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. And great fear seized all who heard what had happened. Then the young men came forward, wrapped up his body, and carried him out and buried him.
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. Then the young men came in and, finding her dead, carried her out and buried her beside her husband. Great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events. (Acts 5:1-11)
The Christians were contributing what they had to establish and advance the faith of Jesus Christ, and they were helping one another. Properties were sold and the money brought to the apostles to be distributed to those in need. Barnabas was one of those known for having sold his field and brought the money to the apostles. Ananias also sold his property; however, he did not wish to offer up the entire sum that he received, and at the same time he wanted the people to think that he gave all of it. Sapphira, his wife, consented to this.
They did not think that others would discover this, but Peter knew the truth. His response shows us that the Christians had not renounced the private ownership of goods and properties. The property belonged to Ananias, and he did not have to sell it. Then, after he sold the property, the money belonged to him, and he did not have to offer up all of it or any of it to the church. To relinquish one’s wealth to the church was never a requirement for one to become a member or to remain in good standing. All of this was voluntary. The believers were supposed to be moved by sincere generosity, compassion, and reverence for the Lord when they distributed their wealth to others.
It is important to grasp the nature of the offense, because it will help us appreciate the response – both from Peter and from God. The couple did not steal anything. They did not rob anyone. They did not cheat other people out of their wealth. And they did not legally owe anything to the church. Rather, they kept part of the money for themselves, but they wanted the people to think that they gave all of it so that they would appear to be as selfless and generous as someone like Barnabas. This was a moral transgression that seemingly did not inflict direct damage on anyone; in fact, the people would have been helped by the money that was offered.
But Peter reacted strongly to this. He said that Satan filled their hearts, and that they lied to God and tested his Spirit. And then God killed them for it. Nowadays Christians might scoff at the attempt to impress, but might not regard it with such seriousness as Peter and God did. Certainly, Ananias and Sapphira were wrong, but did they deserve a harsh rebuke and instant execution? Peter and God thought so. We must not become desensitized to sin just because transgressions are rampant and the unbelievers around us hold to a much lower intellectual and ethical standard. God would have us recover that sense of alarm and indignation that Peter exhibited.
Ananias, it seems, was the main culprit, but Sapphira went along with his scheme. In Eden, the woman sinned first and then the man sinned with her. The lesson was not learned, so here the man sinned first and then the woman sinned with him. Our allegiance must first be toward God, and not to our parent, spouse, friend, gender, race, church, nation, or any other person or group. We must each face God first as an individual, and not as a community; in fact, we should readily break with our community or even oppose our community when the people rebel against the Lord. Your allegiance to God must be stronger than your allegiance to any man, woman, or group; otherwise, your faith is a sham. And the truth is that your relationship with a person or group can flourish in purity and righteousness only when it is founded upon a common allegiance to God.
Jesus had taught the Christians how to address sin in the church: confront, escalate, excommunicate (Matthew 18:15-17). We first confront the offender, and if he refuses to repent, we escalate the situation by inviting additional witnesses, and then by presenting the matter before the whole community. If he remains obstinate, he is expelled from the church and removed from all association with its members. The final stage is excommunication, not execution. Cutting off fellowship is the most severe response that Christians can deal to an offender. The apostles insisted on peaceful and non-violent ministry as well as submission to the government and its laws. God has called us to use our intelligent discourse and righteous behavior to promote the truth of Jesus Christ.
On the other hand, God can kill anyone he wants, at any time or place, and he does not submit to any government. Paul explains, “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord” (Romans 12:18-19). It is not our place to inflict harm on anyone, not because God does not want anyone to be harmed, but because he wants to be the one who does it. If someone should be hurt, God wants to be the one who hurts him. If someone should die, God wants to be the one who causes him to drop dead.
Christians must be a peaceful people. The non-Christians should have nothing to fear from us in this respect – we will talk to them, sometimes harshly, but we will not lift a finger to harm them. This does not mean that the non-Christians have nothing to fear at all; rather, they have even more to fear, because God himself might hunt them down and kill them. Ananias and Sapphira were church members, but God did not spare them. As Peter writes, “For it is time for judgment to begin with the family of God; and if it begins with us, what will the outcome be for those who do not obey the gospel of God?” (1 Peter 4:17). The non-Christians argue with us, mock us, and persecute us, and we do nothing to harm them. But they will answer to God. He might make them suffer much in this life, and even if not in this life, he will torture them severely and endlessly in hell, where there is no escape.
Peter reminded them that they did not lie to men, but they lied to God and tested his Spirit. Herein was their fatal error. They were trying to impress men, but they were not conscious that they were living before God – all their thoughts and actions were plain to him. We must never make this mistake when we practice and present the Christian faith. This is not a religion of the apostles. This is not a fellowship of mere men. The Christian faith is a revelation from the one true God. The community of Jesus Christ is not just another organization for social good and the mutual benefit of men or their shared ideology. It is a community of saints, chosen before the creation of the world, for the worship and service of the only deity.
The world needs to see that the church will not tolerate sin and abuse, and that the church will not harbor hypocrites and criminals in its own community. This happens when we follow the Lord’s prescription for teaching people and confronting offenders. God killed Ananias and Sapphira to signal his displeasure. Obviously, he does not right away kill everyone who sins, or there would be no place for church discipline and excommunication. We can, however, expect him to do it from time to time as a testimony to his righteousness and judgment, especially when his presence is strong with the church.
Pray that God would return to our churches in his power and might, so that he would perform all his will to judge and punish those who transgress and refuse to repent, to the end that people would fear him and perceive that their lives are not their own, and that there are severe consequences to their unbelief and defiance. Christians are a peaceful people, and this ought to make the Christian faith all the more frightening. This is because when Christians do not avenge themselves, God comes to avenge them and to vindicate his own honor. And what a dreadful thing it is to fall into the hands of the living God.