12. Be Honest—The Story of Ananias and Sapphira
“We have each other, and that is all that matters,” the love-struck couple boasted shortly after their wedding. But they were to find that it can never be so. No Christian husband and wife can be an island to themselves. They are part of a larger unit called the Body of Christ (Eph. 1:22, 23), the household of faith (Gal. 6:10), the household of God (Eph. 2:19). God’s family is much broader than any single family unit, and we soon learn that our relationship to this larger spiritual family affects our relationship with each other as husbands and wives. Never was that more obvious than in the story of Ananias and Sapphira.
They lived in the days of the church’s greatest purity and power. Consider, first of all, the state of the church in that exciting apostolic era, “And the congregation of those who believed were of one heart and soul; and not one of them claimed that anything belonging to him was his own; but all things were common property to them” (Acts 4:32). This is most amazing. The number of believers probably totaled five thousand or more by this time, and yet they were of one heart and one soul. The heart is sometimes used in Scripture to refer in a wider sense to the immaterial part of man’s being, including both his spirit and his soul. But distinguished from the soul, as it is here, it would probably refer just to his spirit, the innermost facet of man’s makeup, the center of his being to which God reveals Himself and in which God dwells. Those early Christians sensed a spiritual bond at the deepest level of their lives. Their spirits were knit together in the cords of Christ’s life and Christ’s love. They knew they belonged to each other as brothers and sisters in Christ.
But Scripture goes on to say that they were of one soul as well, and that is something entirely different. The soul is the conscious life force in man, his personality, consisting of his mind, emotions, and will. This is the level on which he thinks his thoughts, senses his feelings, and makes his choices. This is the realm of experience. Those early Christians were not only one because of their position in Christ, but they were one in experience also. They thought alike, they had deep feelings for each other, and they made decisions that reflected their mutual care and concern. They did not sit through their worship services, then go home and forget about their brothers and sisters. Since their congregation was so very large, when they all met together in the court of the Temple, they also gathered in smaller units in homes to get to know each other, to grow in their love for one another, to care about one another’s problems and minister to one another’s needs (cf. Acts 2:46).
Their loving concern for one another went so far as to touch their wallets, and that is real care! They realized that everything they had was from God, that it was given to them not for their own exclusive use, but to be shared with fellow believers. There was no coercion involved. Any believer was free to own property if he so chose, and no one would think less of him for it. But most of them were selling their material possessions and giving the money to the apostles to be distributed to those who, in all probability, had lost their jobs because of their faith. They were sacrificing their own comforts and conveniences for the good of all.
The result of this unselfish spirit was great power and blessing on the entire church. “And with great power the apostles were giving witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and abundant grace was upon them all” (Acts 4:33). A caring congregation is a strong congregation, for there is dynamic energy in the genuine expression of God’s love. Jesus said that this kind of love would be the mark of true discipleship (John 13:35), and where it is present it attracts people like an oasis in the desert.
It attracted a couple named Ananias and Sapphira. They were numbered among that powerful, caring community of believers. Sapphira’s name means “beautiful” or “pleasant,” the same name given to that precious stone of deep purple blue, the sapphire. Ananias means “Jehovah is gracious,” and God certainly had been gracious to him. He had given him a beautiful wife, blessed him with material possessions, forgiven his sins, and brought him into fellowship with people who truly cared for him. A man couldn’t ask for much more than that.
But Ananias did want more, and so did Sapphira. They wanted more than acceptance; they wanted acclaim. They wanted to be more than just members of the Body; they wanted to be prominent members of the Body. They wanted the praise of men. And that brings us, secondly, to the sin of Ananias and Sapphira. Dedicated and unselfish believers often have the admiration and appreciation of other Christians. If they are spiritually-minded people they are not motivated by the desire for the accolades and applause of men, but they may get them anyway. The people in the early church who sold their possessions and gave the money to the church probably received the enthusiastic appreciation of the entire congregation. Barnabas was one who sacrificed everything (Acts 4:36, 37). It was no grandstand play with him. There was no trace of fleshly pride in it whatsoever. His only thought was the need of other Christians and the glory of God. But the acclaim was there. Ananias and Sapphira saw it and longed for it, and that is where their trouble began.
Coveting the plaudits of men was evidence enough that they were operating in the realm of the flesh rather than the Spirit. But that becomes even more obvious to us when we learn that their confidence for the future was in their bank account rather than in the Lord. They could not bear to do what the others were doing—give their substance totally to God and trust solely in His faithfulness to meet their needs. They had to have that money. And these two expressions of fleshliness, their desire for praise, and their confidence in material things, presented them with a difficult dilemma. How could they get the congratulations they craved from the congregation without laying everything on the altar of sacrifice? They finally came up with a solution. Fake it!
“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” (Acts 5:1, 2). They collaborated on a plan to stash some of the money from the sale of their property in a safety deposit box for themselves and take the rest to the apostles. They would not necessarily say they were giving all of the money they received from the sale; they would just let everyone assume that. And presto, they would have instant acclaim as spiritual, self-sacrificing believers who had surrendered everything to Jesus Christ.
What was so wrong with their plan? They did not really lie to anybody, did they? They just gave the money and said nothing about what percentage of the total sale price it represented. They could not help what other people thought, could they? Evidently they could. Peter, with miraculous divine discernment, attributed their scheme to Satan and called it lying to the Holy Spirit (Acts 5:3). He explained that they were under no obligation to sell their property. And even after they sold it, they were under no obligation to give all the money to the church. But they were obligated to be honest (Acts 5:4). The major sin of Ananias and Sapphira was dishonesty, deceit, hypocrisy, pretense, presenting a false image of themselves, implying a greater spirituality than they actually possessed, letting people think more highly of them than what they knew was warranted. They were more interested in appearances than in reality. Peter said, “You have not lied to men, but to God” (Acts 5:4).
Have you ever wondered what kind of relationship Ananias and Sapphira had with each other? While they demonstrated a marvelous togetherness in their deceptive scheme, their hypocrisy could not help but have affected their marriage. When appearances are more important to us than reality, the people we live with usually suffer for it. We are careful to veil most of the expressions of the flesh before others, but safely behind the walls of our own homes, we have a tendency to let it all hang out—all the anger, all the temper, all the unkindness and inconsiderateness, all the selfish demands, all the pride, all the childish behavior. And as a result, many Christian homes are riddled with wrangling and strife. But when some concerned Christian who might be able to help us asks how things are going at home, we quickly reply, “Oh, just great, great. Yes sir, we’re getting along better than we ever did.” And we excuse our dishonesty by telling ourselves that what goes on in our home is a private matter, nobody’s business but our own. But the dishonesty increases our burden of guilt, and the guilt leads to further defensiveness and irritability, and the irritability produces greater dissension and discord in the home. It’s one of Satan’s favorite traps.
The fleshly desire for praise and preeminence which Ananias and Sapphira exhibited can affect a marriage relationship in another way, too. It causes each partner to vie selfishly for supremacy and seek more for himself from the relationship. He gives of himself only to get something in return, and he usually keeps track of how much he gets. If he thinks he is coming out on the short end, he quarrels and complains until he gets what he thinks he deserves. Each partner is keeping score of who gives in the most, who gets the most attention, who shows the most appreciation, who has the most faults, or some other trivial area of contention. The need for each partner to come out looking better than his mate causes him to mask his true inner person, and so entrenches him more firmly in his wretched hypocrisy.
Let’s be honest. Let’s commit ourselves to absolute straightforwardness and transparency. That is the only way to break out of this devilish trap. When we admit our true feelings and motives to someone else, when we acknowledge our faults for what they are and ask someone to pray for us, it provides a helpful incentive to claim God’s power to change. We know that someday that person will ask us how things are going and we will have to tell him honestly. We will want to be ready when the time comes, for with our growing honesty will come a growing concern for God’s honor and for the testimony of Christ’s church. So we will allow the Spirit of Jesus Christ to work in us to bring us into His likeness. Then we will be able to stop playing the game of putting on appearances. We will be real!
Husbands and wives can begin by being honest with each other. They can admit to one another what is going on inside them, then encourage one another and pray about each other’s weaknesses. They also need to be honest with God. If their attitudes are wrong, even if they both share them alike, they must acknowledge them openly to the Lord and refuse to go on excusing them. Only then will they be able to grow spiritually. Ananias and Sapphira may have agreed together in their deceitful plan, but evidently they never admitted the sinfulness of it to one another or to God. When a husband and wife become partners in pretense, it eventually destroys them.
Look finally at the significance of their discipline. Peter did not call down judgment from heaven as some have supposed. He merely exposed Ananias’ hypocrisy by the insight God gave him. “And as he heard these words, Ananias fell down and breathed his last” (Acts 5:5). It was the disciplinary hand of God. “And the young men arose and covered him up, and after carrying him out, they buried him” (Acts 5:6). We do not know how they got Ananias buried without Sapphira knowing about it, but bodies had to be buried quickly in those days and maybe they could not find Sapphira at the moment. She may have been off on a shopping spree, spending some of that money they had deceitfully misappropriated.
Three hours later she came in looking for her husband, oblivious to what had transpired. Peter gave her an opportunity to be honest. “Tell me whether you sold the land for such and such a price?” he asked, quoting the amount which Ananias had brought to him. Sapphira chose to perpetuate the same false front her husband had initiated. Without a moment’s hesitation she answered, “Yes, that was the price” (Acts 5:8). And Peter declared that she would experience the same fate which Ananias had suffered.
We cringe at this extreme illustration of divine discipline. We may even be tempted to accuse God of overreacting with undue harshness. Why did He do it? He does not seem to act that way now. And we can be grateful for that! But those days were different. They were the formative days of the church. Up until that time there had been no such crass exhibition of fleshliness, and God loathed the day it would permeate the church. From the very outset, He wanted it known how strongly He feels about hypocrisy, and He wanted it known for all time. That is why He put this account into his Word.
Phony spirituality is contagious. It spreads. When one Christian sees another Christian getting away with it, he finds it easier to try it himself. And for every member who operates in the power of the flesh rather than the Spirit, for every one who lives for the praise of men rather than for the glory of God, the effectiveness of Christ’s church is reduced so much the more. Had God permitted Ananias and Sapphira to continue their charade, it would have destroyed the witness of the early church. He had to act decisively.
Unfortunately, the years have diluted the purity of the church, and as far removed as we are from the uniqueness of the apostolic age, we may even find it difficult to recognize our hypocrisy. We understand hypocrisy to be a deliberate and calculated effort to deceive, as it was with Ananias and Sapphira, and we may not be consciously doing that. We may simply have fallen into the unconscious habit of protecting our saintly image, covering our carnality, keeping people from knowing what is going on in our hearts and in our homes. That is usually easier than committing ourselves totally to Christ and letting Him live through us to make the changes He wants to make. This form of hypocrisy has become a way of life in the church of Jesus Christ today, and may be the reason we are not making any greater impact on our godless society.
A penetrating question lingers in our minds after we have drawn the curtain on the life of Ananias and Sapphira. Which is really more important to us—to maintain the appearance of spirituality, or genuinely to be what God wants us to be? Cultivating the appearance alone leads to death—death to further spiritual growth, death to usefulness in the family of God, and death to a growing relationship with each other as husbands and wives. But the Spirit of God can use an honest openness, on the other hand, to produce in us the life of Christ, and that means abundant life, abiding joy, and abounding blessing.
Let’s talk it over
1. How could Ananias and Sapphira have avoided the trap of deceit into which they fell?
2. What are Christians generally most prone to mask from each other?
3. Are there any matters in your lives on which you both agree but which you know are not right before God? What does God want you to do about them?
4. What are husbands and wives most likely to conceal from each other?
5. What are the risks of husbands and wives being transparent with each other?
6. How approachable are you? Ask your mate whether or not it is easy to be honest with you. Why or why not?
7. Is there any sign that either of you is seeking the supremacy in your relationship (such as “keeping score”)? How can you avoid this tendency?