In the summer of 1995 I had the privilege to go to Russia. Our plane landed in Moscow and we were met in the airport by our tour guide who had arranged a bus to take us to the hotel. On the bus ride into the city, I purposely sat close to this native Moscovite to hopefully learn something about life in Russia. Since I grew up in the 1970’s and 1980’s, I had a natural fascination with this enormous country as the former U.S.S.R. was the ying to the United States yang in world politics throughout that time period. In the summer of 1995 the iron curtain had been torn, and now we could freely visit this great nation and talk to people about what life was like under communist rule. So, I sat close and listened as our tour guide named Sergei entertained us with many stories about life under the banner of the hammer and the sickle.
He showed us where the Russian tanks were positioned on a prominent bridge during the early days of Glastnost. He pointed out the distant spire of Saint Basil’s Cathedral on the horizon. He shared with us what the Kremlin looked like. All of these stories were interesting to me, but there is one story that particularly caught my attention. The interesting thing about this story was that it did not involve tanks or troops or great architecture. No, in all of Moscow the story I heard that I remember most vividly did not involve any of these things. Instead, it involved paint. No kidding.
It seems that when President Ronald Reagan was coming to visit Moscow for a nuclear arms summit in June of 1988, the Russians wanted to put their best foot forward to impress their American counterparts. The cash poor Soviets did not want the Americans to see their deteriorating financial situation. To show financial weakness would be to lose yet another battle in this cold war. However, the Soviets did not have enough financial resources to fully renovate all of the great city of Moscow. So, Russian officials came up with a resourceful solution . . . they would remodel and repaint only the buildings that lined the exact route and rooms that President Reagan would actually drive by or sit in. So, in the days leading up to the summit, the Russian government went to work putting a fresh coat of paint and doing minor repairs to the streets and buildings where Reagan would be. As the day drew near, though, the Soviets realized they needed to speed up their progress. So, they came to a creative solution. They would only repaint the exterior of buildings two stories up (these buildings were easily 10 stories tall.) The thought was that Reagan was an older man who probably could not see beyond the second floor anyway. . . so why waste good paint.
I was thinking about that story today as I reread Acts 5, and the story of Ananias and his wife Sapphira. It seems that this husband and wife team, inspired by the generosity of their fellow brothers and sisters in the early church, had sold a piece of land and were voluntarily going to give that money to the local group of Christians to help meet the financial needs of others. . . a noble task and a generous gift. However, a problem existed. It seems that after selling the piece of land, Ananias and Sapphira decided to keep a portion of its proceeds for themselves. Now that practice would not have been a problem (God never commanded the early Jerusalem church to sell all their land and give all the proceeds to the new church) however, this couple still wanted to be recognized by the apostles and others for giving everything, even when they “only” gave a lot. To put this in today’s dollars, it would be like selling your house for $100,000, giving $75,000 to the church, but telling everyone that you gave all the proceeds of your home sale to meet the needs of others.
Now I don’t know where you come from, but $75,000 is a lot of money. We might expect God to be excited by the large financial gift that Ananias and Sapphira had given. We might expect Him to look the other way, and ignore their creative accounting because of His desire to get more money into the church. However, that is not what God does. In fact, God does not let this slide one bit. God strikes both Ananias and Sapphira dead, a temporal judgment for the sin they had committed. The question then becomes, why did God strike this couple dead after their generous gift? Sure they lied, but what they did was mostly good. Why the strong judgment?
I believe that God acted so strong and swift in response to Ananias and Sapphira because He wanted His people to know that it was not just external actions He was after, but our internal heart attitude as well. For centuries the Pharisees had made an art form out of external obedience to the exclusion of heart level holiness, and God did not want His new church to fall into that same trap. God is not just interested in our actions, but in our attitudes as well.
To put it another way, God is not an aging President who rides down the streets of our lives only able to see about two stories up. If that were the kind of God we served, we could decorate the visible areas of our lives with fresh coats of good works, and draw His attention away from the sin and struggle that we deal with seven stories up or on the streets less traveled. In fact, our God is a God who sees not just selected streets, but the entire city of our heart. He not only sees 10 stories up, but He sees completely through our entire heart. That being the case, how should we respond?
I believe that the story of Ananias and Sapphira ought to remind all of us to be completely honest before the living God. He sees the sin in our lives anyway, we might as well be honest before Him about it. As we saw in Acts 5, lying to God gets you no where. As we see in 1 John 1:9 (“If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins.”), being honest with God leads to forgiveness and restoration of fellowship with our merciful heavenly Father. So take some time today and be honest before God in prayer. Don’t try to detour God around the sin in your life, be honest and confess it to Him. God does not want to be lied to, and His eyesight goes all the way to the top of our lives. His forgiveness is sure and swift when we ask Him, but trouble comes when we try to deceive God. The problem with Ananias and Sapphira was that they tried to lie to God. Let’s not make the same mistake.