But a man named Ananias, with the consent of his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property; with his wife’s knowledge, he kept back some of the proceeds, and brought only a part and laid it at the apostles’ feet. “Ananias,” Peter asked, “why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back part of the proceeds of the land? While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, were not the proceeds at your disposal? How is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You did not lie to us but to God!” Now when Ananias heard these words, he fell down and died. And great fear seized all who heard of it.The young men came and wrapped up his body, then carried him out and buried him.
After an interval of about three hours his wife came in, not knowing what had happened.Peter said to her, “Tell me whether you and your husband sold the land for such and such a price.” And she said, “Yes, that was the price.” Then Peter said to her, “How is it that you have agreed together to put the Spirit of the Lord to the test? Look, the feet of those who have buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out.” Immediately she fell down at his feet and died. When the young men came in they found her dead, so they carried her out and buried her beside her husband. And great fear seized the whole church and all who heard of these things (Acts 5:1-11).
There is a lot of subtext to this story — a lot of stuff going on. The time, place and wording of Ananias’ pledge is not given. Clearly, he’d stood up before the congregation and promised to give it the proceeds from the sale of the property that he owned with his wife, Sapphira.
It’s easy to imagine the thankfulness of the saints to God and to Ananias and Sapphira. Because of this generous gift, widows and orphans would eat and keep a roof over their heads and the study and teaching of the apostles would be supported.
The little community of Christ-followers was warm and attractive. God was on the move. There were signs and wonders every day of his presence and working. All material things were shared in common among the believers and their numbers were expanding rapidly. Ananias and Sapphira wanted to be part of this. Who wouldn’t?
The community owed its existence to the Holy Spirit. That’s what started it and gave it life. Ananias and Sapphira missed that point. They thought their money was an effective substitute for the Holy Spirit. After all, isn’t wealth and property the stamp of God’s pre-approval on its possessors?
A lot of people think that way and the cause of Christ suffers for it. It is the hard truth of the Fall from grace that “good” that does not originate from God is evil (Gen 3:1-7). Just because there is funding available for a project does not mean the Lord is behind it.
“Only God is good,” was Jesus’ observation to a rich young man thinking he could substitute virtuous performance and wealth for dependence on God as a route to salvation. Jesus called him to sell his possessions and deliver the proceeds to the poor and then follow Jesus (Luke 18:22). Jesus was calling him into community, but he declined because his identity was wrapped up in its wealth.
Mark records that Jesus obviously loved the young man, but he made a classic choice of wealth over love and so went away heartbroken (Mark 10:17-22).
It is also tempting to look good rather than be good. Ananias and Sapphira fell for that one. They wanted the community to think well of them for their generosity even as they dishonored their commitment to God. Their sacrificial giving was a hoax intended to make them look good.
It is a lie of Satan’s that being good costs more than looking good. Plastic surgeons and wedding planners make excellent livings off of that whopper. But when you’ve put everything into appearance whether physical, material or spiritual, what will you have left for the Lord who dismisses the outward appearance, but closely scrutinizes the heart (1 Sam 16:7).
Did the connivance and deceit of Ananias and Sapphira warrant the death penalty? Not from the human perspective. No one was hurt by their lies. “No harm, no foul” as the saying goes. The Scripture never says
As I said at the beginning, there was something much deeper going on here. The obvious point made by the Apostle Peter is that to lie to the church is to lie to God (Acts 5:5). The church is “the bride of Christ” (See Rom 7; 2 Cor 11; Ephesians 5). Our Lord will not have his bride trifled with or shown disrespect.
This story is the first time the word “church” is used to describe the body of Christian believers (Acts 5:11). The church and the apostles that led it represented the Holy Spirit (cf Acts 9:4; 15:28). Ananias and Sapphira were conspiring to sabotage the work of the Holy Spirit. Their attempt to control and manipulate God rather than to wait and see what he could do with them and through them had to be stopped cold.
Is the church a place to come and bargain with God, to wheedle and cajole him, “I’ll do anything for you, Lord, if only you will . . . .? Is the pew and kneeling bench the place to find the right recipe for baking our cake and eating it too; i.e. “For every two for me, Jesus, I’ll give you one”? Pride is having its way when those are our considerations.
Or is church a place to lay your all on the altar, in the words of the beautiful old hymn?
Is your all on the altar of sacrifice laid?
Your heart, does the spirit control.
For you cannot have rest,
or be perfectly blessed,
until all on the altar you’ve laid.
(Is Your All On the Altar? Elisha A. Hoffman, 1900).
It is the amazing, but terrifying marvel of grace that the Lord takes everything from us in order to give us everything. We fear the empty hands, empty bank account, empty arms, empty hands so our prayers are little more than exercises of grasp and grab and games of “tug-o’-war.” He so desires us to trust him, even more than love him. Love is wonderful, but trust . . . that’s where things begin to move for us.
The only act of physical force by Jesus recorded in the Gospels is when he picked up a whip and drove the money-changers from the temple (Matt 21:12-17,23-27; Mark 11:15-19, 23-33; Luke 19:45-48, 20:1-8; John 2:13-16). They were profiting from the devotion of the people to their God in God’s house and the Son of God was having none of it,. He quoted Jeremiah and Isaiah to them. “It is written,
‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’;
but you are making it a den of robbers.”
(Matt 21:13, quoting Jer 7:11; Isa 56:7)
It isn’t only about money.
A sin against one of God’s children is a sin against God. It is a terrible thing when one’s hope, joy and peace are stolen at church. When that happens it is a sure sign that someone is seeking control rather than trusting the tender mercies and creative Spirit of our Lord in the manner of Ananias and Sapphira.
We are rightly fond of singing and talking about Christ’s acceptance of our brokenness and shame, but are we bringing the best of who we are and what we have to the altar and handing it over to him as well? “Cursed be the cheat who has a male in the flock and vows to give it; and yet sacrifices to the Lord what is blemished; for I am a great King, says the Lord of hosts, and my name is reverenced among the nations” (Mal 1:14).
We expect the Lord to do great things for us, even as our craven hearts and stingy spirits seek to pay him a slave’s wages. Instead of speculating on whether it was really fair that Ananias and Sapphira paid for their perfidy with their lives, consider that it was holding back part of their life from the Lord and His life-giving Holy Spirit that brought them to their end.
The question to be taken from this story is whether or not we are “all-in” with the Lord, or still holding-out on him? May the Holy Spirit enlighten and strengthen us in our response.
“O taste and see that the Lord is good. Happy are those who take refuge in him” (Ps 34:8).
Under the mercy of Christ,
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