It’s one of the most shocking and disturbing events in the New Testament. Ananias and Saphira, two early Christians turn up to make a donation to the Jerusalem church coffers, neither return home alive. They are struck dead by the Holy Spirit.
What is going on there? At one end of the spectrum are those who believe that their failure was to give everything. The early church seemed to be in the practice of holding their possessions in common. The rich young ruler had been told that he must sell everything and give to the poor. So, some people see the owning of any material wealth at all as in conflict with being a Christian. Was there an expectation that church membership required you to give up everything.
At the other end of the spectrum are those who react strongly against such suggestions. The concern is that
- It sounds a bit like communism
- It sounds very much like the way that cults behave
So, they conclude that the issue wasn’t with the couple’s failure to give everything but with their dishonesty. They could well have given half and all would have been okay if they had been truthful.
Now, in regards to the two concerns, I am not too worried about the first one. If it sounds like communism and the Bible teaches it then we are going to need to get over our dislike of communism. As it happens, I don’t have a problem personally with communities committing to share everything equally, I’m just not convinced that the State is the best arbiter in such situations. However, I’m a lot more concerned about the second problem. You see, I’ve heard too many reports of cults and cultish churches exercising abusive control over their members starting with finance and often if they control your money then they control your bodies too and so financial control leads to physical and sexual abuse. It’s important to say this because I’ve seen a few theoretical discussions among academic types about Acts 5 which lack alertness to the pastoral need to get this right.
In any case, I believe that the text makes it quite clear where we should land in terms of interpretation and application. The Apostle Peter says:
“Ananias, why have you let Satan fill your heart? You lied to the Holy Spirit, and you kept some of the money for yourself. 4 The property was yours to sell or not sell, as you wished. And after selling it, the money was also yours to give away. How could you do a thing like this? You weren’t lying to us but to God!”
There’s no indication that the couple were seeking entry into church membership and it is clear from wider context that entry into the church was specifically, simply and solely through repenting and being baptised. No, Peter is very clear. The issue is that Ananias has
- Allowed Satan to control him. To fill his heart
- Lied to the Holy Spirit.
So, why were there such serious consequences here? Well, they are unusual even for the events in Acts. However, consider this. By seeking to deceive the Holy Spirit, who cannot be deceived, Ananias and Saphira were in effect mocking God. They believed they could keep things hidden from him. Their contempt for God was grievous or blasphemous to the Holy Spirit. Further, the driving factor was their greed, their desire to hold on to their possessions for themselves. Their idolatry meant that they had put their lives into the care of the Father of Lies so that their true heart state was exposed.
Scripture is clear that sin is not without its consequences. If we think that the penalty here was unjust and harsh, it is worth remembering that the true penalty for opposing God and trusting Satan is death -the eternal death of Hell. What was happening here was that the sentencing had been brought forward.
I think there are three reasons for that. First, the brazenness of their actions and their ongoing defiance when confronted and given opportunity to confess showed that they were not about to repent. Further, such a deceitful and manipulative couple were likely to be a predatory danger to the fledgling church. Thirdly, whilst still in the age of the apostles, the immediate sentencing gave a sign and a warning to others. There is a right and reverent fear and that’s what we see here.
I also think that this makes it about more than just being transparent when giving to charity. The fascinating point is that whilst the early church did seem to have this practice of holding everything in common, as Peter makes clear, there was no compulsion on them to do so. Indeed, it seems that their generosity arose out of hearts that were set free and filled with love and gratitude to God. It is clear that this hadn’t happened with Ananias and Saphira.
I do not find in Scripture a specific requirement that everyone must give up all their possessions and hand their money in to the church. However, Scripture is clear that we cannot put our trust in anything or anyone other than Jesus. Scripture is clear that all we have is from him and for him. Scripture is clear that the Gospel will change our lives radically and completely.
So, is there evidence that our hearts and minds have been changed so that we love God and trust him? Are we being honest with God? If not, then we need to heed the serious warning here.