Ananias and Sapphira

Acts 4:32 – 5:11

4:32: All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need. Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus, whom the apostles called Barnabas (which means “son of encouragement”), sold a field he owned and brought the money and put it at the apostles’ feet.

5:1: 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.”

1. He put it at the apostles’ feet.

That’s an important phrase because it is a symbol of several things in Scripture.

Matthew 15:30: “They laid the lame and the sick at his feet.”

Luke 8:41: “The ruler of the synagogue fell at his feet to plead.”

Luke 8:35: “The healed lunatic was found at his feet.”

Luke 7: “The woman worshipped at his feet.”

Psalms 8:6: “All things have been put under his feet.”

What does it mean to put money and possessions “at the feet”?

It means to reestablish its position as humble servant, not master.

It means to release it for its rightful purpose – to put it in its right mind.

It means to recognize its power in our lives we need to put it under the feet.

It means to restore its health. The unhealthy money in our lives is blind, deaf, lame and silent to the needs of others.

It’s even more difficult today. We do not bring animals and crops to the Temple. We don’t bring money and lay it at the feet or leave it at the altar. We are almost completely detached from it and it is invisible to everyone. It has become disembodied and symbolic. We rarely even see it. We can swipe the card or do automatic bank drafts but for them the very physical act of laying it at the feet only reinforced the public commitment.

2. There was no obligation to give everything. The early church was not committed to a philosophy of everyone selling everything and holding all things in common. They were committed to taking care of each other. Do you remember the story of the Stone Soup?

“Some travelers come to a village, carrying nothing more than an empty cooking pot. Upon their arrival, the villagers are unwilling to share any of their food stores with the hungry travelers. Then the travelers go to a stream and fill the pot with water, drop a large stone in it, and place it over a fire. One of the villagers becomes curious and asks what they are doing. The travelers answer that they are making “stone soup”, which tastes wonderful and which they would be delighted to share with the villager, although it still needs a little bit of garnish, which they are missing, to improve the flavor. The villager, who anticipates enjoying a share of the soup, does not mind parting with a few carrots, so these are added to the soup. Another villager walks by, inquiring about the pot, and the travelers again mention their stone soup which has not yet reached its full potential. The villager hands them a little bit of seasoning. More and more villagers walk by, each adding another ingredient. Finally, the stone (being inedible) is removed from the pot, and a delicious and nourishing pot of soup is enjoyed by travelers and villagers alike. Although the travelers have thus tricked the villagers into sharing their food with them, they have successfully transformed it into a tasty and nutritious meal which they share with the donors.”

Others (like Barnabas) sold pieces of property. Holding back was the choice of Ananias and Sapphira after making a public commitment.

It’s human nature, isn’t it? We are fearful of God’s provision for tomorrow.

Exodus 16:17-20: 17 The Israelites did as they were told; some gathered much, some little. And when they measured it by the omer, the one who gathered much did not have too much, and the one who gathered little did not have too little. Everyone had gathered just as much as they needed. Then Moses said to them, “No one is to keep any of it until morning.” However, some of them paid no attention to Moses; they kept part of it until morning, but it was full of maggots and began to smell. So Moses was angry with them.

Joshua 7: Achan and the devoted articles. “When I saw in the plunder a beautiful robe from Babylonia, two hundred shekels of silver and a wedge of gold, I coveted them and took them.”

The Rich Fool in Luke 12: “I have what I need for years to come.”

Ananias and Sapphira: They wanted more than the security of money. They wanted to look like extraordinarily generous people while hedging their bets.

Andrew MacLaren says:

“But Ananias did want more, and so did Sapphira. They wanted more than acceptance; they wanted acclaim. They wanted to be more than just members of the Body; they wanted to be prominent members of the Body. They wanted the praise of men. Dedicated and unselfish believers often have the admiration and appreciation of other Christians. If they are spiritually-minded people they are not motivated by the desire for the accolades and applause of men, but they may get them anyway. The people in the early church who sold their possessions and gave the money to the church probably received the enthusiastic appreciation of the entire congregation. Barnabas was one who sacrificed everything (Acts 4:36, 37). It was no grandstand play with him. There was no trace of fleshly pride in it whatsoever. His only thought was the need of other Christians and the glory of God. But the acclaim was there. Ananias and Sapphira saw it and longed for it, and that is where their trouble began.”

We hold back for a number of reasons. Fear, envy, pride, lack of faith, or sometimes getting caught up in the game of accumulation for its own sake. We live in a world that attaches the measure of wealth to everything. You never hear Warren Buffet’s name without hearing “Billionaire Warren Buffett” or World’s Richest Man Bill Gates. You would almost think their mothers named them that way. Our wealth has become so much mixed with our identity that it’s part of our name. We describe people as “high capacity” or “mega donors” or “big potential” and that seeps into the church itself. We treat the rich differently, don’t we? We treat those who appear to be rich with deference and awe…and that was what appealed to Ananias and Sapphira. They wanted to be treated with the same respect as Barnabas and others.

James, the brother of Jesus, would have been in the room when this happened and years later he wrote about the danger of treating people differently. He had seen what happened to two people who desired such treatment.

James 2: “My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism. Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in filthy old clothes also comes in. If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,” have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?’”

3. How in the world did Peter know?

It’s probably true that once you tell a secret to one other person it is no longer a secret. It could have been common knowledge by the time Ananias came to play out his act of generosity. I suspect this was part of a pattern in their lives. You don’t just start doing something like this one day with no prior experience.

However, it is more likely that Peter simply discerned it through the Holy Spirit. His powers of observation and sensitivity to reality and falsehood were so finely tuned he just knew it.

I read this week about the medical professor Dr. Robert Bell who was the model for Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. He was one of the Doyle’s teachers in medical school and an extraordinary diagnostician.

“Dr. Bell observed the way a person moved. The walk of a sailor varied vastly from that of a solider. If he identified a person as a sailor he would look for any tattoos that might assist him in knowing where their travels had taken them. He trained himself to listen for small differences in his patient’s accents to help him identify where they were from. Bell studied the hands of his patients because calluses or other marks could help him determine their occupation.”

I think Peter simply smelled it.

How many ways do we use the word “nose” to describe the ability to discern something?

“It just didn’t smell right”
“Go nose around and see what you can find out.”
“He’s got a nose for stuff like that.”

You remember the story of Jacob and Esau when Isaac was old and wanted to give the blessing to Esau. “When Isaac caught the smell of his clothes, he blessed him…” Esau smelled a certain way that was different from Jacob.

Scripture often describes the smell of our lives. In 2 Corinthians 2 Paul says we are “to God the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. To the one we are the smell of death; to the other the fragrance of life.”

In other places God talks about behavior and practices that are a stench in God’s nostrils.

Isaiah 6:13 “Stop bringing me your meaningless gifts; the incense of your offerings disgusts me!”

Each of us develops a particular “smell” to our lives that is unique to us. It travels with us and we bring it into every room we enter and every encounter.

That which we hold back begins to rot and stink and our lives begin to stink to the extent we are holding back. I discovered this week that the strongest smells are those most associated with decay, decomposition and death. Our noses recognize them almost immediately.

We may try to smell like Barnabas but it doesn’t work. Everyone eventually knows. We may try to cover up the smell of death with spiritual lysol but it’s useless. The stench of holding back overpowers whatever perfume we try to use.

Sometimes people wrestle with how much is enough and my answer is not “give until it hurts” but give until the smell goes away. Give until you cannot smell anything dead in your life coming from a decision to hold back.

The early church was so pure that Ananias and Sapphira smelled like a pulp mill in comparison. Their sin was not hypocrisy. Even Peter later was a hypocrite when he would not eat with the Gentiles. It was holding back what had been dedicated to God.

Our lives will either be an aroma of Christ or the smell of death.

4. The issue of money and deceit is life and death. Lying to ourselves or lying to God results in one form of death or another.

The early church had a phobia about lying to God. They wanted to stay away from it. They were terrified by it. Today, we call fear unhealthy. We are uncomfortable but not fearful of God’s judgment in our lives..

The early church had numerous examples of the inevitable death of those who held back or misused or were deceitful about possessions.

The Israelites, like the young church, were coming into a new place and it was covetousness that threatened their survival. It was one person’s holding back that turned an easy victory into a defeat. There was no room for an epidemic of deceit. Everything depended on trust. It was not just the lives of individuals at stake but the life of the enterprise and the entire community.

The Rich Fool dies by degrees as he rots away on the inside. In some ways, it is a fate worse than physical death. That’s the process. Riches and the deceit of riches desires your soul first – and then later your life. The joy for Satan is for us to die empty of all genuine pleasure.

For Ananias and Sapphira, it seems sudden and dramatic but I think it was the last part of a long process. Their hearts had changed owners over the course of time. They were not demon possessed. They were self-possessed.

5. The end of the story is healing and not death.

“The apostles performed many signs and wonders among the people. And all the believers used to meet together in Solomon’s Colonnade. No one else dared join them, even though they were highly regarded by the people. Nevertheless, more and more men and women believed in the Lord and were added to their number. As a result, people brought the sick into the streets and laid them on beds and mats so that at least Peter’s shadow might fall on some of them as he passed by. Crowds gathered also from the towns around Jerusalem, bringing their sick and those tormented by impure spirits, and all of them were healed.”

The same power that kills can heal.

The end of the story is not just personal piety but powerful purity in the church that results in blessing others. One commentator has pointed out that this is something of a defining moment for the church because it is the first time the word “church” is used in the New Testament. Until now they have been described as “believers” but this event galvanized them into a church – and a fellowship.

I’ve taken a hard look this week at my own foot-dragging or even outright holding back on some of my commitments. It’s so easy to say, “I need to take care of that” and never get around to it. It’s so easy to get focused on the satisfaction of accumulation or just giving enough to try and smell like Barnabas and be deceived into holding back.

How much letting go of what we are holding back to we need to do so God can bless others through us?

There is an amount – and it’s either a quart of manna or $20 or a few hundred or even thousands of dollars we are holding back – and it’s making our lives stink. If you are holding back, I want you to set it right this week. I want to smell good when I come in here next week and I want the same for you.

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