A Commentary by John Stott
Acts. 5:1-11 Ananias and Sapphira are punished for their hypocrisy.
The story of the deceit and death of this married couple is important for several reasons. It illustrates the honesty of Luke as a historian; he did not suppress this sordid episode. It throws light on the interior life of the first Spirit-filled community; it was not all romance and righteousness. It is also a further example of the strategy of Satan. Several commentators have suggested a parallel between Ananias and Achan – the Achan who stole money and clothing after the destruction of Jericho. Thus Bengel wrote: ‘the sin of Achan and that of Ananias were in many respects similar, at the beginning of the churches of the Old and New Testament respectively’. F.F.Bruce sees a further analogy: ‘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.
What we are told is that *a man named Ananias, together with his wife Sapphira*, first *sold a piece of property* (1) and then, *with his wife’s full knowledge (or ‘connivance’, JB), he kept back part of the money for himself, but brought the rest and put it at the apostle’s feet* (2). To all appearances, Barnabas and Ananias did the same thing. Both sold a property. Both brought the proceeds of the sale to the apostles, and both committed it to their disposal. The difference was that Barnabas brought all the sale money, while Ananias brought only a proportion. Thus Ananias and Sapphira perpetrated a double sin, a combination of dishonesty and deceit. At first sight, there is nothing wrong in their withholding part of the sale money. As Peter plainly said later, their property was their own both before and after the sale (see verse 4). So they were under no obligation to sell their piece of land or, having sold it, to give away any – let alone all – of the proceeds. That is not the whole story however. There is something else, something half-hidden. For Luke, in declaring that Ananias *kept back* part of the money for himself, chooses the verb *nosphizomai*, which means ‘misappropriated’ (BAGD). The same verb was used in LXX of Achan’s theft (Jos.7:1), and in its only other New Testament occurrence it means to steal. (Tit. 2:10). We have to assume, therefore, that before the sale Ananias and Sapphira had entered into some kind of contract to give the church the total amount raised. Because of this, when they brought only some instead of all, they were guilty of embezzlement.
It is not on this sin that Peter concentrated, however, but on the other, hypocrisy. The apostle’ complaint was not that they lacked honesty (bringing only part of the sale price) but that they lacked integrity (bringing only part, while pretending to bring the whole). They were not so much misers as thieves and – above all – liars. They wanted the credit and the prestige for sacrificial generosity, without the inconvenience of it. So, in order to gain a reputation to which they had no right, they told a brazen lie. Their motive in giving was not to relieve the poor, but to fatten their own ego.
Peter saw behind Ananias’ hypocrisy the subtle activity of Satan. He confronted Ananias: ‘*Ananias, how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit and have kept for yourself [nosphizomai] some of the money you received for the land?*’ (3). Peter accused him both of misappropriation and of falsehood, both of stealing and then of lying about it. But there was no need for either sin. ‘*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*’ (4). We notice in passing that Peter assumes the deity of the Holy Spirit, since to lie to him (3) was to lie to God (4).
No reply from Ananias to Peter’s indictment and question is recorded. Luke tells us only that God’s judgement fell upon him: ‘he dropped dead’ (5a, NEB). Understandably *great fear*, the solemnity which is experienced in the presence of the holy God, *seized all who heard what had happened* (5b), even while certain *young men* attended to the burial (6). *About three hours later* the incident repeated itself. Ignorance of her husband’s death, Sapphira *came in*. Peter gave her the chance to repent by asking her to state the price they had received for the land, but she merely identified herself with his duplicity (7-8). Peter protested that they had conspired *to test the Spirit of the Lord*, presuming to see whether they could get away with their deception, and warned her that those who had buried her husband would bury her too (9), whereupon *she fell down at his feet and died*, and the young men buried her *beside her husband* (10). For the second time Luke refers to the *great fear* which *seized the whole church*, and indeed *all who heard about these events* (11).
Many readers of this story are offended by what they regard as the severity of God’s judgement. Some even say they ‘hope that Ananias and Sapphira are legendary’. Or they try to exonerate God by attributing the death of Ananias and Sapphira instead to Peter who, they say, either laid a curse on them or put them under undue psychological pressure, thus anticipating the use of a modern lie detector. But, even if the anguish of a violated conscience contributed to their death on the human level, Luke clearly intends us to understand that it was a work of divine judgement. Once this has been accepted, there are at least three valuable lessons for us to learn.
Tomorrow: Acts 5:1-11. Ananias and Sapphira are punished for their hypocrisy (continued).
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of Acts. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.