home, they can see right through you. They will not be drawn to follow the God you profess to follow. That’s why it is crucial for parents to acknowledge their wrongs and ask forgiveness of their children when they sin against them.

D. The short-sightedness of hypocrisy:

Hypocrisy is short-sighted in several ways:

1) Hypocrisy focuses on group dynamics, not on personal reality with God.

It was an exciting thing to be in the Jerusalem church in those days. There were the large gatherings in Solomon’s portico, where thousands heard the apostles preach about Jesus (5:12; 2:47). The church had an unusual sense of unity and caring (4:32). The apostles were performing extraordinary miracles to confirm the message of the gospel (4:33; 5:16). Every day there were stories of more people getting saved (5:14). Even by those on the outside held the church in high esteem (5:13). It was easy to get caught up in the group dynamic and to ride on the bandwagon of what was happening, but to lack personal reality with God. That’s what happened to Ananias and Sapphira.

It’s always exciting to be a part of a movement of God’s Holy Spirit. Some of us were a part of the Jesus movement of the 1970’s. The church I grew up in couldn’t attract more than a handful for a midweek service! But I used to go out to Calvary Chapel in Santa Ana and thousands of young people would be there for a mid-week service. The singing was not the traditional hymns, sung halfheartedly to the accompaniment of the organ and piano. Everyone enthusiastically sang new praise choruses, accompanied by long-haired musicians playing guitars and drums. It was a great experience to join in with that sort of gathering. And yet, while many young people truly got saved, there were always some that were just riding on the group experience. It was always sad when they would later fall into some serious sin and abandon the faith.

One of the main ways to avoid hypocrisy is to make sure that you are walking in reality with God every day. Have you personally trusted in Christ as your Savior and Lord? Do you spend time in His Word and in prayer on a regular basis? Do you deal with the sin in your life, especially on the heart level, when His Word confronts you with where you are wrong? If not, you have to start faking it when you’re around other Christians, to keep up the appearance that you’re doing fine. That’s the beginning of hypocrisy.

Ray Stedman (transcribed message, “Body Life,” Peninsula Bible Church, 4/26/70) pointed out that the moment we start pretending to be what we really are not, death enters in, because we are cut off from the vital reality of communion with Christ and His body, the church. We lose the reality of walking in the Spirit. To avoid hypocrisy, we must maintain daily reality with the Lord.

2) Hypocrisy focuses on what people think, not on what God thinks.

Ananias and Sapphira wanted to look good in front of the apostles and the rest of the church. Barnabas had just given the total amount of a sale of some property. Everyone thought highly of Barnabas. Ananias and Sapphira wanted everyone to think highly of them. But, sadly, they didn’t stop to consider what the living God thought about them.

To avoid hypocrisy, you must live daily with the aim of pleasing God above all else. The minute you start trying to look good to others, without being concerned about what God thinks, you are into hypocrisy. Both Peter and Barnabas later fell into this sin. The church in Antioch had both Jews and Gentiles together in one fellowship. When Peter first visited there, he ate together with the Gentiles, contrary to Jewish customs. But when the Jewish circumcision party showed up, Peter withdrew and only ate with the Jews, out of fear for what they would think. Peter’s hypocrisy wrongly influenced Barnabas. Paul confronted him publicly, and to his credit, Peter accepted the rebuke (Gal. 2:11-14). If such godly men as Peter and Barnabas could be carried away by this sin, then certainly we all need to be on guard!

3) Hypocrisy focuses on this life, not on eternity.

If Ananias and Sapphira had been thinking about the shortness of life and the certainty of judgment and eternity, they would not have done what they did. But whether we get struck down instantly for our sin or have to stand before God at the judgment, in a few short years we all will face God. Scripture reminds us, “Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account” (Heb. 4:13, NIV). Twice our text mentions that great fear came on all those who heard of what happened to Ananias and Sapphira (5:6, 11). Great fear of God should come on us as well! We’re all a heartbeat away from standing before God and giving an account. Keeping eternity in view will keep us from the sin of hypocrisy.

Ananias and Sapphira warn us of the deadly sin of hypocrisy. But our text not only warns us about what not to be; it also shows us, in both Barnabas and Peter, how we should live.

2. We should diligently pursue godly character.

These men show us four aspects of godly character:

A. To pursue godly character, we must grow in the fullness of the Holy Spirit and of faith.

We have already seen (2:4) how the apostles were all filled with the Holy Spirit. Again, before he preached before the council, Peter was filled with the Spirit (4:8). In 11:24 we read that Barnabas “was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith.” It was the Holy Spirit who showed Peter that Ananias was being deceptive. Peter accuses him of lying to the Holy Spirit (5:3), whom Peter also calls God (5:4).

By way of contrast, Peter says that Satan had filled Ananias’ heart (5:3). As we have seen, to be filled means to be controlled. Peter and Barnabas were under the control of the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity. Ananias and Sapphira were controlled by Satan in their act of deception because they had yielded to his temptation. Being full of the Holy Spirit and of faith does not mean that a believer will be sinless. As we have seen, both Peter and Barnabas later fell into hypocrisy themselves. But it does mean a daily walk of dependence on the Spirit, yielding to Him so that the fruit of the Spirit grows in our lives. To be full of faith means that we daily trust in God and His promises, rather than leaning on our own schemes or on worldly wisdom.

B. To pursue godly character, we must grow in the ministry of encouragement.

We hardly remember Barnabas’ real name, Joseph, because his nickname is so prominent. Scholars cannot determine the etymology of the name, but Luke translates it for us as meaning, “son of encouragement.” “Son of” was a common Hebrew designation for a dominating characteristic. James and John were “sons of thunder.” Judas was the “son of perdition.” Barnabas was so marked by his encouraging spirit that he was the “son of encouragement.”

You communicate encouragement by your attitude, your actions, and your words. An encouraging person has an attitude of trust and hope in God that makes others look to His promises. He acts in ways that encourage those who are down. This may mean helping a person with some overwhelming task, or just taking the time to listen to the person’s problems. His words are not sarcastic and demeaning, but full of hope and love. He communicates, “I believe that in the Lord’s strength, you will live in a manner pleasing to Him.” All of us should seek to be sons of encouragement.

C. To pursue godly character, we must grow in the ministry of generosity.

Barnabas sold a piece of property and gave it all to the apostles to use in meeting the needs of the poor among them. Barnabas was of priestly descent, and according to the Law, priests could not own property (Num. 18:20; Deut. 10:9). Whether this law was no longer observed (after the exile) or whether Barnabas had just inherited some land and was disposing of it, we do not know. But we do know that he could have spent the money on himself, but he chose to give it to the Lord’s work. As I emphasized last week, believers will grow to be like Jesus, who was rich, but for our sakes became poor, that we, through His poverty might be rich (2 Cor. 8:9). No doubt greed was a factor that motivated Ananias and Sapphira to hold back part of the profit from the sale of their land. As believers, we must put all greed to death and grow in generosity by sharing what God has given to us.

D. To pursue godly character, we must grow in integrity.

I imagine that Ananias and Sapphira’s gift was quite substantial. If Peter had not been a man of integrity, he could have thought, “I dare not offend these wealthy donors.” Even if he suspected some deception, he would have been careful to praise them for their generosity in hopes that they would give more in the future. But Peter was more concerned with purity in the church than he was with taking a gift that was given with the wrong motives. So he strongly confronted their deception.

Liberal commentators castigate Peter because, they say, he did not display the grace that Jesus showed toward sinners. They say that he was more of the spirit of Elijah calling down fire from heaven, than of Jesus who offered forgiveness to sinners. But Peter did not pronounce the death sentence on Ananias. He rebuked him, but I believe that Peter was a bit surprised when Ananias dropped dead in front of him. With Sapphira, he predicted that the same thing that had just happened to her husband would happen to her. But Peter was simply God’s instrument to speak His truth. It was God who cleansed His church of these hypocrites.

Any time we take a strong stand against sin in the church, someone will accuse us of not being loving. But to tolerate sin in the church, sin that will spread like leaven and contaminate and destroy many others, is not to act with love or compassion. We must always offer forgiveness and restoration to those who repent. But we must never tolerate sin under the banner of love. People of integrity hold both to kindness and truth (Prov. 3:3).

Conclusion

George Verwer, the founder of Operation Mobilization, tells of a time when he was about 19. He heard a man deliver a powerful sermon. It moved Verwer to rededicate his life to Christ. He went up to talk with the man at the end of the service. As he stood there, he noticed all of the church people in their expensive clothes. He also noticed that the speaker was very well dressed, exuding an aura of success. He asked him whether he thought that these people would respond to the message of giving everything for Christ. He speaker looked down at Verwer and said, “See here, young man, I’m an evangelist, and this is my living. This is how I make my money, by preaching and doing God’s work. What I was speaking about, that was all true, but I doubt if anyone would really live that way, unless perhaps there was a war on.” Verwer walked away feeling very shaken.

Hypocrisy is a deadly sin. It destroys the hypocrite and it damages many that are contaminated by it. In this New Year, I urge you to allow God’s Word to confront your life. If you’re playing the religion game, quit now! Get real with the living God. Spend time each day with Him. Judge your sins and turn from them. Seek to grow in godly character. Our God desires truth in the innermost being (Ps. 51:6).

Discussion Questions

  1. How would you respond to the unbeliever who charges, “The church is full of hypocrites”?
  2. Why is hypocrisy such a deadly sin? How can we detect it and fight it in ourselves?
  3. How can a person who is prone to be a people-pleaser become a God-pleaser?
  4. How honest should we be about our personal struggles? Should we share all our struggles with everyone? What guidelines apply here?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2000, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Hamartiology (Sin), Spiritual Life