A Commentary by John Stott
Acts 5:1-11. Ananias and Sapphira – three lessons.
First, the gravity of their sin. Peter stressed this by repeating that their lie was not directed primarily against him, but against the Holy Sprit, that is, against God. And God hates hypocrisy. Luke has recorded Jesus’ denunciation of it (eg. Lk. 6:42; 12:1,56; 13:15), together with his warning that those who blaspheme against the Holy Spirit (in deliberate defiance of known truth) will not be forgiven (Lk. 12:10). Yet the sin of Ananias and Sapphira was also against the church. Is it intentional that Luke here uses for the first time the word *ekklesia*? (11) He thus affirms the continuity of the Christian community with God’s redeemed and gathered people in the Old Testament. (cf. ekklesia in 7:38 and in LXX of, eg. Jos. 8:35). Luke seems to be underlining the great evil of sinning against God’s people. Falsehood ruins fellowship. If the hypocrisy of Ananias and Sapphira had not been publicly exposed and punished, the Christian ideal of an open fellowship would not have been preserved, and the modern cry ‘there are so many hypocrisies in the church’ would have been heard from the beginning.
The second lesson to be learned concerns the importance, even the sacredness of the human conscience. Luke will later record Paul’s claim before Felix that he always strove to keep his ‘conscience clear before God and man’ (Acts 24:16). This seems to be what John meant by ‘walking in the light’. It is to live a transparent life before God, without guile or subterfuge, whose consequence is that ‘we have fellowship with one another’ (1 Jn. 1:7). The ‘brethren’ of the East African revival, who lay great stress on this teaching, amusingly illustrate it by expressing their desire to ‘live in a house without ceiling or walls’, that is, to permit nothing to come between them and either God or other people. It was this openness which Ananias and Sapphira failed to maintain.
Thirdly, the incident teaches the necessity of church discipline. Although physical death may have continued in some situations as a penalty for those sins which ‘despise the church of God’ (eg. 1 Cor.11:22,30), it came to be associated with excommunication (e.g. 1 Cor.5:5; 1 Tim.1:20). The church has tended to oscillate in this area between extreme severity (disciplining members for the most trivial offences) and extreme laxity (exercising no discipline at all, even for serious offences). It is a good general rule that secret sins should be dealt with secretly, private sins privately, and only public sins publicly. Churches are also wise if they follow the successive stages taught by Jesus (Mt.18:15ff). Usually the offender will be brought to repentance before the final stage of excommunication is reached. But offences which are serious in themselves, have become a public scandal, and have not been repented of, should be judged. Presbyterians are right to ‘fence the table’, that is, to make access to the Lord’s supper conditional. For, although the Lord’s table is open to sinners (who else either needs or wishes to come to it?), it is open only to penitent sinners.
We have now seen that, if the devil’s first tactic was to destroy the church by force from without, his second was to destroy it by falsehood from within. He has not given up the attempt, whether by the hypocrisy of 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.
Tomorrow: Acts 5:12-16. The apostles heal many people.
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.