Acts 4:32–5:11 . . .
“Bold Yet Sinful with One’s Possessions”
Looking back at last week's message (Week 8), we saw that Peter and John returned to their fellow believers in the upper room of their safe-house. There they gave a report of all that had happened. The assembly rejoiced at their suffering for the sake of the Savior, confident of the fact that men couldn't prevent God’s purposes from coming to pass. In response to their prayers for boldness, the presence of God was manifested by the shaking of their building and a subsequent filling of the whole group with the Holy Spirit.
The church had prayed for a boldness in their profession of the gospel, and God graciously granted their request. But the boldness of the church in its profession was also practiced with regard to its possessions. The church had been given the grace to live dangerously (not foolishly). The saints knew all too well that to boldly profess Jesus as the Christ — Israel’s Messiah, risen from the dead — was to incur the wrath and strong opposition of Jewish leaders. When they prayed for boldness, they prayed knowing that boldness would lead to painful consequences. But that didn't stop them.
It was this same spirit of boldness that permeated not only the profession of the church but its practice with regard to earthly possessions. From a purely human point of view, to sell their possessions to meet the needs of others was folly that was certain to bring future economic disaster. Surely one must be financially prepared for the future. But from a spiritual view, with one heart and soul, the saints continued to give of their resources to meet the needs of others.
Bold With One’s Possessions (4:32–37)
One may very well wonder what it was that prompted such generosity. Let's break down v. 32 into three parts: (1) "All the believers were one in heart and mind" (v. 32a) demonstrates the unity of the disciples, all being "of one accord"; (2) "No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own" (v. 32b) makes clear by Luke that ownership of property still remained, but the "claim" to ownership was relinquished, i.e., one owned his possessions but he gave up that ownership the moment it became evident another member of the family required them, making it a simple matter of sharing what you had with those who didn't; and (3) "sharing all they had" (v. 32c) highlights how the believers weren't demonstrating generosity so much as they were practicing unity as a community of believers.
There's another explanation for the early church's conduct regarding possessions and the poor. The church acted unanimously as a community in the way it ministered to the poor among them. It probably did so because “God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all” (v. 33). “Grace,” while being a very broad term, can refer to that grace manifested in giving to meet the needs of others. Grace is always abundantly poured out on those who are in need, whether it be material or spiritual in form (cf. Hebrews 4:16).
The mention of Barnabas and his donation serves a few purposes. It serves as an illustration of the kind of benevolence Luke has described in general terms. His reference to Barnabas is a backdrop against which the sinful actions of Ananias and Sapphira will be depicted in the opening verses of chapter 5. The mention of Barnabas also serves as an introduction of this remarkable man of God, whose ministry of encouragement to Paul and many others will be described later on in this book. It's no wonder that this man, who gave generously of his own means, would soon be chosen to carry a generous gift from the saints in Antioch to the needy believers in Jerusalem (cf. Acts 11:27–30).
Before we go on, realize the practice of the early church: Members of the church body weren't required to sell their property or to give away any particular portion of it. That was a matter of personal choice, freedom, and guidance. Neither are we, today, bound to do what the members of the first church did. But in principle, we have the same obligations and opportunities. Jesus’ teaching to sell one’s possessions and give to charity are just as applicable to us as they were to the early church. And when we have a brother or sister in need, and we have the resources to meet that need, we are obliged to do so in a hearty manner.
Yet Sinful With One’s Possessions (5:1–11)
Question: After reading the eleven verses, can you see how Ananias and Sapphira had sinned? While they donated a portion of the proceeds from the sale of their property, they kept a portion for themselves. Is that sinful? Might you have apportioned one of your donations similarly? In our review and discussion today, let's search for and hopefully discover the sinfulness of both named characters. Incidentally, Luke himself tells this story quite emphatically in the video that's been linked beneath this summary; you ought to now watch Luke (played by Dean Jones) "in action," before reading further.
We're not specifically told that Ananias and Sapphira were true Christians, but the inferences suggest that they were. This man and his wife had conceived of a plan, one that seemed to offer the most benefits. They agreed to sell a piece of land that they owned. They decided that they'd give most of the proceeds of that sale to the apostles, to meet the needs of the poor. They also determined to retain a small amount for themselves. What was their sinful act? Well, it was that they also agreed to lie about the amount that they gave to the apostles, so that their gift would be thought of as being the entire amount they were paid for their property. In other words, they wanted to appear to be giving all the money they received, while keeping part of it and lying about it. It was, in short, a conspiracy of deception.
Sapphira wasn't with her husband when he presented the money to the apostles, but Luke revealed from the beginning that she was fully aware of what Ananias was doing and was a party to it (5:2): He presented a portion as though it were the whole. And we don't know to what extent it might have been difficult for Ananias’s deception to have become public knowledge. In spite of normal means of discerning the deception of Ananias and Sapphira (e.g., the property's purchase price being public record), one has the impression that Peter’s knowledge was supernaturally revealed to him. It also seems apparent that the Spirit of Jesus moved him to openly rebuke Ananias.
Look at Peter’s indictment of Ananias (vv. 3–4). Peter’s words give a clear indication of how this man was sinful and, likewise, how he wasn't sinful. Peter rebuked the man for lying, but not for keeping and holding back a portion of the money he gained from the sale of his property. Peter’s words to Ananias not only showed him to be free to use his property as he chose, but they also clarified that freedom, which all of the saints had in the matter of their possessions. Ananias (and all of the other saints by inference) had complete freedom to use his property any way he chose. His sin had nothing to do with the amount of money he gave, or in the fact that he retained some of it; he sinned by lying deceitfully, so that it appeared as though he gave all of the money when he didn't.
Peter quickly took this matter to its spiritual roots and spiritual fruits. The root source of this deception was Satan, which must have been news to Ananias who thought this was entirely his idea (in collaboration of Sapphira, of course). But it was Satan who Peter said had “filled his heart” (v. 3). And the fruit of the matter went far beyond what this man had thought. He hadn't simply lied to Peter (and to whoever else was present), he'd lied to the Holy Spirit. What must have seemed to Ananias and his wife as a trivial offense — a “little white lie” — was revealed to be a matter of great proportions. A simple plan between a man and his wife, carried out in the church, had involved Satan and the Spirit of God.
Peter didn't pronounce the death sentence on Ananias as he did on his wife. He simply exposed the man’s sin for what it was. We don't know that Peter expected Ananias to drop dead as he did. But it was apparent to Peter and the others that God had smitten Ananias, leading them to conclude that his wife would die similarly, if she were guilty of the same offense. Great fear came upon all who beheld what happened. Here was a “sign and wonder” of a very different kind, performed at the hands of an apostle.
The body of Ananias was quickly removed and buried, without his wife’s knowledge. When she arrived some three hours later, Peter was provided with the opportunity to determine the woman’s role, if any, in this scheme. He asked her (as Luke states) only one question — did she sell the land for the price that her husband had indicated? When she verified the amount that her husband had claimed, Peter quickly pronounced sentence on her. Her guilt was quickly realized: She and her husband conspired together; she was guilty of taking part (or at least consenting) in this deception by conspiring against the Holy Spirit “to test the Spirit of the Lord” (v. 9); just as her husband had died for his sin, so she'd die for hers (v. 10). Fear was the end result, both in the church and outside it (v. 11).
- Q. 1 What are the lessons for us in this passage?
- Q. 2 Why was God so severe in dealing with Ananias and Sapphira?
- Q. 3 What was wrong with what this couple did?
New International Version (NIV) [View it in a different version by clicking here; also listen to chapter 4 and chapter 5.]
† Watch this "Visual Bible" video clip: Acts 4:1–5:25, starring Bruce Marchiano as Jesus, James Brolin as Simon Peter, Harry O. Arnold as Saul/Paul, and Dean Jones as Luke.
The Believers Share Their Possessions
32All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. 33With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all 34that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales 35and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.
36Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus, whom the apostles called Barnabas (which means “son of encouragement”), 37sold a field he owned and brought the money and put it at the apostles’ feet.
Ananias and Sapphira
5 Now a man named Ananias, together with his wife Sapphira, also sold a piece of property. 2With 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.
3Then 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? 4Didn’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 just to human beings but to God.”
5When Ananias heard this, he fell down and died. And great fear seized all who heard what had happened. 6Then some young men came forward, wrapped up his body, and carried him out and buried him.
7About three hours later his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. 8Peter asked her, “Tell me, is this the price you and Ananias got for the land?”
“Yes,” she said, “that is the price.”
9Peter said to her, “How could you conspire to test the Spirit of the Lord? Listen! The feet of the men who buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out also.”
10At that moment she fell down at his feet and died. Then the young men came in and, finding her dead, carried her out and buried her beside her husband. 11Great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events.