32 Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common. 33 And with great power the apostles were giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. 34 There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold 35 and laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. 36 Thus Joseph, who was also called by the apostles Barnabas (which means son of encouragement), a Levite, a native of Cyprus, 37 sold a field that belonged to him and brought the money and laid it at the apostles’ feet.
1 But a man named Ananias, with his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property, 2 and with his wife’s knowledge he kept back for himself some of the proceeds and brought only a part of it and laid it at the apostles’ feet.– Acts 4:32-5:2 ESV
In these verses, Luke reiterates something he had stated earlier regarding the spiritual condition of the early church.
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 2:44-47 NLT
Evidently, moved by the Spirit of God, the early converts to Christianity practiced a kind of communal lifestyle in which those who were better off assisted the needy within their number. We have to keep in mind that the size of the congregation in Jerusalem had grown exponentially in a very short period of time. On one occasion, they had seen nearly 3,000 people believe in the name of Christ (Acts 2:41). And we’re told that “the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved” (Acts 2:47 ESV). Then, at the very start of chapter four, we were told that, as a result of the preaching of Peter and John, “many of those who had heard the word believed, and the number of the men came to about five thousand” (Acts 4:2 ESV). The church had grown from the initial group of 120 who had been gathered in the upper room on the day the Holy Spirit came. They now numbered in the thousands, perhaps as high as 10,000, if women and children are included.
These new converts were more than likely experiencing the early stages of persecution for their faith. It seems that the vast majority of those added to the number of the early church were Jews, and their conversions would have caused a great deal of resentment on the part of their fellow Jews. Many would have found themselves ostracized by their friends and families. Some could have lost their jobs. And when you couple this with the stagnant economic status in Jerusalem, caused by an recent famine, the number of the needy within the rapidly expanding congregation would have been high. But Luke records that the believers illustrated visibly the change that had taken place internally. They showed love for one another. He describes them as being “of one heart and soul” (Acts 4:32 ESV), and this unity was expressed in their selflessness and generosity. Those who had were more than willing willing to share with the have-nots among them. Luke says, “they had everything in common” (Acts 4:32 ESV). This was not in response to a rule laid down by the apostles, but a reaction to the indwelling Spirit of God. They were moved by the Spirit to care for one another. And those who owned property were prompted by the Spirit to sell what they had and lay the proceeds at the apostles’ feet; a sign of submission and of their willing release of all rights to the money. Luke makes it clear that they didn’t sell their property, then dole out the proceeds as they saw fit. They liquidated their assets and turned over all the profits to the apostles. Again, this seems to have been a Spirit-directed effort.
And Luke describes the atmosphere surrounding the early church in very positive terms. He says that the apostles were preaching with great power. The church was experiencing great grace. And because of the generosity of the people, there wasn’t a needy person among them. And he provides us with a real-life illustration of how all this worked, describing the efforts of Joseph, a Levite from Cypress, who “sold a field that belonged to him and brought the money and laid it at the apostles” feet” (Acts 4:37 ESV). This man must have had a reputation for generosity and compassion, because the apostles had nicknamed Him Barnabas, which means, “son of encouragement.” The selling of his land would have been in keeping with his temperament, and it is likely that he received much thanks and praise from the needy within the congregation for his efforts. And it can easily be assumed that the disciples spoke highly of his example of generosity. Joseph had not done what he did for the praise of men, but under the direction of the Holy Spirit. He had not been looking for accolades, but the fact that Luke knew and recorded his name, makes it clear that his efforts were not done in secret. The church knew what he had done and those whose needs had been met as a result, would have expressed their appreciation to him.
But in the midst of all this good news and Luke’s description of Spirit-led generosity and communal sharing, there appears a sudden and unexpected dark cloud. Chapter four ends on a high note, but chapter five opens up with the word, “but.” The nearly perfect atmosphere is suddenly marred by the stark contrast provided the story of Ananias and Sapphira. It is as if Luke wants us to understand that the early church, while Spirit-filled and directed, was far from perfect. Sin had not been eradicated. The presence of the Spirit in the lives of the believers had not eliminated their sin natures. The apostle Paul described the situation well.
16 So I say, let the Holy Spirit guide your lives. Then you won’t be doing what your sinful nature craves. 17 The sinful nature wants to do evil, which is just the opposite of what the Spirit wants. And the Spirit gives us desires that are the opposite of what the sinful nature desires. These two forces are constantly fighting each other, so you are not free to carry out your good intentions. – Galatians 5:16-17 NLT
And in the story of Ananias and Sapphira, we are provided with an illustration of just what this looks like in real life. This couple was a part of the early church. They had been among those who had believed in Jesus. But, like all believers, they had their old sin natures to contend with and, when they saw what Joseph had done and the recognition he had received as a result of his action, they determined to do the same. It is likely that their initial compulsion to sell their property came from the Holy Spirit. Based on Peter’s later accusation that they had lied to the Holy Spirit, it would make sense that they had been acting under the Spirit’s prompting, but had been motivated by the need for recognition and their own hearts filled with greed.
But Luke provides us with an insider’s view behind the curtain of the early church, revealing that, even then, there was a dark side. Then, as now, saved, but sin-prone, people made up the church. Ananias and Sapphira are not presented as wicked, sinful people, but as part of the local body of believers. Their story is intended to reveal the vulnerability and susceptibility of the early church to both external and internal attack. In the midst of all the unity and selflessness, they are presented as an example of selfishness and self-centeredness. External persecution, while always dangerous, is nothing when compared with the impact of internal compromise and spiritual deceit. At first glance, what Ananias and Sapphira did does not appear to be that egregious. Luke simply records that they “sold some property.” Then he writes, “He brought part of the money to the apostles, claiming it was the full amount. With his wife’s consent, he kept the rest” (Acts 5:2 NLT). Like Joseph, they sold some property. Like Joseph, they gave the proceeds to the apostles. But unlike Joseph, they didn’t give it all. There is no indication that they were required to give it all. Their sin seems to be that they claimed to be giving it all. They gave the impression that they were donating all the profit from their sale to the communal needs of the body of Christ. And their little charade, rather than garnering them the praise of men, was going to bring down the judgment of God. And the new life of the church, marked by growth, unity, selflessness and community, was going to be darkened by death.
English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.