Topical Scripture: Acts 5:1–11
These are actual label instructions on consumer goods:
- On a Sears hair dryer: Do not use while sleeping.
- On a bag of Fritos: You could be a winner! No purchase necessary. Details inside.
- On some Swanson frozen dinners: Serving suggestion: defrost.
- On Marks & Spencer Bread Pudding: Product will be hot after heating.
- On the package of a Rowenta iron: Do not iron clothes on body.
- On a Korean kitchen knife: Warning, keep out of children.
- On an American Airlines package of nuts: Instructions: Open packet, eat nuts.
- On a Swedish chain saw: Do not attempt to stop the chain with your hands.
Good advice, all.
There should be a warning over the doors of the church as well: “Warning: Christians attacked here.” That’s odd, isn’t it? But the Bible says as much: “Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8).
In our series on lessons from Peter’s life and ministry, we come today to one of the most unusual stories in the Bible. From it we learn the answer to the questions, How do we detect Satan’s attacks? What do we do when we do?
What did they do wrong?
“Ananias” means “one to whom Jehovah has been gracious.” “Sapphira” means “beautiful.” Both names proved to be ironic.
Verse one tells us that they “sold a piece of property.” Others have done this to help the poor and been applauded for their generosity. Now these two want that stage for themselves.
However, Ananias, with Sapphira’s full cooperation, “kept back part of the money for himself.” “Kept back” translates a word which means “to embezzle, to defraud”; sometimes in the New Testament it means simply “to steal” (Titus 2:10 NIV). He brings the rest of the proceeds and lays the money at Peter’s feet in a legal act of transfer.
The sin is not in the amount. As Peter makes clear, Ananias could sell anything he liked and give whatever he wished. The sin is in the intent to deceive: to make the church think he has sacrificially given the entire amount when in fact he has not.
But God doesn’t allow the attack to succeed. He always knows our attitudes as well as our actions. He reveals this deception to Peter, who calls Ananias to account for his sin. And in the instant that he hears his deception exposed, Ananias dies.
Then, three hours later, Sapphira comes in. Peter points to the money still at his feet and asks her, “Is this the amount you got for your land?” Her answer in the Greek is emphatic. She, too, lies deliberately; and the moment her sin is exposed she dies as well.
I know this text is harsh. The same God of grace whose power heals the sick and even the demon-possessed in the verses following, here allows or perhaps even causes, the death of these two church members. Perhaps they died of shock; perhaps God caused their deaths directly.
Most of us would see this crime as fairly benign. Those who would stone Stephen to death in two chapters were not punished as severely as this husband and wife. Saul of Tarsus participated in the persecution of multitudes of Christians and was never punished by God.
Why did they die?
Why so severe a penalty for these? If this was the proper consequence of their sin, why is it not the result of such deception today?
Ananias and Sapphira were punished for their deception with death, for one reason above all others: theirs was a cancer which would have crippled or destroyed the Christian movement. Their deception would not have stayed secret for long. Those who bought their land would likely make the sale price public or available, and the sale itself was a matter of public record. The church would eventually know that two of its honored donors had lied about their gift and motives.
As a result, the public witness of the church would have been impugned in the larger community. The credibility and integrity of the apostles and their leadership in this process of benevolence would have been undermined or destroyed. And such deception, left unpunished, would have encouraged the same sin in the hearts of others.
If they could deceive the Spirit, he is not truly Lord. Soon reverence for God and trust within the family of faith would be lost, and their community would be fractured.
The sin of Ananias and Sapphira was nothing less than a ploy of Satan to attack the unity and heart of the church (v. 3). Left unchecked, this cancer would have spread throughout the body of Christ. As it was, the punishment Ananias and Sapphira faced led to the opposite result from that intended by the enemy: “Great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events” (v. 11).
How did Peter know?
One other question is common with regard to this story: how did Peter know of their sin? It is of course possible that he had access to the public records regarding their sale, though nothing about such knowledge is suggested in the text. The answer is found in one of the most significant statements about the Holy Spirit to be found in all the Scriptures.
In speaking to Ananias, Peter exposed the plot of Satan as a lie “to the Holy Spirit” (v. 3). Then he concluded, “You have not lied to men but to God” (v. 4). Later he asked Sapphira, “How could you agree to test the Spirit of the Lord?” (v. 9). When we deceive the Holy Spirit, we deceive God, for he is the “Spirit of the Lord.” Here is proof of the absolute divinity of the Holy Spirit. He is God the Spirit, equal part of the Triune Lord.
And it seems clear from the text that this Holy Spirit revealed the sin of Ananias and Sapphira to Peter. He made the apostle a spiritual oncologist, revealing to him the cancer before it could spread further. In so doing, he made clear to all that he sees every heart and motive and will stop at nothing to keep God’s people pure. The “great fear” which seized the whole church was not a fear of Peter’s omniscience, but of God’s.
What does this story mean to us?
Let’s consider four life lessons from this significant story.
One: We should expect temptation.
Ananias and Sapphira have become leaders in the church. As such, they have even larger targets on their back. Satan wants to destroy the witness of every follower of Jesus, including every one of us today.
If Ananias and Sapphira had refused the temptation of the enemy, their story would have been very different. Scripture teaches: “Submit yourselves to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you” (James 4:7). Submit, then you can resist and you will win.
Satan will not leave us alone. He will attack us until he wins or we win. The time to turn to God is now.
Two: Sin kills.
Every sin grieves the Lord and leads eventually to death (Romans 6:23). God’s warning to Eve in the Garden (Genesis 2:17) still applies to every sin and transgression.
Sometimes the consequences of our sin are less obvious at first than they were for Ananias and Sapphira, but they are no less real. The truism is nonetheless true: sin will always take is further than we wanted to go, keep us longer than we wanted to stay, and cost us more than we wanted to pay.
Three: Every sin is known to God.
Our omniscient Father knows every motive, every thought, every word of gossip or slander uttered in confidence, every transgression. We must “keep short accounts” with God, spending time often in confession and cleansing. The Holy Spirit can use us to the degree that we are holy. Then he will work through us as he did through the Jerusalem church, to the glory of God.
Four: The time to repent is now.
Peter gave Ananias and Sapphira opportunity to confess their sin, but each refused. They did not understand the urgency of the moment and the priority of repentance.
Their story teaches us to respond very differently. Ask the Holy Spirit to show you anything in your life that displeases him and confess all that comes to your thoughts. Now claim his forgiving grace and step forward in his peace.
Travis Kauffman was jogging in Colorado recently when he was attacked by a mountain lion. At that point, according to experts, he did everything right.
He did not try to run away. That triggers the animal’s predatory instinct. Instead, when the animal pounced on him and grabbed his wrist in its jaws, he fought back.
He hit it in the head with a rock, then managed to get his foot on the mountain lion’s neck. He held it there until the animal suffocated. At that point, he ran three miles for help. Someone gave him a ride to the hospital, where he received twenty-eight stitches to his cheek, nose, and wrist.
As we noted earlier, Satan is a “roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8). Here’s what to do: “Resist him, standing firm in the faith” (v. 9).
What lion is attacking you today?