Now we come to an episode in Acts that is starkly different from our experience in the church today, the deception of Ananias and Sapphira and their swift judgment (Acts 5:1-11).
Before we begin, please recall a verse from a recent post — Psalm 2:9: “Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron, thou shalt shatter them like earthenware.” Christ’s judgment of the nations will be sudden and total. Their political structures will crumble to unrecognizable bits. It presents us with a picture of how sin will be handled when Christ is on the earthly throne of David. Some have suggested that sin during the Days of the King will be absent from the world (one of the ways in which the whole earth will be blessed) because it will not only be openly revealed as soon as it is committed, but also judged just as quickly. In the story of Ananias and Sapphira we have a perfect vignette of how it will be.
To whatever degree churches and their leaders insist on finding their origins in the early chapters of Acts, they fail to live in the pure form of grace that God intends for our day. What we are about to learn in the case of Ananias and Sapphira is characteristic of the Kingdom Age, where sin will be judged instantly and finally. That is not the case for us today, praise God! Instead of swift justice, the dealing out of what sinners deserve on the spot, we live under the patience, mercy and grace of our loving Savior — the Age of Grace.
Luke’s narrative is straight-forward and factual. Following immediately on the heels of the description of Barnabas, Luke’s first word is “but.”
“But a certain man named Ananias, with his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property, and kept back some of the price for himself, with his wife’s full knowledge, and bringing a portion of it, he laid it at the apostles’ feet.” (5:1-2)
The Greek word translated “kept back” is nosphidzomai, which in its root form means to separate or part. This form is called “middle voice”, a Greek construction that has no English counterpart. Middle voice indicates that the subject is acting concerning himself. The only other use of this word in the New Testament is in Titus 2:10, where employees (slaves) are warned against pilfering from their masters. This word is used by other classic Greek authors to describe the crime of embezzlement. Consequently, this word carries a negative and purely selfish connotation which perfectly describes the character of Ananias’ heart.
But Peter said, ‘Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit, and to keep back some of the price of the land? While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not under your control? Why is it that you have conceived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to men, but to God.’
There is a small piece of information that must be inferred here, but which will be demonstrated a few verses later. Apparently in the process of “laying it at the apostles’ feet” he stated that the amount that he laid at their feet was the entire price he received for the land. Notice that Satan had filled Ananias’ heart to do two things, and the first was to lie. Even though it wouldn’t have followed Barnabas’ shining example, it might have been permissible to reserve some of the price for his own use, if he just hadn’t lied about it. Ananias and his wife had conspired together to hide the truth with a lie, and it was this conspiratorial lie that made this a case of pilfering or embezzlement. If they had been open and honest about it, it may have been met with disappointment, but not the judgment they were about to receive:
And as he heard these words, Ananias fell down and breathed his last; and great fear came upon all who heard of it. And the young men arose and covered him up, and after carrying him out, they buried him.
(In my Zodhiates NASB reference Bible, the words “breathed his last” are underlined together, meaning they are a single Greek word — ekpsucho, from ek (“out”) and psucho (“breathed”), from which we take our English word exhaled.)
Have you ever not “told the whole story” to a representative of the church? Have you ever denied something to them that you knew to be true? Do you know of others who have? What was their condition immediately thereafter? Did they fall down and exhale for the last time immediately? I’m sad to say that these kinds of things happen all the time in matters of church discipline, but in none of those cases have I ever seen this result. It is not our experience today, but it is characteristic of sin and judgment in the Kingdom Age. This was so powerful that Luke literally writes, “and consequently megafear was upon all who heard.” What a powerful cure for the desire to lie! But the story is only half finished.
Three hours later Ananias’ wife Sapphira, unaware of what had happened to her husband, came in. Peter questioned her about the amount of the sale, and she indicated it was the same amount Ananias had said — as they had conspired to do. Her fate was the same as Ananias, instantly falling dead at Peter’s feet.
Can you imagine such things taking place in your church today? Our experience today is so different that it has lulled the vast majority of believers to sleep concerning the deadliness of sin. Paul, although he might have had good reason to judge sin in the Corinthian church in the same way — did not. Paul had similar opportunity on his first missionary journey when he encountered the sorcerer Elymas on the island of Cyprus (Acts 13:6-11). He was no less an apostle than Peter. In fact, we find no other example of this sort of judgment anywhere in the New Testament. Why, then, did God perform this singular miraculous judgement in this manner at this time? And why do “church leaders” (be they pastors or elders or board members) today lack the same power?
If we place the origin of today’s church at Pentecost, centered in Jerusalem, then it behooves us to practice the same form of religion they did — including instantaneous judgment of sin resulting in immediate death at the word of church leaders. Some will suggest that we don’t because after the Twelve and Paul were dead, there were no more apostles, the “line of apostolic authority” having run out. Paul, on the other hand, admonished Timothy to imitate him and to fight the good fight, to let no one “despise thy youth”. The fact is that the authority for what we’ve seen in the story of Ananias and Sapphira ended long before the Twelve and Paul died. In fact, after this instance, it never happened again. If it depended on the “line of apostolic authority” there should have been more examples of it during the remainder of the Apostles’ earthly lives. Its absence suggests there must be another reason not tied to their earthly lives.
As I have stated before, I believe that the origin of the church of today was not at Pentecost, and the Twelve were not sent to Gentiles. The commission and power they received were part of God’s promises to Abraham and his descendants, the promise of an earthly kingdom ruled by God Himself, through which all the people of the earth would be blessed. But Israel, obstinate as always, failed to recognize Jesus of Nazareth as her King. Consequently God raised up a special apostle to take a special message to the Gentiles in spite of Israel instead of through her. That apostle was Paul. The judgment and death of Ananias and Sapphira were a part of Israel’s earthly kingdom, and are representative of the nature and swiftness of judgment in the Kingdom Age. That age has been temporarily set aside by God, replaced with an unprophesied era where God is making Israel jealous by bringing us into His family without their help — the Age of Grace.
That word, grace, is in fact the crux of the matter here. Where is grace (and also mercy) for Ananias and Sapphira? They instantly received what they deserved and did not receive what they did not deserve. Indeed, Paul says that “the wages of sin is death.” (He also says that God is patient today, waiting for all men to come to the knowledge of the truth.) Ananias and Sapphira did not live in an economy of grace, but in an economy of a kingdom ruled by one who would “rule with a rod of iron.” So it will be in the days of the King.
It’s no wonder that great fear came upon the whole church and everyone else who heard of it, so much so that outsiders didn’t dare even associate with them. The remaining verses (vv12-16) elaborate on the miracles being performed by the Apostles, and their resulting spreading fame. Miracles were for the benefit of Israel, who should have recognized them as a sign of the approaching Kingdom and King, and here their intensity is mushrooming. God, at this point in Luke’s narrative, is working hard to convince Israel that their long-awaited day is available to them immediately if they will just repent. It’s still all about Israel.