Read Acts 4:32-5:11
The chapter division is not well placed. It ought to be between 4:31 and 4:32, for, though 4:32-36 summarizes again the spirit of these early Christians — repeating in greater detail the information already given in 2:44-45 [as you know by now, if you are a faithful reader of the Bible, there is an immense amount of repetition in Holy Scripture; only a relatively few themes but repeated attention to them, sometimes in very similar form — a pedagogical lesson here!], part of its purpose here, surely, part of the reason for the repetition is to set the stage for the contrast in the behavior of Ananias and Sapphira.
"All" i.e., in general, for we are soon to learn of two believers who did not share this spirit of mutuality and generosity.
The fundamental definition of stewardship: "no one claimed that any of his possessions was his own…" Or, as Paul put it, "what do you have that you have not received?" It was voluntary, of course; this is not the description of an economic system, but of the life of personal love and devotion, first to Christ and then to his people. There is nothing here that should not be reflected in the spirit and the action of the Christian church today. Chrysostom speaks of "those chilly words ‘mine’ and ‘yours’." Chesterton writes: "Any number of philosophies will repeat the platitudes of Christianity. But it is the ancient church that can again startle the world with the paradoxes of Christianity." [E.g. what belongs to me does not belong to me!] That is, the ancient church alive again today, he means!
Interestingly, later in Acts we will find this same Jerusalem church fallen on hard times and needing and receiving help from other churches (Antioch; Paul’s collection).
Now Barnabas is introduced and Luke does so in the brilliant manner of a great writer. He chooses to introduce Barnabas — who is to play a significant role in his later narrative — at this point, in a kind of tantalizing prolepsis (he says this little bit about him and nothing more ) as an example of this "spontaneous generosity" which was characteristic of the Jerusalem church at this time. This tells us something very important about a man we are to hear more of later — we will hear nothing more about Barnabas until 9:27, but when we meet him there we are already prepared for the role he will play in introducing Paul, newly converted, to the suspicious Jerusalem church.
The ancient law forbidding Levites to own land was by this time a dead letter as was the whole section of the law of which that had been a part (division of the land by tribe, keeping property in families, the jubilee, etc.).
Now we come to a narrative that has troubled many of the readers of Acts. It is interesting to consider, for example, some of the heated reactions of even biblical commentators to this piece of Luke’s history.
"Did this first sordid offense deserve…an immediate capital punishment which allowed no time for repentance?" (Wendt)
"We may hope that Ananias and Sapphira are legendary." (W.L. Knox)
And, then, there are the efforts of a great many commentators to soften the blow — by saying that events did not unfold nearly so immediately as the narrative itself suggests, or that the actual story here is an interpretation of the first two deaths in the church after Pentecost, the thought being that those Christians had not supposed that any believer would die between the Ascension and the Second Coming and so had to explain how it was that these two had died (no doubt of natural causes).
The NIV’s "now" could be and probably should be translated "but" as intending a contrast between Barnabas and Ananias and Sapphira.
In other words, they wanted credit for a larger gift than they were willing to give, they wanted people to think of their sacrifice as greater than it actually was.
The sin did not lie in not giving the full amount. He was free to make any gift he wanted to. The sin was in the lie, the hypocrisy; he had succumbed to Satan’s temptations.
One of the questions always raised about this narrative is this summary burial: why didn’t they wait until they had contacted his wife? We simply cannot say for sure; we know to little. Hot, near-Eastern conditions may have demanded an immediate burial. What is more, it may well have been supposed by the community that someone whose death was by the immediate hand of God should be buried immediately and none of the usual solemnities observed.
Peter’s likening their action to "tempting God" (i.e. seeing how much they could get away with) is reminiscent of God’s accusations against Israel in the wilderness. "How long will you tempt me?"
The first use of the word "church" in Luke’s narrative to describe the Christian believers. The word in Greek is "ekklesia" (way too much made of the etymology!) — in the Greek of that day it was the standard term for "assembly", often with a political use, e.g. the assembly of citizens in a city — and it is one of the two standard LXX choices for translating the two primary Hebrew terms for the assembly of Israel. ("synagoge" had by this time become the regular term for the Jewish house of worship and so it is not surprising that the Christians favored the other word.) It used to be a feature of dispensational thought — though less so today I gather — that church was the unique term for the NT assembly and could not be used for and never was used for the people of God in the OT. But it was in the LXX and also in the NT (e.g. Stephen speaks of the "church in the wilderness" in reference to Israel in the desert, using this same word, though the NIV translates it with "assembly", in Acts 7:38). It is an ordinary word with an ordinary meaning, invested with great significance only because of the particular use of it for the people of God. But that people, that church, began not at Pentecost but in Gen. 3!
Now, what is the point of this piece of history? It certainly is an abrupt and dramatic interruption in this narrative of the wonderful work of Christ through his Spirit and the triumphal advance of the gospel and the church. Why is it important to have this unhappy event recorded here?
Let me suggest several reasons.
- First, it is a parallel to events in the life of God’s people long before and thus establishes the continuity of the people of God and the principles of their life.
There is in some respects a new beginning at Pentecost — especially, as we shall see, in the international evangelism of the church — but most things are as they have always been.
It has been long pointed out that there are resemblances between this history and that of Achan in Josh 7 (remind!). The same word the NIV translates "kept back" in v. 2 is used in the LXX of the Achan history. And Luke may be suggesting that such a sin as Ananias and Sapphira, unless dealt with, would have resulted in the abrupt interruption of the gospel’s progress just as Achan’s sin led to the abrupt interruption of Israel conquest of Canaan.
But, actually, in other ways, a better parallel to Ananias and Sapphira is the account, in Numbers 15:32-36 of the man who was put to death for gathering wood on the Sabbath day. In each case, the sin comes in the midst of the manifestation of God’s glory and grace and power to the people of God, in each case, clearly, the point of the punishment and its record in Holy Scripture is to dramatically to reinforce the sanctity of God’s law and the reality of the divine holiness, and in neither case was the particular punishment repeated.
Just as Pentecost had its precursor in the prophesying of the 70 elders with Moses, so did Ananias and Sapphira, in the execution of the man who, apparently in full view of the assembly, flaunted God’s law of the Sabbath.
You will still too often hear, even some of our own men, speak of the NT as if it were a more liberal, compassionate, wide-spirited epoch than that described in the first 39 books of the Bible. No one who reads the Bible with an honest heart should think so! Most all of the great descriptions of the mercy of God, of the scope and sweep of divine forgiveness, of the tenderness of the Lord come from what we call the OT. And the NT has a great deal of the Lord’s vengeance and wrath in it, indeed, the most difficult statements of that type are in the NT! There is no difference on that score; we live in the same spiritual world. And Ananias and Sapphira remind us of that: it is still a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God.
I will continue to insist on the unity of the covenant of grace and of Holy Scripture, because I think it is so essential. It is always an emasculated Christianity that is based on the NT only and much of what is most precious in this great book that God has given us is in the first 39 books. I will not have you thinking that somehow those 39 are inferior to the last 27, for they are not. It is one Bible, for it is one Savior and one salvation and one believing life and experience from Gen. 3 to Rev. 22.
- Second, this account provides a balance, a realistic appraisal of those heady days of revival following Pentecost.
In this time too, the parable of the sower and of the net still applied. The church needed to be prepared for the real spiritual world in which it was to live in the days and then the ages to come, which were, as a rule, not to be so giddily successful as these first days after Pentecost. The church had already discovered the opposition of the world, now it must learn to be prepared for treachery from within.
All great revivals require this lesson and for most everyone it is a painful lesson to learn. All professions of faith do not stick, and the fall of some will prove a great blow to many. All must learn to trust the Lord himself and his word and promise and not the outward manifestations of his work in the world! The latter we cannot judge with certainty.
- Third, this passage is a warning to all believers and takes its place among many others like it in the Bible putting that warning in flesh and blood.
What warning: the ever-present danger of hypocrisy in our hearts, the ability to think oneself a believer and to be considered by others a believer when, in fact, one is not a believer at all and still under God’s wrath and curse.
- Fourth, we have here the reiteration of the principle of discipline in the church.
What God does himself here, the church is to do herself as a rule. What God required to be done to the Sabbath breaker and to Achan the church was later ordered to do itself as a matter of law. And, in the new age, capital punishment becomes excommunication (which you can see in 1 Cor. 5:13). The church is never in the Bible permitted to harbor those in her midst who are known not to be faithful Christians. 1) Few tolerate this today — even Christians. 2) Many others who agree in theory object when it concerns someone they know, love, though clearly, it …. given what the Bible teaches. 3) But in doing this the church is just walking in its Master’s steps.
- Fifth, the principle of the sanctity of the church here is reiterated and reinforced.
1 Cor. 3:16-17: "Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit lives in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him; for God’s temple is sacred and you are that temple."
Now, all of us pay close attention here. We are inclined to wonder at what seems to us a disparity between the crime and its punishment.
- Ananias was free to give as much or as little as he wanted;
- He did give something; perhaps quite a bit;
- They just quibbled about the size of the gift and represented it as larger than it was. Ananias wanted to look like an especially good Christian without actually having to be one [Stahlin, p. 83].
But, you see, as in the OT, the difference between forgivable and unforgivable sins does not lie — as some passages might seem to suggest — in the nature of the sin itself, but in the attitude, the spirit with which it is committed. David murdered and surely murder is worse than Ananias’ lie, but David was forgiven and Ananias was not. Because David’s sin was "inadvertent" which means not that he didn’t intend to commit it, he obviously did think about it and committed his sinful acts in full knowledge of what he was doing, but means that the sins were acts of weakness and frailty and were not the settled commitments, desires, and deepest intentions of the heart.
So, take here a warning reminder of what the Bible spends so much of its time telling us, for fear that we will not take care to apply these truths to ourselves:
- There are two ways to be a member of the church of Christ;
- The difference between false and true membership is not always detectible to others because it lies in the attitudes of the heart; therefore each of us must make sure for ourselves of our own standing; the saddest road to hell…..
- When a hypocrite is discovered and cannot be made to forsake his hypocrisy, he must be cast out. More faithful discipline in the church would provoke more of that godly and healthy fear described in v. 11.
And, take note, finally, how it was (as with Judas and Demas and Achan before them) that is was the love of money that was Ananias and Sapphira’s undoing. They loved the world and the things of the world and, in comparison to these things, heaven and the smile of God seemed trifles. For Barnabas, loving the brethren was riches enough. We’ll hear more of Barnabas — lots more — but Ananias and Sapphira drop away never to be heard from again.