A few weeks ago, I had the “privilege” of sitting under some pretty bad teaching. I’ve often heard illustrations by others of hearing and experiencing flawed preaching, but I haven’t been privy to it firsthand that frequently. But on this occasion, I found myself squirming in my seat as I listened to the teacher misconstrue 3 separate passages of Scripture, culminating in a complete misrepresentation of the cross of Christ. The passages in question were Matthew 19, Acts 4, and Acts 5. The specific stories being connected were that of “The Rich Young Ruler” (Mt 19:16–22), the testimony of the first Christians laying their “all” before the apostles’ feet (Acts 4:32–37), and the account of Ananias and Sapphira. (Acts 5:1–11)
The speaker was trying to contrast the deference and seeming self-deprecation of the first Christians in Acts 4 with pride and greed of Ananias, Sapphira, and the young ruler. For what it’s worth, these passages can be easily connected. On the surface, each one deals with personal possessions and the juxtaposition between giving them away and keeping them for yourself. The dichotomy between selfishness and selflessness in these stories is pretty stark. On the one hand, condemnation and death await those who keep things for themselves. (Mt 19:22–24; Acts 5:5, 10) On the other hand, those who give themselves away are filled with all boldness, fullness, and gladness of heart. (Acts 4:31) The biblical truth of giving of yourself to those in need can certainly be made from these stories, and I have no qualms with those who choose to make it. However, a grave fallacy arises when these passages are used to engender selflessness based on the model of Christ on the cross.
The part where I squirmed — and almost shouted — came when the speaker made the point that, unlike Ananias, Sapphira, and the young ruler who selfishly kept and hoarded their possessions, we should be like Jesus, who willingly gave up his possessions in service of God. The gist he was going for was more sacrificing, less stockpiling. Why should we keep our things when Jesus gave away his? “As young people, why are you being so selfish with your stuff when Jesus was completely selfless with his? Be like Jesus, the true and better young ruler, who gave himself away fully and completely. Be like Jesus and give up your stuff.” Now, maybe you’re squirming too. If not, you should be, because this was a ridiculous representation of Christ’s cross. And, dare I say, a dangerous one at that.
Jesus’s death on the cross wasn’t him being the perfect model of selflessness and giving away “his possessions,” primarily for the fact that he had no possessions. This comes right from Jesus’s own mouth, where he replies to one of the scribes, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” (Lk 9:58) Seeing Christ’s selflessness merely as a disavowal of earthly things in deference to the Father’s will completely misses the mark and misconstrues the real victory of Golgotha.
Don’t misrepresent Jesus’s crucifixion by turning it into another guilt-trip tactic that tries to scare your audience into obedience. The cross isn’t there to inspire more giving, it’s there to remind us of a God who gave all for you. The cross isn’t there to motivate people to fill the offering plates. The cross is there to show you the ultimate offering made on your behalf. In fact, these stories are less about possessions and more about our personal God’s. Each passage shows what happens when we make a choice about which God we’re going to serve — self or the Savior.
The reason Ananias, Sapphira, and the young ruler were condemned wasn’t because they were keeping stuff for themselves. It’s not that they were hoarders, it’s that they were deeming themselves divine. In that moment, they had ascended the throne of their heart, supplanting the place rightfully and only reserved for God. The events of Matthew 19 and Acts 5 more closely mirror those of Genesis 3, and the fall of man. There we see that man’s original sin wasn’t greed or selfishness — it was pride. The idol of self usurped control of the heart and resulted in the devastation of the rest of mankind. Tempted with the thought of “being like God,” Adam and Eve fell and subsequently thrusted the rest of mankind in the upward spiraling fall of self-salvation.
Likewise, here, Ananias, Sapphira, and the young ruler see the commands of God and directives for obedience and determine that their own sacrifice is sufficient. All three of these characters fell victim to the beast of sin, that is pride. You see, pride corrupts God’s righteousness by bringing it down to man’s level. Pride and self-conceit twist the holiness of the law into keepable checklists, making it about performances and appearances. The self-sufficiency of pride is a direct affront to God. By claiming they had sold all, Ananias and Sapphira became their own God’s and contorted the law of giving. By asserting his own merit, the young ruler became his own savior and distorted the law of deliverance from belief to works. “All these I have kept. What do I still lack?” remarked the young ruler. (Mt 19:20) “All this we have given. What more could we give?” Ananias and Sapphira might’ve said. And so it is that we see the blindness of pride that determines to make man’s obedience the equivalent of living up to the law.
You see, Jesus hanging and bleeding and dying on the cross wasn’t to model the perfect example of self-abhorrence and self-deprecation. Jesus hanging and bleeding and dying on the cross was to model for you the perfect Savior who loves sinners. He wasn’t picturing the perfect end of self-repudiation, he was showing the world that he alone can carry the weight of the universe’s sin, the weight of the world’s pride. Only the infinite sacrifice of Calvary can pay for the savageness of pride. No amount of human giving can live up to the requirement of the law. Only Jesus does that. His performance inspires our obedience. (Acts 4:33–35) The grace of the gospel galvanizes the Christian to live a life that proves that very same grace — not a life that attempts to perform the righteousness of law. There’s chasm of difference between those who would try to win their deliverance by their effort and those who would try to prove their deliverance by God’s grace.
I guess what I’m trying to say is don’t make the Bible about you. Don’t put yourself in places where only Christ should be seen. Instead of making it about all the ways you can get better and give more and do more and try harder, let’s make it about the One who gave all for us! Let’s return to preaching the simple message of Christ crucified. Let’s return to reading the Bible as if it’s all about the One who lived and died and rose again for you. About the One who intercedes and intervenes for us, for sinners, even while we mocked him, beat him, and spat in his face. Our paltry offerings are nothing compared to the ultimate offering God’s only Son. Let’s not bastardize that truth with our coercive messages about giving. Let’s just revel in God who gave all for us.