At long last, we move on to Acts 5. This chapter opens with a rather disturbing set of events, and I want to try to shed some light on what is happening here. This particular passage is a difficult one, and I admit to having struggled with it for many years. I will explain why, if not obvious, and point you to some insights I now have on it.
But a certain man named Ananias, with Sapphira, his wife, sold a possession, 2 and kept back part of the price, his wife also being aware of it, then brought a certain part and laid it at the apostles’ feet. 3 But Peter said, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back part of the price of the land? 4 While you kept it, didn’t it remain your own? After it was sold, wasn’t it in your power? How is it that you have conceived this thing in your heart? You haven’t lied to men, but to God.”
5 Ananias, hearing these words, fell down and died. Great fear came on all who heard these things. 6 The young men arose and wrapped him up, and they carried him out and buried him. 7 About three hours later, his wife, not knowing what had happened, came in. 8 Peter answered her, “Tell me whether you sold the land for so much.”
She said, “Yes, for so much.”
9 But Peter asked her, “How is it that you have agreed together to tempt the Spirit of the Lord? Behold, the feet of those who have buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out.”
10 She fell down immediately at his feet and died. The young men came in and found her dead, and they carried her out and buried her by her husband. 11 Great fear came on the whole assembly, and on all who heard these things.Acts 5:1-11 (WEB)
God’s Grace Gone Missing?
In my early Christian days, I was taught very strongly about the grace of God. Jesus dealt with sin at the cross, and God no longer holds that sin against us. God no longer punishes us for our wrongdoing, because He punished Jesus at the cross. If that is all true however, how do we reconcile this passage? Why was God’s grace not extended to cover Ananias and Sapphira? Clearly they were punished for their sin here?
A quick sidebar to say that there is a distinction between punishment and discipline. While Jesus took on the full punishment for our sin, that does not mean that God no longer disciplines us as dearly loved children. If a child does something wrong, there is a world of difference between putting them in a “time out” and breaking their leg! The first is discipline, but the latter is abuse!
So how do we read this passage? Were Ananias and Sapphira punished for their sin, and where does that leave the grace teaching? Has God’s grace gone missing?
What Did They Do Wrong?
Before trying to explain this, let’s be really clear about what they did wrong.
Ananias and Sapphira sold a field, and kept some of the proceeds for themselves instead of giving it all to the Apostles. This, I do not think, is the problem however. They were entitled to sell the field and give whatever portion they liked to the Apostles. The issue came when they lied about it. They told Peter and the others that they were giving the whole amount, and this is a deception.
Who did they lie to? Verses 3 and 4 tell us.
But Peter said, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back part of the price of the land? 4 While you kept it, didn’t it remain your own? After it was sold, wasn’t it in your power? How is it that you have conceived this thing in your heart? You haven’t lied to men, but to God.”Acts 5:3-4 (WEB)
They lie to the Holy Spirit, and that is the critical sin. Peter points out that they are entitled to buy and sell the field as they wish, and give whatever portion they want. They cross a serious line when they deceive people into thinking they are giving it all, and that God will not know about it.
Attempting to deceive God is a very bad idea!
A Word of Knowledge
How did Peter know that they were acting deceptively? The passage actually does not tell us.
It is conceivable that someone knew about it, and let Peter know in advance. Given the result of their lie i.e. their deaths, it may be that Peter was given a word of knowledge by the Holy Spirit Himself.
A Word of knowledge is a spiritual gift mentioned in 1 Corinthians 12:8. It is a gift where the believer can gain a piece of information direct from the Holy Spirit, which they would otherwise not have known. This is always done for the benefit of the church, which is true for all of the gifts. It may be that Peter was given a word by the Holy Spirit to warn him of this deception.
A Certain Man
Given all of this, how do we balance the grace of God and the severe punishment inflicted on this man and woman for attempting to deceive the church? I believe the key is found in verse 1 – “a certain man.”
Luke, the author of the book of Acts, is very precise and consistent. Almost without exception, when Luke says “a certain man,” he is referring to someone outside the church. For those inside the church, he uses the phrase “a certain disciple.” Different translations of course may render this in different ways, and in the WEB version quoted above, the only obvious exception is Justus from Acts 18. He is described as a “certain man” but is apparently a believer in the Lord. However, the text may be referring to him prior to accepting Christ.
If we accept this as a rule of thumb, then we see that Ananias was perhaps not part of the church at all, but instead a wolf in sheep’s clothing trying to infiltrate the church for his own gain. If he was not willing to put all the money in and lie about it, I can certainly imagine him taking as much out of the group as he could.
If this is true, then it puts quite a different spin on the passage at hand. This is not a church member caught in sin, but an outsider attempting to take advantage of this fledgling group of believers.
I believe that god is fiercely protective of His family. This passage does not question God’s grace, but in fact demonstrates it. God is protecting those in the church from those who would take from it.
Over recent days I have been mulling over the life of the early church in Acts 4, as you well know! One argument for not living as they did is perhaps those who would take advantage and not do their fair share. If I share all that I have with the church, and others do not, then I am at a disadvantage. The events of Acts 5 serve as a warning to those who might consider this .
Great fear came on the whole assembly, and on all who heard these things.Acts 5:11 (WEB)
We see from verse 11 that a great fear came over the whole assembly. I have little doubt that those who were intending to try and deceive the church, and indeed the Spirit of God, had second thoughts after seeing both Ananias and Sapphira carried out and buried.
God is indeed a gracious and loving God. As I have said before though, God is not just loving, but just as well. A loving God has to be just in fact.
Let us all pray against the temptation to lie to the Spirit, and pray that God would protect us and our church family from those who would seek to harm or steal from us. Praise God the Father, Son and Spirit for His generous grace and loving kindness! Thank Him for being a protective Father over His dear children. Amen.