POST OVERVIEW. A study of the incident with Ananias and Sapphira from Acts 5:1-11. This post considers the severe judgment these two receive for what seems like a fairly minor offense. What is the message of this sudden judgment? We will also explore why the punishment was so severe and what God’s purpose was in this judgment.
The story of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5 is one of the most startling events in the New Testament. These two seemingly upstanding disciples join with many others in making a sizeable contribution to the Jerusalem church, laying their large gift at the apostles’ feet. Their contribution, which would seem to be worthy of notice or even commendation, is met instead with a withering rebuke by the apostle Peter and, within a few hours of making their gift to the church, both Ananias and Sapphira have dropped dead and have been buried. And why have they been so severely judged? Because they “lied to the Holy Spirit and kept back some of the price of the land” that they sold (Acts 5:2-3). To many readers, this doubly lethal judgment seems confusing and maybe even unfair since their violation appears to be relatively minor. How do we explain this radical justice?
GOD IS HOLY AND HE WILL JUDGE SIN
Before we dive into this text, we need to remind ourselves of some fundamental ideas. First, God is holy and He decides when He will judge. In this age of grace, even disciples of Jesus can begin to believe that God is obligated to indefinitely delay His judgment, but we will search the Scriptures in vain for any such promise. God remains God and He is free to unleash His judgment when He chooses (Psalm 115:3). Consider Uzzah when he tried to steady the ark and the LORD struck him dead (2 Samuel 6:6-7). The LORD will be treated as holy and He reminds His people of their call to be holy as well. (Leviticus 11:44, 45; 19:2; 1 Peter 1:14-16.)
THE CHURCH IS HOLY AND MUST PURGE SIN
The New Testament community, the church, is to be holy and, therefore, the foundational church in Jerusalem must establish its complete intolerance of sin. But notice that it is the Lord Himself who purges the evil from the midst of this church. (ASIDE: Later Paul will instruct the church to maintain purity from sin by removing an unrepentant member from their midst in 1 Cor. 5. Thus, one mark of a true New Testament church is that there is no tolerance of known sin. If sin is discovered in the ranks, then it will be exposed and, if there is not repentance, the sinning member must be formally removed.) The Lord Himself takes this action because, in the newly formed Jerusalem church, there was as yet no instruction for how to treat sin in the church and the holiness of the church had not yet been clearly established. Thus, in this instance, God Himself demonstrates the church’s absolute intolerance for sin as He Himself purges the evil from the church.
HOLINESS AS LEGAL AND EXTERNAL VS. HOLINESS AS ESSENTIAL
Of course, even in the Old Testament, the people of Israel were commanded to be holy (Lev. 11:44, 45; 19:2), and that the people were also commanded in the Law to purge the evil from their midst (see Deut. 22:21, 22, 24, to name only a few of the references). But under the old covenant, Israel continued to view holiness as legal and as obtained by external adherence to the Law (for example, see Paul’s words about his own pharisaical attitude in Phil. 3:6, 9).
In the new covenant church, however, holiness is essential. The disciples of Jesus, the people who have believed in Him, are now part of an entirely new covenant community, for whom holiness is no longer merely external and legal, but holiness has now become an essential part of what it means to be a disciple. The New Testament makes this very clear in numerous places, perhaps none more sobering than in Hebrews 12:14, where the writer says, “Pursue peace with all men, and the sanctification without which no one will see the Lord.” Therefore, since the members of the new covenant community are individually holy, it follows that the congregation of holy disciples will have no tolerance for sin.
And so, in the case of Ananias and Sapphira, when sin was discovered among the ranks of those who claimed to follow Jesus, God Himself judged that sin swiftly and decisively. Through Peter, God judged sin in the church and so gave the fledgling church and every church of any age, a clear picture of the seriousness of sin in the body. As God tolerates no sin among His people, so the church is to tolerate no unrepentant sin in its professing members. As the LORD commanded His old covenant people to purge the evil from their midst (see Deut. 22:21, 22, 24, etc.), much more the Lord commands His new covenant church to REMOVE THE WICKED MAN FROM AMONG YOURSELVES (1 Cor. 5:13, quoted from Deut. 13:5).
DIFFERENCE IN THE MEANS OF REMOVING EVIL
Although church discipline is not addressed at all in this passage, it seems appropriate to make a couple of comments on the subject to remove any remaining confusion about the judgment of Ananias and Sapphira.
There is a significant difference between how the old covenant people of God purged evil from their midst and how the church does this. Under the old covenant, the Law required that, on the evidence of two or three witnesses, this purging of evil was to be conducted by the people stoning the offender to death. As the author of Hebrews writes, under the Law, willful sin brought with it “a terrifying expectation of judgment. Anyone who has set aside the Law of Moses dies without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses” (Hebrews 10:27-28). So, under the old covenant, the people purged the evil by executing the offender.
The death of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5 may appear no different than “purging the evil” under the old covenant until we realize that it was God, not the church, who administered this punishment. This means that Acts 5 is not an example of church discipline but is an example of God’s holy judgment. To compare old covenant purging of evil (above) by the people of God with its new covenant version, we need to compare the death by stoning without repentance (Num. 15:32-36; Deut. 22:21, 22, 24) with the administration of church discipline that we find in 1 Cor. 5. This new covenant “purging of evil” has the aim of restoring the offending member to the fellowship and so provides generous time for repentance. If the offender does not repent, he is not executed but is removed from the church. But even if removed from the fellowship, there is still an opportunity for restoration on the condition of genuine repentance.
THE HOLY SPIRIT IS DIVINE
One final comment before we go to a verse-by-verse exegesis of the passage is that Acts 5:1-11 makes plain the deity of the Holy Spirit. This will come out clearly as we go through the text and see that the Holy Spirit is God, the third member of the Trinity.
SDG rmb 11/23/2022 #591