Where the world comes to study the Bible

8. Profession and Possession (Acts 4:32—5:11)

32 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. 33 And with great power the apostles were giving witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and abundant grace was upon them all. 34 For there was not a needy person among them, for all who were owners of land or houses would sell them and bring the proceeds of the sales, 35 and lay them at the apostles’ feet; and they would be distributed to each, as any had need.

36 And Joseph, a Levite of Cyprian birth, who was also called Barnabas by the apostles (which translated means, Son of Encouragement), 37 and who owned a tract of land, sold it and brought the money and laid it at the apostles’ feet.

5:1 But a certain man named Ananias, with his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property, 2 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. 3 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? 4 “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.” 5 And as he heard these words, Ananias fell down and breathed his last; and great fear came upon all who heard of it. 6 And the young men arose and covered him up, and after carrying him out, they buried him. 7 Now there elapsed an interval of about three hours, and his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. 8 And Peter responded to her, “Tell me whether you sold the land for such and such a price?” And she said, “Yes, that was the price.” 9 Then Peter said to her, “Why is it that you have agreed together to put the Spirit of the Lord to the test? Behold, the feet of those who have buried your husband are at the door, and they shall carry you out as well. 10 And she fell immediately at his feet, and breathed her last; and the young men came in and found her dead, and they carried her out and buried her beside her husband. 11 And great fear came upon the whole church, and upon all who heard of these things.

12 And at the hands of the apostles many signs and wonders were taking place among the people; and they were all with one accord in Solomon’s portico. 13 But none of the rest dared to associate with them; however, the people held them in high esteem. 14 And all the more believers in the Lord, multitudes of men and women, were constantly added to their number; 15 to such an extent that they even carried the sick out into the streets, and laid them on cots and pallets, so that when Peter came by, at least his shadow might fall on any one of them. 16 And also the people from the cities in the vicinity of Jerusalem were coming together, bringing people who were sick or afflicted with unclean spirits; and they were all being healed.48

Introduction

A young man was once told by my friend Fred that he had a problem—he did not know the difference between “sin” and “crime.” “There are,” Fred explained, “a number of crimes that are not sins, and a number of sins that are not crimes.” An illustration of Fred’s point can be found in the story of Ananias and Sapphira, recorded at the beginning of Acts chapter 5. This couple had committed no crime, but they had committed a sin. They had not stolen money, nor extorted it, nor embezzled it. They had simply kept a part of that which was theirs. They must have kept back only a small portion of it, but in so doing, they had lied. And for this, they died.

Is lying a capital offense? In our society, most lying is hardly seen to be a sin, let alone viewed as a crime. Why then did God take this sin so seriously? If the punishment for this sin was unusual, the sin surely was not nor is it rare today. Deception has become an accepted way of life. Why was lying a capital offense? That, my friend, is the “tension of our text.”49 As we study our passage, let us seek to understand why lying is such a serious sin to God.

The Structure of our Text

Our passage is located between two status reports. Verses 32-37 describe the progress of the gospel, through the preaching of the apostles and the lifestyle of the church. The gift of Barnabas (4:36-37) is provided as an example of the gracious spirit which prevailed in the church as a whole. It serves other purposes too, which we shall point out later. Verses 12 through 16 of chapter 5 provide us with yet another status report, describing the condition of the church, the power of God manifested through the apostles, and the response of men to this. And in the middle of these two status reports is the account of the deaths of Ananias and Sapphira, struck down in divine judgment for their sin of lying (5:1-11).

The Approach of this Lesson

Our approach in this lesson will be to seek to understand the events which are described in the light of the context. We will therefore consider the giving of possessions in general, then in the case of Barnabas, and finally in the case of Ananias and Sapphira. We will then seek to find the answers to the following questions:

(1) To what extent is the practice of the church in selling its possessions a pattern for the church today?

(2) Why was God so severe in dealing with Ananias and Sapphira?

(3) What was wrong with what this couple did?

(4) How does one lie to the Holy Spirit?

(5) What is the relationship between “lying to the Holy Spirit” (5:3) and “putting the Spirit of the Lord to the test” (5:9)?

(6) What is the relationship between the purposes of one’s own heart and the spiritual influences of both Satan and the Holy Spirit?50

(7) What are the lessons in this passage for us?

Background

In obedience to the command of the Lord, the disciples waited for the promised Spirit, who would empower their witness of the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. They selected the twelfth apostle—to replace Judas (Acts 1). Then the Spirit fell upon them, and they spoke in foreign tongues. This led to the first public proclamation of the resurrection of Jesus, the descent of the Spirit, the coming day of judgment, and the salvation which God offered to those who repented and put their faith in Jesus as the Messiah (Acts 2). On their way to the temple, Peter and John encountered a lame man who asked for alms but received healing from his life-long malady of lameness. Once again, the gospel was preached (Acts 3), but this time Peter and John were interrupted by the temple guard who were sent to arrest them. This led to a trial before the Sanhedrin, with warnings not to continue preaching in the name of Jesus, and threats of future punishment. To this the two apostles calmly responded that they must continue to tell of what they had seen and heard. On returning to their own and giving a report of all that had happened, the assembly rejoiced at suffering for the sake of the Savior, confident of the fact that men could not prevent God’s purposes from coming to pass. In response to their prayers for boldness, the presence of God was manifested by the shaking of the building where they were and a subsequent filling of the whole group by the Holy Spirit (Acts 4:1-31).

Bold With their Possessions
(4:32-37)

32 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.51 33 And with great power the apostles were giving witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and abundant grace was upon them all. 34 For there was not a needy person among them, for all who were owners of land or houses would sell them and bring the proceeds of the sales, 35 and lay them at the apostles’ feet; and they would be distributed to each, as any had need.

36 And Joseph, a Levite of Cyprian birth, who was also called Barnabas by the apostles (which translated means, Son of Encouragement), 37 and who owned a tract of land, sold it and brought the money and laid it at the apostles’ feet.

The church had prayed for a boldness in their profession of the gospel, and God graciously granted their request. But the boldness of the church in its profession was also practiced with regard to its possessions.52 The church had been given the grace to live dangerously (not foolishly). The saints knew all too well that to boldly profess Jesus as the Christ, Israel’s Messiah, risen from the dead, was to incur the wrath and the strong opposition of the Jewish leaders. When they prayed for boldness, they prayed knowing that boldness would lead to painful consequences. But this did not stop them.

It was this same spirit of boldness which permeated not only the profession of the church but its practice with regard to earthly possessions. From a purely human point of view, to sell their possessions to meet the needs of others was folly, certain future economic disaster. Surely one must be financially prepared for the future. With one heart and soul, the saints continued to give of their resources to meet the needs of others.

This was really a continuation of that first described by Luke in Acts chapter 2:

And all those who had believed were together, and had all things in common; and they began selling their property and possessions, and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need. And day by day continuing with one mind in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they were taking their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart (Acts 2:44-46).

There were a couple of differences, however. We are no longer told that all the saints were together. It may still have been the case, but the church had grown considerably, and this might no longer have been possible. In the former days, the saints sold their goods as needs arose and personally met them. But now, with a much larger church and more needs, they sold their possessions and brought the money to the apostles, leaving it to them to administer the funds. Giving had, in one sense, become more institutionalized, out of necessity. In one sense, this was more of a test. It is much easier to be motivated to give to one’s neighbor, whose needs are immediately evident to us, than it is to give to those we do not even know. There had to have been a high level of confidence in the apostles for the money to have been laid at their feet.

One may very well wonder what it was that prompted such generosity. The more I read these passages, the more I am convinced that the saints were not demonstrating generosity as much as they were practicing unity. If a member of my family has a serious need, I do not think long about meeting that need, if I can, and I do not think of myself as being generous for doing so. As Jesus put it,

“Now suppose one of you fathers is asked by his son for a fish; he will not give him a snake instead of a fish, will he? Or, if he is asked for an egg, he will not give him a scorpion, will he?” (Luke 11:11-12).

The response of this man to the request made of him is not the response of a generous man; it is the response of a father. Being a part of the family is what makes the difference. The early church looked upon themselves as a family, and they lived like a family. Thus, if one member of the “family” had more than enough possessions and other member had less than enough, it was natural to share these possessions within the family. “Private property” is viewed differently within the family than without.

As Luke makes clear, ownership of property still remained, but the claim to ownership was relinquished. That is, one owned his possessions, but he gave up that ownership the moment it became evident another member of the family required them. It was a simple matter of sharing what you had with those who did not.

My wife and I saw a great deal of this while I was a student in seminary. Very often, it was not those who had the most who shared with those who lacked, but it was those who had just a little more than the one who lacked who shared. How many times I can remember one family sacrificially sharing what little they had with someone who had even less. And what a joy that was to both families. This is what I see taking place in the early church. It was a real community of believers.

There were other factors involved in the spirit of sharing which I find underlying the actions of these early Christians. There was, for example, the words and teaching of our Lord. The early church was, in its sharing, simply taking Jesus literally. For example, Jesus taught,

“Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has chosen gladly to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions and give to charity; make yourselves purses which do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near, nor moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Luke 12:32-34).

The actions of these saints were completely consistent with the words of the Lord. They were taking Jesus simply at His word.

Furthermore, one should remember that Jesus and the apostles taught that Jerusalem would be destroyed, in that generation:

“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, the way a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were unwilling. Behold, your house is being left to you desolate! For I say to you, from now on you shall not see Me until you say, ‘BLESSED IS HE WHO COMES IN THE NAME OF THE LORD!” (Matthew 23:37-39).

And Jesus came out from the temple and was going away when His disciples came up to point out the temple buildings to Him. And He answered and said to them, “Do you not see all these things? Truly I say to you, not one stone here shall be left upon another, which will not be torn down” (Matthew 24:1-2).

“But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then recognize that her desolation is at hand. Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains, and let those who are in the midst of the city depart, and let not those who are in the country enter the city; because these are days of vengeance, in order that all things which are written may be fulfilled. Woe to those who are with child and to those who nurse babes in those days; for there will be great distress upon the land, and wrath to this people, and they will fall by the edge of the sword, and will be led captive into all the nations; and Jerusalem will be trampled underfoot by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles be fulfilled” (Luke 13:20-24).

In no way do I wish to minimize the boldness of the early church regarding the sale of its possessions and its giving to the needy, but I do wish to point out that the early church should have been aware of the coming judgment of God on that city. We should not treasure that which will not last. They knew that their possessions would not last beyond their own generation (cf. Matthew 23:36).53

There is at least one more explanation for the conduct of the early church regarding possessions and the poor. The church acted unanimously, as a community, in the way it ministered to the poor among them,54 and it did so, I believe, because “abundant grace was upon them all” (Acts 4:33). I understand “grace” to be a very broad term, but here, as elsewhere (cf. 2 Corinthians 9:6-7,8,14,19), it can refer to grace as manifested in giving to meet the needs of others. Grace is always that abundance poured out on those who are in need, whether it be material or spiritual in form (cf. Hebrews 4:16).

The mention of Barnabas55 and his donation serves several purposes in the Book of Acts. First, in the immediate context, it serves as an illustration of the kind of benevolence Luke has described in general terms. Barnabas is a concrete illustration of a general statement. Further, this reference to Barnabas is a backdrop, against which the sinful actions of Ananias and Sapphira will be depicted in the next verses of chapter 5. And finally, the mention of Barnabas serves as an introduction of this remarkable man of God, whose ministry of encouragement to Paul and many others will be described later on in the book.56 It is no wonder that this man who gave generously of his own means would be chosen to carry a generous gift from the saints in Antioch to the needy saints in Jerusalem (cf. Acts 11:27-30).

There is a great deal of discussion (and debate) concerning the practice of the church in giving its possessions to help the poor. Frankly, much of the discussion is an effort to avoid any need for us to follow the example of this church in this matter. It would seem to me that we should strive to retain the simplest, most literal, straightforward interpretation of the text of Scripture as possible, here, and elsewhere. On the other hand, it should be pointed out that the practice of the early church here was not a uniform practice of the church so far as the New Testament accounts are concerned. There was to some degree a unique situation here, with the destruction of Jerusalem at hand, in the lifetime of these saints. And it should be pointed out that in the providence of God, letting go of their possessions was a source of great blessing to the saints in Jerusalem. Not only did it free them of the material “pull” of their possessions, which would have hindered them from leaving the city (cf. Acts 8:1ff.), but it saved them from the torture of the Romans, who quickly recognized the affluent when they sacked the city and who tortured them until they told where their possessions were hidden.

Let us recall that the practice of the church here was not binding upon Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:4). They were not required to sell their property or to give any particular portion of it. This was a matter of personal freedom and guidance. Thus, I would take it that we are not bound to do what the members of the first church did either. But I must also say that, in principle, we have precisely the same obligations and opportunities. Jesus’ teaching to sell one’s possessions and to give to charity are just as applicable to us as they were to the early church. And when we have a brother or sister in need, and we have the resources to meet that need, we are obliged to do so.57

The Sin of Ananias and Sapphira
(5:1-11)

1 But a certain man named Ananias, with his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property, 2 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. 3 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? 4 “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.” 5 And as he heard these words, Ananias fell down and breathed his last; and great fear came upon all who heard of it. 6 And the young men arose and covered him up, and after carrying him out, they buried him. 7 Now there elapsed an interval of about three hours, and his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. 8 And Peter responded to her, “Tell me whether you sold the land for such and such a price?” And she said, “Yes, that was the price.” 9 Then Peter said to her, “Why is it that you have agreed together to put the Spirit of the Lord to the test? Behold, the feet of those who have buried your husband are at the door, and they shall carry you out as well. 10 And she fell immediately at his feet, and breathed her last; and the young men came in and found her dead, and they carried her out and buried her beside her husband. 11 And great fear came upon the whole church, and upon all who heard of these things.

We are not specifically informed that Ananias and Sapphira, his wife, were true Christians, but the weight of the inferences (in my judgment) is that they were. This man and his wife had conceived of a plan, a plan which seemed to offer the most benefits. They agreed to sell a piece of land which they owned. They decided that they would give most of the proceeds of that sale to the apostles, to meet the needs of the poor. They also determined to keep back a small amount for themselves. The worst part was that they also agreed that they would lie about the amount which they gave to the apostles, so that their gift would be thought of as being the entire amount they were paid for their property. In other words, they wanted to appear to be giving all the money they received, but they were keeping part of it and pulling it all off by lying about it. It was, in short, a conspiracy of deception.

Sapphira was not with her husband when he presented the money to the apostles, but Luke lets us know from the beginning that she was fully aware of what Ananias was doing and was a party to it (5:2). He presented the portion as though it were the whole. We do not know whether his deception was only by inference (he wanted the apostles and others to draw the conclusion the money he brought was the whole amount of the sale of the land) or whether he made an outright statement. I am inclined to think that he directly lied.

It would not have been difficult for Ananias’s deception to have become public knowledge. The purchase price of the property could easily have been known to others and thus to the apostles. The amount that Ananias presented could also have been a matter of public record. Also, Peter could have discerned that the amount given did not seem to be enough for the property which was sold. In spite of these normal means of discerning the deception of Ananias and Sapphira, one has the impression that Peter’s knowledge was supernaturally revealed to him. In addition, it seems apparent that the Spirit of God moved him to openly rebuke Ananias.

Peter’s indictment of Ananias is most informative. With respect to Ananias, Peter’s words give a clear indication of what this man was guilty, and likewise what was not sin. Peter rebukes the man for his lying, not for keeping back a portion of the money he gained from the sale of his property. Peter’s words to Ananias not only show him to be free to use his property as he chooses, but they also clarify the freedom which all of the saints had in the matter of their possessions.

In the first place, Peter affirmed the right of private property. The practice of the church was not communism, for each individual owned his possessions. Ananias (and all of the other saints, by inference) had complete freedom to use his property any way he chose. He could have kept it, or sold it, without sin. And even when he sold it, he was just as free in the use of the proceeds obtained from the sale. He could have kept it all or any part of it. His sin was not in the amount of money he gave or in the fact that he kept some of it back. His sin was that he lied, so that it would appear that he gave all of the money when he did not.

Peter’s words must have caught Ananias by surprise. He did not ask Ananias if he had lied or if he had kept back some of the price of the land. He did not ask Ananias why, from a human point of view, he was motivated to act as he had.58 Peter quickly took this matter to its spiritual roots and to its spiritual fruits. The ultimate source of this deception was Satan. That must have been news to Ananias, who thought this was entirely his idea (with the collaboration of Sapphira, of course). But it was Satan whom Peter said had “filled his heart” (verse 3). And the fruit of the matter went far beyond what this man had thought. He had not simply lied to Peter (and to whoever else was present at the time); he had lied to the Holy Spirit. What must have seemed to Ananias and his wife as a trivial offense, a “little white lie,” was revealed to be a matter of great proportions. A simple plan between a man and his wife, carried out in the church, had now involved Satan and the Spirit of God.

Peter did not pronounce the death sentence on Ananias as he did with his wife. He simply exposed the man’s sin for what it was. I do not know that Peter expected Ananias to drop dead, but he did. It was apparent to Peter and to the rest that God had smitten this man, which led him to conclude that his wife would die in the same way, if she were guilty of the same offense. Great fear came upon all who beheld what happened. Here was a “sign and wonder,” performed at the hands of an apostle, which was of a very different kind.

The body of Ananias was quickly removed and buried, without his wife’s knowledge. When she arrived some three hours later, it may have been to look for her husband. But for whatever reason she came, it provided Peter with the opportunity to determine the woman’s role, if any, in this scheme. He asked (according to the record) only one question—did she sell the land for the price which her husband had indicated?59 When she verified the amount as that which her husband had claimed, Peter quickly pronounced sentence on her. He guilt was quickly summarized. First, she and her husband conspired together. She was as guilty as he was in this matter. She was guilty for taking part (or at least consenting) in this deception. Their conspiracy was one that was against the Holy Spirit, of “putting the Spirit of the Lord to the test” (verse 9). Just as her husband had died for his sin, so she would die for her role in this.60 Fear was the result, in the church and without (verse 11).61

Conclusion

What then are we to make of this text? Let us return to those questions which were stated at the beginning of this lesson which have not yet been answered62 and seek to answer them now.

(1) Why was God so severe in dealing with Ananias and Sapphira?

(2) What was wrong with what this couple did?

(3) How does one lie to the Holy Spirit?

(4) What is the relationship between “lying to the Holy Spirit” (5:3) and “putting the Spirit of the Lord to the test” (5:9)?

(5) What is the relationship between the purposes of one’s own heart and the spiritual influences of both Satan and the Holy Spirit?63

(6) What are the lessons in this passage for us?

Let us consider the first two questions together. God dealt severely with the sin of Ananias and Sapphira because of its seriousness. The sin which was so serious to God was the sin of lying. Now here is a very fascinating thing. God’s values are much different than ours. We can discern the severity of an offense (in the mind of those who impose the penalty for it) by the severity of the punishment. Since God pronounced and performed the death penalty on lying, it must be a most serious offense. And since God did not care about the amount Ananias and his wife gave or kept back (this was a matter of liberty to him, as Peter pointed out), material things were not nearly as important.

How different with men than with God. Men, with the exception of some cases, do not even consider lying a crime and hardly a sin. We speak (or at least think) of deception as a way of life; we call deception a “little white lie.” We almost expect dishonesty. When we don’t want to talk to someone on the phone, we don’t tell them the truth; we may have our secretary tell them we “are not in.” Now when it comes to money and material things, then we start taking these sins seriously, in fact we call them crimes. And the more money or possessions are involved, the more severe the crime and its punishment.

But why is lying such a serious offense to God? Why was this deception, which seems to have hurt no one, so drastically disciplined by God? I think the answer is quite evident: the church is founded upon truth, and it grows by means of truth. The unity of the church is also dependent upon truth. Deception is an attack on the truth, and it is also one of the primary means of attack employed by Satan, the liar and deceiver. To tolerate even a small deception is to open the door to an attack on the truth which would be devastating. Notice just a few of the references to truth64 which we find in the New Testament:

The Word became flesh and lived for a while among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth (John 1:14).

He who speaks on his own does so to gain honor for himself, but he who works for the honor of the one who sent him is a man of truth; there is nothing false about him (John 7:18).

And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor to be with you forever—the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you (John 14:16-17).

“When the Counselor comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who goes out from the Father, he will testify about me (John 15:26).

But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come (John 16:13).

Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth (John 17:17).

Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them (Acts 20:30).

If I am delayed, you will know how people ought to conduct themselves in God’s household, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth (1 Timothy 3:15).

He is conceited and understands nothing. He has an unhealthy interest in controversies and quarrels about words that result in envy, strife, malicious talk, evil suspicions and constant friction between men of corrupt mind, who have been robbed of the truth and who think that godliness is a means to financial gain (1 Timothy 6:14-15).

Now that you have purified yourselves by obeying the truth so that you have sincere love for your brothers, love one another deeply, from the heart (1 Peter 1:22).

We are from God, and whoever knows God listens to us; but whoever is not from God does not listen to us. This is how we recognize the Spirit of truth and the spirit of falsehood (1 John 4:6).

I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth (3 John 1:4).

Almost 80 times in the gospels65 the Lord is quoted as saying, “I tell you the truth.” If there was anything which characterized Him it was “truth.” Thus, He is “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). He is also said to be “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). The Holy Spirit is called the “Spirit of truth” (John 15:26; 16:13; 1 John 4:6). Satan, on the other hand, is a “liar” and the “father of lies” (John 8:44), as well as a “deceiver” (2 Corinthians 11:3; Revelation 12:9-10). The first temptation of Adam and Eve by Satan involved Satan’s denial of the truth which God had revealed to them. The church is the “pillar and foundation of the truth” in the world (1 Timothy 3:15). The saints are built up in their faith as each one “speaks the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:16), and “lays aside falsehood” (4:25). Is it any wonder then that truth is so important and that lying is considered such a serious offense?

Let us move on to our next two questions. How does one “lie to the Holy Spirit,” and in what way does this relate to “putting the Spirit of the Lord to the test”? We first must see that “lying to the Holy Spirit” began with lying to men. When Peter said, “You have not lied to men, but to God” (Acts 5:4), he was saying, in effect, “You have not merely lied to men, but you have ultimately lied to God.”66 From Acts 5:3, we know that their lying to God was to God, the Spirit. I believe that the people lied to the Holy Spirit by lying to the apostles (and to the church as well), because the Spirit of God indwells the church. The church of God and the Spirit of God are intertwined, in the sense that the Spirit dwells in the church (Ephesians 2:22).

If lying to those who are fellow members of the body of Christ is lying to the Holy Spirit, then this seems to be related to “putting the Spirit of the Lord to the test” (Acts 5:9). How does one put God to the test then, and how does this relate to lying to one another and to the Holy Spirit?

The Old Testament defines the meaning of “putting God to the test.” The key Old Testament texts are Exodus 15:25; 16:4; 17:2 and Deuteronomy 16:6. Key New Testament texts are those in the Gospels, which depict the temptation of Jesus by Satan (Matthew 4:7; Luke 4:12). Significantly, all of these passages deal with times of hunger and/or thirst, including the temptation of our Lord. The nation Israel was delivered from slavery in Egypt by God and led into the wilderness. Only days after crossing the Red Sea, they came to the waters of Marah, where they could not drink because the water there was bitter. Here, the people grumbled, and God put His people to the test to see if they would trust and obey Him. Their task was to obey God, and His promise was that He would take care of their needs.

In Exodus 16 they came to another point of need, and the people began to complain, because they did not believe that they would eat as they had in Egypt. Again, God put them to the test to see if they would obey His commands. In this chapter, it is clearly indicated that Israel’s grumblings against Moses and Aaron were really grumbling against God (16:8). In chapter 17, they came to a place which would be named Massah and Meribah (17:7), where the people quarreled with Moses and thus put God to the test (17:2). They accused Moses of leading them into a place where they would die. They demanded water and seemed to threaten Moses’ life if he did not produce what they demanded.

It is to this incident that God later referred when Israel was about to enter into the promised land:

“You shall fear only the LORD your God; and you shall worship Him, and swear by His name. You shall not follow other gods, any of the gods of the peoples who surround you, for the LORD your God in the midst of you is a jealous God; otherwise the anger of the LORD your God will be kindled against you, and He will wipe you off the face of the earth. You shall not put the LORD your God to the test, as you tested Him at Massah. You should diligently keep the commandments of the LORD your God, and His testimonies and His statutes which He has commanded you. And you shall do what is right and good in the sight of the LORD, that it may be well with you and that you may go in and possess the good land which the LORD swore to give your fathers, by driving out all your enemies from before you, as the LORD has spoken” (Deuteronomy 6:13-19).

When our Lord was tempted by Satan, He had been in the wilderness, without food for 40 days (Matthew 4:2; Luke 4:1-2). Satan sought to induce Jesus to act independently, indeed, disobediently, seeking to produce what He wanted His own way, rather than obeying the Father and waiting for Him to produce what He had promised, in His own way and in His time. Specifically, Satan suggested that Jesus leap from the pinnacle of the temple, based upon God’s promise of protection. Jesus refused, based on the fact that this would be to “put God to the test” and thus would be disobedience to God.

Taking all these factors into consideration, it seems to me that men are inclined to put God to the test in the area of God’s provisions—specifically food. God has promised to provide, and He has called upon men to obey His commands and to wait upon Him to provide in His time. Men put God to the test when they doubt His provision and when they act independently, when they act disobediently, seeking to provide for themselves in their own way.

I can see this backdrop as fitting into the situation of Ananias and Sapphira quite directly. Others were selling their possessions and giving all they made from them to the apostles to meet the needs of poor brethren. I assume that people were selling their extra possessions and property, not their own dwellings. The property they were selling was their security, their “nest egg,” that which assured them that there would be provisions for the future. Ananias and Sapphira may well have said to themselves, “If we sell all that we have, we will have nothing to fall back on.” Keeping back a little of the money they obtained from the sale of their property would give them a little security, they must have reasoned. And, so long as they were honest in their dealings, it would have been their right to do so. But in order to carry this off, and to look as “spiritual” as the others, they had to lie, saying they were giving their all when they weren’t. They were, in the process of providing for themselves, not trusting in God, and they were not obeying His commandments, for they were lying. No wonder this could be called “putting the Spirit of God to the test.”

Now to another question which we have posed earlier: “What is the relationship between what we conceive in our hearts, and that which either the Holy Spirit or Satan fills our hearts to purpose and perform?” Peter asked Ananias why Satan had filled his heart to conceive of this sin (5:3). He then asked Ananias why he conceived this deed in his own heart (5:4). There must be a relationship between that which we conceive in our own hearts and that which either God’s Spirit or Satan prompts us to do.

I think we see here that there is a very close link between what we decide (supposedly on our own) and what we are encouraged or prompted to decide. I believe that when we act “in the flesh,” prompted by self-interest and human wisdom and values, we are really doing Satan’s bidding. We are doing “our will,” in one sense, but we are also doing Satan’s bidding. Satan prompted Adam and Eve to act independently of God, theoretically “on their own” and “in their own interests,” but in reality they were doing his bidding. When men act in the flesh, they serve Satan.

You know that when you were pagans, you were led astray to the dumb idols, however you were led (1 Corinthians 12:2).

And you were dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience. Among then we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest (Ephesians 2:1-3).

For those who are according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who are according to the Spirit, the things of the Spirit. For the mind set on the flesh is death, but the mind set on the Spirit is life and peace, because the mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so; and those who are in the flesh cannot please God (Romans 8:5-8).67

Whether or not we like to admit it, we cannot do anything that is truly independent of some kind of spiritual guidance. When we act “naturally,” according to the flesh, we serve Satan, who utilizes the world and the flesh to influence our behavior. When we act supernaturally, in the Spirit, we are guided and prompted by God’s Spirit, to do His will. Thus, what man decides to do in his own heart is also that which either the Spirit or Satan has prompted as well. While the rest of the church was following the prompting of God’s Spirit, Ananias and Sapphira were following the promptings of Satan, and this led to death as the text indicates.

Lessons to Learn

There are a great many lessons to be learned from our text. Let me conclude by mentioning a few which may provide fuel for further study, meditation, and prayer.

(1) Serious sins often have subtle beginnings. It would be easy to come away from our text with the impression that Ananias and Sapphira sat down one day at the dinner table and said to each other, in effect, “Let’s come up with a plan to sell some property, give some of the money to the needy, keep some of it for ourselves, and lie about it.” This is not what the text tells us or even implies. Neither is it true to life nor to the subtle ways in which Satan works.

Let me suggest a very fictional scenario, but one which is at least believable, which also demonstrates the way in which we find ourselves deep in sin before we even know it. Suppose that Ananias and Sapphira had determined to sell a piece of property, like the rest of the church, and for good reasons. And, let’s suppose, they decided to have the property appraised and learned that a fair asking price was $40,000. Ananias, feeling certain that he can get the asking price of $40,000, mentions to some of his fellow-saints that he is soon to sell a piece of his property and give $40,000 to the apostles. As it turns out, two supermarket chains want to build a store on the same property. The price is bid up, and finally Ananias sells his property for $50,000. Now comes the decision as to what to do with the extra $10,000. Do they give this, too? Or do they consider this windfall a gift from the Lord? Or do they simply decide to hold this money back, saving it for a “rainy day”? Doing so, as Peter pointed out, would have been no problem. The decision is now made to keep the extra money for themselves. But when he gave the money to Peter, Peter asked him pointedly (remember, this is fiction, not fact—although it is clear from the text that Peter knew the exact amount for which Ananias claimed to have sold the property) whether he sold the property for $40,000. Now Ananias had to make a decision. Did he tell Peter what he actually sold the property for and that he and his wife decided to keep the extra money back? If he did this, he would not appear to be as spiritual as others, like Barnabas, who gave all of the money. Or he could lie and make Peter think that he had given all. After all, who would ever know?

Do you see how easy it is for us to start out with pure motives and good deeds, only to have Satan step in, appeal to our fleshly desires, and end up with us committing a very serious sin? Satan is not known as the “deceiver” for nothing. Here is where he does his finest work. And it looks as though he really did a number on Ananias and Sapphira. This is not to minimize their guilt but only to show how subtle the process can be which brings us to a point of blatant disobedience to God’s Word. I am convinced that many terrible sins started out as “good works,” but ended up as sin through Satan’s subtlety and our flesh. Nowhere does our text teach that this sin started out as a genuine act of benevolence, but it could have.

(2) Counterfeit spirituality works best alongside the genuine. Even at this high point in the life of the ancient church, when so many were acting in accordance with the teachings of Jesus and with the promptings of the Spirit, counterfeit spirituality emerged, within the church. Satan often seeks to introduce that which is his work, that which is counterfeit, in the midst of an outpouring of divine grace and power. Thus, whenever a revival breaks out, deviations and distortions appear as well.

(3) Grace is never to be a pretext for sin. This period in the life of the church was characterized by “abundant grace” (4:33). Even so, sin raised its ugly head. This is the way Satan works. But if our text teaches us anything, it is that while God’s grace abounds, God always takes sin seriously. Grace is God’s remedy for sin, not the pretext for sin. Grace was given to put away sin, not to promote it. We should never think that by holding fast to the “grace of God” that there is any diminishing of God’s hatred for sin or of the need for divine discipline. God took the sin of Ananias very seriously. So must we, who have experienced God’s grace, live in it. As Paul said it, we who have died to sin should no longer live in it (cf. Romans 5:20–6:14).

(4) Christian ministry should be performed with simplicity. We are clearly taught in Scripture that giving should be done with “simplicity,” that is, with singleness of purpose and motive:

… he who exhorts, in his exhortation; he who gives, with liberality {“simplicity,” margin, NASB} … (Romans 12:8).

There is a danger of giving with mixed motives. The motive we have for giving should be a simple one: love for one another. When we add into this a motive of self-gain or self-interest, our giving is corrupted. I believe further study of the Scriptures would bear this out. I further believe that much of the giving of the saints is motivated by some kind of self-serving benefit. For example, how many requests for funds do you hear that also include a “free offer” or some “gift of appreciation” in return? I believe we do people a great disservice when we seek to motivate them to give by offering something in return. I further believe this same principle of “simplicity” applies to all service.

(5) Sin thrives in the soil of deception and error, but godliness only grows in the soil of the truth. Wherever you find sin, you will find error and deception. Wherever you find salvation and sanctification, you will find the truth. There is no place in Christianity for deception.

(6) The manifestation of sin may be more important than its motivation. Situational ethics seems to say that it doesn’t matter so much what we do as why we do it. Immorality (by biblical standards) may be the “right” thing to do, we are told, if it is done out of love. Our text seems to say that whatever our motive might be (little time is spent on the motivation of Ananias and Sapphira) if the act is a violation of God’s Word, then the act is sin. Peter’s emphasis is that Ananias and Sapphira lied, not only to men, but to God. Regardless of why they lied, they lied, and that was a sin worthy of death. From a Christian point of view, one may do “the right thing” for the wrong motive and thereby sin, but one can never do the wrong thing for the right motive and do that which is pleasing to God.

(7) A desire to appear spiritual is often at the root of the sin of deception. It would seem to me that Ananias and Sapphira would never have gotten into the trouble they did unless they wanted to appear, to others, as though they were spiritual. This is a preoccupation with external appearances and man’s approval, not God’s. It was for this that our Lord condemned the Pharisees (Luke 16:14-15). How many times have we acted deceptively because we wanted others to think we were more spiritual than we really were?

Key References to Truth

Listed below are some of the key references to truth in the Bible:

PSA 15:2; PSA 25:5; PSA 26:3; PSA 31:5; PSA 40:10-11; PSA 43:3; PSA 45:4; PSA 51:6; PSA 86:11; PSA 96:13; PSA 119:30; PSA 119:43; PSA 145:18; ISA 45:19; ISA 65:16; JER 5:3; JER 7:28; JER 9:5; JER 26:15; DAN 8:12; DAN 9:13; DAN 10:21; ZEC 8:3; ZEC 8:16; ZEC 8:19; JOH 1:14; JOH 1:17; JOH 3:21; JOH 4:23-24; JOH 5:24; JOH 5:33; JOH 6:47; JOH 6:53; JOH 7:18; JOH 8:32; JOH 8:40; JOH 8:44; JOH 14:6; JOH 14:17; JOH 15:26; JOH 16:13; JOH 17:17; JOH 18:37; JOH 19:35; ACT 20:30; ACT 28:25; ROM 1:18; ROM 1:25; ROM 2:2; ROM 2:8; ROM 9:1; ROM 15:8; 1 CO 5:8; 1CO 13:6; 2CO 4:2; 2CO 11:10; 2CO 12:6; 2CO 13:8; GAL 2:5; GAL 2:14; GAL 4:16; GAL 5:7; EPH 1:13; EPH 4:15; EPH 4:21; EPH 5:9; EPH 6:14; COL 1:5-6; 2TH 2:10; 2TH 2:12-13; 1TI 2:4; 1TI 2:7; 1TI 3:15; 1TI 4:3; 1TI 6:5; 2TI 2:15; 2TI 2:18; 2TI 2:25; 2TI 3:7-8; 2TI 4:4 ; TIT 1:1; TIT 1:14; HEB 10:26; JAM 1:18; JAM 3:14; JAM 5:19; 1PE 1:22; 2PE 1:12; 2PE 2:2; 1JO 1:6; 1JO 1:8; 1JO 2:4; 1JO 2:8; 1JO 2:20-21; 1JO 3:18-19; 1JO 4:6; 1JO 5:6; 2JO 1:1-4; 3JO 1:1; 3JO 1:3-4; 3JO 1:8; 3JO 1:12


48 This last section, verses 12-16, will be dealt with in greater detail in our next lesson. I include it here because it describes the “fear” that this incident (and perhaps others) brought upon the church and upon those outside as well.

49 There are two more tensions, as I understand this text. The first is this: How did Ananias and Sapphira lie to the Holy Spirit, and how did their actions put Him to the test? More generally stated, how and when does lying to men constitute lying to the Holy Spirit? The second tension is: How can Peter say that Satan filled the heart of Ananias, and yet, at the same time speak of Ananias as conceiving this sin in his own heart? Simply put, how can the purposes of a man’s heart be both his own and those of Satan? These, I believe, are worthwhile questions to ponder, although the answers may not be easy ones.

50 This question arises from the fact that Peter attributes the source of the sin of Ananias and Sapphira both to what they have conceived in their own hearts (5:4) and to the work of Satan in their hearts (5:3). In addition, one would think that had they acted in a godly way, the Spirit would have filled their hearts. Thus, the issue of the relationship of one’s own heart to the influences of the Spirit of God and Satan.

51 Here is a good place to point out a very crucial difference between communism and Christianity. Communism would say, “What’s yours is mine.” Christianity says, quite differently, “What’s mine is yours.”

52 As I have studied the boldness of the church in its profession, as well as in its use of its possessions, I have discovered that one’s profession, persecution, and the use of one’s possessions are often found in close proximity. Cf. Luke 12:1-12, and verses 13ff.; Hebrews 10:32-39; James 2; 1 John 3:13-24.

53 The same principle, of course, applies to us. While we do not know for certain that the return of the Lord will come in our generation, we do know that when He comes, material possessions will be destroyed. This should greatly impact the way in which we live and the value which we attach to things (cf. 2 Peter 3:8-12).

54 I think it can be demonstrated that the poor who were being cared for were primarily poor believers. The church cared for its own. This was taught as a priority (cf. Galatians 6:10). If we grant the fact that there were many poor and needy in the church (cf. also Acts 6:1), then we must admit that even when the church was at its spiritual high-water mark, there were those who were not prosperous. The “gospel of the good life” or the “prosperity gospel,” the teaching that if men are spiritual, they will materially prosper, simply does not stand up under scrutiny nor does it conform to biblical revelation.

55 It is interesting that Barnabas is described as a Levite. The Levites had no portion or inheritance in the Old Testament (Deuteronomy 12:12).

56 Luke seems to have a habit of introducing men early with some brief comment and then to pick these characters up later on in his writing. Thus, he introduced Paul first in Acts 8:1-3, only to wait until chapter 9 to describe his conversion, and then wait until chapter 13 to give him prominence.

57 My understanding of the practice of the church, as described in Act 2 and 4 is that people sold those possessions which were above and beyond their immediate needs. As the person who has two coats is obliged to give one to a brother who has none, so a person with a home in the city and a summer place on the lake may be obliged to give up one residence if a brother in need has nowhere to live. I do not think that Luke is telling us that a person who owned only one house (assuming it was not excessively large or luxurious) sold that house, to help others, only to make himself homeless. The goal was not to create additional poverty but to minister to the poor.

58 I find Peter’s avoidance of the motivation of this man and his wife most interesting. It seems in our own day that motivation has become an obsession. We want to pursue why people act as they do. We seem almost to excuse some actions on the basis of motivation. This is precisely the basis of situational ethics. An act is right or wrong, based on its motivation, the situationalist will say. But Peter differs with this. Regardless of the motives of Ananias and his wife, they consciously purposed to lie. They knowingly sinned. It was a pre-meditated sin. While Peter could surely have been supernaturally informed as to their motivation, it is never mentioned. Perhaps we should learn from this.

59 This indicates, to my satisfaction, that Ananias said much more than Luke recorded. He must have told Peter that the amount he was contributing was the purchase price of his land. Peter then used this figure to get a direct statement from Sapphira.

60 There is a lesson here, by inference, on submission, one which flows from the previous chapter. The Sanhedrin had great authority in Israel, but when this body commanded the apostles to cease preaching in the name of Jesus, they had to reject this order as being one that was outside of this body’s realm of authority. They (as Peter will soon say in chapter 5) had to obey God rather than men. This woman was to be in submission to her husband’s authority, but that authority ended when it came to lying. Her guilt was not minimized because she was a wife, in submission to her husband. So was equally guilty with her husband, because she acted in accord with him, when she should have refused to do so. Peter’s dealings with this woman show that submission to authority ends when such submission would lead to sinning against God. Thus, her guilt and her fate is precisely the same as her husband’s.

61 This is a repetition of what Luke has already written in 5:5. One can safely conclude that the first “fear” was reinforced and underscored by the “second.” One can also conclude that one of God’s purposes in this instance of divine discipline was His intent to produce such fear, as a healthy ingredient in the life of the church.

62 The first question: “To what extent is the practice of the church in selling its possessions a pattern for the church today?” has already been answered on page 7.

63 This question arises from the fact that Peter attributes the source of the sin of Ananias and Sapphira both to what they have conceived in their own hearts (5:4) and to the work of Satan in their hearts (5:3). In addition, one would think that had they acted in a godly way, the Spirit would have filled their hearts. Thus, the issue of the relationship of one’s own heart to the influences of the Spirit of God and Satan.

64 At the end of this lesson there is a more extensive list of verses that emphasize the importance of truth to our faith. I encourage you to look these up and study them in more detail.

65 A number of these instances would be parallel passages and thus the same statement may be found in two or three Gospels.

66 A similar situation can be found in Exodus 16:6-8 and 17:1-7. Israel’s grumblings against Moses and Aaron are exposed as grumbling against God.

67 This text may not precisely substantiate my point, and the thrust of this passage is to show Christians that they are not in the flesh any longer, but in the Spirit (8:9). It is possible, however, to revert back to the impulses and guidance of the flesh. It is not necessary, but it is possible.

Related Topics: Finance