Then, unexpectedly, the young church was beset by an incident that stands out glaringly in comparison with the joy and blessing God was bestowing. Here’s the background.
A spirit of generosity had broken out in the church (Acts 4:32–37). Some members even ceased considering their possessions as their own. From time to time they sold valuable holdings and placed the full proceeds at the Apostles’ feet to be used in meeting the needs of other believers.
Then came trouble. Ananias and Sapphira were a couple who wanted to appear large-hearted along with other givers. They agreed between themselves that they would sell a piece of their property, hold back a portion of the proceeds, but give the remainder as if it were the whole.
When Ananias laid the money before Peter the Apostle instantly discerned their deception. “How is it,” he asked, “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?” (Acts 5:3).
Peter addressed him directly and with force: Wasn’t the land yours before it was sold? And wasn’t the money you received yours? Why did you twist those straightforward facts into a lie? Your lie is not really to men, but to God.
Ananias slumped to the floor and died. The young men came forward and, according to custom, took care of a same-day burial.
Three hours later Sapphira arrived, not having yet learned of her husband’s sudden death. Peter questioned her as he had questioned Ananias: Is this the price you and Ananias got for the land? Very deliberately she responded, “Yes, that is the price.”
She too died on the spot. The young men responded as before and buried her body beside that of her husband. To modern eyes there is surely much in the story that seems harsh and therefore eludes us.
But Peter helps us identify the central issue: In horror, the two had agreed between themselves to “test the Spirit of the Lord.” Peter’s reference was to the Mighty Spirit who had been poured out at Pentecost. It was the Spirit who was enabling the Apostles to preach and perform miracles with his supernatural power. And it was He who upheld those who were facing persecution.
Questions arise: Were the deaths of Ananias and Sapphira immediate judgements for sin, not deferred as judgment often appears to be for us? Or did they see the horror of what they had done in such a stark way that a discharge of stress chemicals such as epinephrine stopped their hearts?
Our questions go unanswered. Still, what is certain is that the incident is reported in Sacred Scripture to make believers of all ages aware that when deception or dishonesty invade leadership ranks in the church, great care must be taken to call for repentance and redress.
Lying to the Holy Spirit is a grave offense. The Holy Spirit is more than a feeling or an influence. He is the third person of the Trinity.
As severe as the treatment of Ananias and Sapphira would appear to be, when the two were moved from the scene, the church went on witnessing to the resurrected Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit. Good results continued to follow.
If the Apostle had brushed the lie aside in order to protect the reputation of these two donors, or out of greed for their gift, the response might have been passed off as an act of compassion, or as justified by the good their money could do. But the history of the early church would have been less glorious. Sin obscures God’s glory.
The early church had been spared from its first brush with corruption. Since sin always entices, the modern church will continue to face similar tests to its integrity. The energy of Pentecost was poured forth not only to make the church powerful in its proclamations of Jesus the Christ, the world’s Savior, but pure in its everyday dealings.
Image credit: Waiting for the Word (via flickr.com)