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When God Is First

He Owns Our Reputations

Dr. Erwin W. Lutzer | October 19, 2003

Selected highlights from this sermon

Acts 5 begins with a dramatic instance of stewardship. Ananias and Sapphira wanted to look generous without actually being generous—and God punished them for their fraudulent and insincere giving.

God may not instantly remove us from Earth if we give insincerely, but we will be held accountable. Through this message we learn that our reputation with God is more important than our reputation to others. 

Many years ago I went into a county fair and walked into a house of mirrors. I don’t know if you’ve ever done that, but when I was there you walked into one room and you looked at the mirror and you were very tall and exceedingly skinny. And then you went into another room where there was a mirror that made you very, very short and exceedingly rotund. And all the other mirrors did something in between. Every one of them distorted who you were.

When you stop to think of it, we actually live in a house of mirrors. The whole world is a house of mirrors, and what most of us want to do is find a mirror that makes us look good. What we want to do is look good to others, and we want others to see us the way we want them to see us. Nothing more! Nothing less! And so who we are inside and who we are on the outside oftentimes is two different people.

It’s interesting that in the book of Acts, when revival was breaking out in the early chapters, Satan tried to stifle the work by making sure that the church received pressure from without. They were persecuted. But when you get to chapter 5 you discover that he begins to change his tactics. From now it is not outside influence. It is inside. What he wants to do is to use a couple in the church—a married couple, and he wants to use that couple to destroy the church.

The text, of course, is the fifth chapter of Acts, though we shall begin just a verse or two before that in chapter 4. Chapter 4, verse 36 is really a part of the story. “Thus Joseph, who was also called by the apostles Barnabas (which means son of encouragement), a Levite, a native of Cyprus, sold a field that belonged to him and brought the money and laid it at the apostles' feet. Now a man by the name of Ananias, together with his wife, Sapphira, also sold a piece of property. With his wife’s full knowledge, he kept back part of the money for himself, but brought the rest and put it at the feet of the apostles.” They didn’t lie verbally. They gave the impression that they were giving all of the money when, in point of fact, they were giving only part of it.

Here was Barnabas, you know, who sold this land, and he brought the money and put it at the apostles’ feet, and one day, Ananias and Sapphira were having a discussion, and they said to one another, “You know, it would be good if we did that too because maybe (Who knows, Ananias?) if you do that you might become a deacon in the church. And Sapphira, you might be put in charge of women’s ministries. So let’s pretend that we are as spiritual as Barnabas.”

Now it’s interesting that, as we think about this story… A couple of words by way of introduction! First, it is a sin that was instigated by Satan, because I am sure you do know the rest of the story. It says in Acts 5:3: “Peter said,
‘Ananias, 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? While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal?’”

In other words, “You didn’t have to give anything if you didn’t want to give. This is totally voluntary. What made you think of doing such a thing? You have not lied to men but to God. Why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit?”

I’m going to say something now that could be life-transforming in your walk with God. I hope many of the things that I say could be life-transforming. What Satan does is he puts ideas in our minds that we think are our own, so we’re not afraid of those ideas. And the thought of sinning and the decision to sin is not fearful to us because we think it’s our decision.

Could you imagine what would have happened if Satan would have appeared at their breakfast table one time in all of his fury and all of his horror and said, “I have an idea for you. Lie about your giving pattern.” They’d have been terrified, but because he’s invisible and because he puts the ideas in our minds that go along with our pride, we think that it is okay, and so we choose to sin, and we think, “I’m sinning because I want to sin.” And that’s part of the story. The other part is it was instigated by Satan, who puts ideas in our minds to sin.

How did Satan want to use this couple? Well, imagine if they had been exalted in the church. Furthermore, word would have gotten out that this is what happened. And do you know what? They would have gone on to leadership within the church, and so people would have begun to think to themselves it’s okay to be a hypocrite. And they may have even thought it is okay to sin, because, after all, isn’t this an era of grace? Isn’t this the era in which Jesus bore God’s wrath, so we don’t have to have any fear of sinning? And that, like leaven, would have permeated the whole church and, if not checked, could have destroyed it. It was a sin instigated by Satan.

Could I say also that it was motivated by pride, of course, because they wanted to be thought of as better than they really were. They wanted to keep this hidden agreement within their own hearts, and they wanted to project this aura of spirituality and commitment, and they wanted to make sure that everyone not only saw what they gave, but to make sure also that they were honored for it. And they lied to pull it off.

What I’d like to do is to use their story to introduce us to three more laws of stewardship. Now, if you were with us last time, you know I gave you five laws of biblical stewardship. I encourage you to find that message—tape, CD, whatever, because this is an extension of it, and you really do need that first part to understand this part, except to say that the early church in the last part of the book of Acts gives us an example of the five laws of stewardship in a positive example. Ananias and Sapphira introduce us to three other laws of stewardship, and they do it through their bad example. We can learn from the good and we can learn from the bad.

What are the next three laws? The first one is the law of single-minded motivation. Single-minded motivation! Ananias and Sapphira introduce us to this question. Who do we give to and why do we give? Do we give to be seen? Do we give to be well thought of, or do we really genuinely give because we love to give and because we love God? That’s the core issue that’s at stake here, a very important issue.

Now I have to take a moment and tell you about our policy here at Moody Church. At Moody Church our giving is secret. We don’t publish a list of who gives what. (chuckles) When I was growing up on the farm we went to this little church where there were maybe 30 people. If you had 40, you had a crowd. And at the end of the year they used to put up on the bulletin board of the church, the giving of all of the people. And I remember, you know, even as a boy, hearing about some farmer who owned four or five sections of land. He gave $300 that year. Oh, what a sacrifice! Three-hundred dollars, and God gave him a bumper crop. You know if we did that here at The Moody Church I think giving would increase. (laughter) I think it would. Publish it on the Internet! (laughter)

I want you to know today that sometimes we do know what people give when they tell us. And that’s perfectly fine. There are people sometimes who just want to discuss their gift. Maybe they want to know where it’s going to be designated. Maybe they want to know how it’s going to be given. Maybe they want us to know… At times people have come to me and said, “You know, I’m praying about what to give,” and so for all of those reasons we may know what someone gives, but it is always initiated by the giver, and that’s perfectly fine.

But as a policy, there are two reasons why we have giving here as a secret. First, it is for your benefit. We want to minimize the possibility that we have people like Ananias and Sapphira who give to be recognized, who give to be noticed, who give because they secretly hope it will lead to a higher office in the church. And so, what we do is we say, “Thank you for your gift,” but we do not know that gift, and what you give is known to one or two people responsible for the accounting, and to God.

There’s a second reason why we do it. It’s not only for your benefit but for our benefit as a staff because we don’t want to treat you differently based on your giving pattern. Now that’s the church policy, and it is held to.

Now the downside, of course, is people who don’t give anything absolutely love that policy. They love it! As I mentioned last week, it may come as a bit of shock, and most assuredly a disappointment, to know that there are hundreds of people who attend Moody Church every Sunday—members (not dozens but hundreds) who give nothing at all year by year. And these people, bless them, when we hear about what God is doing over at Kids’ Club, they clap just as loudly as the people sitting next to them. Now we don’t know who they are, but I am sure that they clap just as loudly, even though they’ve not given a dime to the ministry. They’ve not given to missions. They’ve not given to the opportunities that God has given us here, and yet they are pretending that they are on board, and they are rejoicing with everyone else.

See, the problem with that is it’s not just because we need the money, though as I mentioned last time it would be good to have more, and we think of what we could do, but that’s not really the issue. They are cutting out the possibility of God rewarding them openly. Remember Jesus said, “Let your giving be in secret, and your Father will reward you openly.” Give God that privilege.

I love to tell the story about my wife and I being at Ravinia. I don’t know how many of you have been there, but it’s lovely music, and you buy a ticket and you get into the grounds, and then if you buy a more expensive ticket you actually get into the band shell (pavilion) there, and they have an orchestra where you can hear Straus and Mozart and all of those other wonderful composers. Well, my wife and I don’t get into the band shell, but we, with hundreds of other people, sometimes have taken a picnic lunch back there in the evening, and then you just sit there out on the grass and you can hear the concert.

I remember doing that one year and next to us was a man who was lying down during the concert, and he fell asleep and he began to snore. He snored so loudly I had a mind to move, but then I thought, “No, I’ll put up with this even though he’s interfering with Schubert (I think was the number).” And then when it was all over we all stood up, even on the grass, to give a standing ovation. He stood up and he clapped just as hard (laughter) as the rest of us. Now, there are believers like that. “Yes, yes, we’re clapping. Yes, we clapped just as hard, but we are asleep for God, and we’re asleep at the switch.”

Ananias and Sapphira, answer the question of what do we give and to whom do we give it? There was a minister who was taking an offering for missions and said, “I want you to give this offering tonight and I want you visualize that you are actually placing it into the nail pierced hand of Jesus.” And a woman who was there took out her five-dollar bill which she was going to give, and then put it back, and pulled out a fifty instead and said, “If I am giving it to the nail pierced hand of Jesus, how can I let the offering plate go by, giving so little?”

The first lesson that Ananias and Sapphira teach us is the lesson of motivation—proper single-minded motivation. We give to God, and we do give to the nail pierced hand of Jesus.

There’s a second lesson very quickly, and that is the law of mutual influence, or corporate influence, or mutual influence. That is to say, why did God take this sin so seriously? It is because this was going to be something like leaven within the lump. The Bible says that a little leaven leavens the whole lump. I already spoke about their witness and what their ministry would have on it—this deceit. And as a result of that, as people found out about it people would begin to think it would be safe to sin. And so God says, “What I want to do is to show you that you have sinned before God, but you’ve also sinned against the Body.” And we are all connected. You see, your spiritual life and my spiritual life… We’re all connected with one another. When you are hot for God it makes me a little hotter for God. When you are cold for God it makes me a little colder. We are members of one another, and some of you, God bless you, you’ve been attending Moody Church for a long time and you’ve never become a member.

Sometimes I hear people say, “Well, you know, I belong to the invisible church.” The invisible church! Well, I have some news for you. I do believe that there is a church of the elect that are in various churches and congregations who truly do belong to God. But I need to inform you of the fact that so far the invisible church has not sent a missionary team to Osiri in Southern Africa. The invisible church has never sent tutors to Cabrini Green. The invisible church, the last time I checked, never visited anyone in the hospital. This invisible church doesn’t do much.

Everything that we have done here is a part of the very visible local congregation, and I’m pleading to you for your involvement, for your prayers, for your giftedness that is necessary here at the church, because we’re all connected. And God says, “A little bit of sin over here is going to affect the entire church.”

I hope I’m not speaking too harshly. I’m always concerned about that. And then on the other hand I say, “Well, you know, sometimes we have to be clearer than we need to be.” There are some people who are more devoted to their bowling league than they are to the church. There are some people who are much more devoted to be to work on time than they are to be to church on time. Or it would take much more to keep them away from work than it would keep them from being away from church. And so I ask you today if you are a part of the body, you are important to the whole. Don’t think to yourself that your walk with God does not affect everyone else. God says, “This couple (this deceitful couple) would affect everyone else,” and so does your deceit affect everyone else, or my deceit affect everyone else. It’s the law of mutual influence.

Let’s go to a third. The law of final accountability! What a story! You do know it, don’t you? Notice what the text says. “When Ananias heard this, that is when he heard Peter speak, he fell down and died. And great fear seized all who heard what had happened. (I guess so!) Then the young men came forward and wrapped his body and carried him out and buried him. About three hours later, his wife came in, not knowing what had happened, and Peter said to her, ‘Tell me, is this the price that you and Ananias got for the land?’” You see, he was mentioning the price that they gave to the apostles. And she said yes. She lied. It was a direct lie. This was a great chance for her to say, “No, we lied,” but she didn’t.

“She said, ‘Yes, that’s the price.’ Peter said to her, ‘How could you agree to test the Spirit of God? Look, the feet of the young men who buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out also.’ At that moment she fell down dead at his feet and died. Then the young men came in and finding her dead, carried her out and buried her beside her husband. Great fear seized the whole church, and all who heard about these events.”

Don’t you, at this point, just want to say, “Wow?” Were these people Christians? Of course, I think they were. I think the fact that they sinned against the Holy Spirit… Now the church was walking in the energy of the Spirit. They were constantly filled with the Holy Spirit. Here’s somebody who lies against the Holy Spirit. So I think they were Christians. I think they arrived in heaven. I think we shall see them someday.

Can’t you just imagine? “Oh, Ananias and Sapphira, so you’re the ones! Yeah, yeah, you know, I preached about you one time. Sapphira, where were you during that three-hour period? Could it be that you were shopping at the mall with the money that you had, Sapphira?” (chuckles) I’m sure that in heaven we won’t be talking about those things, but there they are.

You say, “Well, Pastor Lutzer, why did God judge them like this, so severely? I mean isn’t this overkill?” (laughter) To use a choice of words! Overkill! Yes!

You know, whenever God begins something new he wants to teach us a lesson. For example, in the Old Testament He sets up the tabernacle. There you have Nadab and Abihu, the seminary students who come in with some strange fire saying, “You know, we can worship God in our own way.” They were very twenty-first century. “Well, we can get to God in our own way.” God zaps them and they are dead.

Then a little later you have the people going into the Promised Land. They finally do make it into the Promised Land. They cross the Jordan River, and a guy by the name of Achan steals something that he shouldn’t steal, and hides it in his tent. And God comes along and says, “I’m going to help you find the culprit and after you’ve found him I want you to stone him.”

And here God begins the church and you have deceit, and God has these people die right in Peter’s presence. You see, what God is saying is, “I take sin seriously.” You say, “Well, Pastor Lutzer, of course He doesn’t do this today.” I heard one pastor say, “If God did this today every church would be a morgue in its own basement.” Well, remember in 1 Corinthians 11 it does say that some people who participate in communion (the Lord’s Supper) and they do so in an unworthy frivolous way… Paul says, “Many are sick because of that, and some of you have died as a judgment from God because there is a sin unto death,” so I wouldn’t be so sure that God doesn’t do it today. But also It may indicate how far we have drifted from New Testament Christianity where God was constantly purifying His church, where God was disciplining His church. Maybe the fact that it doesn’t happen today, at least very often, is an indication of the fact that we have drifted so far from where the early church was. But one thing is sure. Whether you die immediately or die in 50 years, you are going to have to give an account to God. God’s going to open your checkbook. Now there are many other things that He’s going to ask you about, but your checkbook is going to be gone through. That’s why one of the assignments we were to do this week was to open ours, because it’s practice for the Judgment Seat of Christ.

And God is going to judge us as we stand before Him. We may get to heaven indeed, but we shall give an account for the deeds done in the body whether they be good or bad, the Bible says, and there is final accountability.

Yesterday I spent a delightful afternoon with a member of our church by the name Kent Mueller. Now I hope he doesn’t mind me saying this but Kent is into cemeteries. (chuckles) He has visited them all. He knows who is buried where, and so we just went to three different cemeteries. We found the grave of Billy Sunday. I always wanted to go to Billy Sunday’s grave. We also found the grave of Al Capone. We found the grave of Field, and a whole host of dignitaries— important Christians, and those who clearly probably were not Christians. But what a reminder of the fact of our mortality, that someday we’re going to be there. We’re going to get some kind of a grave marker, I hope, and we’ll be ushered into the presence of God, and God will review our lives year by year to give an account for what we did. The law of final accountability.

Sometimes we say, “Well, you know, I want to give because God has given me so much.” It’s okay to say that, but could I tweak that just a little bit and say that God hasn’t really given us anything? He has just lent us whatever we have. It’s on loan and we are stewards, and we will someday give an account. Wow1 Ananias and Sapphira did, and so shall we.

Two final lessons! The first lesson is simply that when God is first and our reputations have been given to God (It’s one of the most difficult things to surrender, but when God is first and our reputations are given to Him.), our secret sins are just as important as our public ones. You see, Ananias and Sapphira thought that they could hold all of the greed in their hearts and nobody would know that they were hypocrites. But my dear friend, they did this in the presence of God.

God is watching. Our lives are an open book. The Bible says that all things are naked and open unto the eyes of Him with whom we have to do. When we choose to sin we choose to sin in the very presence of God, and when we give God our reputations that becomes important.

Someone has said that a secret sin on earth is an open scandal in heaven, you see, because God gets involved because he’s been offended. Satan gets involved and tells God, “You can’t accept this as one of Your people because if they were to die they would defile the courts of heaven, so You can’t have sinners like this and have fellowship with them.”

And then Jesus gets involved. Jesus says, “Wait a moment now. I died for that sin, and because of that I bore the wrath of that sin,” and so it’s a big deal in heaven. And when God is first, it is also a big deal to us.

Second, when we give our reputations to God and He is first, what He thinks is more important than what people think. At the end of the day, all the image building, all the desire to be well thought of and the things that we do to kind of brush up our image so that we are thought of as being more spiritual than we really are, and all of the nice sweet talk that we give, and all of the fact that we deny the ugliness within us so that we can project this image—all that suddenly comes to an end. And we say, “Oh God, at this moment, what You think really matters more.”

It’s important what people think but not that important. It’s not as important as what God thinks, so you can even endure hurts more easily, because you know that He knows the truth. You can forgive more easily. You can be pure more easily because now you know that ultimately it is the inside of you that is the most important part of who you are.

You say, “Well, Pastor, how do we give God our reputations? I mean, that is just such a difficult thing.”

I’m reminded of Galatians 2:20 where it says, “I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless, I live, yet not I but Christ lives in me, and the life that I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave Himself for me.” We accept our co-crucifixion with Christ and say, “I want to be on that cross with Jesus.”

Now, there’s one characteristic of somebody who is hanging on the cross, and that is he has no future plans of his own. And when we come to that cross, and when we say, “Jesus, I want to hang there with You,” we give Him our reputations, we give Him our desires, we give Him that part of us that we keep denying, and we say, “Here I am.” The surrender is awesome and the freedom that comes is beautiful, but there is a fight every step of the way.

Let’s pray.

Our Father, we confess that there is hypocrisy in our hearts. We think of how often we’ve impressed people as coming across as much better than we are. We think, Father, of how we desire to project a certain kind of image. We want people to see what we want them to see.

And now, Father, everyone is bowed in your presence, along with those listening on the radio or the Internet. And every single one is open. The hearts are open. There’s not a single secret. Would you cleanse us from hypocrisy and enable us to walk with integrity and truthfulness?

What has God said to you today that you need to talk to Him about? Let’s just have a moment of prayer.

Father, for those who continue to rationalize, continuing to hang on, continuing to argue about the part of themselves that they will not give, oh Father, would You just break through by Your Holy Spirit? Would You just overcome all the resistance, all of the deceptions, all of the ways in which we’d like to believe our own lies? Come, Father, we pray for cleansing, for honesty. Oh we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.

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