We are in the midst of a study of Acts 2:1-8:1a, which is a record of the disciples’ witness in Jerusalem. And as I have said several times, it also can be characterized as a series of firsts for the Church. In our last essay we studied 4:1-31, which contains what I called the first opposition to the Church. Chapter three ended with Peter and John preaching in Solomon’s porch at the temple. In 4:1-4 we saw that their preaching upset the Jewish authorities. So the priests, the captain of the temple, and the Sadducees arrested Peter and John and put the two apostles in jail overnight. But that didn’t keep the preached word from having its intended effect. Hundreds repented and believed, and the total number of believers in Jerusalem rose to 5,000. But the opposition continued from there.
In this essay we are studying 4:32-5:11, in which Luke records the first deceit in the Church. Verses 32-37 provide more details about life in the Christian community and sets up the contrasting stories of Barnabas on the one hand, and Ananias and Sapphira and their deceit of the Church on the other.
Interestingly, Luke had given a brief description of the community after Peter’s first sermon on the day of Pentecost (2:43-47). Now here he gives another brief summary.
The first thing to notice about the community is the fact that they were unified. Luke says, “They were of one heart and soul” (v. 32). That was the power of the Holy Spirit at work, knitting their hearts together.
Second, the members of the community were generous to one another. The members who had resources shared them with those who did not (vv. 34-35).
Third, they maintained a powerful witness about the resurrection of Jesus (v. 33). Notice how consistently we have seen the theme of Jesus’ resurrection in the early preaching. And fourth, “great grace was upon them all” (v. 34).
Next, in 5:1-11, Luke tells two contrasting stories. He offers the story of Barnabas as an example of those who were acting generously (vv. 36-37). And he offers the story of Ananias and Sapphira to illustrate that the unity of the Holy Spirit was not universal.
Barnabas, who by the way later became a missionary partner of the apostle Paul, sold a field and gave the money to the apostles for the use of those in need. Ananias and Sapphira on the other hand sold a piece of property and claimed that they had given the money to the Church for those in need. But in reality, they had kept back some of the money.
Now verses two to four are very important. First of all they tell us that Peter knew of the couple’s deception. We don’t know if the Holy Spirit revealed that to him, or if he found out in some other way. But he knew, and he confronted Ananias. “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back part of the proceeds of the land?”
Second, we note something important about the Holy Spirit. He is a real person, not simply a spiritual force. He is someone to whom one can lie.
Third, we learn Satan never stops trying to lead Christians astray. There has been no time in the history of the Church when the Holy Spirit was moving more strongly than in those early days, and yet Satan was active. And Peter sensed Satan’s activity in connection with Ananias.
Fourth, we see that Peter was not upset about the money. The money was not the issue. The couple was under no obligation to give all of the money. It was at their disposal both before and after the sale of the property. The couple could have given as little or as much as they wished. The issue was the lie, the hypocrisy. Indeed Peter declared that they had lied to God.
Apparently Ananias and Sapphira wanted the same kind of prestige and affirmation that they saw Barnabas getting, but they were unwilling to pay the price to get it. So they lied. They said they had given all of the money from the sale of the property. But they kept back some of the money. Verses five through ten tell us that rather than receiving prestige and affirmation, from the community, they received judgment from God. Ananias dropped dead when Peter confronted him.
Some have suggested that Ananias died of a heart attack from the trauma of the exposure of their lie. That would be plausible if this were the end of the story. But this isn’t the end of the story. Three hours later, Sapphira likewise dropped dead when she repeated the lie to Peter rather than tell the truth. There is no doubt. They were struck by the judgment of God.
Fortunately, the judgment we see taking place here is not God’s usual way of dealing with Christian sinners. If it were, most of us would be gone. So we must ask, why did God judge so severely in this case? My answer to that question is this. I would say that the judgment of Ananias and Sapphira is a New Testament equivalent of two Old Testament judgments. The first took place after the construction of the tabernacle or “tent of meeting” (Ex. 40), the detailed explanation of how the sacrifices should be carried out (Lev. 1-7), and the ordination of Aaron and his sons as the first priests (Lev. 8-9). Two of Aaron’s sons almost immediately “offered unholy fire before the Lord,” meaning fire that the Lord had not prescribed.” And God struck them dead (Lev. 10:1-2).
The second example was that of Achan and his family found in Joshua chapter seven. After the taking of Jericho, God directed Joshua to declare everything in the city devoted to God, which meant that all of it had to be used for God’s purposes or destroyed. That fact is seen in chapter six, verses 17-21. But Achan took some of the devoted things, or we could say he stole them, for his own purposes (7:1). As a result, Israel’s army was routed at the town of Ai, which was a small, insignificant town with a very small defensive force (vv. 2-5).
Joshua prayed about the disaster (7:6-9), and received a very specific reply from God (7:10-15). He was told how to discover the culprit and what the punishment would be (vv. 13-15). The next day, Joshua followed the Lord’s directions and discovered that Achan was the culprit. When confronted, Achan confessed; and then he and his family were stoned to death and all their possessions destroyed.
Many have been offended by the harsh judgment and punishment of God seen in each of these stories of judgment. But there is an understandable reason for the harshness. All three stories have an important thing in common. Each of these events happened at a crucial point in salvation history. The sin of Aaron’s sons occurred as worship at the tabernacle first began. The sin of Achan took place as Israel’s life in the Promised Land began. And the sin of Ananias and Sapphira occurred as life in the New Covenant Church began. In other words, at critical moments throughout salvation history, God clearly wanted to communicate to his people that sin would not be tolerated. It is true that God’s approach to sinners among his people generally is one of longsuffering mercy. But these examples of immediate, harsh judgment at important times in salvation history remind us, as they did God’s people in those days, that sin always comes under judgment, and we should repent of any sin in our lives rather than presume upon God’s mercy.
The paragraph ends in verses 11 with the results of God’s discipline: “great fear seized the whole church and all who heard of these things.” There would have been at least two kinds of fear: the reverential fear of God’s holiness and majesty on the part of righteous believers. And there would have been judgmental fear on the part of unrighteous believers and unbelievers.
This verse contains the first appearance in Acts of the word “church” to describe the community of believers. The Greek word (ekklesia) originally meant “assembly” and was used to describe the assemblies of free citizens in Greek city-states. The Greek Old Testament translators used the word to translate the “congregation” of Israel in the Old Testament. And then the Christians chose it to describe Christian assemblies of believers.