The Worst Financial Decision Ever!

A Study of Ananias and Sapphira

Acts 5:1-11

What happened to Ananias and Sapphira is legendary in the Church and is frequently used by pastors to encourage their people to give generously to the church. But is that the lesson being taught?

The story of Ananias and Sapphira really begins during the last two verses of chapter 4, which tells the story of a very generous man named Barnabas who sold a field he owned and gave his money to be distributed to the needy of the Church. Barnabas was the kind of man every church wants to have, not just because he was generous but because he was of excellent character; always quick to appreciate the good in others, unselfish and not at all interested in self-glory. Luke inserts Barnabas here as an example of all that was good in the very early Church.

That brings us to chapter 5 and the story of Ananias and Sapphira, whose case is opposite that of Barnabas, though it was meant to look the same.

1. The conspiracy, 5:1, 2

It is hard to imagine there being hypocrites in the church so soon after it started! But hypocrites there were and the story of these two hypocrites is in stark contrast to the the story of Barnabas. It is equally difficult to understand why insincere, selfish people even desire to join the church and cause to strife and division.

Luke details the conspiracy between husband and wife succinctly in these two verses. Both of these people were undoubtedly believers; Ananias means “God is gracious” and Sapphira is an Aramaic word meaning “beautiful.” Luke uses the small word “also” to link what this couple did to what Barnabas did in the previous story. They wanted the same acclaim or notoriety that Barnabas got when he sold his property, so they imitated what he did, with one exception: instead of giving all the proceeds of the sale to the church, they held some back.

There was nothing wrong with that; nobody expected them to give all the money to the church, but Luke’s use of the word nosphizo suggests deception, because in addition to “keeping back,” the word also means “purloined.” Lake and Cadbury observe in this regard:

[This word] occurs not infrequently in Hellenistic prose…and always implies (a) that the theft was secret; (b) that part of a larger quantity is purloined…(c) it is to be noted further that the verb also involves breaking a trust.

Keeping for themselves what they were ostensibly giving to the Church was a premeditated act, which made the sin ever more serious.

2. Peter’s discernment, 5:3, 4

Kistemaker points out some interesting parallels to this account in the Old Testament. In the Garden of Eden, Satan entered in and enticed Eve to sin against God (Genesis 3:1). Her sin affected the entire human race. When the Israelites consecrated themselves to God by observing the rite of circumcision and celebrating the Passover feast (Joshua 5:1-12), Achan’s sin of stealing from God effectively destroyed Israel’s moral purity; his sin affected every single Israelite. Ananias’s deception could have destroyed the purity of the early Church, which was displayed to all through their love, unity, and harmonious relationship with each other. These three examples serve as ominous warnings to the Church of Jesus Christ today.

This story has provoked much discussion among critics of the Bible. Peter appears so callous and uncaring. Ananias is not given a chance to repent. His wife is struck dead without warning. All of these things lead some critics to suggest this story never happened; that it was a ficticious “legend” used to keep early believers in line.

However, we believe this incident did take place; we have no reason to believe that it did not. Guided by the Holy Spirit, Peter sensed that Satan was at work in the heart of Ananias and he proceeded to ask the man five questions:

· How is it that Satan has so filled your heart? Perhaps better than any leader of the Church at that time, Peter understood what it was like to allow Satan to persuade a person to do something wrong. Satan persuaded him to deny Jesus three times. Satan put into the heart of Judas Iscariot the intent to betray Jesus. In a moment, Peter realized what could happen to the fledgling church if Satan entered into the heart just one believer. Not only the believer himself, but the whole congregation needed to be made aware of the power of Satan.

· [Why have] you have lied to the Holy Spirit? This really is the root of Ananias’ sin. It was not holding back some of the money. It was not giving a false impression to the church. It was lying to the Holy Spirit. Calvin wrote that when he lied to the Holy Spirit, Ananias expelled God from his life and deliberately sinned against the Holy Spirit.

· [Why did you keep] for yourself some of the money you received for the land? God loves a cheerful giver, not a dishonest one (2 Corinthians 9:7). There was nothing wrong with holding back some of the money, but it was wrong to lie about it.

· Didn’t it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn’t the money at your disposal? Interestingly, these questions reveal that the early Christians did not practice communal living and communal ownership of property but only shared that which would help others in their poverty.

Ananias could say nothing. He permitted Satan to fill his heart, refused to worship God, and made money the object of his worship. Despite that, he wanted the praise of God’s people for his pretend generosity. But a Christian cannot serve two masters.

· What made you think of doing such a thing? You have not lied to men but to God.” Ananias committed an evil in the sight of man and God. Man always stands in the presence of God, who sees everything we do (Prov. 15:3).

3. The result of sin, 5:5-10

From the purely physical realm, Ananias’ sudden death could have been due to the shock and shame of being found out. But the Greek word Luke used for his death is ekpsycho is the same word used of Sisera’s death in the LXX, which was a judgment from God, and in the New Testament it is always used in that regard. Whatever the physical reason for Ananias’ death, ultimately the causal agent was God Himself.

The result of Ananias’ death was stunning and exactly what God wanted. And great fear seized all who heard what had happened. God’s desire is for the Body of Christ to remain pure and untainted by sin. We of the genteel generation view God’s action in a harsh light. This is unwarranted. God removed the blame of Ananias’s sin by removing both him and his wife from the Body of Christ. He God tolerated this sin, the church would have no defense against the charge that God tolerated sin and deception against Him and His people. At least at the very beginning, the Church He created would be free from that.

We should note, though, that while Ananias’ death produced fear in the congregation, it produced no joy. Young men came and collected his body and it was treated with respect. The Greek word for “wrapped up” (verse 6) is systello, and was frequently used to describe the careful wrapping up of a body in preparation for burial. Because of the hot and humid climate, he would have been buried very quickly.

No sooner had her husband succumbed to God’s judgment, than his wife showed up, oblivious to what happened to him. The tragic episode was repeated about three hours later; she lied and dropped dead. Ernst Haenchen writes,

All this is handled without pity, for we are in the presence of the divine punishment which should be witnessed in fear and trembling, but not with Aristotelian fear and pity.

Scholarship is divided as to what took Sapphira. It was God’s judgment, but what happened to her? Was it shock? A heart attack? To show you how the mind of a theologian works, consider what the foremost conservative New Testament scholar wrote. In his long and distinguished career, F. F. Bruce wrote three commentaries on the book of Acts. In his first, 1949, Bruce wrote that Sapphira died of guilt and shock of her husband’s sudden death. In his second work on Acts, he said that “the shock produced by the sudden sense of the enormity of such a crime caused their death.” Finally, in Mr. Bruce’s third commentary, he wrote: “It was an evident act of judgment.”

Verse 11 seems redundant, but it is significant for very important thing: it is the very first time in the New Testament we read the word “church” (ekklesia) in describing the called out members of Christ’s Body.

4. Some lessons

In his commentary on Acts, Bible scholar Ralph Earl eloquently observed that the sin of Ananias and Sapphira showed contempt for God, vanity and ambition in the offenders, and utter disregard of the corruption which they were bringing unto the church. In fact, they thought more of the display made at the Apostle’s feet that of the offense before God’s eyes.

Darby, in his excellent Synopsis of the Bible, wrote these very insightful words:

God cannot endure evil where He dwells; still less where He does not dwell. He exercises all patience until there is no remedy within. The more His presence is realized and manifested, the more He shows Himself intolerant of evil. It cannot be otherwise. He judges in the midst of His saints, where He will have holiness.

Of the question as to why we don’t see more instances of Ananias and Sapphira today, Darby’s words see to me to be reasonable. Perhaps it is simply because there is so little of God’s presence left in His church today.


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