- As we begin the fifth chapter of Acts, it is important that we recall what has taken place in the previous chapter. The information of chapter 4 is going to be contrasted with a story told in chapter 5. Remember in chapter 4 that Peter and John were arrested for preaching Jesus in the temple complex. However, the Sanhedrin could not hold Peter and John over because a notable, undeniable miracle had taken place and all the people were praising God.
- After threatening Peter and John, the Sanhedrin let them go where they returned to their own company. The company prayed for boldness and continued to have all things in common, distributing their goods and possessions to any believer who had need. This fellowship and devotion to one another was exemplified in a man named Joseph, whom the apostles renamed “son of encouragement” or Barnabas. As chapter 4 closes, Barnabas sold a field that he owned, brought the money, and laid it at the apostles’ feet. Notice that chapter 5 begins with the word “but.” The group of believers had all things in common, are encouraging one another, and selling their goods to help with the needs of other believers. But now we come across a husband and wife named Ananias and Sapphira.
I. Acts 5
A. The story
- Ananias and Sapphira sold a piece of property and he decides to keep back part of the proceeds. Sapphira is fully aware that Ananias has chosen to do this. Ananias comes and lays the money at the disciples’ feet.
- Peter keys on this and asks Ananias why Satan has filled his heart to life to the Holy and to keep back for himself part of the proceeds of the land. Let us deal with some of the statements that are made here by Peter. First, the text is not saying that Satan overtook Ananias so that he had no choice but to lie. We see that Ananias and Sapphira willfully began this conspiracy. Peter is asking why he would fall into Satan’s trap by lying.
- Second, many people misunderstand the condemnation of Ananias. Some think that the sin was keeping some of the money back and that Ananias was required to give all the proceeds he had received from the property. But if we continue to read the story we will see that is clearly not the case.
- Peter, in verse 4, argues that Ananias could have done with the money as he chose. The first sentence, “while it remained unsold, did it not remain your own” shows that Ananias did not have to sell the property in the first place. The property was theirs and did not have to be sold. Peter’s next sentence, “and after it was sold, was it not at your disposal” shows that even though they did sell the property, they could have done with the proceeds as they wished. The sin was not in holding some of the money back. Verse 4 clearly identifies the sin, “You have not lied to men but to God.“
- What did they lie about? Though it is not explicitly stated, it is evident that Ananias lied that they gave all the proceeds from the selling of the property, when in fact, they had held some of the money back. Ananias was not condemned for keeping some of the money. However, he is condemned for lying about what was given. As soon as Ananias hears these words, he falls down and breathes his last. Immediately great fear came upon all who had heard what had happened.
- Now about three hours goes by and Sapphira, the wife of Ananias, comes into the group, not knowing what has previously happened. Peter simply asks her if they sold the property for a certain amount. She says yes and is caught in her lie as well. Peter notes that Sapphira and Ananias had conspired together in this act of lying to God. Immediately she fell down and his feet and died. Therefore, great fear came upon the whole church and upon all who heard of these things. Have you asked yourself why Ananias and Sapphira lied about this? What is the benefit of lying about what they sold the property for? Before we answer this question, I would like us to consider a couple other instances where God struck people dead.
B. Nadab and Abihu (Leviticus 10:1-3)
- The beginning of Leviticus is God’s commands about how the sacrifices were to be presented and offered. Nadab and Abihu come before the Lord and offer unauthorized fire before the Lord. Because they offered fire which was not commanded, fire came from the Lord and consumed.
- Now, notice the reason why this happened, as Moses gives the explanation in Leviticus 10:3. “By those who come near Me I must be regarded as holy; And before all the people I must be glorified.” What was the point Moses was making? When we try to do things our way, we are glorifying ourselves and not God. God must be glorified in all we do.
C. Korah and 250 Israelites leaders (Numbers 16:1-35)
- In Numbers 16:1-35 we read about Korah and some of the Israelite leaders who are upset that Moses and Aaron are in charge. They rebuke Moses saying that he has gone too far by exalting himself above the whole assembly (16:3). We see the charge again in 16:13, “Do you also have to appoint yourself as ruler over us?” Now, who had appointed Moses as their leader? God had done so.
- Korah and the leaders were complaining that they were not in charge. They wanted the glory that they felt Moses and Aaron were receiving as the leaders of the assembly. In verses 31-35 God validates that Moses and Aaron were His chosen people to lead them through the wilderness to the land of Canaan. The desire for the glory from men got in the way.
D. Uzzah (2 Samuel 6:3-8)
- Even when we have good intentions, when we do not do as God has commanded, we are usurping the power and glory of God and attempting to place it upon ourselves. Uzzah had excellent intentions of preventing the ark of the covenant from falling of the cart. But God had commanded that no one was allowed to touch the ark and only the sons of Kohath could touch the poles the carry the ark.
- God struck Uzzah dead for touching the ark of God against the command of God. God takes His commands seriously. God expects us to keep His commands and when we do not, we are claiming glory for ourselves.
E. Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5)
- Now let us come back to our story in Acts 5 with Ananias and Sapphira. Let us ask the question that we posed a little while back: why did Ananias and Sapphira lie? They wanted the glory of giving the proceeds from the property they had sold. They wanted the believers to be impressed that they would give all of the proceeds from the land they sold. It causes me to think that Ananias and Sapphira may have sold a more expensive piece of property and what they were giving would have been impressive to these new Christians.
- As we tie this event back to the ending of Acts 4, it may even be that Ananias and Sapphira were trying to trump what Barnabas had done. This may have become an effort to “one-up” Barnabas so that people would look at the great work that Ananias and Sapphira had done. The temptation had been placed for self-exaltation. This was something they could do so they could really impress the congregation in Jerusalem. They wanted the glory of the people.
- We may not realize it but many times our rebellion and temptation comes from our desire to be glorified by others. We want other people to recognize us, know what we have done for others, so that people can be impressed with our Christianity. We see this within Saul who did not utterly destroy the Amalekites as God had commanded. According to 1 Samuel 15:30, Saul’s desire was that he receive honor from the elders and from the people. From this story of Ananias and Sapphira, along with the other people whom God struck dead, I would like to offer for ourselves three applications.
A. God punishes what we would call “trivial” offenses
- Have you ever considered the sins that these people died for? Would you not expect that the sins committed where God struck that person dead were grievous, major sins? Yet that is not the case at all.
- What did Nadab and Abihu do wrong? They used the wrong kind of fire. That does not seem like a big deal to us. In fact, we would surely call it a trivial offense. What did Korah do wrong? He wanted to be in charge and thought Moses should not rule over them. We have that all the time, do we not? What did Uzzah do wrong? He tried to prevent the ark of the covenant from falling. Uzzah even had good intentions and was struck dead. What did Ananias and Sapphira do wrong? They lied about the price which they sold their land.
- Do any of these sins seem monumental in your mind? Did you notice that none of them were murderers or adulterers or thieves? These are sins that we could rationalize in our minds. In fact, some of these we may not have considered sins at all. What is the big deal to use a different fire? Shouldn’t Uzzah be allowed to touch the ark of God since it was falling? Korah was simply crying for balanced leadership and the power not reside in only one person. We can rationalize their actions easily and yet God killed all of them.
- Take it a step further and consider that none of these people were “heathens” or “unbelievers.” All of these people were the people of God. Nadab and Abihu were priests of God. Korah was a leader in the Israelites community. Uzzah was an Israelite. Ananias and Sapphira were baptized Christians. God did not strike down the unbelieving murders and the heathen adulterers. It was the people of God who were punished.
- There is nothing we can call “trivial” in the eyes of God. There is no command that we can come across in the scriptures and suggest that it is not a big deal to God. If things like where fire came from, lying, and touching something brought about the condemnation of death, then we would be foolish to trivialize any of God’s words. When God says something, He means it. We do not have the right to second guess how important it is to God. If He said it, then it must have been important. Are there any wasted pages in this book? Is there any place where God was wasting His breath or thought He needed to add some filler pages?
- It seems clear in my mind that the reason God struck these people dead was to make a point to the community of believers. In fact, I believe the point God was making to those believers is the point we are making now. When God says something, He expects us to do it and to do it His way. It was the first act of worship for the priests when Nadab and Abihu altered the command of God. God wanted the people to know that this was not acceptable. God wanted the Israelites to know that they do not complain or go against God’s leaders, therefore God killed Korah and the 250 Israelite leaders. In the same way, God was making a point to the church with Ananias and Sapphira. God’s commands were to be taken seriously. It is easy for us today to want to discount these things because many of these events occur in the Old Testament. But notice that the severity of God was followed through here into the New Testament as well. God did not change His character toward us after the death of Jesus Christ. In fact, we have a greater responsibility to God because of the sacrifice that was made for us.
- Let us not think that repentance from sins is not important to God. Let us not discount baptism as some sort of good idea. Let us never take any command that God has uttered and treat it with anything but great respect and awe. That is exactly what we read the church doing in Acts 5:11 as great fear comes upon them when they heard about these things. This is the attitude of holiness we must bring before God.
B. God must always be glorified
- I believe there is an even greater principle working in these cases where God struck people dead. God was trying to teach us that He must always be glorified. Consider what Peter said, “ Whoever speaks must do so as one speaking the very words of God; whoever serves must do so with the strength that God supplies, so that God may be glorified in all things through Jesus Christ. To him belong the glory and the power forever and ever. Amen ” (1 Peter 4:11).
- Peter says when we speak, we need to be one speaking the very words of God. Peter says when we serve, we are serving with the strength that God supplies. Why do we need to speak as the very words of God and serve as God would serve? “So that God may be glorified in all things.” Everything that I do is to be for the glory of God. Everything I say and do ought to cause others to glorify God as well. Am I glorifying God when I disobey? Is God glorified when I discount His words?
- We must see that this was one of the great problems with these people who were struck dead. Was Ananias and Sapphira glorifying God by lying to the apostles and the brethren about what they had sold their land for? Absolutely not. Was God glorified when Nadab and Abihu used a different fire than what God had authorized? Clearly not. Was God glorified when Uzzah with good intentions touched the ark even though Israel had been clearly commanded to never approach or touch the ark? By no means.
- How serious God is about purity in our lives! God wants to see us rely on Him not rely on our own wisdom that we think we can loophole His commands! How often the Pharisees in Jesus’ day were binding their own laws and creating loopholes to God’s laws! The Mishnah and the Talmud are full of laws and regulations that God never authorized nor designed. Yet, the clear teaching of the word of God was being ignored. Which leads me to my final point:
C. Obedience, with the motive of personal glory, is disobedience
- Ananias and Sapphira thought they were doing a great thing by selling their property and letting the proceeds go to needy Christians. This wonderful act of charity was condemned because their motive was personal glory.
- Jesus said, “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven. Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees will reward you” (Matthew 6:1-4).
- The first verse gives the command of God that we do nothing in order to be seen by people. We must practice our righteousness but if our motive is to be glorified by others, then we have no reward from God. Verses 2-4 give us a practical example of this in the way they were giving in the first century. The Jews in the first century had created a way to let those on the temple grounds know they were giving much to the Lord. They made the treasury out of metal so that when the coins were dropped in, the noise would resonate through the complex so everyone would know they had given much. When we do anything that has the motive of personal glory, we are disobedient to God, even though our actions may be good. Our motives matter to the Lord.
- While God does not strike people down today for their error, we must learn the principles that God was trying to establish among His people. In our pursuit of holiness and godliness, let us not discount what God has told us we must do for Him.
- Overall, let us strive to live in such a way that the glory of God can be seen in us such that others will look to God and glorify Him. In all things let us bring glory to our Father. (ESV)