1. The beginning of any venture requires an almost absolute purity. It could be a nation, an organization, a business, a ministry like a church plant or a new movement. There is nothing more important than everyone being on the same page and agreed about the basics. There is room for mistakes and room for errors. There is even room for some kinds of sins. We see that when we read that the prostitute Rahab was not only saved but welcomed into the community of Israel. You can imagine what it would have been like if Joshua had been told that every single sin in the camp had to be discovered and punished. It would have taken forever and there would have been no one left. No, in this case, the process of discovery is looking for one particular sin. It is looking for the sin that makes a whole new nation “liable to destruction.” It is a sin that puts everyone at risk and is so highly infectious that they cannot afford to allow it to fester. If it is not rooted out it will destroy them. It is the sin that separates them not only from God but from each other. It is the same sin that we read about in the New Testament in the early Church – Ananias and Sapphira.
It is the sin of covetousness – desiring what rightfully belongs to someone else. In this case it is God and that is a fatal mistake.
We have a good picture of what covetousness will do to a person in the figure of Gollum in the “Lord of the Rings”. You remember the grotesque little figure who calls the ring “my precious” and gives everyone the creeps every time he appears? That is the result of coveting the ring. It has destroyed him and turned him into something frightening but not fearful.
There are some organizations that thrive on covetousness. I read the obituary this morning of F. Ross Johnson, the architect responsible for the RJR/Nabisco merger. He, along with hundreds of other “corporate raiders” would take over a company for the value of its assets and then sell them all off while enriching themselves. They would literally plunder a business and then divide the spoils among themselves. In time, the whole corporate culture turns into pirates. They do not build anything. They raid and loot. Unlike Steve Jobs or Jeff Bezos who are creative business builders, the pirates are simply looking for vulnerable targets.
If Israel had been motivated and rewarded in that way they would have become the same. A “plunder” mentality is totally different from a holy war motivation. A plunder mentality distorts people and I think God wanted to keep them from becoming raiders instead of people who were coming to occupy the Promised Land and make it productive.
Covetousness is like the sin of hypocrisy. We want the success of others without paying the price. We want the acclaim, the reputation, the accolades but at a discount. That was what motivated Ananias and Sapphira, I think.
Andrew MacLaren says:
“But Ananias did want more, and so did Sapphira. They wanted more than acceptance; they wanted acclaim. They wanted to be more than just members of the Body; they wanted to be prominent members of the Body. They wanted the praise of men. And that brings us to the sin of Ananias and Sapphira. Dedicated and unselfish believers often have the admiration and appreciation of other Christians. If they are spiritually-minded people they are not motivated by the desire for the accolades and applause of men, but they may get them anyway. The people in the early church who sold their possessions and gave the money to the church probably received the enthusiastic appreciation of the entire congregation. Barnabas was one who sacrificed everything (Acts 4:36, 37). It was no grandstand play with him. There was no trace of fleshly pride in it whatsoever. His only thought was the need of other Christians and the glory of God. But the acclaim was there. Ananias and Sapphira saw it and longed for it, and that is where their trouble began.”
We hold back for a number of reasons. Fear, envy, pride, lack of faith, or sometimes getting caught up in the game of accumulation for its own sake. We live in a world that attaches the measure of wealth to everything. You never hear Warren Buffet’s name without hearing “Billionaire Warren Buffett” or World’s Richest Man Bill Gates. You would almost think their mothers named them that way. Our wealth has become so much mixed with our identity that it’s part of our name. We describe people as “high capacity” or “mega donors” or “big potential” and that seeps into the church itself. We treat the rich differently, don’t we? We treat those who appear to be rich with deference and awe…and that was what appealed to Ananias and Sapphira. They wanted to be treated with the same respect as Barnabas and others.
James, the brother of Jesus, would have been in the room when this happened and years later he wrote about the danger of treating people differently. He had seen what happened to two people who desired such treatment.
James 2: “My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism. Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in filthy old clothes also comes in. If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,” have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?’”
2. When Achan is singled out he is brought before Joshua. But, instead of boiling over in anger for what Achan has done and what he has caused, Joshua addresses him with something that is almost tender and compassionate, “My son.” That is not the response of a man who has demonized someone or is so anxious to find the cause of their defeat that he loses his concern for the person in front of him. Joshua is an extraordinary leader because he has to live with the tension of the fatal seriousness of the offense balanced with compassion. Unlike today, there are no sentencing guidelines for a judge to show leniency for special cases. The judgment is clear but the way that judgment is rendered is remarkable.
One other thing should be noted. Joshua is of the tribe of Ephraim and Achan of the tribe of Judah. The tribe of Judah was considered the elite and were looked up to as special. To be a member of the tribe of Judah would have given someone special consideration among the others. Their rival tribe, Ephraim, would not have been one of the elite. In fact, there would have been a genuine rivalry between the two tribes. What could have turned into a rebellion did not. What could have turned one tribe against another did not because of the leadership of Joshua. It is a mark of his gift to hold them together, in spite of what was required. I think he truly felt what the words “My son” communicated in the same way Jesus had love for the rich young ruler but he could not change his decision. “The Lord will bring disaster on you this day.”
3. So, they brought everything Achan had kept and put it in front of Joshua – at his feet. You’ll notice the same thing happened in the story of Ananias and Sapphira. Everyone brought what they had to give and put it at the feet of Peter. What does it mean to put something at the feet of someone?
That’s an important phrase because it is a symbol of several things in Scripture.
Matthew 15:30: “They laid the lame and the sick at his feet.”
Luke 8:41: “The ruler of the synagogue fell at his feet to plead.”
Luke 8:35: “The healed lunatic was found at his feet.”
Luke 7: “The woman worshipped at his feet.”
Psalms 8:6: “All things have been put under his feet.”
What does it mean to put money and possessions “at the feet”?
It means to reestablish its position as humble servant, not master.
It means to release it for its rightful purpose – to put it in its right mind.
It means to recognize its power in our lives we need to put it under the feet.
It means to restore its health. The unhealthy money in our lives is blind, deaf, lame and silent to the needs of others.
It’s even more difficult today. We do not bring animals and crops to the Temple. We don’t bring money and lay it at the feet or leave it at the altar. We are almost completely detached from it and it is invisible to everyone. It has become disembodied and symbolic. We rarely even see it. We can swipe the card or do automatic bank drafts but for them the very physical act of laying it at the feet only reinforced the public commitment and the importance of visibly letting go.
4. The issue of possessions and deceit – of hiding from God – is one of life and death. Lying to ourselves or lying to God results in one form of death or another.
The early church had a phobia about lying to God. They wanted to stay away from it. They were terrified by it. Today, we call fear unhealthy. We are uncomfortable but not fearful of God’s judgment in our lives..
The early church had numerous examples of the inevitable death of those who held back or misused or were deceitful about possessions.
The Israelites, like the young church, were coming into a new place and it was covetousness that threatened their survival. It was one person’s holding back that turned an easy victory into a defeat. There was no room for an epidemic of deceit. Everything depended on trust. It was not just the lives of individuals at stake but the life of the enterprise and the entire community.
The Rich Fool dies by degrees as he rots away on the inside. In some ways, it is a fate worse than physical death. That’s the process. Riches and the deceit of riches desires your soul first – and then later your life. The joy for Satan is for us to die empty of all genuine pleasure.
For Ananias and Sapphira, it seems sudden and dramatic but I think it was the last part of a long process. Their hearts had changed owners over the course of time. They were not demon possessed. They were self-possessed.
5. But the end of the story – both stories – is healing and victory. “The apostles performed many signs and wonders among the people. And all the believers used to meet together in Solomon’s Colonnade. 13 No one else dared join them, even though they were highly regarded by the people. 14 Nevertheless, more and more men and women believed in the Lord and were added to their number. 15 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. 16 Crowds gathered also from the towns around Jerusalem, bringing their sick and those tormented by impure spirits, and all of them were healed.”
The same power that kills can heal.
The end of the story is not just personal piety but powerful purity in the church that results in blessing others. One commentator has pointed out that this is something of a defining moment for the church because it is the first time the word “church” is used in the New Testament. Until now they have been described as “believers” but this event galvanized them into a church.
And Achan? Look at Hosea 2:14-15
”Therefore I am now going to allure her;
I will lead her into the wilderness
and speak tenderly to her.
15 There I will give her back her vineyards,
and will make the Valley of Achor (Achan) a door of hope.
There she will respond as in the days of her youth,
as in the day she came up out of Egypt.”
That pile of stones that served as a perpetual reminder of what happens to those who hold back what belongs to God will become a door of hope. It will be part of the redemption of God when he takes all the troubles, disasters, and sins of our lives and redeems them. He takes the years the locusts have eaten and restores them.
“In that day I will respond,”
declares the Lord—
“I will respond to the skies,
and they will respond to the earth;
22 and the earth will respond to the grain,
the new wine and the olive oil,
and they will respond to Jezreel.[h]
23 I will plant her for myself in the land;
I will show my love to the one I called ‘Not my loved one.[i]’
I will say to those called ‘Not my people,[j]’ ‘You are my people’;
and they will say, ‘You are my God.’”
I’ve taken a hard look this week at my own foot-dragging or even outright holding back on some of my commitments. It’s so easy to say, “I need to take care of that” and never get around to it. It’s so easy to get focused on the satisfaction of accumulation or just giving enough to try and appear to be like Barnabas and be deceived into holding back.
How much letting go of what we are holding back to we need to do so God can bless others through us?
There is an amount – and it’s either a quart of manna or $20 or a few hundred or even thousands of dollars we are holding back – and it’s making our lives stink. If you are holding back, I want you to set it right this week. I want to smell good when I come in here next week and I want the same for you.