A Troubling Story

Rev. David Bast Uncategorized

READ : Acts 5:1-11

One of the things that makes me believe the Bible is trustworthy is the fact that it does not suppress unflattering truths about the way Christians sometimes behave. For example, there is Luke’s report of the case of Ananias and Sapphira.

Today in our study of the book of Acts, “The Story of the First Christians,” we come to a difficult and troubling incident. Here is what happened, just as Luke reports it.

Now a man named Ananias, together with his wife Sapphira, also sold a piece of property. With his wife’s full knowledge he kept back part of the money for himself, but brought the rest and put it at the apostles’ feet.

Then Peter said, “Ananias, how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit and have kept for yourself some of the money you received for the land? Didn’t it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn’t the money at your disposal? What made you think of doing such a thing? You have not lied to men but to God.”

When Ananias heard this, he fell down and died. . . .

About three hours later his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. Peter asked her, “Tell me, is this the price you and Ananias got for the land?”

“Yes,” she said, “that is the price.”

Peter said to her, “How could you agree to test the Spirit of the Lord? Look! The feet of the men who buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out also.”

At that moment she fell down at his feet and died. . . . Great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events.

Acts 5:1-11, NIV

What can we say about a story like this? One positive thing we can say about it is that it demonstrates Luke’s honesty as a historian. The great English leader Oliver Cromwell once, memorably, instructed the artist who was about to make a portrait of him to “Paint me as I am, warts and all!” That’s exactly what Luke does in painting his picture of the first Christian community in Jerusalem. It must have been tempting for him to omit stories such as this from his narrative of the life of the early church. After all, it certainly does not portray Christians in the best light. Here we see a glaring example of dishonesty and hypocrisy, staining the reputation of the earliest church. Apparently their beautiful life of fellowship and mutual care was not as wonderful and complete as it seemed at first. They were not so unlike us after all. The common criticism that “The church is full of hypocrites,” while always exaggerated, has always had an element of truth in it. The difference is that among the first Christians, hypocrisy was dealt with so swiftly and dramatically that it takes our breath away. And that is what bothers us about the story, not so much the sin of Ananias and Sapphira but what happened to them as a result of it.

SOME TOUGH QUESTIONS

While it is some comfort to take note of Luke’s scrupulous honesty, his narrative still causes problems for us. It may help us to accept our own church’s shortcomings by realizing that there has never been a perfect church, not even in the first exciting days after Pentecost. Nevertheless, what happened to Ananias and his wife Sapphira leaves us with some tough questions. This is not an easy incident for modern readers to accept.

A letter I received some time ago illustrates this fact. A listener, in asking for a comment on this story, gave expression to our natural reaction to the judgment that fell upon them.

I’d like to ask your help in understanding a difficult passage of Scripture. . . . Even our pastor confessed that he has always struggled to understand this story. We all agreed that the issue is not the money but the fact that they lied about it to God. We also agreed that the punishment does not seem to fit the crime. If God is love and full of grace, mercy and forgiveness, why would he strike these two dead so abruptly, seemingly before they had a chance to confess their sin and atone for it?

That letter sums up the problem well. If God is gracious and merciful, why did he deal so harshly and abruptly with these two people? How could God do such a thing? And, the point is well taken that, given the many stories in the Bible of the great patience and mercy of God, this seems to be such a brutal, crushing judgment. It comes instantly, almost before they’ve even had a chance to admit what they’ve done or ask for forgiveness.

Almost, but not quite. Luke makes it clear that Ananias and Sapphira were given this chance to confess. If you recall the details of the story, Peter very carefully questioned each of them in turn, giving them opportunity to tell the truth. Each of them lied again, deliberately, shamelessly.

What happened, I think, is that Peter, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, with a special insight given to him by God, knew the truth of what had happened, and so he gave them this opportunity to repent. I think this was their chance to be forgiven. But Ananias and Sapphira refused to take it. They were victims of their own sins, and a warning to us all.

WHAT THEY DID

We should be sure that we fully understand the seriousness of their offense, or, rather, their multiple offenses. We need to be clear on exactly what it was that Ananias and Sapphira did, their real sins. Luke says that they “agreed to cheat and keep some of the money for themselves” (v. 2, cev). His language suggests several things.

First, this was a deliberate act, a conspiracy very carefully planned and undertaken by the couple. This was not simply an impulsive mistake that they made on the spur of the moment.

Second, while they were completely free to do what they liked with their property and their money, as Peter himself said (v. 4), once they had agreed to give it to the church, they were in a sense contracted to do so. They made a vow to God. It became a moral obligation, a test of their integrity. Under those circumstances, keeping back the full amount was really an act of stealing. They were embezzling this money, in effect, from the people of God and from the cause of Christ.

Third, in lying about their gift, Ananias and Sapphira were attempting far more than just to fool their fellow church members. As Peter states, they were lying to the Holy Spirit, to God himself. And their motive was self-enhancement. They wanted to magnify their own reputations, to gain glory for themselves. Ananias and Sapphira wanted to appear to be generous, as many of the believers in the community of faith actually were, while still keeping a portion of their money for themselves. It was outright hypocrisy, driven by their own inflated egos.

It is also important to recognize that the sins of Ananias and Sapphira came at a pivotal time in the history of the church. The severity with which these offenses were treated was in keeping with the significance of this symbolic moment in salvation history. Just before this incident Luke was describing again the beautiful common life of the Jerusalem fellowship.

All the believers were agreed in heart and mind. They didn’t claim that anything they had was their own. They shared everything they owned. With great power the apostles continued their teaching. They gave witness that the Lord Jesus had risen from the dead. And they were greatly blessed by God.

Acts 4:32-33, NIrV

With this kind of life and witness, it’s no wonder that Luke can also say that God was adding daily to the number of believers in the Jerusalem church (Acts 2:47).

But the dreadful hypocrisy of Ananias and Sapphira threatened this formative movement. It was a subtle yet destructive attack on the very life of the infant church. Peter says as much when he says, “ . . . that Satan has so filled your heart . . .” (v. 3). Satan was as much behind this inside attack on the church that came through the hypocrisy of Ananias and Sapphira as he was behind the outside attacks that came through the persecution by the authorities. Nothing destroys the life of a community of believers more quickly than if some of its members are phonies. Nothing undermines the effectiveness of Christian witness like the failure, the falsehood, of supposed Christians, their refusal to live as they profess to believe. The noted biblical expositor John Stott has this apt comment on the Ananias and Sapphira incident:

If the devil’s first attack was to destroy the church by force from without, his second was to destroy it by falsehood from within. He has not given up this attempt, whether by those who profess but do not practice, or by the stubbornness of those who sin but do not repent. The church must preserve its vigilance.

(The Spirit, the Church and the World, p. 112)

WHAT IT MEANS

So what does this story of Ananias and Sapphira mean for you and me? Obviously it means we have to be on guard against the kind of deceit and hypocrisy that destroyed them. We have to look at our own hearts and examine our own lives. Does it also mean that unrepented sin should be punished by instant death? That is not our prerogative. As we all know, God does not usually deal with people the same way he did with Ananias and Sapphira. In fact, there’s no other example in the New Testament of such a dramatic judgment upon members of the church. As time went by, such cases were dealt with through church discipline, through the more ordinary process of counsel and admonition, and if necessary as a final step, excommunication or exclusion from the fellowship of the church. But this does not mean that unrepented sin is not deadly. It’s just as deadly for us as it was for Ananias and Sapphira. What happened to them instantly will happen to everyone eventually who tries to deny or hide their sin.

In our society we tend to downplay both the holiness of God and the seriousness of sin. We are so taken by the love, mercy and the grace of God that we tend to minimize the other side of his character – his justice, purity, absolute righteousness, and unwillingness to tolerate evil of any kind or falsehood. Nowadays people often insist that we should never be afraid of God. I’m not so sure about that. I think, as I look at myself, that there are plenty of things that should make me tremble when I reflect upon the purity of the living God. The Bible says that God is a consuming fire. It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. Who among us even acknowledges a God like that anymore, awe-full in his righteousness and terrible to offend? Incidents like this one remind us that God cannot be trifled with.

At the same time, we must never forget that God is genuinely merciful, kind and loving. The Lord is good to those who fear him, says the Bible. For me, no one has expressed these complementary truths about God better than C.S. Lewis, in his famous children’s books about Narnia. Narnia is that magical land presided over by Aslan, the God-like lion. When the children whose adventures make up the Narnia stories are first told about Aslan, they are apprehensive about meeting this terrifying Being. “Is he safe?” asks one of the children. “Of course he’s not safe,” comes the reply. “But he is good.”

So it is with the true God, the living God. He isn’t safe. He is a terror to all evil. But he is good. He is a Savior for repentant sinners. He is a refuge to those who trust in him. Be thankful for that!