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Subtraction Leads to Multiplication - The First Instance of Church Discipline (Acts 4:32—5:11)

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Introduction1

I am aware of a group of untaught Christians who apparently took our text so literally that they were seriously thinking of taking the life of one of their members, who had committed a serious sin. While I appreciate their zeal to do what the Bible teaches, I think they have misapplied Luke’s account of Ananias and Sapphira. On the other extreme, there are many more who would like to simply set this passage aside. They conclude that Peter’s actions and the resulting death of two church members is entirely uncalled for and inappropriate. Unfortunately some who reject the teaching of our text would be considered Bible scholars. These are certainly not the kind of scholars we need.

Actually, there are many who would like to set aside our text and its implications because it exposes a good deal of shoddy thinking and outright sin in the church. For example, “church growth” is a very popular subject today, but I have not personally seen any significant work on the subject which takes our text seriously. By the title I have chosen for this message, you can see that I believe “subtraction sometimes leads to multiplication.” That is to say, church discipline actually promotes church growth.

Let’s face it; none of us are really inclined to add this passage in Acts to our list of “happy texts”2 in the Bible. As we study this passage, let us beware of setting it aside as irrelevant to the church today. And let us strive to keep an open mind to its meaning and application. May we look to the Holy Spirit to expose any falsehood or deception in our thinking or practice. May this lesson help us to be “honest to God” and to others.

The Structure of Our Text

Our text falls into three major divisions:

Acts 4:32-35A general description of the health of the church in Jerusalem

Acts 4:36-37Barnabas cited as a specific example of verses 32-35

Acts 5:1-11Ananias and Sapphira serve as a stark contrast, both to verses 32-35 and to Barnabas in verses 36-37

The State of the Church in Jerusalem
Acts 4:32-35

32 The group of those who believed were of one heart and mind,3 and no one said that any of his possessions was his own, but everything was held in common. 33 With great power the apostles were giving testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was on them all. 34 For there was no one needy among them, because those who were owners of land or houses were selling them and bringing the proceeds from the sales 35 and placing them at the apostles’ feet. The proceeds were distributed to each, as anyone had need (Acts 4:32-35, emphasis mine).4

This is the second summary description of the state of the church in Jerusalem. The first is found in Acts 2:

43 Reverential awe came over everyone, and many wonders and miraculous signs came about by the apostles. 44 All who believed were together and held everything in common, 45 and they began selling their property and possessions and distributing the proceeds to everyone, as anyone had need. 46 Every day they continued to gather together by common consent in the temple courts, breaking bread from house to house, sharing their food with glad and humble hearts, 47 praising God and having the good will of all the people. And the Lord was adding to their number every day those who were being saved (Acts 2:43-47, emphasis mine).

Both summaries emphasize the power of the Holy Spirit at work in the church, particularly through the apostles, who were proclaiming salvation through the resurrected Christ. Both texts emphasize the way the early church shared with those who were in need. In chapter 4, this sharing seems to have become a bit more formal, as now those who are giving lay the money at the feet of the apostles, so that they might distribute these funds to the needs.

Great Power

The word “great” is found three times in our text. It is worthwhile to consider those things Luke considered “great.” The first of these “greats” is “great power.” It is not surprising that Luke would emphasize the fact that “great power” was demonstrated through the hands of the apostles.5 This power is not restricted to just Peter and John, but is displayed through all the apostles. By performing healings, signs and wonders through the apostles, God authenticated the gospel as defined and declared by them. It was difficult to deny such miracles or their significance (see Acts 4:16, 22). God was indeed at work through His apostles. Those who proclaimed that Jesus Christ was alive were those who performed miracles in His name.

Great Unity6

Next, Luke calls our attention to the unity of the saints in Jerusalem. In chapter 2, the Christians were gathering together in the temple and from house to house (Acts 2:47). Now, in our text in Acts 4, Luke tells us that the saints in Jerusalem – all of them – were “of one heart and mind.” They were united by the work of Christ on the cross of Calvary and by the Holy Spirit who dwelt in and among them.

Great Grace

Luke also tells us that “great grace was on them all” (Acts 4:33). While “great power” seems to be restricted to the apostles, who performed many signs and wonders, “great grace” appears to be evident among all the saints. Notice that verse 34 begins with the word “for,” indicating that what follows is a further explanation of the statement that “great grace7 was on them all.”

Initially I was inclined to understand Luke to mean that the church showed great grace by sharing their resources with those in need. I can understand how this meaning would come to mind, but it does not appear to be what Luke intended us to understand. So far as I can tell, Luke does not use the word charis to refer to benevolent giving.8 Koinoneo or koinonia9 (the verb and noun terms denoting “fellowship” or “sharing”) are Luke’s normal way of speaking of financial sharing in Acts.

It now seems to me that Luke is informing us that God was showering His grace upon the Jerusalem church, at least in part due to the unity of the believers, as evidenced by their caring for one another in their financial needs. For various reasons these were not easy times for those living in Jerusalem, the result being that many of the saints in Jerusalem were in financial straits. It is not merely generosity which prompts those with financial resources to give, however; it is a deep unity among the saints. I recall Paul’s words in Romans 12:

9 Love must be without hypocrisy. Abhor what is evil, cling to what is good. 10 Be devoted to one another with mutual love, showing eagerness in honoring one another. 11 Do not lag in zeal, be enthusiastic in spirit, serve the Lord. 12 Rejoice in hope, endure in suffering, persist in prayer. 13 Contribute to the needs of the saints, pursue hospitality. 14 Bless those who persecute you, bless and do not curse. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16 Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty but associate with the lowly. Do not be conceited (Romans 12:9-16, emphasis mine).

Great unity (“one heart and soul,” Acts 4:32) leads to empathy with those in need and thus an eagerness to give to meet those needs. Unity expresses itself in community, and community expresses itself in sharing, and in all of this, God’s grace is showered on His church, and then through it.

The health of the church in Jerusalem is seen in the way the saints responded to the needs of their fellow-believers. Apparently there was little cash on hand, probably because that had been given earlier. Thus the saints were selling some of their possessions to obtain the cash to give for the needy.

Before we leave these verses, I would like to make three observations. First, let us note that this text does not describe communism as we know it. The communism of our day says, “What’s yours is mine.” The community of believers in Jerusalem said, “What’s mine is yours.” There is a world of difference between these two methods of sharing the wealth. Communism seizes property from those who have. Theoretically, it then distributes wealth among the poor, but this seldom happens. Often those in control of the government end up with much of what they have taken from others. Christianity voluntarily gives property to relieve the needs of those who do not have. I understand that individuals retained possession of their property until a need arose, and then some would sell a particular possession at a time of need.

Second, this giving is not a matter of tithing. The saints were obligated to financially support those, like Peter, who ministered to them:

3 This is my defense to those who examine me. 4 Do we not have the right to financial support? 5 Do we not have the right to the company of a believing wife, like the other apostles and the Lord’s brothers and Cephas? 6 Or do only Barnabas and I lack the right not to work? 7 Who ever serves in the army at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard and does not eat its fruit? Who tends a flock and does not consume its milk? (1 Corinthians 9:3-7)

Now the one who receives instruction in the word must share all good things with the one who teaches it (Galatians 6:6).

Our text deals with giving that is above and beyond the normal giving of the saints.

Third, the giving here is for ministry to those who are in financial need. The religion of the day had all kinds of excuses for not helping the poor. In a time when piety was measured in terms of earthly prosperity, those who were poor were viewed as those under divine discipline (see John 9:1-2). Thus, to give to the suffering could be viewed as resisting God. The church looked on the needy as an opportunity to express their love and (in the case of needy Christians) their unity with fellow-believers.

Barnabas: A Good Example
Acts 4:36-37

36 So Joseph, a Levite who was a native of Cyprus, called by the apostles Barnabas (which is translated “son of encouragement”), 37 sold a field that belonged to him and brought the money and placed it at the apostles’ feet (Acts 4:36-37).

I believe there are several reasons why Luke included this specific information about Barnabas. In the first place, Barnabas is an excellent example of what Luke has just described. Verses 32-35 provided us with a general statement regarding the health of the church in Jerusalem. Verses 36 and 37 provide us with an excellent example of the attitude of the saints in the church toward the needy and toward their own material possessions. Barnabas had a piece of property which he sold, and then brought the proceeds to the apostles to distribute as they saw fit. This is the way it was supposed to be, the way Luke had just described it in more general terms.

Secondly, Barnabas provides an excellent backdrop against which the deception of Ananias and Sapphira will be contrasted. Barnabas was a man respected by the church. He was the source of encouragement to many. He saw a need and recognized he had the resources to help meet it. Without any fanfare, he sold his property and laid the proceeds at the apostles’ feet. This truly good deed is in stark contrast to what we will read in the early verses of chapter 5.

Finally, this brief reference to Barnabas is Luke’s way of introducing this great leader (and example) to us, in preparation for his later appearances in Acts. Paul (Saul) will be introduced to us in Acts 8:1, while his conversion does not come until chapter 9 and his missionary career commences in chapter 13.10 Barnabas will play a significant role in the life and ministry of Paul (Acts 9:26-28; 11:20-26; 13:1ff.), will be a blessing to the saints at Antioch (Acts 20:19-30), and will minister greatly to John Mark (Acts 15:36-41). Luke chooses to focus on the heart of Barnabas and his character as the basis of a life of fruitful ministry.

I believe Barnabas’ ministry with money was the starting point of his amazing life of ministry, as seen in the Book of Acts. It was Luke who recorded these words of our Lord regarding money:

9 And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by how you use worldly wealth, so that when it runs out you will be welcomed into the eternal homes. 10 “The one who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much, and the one who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much. 11 If then you haven’t been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will entrust you with the true riches? 12 And if you haven’t been trustworthy with someone else’s property, who will give you your own? 13 No servant can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money” (Luke 16:9-13).

Luke was faithful in the relatively small matter of money, and as God expanded his ministry, he was faithful there as well. Barnabas (or Joseph) was known by the apostles as the “son of encouragement” (Acts 4:36). I believe his selfless attitude made him a servant, who was observant of – and responsive to – the needs of others. This was apparent in the sale of his property in our text; it is likewise apparent in his responsiveness to Paul’s needs (Acts 9 and 11), those in the church at Antioch (Acts 11), and John Mark’s need of someone to come alongside (Acts 15).11

Ananias and Sapphira
Acts 5:1-11

1 Now a man named Ananias, together with Sapphira his wife, sold a piece of property. 2 He kept back for himself part of the proceeds with his wife’s knowledge; he brought only part of it and placed it at the apostles’ feet. 3 But Peter said, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and keep back for yourself part of the proceeds from the sale of the land? 4 Before it was sold, did it not belong to you? And when it was sold, was the money not at your disposal? How have you thought up this deed in your heart? You have not lied to people but to God!” 5 When Ananias heard these words he collapsed and died, and great fear gripped all who heard about it. 6 So the young men came, wrapped him up, carried him out, and buried him. 7 After an interval of about three hours, his wife came in, but she did not know what had happened. 8 Peter said to her, “Tell me, were the two of you paid this amount for the land?” Sapphira said, “Yes, that much.” 9 Peter then told her, “Why have you agreed together to test the Spirit of the Lord? Look! The feet of those who have buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out!” 10 At once she collapsed at his feet and died. So when the young men came in, they found her dead, and they carried her out and buried her beside her husband. 11 Great fear gripped the whole church and all who heard about these things (Acts 5:1-11).

Let me begin by making a few observations. First, when the sin of Ananias is described in verses 1 and 2, as well as when Peter rebukes him in verses 3 and 4, Ananias is referred to in a singular form.12 When Peter questions and rebukes Sapphira in verses 8 and 9, he uses the plural, thus linking Sapphira with the sin of her husband. Luke’s account in verses 1 and 2, along with Sapphira’s testimony in verse 8, makes it clear that she was aware of and participated in his deception. We should also note that Ananias alone appeared before the apostles with the money he claimed to be the full amount of the sale. Sapphira appears three hours later. (I have to confess, my first thought was that she was shopping!)

All of this inclines me to suspect that this deception was initiated by Ananias, and not by Sapphira.13 He is the instigator, but she – by her silence, and later by her false statement – was his accomplice, and thus she shared in his guilt and discipline. The way it worked out, Sapphira was given the opportunity to confess her role in this sin, and thus to distance herself from divine discipline. Unfortunately, she persisted in her sin.

Second, I would observe that the expressions “kept back” (verse 2) and “keep back” (verse 3) are the same verb. This verb is used only three times in the New Testament, the final time being in Titus 2:

9 Slaves are to be subject to their own masters in everything, to do what is wanted and not talk back, 10 not pilfering, but showing all good faith, in order to bring credit to the teaching of God our Savior in everything (Titus 2:9-10, emphasis mine).

Every time this term is used in the New Testament (and elsewhere, it would seem), it has a negative connotation. While Ananias was certainly free to keep some or all of the proceeds of the sale of their property, it was stealing once he claimed to give all. I could not help but compare the sin of Ananias and Sapphira with that of Judas:

3 Then Mary took three quarters of a pound of expensive aromatic oil from pure nard and anointed the feet of Jesus. She then wiped his feet dry with her hair. (Now the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfumed oil.) 4 But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was going to betray him) said, 5 “Why wasn’t this oil sold for three hundred silver coins and the money given to the poor?” 6 (Now Judas said this not because he was concerned about the poor, but because he was a thief. As keeper of the money box, he used to steal what was put into it.) (John 12:3-6, emphasis mine)

While John does not use the same term we find in our text in Acts, the sin is strikingly similar. Both took something that was designated for others, setting aside a small portion for themselves. No wonder this sin was taken so seriously!

Third, I would point out that Peter did not take the lives of Ananias and Sapphira, nor did he pronounce a death sentence upon Ananias. God took the lives of Ananias and Sapphira, not Peter. Peter rebuked Ananias for his sin, but he did not pronounce sentence on him. He left this matter to God. When God took the life of Ananias, it then became clear to Peter what Sapphira’s fate would be, unless she confessed. Sadly, she did not, and she died like her husband.

I would finally observe that there is no indication Ananias and Sapphira were unsaved. It would be easy to conclude that this couple had never come to faith, but Luke makes no such indication. Christians are fully capable of such sins.

Luke does not tell us the details of how this sin came about. It could be that it happened this way:

Ananias and Sapphira come home from worship. They discuss how many of their friends have sold their property and have given the proceeds to the needy. They don’t really want to give, but feel compelled to do so. Ananias comes up with a plan, to which his wife gives her consent. They will sell a piece of property, claiming that it sold for less than they received. They will give a determined amount to the church and will keep the rest for themselves. And they will do so as if the proceeds were all that they had received for the sale of their property. They will thus give to the poor, keep some money for their own needs, and receive praise (like others) for giving sacrificially.

Such a scheme is possible, but in my mind, it is not likely. Satan is shrewd and cunning14 and works deceitfully to bring about the downfall of believers. I would be more inclined to believe that the sin of Ananias and Sapphira came about something like this:

Ananias and Sapphira become aware of the needs that exist within the believing community, and they desire to help. They cannot help but be aware of the fact that a number of their friends have already sold property and have given the proceeds to the apostles for distribution. They purpose to sell a property they own and to give all the proceeds to the needy. They have the property appraised, and its value is assessed to be $50,000. They indicate to the apostles (and perhaps others) that they intend to sell the property and give the full amount ($50,000) to the apostles. In the course of events, several buyers are intent on buying their property, and the sale price escalates to $60,000. At the same time, they become aware of some expenses that are coming up, expenses for which they have no funds in reserve. And so they decide to keep back $10,000 and give the rest ($50,000) to the church.

Somehow, the impression remains that they are giving the entire amount of the sale to the church. At some point in time, either Ananias or his wife could have corrected this misconception, but they choose not to do so. By the time the money is placed at the feet of the apostles, Ananias clearly states that this is the full amount of the sale – an outright lie. Sapphira is later given the chance to tell the truth, but not knowing what has happened earlier, she confirms the statement(s) made earlier by her husband. The lesser amount ($50,000), she affirms, was the full amount of the sale.

Often, sin starts out as a seemingly insignificant thing (like “a little while lie”) and then grows to something far bigger. Such was the case with the pilfering of Judas. Little did he know where his pilfering would ultimately lead. Peter was present when Ananias came with their contribution. He was informed (supernaturally, I believe) of the deception and rebuked Ananias for lying to the Holy Spirit, and to the church. Since he did not pronounce sentence upon Ananias, I suspect he may have been surprised when Ananias fell dead at his feet.

When Sapphira appeared some three hours later, she was completely unaware of what had happened to her husband. Peter’s question gave her an opportunity to tell the truth and to renounce the lie they had told earlier. She chose to stick with their story and to deepen her involvement in this sin of deception. Having seen how God dealt with Ananias, Peter knew how God would now deal with his wife, and so he announced the death of Ananias and pronounced the imminent death of Sapphira. And thus she died as well.

The death of Ananias and his wife had a profound impact on the church, as well as on those outside the faith. We read in verse 5 that “great fear gripped all who heard” about the death of Ananias. After the death of Sapphira, we are again told that “great fear gripped the whole church and all who heard about these things” (Acts 5:11). In verses 12 and 13, we are told the effect of this fear:

12 Now many miraculous signs and wonders came about among the people through the hands of the apostles. By common consent they were all meeting together in Solomon’s Portico. 13 None of the rest dared to join them, but the people held them in high honor (Acts 5:12-13, emphasis mine).

The saints (and particularly the apostles) were held in high regard by the unbelieving community, but as unsaved sinners, those outside the church did not have the courage to join the saints as they gathered. The holiness of God is a dreaded reality to those living in sin.

Conclusion

Our text is brimming with implications and applications for Christians today. We will conclude by calling attention to some areas of application.

First, our text contains much instruction regarding giving:

Giving is a by-product and outgrowth of Christian unity. Our text begins with Luke’s description of the church at Jerusalem as being of “one heart and mind” (Acts 4:32). Sharing flows from unity, and it also enhances unity:

27 At that time some prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. 28 One of them, named Agabus, got up and predicted by the Spirit that a severe famine was about to come over the whole inhabited world. (This took place during the reign of Claudius.) 29 So the disciples, each in accordance with his financial ability, decided to send relief to the brothers living in Judea. 30 They did so, sending their financial aid to the elders by Barnabas and Saul (Acts 11:27-30).

11 You will be enriched in every way so that you may be generous on every occasion, which is producing through us thanksgiving to God, 12 because the service of this ministry is not only providing for the needs of the saints but is also overflowing with many thanks to God. 13 Through the evidence of this service they will glorify God because of your obedience to your confession in the gospel of Christ and the generosity of your sharing with them and with everyone. 14 And in their prayers on your behalf they long for you because of the extraordinary grace God has shown to you. 15 Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift! (2 Corinthians 9:11-15)

3 I thank my God every time I remember you. 4 I always pray with joy in my every prayer for all of you 5 because of your participation in the gospel from the first day until now (Philippians 1:3-5).

I have pointed out elsewhere that the term “fellowship” is frequently used in reference to sharing financially with others. Our text helps us to understand why “fellowship” is often financial. Fellowship is partnership. Our union in Christ makes us all partners, so we should naturally (rather, supernaturally) desire to meet the needs of our brothers and sisters in Christ.

Giving need not be restricted to cash on hand. Our text makes it very clear that we should consider all our possessions as potential resources for giving to those in need. All too often we tend to think of our giving only in terms of what is left at the end of the month. Our text in Acts should correct this kind of thinking. All our possessions are potential resources to meet the needs of others. We may have an extra car, for instance, which we can give, loan, or sell to help a brother or sister in need.

Sharing should not be limited to material possessions. We should also be liberal in giving our time, our energies, and our spiritual gifts to those whose needs we can meet.

Giving is a form of encouragement. Barnabas sold his property and gave the proceeds to the apostles to meet the needs of others. Luke is careful to inform us that Barnabas was known as the “son of encouragement.” How often a gift to one in need can be an encouragement to them. I have personally been encouraged by the gifts of others, and I have seen others who have been greatly encouraged in an hour of need by a timely gift, given in Jesus’ name. It says, “God cares about you, and so do we.”

Christians can give for the wrong reasons. Jesus warns us about giving for the wrong reasons in Matthew 6:1-4:

1 “Be careful not to display your righteousness merely to be seen by people. Otherwise you have no reward with your Father in heaven. 2 Thus whenever you do charitable giving, do not blow a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in synagogues and on streets so that people will praise them. I tell you the truth, they have their reward. 3 But when you do your giving, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 so that your gift may be in secret. And your Father, who sees in secret, will reward you” (Matthew 6:1-4).

Organizations, individuals, and even churches can solicit funds by appealing to wrong motivations. It is sad to say that there are all too many who appeal for funds or donations by appealing to motives which are unbiblical. Sometimes giving becomes a kind of competition to see who can give the most (and receive praise from men for doing so). Sometimes people are prompted to give by the promise of getting something in return (which might even be a plaque, displayed in a prominent place – hardly preventing your left hand from knowing what the right is doing). The unscrupulous may solicit contributions from people (including the very poor) by promising that God will reward them many fold with riches. We should be very careful not to cause a brother to stumble by tempting him with improper motivations for giving.

Giving should be with singleness of purpose. Our text helps me to better understand Paul’s instructions in the Book of Romans, chapter 12:

6 And we have different gifts according to the grace given to us. If the gift is prophecy, that individual must use it in proportion to his faith. 7 If it is service, he must serve; if it is teaching, he must teach; 8 if it is exhortation, he must exhort; if it is contributing, he must do so with sincerity; if it is leadership, he must do so with diligence; if it is showing mercy, he must do so with cheerfulness (Romans 12:6-8, emphasis mine).

Translations differ significantly in Romans 12:8. The term rendered “with sincerity” by the NET Bible is rendered “with liberality” in the NKJV. The ESV renders it “in generosity”; the NIV “generously.” The King James Version renders it, “with simplicity,” and this is the translation I prefer. When I looked up the Greek term haplotes in my Greek Lexicon, I found this definition:

“Of simple goodness, which gives itself without reserve, ‘without strings attached’, ‘without hidden agendas.’”15

I believe that “simplicity” or “singleness and sincerity of motive” leads to generosity. It seems clear to me that Ananias and Sapphira had dual (and even opposing) motives for their gift, which led to their hypocrisy. They were seeking to meet the needs of others while at the same time seeking their own carnal need for recognition.

Second, our text challenges the “prosperity gospel,” so popular today. The “Good Life Gospeleers” promise health, wealth, and prosperity to those who are spiritual, and especially those who are “spiritual” (generous) in their giving (to the one making this promise). Our text teaches otherwise. Think of it; this was the early, pristine New Testament church. The church in Jerusalem is made up of Spirit-filled Christians who are bold in proclaiming their faith and generous in their giving. But the fact is that the church has many members who are poor.16 They are Spirit-filled people, and yet they are poor. The whole church is not rich, as the “prosperity gospel” preachers promise us. God does not make everyone in the church rich; He provides for the essential needs of His people through the sacrificial giving of other saints. The saints who give money lay it at the feet of the apostles, to give to the poor. Thus Peter can honestly say to the beggar in chapter 3, “I have no silver or gold” (Acts 3:6). Piety does not keep us from poverty, nor does it guarantee that we will be rich in this world’s goods. God does care for the poor, and so should His saints. The prosperity He grants us enables us to minister to others, knowing that at some point in time the shoe may be on the other foot:

13 For I do not say this so there would be relief for others and suffering for you, but as a matter of equality. 14 At the present time, your abundance will meet their need, so that one day their abundance may also meet your need, and thus there may be equality (2 Corinthians 8:13-14).

Third, our text underscores the necessity and importance of maintaining purity in the local church. The church at Corinth had a member who was living in immorality with his father’s wife. Instead of being grieved and ashamed, and taking disciplinary action, the church was proud of its liberality and did nothing:

1 It is actually reported that sexual immorality exists among you, the kind of immorality that is not permitted even among the Gentiles, so that someone is cohabiting with his father’s wife. 2 And you are proud! Shouldn’t you have been deeply sorrowful instead and removed the one who did this from among you? 3 For even though I am absent physically, I am present in spirit. And I have already judged the one who did this, just as though I were present. 4 When you gather together in the name of our Lord Jesus, and I am with you in spirit, along with the power of our Lord Jesus, 5 turn this man over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord. 6 Your boasting is not good. Don’t you know that a little yeast affects the whole batch of dough? 7 Clean out the old yeast so that you may be a new batch of dough – you are, in fact, without yeast. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. 8 So then, let us celebrate the festival, not with the old yeast, the yeast of vice and evil, but with the bread without yeast, the bread of sincerity and truth (1 Corinthians 5:1-8, emphasis mine).

Paul was shocked and horrified by the report of this situation in the Corinthian church. They should have responded by removing this sinner from their midst. Even from a distance, Paul personally exercised church discipline, and urged the church to follow his example. Sin that is tolerated in the church corrupts the church. It must be removed, for the sake of holiness, for the sake of the sinner, for the sake of the gospel, and for the good of the church. I believe that our text in Acts is the first instance of discipline in the early church, and it is meant to teach us the necessity of maintaining purity in the church. If we take the sin of Ananias and Sapphira lightly and are shocked (as some “scholars” are) at the severity of God’s response to their hypocrisy, then it says more about us than about Peter and the church in Jerusalem.

Fourth, we are to learn that purity in the church actually promotes growth. Some (not all, hopefully) “seeker-friendly” churches avoid taking any disciplinary action because they fear that it will dampen the “feel-good” mood they are trying to create. They fear that the church will not grow if it takes a hard line on sin. They are wrong. True growth – growth by evangelism – takes place in the soil of purity, not in the soil of indulgence and indifference. Look at Luke’s report concerning the outcome of this (and other) events in the very next verses:

12 Now many miraculous signs and wonders came about among the people through the hands of the apostles. By common consent they were all meeting together in Solomon’s Portico. 13 None of the rest dared to join them, but the people held them in high honor. 14 More and more believers in the Lord were added to their number, crowds of both men and women. 15 Thus they even carried the sick out into the streets, and put them on cots and pallets, so that when Peter came by at least his shadow would fall on some of them (Acts 5:12-15, emphasis mine).

There are three “greats” in our text: “great power” and “great grace” (Acts 4:33); and “great fear” (Acts 5:5, 11). While the term “great” is not found in verse 14 (above), I think it would be safe to say: Great power, plus great grace, plus great fear, facilitates great growth. Purity does not hinder growth; it promotes it.

Fifth, our text reminds us how much God hates hypocrisy. In the final analysis, our text is not primarily about generosity, but about hypocrisy. God is not trying to scare us into giving. Ananias and Sapphira did not have to sell their property, nor did they need to give any of the proceeds of the sale to the church. They are not disciplined for “holding back” on God; they are disciplined for their hypocrisy – for lying to the church and to the Holy Spirit. Ananias and Sapphira sinned by trying to appear more pious than they were by lying about the amount of their gift.

The Gospels of the New Testament contain our Lord’s strong words of rebuke for hypocrites.17 Somehow, hypocrisy is not taken as seriously by Christians today as it was by our Lord. Perhaps one reason is because all of us are guilty of this sin, and we’d rather focus on the sins of others. But why was hypocrisy the first sin to be dealt with in the early church, and why were the consequences so severe for Ananias and Sapphira? I believe it is because hypocrisy is lying, and lying is contrary to the truth. Our Lord Jesus is the truth (John 14:6). The Spirit of God is the “Spirit of truth” (John 14:17; 16:13). It is He who “guides us into all the truth” (John 16:13). It is the truth that sets us free (John 8:32). We are sanctified by the truth (John 17:17). The church is the “support and bulwark of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15). Satan, on the other hand, is a liar, and the “father of lies” (John 8:44). The truth is foundational to everything that relates to the Christian faith. To tolerate lying (hypocrisy) is to undermine the church.

It is relatively easy to condemn the hypocrisy of Ananias and Sapphira, but let us recognize that we are all hypocrites, and hypocrisy takes many forms. In our text, hypocrisy is seeking to appear more spiritual to others than you really are. One of the most popular excuses unbelievers employ to justify their rejection of Jesus Christ and the Christian faith is: “the church is full of hypocrites.” In truth, it is. The marvel is that God saves hypocrites, just as He saves liars, murderers, and the very worst of mankind:

9 Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! The sexually immoral, idolaters, adulterers, passive homosexual partners, practicing homosexuals, 10 thieves, the greedy, drunkards, the verbally abusive, and swindlers will not inherit the kingdom of God. 11 Some of you once lived this way. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God (1 Corinthians 6:9-11, emphasis mine).

We would do well to give serious thought to the ways in which we mask our sins and seek to look more pious than we really are. Let Ananias and Sapphira be a warning to us that God hates hypocrisy.

Sixth, while the Spirit of God indwells the church, Satan is also at work in the church. We should not be surprised to find the Spirit of God deeply involved in the church.

21 In him the whole building, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord, 22 in whom you also are being built together into a dwelling place of God in the Spirit (Ephesians 2:21-22, emphasis mine).

The Spirit is so much a part of the church that lying to the church is equivalent to lying to the Spirit. What is a bit more surprising is to find Satan actively involved in opposing the truth. He who is the father of lies seeks to promote falsehood in the church (compare 1 Timothy 4:1). While Satan is actively involved in promoting Ananias’ deception (Acts 5:3), it is likewise clear that this sin originated in his own heart (Acts 5:4; James 1:14-15). We must guard our hearts, lest Satan catch us in his evil schemes (2 Corinthians 2:10-11).

Seventh, our text gives us some additional insight into the subject of the submission of the wife to her husband. It seems clear in our text that a wife’s submission to her husband does not include participation in his sin. Sapphira should have dealt with her husband’s sin as Matthew 18:15-20 instructs. She was in no way obliged to become her husband’s accomplice in this sin. Peter gave Sapphira the opportunity to confess her role in this deception and to tell the truth. When she chose to stand by her husband in his sin, she died.

I found it interesting to note the expression Peter used in verse 9 of chapter 5:

8 Peter said to her, “Tell me, were the two of you paid this amount for the land?” Sapphira said, “Yes, that much.” 9 Peter then told her, “Why have you agreed together to test the Spirit of the Lord? Look! The feet of those who have buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out!” (Acts 5:8-9, emphasis mine).

This expression, “agreed together,” is the translation of a Greek word from which the English word “symphony” is derived. It means to “be of one mind.” Isn’t that ironic? The “unity” of Acts 4:32 resulted in sacrificial giving to the needy. The “unity” of Acts 5:9 is a unity of a very different kind, resulting in sin and death. Here is an illegitimate unity. A wife is not obligated to support her husband in sin. Sapphira dies because she did support her husband’s sin.

Satan always has his counterfeits. I was reminded of counterfeit unity in Proverbs 1:

11 If they say, “Come with us!
We will lie in wait to shed blood;
we will ambush an innocent person capriciously.
12 We will swallow them alive like Sheol,
those full of vigor like those going down to the Pit.
13 We will seize all kinds of precious wealth;
we will fill our houses with plunder.
14 Join with us!
We will all share equally in what we steal
.”
15 My child, do not go down their way,
withhold yourself from their path;
16 for they are eager to inflict harm,
and they hasten to shed blood (Proverbs 1:11-16, emphasis mine).

How different this “unity” is from the unity we find in Acts. May God grant us the kind of unity which glorifies Him, and which prompts us to have fellowship with our brothers and sisters by responding sacrificially to their needs.


1 Copyright © 2006 by Community Bible Chapel, 418 E. Main Street, Richardson, TX 75081. This is the edited manuscript of Lesson 9 in the Studies in the Book of Acts series prepared by Robert L. Deffinbaugh on January 1, 2006. Anyone is at liberty to use this lesson for educational purposes only, with or without credit. The Chapel believes the material presented herein to be true to the teaching of Scripture, and desires to further, not restrict, its potential use as an aid in the study of God’s Word. The publication of this material is a grace ministry of Community Bible Chapel.

2 I have borrowed this expression from the Disney movie, “Pollyanna.” In this film, Pollyanna encourages Reverend Ford, a “hellfire and damnation preacher” in her home town, to follow the example of her (deceased) father, who chose to preach only the “glad texts” of the Bible.

3 Literally “soul.”

4 Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the NET Bible. The NEW ENGLISH TRANSLATION, also known as THE NET BIBLE, is a completely new translation of the Bible, not a revision or an update of a previous English version. It was completed by more than twenty biblical scholars who worked directly from the best currently available Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts. The translation project originally started as an attempt to provide an electronic version of a modern translation for electronic distribution over the Internet and on CD (compact disk). Anyone anywhere in the world with an Internet connection will be able to use and print out the NET Bible without cost for personal study. In addition, anyone who wants to share the Bible with others can print unlimited copies and give them away free to others. It is available on the Internet at: www.netbible.org.

5 The term “apostle” may be applied beyond the 12, such as to Barnabas and Paul (Acts 14:14). Also we see Philip performing signs in Acts 8:6-7. Having said this, I still believe that “signs and wonders” were performed by a few people, known as apostles, and not by the mainstream of believers in Jerusalem. Signs and wonders set the apostles apart, so that the gospel they defined, declared, and defended would be recognized as authentic and authoritative.

6 Admittedly, the word “great” is not found here, but it is not an exaggeration to say that “great unity” was evident in the Jerusalem church.

7 Luke uses the word grace (charis) 25 times – 8 times in Luke and 17 times in Acts. Elsewhere in the Gospels, this term is found only 3 times in John. Obviously, it is a very popular term with Paul, who employs it often in his epistles.

8 In 2 Corinthians 8 and 9, Paul uses charis (grace) several times in reference to giving, but this is somewhat exceptional.

9 In Acts 2:44 and 4:32, Luke uses the related adjective, koinos, when speaking of the church having all things in common.

10 Gamaliel, Paul’s mentor (Acts 22:3) is introduced to us in Acts 5:34.

11 When I think of Barnabas, I am reminded of Joseph during his unjust period of imprisonment. Had he been feeling sorry for himself, Joseph would probably have not been alert to the needs of the “butler” and the “baker,” who were fellow-inmates (see Genesis 40).

12 For example, the verbs “sold” (verse 1) and “kept back” (verse 2) are third person singular – “He” (Ananias did this). “You” and “your” in verses 3 and 4 are singular, not plural.

13 Because of marriages like that of Ahab and Jezebel (see 1 Kings 21:25), we may be tempted to think that Sapphira prompted her husband to carry out this deception. Luke, however, seems to point to Ananias as the initiator of this sin.

14 Genesis 3:1.

15 Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. Third Edition, Copyright © 2000 by The University of Chicago Press. Later in the article, this same Lexicon rejects the definition of “liberosity” or “liberality”: “The interpretation generosity, liberality has frequently been proposed for Ro 12:8; 2 Cor 8:2; 9:11, 13 (w. support sought in TestIss 3:8 [s. RCharles, Test12Patr, 1908, on TestIss 3:1, 2, 8]; Kaibel 716, 5=IG XIV, 1517 [s. L-S-J-M s.v. II, 3]), but this sense (adopted by NRSV et al.) is in dispute, and it is prob. that mng. 1 in the sense of sincere concern, simple goodness is sufficient for all these pass.”

16 We shall see this once again in the early verses of Acts 6.

17 Matthew 6:2, 5, 16; 7:5; 15:7; 22:18; 23:13ff, 23, 25, 27ff; 24:51; Mark 7:6; 12:15; Luke 6:42; 12:1, 56; 13:15.

Related Topics: Spiritual Life