An Uncomfortable Story

Now a man named Ananias, together with his wife Sapphira, also sold a piece of property.  With his wife’s full knowledge he kept back part of the money for himself, but brought the rest and put it at the apostles’ feet.
Then Peter said, “Ananias, how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit and have kept for yourself some of the money you received for the land?  Didn’t it belong to you before it was sold?  And after it was sold, wasn’t the money at your disposal?  What made you think of doing such a thing?  You have not lied just to human beings but to God.”
When Ananias heard this, he fell down and died.  And great fear seized all who heard what had happened.  Then some young men came forward, wrapped up his body, and carried him out and buried him.
About three hours later his wife came in, not knowing what had happened.  Peter asked her, “Tell me, is this the price you and Ananias got for the land?”
“Yes,” she said, “that is the price.”
Peter said to her, “How could you conspire to test the Spirit of the Lord?  Listen!  The feet of the men who buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out also.”
At that moment she fell down at his feet and died.  Then the young men came in and, finding her dead, carried her out and buried her beside her husband.  Great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events.

  • Acts 5:1-11

“Luke is telling us that the early Christian community was functioning somewhat like the temple itself.  It was a place of holiness, a holiness so dramatic and acute that every blemish was magnified.  If you want to be a community which seems to be taking the place of the temple of the living God, you mustn’t be surprised if the living God takes you seriously, seriously enough to make it clear that there is no such thing as a cheap grace.  If you invoke the power of the Holy One, the one who will eventually right all wrongs, and sort out all cheating and lying, he may just decide to do some of that work already, in advance (though this never seems to happen again in the early church, with the possible exception of 1 Corinthians 11:30 and the warning of 1 Corinthians 5:1-5).  We either choose to live in the presence of the God who made the world and who longs passionately for it to be set right, or we lapse back into some variety of easy-going paganism, even if it has a Christian veneer.  Holiness is not an optional extra.  To name the name of Jesus and to invoke the Holy Spirit is to claim to be the temple of the living God, and that is bound to have consequences.”

  • N. T. Wright, Acts, 24 studies for individuals and groups

Our Sunday school class has been going through the book of Acts lately and a few members of the class wanted to know why, when it came to Ananias and Sapphira – posing that question a couple of weeks before we got to the topic.  I love it!!  They warn me in enough time to do the research.  Thus, I dug into six Bible commentaries and a few other texts, reading a couple of translations and a paraphrase and digging into cross-references and study notes.  Then I thought, why just share that with the class?

For those who think that the God of the Old Testament is a different God entirely to the God of the New Testament, the story of Ananias and Sapphira should contradict that notion.  I likened this to Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, who lit incense and offered “unauthorized fire before the Lord.”  They were literally playing with fire and God made them pay.  I say that they were “playing” in that they did not do what they did in accordance with God’s guidelines.  And the odd parallel is that others dealt with the bodies in both cases.  For Aaron to deal with his own sons would make him ceremonially unclean, and Aaron had work to do.  Likewise, Peter had others who dealt with the bodies.

We hear of priests, after Nadab and Abihu, who cut corners here or there and lived to tell about it.  But God was making His point at that early stage.  God knew that the sin nature in mankind was eventually going to screw everything up, but God wanted it to start out holy and acceptable.  In both cases, he got the attention of the people.

With the class, I started with an opening remark, using Romans 3:23 and Romans 6:23, admittedly Scripture that was written after this incident.  For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.  And the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

These verses are unequivocal.  There is no wiggle room.  Someone might say that Ananias and Sapphira could have repented later on.  They were given an opportunity, and the judgment did not come as an arrow from Peter’s bow.  The judgment came from the Holy Spirit at work.  God knew their hearts, and God knew that extra time to reconsider was not going to change things.

Our problem with the story is that we do not have the omniscience that God has.  We could never make that call.  For us, it would be reckless, but we cannot condemn God for His own holiness, either.  Those that say that their God would never do that have just admitted that they have created a false god that is not the God of the Bible.  God is holy.  He cannot abide unholiness in his temple.

But why does God abide it now?  Who thinks that He does?  The joke that I used a couple of weeks ago applies in a different vein here.  The man who was not the right color, ethnic background, economic strata, whatever, was unable to get membership to this nice church.  As he lamented over not getting into the church, God consoled him by saying, “I know how you feel.  They won’t let Me in there either.”  God may abide many of our denominations because God no longer considers us part of His temple.  That does not mean that the church is apostate or that no believers go there, but the church is far from holy.

The Baker Commentary on the Bible mentions Exodus 21:28-30 as a hint that God deals harshly at times, but God may state that He will deal with the issue later.  This is in response to how God can deal justly and swiftly within the group in Biblical times and then we do much worse now, and … nothing.  Do not convince yourself that you got away with it.  It is pay me now or pay me later – unless we are washed in the blood of Jesus.  But as for the reference to Exodus, the three verses are quite different.  In Exodus 21:28, if an ox gores someone to death, the ox is stoned to death, but the owner of the ox is not.  In Exodus 21:29, if the owner knows of a history of goring incidents and does not pen or restrain the ox, then the ox is stoned and the owner is put to death, unless … In Exodus 21:30, the owner can pay a stiff penalty and avoid being put to death.  In this commentary, the editor thinks that the death penalty becomes less of a big deal in future generations.  Yet, if we go before the Great White Throne, the heresies that we introduce into the church will be among our many sins.  (I wish to avoid that throne by having my name in the Book of Life.)

And I mentioned heresy in that last example.  A few commentators bring that up.  Actually, heresy in this case is simply something outside of holiness.  It is N. T. Wright’s approach above, as well as a few commentator’s ideas, like John MacArthur.  Oddly, some of my Study Bibles seem to ignore this story in the footnotes.

Another thought, found in the MacArthur Bible Commentary and echoed in the Jamieson, Fausset, Brown commentary, is that this story is on the heals of the story of Barnabas selling land.  Barnabas is portrayed in the book of Acts as being filled with the Holy Spirit and these commentators focus on Ananias and Sapphira being filled with the spirit of the devil.  This immediately becomes a showdown as in an old Western movie, gunfight at high noon.  It is an unfair fight, in that the devil merely tempted Ananias and Sapphira to cheat the church while the Holy Spirit was willing to make a human sacrifice to let the whole of the church know that God is still God and God is holy.

And the concept of pay me now or pay me later still applies.  God is patient.  He allows us to have free will.  He knows of our sin nature and that we will one day read a bit of uncomfortable Scripture…

God then waits.  Will this human decide for what is holy or will they think “God made a mistake.  OR My God would not do that.  OR This story makes me uncomfortable, and I am going to skip to the next sweet story about my God of soft teddy bears and fluffiness.”

It is the age old struggle with every person that has ever lived.  We either accept God’s will or we go a different way entirely.

God is still God and God is still holy.  God is patient and He wants us to work it out for ourselves.  He especially wants us to want Him instead of a fluffy imitation with the same name.

Soli Deo Gloria.  Only to God be the Glory.

2 Comments

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  1. “God knew their hearts, and God knew that extra time to reconsider was not going to change things. Our problem with the story is that we do not have the omniscience that God has. We could never make that call.” — Thank you for this.

    Liked by 2 people

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