Woe betide you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You’re like whitewashed graves, which look very fine on the outside, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and uncleanness of every kind. That’s like you: on the outside you appear to be virtuous and law-abiding, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness. [Matthew 23:27-28 (NTE)]
Along with proclaiming the Word of God, the young Church was committed to ensuring that there were no needy among them. As a result, many of the early believers voluntarily sold their property and shared their wealth with the rest of the church community. Barnabas, for example, sold a field he owned and generously brought the money to the apostles for those in need.
Immediately following the mention of Barnabas in Acts, Luke tells us about Ananias and Sapphira. Like Barnabas, they sold some land and brought the proceeds to the apostles but, unlike him, the couple retained some of the funds. But, wanting to impress everyone with their generosity without actually making a sacrifice, they claimed to have contributed the full amount. Peter, however, knew better and confronted each one about their deceit and they were struck dead in divine judgment.
This is a troubling story when we mistakenly think of it in terms of how much of our money we should give to the church. It’s important to remember that Ananias and Sapphira’s sin wasn’t in keeping some of the money; it was theirs to do with as they wished. The sharing among believers wasn’t compulsory and didn’t originate in the law. It originated in love and was completely voluntary. Rather than the sin of greed, the couple’s sin was that of hypocrisy; they wanted to impress the church into thinking they were something they clearly were not. They lied to the church but, worse, they lied to the Holy Spirit! Luke tells us that “great fear” struck the entire church when the learned what happened to Ananias and Sapphira. It should strike fear in us as well! The message, however, isn’t about money; it’s that God will not tolerate deception in spiritual and personal matters.
None of us manage to fully live up to our ideals and values; we’re flawed human beings who miss the mark in a variety of ways. That we fail to be the person we should be does not make us hypocrites; it’s failing to be the person we claim to be that is hypocrisy! Putting reputation before character, the hypocrite creates a public impression at odds with his or her true self.
The book of Acts relates how the early church was threatened by the world in which they lived: persecution, arrests, imprisonment, and even death. But it also relates how the church faced threats within its own community when the sins of a few (like Ananias and Sapphira) threatened the testimony of the church. Both threats continue today. I can’t help but wonder—if God dealt as severely with deceivers and hypocrites today as He did with Ananias and Sapphira, how many people would be left to fill our pews on Sunday morning?
The hypocrite, certainly, is a secret atheist; for if he did believe there was a God, he durst not be so bold as to deceive Him to His face. [Thomas Adams]