At first glance, this passage seems a little harsh. A husband and wife sell some stuff and give some of the proceeds to the church while secretly keeping the rest of those proceeds for themselves.
The problem is not that they did not give all the proceeds of their sale, necessarily. The problem is that they said they were giving all the proceeds when in fact they only gave part of the proceeds. They simply lied about how much they were giving, and as a consequence God struck them dead. Seems a little harsh until you work your way through the text, prayerfully. Look at the text with me…
1But a man named Ananias, with his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property, 2and 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. 3But 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? 4While 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.” 5When Ananias heard these words, he fell down and breathed his last. And great fear came upon all who heard of it. 6The young men rose and wrapped him up and carried him out and buried him.
7After an interval of about three hours his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. 8And Peter said to her, “Tell me whether you sold the land for so much.” And she said, “Yes, for so much.” 9But 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.” 10Immediately 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. 11And great fear came upon the whole church and upon all who heard of these things.
12Now many signs and wonders were regularly done among the people by the hands of the apostles. And they were all together in Solomon’s Portico. 13None of the rest dared join them, but the people held them in high esteem. 14And more than ever believers were added to the Lord, multitudes of both men and women, 15so that they even carried out the sick into the streets and laid them on cots and mats, that as Peter came by at least his shadow might fall on some of them. 16The people also gathered from the towns around Jerusalem, bringing the sick and those afflicted with unclean spirits, and they were all healed.
#1: ANANIAS LIES AND DIES (VV. 1 – 6)
In verses 1 – 6, Luke tells us that Ananias and Sapphira hatched up a scheme to sell some property, keep some of the proceeds from the sale for themselves, and give the rest of the proceeds to the church (vv. 1 – 2). Normally, a sizeable financial gift such as this would have been received with great joy by any church leader. But Peter saw right through Ananias’ ruse, and he asked him in verse 3, “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?”
Peter then moves on, explaining that the land was Ananias’ and so was the money from the sale of the land and Ananias could have done whatever he wanted to do with the land and the money but instead he lied about how much he sold the land for which causes Peter to say in verse 4, “Why is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to man but to God” and as soon as Peter had spoken, Ananias dies because of his lie and the young men in the church take his dead body away and bury him (vv. 5 – 6).
So, this really does sound a little harsh until you begin to realize that Ananias listened to the voice of Satan – the original master of deception and had cold heartedly made this plan, a premeditated plan – to lie to the church so that he could look good. But the reality is that though he did lie to the church, his greater sin was in lying to God and God struck him dead as a result.
Deception is not a light thing to deal with. We often dupe ourselves – we deceive ourselves – into thinking that our patterns of deception are no more than little white lies or that our little white lies will somehow benefit us or protect others from seeing us as we really are. But the reality is that deception is hideously infectious and destructive for others around us. Deception can be like a nasty virus that gets other people sick too. This is basically what happens to Ananias’ wife, Sapphira.
#2: SAPPHIRA LIES AND DIES (VV. 7 – 10)2
In verses 7 – 10, Luke tells us that a few hours after Ananias is buried, his wife comes looking for him “not knowing what had happened” (v. 7). It is hard for me to believe that no one ran and told Sapphira what had happened to her husband – the most I can figure here is that hardly anyone knew that her husband had died much less the reason he had died – so when Peter asks her how much they had sold the land for, she sticks to the story and becomes culpable for her own part in the deception (v. 8).
We must remember, that even though it seems like this deceptive plan began in Ananias’ heart, Sapphira was not responsible for his sin. This is why Peter says in verse 9, “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”. And of course, we know what happens, Sapphira dies because she lied to God along with her husband and now, they are both lying side – by – side, under six – feet of dirt (v. 10). Ananias and Sapphira, together forever, recorded as deceivers who died within hours of each other, and were buried side – by – side because of their premeditated lies.
I find it equally fascinating and horrifying that Peter hones in on the word “agreed” in verse 9. It is almost as though he is shocked that Sapphira agreed to practice the deception that her husband had proposed. Maybe she was afraid to stand up to him or maybe she was intoxicated by the thought of how much attention she would get for giving such a large financial gift to the church.
Either way, she could have disagreed with her husband and stood against his deception and maybe he would have repented, and they would have lived long and prosperous lives. But she did not do this. She practiced premeditated deception just like her husband and she paid the same price for her own lies.
When I think about this, I think about how tantalizing, infectious, and destructive the sin of deception actually is. We think that we make ourselves look better when we withhold the naked truth. Or we deceive ourselves into believing that when we withhold the truth, we are protecting others around us – when we are only protecting ourselves from the shame and guilt we feel.
Imagine what kind of results this way of life would produce in your relationship with God – he knows everything, but you try to withhold the truth of your sin or minimize your sin or exaggerate other people’s sin or exaggerate your own righteousness – and eventually you wind up living in a world full of lies upon lies to cover more lies.
Now imagine how infectious and destructive this could be on a marriage, a family, a business, an entire society, or even a church that is trying to remain faithful to God. If this deception had not been brought out into the light, the church would have been infected with lies and headed towards certain death because it would have been infected by Satan who is the Father of lies (John 8:44). But thankfully, that is not how the story goes!
#3: THE CHURCH CONTINUES TO GROW (VV. 11 – 16)
In verses 11 – 16, Luke describes how the church not only reacts to the supernatural deaths of two deceivers but also how it continues to grow. The reaction of the church to the deaths of Ananias and Sapphira is that the church is filled with great fear or a healthy sense of fear in light of how serious God takes the sin of spiritual deception (vv. 5, 11).
With that undercurrent of healthy fear, God continued to do miraculous “signs and wonders” through the apostles “and more than ever believers were added to the Lord, multitudes of both men and women” not only from Jerusalem but also from the surrounding communities – once again proving the power of the Spirit to spread the gospel outside the boundaries of the home city – as the sick were healed and the demon possessed were set free to follow God (vv. 12 – 16).
When the church stands in fear and awe of God’s holiness and willingness to deal with our sin, it is like a cleansing fire sweeps through the church and the Spirit does what he does best – saves the lost, heals the sick, sets captives free, and grows his church.
What Satan meant for evil in the early church through a married couple who were tangled up in their deceptive lies, God meant for good in the church. I do not think there has ever been another story quite like this in the history of the church otherwise, as one commentator has said,3 churches would need to hire full time morticians, the ushers would become pall bearers, and church graveyards would take on different meaning.
There are stories of deceivers throughout the Bible though. Jacob has been called “the deceiver” because he deceived his father to steal his brother’s birthright (Gen. 25:19 – 34; 27:1 – 41; Rom. 9:10 – 13), David deceived his friend (and murdered him) to cover up his sin of sleeping with his wife (2 Sam. 11; Psalm 51), Rahab the prostitute lied to protect Joshua’s spies (Josh. 2), Judas practiced deception when he betrayed Jesus (Luke 22), and now Ananias and Sapphira practice deception and die as a consequence (Acts 5:1 – 16).
It is probably true that not many preachers want to preach this text – namely because any preacher worth his salt recognizes that every one of us (preachers included) are guilty of deception at one level or another. Every time a saint sins, he or she practices some level of deception for some period of time. It is as though every one of us loses our sense of a healthy fear and awe of God every time we surrender to the deceptive voice of sin.
And yet, God in his infinite grace and unparalleled patience, bears with us as he gives us every opportunity to hear and to feel the conviction of the Holy Spirit for our deception and sin. And then he reminds us of the cross of Christ so that we might confess our sins and repent and trust again in the work of our crucified and resurrected Savior who is “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). Once we have responded to the Spirit’s conviction by confessing our sin and faith in Christ, we are then set free to speak the unvarnished truth to one another as it says in Ephesians 4:25, “Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another”.
Deception leads to bondage and death, but truth leads to freedom and everlasting life. When you draw close to Jesus you are drawing close to the author of truth embodied in human flesh. The more you draw close to him, the more you will walk out of the darkness of deception and into the light of the truth that will set you free to grow for all of eternity. Amen!
1 Unless otherwise specified, all Bible references in this paper are to the English Standard Version Bible, The New Classic Reference Edition (ESV) (Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, 2001).
2 (Much of this section is a reflection of my study in Hughes’ excellent commentary). Kent, Hughes, Acts: The Church Afire, (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 1996), 75 – 81.
3 Ibid., 76.