Idolatry in the Church
June 12th, 1977 @ 10:50 AM
IDOLATRY IN THE CHURCH
Dr. W. A. Criswell
6-12-77 10:50 a.m.
It is a joy to welcome you who are sharing this hour with us on radio and on television. You are listening to the pastor of the First Baptist Church in Dallas. And the message is entitled Idolatry in the Church. In our preaching through the Book of Acts, we have come to chapter 5 [Acts 5], and I read the text, Acts chapter 5:
But a certain man named Ananias, with Sapphira his wife, sold a possession,
And kept back part of the price, his wife also being privy to it, brought a certain part, and laid it at the apostles’ feet.
But Peter said, Ananias, why has 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 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 on all of them that heard these things.
Well, I can certainly understand that. If all of the liars were to drop dead, man, that scares us to death just to think about it.
And the young men arose, wound him up, and carried him out, and buried him.
It was about the space of three hours after, when his wife, not knowing what was done, came in.
Peter answered unto her, Tell me did you sell the land for so much? And she said, Yea, for so much.
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 she fell down straightway at his feet, and yielded up the 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 of the church, and upon as many as heard these things.
This is a story told at great length. It is an astonishing thing that the Holy Spirit would guide Dr. Luke to take time to recount a message like that. But there is a reason for it. And if the Lord will help us, we shall speak of the reason and mind of the Holy Spirit that guided the author to write such a thing as that in such meticulous detail.
Now first of all, we must define idolatry in New Testament terms. In the third chapter of Colossians, the Holy Spirit writes these words: verse 2 [Colossians 3:2], “Set your affection on things above, not on things on the earth. Mortify therefore your members which are upon the earth . . . covetousness, which is idolatry”; covetousness, worldliness, secularism, material-mindedness, “covetousness, which is idolatry” [Colossians 3:2, 5].
I turn now to the fifth chapter of the Book of Ephesians, verse 5 [Ephesians 5:5], “This ye know, that no whoremonger, or unclean person, or covetous man, who is an idolater, hath any inheritance in the kingdom of God” [Ephesians 5:5]. When he names these unclean unregenerates who will have no part in heaven, when he names that covetous man, he pauses to describe him, to delineate: “Nor covetous man, who is an idolater”; the worldly man, the secular and material-minded man, the covetous man who is an idolater [Ephesians 5:5],.
May I add to that definition in the New Testament of an idolater? May I add a very famous passage in1 Timothy 6:10, “For the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil: while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, pierced themselves through with many sorrows. But thou, O man of God, flee these things,” escape the secular, material, worldly, covetous mind, “follow after righteousness, godliness, faith, love, patience, and meekness” [1 Timothy 6:10-11].
Now having defined idolatry, the New Testament definition of idolatry: worldliness, the man whose mind and heart and affection is in this life, in this world, when God says, “Set your love and hopes and affections upon heaven” [Colossians 3:2], the man who sets his affections upon the earth, the covetous, worldly-minded, secular minded, this-life man, “idolatry,” the New Testament calls it [Colossians 3:5].
Now having defined that term, let us look at this passage in the Book of Acts. We have just finished preaching through the fourth chapter of the Book of Acts, and what a joy, a triumph, is portrayed for us here. God’s people are persecuted. Their preachers are placed in jail. No matter. No mind. The more the church was persecuted, the more it grew [Acts 4:1-4]. And the more of those preachers they flung into the dungeon, the more multiplied were the disciples of the Lord.
Annas and Caiaphas and John and Alexander and the rest of the kindred of the high priest and the Sanhedrin, cannot touch the church of God. They can hound it, and harass it, and condemn it, and persecute it, and even imprison it. But they can’t stop its almighty power. How do you imprison a spirit? And how do you bind the Word of God? [2 Timothy 2:9]. All of the fire in the world cannot burn it. And all of the water in the seas cannot drown it. And in the fourth chapter of the Book of Acts, we are rejoicing in the grace and favor of the Almighty upon His people, even though they are persecuted and imprisoned [Acts 4:1-33].
But when we come to the fifth chapter, dear me, we are in another world. It begins with the big “But,” black “B” in my Bible. It is a big, black “B” [Acts 5:1]. Having rejoiced in the grace of God upon His people in chapter 4 [Acts 4:33], now in chapter 5 it begins with a “But” [Acts 5:1]. It is as though a man had hit you in the face with his fist. And we are felled before the blow. Having rejoiced in the fourth chapter [Acts 4], now we come to the fifth chapter, and there is death in the pot. There is sin in the church. All of the fury and fire and condemnation on the outside never touched the church. But it’s the inside. It’s death on the inside [Acts 5:1-11].
You know, that is exactly as you read in the first chapter of the Book of Genesis. Oh, the glory of the omnipotent God, speaking light into existence [Genesis 1:3], flinging the stars in their orbits [Genesis 1:16], pouring over this world the emerald fervor of foliation and grasses and living things [Genesis 1:11-12], creating the birds that fly in the air and the fish that swim in the sea [Genesis 1:20-22], and, finally, the man and his wife [Genesis 1:26-28].
Then we come to the second chapter. Dear me, what a paradise. Eve is in it, perfect, precious, just glorious [Genesis 2:18-23]. Then, finally we come to the third chapter and outside the gate of the Garden of Eden is that slimy, subtle serpentine beast [Genesis 3:1-6]. That’s exactly the way it is here [Acts 5]; the beauty and the wonder and the glory of the fourth chapter, and then we come to chapter 5. In the portrayal of chapter 5, we miss the contrast that the Holy Spirit is making by that superimposed chapter division.
Actually the story of chapter 4 verse 32 [Acts 4:32] belongs to chapter 5. Describing the generousness, the generosity of the church, “Not one of them said aught of the things he possessed was his own,” [Acts 4:32], grasping it, but was generous to a fault. And wherever you find great generosity in a church, this verse embedded right in the middle of that description will always obtain, “And with great power gave the apostles witness of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus: and great grace was upon them all” [Acts 4:33].
Wherever you have a stingy, miserly church, you will have a church that is filled with sterility and barrenness. But when you find a generous-hearted people, a tithe, well, that belongs to the Lord, as Dr. Reed prayed in his prayer, “And over and beyond, Lord, a gift for Thee, an offering in Thy name.” Wherever you find a church like that, you’ll find grace and great power in the service.
Now as he describes the church, he comes to one named Joseph. In that congregation, in Jerusalem, there is a man named Joseph. He had a property in Cyprus, the island across the way, and he sold that property and came and laid the gift at the apostles’ feet. And the people rejoiced in the abounding generosity of that man Joseph and they renamed him Barnabas, that is, “the son of encouragement and consolation” [Acts 4:36-37].
Now having seen that, the wonderful impression and reputation that this man Joseph made when he sold what he had and laid it at the apostles’ feet for the work and Word of the Lord, there was a man watching that by the name of Ananias, who had a wife named Sapphira. And he said to her, “Look at that. Look at that. Oh, what a reputation. Let’s you and I sell what we have and, without saying it, let’s keep back a part of the price and then let’s lay it at the feet of the apostles as though we were laying before God everything that we received for the property.” And they agreed to do it in order that they might have a fine recognition and reputation among the people of the Lord. And they did that, told here in great detail [Acts 5:1-11].
Why? That’s about as sordid a thing as you could conjure up, and, yet, it is told in great detail here in the Bible. The Spirit must have some profound reason for that. It is exactly as the story in Joshua. God commanding those people to cross over Jordan and to bring judgment and vengeance upon the Amorites, the Canaanites. And using them as the weapon of vengeance and judgment of the Lord, carrying out the mandates of heaven, they cross over the Jordan. They take Jericho. And there is a little city named Ai. And Joshua, seeing the small number, he sent just a part of his number against Ai [Joshua 7:2-4].
But the men of Ai sallied forth and the army of the Lord fled before them and some of God’s soldiers were slain. And when the report of the defeat came to Joshua, the captain of the hosts of the people of God, he fell on his face, prostrate before the Lord: “O God, what has happened? Carrying out the mandates of the Lord and our people are defeated, our army in flight and some of God’s soldiers slain” [Joshua 7:5-9].
The Lord said to Joshua, “Stand up. There is sin in the camp” [Joshua 7:10-13]. You remember the story; under God’s surveillance, casting lots, and one of the tribes was chosen. Casting lots under the surveillance, under the direction, of God and a clan was chosen. Casting lots and a family was chosen. Casting lots and Achan is chosen [Joshua 7:14-18].
And Joshua said, “Son, Achan, what hast thou done?” [Joshua 7:19]
And the same thing, Achan replied, “When we took Jericho,” which was to be wholly devoted—this is not a campaign for riches or personal aggrandizement or emolument, this is a mandate of God—wholly devoted. Achan says, “I saw a wedge of gold and a bar of silver and a Babylonish garment and I coveted them for myself. And I hid them under the floor of my tent” [Joshua 7:20-21].
Why that long story of Achan? Why this long story of Ananias and Sapphira and the judgment of God upon them? There is a profound reason. The Holy Spirit has a message [Acts 5:1-11]. He points to this passage and says, “Look, you will find your name written there. You will find your life enmeshed in that” [Romans 15:4].
So, we look in the mind of the Spirit. What is this message God has for us? Remember what the Lord said in the chapter 12 of Luke, verse 15, “Beware of covetousness” [Luke 12:15]. Beware of worldliness. Beware of the secular mind. Beware of the material bent of your life. Beware of your affections that are centered in this life and in this world.
Ah, how do I war against it? Every time I stand here in the pulpit, I see that serpent of worldliness come in that door, and he insinuates himself in and out of the pews. And comes down here to the pulpit and sticks his forked tongue in my face: worldliness, affections and interests and loves and life in this world.
“Ananias,” you say, “he lived a thousand nine hundred fifty years ago.” No, he walks down the street. You will see him when you go to work in the morning. You see, Ananias never said anything. He just acted out the lie, as though he were bringing to God all of that generous support for the work of the Lord. He just acted it out [Acts 5:1-11]. That’s the way with this worldly bent of mind. It makes liars and hypocrites of us all. That man, walking down the street that you will meet tomorrow, he’s right here in the city of Dallas. He’s right here on the Main Street, walking down there. And he walks down with the appearance that, “I receive from God’s hands all of the gracious gifts of the Lord, and I do not fail to return thanks to Him, and this community in which I live, in all of the benefits and blessings that I receive from it, I do not forget that I have a part to contribute also.” And he walks down that street with the appearance that he is mindful of God and he is accepting his responsibility in making the community a glorious place in which to rear his children and his family. But he’s a liar and he’s a hypocrite! I’ll show you what I mean.
There is a mother of two boys. She belongs to this church and she’s rearing her two sons in this church. But her husband viciously seeks to interdict his wife and his two children from coming to the house of the Lord. And I go to see him. So he doesn’t want his wife to attend church, and he doesn’t want his two boys to be brought up in the grace and love and knowledge of the Lord. Fine. Why wouldn’t you like to live in Russia? Why wouldn’t you like to live in Russia? You’d never be bothered with any Sunday school there. It is against the law to have a Sunday school in Russia, and the official doctrine of the state is sheer unadulterated atheism. They are anti-God and anti-Christ and anti-church, just like you. Why don’t you love to live in Russia? Why don’t you move there and buy you a one-way ticket there? “Oh, not I; I live in Russia? I move to Russia?”
Or, why don’t you raise your family in a godless town where there is no church, and the women that are in that town are the wrong kind of women? Got plenty of them around for sale and hire, and the town is filled with godlessness and blasphemy. Why don’t you move to a town like that and rear your boys in that town?
“Oh, I wouldn’t live in a town where there was no church. And I wouldn’t rear my family in a place where the people were godless.”
You see, that man, come tomorrow morning, will be walking down the streets of Dallas. Will he have a sign on him, “I’m a chiseler, and I am a liar, and I’m a hypocrite. I receive these blessings from God and from these godly people, but I make no contribution to it whatsoever. I am a chiseler and a parasite.” Does he do that? No. He acts out his life. He walks down the streets of the city of Dallas as though, “I have made a contribution to the godliness of this town, and to the sobriety of this city, and to the atmosphere in which I am rearing my family.” Worldliness; it makes liars out of us. It makes hypocrites out of us, just as it did with Ananias and Sapphira [Acts 5:1-11], just as it did with Achan [Joshua 7:19-21].
Number two: why does the Holy Spirit write that in such infinite detail? Because there is a judgment, there is a concomitant that the worldly secular mind carries with it that always ends in the same disastrous visitation. There is no exception to it. I will mention it in two ways.
Number one, when Ananias acted out this lie, greedy, covetous, worldly, secular, seeking to keep things for himself, when he acted out that lie, the Holy Spirit withdrew His support, and he fell down dead [Acts 5:1-6]. You see, when I breathe, that’s God’s air I’m breathing. That’s God’s breath. It is a gift from God. He can take it away from me any moment. The fact that I still live and that I still breathe that’s God’s breath and God’s air. The fact that I can see you is a gift from God; these two eyes, He gave them to me. The fact that I can hear; God’s ears, He gave them to me. The fact that my heart beats, it beats in my breast, God did that. He set that heart pulsating, and, any minute, He can stop it.
You see, I’m dependent upon the Lord, and the Lord can take it away at any moment. And, my brother, every minute, every minute, there are men who are dying, having lived a secular and a worldly life, and they’re plunged into eternity. They take any land with them? Why, take any bonds with them? Take any stocks with them? Take any houses with them? Take any earthly possession with them? Take anything with them? What a tragedy. A man lives his life and his whole energy is centered in this world and then, suddenly, he leaves it all behind, and he faces God a pauper, lost, with no great mediator to stand between him and the judgment that is to come. What a tragedy. What a tragedy!
But, my second, there is a judgment that goes with the secular mind [Colossians 3:2]. It is visited upon us in this world and in this life. Let me tell you. You don’t have to search far to find the cause and the reason for the moral disintegration of modern American life. Look how these children are educated. They take prayer out of it, and they take God out of it, and they take righteousness out of it and spiritual well being and judgment out of it, and they are taught the secular mind and the secular values and the secular way. And their goals are in material, and they strive for the things and the rewards of this world. And then you wonder why the corruption in moral life in America, from the Supreme Court of the United States down to the chiefest constable; reaping the judgment of God upon worldliness and the secular mind. That’s why God delineated it so meticulously.
Last: why does the Holy Spirit so in minutia describe this sin of worldliness? [Acts 5:1-11, Joshua 7:19-21]. Because it blinds us to the presence of God. Ah, with the world before me, with every vision and dream I have centered here, where does God come in? Where is there room for Him in my heart that is filled with carnal and worldly and earthly desire? This man Ananias. Isn’t it a strange thing; plan all of that, execute all of that, act all that, and as far as the eyes and judgment of men concerned, just splendid? But what he forgot is the eye of Almighty God. How do you deceive God? How do you fool the Lord? How do you pull the wool over His eyes, acting a lie? [Acts 5:3].
Do you remember in the dispensation of the law, there is judgment upon sin. Did you know that in the dispensation of love, it is no different? It is just the same. Whether it is in the Old Testament of the law or whether it is in the New Testament of grace, this truth eternally obtains. “It is the fear of God that is the beginning of wisdom” [Proverbs 9:10]. The awesome judgments of the Lord, dear God, what You can do! You can take the whole nation and it is as the dust in the balance [Isaiah 40:15], much less a man’s life. The awesome fear, reverence of Almighty God is the beginning of wisdom. Whether in the legislature where Krueger belongs, or whether in the Supreme Court or the judiciary system of the land, or whether where you live behind a kitchen sink or behind a clerk’s desk, the beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord [Proverbs 9:10]. This is the New Testament verse, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of Almighty God” [Hebrews 10:31]. “For our God is a consuming fire” [Hebrews 12:29]. That’s the New Testament. That’s not the Old Testament.
And for me to live and to act as though there is no God and no world to come, and my life is centered here, and every dream and hope and vision I have is here, is of all things to invite personal disaster and ultimate judgment in the world that is to come. “Set your affection upon things above, not upon the things of the world” [Colossians 3:2].
One time I was preaching in the North Shore Baptist Church in Chicago. The superintendent of the Sunday school, and one of the deacons in the church, was named James L. Kraft. He was the founder of the great Kraft Food Corporation. When you go to the store and buy a little package of cheese, chances are it will have Kraft on it. In so many things will you find that name Kraft in the world of cheeses and foods. He was the superintendent of the Sunday school. He was a deacon in the church.
After the service was over, I was a guest in their home, beautiful home in Chicago. He said, he said that as a young man, just beginning, he had a desire to be the most famous manufacturer and salesman of cheese in the world. He was going to be rich and he was going to be famous. And he was going to do it making and selling cheese. And so he started out, he said, as just a young fellow. He had a little pony named Paddy and a little buggy. And he would make his cheese and put it in the buggy and drive Paddy down the streets of Chicago, selling his cheese.
But the days passed and the months passed, and driving down the streets of Chicago, he fell into despair. That’s his word, despair. He wasn’t succeeding. He wasn’t doing any good. He wasn’t making any money. He was just working hard and long, to no end and to no success. And he said as he drove Paddy down the streets of Chicago, great despair just crushed him. He said he pulled the little pony to a stop. And then, as he began to describe it, he began to talk to Paddy. He began to talk to that little pony.
And here’s what he said. He said, “Paddy, there’s something wrong. We’re not doing it right. Paddy, I’m afraid we’ve got things turned around. Our priorities are not where they ought to be. Paddy,” he says, “maybe we ought first to serve God and place God first in our lives. Maybe that is our first priority, is to give ourselves to God. And then we’ll just work as God would open the door for us and would bless us and help us. But, first, Paddy, let’s give ourselves to God and place Him first in our lives.” He said he went home, drove his little cart home, and there made a covenant that all of the rest of his life, first, he would serve God. And then he would work and God would direct and open doors and bless.
You know, I was in Washington D.C. after that, at a great, vast convocation. And the speaker was that James L. Kraft of the great Kraft Food Corporation of America. And I wrote down the sentence and I memorized it. He said, quote, “I had rather be a layman in the North Shore Baptist Church in Chicago than to head the greatest corporation in America.” And then paused and added, “My first job is serving Jesus.” Lord, Lord, what God could do with men like that and women like that! My first assignment is walking in the will of the Lord [Ephesians 4:1].
My first obligation is to Him. My affection is set. My love is set before the Lord in heaven, and, as He shall open doors, and as God shall bless in the way, thus will I work all the days of my life. Ah, if we had people like that, I do believe they could change the whole course of civilization. They could swing it on other hinges. It would be a new day and a new life.
Isn’t that what the Lord said? “Seek ye first the kingdom of God . . . and all these things shall be added unto you” [Matthew 6:33]. This first, what God says and what God mandates. Isn’t that what the Lord did for Solomon? When the Lord asked him, “anything” [1 Kings 3:5], and Solomon asked, “Lord, that I might have Your Spirit in my heart; that I might have wisdom and the Spirit of counsel.” And the Lord said to him, Solomon, “Because you did not ask for riches and for fame, I will not only give you wisdom from above, the Spirit of God in your heart, but I will add to you riches and fame and prosperity and affluence and success. And moreover,” said the Lord to Solomon, “if you walk in My ways, I will add to you length of days” [1 Kings 3:9-14].
O Master, that there might be such a heart in us that we would follow Thee first all of the days of our lives. And let God bless the work of our hands. Loving Him and being good stewards of what the Lord hath given to us in heart and mind, in life, in possession, in work, in all to which we give our lives. God first. And His blessing upon all of the rest.
That is our appeal this morning. In a moment when we stand to sing our song, a family you, coming to us in the fellowship of this dear church [Hebrews 10:24-25]. A couple you, or just one somebody you. In the balcony round, down one of these stairways, in the throng of people in this lower floor, in one of these aisles, make the decision now in your heart, “Today I am giving my heart to God [Romans 10:8-13]; today I am putting my life in the fellowship of that dear church [Hebrews 10:24-25]. Lord, write my name in that Book of Life [Luke 10:20; Revelation 20:12, 15, 21:27]. When I stand at the judgment and God calls the roll [Revelation 20:12], I will be there to answer to my name.” Make that decision in your heart now, and in a moment when we stand to sing, stand up coming down that stairway, walking down this aisle, “Here I am pastor, we have decided for God, here we are” [Romans 10:8-13]. Do it now, come now, while we stand and while we sing.