Idolatry in the Church
June 12th, 1977 @ 8:15 AM
IDOLATRY IN THE CHURCH
DR. W. A. CRISWELL
6-12-77 8:15 a.m.
You are listening to the pastor of the First Baptist Church as he expounds a passage in the fifth chapter of the Book of Acts. It is entitled Idolatry in the Church. In our preaching through this book written by Doctor Luke, we are in now chapter 5, and our text is the first twelve verses:
But a certain man named Ananias, with Sapphira his wife, sold a possession,
Kept back part of the price, his wife also being privy to it, and brought a certain part, and laid it at the apostles’ feet.
But Peter said, Ananias, why hath Satan filled thine heart to lie to the Holy Spirit, and to keep back part of the price of the land?
While it remained, was it not thine own? and after it was sold, was it not in thine own power? why hast thou conceived this thing in thine heart? thou hast not lied unto men, but unto God.
And Ananias hearing these words fell down, and gave up the spirit: and great fear came upon all them that heard these things.
Man, if all the liars were to fall dead, no wonder you would be scared to death.
And the young men arose, wound him up, and carried him out, and buried him.
And it was about the space of three hours after, when his wife, not knowing what was done, came in.
And Peter answered and said to her, Tell me whether ye sold the land for so much? And she said, Yea, for so much.
Then Peter said unto her, How is it that ye have agreed together to tempt the Spirit of the Lord? behold, the feet of them which have buried thy husband are at the door, and shall carry thee out.
Then fell she down straightway at his feet, and yielded up her spirit: and the young men came in, and found her dead, and, carrying her forth, buried her by her husband.
And great fear came upon all the church, and upon as many as heard these things.
First of all, we are going to define what the New Testament calls “idolatry.” Idolatry in the Church; in Colossians chapter 3, the inspired apostle Paul writes:
Set your affection on things above, not on things on the earth…
Mortify therefore your members which are upon the earth…
Covetousness—worldliness—which is idolatry.
[Colossians 3:2, 5]
The New Testament definition of “idolatry”: worldliness, covetousness, secularism, materialism, “which is idolatry” [Colossians 3:5]. Again, in Ephesians 5:5, “This know, that no whoremonger, nor unclean person, nor covetous man, who is an idolater, hath an inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God.” Naming these that are unclean in God’s sight, he pauses to give a definition, to write it out, “a covetous man,” a worldly-minded man, a secular minded man, a materially minded man, “who is an idolater.” I could not help but point out to you a passage so oft quoted in 1 Timothy 6:
For the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil: which while some coveted after—
There is that covetous man, worldly-minded man, the secular man—
they have erred from the faith, pierced themselves through with many sorrows. But thou, O man of God, flee these things; and follow after righteousness, godliness, faith, love, patience, and meekness.
[1 Timothy 6:10-11]
Idolatry in the church: people not gathered together and bowing down before some idol made out of gold or precious stones; but idolatry in the church, worldliness in it, covetousness in it, secular-mindedness in it, materialism in it, hankering after, loving after, coveting the things of the world; idolatry in the church [Colossians 3:5].
Now for the exposition of the passage: in the fourth chapter of the Book of Acts the church is persecuted, the preachers are in jail. But the more they persecute the church and the more of those preachers they fling into the dungeon, the more the disciples of the Christian faith are multiplied [Acts 4:1-4]. You see Annas, and Caiaphas, and John, and Alexander, and as many as were of the kindred of the high priest [Acts 4:6], with the Sanhedrin, these cannot touch the church. They can harass it, they can condemn it, they can imprison it, but they can’t touch its infinitude of power. Fire can’t burn it. Water cannot drown it. The fourth chapter of the Book of Acts is a magnificent demonstration of that [Acts 4:5-37]. There is an inherent, esoteric, heavenly endowment of power in the church of the living God. And we smile, I almost would like to say we mock at an Annas, and a Caiaphas, and a John, and an Alexander, and a Sanhedrin that would seek to bottle up—imprison—the word of the living God. For the word of God and the Spirit of the Lord is not bound [2 Timothy 2:9]. Now that is the fourth chapter.
When I come to chapter 5, it begins with a “but,” “but;” and in my Bible the first word, “But,” is a great big black “B” [Acts 5:1]. After recounting the wonder of the presence of God in power and grace upon the witness of the church in the fourth chapter [Acts 4:5-37], in the fifth chapter we come to that big “But.” And when I read it, I have the same sense as if an invisible fist had fell me to the ground. I am struck in the face, “But”! In the fourth chapter we rejoiced and were made glad in the presence of the Lord, full of grace and glory upon His people [Acts 4:31-33]. Persecuted, yes; imprisoned, yes; harassed, interdicted, yes; but magnificent as they are standing among the people preaching the unsearchable riches of God in the fourth chapter [Acts 4:1-37]. But in the fifth chapter there is death in the pot. There is death on the inside. Outside, can’t touch the church; inside, there is the blackness of sin, idolatry, worldliness, covetousness in the church [Acts 5:1-11].
I think of that exactly as in the first chapter of the Book of Genesis. Dear me! How could anybody read that, no matter what his atheistic persuasions, how could anybody read that and not be moved at the wonderful story of the revealed hand of God? “Let there be light; there is light” [Genesis 1:3]. “Let the heavens above separate from the earth beneath”; and there is the firmament [Genesis 1:6-8]; and so through the whole six days of creation [Genesis 1:1-31]. Then the second chapter, the paradise of Eden [Genesis 2:8-14], and our first parents sat in the midst of a beautiful garden to dress it, and to keep it [Genesis 1:26], and finally to have dominion over all the work of God’s hands [Genesis 2:15]. Rejoicing in reading it, then we come to the third chapter, and there outside the gate of the garden is that slimy, slanderous, serpentine, subtle beast; there [Genesis 3:1-5]. Exactly the same in the church: rejoicing in Acts chapter 2, Pentecost [Acts 2:1-11]; rejoicing in chapter 3, the marvelous healing of that beggar [Acts 3:1-11]; rejoicing in chapter 4, multiplying in the face of persecution and interdiction [Acts 4:1-4, 31-32]; then come to chapter 5, what a blackness and what death! [Acts 5:1-11].
One of the things that sort of bothers in our understanding of this is the chapter division. You see, what happened in that church was, beginning at verse 32 in chapter 4, there is a marvelous presentation of the life of that first mother congregation in Jerusalem [Acts 4:32-37]. Generous, they were generous to a fault! No man said what he had was his own, but it belonged to God. And in the midst of that wonderful description of the generosity of the church “. . . with great power gave the apostles witness of the resurrection of the Lord: and great grace was upon them all” [Acts 4:33], that always accompanies.
A stingy and miserly people are never blessed of God, never—never have been, never will be—are not. But this generous-hearted church, God’s poured-out love and favor was abounding, seen upon them all [Acts 4:33]. And Dr. Luke gives an instance: there was a man, he says, by the name of Joseph, and he lived in Cyprus. He had a farm there in Cyprus; and he sold that farm and brought it—the price—and laid it at the apostles’ feet. Every penny of it he gave to the Lord. And they changed his name from Joses to Barnabas, “son of consolation,” and it was a marvelous thing [Acts 4:36-37]. And the people were happy seeing it and God seemed to delight in the gift. “But,” and now comes that perfidious plot: you see, the chapter division separates those two. But when Luke wrote it, he meant for them to be side by side; it is a contrast. Here is this perfect picture [Acts 4:36-37], then immediately there is this perfidious plot [Acts 5:1-11].
Seeing how the people rejoiced in the generosity of Barnabas [Acts 4:36-37], why, Ananias said to Sapphira his wife, “See that? See that? Let’s you and I sell our property, and we will keep back a part of the price we gain from it; but we will go before the church and we will lay it at the apostles’ feet as though we were giving everything that we have to the Lord [Acts 5:1-2]. And then we also will be called “children of consolation,” Barnabas [Acts 4:36]. Then follows that long recounting here that I read just now, of the perfidy, the hypocrisy of Ananias and Sapphira [Acts 5:3-10]. Wonder why Luke takes time to write that out here in the Bible in such detail? It is because God has here for us an awesome lesson and one that God knows that we need.
The way the Holy Spirit, through the pen of Dr. Luke, writes that out in detail reminds me exactly of the identical thing that happened in the Book and life of Joshua. Joshua, God’s captain of the host has crossed the Jordan [Joshua 3:14-17], has taken Jericho, is now entering into the Promised Land under the leadership of the Spirit of God [Joshua 6:1-27]. And there is a part—not all, because it was not large—there is a part of the conquering army of Israel that goes up against Ai. And the men of Ai put the army of God to flight, and slay some of God’s soldiers; and Joshua is prostrate. He falls on the ground before the Lord and cries unto God, “Lord, why? Why? Doing Your work, carrying out Your commands, and our armies are defeated, and our men slain, O God, why?” And the Lord replies, “There is sin in the camp” [Joshua 7:1-13].
So by lot they choose one of the tribes, by lot they choose one of the clans, by lot they choose one of the families, and by lot they looked at Achan. And Joshua says to Achan, “What hast thou done?” [Joshua 7:14-19]. And this same and identical thing: “Sir,” replies Achan when he finds his sin is learned, “In the destruction of Jericho that God said was wholly to be consecrated to the Lord— no selfish gain in carrying out God’s command—I saw this wedge of silver, and I saw this bar of gold, and I saw this Babylonish garment, and I was filled with covetousness, idolatry, worldliness, grasping, selfish greed, and I hid it away under the floor of my tent” [Joshua 7:20-21].
Idolatry in the church; and the reason the Holy Spirit recounts that story of Achan in such detail in Joshua [Joshua 7:1-21], is the same reason that the Holy Spirit recounts this story with such detail in the Book of Acts [Acts 5:1-11]. There is judgment, and God’s Book says, “It must begin at the house of the Lord” [1 Peter 4:17]. Well, what is this judgment? Why does God focus our attention so rivetedly on this passage? Well, we are going to say it and look at it very frankly and honestly.
The Lord said, the Lord Jesus said, in Luke 12:15, “Beware of covetousness”; beware of worldliness, beware of the secular material mind, beware of loving the things of this world. That is the awesome judgment that I see of God upon our people and upon this congregation, is that. I never stand here in the pulpit but I see that serpent come in the door back there. I watch him insinuate himself up and down these pews, and I watch him stick his forked tongue in my face. Worldliness, worldliness, enmeshed in the things of this world; why, I could stand here and illustrate it in our lives in a thousand ways. Invite our people to prayer, “Come and pray.” Who responds? Invite our people to a sumptuous banquet, and see who responds. A boat on a lake can pull our people from the house of the Lord. At the slightest pretext, not appear in the presence of God at His holy and announced service. Worldliness and covetousness; why, you would think to take one part out of ten and give it to God was an awesome thing for most of our people; yet everything we have comes from God. We brought nothing into this world, certainly we can take nothing out [1 Timothy 6:7]. We are just stewards to use what we have for the Lord; but we grasp it to ourselves, and seek and live as though we were going to be here forever, in so brief a pilgrimage. Worldliness—the things of the world—loving the fashion of it, loving to be in it, giving our lives to it, “Beware,” says our Lord, “of covetousness,” of worldliness, of secularism [Luke 12:15].
Well, why? First of all, it makes liars and hypocrites out of our people, worldliness does. Ananias lived one thousand nine hundred fifty years ago? No, he walks down that street every working day, right down that street, Ananias does; this Ananias does. You see, Ananias never said anything; he just acted out the lie. He came before the apostles and he laid down at the apostles’ feet the sum [Acts 5:1-2]. He never said anything, he just gave the appearance that he had sold his property and he was bringing it all to the feet of the apostles [Acts 5:2]; acting out the lie, acting out the part of a hypocrite—that’s exactly that Ananias walking down that street, the main street in the city of Dallas. He walks down that street with the appearance that he receives from God’s hands and is thankful to the Lord for the blessings of breath and life, and he is a part of this city that is so filled with the presence and goodness and blessings of the Lord, and he does not forget to return his part. He serves the Lord God who made him, and he takes his part in the city that makes it possible for him to live a full life, and he walks down the street giving the appearance that he’s doing his part. Actually the man is a hypocrite, and he’s a liar acting it out.
Now let me give you an illustration. There is a man whose wife and two children attend this church. They are here in Sunday school; they are here in the service, but the man viciously opposes the attendance of his wife and the attendance of his two children here in the church. So I talked to him about it. And I cannot persuade him; he is opposed to his wife, and he is opposed to his two children coming to the Sunday school and the church.
I say to him, “Would you be happy to live in Russia? You wouldn’t be bothered with your wife and your children attending Sunday school or church in Russia, because you can’t have a Sunday school in Russia; and the little tiny church, one to a city of seven million, is frowned upon and harassed. Maybe you’d like to live in Russia?”
“Oh, no! Not I, I wouldn’t want to live in Russia!”
“Well, maybe you’d like to take your wife and your children and build your home in a place where there is no church? The women there are just the wrong kind of women, and the name of God is blasphemed, and it is filled with ungodly and violent men. Maybe you’d like to take your family and rear your boys in that town?
“Oh, I wouldn’t live in a town that had no church; where no godly mothers lived, and where children were not brought up to be fine and straight and strong.”
You see, he’s a chiseler, he doesn’t walk down that street with a sign on him, “I am a hypocrite, I am a liar, I am a chiseler”; he doesn’t walk down the street with those signs on him. He walks down that street, but he repudiates every blessing that comes to his family, and he rejects every invitation to take part in the glory of the favor and blessing of God. That is the judgment of God upon worldliness.
Number two: why does God write that with such detail? [Acts 5:1-11]. Because worldliness, secularism, the love of the things of this life carry with them always an inevitable judgment; there is no escape. A worldly-minded people, a secular-minded people carry with them an ultimate judgment of Almighty God. Their values are here and not there, and we’re beginning to see that in the life of America. We teach our children secular values; their goals and their aims are material. We take God out of their education and the things of the Spirit out of their goals. And what remains is what you are increasingly seeing today: a society that is rotten, permissive from the top of it, from the Supreme Court, down to the humblest constable, that is happening in America.
The secular mind is always the mind that finally runs down. Instead of setting your love and affection on things above [Colossians 3:2], lifting up the human heart and the human soul, worldliness plunges us into the animal life; it is animality. The Holy Spirit withdrew the breath of Ananias and Sapphira [Acts 5:5, 10]. You see, if I breathe, that’s God’s breath; why, He could take it from me in a moment. If I breathe, it’s God’s breath I breathe. If I see, it’s with God’s eyes that He gave me that I see. If I hear I hear because God gave me ears to hear. If my heart beats it’s because God gives me a heart to beat. And for me to forget it, and to live as though I made my eyes and ears, and I make my heart to beat, and I created the breath that I breathe, oh, Lord! How could I ever fall so away from the values and the truth of life? It carries with it an inevitable judgment and God points it out.
Third, last: why does God write this so meticulously and in such detail? [Acts 5:1-11]. Because worldliness, secularism, the things of this life, blind us to the presence of God; look at Ananias, look at Sapphira [Acts 5:1-11]. They were perfectly at ease in hiding what they did from the eyes of men. Why, to bring that—bring it, lay it at the feet of the apostles [Acts 5:2]—how easily done there. But they did not reckon the eyes of the Lord; God sees, God knows. God pierces all of these exteriors by which we surround ourselves and make ourselves look good; God sees us.
You remember that passage in Romans? “If Abraham was saved by works, he hath whereof to boast,” look what I did, see what I am! Remember the passage? “If Abraham were saved by works, he hath whereof to boast; but, not before God” [Romans 4:2]. Why? Because God knew him! Man on the outside look at Abraham, and say, “What a noble and wonderful man!” But God knew him and a man doesn’t boast before God; sinner man, evil thoughts, evil deeds, fallen and depraved nature. Ananias never thought of the eye and judgment of God, he was blinded by his idolatry, worldliness [Acts 5:1-5].
Dear people let me remind you of something: as in the dispensation of the law, so also in the dispensation of love, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” [Proverbs 9:10]. Great God! Great God! This is a verse in the New Testament: “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God [Hebrews 10:31]; for our God is a consuming fire” [Hebrews 12:29]. That is a New Testament passage, that’s not Old Testament. The beginning of wisdom is for a man to stand in awe of the Mighty God, and what a wonderful thing when a man can see that, and learn that, and give himself to that. Let me show you.
In these years past, I was preaching at the North Shore Baptist Church in Chicago. The superintendent of the Sunday school was James L. Kraft. One of the deacons in the church was that wonderful man, James L. Kraft. He was the founder of the great Kraft Food Corporation—when you buy a Kraft little tin, or little glass, or little package of cheese—Kraft, James L. Kraft. After the service was over, I was invited to be a guest in his home, and visited with that sweet and wonderful couple. This is what he said. When he was a youth, a very young man, he had a little pony named Paddy and a little buggy, and a dream in his heart: he was going to be the greatest seller of cheese in the world. That was in his heart and all he had was a little pony, a little buggy, and a desire to sell the cheese that he made.
He was driving down the streets of Chicago with Paddy the pony, in his little buggy with his cheese to sell, and he fell into despair. He wasn’t succeeding; he wasn’t making any money, much less even approaching the dream that he had in his heart. And driving down the streets of Chicago with his cheese to sell, he said, “Suddenly, just like that!” He said, “Suddenly there came a great conviction in my heart.” He said, “I said, ‘Woe, Paddy!’” And it was this: “What I’m doing is, I’m trying to succeed just for my sake, trying to do this just to be famous, and rich, and successful. I’ve left something out of my life, and it’s God. It’s God.” And he talked to his pony; all this going on between him and Paddy.
He said, “Paddy, I’m not doing right, I haven’t got this thing right. Paddy, we’ve got to turn around, and we’ve got to do it right! We’ve got to serve God, we must serve God. Then if God wants us to succeed, glory to His name, and if God wants me to be a great manufacturer of cheese, glory to His name. But we must serve God, Paddy. We’ve made a great mistake.” He said he went home and gave himself and every vision and dream that he had to God. He said, “From that day thereafter, the Lord has blessed me and been with me.”
I heard him speak after that, to a great, vast convocation in Washington D.C. To my amazement, that man, James L. Kraft, said—and I quote him exactly—I wrote it down, “I had rather be a layman in the North Shore Baptist Church in Chicago than to be head of the greatest corporation in America,” paused, and added, “my first job is serving Jesus.” That’s great, that’s marvelous! That’s the way God put it together.
Isn’t that so? Didn’t our Lord say, “Seek ye first the kingdom of heaven; then all these things will be added unto you”? [Luke 12:31]. Isn’t that what God did in the surprising request of Solomon? [1 Kings 3:7-9].
Because you ask for My divine wisdom upon you, therefore I will not only give you that, the Spirit of the Lord, the Spirit of wisdom and counsel, I will not only give you that, but I will also add riches, and honor, and fame. And if you will walk in the light of My will, I will add length of days.
[1 Kings 3:10-14]
Man, that’s the way to do! That’s the way to build your business, with God first! That’s the way to build your house; that’s the way to build your life. That’s a certain foundation—that when the wind blows and the storms beat, it doesn’t fall—it’s founded upon the rock of God [Luke 6:48]. The Lord purposes for us what is good [Jeremiah 29:11]; God is always for us, never against us. And the things of His will and revelation are always that we might rejoice, and be glad, and strong, and happy, and prospered, and blessed in Him. And I haven’t even time to mention, and all heaven beside. God’s blessing in the pilgrimage of this life, and heaven beside; hard to turn down an invitation like that.
And that’s the invitation in the name of Christ we make to your heart this morning: to receive the Lord Jesus as Savior [Romans 10:9-13], to come into the fellowship of His church, to be baptized as He says in the Word [Matthew 28:19], to put your life and letter in this congregation, to answer God’s call. As the Spirit shall press the appeal to your heart, would you make it now? In a moment when we stand to sing, out of that balcony round, you; down one of these aisles, you, “Here I am, pastor, I’m coming. I’m bringing my whole family with me.” Or just you, make the decision now. And in a moment, when we stand to sing, stand walking down that stairway, coming down that aisle, “Here I am, pastor; by God’s grace and with His help I’m beginning anew with Him. I’m on the way.” Do it now, while we stand and while we sing.
IN THE CHURCH
I. New Testament definition of idolatry
(Colossians 3:2, 5, Ephesians 5:5)
A. Worldly, secular,
material-minded man (1 Timothy 6:10)
II. Intrusion into the church
A. Persecution grew the
church in Acts 4
B. Acts 5 begins with a
1. Generosity to
a fault (Acts 4:32)
and Sapphira jealous of Joseph’s recognition (Acts 4:32-37, 5:1-11)
III. Beware of covetousness (Luke 12:15)
A. Makes liars and hypocrites
1. Ananias acted
out the lie
B. Leads to fearful consequences
1. Holy Spirit
withdrew His support
2. Judgment that
goes with the secular mind
C. Blinds us to the
presence of God (Hebrews 10:31, Colossians 3:2)