The new believers have just had their first taste of persecution and now realize that life in the new movement will not be all miracles and fellowship. What they may not realize, however, is that the problems they face will not all be from the outside. Satan has wasted no time attacking them through the intimidation and threats of the Sanhedrin, but persecution is only one front in his war against the saints. He now attacks from within and tries to weaken the group through the sin of two of its members. Greed, hypocrisy, pride and deceit are the tools he uses to lead a couple astray and threaten the unity and purity of the young church.
This text gives a vivid contrast between the actions of a Spirit-led congregation – and specifically one of its members – and a Satan-inspired married couple. It compares the generosity and compassion of Barnabas with the hypocrisy and deceit of Ananias and Sapphira. In doing so it shows what it means to live within a loving community of believers wholly committed to the gospel but also that sin can permeate even the most faithful group.
God answered the prayer of the believers by giving them the strength and courage to boldly proclaim His word (23-31). He also answers them by giving them love for each other. The community becomes marked by the love of its members. They live out Jesus’ mandate to His disciples – “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (Jn 13:35).
The congregation is of one heart and soul. They pray by lifting their voices to God with one accord (24). They devote themselves to fellowship and are continually together (2:42,44). The group is completely unified in the Spirit. The gospel overwhelms any differences they have (remember that the original 3000 converts are a very diverse group with multiple native tongues – 2:9-11) and drives them into a loving community.
Verse 33 shows that God continues to answer their prayer and the boldness and confidence of the apostles do not wane. They give witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus with great power. They do not stop preaching the gospel and the result of their teaching is that abundant grace is upon them all. The group is transformed by the proclamation of the gospel.
It is interesting to consider the context of their witness. Luke describes the new believers in verse 33 and makes it sound as if the apostles’ teaching is within the group. They certainly proclaim the gospel to all people but they apparently continue to proclaim it even to those who have already believed and accepted it. This continual proclamation changes the believers through the abundant grace that comes upon them. This shows how the gospel is not intended as a vehicle for one-time belief and then left behind as further doctrine is pursued. The gospel is living and powerful and is to be lived out continually by those who have been saved by it. We never outgrow the gospel.
The abundant grace on the congregation shows itself in care for the needy through sharing of possessions and wealth. Everyone sees what he owns as belonging to the group – and really to God – not to himself. Thus when needs arise those who have property willingly sell it to spread the money to those who most need it. Nothing is held with a closed hand. Their love for one another leads them to do what is necessary to care for each other. Their love for each other surpasses any love for their possessions. Two of the effects of believing in Jesus are that the heart is loosened in relationship to things and tightened in its relationship to people. Faith in Christ creates a bond of love to people, and cuts the bond of love to things (John Piper, Be Like Barnabas Not Like Ananias!, Sermon 02/10/1991).
Nothing is said about the apostles preaching generosity or commanding the believers to give to the poor. They preach the gospel and the understanding and appreciation of that message leads to generosity. It is the gospel that ultimately changes perspectives and behavior. The people do not have to be told to generously give – it is what makes sense in light of the gospel. Whether they realize it or not, they understand and live out Christ’s words to His disciples about possessions and giving – “Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has chosen gladly to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions and give to charity; make yourselves purses which do not wear out, and unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near, nor moth destroys” (Lk 12:32-33).
What is amazing is that they actually eradicate poverty. For there was not a needy person among them. They do the impossible. They do what every government claims it wants to do and yet is powerless to actually achieve. And they do it without any government programs, without any coercion, even seemingly without any distinct direction at all. They simply are transformed by the gospel such that they see others with needs and realize that if they can meet them they absolutely should. And enough of them think this – for ALL who were owners of land or houses would sell them and bring the proceeds of the sales – that they rid a group of somewhere between 5000 and 10,000 people of poverty. “Why should someone go without when I have more than I need? And if what I have wholly belongs to God, then why would I keep it for myself when others clearly need it? I love my poor brother so I will help him with the belongings God has given me. What I have is not my own so I freely give it to those who need it more than I do.” But whoever has the world’s goods, and beholds his brother in need and closes his heart against him, how does the love of God abide in him? (I Jn 3:17).
Interesting how much Luke stresses the community property aspect of the new movement. This is the second time he has mentioned it (2:43-47). It is also interesting that it seems to be one of the main ways the group distinguishes itself. The gospel brings with it an understanding of God’s love and mercy and the desire to share that love and mercy with others – especially others within the faith. And one of the main ways to show love is by meeting physical needs. Thus radical generosity is a (super)natural outgrowth of the gospel – it is a mark of belief.
A specific example of the charity that exists within the community is the act of Joseph, a Levite of Cyprian birth, who is also called Barnabas. As a Levite, Barnabas technically is not to own any land under the Mosaic Law. In New Testament times, however, it appears that this part of the Law is no longer observed. He also is from Cyprus so perhaps the absence of the temple means the Levites do not live in the same way there that the Law calls for. In any case he apparently is affluent enough to own land apart from where he resides and sells it so he can generously help the poor.
These verses about Barnabas are at first somewhat odd to read. After saying that all who own land willingly sell it to meet the needs of the poor it seems strange to arbitrarily cite Barnabas for doing the same thing. What makes his act any more special than all the other acts that are unnamed? What seems to be the case is that Luke uses this event to introduce Barnabas to his readers. Barnabas will play a major role in the church and Luke apparently wants to show that he is part of the movement from the start and is a loving and generous Son of Encouragement. He also likely wants to contrast his act with the story that immediately follows.
Amazingly, the generosity of the new believers brings with it an opportunity for sin. Satan uses the righteous acts of the group to attack it from within. A married couple in the community – Ananias and Sapphira – takes notice of how those who sell property and give the proceeds to the apostles are well thought of and highly esteemed. Perhaps they see that giving away money is not only a public act of generosity but also a way to show affluence. They decide to become part of the trend – sell and give and reap the respect that comes as a result.
Ananias sells a piece of property and – with his wife Sapphira’s full knowledge – keeps some of the price for himself. He brings the proceeds to the apostles to distribute to the poor – just as others have done. The text does not record what Ananias says when he brings the money but he apparently either gives the impression or says outright that he brings all of the money from the sale for the poor. Note that the text is clear – he does this with forethought. He intends to give the appearance of giving away all of the proceeds while really keeping some for himself. There is no ambiguity about his intentions – he will not reap the consequences unjustly.
There is no detail in the text about what they sell or how much they keep versus how much they bring to the apostles. It would seem that they would have to bring enough to make their story plausible – which means the amount is still quite a sacrifice. It may also be that no one knows anything about what they owned and so the reasonableness of the amount is unknown. They presumably think they have pulled off the perfect crime – get credit for generosity while still being able to enjoy a decent part of the money.
Notice that their focus is completely horizontal. If they can fool the people they will get what they want – the people’s respect and praise. God’s respect and praise do not enter their minds at all. And God’s perspective of what they do is not even remotely considered. Their fear of man leaves no room for the fear of God and they will pay with their lives as a result. This lesson is repeated endlessly in the Bible – we either fear man OR we fear God but we never fear both.
After Ananias brings the money Peter responds. Peter asks him four questions and then pronounces a verdict. He says, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back some of the price of the land? [You are lying about the proceeds from the land and in so doing you are lying to the Holy Spirit who indwells those you are trying to deceive. You are not filled with the Holy Spirit but with Satan.] While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not under your control? [No one said you had to do this. You own your land – not the church. No one has forced anyone to sell their lands – they have done it of their own accord. The people who have brought money from property sales have done it out of love for God and for others. You could have brought only a portion just as you did, as long as you did not lie about it.] Why is it that you have conceived this deed in your heart? [Satan may have put the thought in your mind, but you are ultimately responsible because you took the thought and used it to conceive sin (James 1:14-15).] You have not lied to men, but to God.” [You think you are just lying to those of us here, but you are actually lying to God because we are His children and His church. Your sin – and all sin – is ultimately against God.] (Notice that God in verse 4 corresponds to Holy Spirit in verse 3 – shows the divinity of the Holy Spirit)
When Ananias hears Peter pronounce the verdict of lying to God he immediately drops dead. He does not say anything in his defense. He simply hears the verdict and dies. Not surprisingly, those who witness this or hear about it become very scared – this is enormously unexpected. What seemed like another joyous event of giving has suddenly become horrific. A man who looked to be doing an honorable act is now dead because he did it deceitfully.
Three hours later, Sapphira comes to where the apostles are. She does not know anything about what has happened to her husband. There is no explanation as to why she comes – perhaps she comes just to see what has happened as a result of the gift. She may expect to be treated warmly because of their generosity. As she enters, Peter asks her about the land sale (he does not wait to see what she does). He asks her if they in fact sold the land for the amount Ananias claimed. She says, “Yes, that was the price.”
As an aside, it is amazing that in the three hours after Ananias dies Sapphira does not find out about his death. It seems odd that no one goes to her to tell her that her husband is dead. Even as she enters the same place where he died apparently no one says anything to her. Perhaps the way he died and the shock of how it happened make people unsure of what to do and wary of saying anything to her at all. However, it could also be that God determines she will be ignorant so she will be punished fully and serve as an example to the church just like her husband.
Peter wastes no time in responding. He asks her just one question and it is similar to what he asked Ananias – “Why is it that you have agreed together to put the Spirit of the Lord to the test?” He tells her that her deceit is really a means of testing God. Her sin is not against those listening to her but against God – and she will suffer the consequences. Peter tells her that the same men who buried her husband – this is the first she hears about her husband’s death – will bury her. In one split second she realizes to her horror that her husband is dead and she is going to die too. Once Peter condemns her she immediately falls at his feet dead.
The second death in three hours causes great fear to permeate the whole church (vs 11 – this is the first use of the word church in Acts). Not surprisingly, the two deaths shake up anyone who witnesses them or hears about them. Suddenly the ramifications of sin do not seem so benign and the importance of a pure heart is significantly raised. Even the saving aspect of the gospel comes into clearer focus when God’s true perspective on sin is so vividly illustrated.
Epilogue – Ananias and Sapphira
It is important to understand that Ananias and Sapphira at one time confessed Christ and joined the new movement. They heard the gospel and responded – repented and were baptized. They sat under the apostles’ powerful teaching and witnessed the signs and miracles. They likely participated in all aspects of the new church’s life and lived in the same loving community presumably in a way that did not differ from others. And yet they conceived a plan so egregious that God deemed it worthy of the death penalty – with no chance for repentance.
There is no environment in which we cannot be deceived by sin. There is no such thing as a safe zone where we can stop fighting against an unrenewed mind. Ananias and Sapphira saw the miracles and the healings and the prayers and yet completely missed the implications of the Spirit’s presence. They lived in a community completely transformed by love and saw only an opportunity to further their ambition. We must never forget that Adam and Eve lived in paradise and chose sin.
[Were Ananias and Sapphira believers? No way to say definitively, but it seems strange that God would punish them so harshly without giving them a chance to repent if they were. Believers are certainly capable of doing what they did – and worse – and God may have executed them physically without judging them eternally. But it is hard to reconcile their cosmic death penalty with eternal salvation.]
Something else to consider is that what they did was actually an admirable and generous act. They sold property and gave away a significant amount of the proceeds – taken by itself a very good thing. From a horizontal standpoint they acted righteously, and their generosity – assuming the money was actually distributed – was likely appreciated by those who benefited. Even their deceit – in one sense – did not really hurt anyone other than to convince people they were more generous than they were. A defense attorney could have made a compelling case for their acquittal.
However, God always looks at the heart (I Sam 16:7). And He saw two people who did an otherwise righteous act for all the wrong reasons. They did not sell the land so they could help the poor. They sold the land so they could gain the praise of men. They did not love men more than money – they loved the praise of men enough to buy it with a portion of the money they equally loved. They were not transformed by the gospel such that they were of one heart and soul with the community; they were slaves to their pride such that they wanted prestige within the community. They did not consider their property as belonging to God or to others; they saw it as a means to gain what they selfishly wanted. [In these ways they are the opposite of Barnabas. He and they did the same thing but with entirely different motives. Thus he is praised as generous and righteous and goes on to play a major role in the new church while they are executed.]
Yes, their money could have helped people who truly needed it. And yes, they were legitimately generous. But in the end none of that made a difference because their ultimate motivation was to serve themselves, not God (Lk 16:14-15). Their hypocrisy, deceit, and selfishness meant their good act was a capital crime. Their hearts made their generosity punishable by death.
Ananias and Sapphira did what hypocrites always do – they did not consider that there is an audience for their sin beyond the people they sought to deceive. The sad irony about hypocrisy is that those who most successfully practice it are themselves the most deceived. When we live in the presence of an omniscient and holy God and worry only that others might find out about our sins we are tragically misled. Hypocrisy is so dangerous because it requires its purveyors to be unknowingly blind. Only the blind can look at the blindness of others as success and miss the all-seeing God who controls eternity.
God’s punishment of Ananias and Sapphira seems harsh until final judgment is considered. Jesus told His disciples – Matt 7:21-23 – that at the end time people will claim to have served Him with their righteous acts. He, however, will condemn them because He did not know them – they were deceived and were actually serving themselves. He will cast them out of His presence – just as He did with Ananias and Sapphira. The punishment of Acts 5 is merely God practicing in this world what He will do to all hypocrites and deceivers in the next.
And in the end this is what should most sober us after studying this text. God hates hypocrisy. God hates deceit. And God hates anything that threatens the fellowship of His people. Ananias and Sapphira were liars and hypocrites and they threatened the unity of the body with their deceit. Had their plan been initially successful and later found out, it would have wreaked havoc with the spirit of love and giving that marks the new church. God purged them from the community in such a drastic way to serve as an example to others and to preserve the open fellowship of the saints. Hypocrisy and deceit affect others and God hates all aspects of the sins and of their effects on the body.
There are six things which the Lord hates, yes, seven which are an abomination to Him: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that run rapidly to evil, a false witness who utters lies, and one who spreads strife among brothers.
The reason [Ananias and Sapphira] drop dead is not because this happens to all hypocrites. For example, it doesn’t happen to Simon the Magician in Acts 8:20–24. The reason they drop dead is to give a stunning warning to the whole church that phony Christians will all end up this way, sooner or later (John Piper, Be Like Barnabas Not Like Ananias!, Sermon 02/10/1991)