Simon Chaplin saw the blue lights flashing in his rear view mirror, flipped a switch on the dashboard of his Peugeot and immediately smoke began billowing out from the car in finest James Bond fashion as he raced off. Chaplin had earlier filled a five-gallon bucket with diesel, stuck a pump in it and ran a pipe to his exhaust system. When he flipped the switch the pump (powered by the car’s electrical system) dripped the diesel into the exhaust which resulted in a lot of smoke. Unlike the movies though, Chaplin’s escape attempt wasn’t successful. The police caught up to him after a brief chase—they just followed the smoke.
Luke’s account of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5 is one of those stories that gets our attention immediately. Like Samson bringing down the temple, Jonah being swallowed by the great fish, or Lot’s wife turning into a pillar of salt—we’re drawn in by the disaster.
Part of it has to do with how the story sneaks up on us. Up to this point in the book of Acts, Luke has moved the narrative along with stories that show the church living as the body of Christ in powerful ways. They’re waiting on God as Jesus did (Acts 1), proclaiming the kingdom (2), healing the lame (3), and standing up to corrupt religious authorities (4). Then in the fifth chapter we’re introduced to this husband and wife who sell some land, give some of it to the church—and are struck dead by God!
Of course, there’s more to the story than that. After selling the land, they conspire to keep part of the proceeds but tell the church they’re donating everything. In other words, they misrepresent what they are doing. Their purpose in practicing this deceit is to make themselves look more generous than they really are. Like Simon Chaplin, it’s a big smokescreen designed to cover their tracks.
It’s actually a very 21st century story when you think about it. Ananias and Sapphira were simply practicing image management. They wanted people to think of them in a way that didn’t correspond with who they really were. Rather than change who they were, they just wanted to sell an image to people.
Years ago Canon promoted their cameras with the slogan Image is everything. That’s become hauntingly true in many sectors. Billions of dollars will be spent by politicians during this election cycle—unfortunately much of it has to do with selling us an image. That this is an effective strategy is witnessed by our culture’s veneration of celebrities (who themselves employ publicists to help them project the right image). And now with social media David Brooks writes, “People are given more occasions to be self-promoters, to embrace the characteristics of celebrity, to manage their own image, to Snapchat out their selfies in ways they hope will impress and please the world. This technology creates a culture in which people turn into little brand managers, using Facebook, Twitter, text messages, and Instagram to create a falsely upbeat, slightly over exuberant, external self that can be famous first in a small sphere and then, with luck, in a larger one.”
Ananias and Sapphira lost their lives because it was a critical time in the life of the church. There was one congregation on the face of the earth. If deceit was allowed to flourish the movement would soon be overrun with hucksters and charlatans (see Acts 5:13) so they paid the ultimate price for their image managing. Simon Chaplin was arrested and is awaiting trial. Our potential loss is just as profound. In all of our image management we can lose the person that we really are—the person God loves, has redeemed and wants to transform into His image. We can lose what is real and be left with nothing but smoke.
Image isn’t everything—integrity is.