In light of everything else written in the New Testament Epistles about the life of the Christian, God immediately smacking down the hand of justice upon Ananias and Sapphira for their lack of moral character, seems dubious. Now, numerous Old Testament passages appear to show God routinely punishing His people for rebellion and sin. Of course a closer look shows us a God who regularly held back punishment, putting up with much before finally bringing correction. So why were these two in the book of Acts so quickly dealt with? To be honest, I’m not sure. Some scholars have speculated at whether or not they were true believers, and others state that at such an early time in the development of the church where the Spirit was present in the community, it was important to deal with any issues of distrust and disunity immediately, and that was what God did with Anaias and Sapphira.
As relevant as those things may be, there was another aspect of the event that had became clear to me. That even as we ascribe so much of following God’s law, that we forget a crucial aspect of that same law. It’s repentance. I know I am going to be adding my own thoughts to this scripture passage. I wouldn’t be the first to imply feelings and actions with knowledge to a passage. We only have what’s before us and we do our best to understand the scriptures as best as we can. I want to be careful and say these are just my thoughts and hardly carry the weight that scripture does, let alone the thoughts of the many well-respected scholars that pour over the bible regularly. At the end, I think you’ll understand why I considered what I did and it hopefully doesn’t stray from the truth of God’s Word.
There is an assumption in Acts 5 that Ananias and Sapphira were claiming to donate all of the proceeds from the sale of their property to the cause of Christ and his church. There was no mandate or demand for it, but simply done as encouraged by the realization of grace given to each person. It was personal act of the individuals who made up the body of believers in the early church. Whatever the reason Ananias and Sapphira had, whether for personal glory in the eyes of those around them, their own greed, or even fear of being left with nothing, this couple outright lied about their actions. Peter was aware of this by the power of the Holy Spirit:
But a man named Ananias, with his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property and with his wife’s knowledge he kept back for himself some of the proceeds and brought only a part of it and laid it at the apostles’ feet. But Peter said, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back for yourself part of the proceeds of the land? While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal? Why is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to man but to God.” When Ananias heard these words, he fell down and breathed his last.
Peter confronted Ananias and riddled him with a series of questions, and at the end of it all, he fell down dead. Was it simply the lies that condemned him, or did Ananias’ response to the questions have anything to do with it? I don’t know if the series of questions were meant to be rhetorical or if Peter was looking for actual answers, but it reminded me a little of a child who knows he’s done wrong, and despite that knowledge is still too stubborn to admit to the wrong, let alone even answer. Maybe Ananias was unwilling to admit to his sin. Maybe Peter’s intent was to give him an opportunity for restoration, forgiveness, and mercy, just as God has shown us countless times over. All just speculation, I know. What isn’t speculation is the reaction of the those that witnessed it:
And great fear came upon all who heard of it. The young men rose and wrapped him up and carried him out and buried him.
Considering the current, but longstanding trend in some Christian circles to emphasize our moral behavior in relation to receiving favor or curses from God, most would be quick to look at the people who were in fear and say that this was a lesson for them to truly love God, and serve others in obedience, but no one ever does that fully. We all still sin daily, and so did the early church. Just read the rest of the epistles for yourself. They’re full of instructions on behavior, and we still need that instruction. But part of that “behavior modification” involves regular repentance. To me this is the main issue of the story. What does an unrepentant life look like? It looks like someone unwilling to acknowledge their sins before God. Even when confronted, some may remain silent, choosing to keep it in as if God wouldn’t be able to see what resides in the darkness of our tainted hearts. Maybe the fear that gripped those around came from the understanding that everything is truly revealed in God’s eyes, and it’s not the sin that ultimately condemns us, but the unwillingness to acknowledge the sin that is there. I am not laying out a formula to follow but talking about an overall unrepentant and rebellious nature. A nature that does not see the need to repent. A nature that doesn’t grasp how costly it was for Jesus to take it upon himself to pay the penalty of our sins. A nature that doesn’t grasp how much Christ gave up when he gave us his very righteousness to call our own. To one that truly grasps these things, even in the smallest way, our response is one of repentance and faith. I think we see another picture of this failure to repent in the rest of this story when Ananais’ wife comes upon the scene looking for her husband:
After an interval of about three hours his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. And Peter said to her, “Tell me whether you sold the land for so much.” And she said, “Yes, for so much.” But Peter said to her, “How is it that you have agreed together to test 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.” Immediately she fell down at his feet and breathed her last. When the young men came in they found her dead, and they carried her out and buried her beside her husband. And great fear came upon the whole church and upon all who heard of these things.
This portion of the story is what makes me think that Peter did give Ananias an opportunity to answer the questions asked of him. Peter now asks his wife, Sapphira, to tell the truth. The wife, remembering the agreement she made with her husband to withhold a certain amount, lies to Peter. Again, an opportunity was given to Sapphira to repent. It appears her life would have been spared if she had admitted to the sin. Instead, she is carried out dead as an example to us of what happens, not when we sin, but when we willingly refuse to repent of those sins. God calls us in his mercy and grace to repent daily of our sins. To acknowledge that Christ’s payment is applied to even our most recent infractions. It’s his kindness that leads us to that repentance. Peter was displaying that kindness to Ananias and Sapphira. An opportunity to turn back towards God in that moment and to admit their faults. Whatever the reasons, they did not. I don’t know if they died believers or unbelievers. I don’t know if this was God supernaturally protecting the infant church. I know it’s a most unusual occurrence compared to much of the New Testament and yet there is still something to consider. There is something we can take away from it.
We are called to repent. We are called to cry out to God in our sins and trust in the finished work of Christ. This is what I walk away with as I read this story. It’s what I walk away with when I think of my own struggles and it’s what I walk away with when, for example, I consider guys like former Yankee third baseman, Alex Rodriguez. A man who was clearly caught in his sin, but stayed unwaveringly rebellious to authorities in his unrepentance, completely unwilling to admit his failures. This is us, even as Christians. It can sometimes be hard to acknowledge what sinners we are. I know that is the case for me. We know what happens to the completely unrepentant. It’s not just about the sins, it’s what we do with it. How we embrace it and acknowledge it.
Don’t be fearful of your sins. We are still all sinners. Acknowledging your sins is acknowledging your need for a Savior. Be fearful of never feeling the need to repent. Be fearful of never feeling the need to cry out to God in response to your sin.
That may be judgment enough.
This is just some of my thoughts as I read through this story. I could be and I probably am way off base, and as such I encourage dialogue for greater understanding. I believe the heart of it all comes down to Christ crucified for us, and our desire to repent as a result of that understanding.