3 But Peter said, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back for yourself part of the proceeds of the land? 4 While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal? Why is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to man but to God.” 5 When Ananias heard these words, he fell down and breathed his last. And great fear came upon all who heard of it. 6 The young men rose and wrapped him up and carried him out and buried him.
7 After an interval of about three hours his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. 8 And Peter said to her, “Tell me whether you sold the land for so much.” And she said, “Yes, for so much.” 9 But Peter said to her, “How is it that you have agreed together to test the Spirit of the Lord? Behold, the feet of those who have buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out.” 10 Immediately she fell down at his feet and breathed her last. When the young men came in they 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. – Acts 5:3-11 ESV
The gospel was spreading. The movement of the Spirit was obvious, with miraculous signs and wonders taking place and thousands of people coming to faith in Christ. These were remarkable days and the power of God was palpable. Earlier in his account, Luke referred to the great power with which the apostles were testifying to the resurrection Jesus. He mentioned the great grace of God that was upon all those in the church (Acts 4:33). There was unity and a true sense of community. The well-to-do were willingly selling their possessions in order to help meet the needs of the less-fortunate in their fellowship. The presence of the Spirit of God was having an obvious impact on all those who had come to faith in Christ.
But then we read of Ananias and Sapphira. This is a difficult story and it seems somewhat out of place. But Luke includes it for a reason. Yes, it comes across as a wet blanket, quenching the flame of the Spirit moving in the midst of the people. But it is intended as a warning to all those who have aligned themselves with the cause of Christ. This was not to be a game. The Spirit’s presence and the gospel’s offer of salvation were all about holiness. The good news concerning Jesus Christ was about freedom from and forgiveness for sin, and a restored relationship with a holy God. It was about new life made possible by the indwelling power of the Spirit. And the Holy Spirit was not someone to take lightly or to treat with disdain. He was the very Spirit of God, holy and divine, and deserving of man’s reverence and awe.
But Ananias and Sapphira are provided as stark examples of those who failed to give the Holy Spirit the honor He deserved. There is much in this story that remains a mystery to us. As detailed a historian as Luke was, he failed to provide us with explanations as to what was really going on behind the scenes. He doesn’t tell us the motivation behind this couple’s decision. He gives us no insight into whether or not Ananias and Sapphira were believers or not. He seems to provide us with a simple, black and white description of a real life event that was used by God as a wake-up call to the rest of the fellowship. It is my opinion that Ananias and Sapphira were believers. They were part of the body of Christ there in Jerusalem. The fact that Peter accuses them of lying to the Spirit of God would seem to indicate that they had a relationship with the Spirit. At some point along the way, they had been included in the thousands of people who had expressed belief in Jesus and, as a result, had received the indwelling presence of the Spirit of God. What is not clear is whether or not they had been impressed by the Spirit to sell their land. Was their decision motivated by the Holy Spirit or by greed and the need for recognition? Or could it have been both? Once again, Peter’s reference to them having lied to the Spirit would seem to indicate that they had been directed by the Spirit to sell their land, just as Joseph had done earlier. But when they realized the profit they had made as a result of the sale, they determined to keep some of it for themselves, evidently in direct disobedience to the Spirit’s leading. In presenting their money to the apostles and claiming it to be the entire proceeds from the sale, they were lying to the Spirit of God, attempting to deceive Him into believing that they had obeyed His will. But Peter, most likely under the inspiration of the Spirit, saw through their ploy. He exposed their little lie and, since Ananias was the one who delivered the money, Peter addressed his accusation to him.
“Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back for yourself part of the proceeds of the land?” – Acts 5:3 ESV
Peter pointed out to Ananias that the property had been his to do with as he wished. And even after he sold it, he could have used the money as he saw fit. But to sell the land, then bring part of the proceeds to the apostles and fabricate a lie that they were donating all the profit from the sale to the church, was a lie – a lie to God. If the Holy Spirit had been the one to prompt Ananias and Sapphira to sell the land, they could have easily refused. People disobey and quench the Spirit every day. It is wrong and strongly discouraged in Scripture, but the reality is that we all fail to do heed the promptings of the Spirit each and every day. And had they refused to do what the Spirit had commanded, not one would have known. Even if the Spirit had told them to sell the land and they had obeyed, they could have still kept all the money for themselves. They could have given a portion of the proceeds to the church and no one would have been the wiser. But their real sin was lying. It was hypocrisy. They wanted to emulate the sacrificial act of Joseph and receive the same recognition, but without the same cost. They placed higher value on the praise of men than they did on obedience to the promptings of the Spirit. And it cost them.
Luke matter-of-factly states that “As soon as Ananias heard these words, he fell to the floor and died” (Acts 5:5 NLT). He dropped dead. Peter didn’t call for his death. It was the judgment of God, and it was immediate, leaving the rest of the congregation in a state of great fear. This was serious business. No one who witnessed these proceedings missed the fact that lying to God was a risky and deadly proposition.
When Sapphira appeared a few hours after her husband had been carried from the room and buried, she probably expected to be greeted with applause and great praise for her generosity. She was totally unaware of what had happened to her husband. But rather than hearing words of thanks from the needy in the church, she was interrogated by Peter. He provided her with a chance to come clean, asking her whether the amount she and Ananias had donated was the full profit from the sale of their land. Unflinchingly and unabashedly, she asserted that it was, and within minutes, she too was dead. We get a bit more clarification as to the exact nature or cause of their deaths when Peter asked her, “How could the two of you even think of conspiring to test the Spirit of the Lord like this?” (Acts 5:9 NLT). Peter clearly implies that heir little plot was a test of God’s Spirit. They essentially asked themselves whether He would hold them accountable? Would He care if they failed to obey completely? They tested the Spirit’s patience and power, apparently thinking He would do nothing. But they learned a costly lesson. And so did the rest of the church. Luke records: “Great fear gripped the entire church and everyone else who heard what had happened” (Acts 5:11 NLT).
What we have here is a description of how God worked in the early days of the church. It is not a prescription for how God handles all lying to the Holy Spirit. This was not intended to be construed as standard operating procedures for any and all who disobey or lie to the Spirit. What we have here is a chronicle of the early days of the church, covering a specific point in time and recording events taking place in a particular part of the world. God did things uniquely and differently then. What Luke provided was not intended to be a detailed description of how the church was to appear and work in all ages. He was recording the beginning of the church and taking note of some clearly unique, one-of-a-kind events that were never intended to be repeated or viewed as normative. What happened in the upper room on the day of Pentecost was never replicated. The flames of fire and the ability to speak in foreign languages were God-ordained for that moment in time. The deaths of Ananias and Sapphira were the work of God, but were not meant to be taken as the normative response of God toward all who lie to the Spirit of God. If God put to death all those who disobeyed or attempted to deceive the Holy Spirit, the church would dramatically smaller in size.
The Spirit was new. No one knew exactly what to expect and there were none who fully understood how to relate to this One who showed up in power, but remained invisible to their sight. They could have easily treated the Spirit as a commodity or power supply. They ran the risk of overlooking His deity and holiness. So, God took this occasion to produce in His people a great fear of and reverence for the Spirit. News of the deaths of Ananias and Sapphira spread. Word got out. And there’s little doubt that their mistake was not soon repeated.
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.