Studies in the Book of Acts
The Jerusalem Church, continued
Ananias and Sapphira (5:1)
In chapter 4, Luke painted an idealistic portrait of the Jerusalem church as a congregation of faithful (4:23-31) and loving (4:32-35) believers. He cited the example of Barnabas, who epitomized both the love and faith of this congregation (4:36-37). But Luke wants to give his readers a more complete view of the situation in the church. In the beginning of chapter 5 Luke provides an example that showed the church to be less-than-perfect.
Luke recounts what must have been a well-known but tragic story of Ananias and his wife Sapphira, who lied to the Holy Spirit (5:3). The story (5:1-11) actually continues Luke’s account of how the believers shared their possessions, which he ended with the example of a generous Barnabas. But in the case of Ananias and Sapphira, we see another side of the church.
What Luke did was present two cases that stand in opposition to each other. Barnabas is a concerned, faithful and a true disciple; Ananias and Sapphira are selfish, faithless liars. The incident shows that the church, even in its earliest days, was not a community of perfect people. Perhaps Luke tells this story to warn his readers not to overestimate the spiritual perfection of the first believers. The example also serves as a warning to the church. The best-intentioned good works of human beings — which the generous giving illustrated — can have unintended negative side effects. In short, the church is always an imperfect, sinning body that daily needs the forgiveness of Jesus Christ.
Kept part of the money (5:2-4)
The problem of Ananias and Sapphira is that they wanted to receive a reputation for a greater personal sacrifice than they actually made. The church’s well-intentioned sharing of goods probably led to a considerable amount of subtle pressure on members to make donations. Perhaps Ananias and Sapphira got caught up in a band-wagon effect. The couple wanted to appear as outstanding church members, but they didn’t want to part with their possessions. In order to have both, they pretended to give the full price of the sale of their property to the apostles. But they secretly kept part of the money for themselves. Thus, they tried to deceive the community.
Before we go on, Luke allows us to once more understand that the Jerusalem church was not practicing mandatory communism. Peter tells Ananias: “Didn’t it [the land] belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn’t the money at your disposal?” (5:4). Ananias was perfectly free to keep or sell his property as he thought fit. If he sold his property, he could have kept all the money for himself. The sin of Ananias was not in keeping his money, but in lying to the community, and hence, to the Holy Spirit.
The sin of which Ananias was guilty was hypocrisy, a sin which received from Jesus the most scathing condemnation. Ananias was under no obligation to sell his land at all, or to hand over the proceeds, but having done both he alleged that all the money he had obtained was now being given magnanimously for the relief of the poorer members of the community, whereas in fact he had slyly retrained part of it for his own use. His wife as a party to the fraud. [E. William Neil, The Acts of the Apostles, The New Century Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1973), page 94.]
Luke tells us that Ananias with the full knowledge of his wife was keeping “part of the money for himself” (5:2). The verb translated “kept back” (Greek, nosphizein) occurs rarely in the New Testament (Acts 5:2, 3; Titus 2:10). But its meaning is clear. The Septuagint uses the same root verb to describe Achan’s stealing part of the plunder from Jericho. God said that the spoils were sacred and should be placed into the treasury (Joshua 6:18-19; 7:1, 11). By taking some of the plunder for himself, Achan had acted unfaithfully — and had stolen and lied.
Perhaps Luke purposely uses the same verb (nosphizein) to describe the action of Ananias, so that readers who know the Old Testament examples would make the comparison and learn the lesson. William Neil writes, “The story of Ananias is to the book of Acts what the story of Achan is to the book of Joshua. In both narratives an act of deceit interrupts the victorious progress of the people of God.” [Ibid.]
Both incidents draw an immediate and extreme judgment of God. The advance of ancient Israel was stopped by Achan’s sin. Now the sin of Ananias threatens to stop the progress of the gospel and destroy the integrity of the community.
The Jerusalem church clearly sees the lesson in the death of Ananias and Sapphira (5:11). It is richly schooled in the Holy Scriptures and would immediately see the connection between Ananias and Achan. In each case, the sin must be removed so the community can move forward. There are differences between the two accounts, and we should not press the analogy too far. For example, Achan confessed his bad deed (Joshua 7:19) and was stoned to death (verse 25). Neither was true in the case of Ananias.
Lied to the Holy Spirit (5:3-4)
Somehow Peter learns that Ananias kept part of the money, even though he claims to have given all of it. Peter then confronts Ananias with his deceit. On one level, Peter is shown as having power to see into human hearts. He is able to perceive Ananias’ motivation. In the same way, Peter later perceives that Simon the Samaritan was full of bitterness (8:23). Luke is portraying the apostles as having the same ability as Jesus to grasp what humans are thinking in terms of whether their thoughts are godly or satanic. In his Gospel, Luke points out Jesus’ ability in this regard on several occasions. [Luke 5:22; 7:39-40; 9:46-47; 24:37-38.]
However, we shouldn’t overstate Peter’s omniscience. It’s possible that others in the church had learned about the deceit of Ananias and Sapphira, and Peter learned about it from them. After checking out the allegation and being sure of its truthfulness, he confronts first Ananias and then Sapphira with the deceit.
Ananias’ deceit is the result of Satan filling his heart (5:3). Luke had previously described the betrayal of Jesus by Judas as Satan entering his heart (Luke 22:3). The couple’s fraudulent action was also defined as lying to and testing the Holy Spirit (5:3), perhaps in the sense of seeing how much they could get away with. Similarly, the ancient Israelites in the wilderness were guilty of trying to test God (Exodus 17:2; Deuteronomy 6:16). To lie to the Spirit is the same as lying to God and the risen Christ. Peter says that Ananias lied to the Holy Spirit (5:3) and to God (5:4), and this is the same as testing “the Spirit of the Lord” (5:9). The three are equated as being one and the same: God, Spirit, and the Lord—Father, Spirit, and the Son.
Throughout Acts, Luke emphasizes that the Holy Spirit is guiding the new church at every turn. But Ananias and Sapphira’s lie and greed threaten to undercut this. God therefore shows that the Holy Spirit is present with the church, and that this has solemn implications for the disciples. Christians are warned to be careful in how they relate to the Holy Spirit. They can “grieve the Holy Spirit” (Ephesians 4:30) and “do not quench the Spirit” (1 Thessalonians 5:19). These are sins that should be avoided. They are sins for which Christians find forgiveness in Christ, but we should not minimize such affronts to the Spirit. They are serious.
As in the case of Judas, we are not in a position to judge the ultimate fate of Ananias and Sapphira. Perhaps this incident shows God’s supreme judgment on the couple in this life, a tragic discipline, but not a final condemnation (1 Corinthians 5:5; 11:30). The life of the couple is taken, but we do not know whether they rejected salvation itself. The lesson for us is simply that we should not challenge or test God.
While the real sin of Ananias and Sapphira is lying to the Holy Spirit, it is over financial issues that the problem comes to a head. The story is about money and greed. Luke often deals with economic issues and how they relate to the Christian. It is Luke who gives us parables that deal with the proper use of money. They include the parables of the Debtors (Luke 7:41-43); the Good Samaritan (10:29-37); the Rich Fool (12:16-21); the Unjust Steward (16:1-8); the Rich Man and Lazarus (16:19-31); and the Pounds (19:11-27). Luke writes of the rich young nobleman who chooses riches over Jesus (Luke 18:18-23) and the widow who donates to God all that she had to live on (Luke 21:1-4).
Later, Luke notes that a riot occurs after Paul’s preaching interferes with some business interests (19:21-41). Simon the Samaritan reveals his true heart when he tries to buy the Spirit with money (8:9-24). In Macedonia, Paul and Silas are thrown in jail after depriving some slave owners of their means of livelihood (16:16-34). He is kept in jail because Felix wants a bribe (24:26).
Ananias and Sapphire die (5:5-10)
The story of Ananias and Sapphira ends on a tragic note. As soon as Peter finishes telling Ananias the enormity of his sin, Ananias dies (5:5). While Luke doesn’t say that God struck him down, this is what the context implies. The death of Ananias is meant to be seen as a divine judgment on his sin of lying to the Spirit. Luke does not say the sentence of death came from Peter, as some claim. Luke wants us to see his death not as the judgment of Peter, but of God. Peter probably intends to rebuke Ananias for his terrible sin, and hope for his repentance. Peter is probably as shocked as we are that Ananias drops dead before his eyes. “Great fear seized all who heard what had happened” (5:5) — and that probably includes Peter.
Immediately after Ananias dies, his body is wrapped and buried. His wife Sapphira, unaware of what happened to her husband, arrives about three hours later, and is confronted by Peter. He questions her about the amount of the proceeds of the sale, no doubt hoping that she will be honest. But when he asks her whether she and her husband sold the land for the amount they had handed over, she says yes (5:8). She repeats her husband’s falsehood. Peter, knowing God’s judgment on Ananias, probably feels confident that the same one awaits Sapphira. He tells her that the men who buried her husband would also carry her out (5:9), and Sapphira dies (5:10).
The account of this couple’s death, especially that of Sapphira, has puzzled and even offended many commentators. Richard Longenecker has summarized their objections:
Probably no account in Acts has provoked more wrath from critics than this one has. Commentators have complained about the difficulty of accepting the death of both husband and wife under such circumstances and have questioned Peter’s ethics in not giving them an opportunity for repentance and in not telling Sapphira of her husband’s death. Even more difficult for many is the way the story portrays Peter, who appears to be without the compassion or restraint of his Lord. Jesus’ relations with even Judas, whose sin was a thousand times more odious, certainly were not on this level. Many have felt it impossible for a leader of the early church to have shown such harshness over a relatively “slight” offence and have doubted that the church would have wanted to preserve such an account. Many, therefore, have taken this to be a fictitious story. [Longenecker, 314.]
The problem is partially solved if we do not read into the story things that are not there. The situation was likely the following. Peter learns from someone in the community that Ananias and Sapphira are trying to pass off part of the sale price as the whole amount. Ananias and Sapphira may have told someone of this, or it may have been obvious to someone who knew about real estate values in the area.
Peter does not necessarily need any special knowledge in the matter. After finding out the truth of the accusation, he is naturally indignant about this attempted deception, which blights the community spirit. As a spiritual leader, he goes to Ananias to reprove him for lying, in effect, to the Holy Spirit. There is no indication that Peter intends to pronounce a curse of death on him. He is probably as stunned as anyone else when Ananias drops dead after the rebuke. However, the lesson is not lost on Peter. He surmises that God caused this, and he concludes that the same judgment will befall Sapphira, a co-conspirator. Her only hope is to admit the truth, but when she does not, Peter says that she will experience the same result as her husband. Peter simply tells her what her fate will be, and she dies. Peter is not personally handing out a curse of death to either husband or wife. Ananias and Sapphira die because God, not Peter, causes it.
From time to time in the Old Testament, God acts to carry out a sudden sentence of death on various individuals. A man named Uzzah is killed for violating the law about touching the ark (2 Samuel 6:3-7). Two sons of Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, are struck down for offering strange fire in the tabernacle (Leviticus 10:3). Even their father Aaron is told not to mourn for them. We are used to God dealing sharply with the sinful and rebellious Israelites. But we may be shocked that Ananias and Sapphira are struck down so abruptly and with finality. Perhaps we can understand why this happened if we remember the context of the times. The New Testament church began with the unmistakable power of God’s Spirit. The fledgling community is barely getting off the ground when its integrity is threatened by selfish deceit. It needs to learn that sin is no trifling matter. How can the church be an example of godliness and good works, if greed and lying are allowed to run rampant in the community?
The way Ananias and Sapphira attempted to reach their goals was so diametrically opposed to the whole thrust of the gospel that to allow it to go unchallenged would have set the entire mission of the church off course. Like the act of Achan, this episode was pivotal in the life and mission of God’s people, for the whole enterprise was threatened at its start. [Ibid.]
The death of Ananias and Sapphira serves as a powerful example of the presence of God in the community of believers. “Great fear seized all who heard what had happened” (5:5). After this, no one would be tempted to gain a reputation for generosity by lying about it — although before this, the temptation was probably not unique to Ananias and Sapphira.
Hebrews tells us that while God is infinite love and has tremendous patience, he also judges his people (Hebrews 10:31). As another example, Paul tells the Corinthians to excommunicate a man who was having sexual relations with his stepmother. The hope was that he would repent (which he did) and re-enter the community of the saints (1 Corinthians 5:5).
Ananias and Sapphira are killed because they do not repent. They are given an opportunity to tell Peter the correct amount of the sale. But they persist in their lie. But the account says nothing of the couple’s future salvation. We have no way to answer the question of their fate except to say it is in God’s hands.
The church of God (5:11)
When Sapphira dies, the meaning of God’s judgment on this couple is not lost on the church. Luke again writes of the effect of the tragic event, saying, “Great fear seized the whole church” (5:11). Here, in the context of a crisis in the Christian community in Jerusalem, Luke uses the Greek word ekklesia (“church”) for the first time to designate the congregation of God’s people. From here on out, Luke uses it to define both the universal body of Christian believers and local congregations. The same usage occurs in Paul’s epistles. [Acts 7:38; 8:1; 9:31; 11:22; 13:1; 14:23; 15:22, 41; 16:5; 19:32, 40; 20:28. For examples from Paul, see 1 Thessalonians 1:1; 1 Corinthians 1:2; 2 Corinthians 1:1, and many others.]
The Jews used ekklesia to refer to the assembly of Israel, the nation that was called God’s people. [See the Septuagint in such places as Deuteronomy 9:10; Joshua 9:2; and Psalm 21:22.] The Jews were using the Greek synagoge (14:1) to define their meetings and the place in which they met, so that was not a good word for Christians to use in defining their group. Ekklesia, meaning an assembly, was a logical choice to define those who are called to be a new people of God.
In a secular sense, ekklesia referred to the citizen-assembly of a Greek city. In the Christian context it denotes the assembly of believers in Jesus. The term has something of the old and the new about it. The use of ekklesia indicates the early Christians’ sense of continuity with old Israel, as a people of God. However, the Christians were a new people of God — those who had accepted Jesus as Israel’s long-awaited Messiah.
Unfortunately, the word “church” has come to have connotations that ekklesia did not. We speak of “going to church,” when in biblical usage, it is the “church” that comes together to a place of worship. Ekklesia referred to the people who meet together, not the place in which they meet. In some ways, “congregation” would be a better translation. It would make it clear that what is in view is an assembly of believers, not a place or a legal organization.
Signs and wonders (5:12)
Verses 12–16 contain another of Luke’s summary statements about the spreading of the gospel and growth of the church. Here we catch a cameo-like glimpse of the power of the apostles and the growing community of believers in Jerusalem. Luke writes that “the apostles performed many signs and wonders among the people” (5:12). Earlier, the church prayed that God would show his power among the people in healings, signs and wonders (4:30). This section tells us God answered that prayer.
The deaths of Ananias and Sapphira were also examples of supernatural signs. As the miracles of healing were a positive sign that the kingdom of God had arrived, so the miraculous nature of Ananias and Sapphira’s death was a negative sign of the same reality. The healing miracles were so stunning that sick people who simply lay under Peter’s shadow were cured (5:15). Jesus had said the apostles would do greater works than he did, and his prophecy was coming true.
The image of healing by sheer presence here is striking and perhaps even shocking. Nothing in the Gospel tradition is close to it, except perhaps the healing of the woman by touching Jesus’ garment (Luke 8:43), or the healing of the centurion’s slave at long distance (Luke 7:1-10). [Johnson, 96.]
Later, Luke writes that God did “extraordinary miracles through Paul” (19:11). Pieces of cloth that had been touched by Paul would be taken to the sick, and their illnesses were cured. Luke is telling his readers that like Jesus, the apostles are able to heal sufferers at a distance (Matthew 8:5-13; Mark 7:24-30). It was an extraordinary time in the church when God’s power was dramatically and openly felt. Paul’s letters confirm this fact, that God’s overwhelming power was at work in the young church. [1 Corinthians 2:4-5; 2 Corinthians 12:12; Galatians 3:5; 1 Thessalonians 1:5; and also Hebrews 2:3-4.]
The church grows (5:13-16)
Meanwhile, as the apostles perform miracles and spread the gospel, the church regularly meets in Solomon’s Colonnade, which was part of the temple complex. The church is held in such reverence and awe because of the miracles that “no one else dared join them” (5:13). They did not want to pretend to believe unless they actually did. The expression in Greek translated “no one else” or “the rest” seems to have been a technical term for non-believers (Luke 8:10; 1 Thessalonians 4:13; 5:6). That may be its sense here. However, in verse 14, Luke says, “More and more men and women believed in the Lord and were added to their number.”
On the surface, this seems to be a contradiction. Were no others joining the Christian community, or were more being added? What these two verses probably mean is that unbelieving Jews in general were so frightened by the supernatural power of the apostles that they stayed away from the Christians and didn’t bother them. William Barclay has an interesting translation of verse 13 that catches this sense of things: “Of the others no one dared to meddle with them.” The death of Ananias and Sapphira had caused great fear. It and the other miracles served to keep unbelievers and persecutors at arm’s length. However, for those individuals whose minds were open to the Holy Spirit, such miraculous occurrences would have been magnets drawing them to the Christian community in Jerusalem.
Luke tells us that the reach of the church and gospel message is spreading to the towns surrounding Jerusalem (5:16). This is a new feature of the mission. The way is being prepared for the gospel to advance into all Judea. The work of God is becoming more powerful and spreading. However, the effectiveness of the apostles’ witness, both in word and deed, impels the Jewish religious authorities to once more take action against them.
Persecution Strikes the Church (Acts 5:16–8:3)
Arrested and freed (5:17-20)
While most non-believing Jews are afraid to meddle with the Christian community in Jerusalem, the religious leaders are finally driven to action. The church is having success after success, and the high priest and his associates — who were Sadducees — felt threatened. Luke writes that they are “filled with jealousy” (5:17-18). Because of this, the Sanhedrin arrests the apostles and puts them in jail. It appears that all the apostles are involved this time, not just Peter and John. The temple authorities issue no warning, as they did to Peter and John. They simply round them up and throw them into the guardroom, probably in the temple precincts. In essence, the apostles are punished for disobeying the order not to preach in Jesus’ name.
But then another miracle occurs. During the night an angel opens the doors of the jail (5:19). Angels often appear in Luke and Acts, acting as intermediaries between humans and God. [See Luke 1:11, 26; 2:9, 13; 22:43; 24:23; Acts 8:26; 10:3, 7, 22; 11:13; 12:7-15, 23; 27:23.] In this case, all the apostles are released through divine intervention. Later in Acts we will see even more dramatic prison miracles, involving Peter (12:6-11) and Paul (16:26-31).
Here the angel tells the apostles to go to the temple courts and continue preaching “about this new life” (5:20). The message the apostles preached includes the resurrection — the new and eternal life made possible by Jesus. The resurrection is the capstone message of the good news (1 Corinthians 15:1-20). The “new life” can also refer to the new life that Christians experience after conversion. Paul explains that believers are baptized into Jesus’ death, and are figuratively buried with him in death. But they are also raised with Christ that they “may live a new life” (Romans 6:4).
Freed by an angel
At daybreak, probably as devout Jews begin to gather for the morning sacrifice and morning prayers, the apostles come into the temple precincts, and they teach the people about Jesus and salvation. Later in the morning, the high priest calls together the Sanhedrin, in order to judge and assign punishment on the apostles. Temple police officers are sent to the jail to bring the apostles to the trial. They are shocked to find that the prisoners are missing even though the jail is fully secured. The officers return to the chief priests with the news of the apostles’ escape. While the Sanhedrin is considering these puzzling developments, someone rushes into the assembly and says, “The men you put in jail are standing in the temple courts teaching the people” (5:25).
The situation, while deadly serious, is filled with comedic potential. Luke exploited the irony and humor of the situation, which is evident in his narrative.
With the comic speed of an old “Keystone Cops” movie, an angel sets the apostles free, and by daybreak they are back making trouble at the temple. Then follows an even more comic shuttling back and forth from council to jail, back to the council, with the discovery of the apostles busy at the temple, teaching. [Willimon, 56.]
Brought to the Sanhedrin (5:26-28)
The captain of the temple police and his officers now go to fetch the apostles as they are preaching to the people. No force is used, because the Sanhedrin is afraid the people would stone its members if they arrest the apostles (5:26).