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The Shocking Deaths of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5

Our motives matter.


Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Acts 4:36-5:11

This passage marks a turning point in the story of the church, where Luke warns that as the church grew, so did opposition to it. In particular, Satan manipulated two people into lying about a financial gift to the church, probably in order to use them to gain influence. God through Peter put an immediate and frightening stop to Satan's plan.

You have not lied to people but to God. (5:4)

When We Studied This in 2016

In that year's notes --

you'll find an emphasis on

  • recognizing counterfeits

  • church discipline

  • the gift of encouragement

  • wealth and the church


Getting Started: Things to Think About

If You Could Have Any Nickname

This week, we are going to be introduced to a great nickname -- Barnabas ("son of encouragement" or perhaps "son of preaching") ("sons of thunder" is catchy, but not entirely a complement). What's your favorite nickname?


I love nicknames. I don't know what Skeet's given name is. I didn't know "Magic" wasn't his given name until I was a teenager. My favorite sports nickname is Hakeem "The Dream". In high school, I had a group of friends who called me Egg. Cool.

A fun version of this is If you could pick a nickname, what would you like it to be? Of course, you don't get to pick your own nickname. Remember when Kevin Durant tried to nickname himself "The Servant"? But in our Bible study groups, we're all friends, right?


The Most Unnecessary Lie You Ever Told

I have a bizarre memory from when I was 4 or 5. For reasons, I bit my knee and told my mom that my sister did it. Of course, my sister got in huge trouble. But then the evidence didn't match the crime, and so huge-r trouble came back on me. And the whole episode screams out a question -- biting your own knee is one thing, but why lie about it?


What's your unnecessary lie story? In other words, if people had known the truth, it wouldn't have been a big deal, but because you lied about it, it became a big deal.


In a much more serious way, that's what's going on in this week's passage. Two people lied completely unnecessarily, and it actually cost them their lives.


The Harshest Appropriate Punishment You Ever Received

I want to be really careful with how this is framed. I know plenty of parents who regret how they handled a punishment. But I also know plenty of kids who look back on a punishment and say, "Yeah, I deserved that."


What's that deserved punishment for you? No matter how harsh it seems, none of us experienced a punishment as harsh as two people in our passage this week. They were put to death by God for their lie.


Something You Didn't Take Seriously Enough

This topic could go any number of directions, some more light-hearted and some very dark. If you start your Bible study time with a topic like this, you want to try to keep it more light-hearted. What's something you wish you had taken more seriously?


On the lighter side for me, I wish I had taken my piano lessons more seriously. Same thing with learning a foreign language. On the heavier side, I wish I had taken my friends in high school and college more seriously.


And then, you'll want to shift it to the spiritual and introspective side: what have people older than you said they wish they had taken more seriously when they were younger? Some people wish they had taken their career more seriously at the outset. Some (most?) people wish they hadn't taken their work as seriously as they did. Just about everybody I know wishes they had prioritized their family and friends more. And everybody I know wishes they had taken their relationship with God more seriously -- Bible study, prayer, church involvement, and evangelism.


(Note: those are the four things we read about in Acts 2 -- The Difference a Spirit-Powered Church Can Make -- the example of Acts 2:41-47)


Two of the people in this week's passage clearly didn't take integrity seriously enough, and they paid the ultimate price.

 

This Week's Big Idea #1: Money as Leverage in Churches

My "big ideas" this week are based on conjecture -- I believe that Ananias and Sapphira lied about their financial gift because they wanted prestige and influence in the early church.


If that is true, then it leads to an obvious (and potentially uncomfortable) question that will likely come up at some point in your group discussion. Do people still try to use money for influence in churches today, and what can churches do to minimize that influence?


The answer to that first is OF COURSE THEY DO. People try to use their money to influence corporations, politics, and also churches. We live in a world corrupted by sin.


This first big idea is simply to establish two simple truths: (1) God wants us to be generous in our giving to our churches, but (2) God does not want us to use our giving as leverage for influence. I shouldn't have to work too hard to convince you of that, should I? If you're good with this, you can skip the rest of this section!


Think about it this way: this week's passage describes two basically-identical gifts to the early church -- one is lauded, and the other results in God putting the person to death (!!!). So, it's not about the gift, but rather it's about the intent.


Jesus talked about that in the Sermon on the Mount -- He described it as "not letting your left hand know what your right is doing".


In other words, God wants us to give. But God wants us to give "in secret", not for prestige or influence.


People who think their giving should give them a measure of influence in their church are in it for the wrong reasons. Note that this can happen in small churches or in big churches. I recently read an article describing that as megachurches shrink, their inflated maintenance budget becomes a dangerous albatross -- The Megachurch Movement Is Fading. What’s Next? | Church Answers. Churches in decline are capable of making rash decisions for the purpose of "hanging onto" their biggest givers. Ergo, influence.


And that's fine if those givers aren't in it for the influence, but what if they are?


Big Idea #2: How Churches Can Protect Themselves

Every church is different, so some of the things I say below may not apply to your church. I'm writing in the context of First Baptist Church in Thomson GA. If you aren't worried about this, feel free to skip ahead.


Let me start here: FBC is a very generous church (IMO), and I have rarely felt that someone in our church was using their giving to gain leverage. I say that to the great credit of the members of this church. So if you feel like I'm being too optimistic in what I say below, it's probably because I'm in an optimistic situation.


Don't Know What People Give

At FBC, both David and I go to great pains not to know what people give. We believe very strongly that giving is between you and God. If you are in a right relationship with God, He will guide you into giving what you should. We don't know what people make, so we couldn't possibly know what percentage they give to our church. We worry that if we knew what a person gave, it might affect how we treat them (for good or ill). So, we just avoid that information.


(If "influence" is to be had over our ministries, let it be by the people who have demonstrated through their energy and investment the priorities and goals they have for those ministries.)


Here's the problem with that approach: giving is a reflection of (1) a person's spiritual growth, (2) a person's dissatisfaction with the church, or (3) an important life change. Those are important for church leadership to be aware of, I think! I just think there are enough other indicators of those things that we don't need to monitor individual giving.


Don't Overcommit Your Church

It's easy to pick on megachurches. They built massive facilities capable of holding many thousands of people and hired a huge staff to operate all sorts of ministries and programs. When the giving decreases, they have no choice but to downsize staff and then sell off property and hope that they can stabilize.


I just read an article about the Iowa Baptist Convention -- State conventions see benefits of thinking big while going small | Baptist Press -- who took a page out of Georgia's playbook and massively downsized property so they wouldn't have to downsize ministry impact. As a result, they are primed to handle any potential changes in the economy without having to pull back on what they do.


Inevitably, somebody in your group will say something like, "Shouldn't we all then just sell our buildings and put all of that money into ministry?" This is why I was very careful about the word "overcommit". Every serious pastor I know whose church meets in a cafeteria wishes he had a permanent base of ministry. He just doesn't want a base of ministry that costs more than they can afford. As long as you are rightsized in your facility commitments, you can stay out of the budget crunches that make you vulnerable to manipulation.


Plan Ahead

Churches get into the most trouble when they overstaff or overbuild. Thom Rainer is one to warn churches about the long-term cost of facilities. Tim Cool regularly warns churches about the cost of deferred maintenance; he says that the lifecycle operating cost of a building can be in the magnitude of 3 or 4 times the original building cost. When those major repair bills come, that church can be put in a world of hurt -- and extremely reliant on key givers.


[Aside: This is why the long-range facility plan at our church is so important. We aren't planning on leaving this corner of Thomson, so that means we need to preserve our facility for future generations of ministry. We want a plan that addresses as many significant needs as possible without committing ourselves to greater expenses than we can reasonably handle. In other words, we're trying to care for this generation's ministry opportunities as well as set the generation that will come behind us up for success in their ministry in Thomson.]


The problem with that is you can't plan ahead for everything. No matter how much you save, eventually you will be hit with some maintenance emergency you can't afford. In that situation, make sure your church has a policy and procedure with how you handle large non-budget expenses, that way one individual can't derail the church by trying to throw his weight around using an emergency need as leverage.


So there you go. This is the sort of boring facility/finances talk that you might not be interested in. Just so long as somebody in your church is interested in it...

 

Where We Are in Acts

After last week's passage -- where Peter and John were on trial before the Sanhedrin -- the leaders of the early church gathered and prayed that they would not be frightened by the opposition they faced but rather that they would continue to speak the truth about Jesus with great boldness. And Luke reported that God immediately honored that request by sending another movement of the Spirit among them.


And then we have one last reminder of the situation in that first church:

Acts 4:32 Now the entire group of those who believed were of one heart and mind, and no one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but instead they held everything in common. 33 With great power the apostles were giving testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was on all of them. 34 For there was not a needy person among them because all those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the proceeds of what was sold, 35 and laid them at the apostles’ feet. This was then distributed to each person as any had need.

Remember what I said when we covered Acts 2 -- this is not some kind of Christian socialism; this is simply Spirit-led generosity. The church had swelled to the tens of thousands (the first temporary megachurch!), and the pilgrims from afar had probably just started to go back to their homes where they will try to plant their own churches.


But now we want to remember a key theme in Luke's Gospel:

Luke 5:31 Jesus replied to them, “It is not those who are healthy who need a doctor, but those who are sick. 32 I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.”

As the church grew, its ranks would have been filled with these members of "the dregs of society" -- which would have included the lame, the poor, and the outcast. In other words, people in need. We learned in John 9 that the Jewish authorities had started kicking out people who followed Jesus, so when these beggars came to faith in Christ, they were probably kicked out of their families and no longer given access to places to beg. The early church was their only family who would care for them.


And boy did they! Every needy person was cared for! It's as if the early church members were outdoing each other in generosity. (And perhaps that became a problem.)


Literary parallel: In my opinion, the real turning point in "The Fellowship of the Ring" is when Gandalf pulls Frodo aside while they are walking through Moria and warns him that he is going to face threats not only from outside the fellowship (i.e. the goblins in Moria) but also from within (i.e. those who will be tempted to take the ring for themselves). At that moment, the book/movie transitions from an adventurous romp into a somber drama.


That's kinda what Luke does in our passage this week. To this point, the early church has been heroic, of like mind, sacrificially caring for one another, and thousands of people have been saved. But the people who are reading the book of Acts can look at their experiences in their own churches and say, "This isn't the way my church behaves. What happened?"


Where God moves, Satan tries to oppose. We have seen the expected opposition from the outside. But now Luke warns us that Satan can try to undermine the church from within -- and the difficulties come fast and furious.

  • In Acts 5, two church members lie to the apostles to gain influence.

  • Also in Acts 5, the Sanhedrin increases its persecution.

  • In Acts 6, an ethnic argument threatens to tear the church apart.

  • Also in Acts 6, Stephen is arrested and becomes the first martyr.


Luke wants us to know that it isn't all sunshine and daffodils.

 

Part 1: Barnabas (Acts 4:36-37)

36 Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus by birth, the one the apostles called Barnabas (which is translated Son of Encouragement), 37 sold a field he owned, brought the money, and laid it at the apostles’ feet.

This is one of those times when the chapter division isn't helpful. Luke very clearly wants us to compare Barnabas with Ananias.


Barnabas isn't his name; it's not even a "Jewish name" -- his given name is Joseph. But he was apparently such a great guy (see below) that the apostles started calling him "Son of Encouragement". That's when you know the guy is legit.


He was a Levite, which is interesting in that Levites weren't supposed to own land. Perhaps it was family land, or perhaps the reason he sold it was because he was convicted by his newly transformed heart. In any event, he sold the land and gave all of the money to the apostles to use as needed.


And that's all there is to say. He was a generous man who did what he could to help his church meet needs. And the Bible has for all posterity applauded his selfless generosity.


I want to repeat something I said in my "big idea": God wants all of us to be generous in our giving to our church, but God wants us to be doing it for the right reason. Barnabas clearly gave for the right reason.

 

Aside: Barnabas

Barnabas is one of my favorite characters in in the New Testament. We really don't know much about him, and he certainly wasn't perfect, but he was a man who wanted to follow Jesus with his whole heart. Some highlights of Barnabas's ministry:

  • he introduced Paul (Saul) to the Jerusalem leaders (Acts 9),

  • he was chosen to investigate the new believers in Gentile Antioch (Acts 11),

  • he was the official leader of Paul's first missionary journey (Acts 13-14),

  • he was chosen to deliver the monumental Jerusalem Council verdict (Acts 15).

That's pretty amazing! He will eventually have a falling out with Paul over a personal matter, and that wasn't great (we'll eventually study that), but to me that just humanizes him. He's a man we can relate and aspire to.


Aside: "Designated" Giving vs. "Budget" Giving

In most churches, "tithes" are received to cover the church's budget. They are considered "undesignated" giving because the giver is allowing the church to spend the money as they see fit (usually within an agreed-upon framework like a budget). But people can also "designate" their gift for a certain purpose. "This money is designated for the organ fund." "This money is designated for Annie Armstrong." That's generally fine, but ...


In the mid 1900s, "designated giving" became a weapon of influence in Baptist churches. "I don't like the pastor, so I'll designate my 'tithe' to the music ministry so it can't go to the pastor's salary." Churches do that today -- "We don't like the ERLC, so we will designate all of our Cooperative Program giving to Lottie Moon." Call it what it is -- it's using money to influence a church/organization. And it's hurting everyone in that church/organization.


Our church has a policy (in my opinion a very good policy) not to accept designated gifts except to funds that have been previously approved by our church's Stewardship Committee (see below), like our Go and Tell Fund or our Preschool Scholarship Fund.


If someone wants to designate his "tithe", that someone is trying to maintain control of his money, and it often indicates a level of mistrust with church leadership. That's a deeper (and more important) issue that needs to be addressed.


Aside: The Importance of a Finance/Stewardship Committee

In Acts 6, the apostles will finally acknowledge that their expertise isn't in managing relief funds, it's preaching the gospel. That sets the stage for the first deacons -- men who were responsible for making sure that the money given to provide food for widows was getting where it needed to go. Luke says that the criteria for these first deacons were "men full of the Spirit and wisdom". We can safely assume that some of that wisdom included the proper handling of money.


We will talk about these first deacons in a couple of weeks. But for the moment, I just want to make sure we know that the apostles who received this financial gift from Barnabas very soon realized that they would need help in using it properly.


It's the same today. Pastors (especially in smaller churches) are expected to be experts in preaching, counseling, teaching, communication, small business ownership, HR, volunteer management, facility maintenance, accounting, IRS regulations, technology, and to do it all with a smile. That's not terribly realistic. That's why it's important that every church has a committee of church members who are responsible for keeping up with giving and spending and making sure it all lines up with the church's goals (this is where a budget comes in). The pastor needs to be a part of that committee, but the pastor doesn't need to be making all of the financial decisions himself. And that's not because the pastor is untrustworthy! It's because even the apostles recognized that they needed help managing the church's money.

 

Part 2: Ananias (Acts 5:1-6)

But a man named Ananias, with his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property. 2 However, he kept back part of the proceeds with his wife’s knowledge, and brought a portion of it and laid it at the apostles’ feet. 3 “Ananias,” Peter asked, “why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and keep back part of the proceeds of the land? 4 Wasn’t it yours while you possessed it? And after it was sold, wasn’t it at your disposal? Why is it that you planned this thing in your heart? You have not lied to people but to God.” 5 When he heard these words, Ananias dropped dead, and a great fear came on all who heard. 6 The young men got up, wrapped his body, carried him out, and buried him.

People who read this passage for the first time are usually shocked by the severity of it. Even Peter is incredulous of the circumstances!


"Ananias! This was your money, right? The church has no say over what you do with your money, right? You are fully within your rights to do whatever you want with your money, right? So why are you lying about this?"


Note that the Bible does not tell us why Ananias chose to do this. I am simply theorizing that Satan convinced Ananias that being seen as a generous giver would be a way to gain prestige in the church. [Implication: Satan would then have a tool at his disposal to influence the early church.]


This is why God took this so seriously and revealed the scheme to Peter by the Holy Spirit. Peter did not have the power to make someone "drop dead", so that was the direct action of God. God would not allow someone under the influence of Satan to take the reins of His church at such a critical moment.


Aside #1: Regenerate Church Membership

This is a big part of the reason why Baptists traditionally pursue "regenerate church membership" -- only Christians can be members of a Baptist church. Baptist churches ask for a credible testimony of salvation and also baptism by immersion on the basis of that person's faith in Christ. God takes the organization of His people very seriously, and so should we. Related implication: churches of all stripes can put themselves in a world of trouble by appointing immature Christians (or people with a questionable testimony) to positions of leadership based on their secular bona fides.


Aside #2: Not Even Satan Can Hide from God

This is the sneaky-awesome takeaway from this passage. Very much like how the serpent manipulated Adam and Eve "in secret", Satan tried to manipulate Ananias and his wife (see below) "in secret". We can assume that Ananias and Sapphira never spoke of this to anyone but each other. But not even Satan can hide from God. I take great comfort in knowing that.


Back to the passage.


Ananias drops dead, and everybody becomes afraid. The Lifeway material tries to spin this as a "respect for God" emotion, but let's say the obvious thing: the people were afraid. God saw into Ananias's heart and took his life from him in some sort of inexplicable, miraculous way. You know what's in your heart, yes? So wouldn't this terrify you?


Why would God take such a drastic step?


The biggest thing is to remind the people that the church isn't a game. The church isn't just another organization that can be manipulated for the power and prestige of the people inside of it. The church is the body of Christ, the people of God, the temple of the Holy Spirit. We are not Rotary, or Kiwanis, or even a Good News Club. We are God's chosen instrument for delivering the message of salvation to the ends of the earth. If we fail to take that seriously, people die apart from Christ and spend eternity in hell.


We can't take this too seriously.

 

This Week's Big Idea #3: Church Discipline

I'm going to call this week's passage the earliest recorded example of "church discipline".


Jesus introduces the idea of church discipline in Matthew 18:

15 “If your brother sins against you, go tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have won your brother. 16 But if he won’t listen, take one or two others with you, so that by the testimony of two or three witnesses every fact may be established. 17 If he doesn’t pay attention to them, tell the church. If he doesn’t pay attention even to the church, let him be like a Gentile and a tax collector to you. 18 Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will have been loosed in heaven.

Obviously, that focus is on a personal grievance between two church members. When it's a matter that involves the entire church, the usual pattern is for the pastor to address it individually/personally, then involve a couple of key leaders, then finally bring it before the church. Jesus was preparing us for the events in Acts -- if Christians can't take the way they treat one another seriously (especially fellow church members), then how can we expect the outside world to take our message of salvation seriously?


I hope you noticed that this isn't the pattern followed with Ananias. Peter levelled the accusation and Ananias dropped dead.


Not to be trite, but God doesn't need to follow the pattern for church discipline. Jesus established a process (1) to make sure that the facts are straight, and (2) to give the offending party full opportunity to repent. Ostensibly, Ananias could have repented when Peter confronted him with this accusation in front of other leaders in the church, but he clearly wasn't going to.


God doesn't need those steps. We do.

 

Part 3: Sapphira (Acts 5:7-11)

7 About three hours later, his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. 8 “Tell me,” Peter asked her, “did you sell the land for this price?” “Yes,” she said, “for that price.” 9 Then Peter said to her, “Why did you agree to test the Spirit of the Lord? Look, the feet of those who have buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out.” 10 Instantly she dropped dead at his feet. When the young men came in, they found her dead, carried her out, and buried her beside her husband. 11 Then great fear came on the whole church and on all who heard these things.

This section is really important. Otherwise, it's just a tragic story of how a wife paid for her husband's crime.


Sapphira was a part of Ananias's plan to manipulate the church. Had she known her husband had died for the plan, she might have changed her tune, but as far as she knew, she was protecting the "secret plan" she and her husband devised. (Did she know she was under the influence of Satan? We don't know.) Peter gave her a chance to confess. She chose to stick to the lie.


Please forgive me, but I couldn't help but remember the VeggieTales episode, "Larry-Boy and the Fib from Outer Space" -- (this is just a clip from it)

Lies don't tend to get smaller upon retelling.


I feel particularly bad for the "young men". We don't know who they were, except they were probably training with the apostles to become future church leaders. "Grave digging" was not on any seminary syllabus. No sooner did they finish burying Ananias but they returned to find another dead body that needs burying. What an awful day for them.


I really don't have any fun group exercise ideas for these verses because they're about people's deaths. Perhaps you would be best served ending with an open question like What are the actions we take where God cares equally about our motivations? Why?


Challenge your group to examine their motives. They have a choice to be like Ananias or like Barnabas.

 

Closing Thoughts: Why Didn't This Happen Again?

If you're as morbid as I am, you might have wondered -- if so many people try to manipulate the church today, why hasn't God killed off more people like He did Ananias and Sapphira?


The snarky answer is that there wouldn't be many people left on earth, would there!


The more thorough answer is that God follows this pattern throughout the Bible. The first transgression is dealt with harshly by God, and the subsequent transgressions are left to the people to handle. It's not because God gets soft or regrets His punishment; it's because people are supposed to be responsible for ourselves.


This is not to say that God hasn't directly imposed discipline on His people for transgressions related to church leadership since Acts 5! I personally believe that this is what Paul was hinting at when he spoke of church members "falling asleep" due to their disregard for the Lord's Supper (1 Cor 11:30). But this is no longer God's normal way of disciplining His wayward children.


In this first church, Satan tried to wile his way into it; God put the smackdown on it as a clear warning to the people that they needed to take these matters seriously. From this point on, it would be the people's responsibilities to watch out for the influence of Satan in their churches, following the prodding of the Holy Spirit made freely available to them.

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