But a certain man named Ananias, with Sapphira his wife, sold a possession. 2 And he kept back part of the proceeds, his wife also being aware of it, and brought a certain part and laid it at the apostles’ feet. (Acts 5:1-2)
I don’t suppose we will ever know all that was involved in the death of Ananias and Sapphira even though a lot of truth has been taught on the subject. It is very true that they allowed Satan a place and thus brought themselves to sin. It is also true that they not only tried to deceive both God and man. It’s very easy to come to the dangerous place of complacency where we tell ourselves that their sin must have been so much worse than ours, even worse than the vast majority of people – after all, they were punished by death, weren’t they? How many people do we do we know who drop down dead in Sunday service because they weren’t entirely honest or generous with their giving? Yet God makes it very clear in His Word that all have sinned. He draws no distinctions between sinners and terrible sinners. Sin is sin, and even the cruellest, most depraved person has an equal opportunity to receive salvation. The obvious conclusion, of course, is that something was at work over and above the simple fact that they were both lying to God and, as a result, stealing from God.
Ananias and Sapphira provide us with a glimpse of spiritual dishonesty that is, in fact, collusion with the devil to diminish the work of the Spirit.
My personal belief is that the actions of Ananias and Sapphira had little to do with the money itself. Peter makes it very clear that the possession they owned and the money they received from it had been given to them by God. They had the right to choose what to give and what to keep for themselves. They could, in fact, have kept the entire lot and not come under censure, providing they were honest about it. I think we need to look at the closing paragraphs of chapter 4 to understand the context of their sin before we seek to understand the consequences.
Ananias and Sapphira act within the context of the move of the Spirit which united the believers to the extent that their worldly possessions had no value. They gave all and shared all as led by the Spirit in a unity so complete and surrendered that there was no place for personal gratification or advancement. The event that triggered Ananias and Sapphira’s sin was that of Barnabas selling his land and giving all. Barnabas is the only that it mentioned, so we must assume that what he gave was significant enough to be highlighted. It was therefore also significant enough that Ananias and Sapphira were challenged to match the gesture. This highlights the difference between the two.
It is very clear that Barnabas gave by the leading of the Spirit, with no thought of personal gain or of earning the praise or respect of believers. He simply gave all he had, willing and with a heart surrendered to the Spirit. Ananias and Sapphira clearly did not see this. They saw the result of the giving and sought to emulate the act to achieve the same result. We’re not told exactly what they sold – it was a possession – but it must have fetched a tidy sum, but what is clear is that the motivation for their giving was way off course. They were not led by the Spirit, but by the condition of their own spirits. That is what opened the door to the influence of Satan.
Perhaps, even at this point, if they’d sold it and given all, things might have worked out differently. Certainly, Peter makes it clear that even if they had kept some of the money back for themselves they would have escaped punishment. But they allow the devil to tempt them to holding some back – greed and avarice are clearly at the bottom of their actions – and then to pretend that they have given all. Ananias and Sapphira are both in on it. They work together and are in agreement, but their unity is not of the Spirit, but of the devil. We can understand all this, but why were they killed when so many people in our churches are guilty of exactly the same thing?
We find so many prosperity gospels doing the round with preachers manipulating others to give what God has not led them to give under the pretence that it is the leading of the Spirit. Yet these same preachers go on to accumulate wealth and worldly power. Why do they escape when Ananias and Sapphira are instantly put to death? I must be honest and say that I still don’t feel we have all the answers. There are too many apparent contradictions for pat or glib answers to suffice. But I do believe it has something to do with the nature of their rebellion.
While many travesties in the church today are the machinations and hype of men who claim that the Spirit is working, with Ananias and Sapphira, the Spirit was working. It was a real, powerful, holy move of God that provided the context for their sin. Rather like the man who tried to buy the power of the Holy Spirit, Ananias and Sapphira sought to use what God was really doing – as opposed to what others pretended He was doing – to purchase respect and acclaim and feather their own nests in doing so. The purpose of Satan behind the temptation was to taint or derail God’s power.
Like his rebellion in heaven, and just as he did with Eve in the garden, Satan’s plan was to steal the glory due to God. He wanted to place himself – through Ananias and Sapphira – in the place of being like God. I believe this because the Bible is very clear that God will never share His rightful glory, and especially not with men or with Satan. Peter makes two interesting statements in chapter 5 – first, that they are lying to the Spirit and second, that they are tempting the Spirit. Tempting the Spirit to what? It’s unclear, but perhaps it is to deceive Him into allowing a move of the devil to share His glory?
In doing what they did, Ananias and Sapphira were guilty, first of all, of lying – both to themselves and men, and also to God. But their deception led them into another sin. They were, in effect, stealing from God, despite the fact that Peter made it clear that the possession and the money were theirs to do with what they wanted. Had they not first lied and pretended that they had given all, the truth of Peter’s statement would have applied and they would not have been judged. Their lie was that they claimed and behaved as if they had given all to God, with the added implication that they were led by the Spirit. In doing so, to all intents and purposes, they actually gave God ownership of everything. The moment that they spoke the lie and reinforced it with their actions, they in effect surrendered their ownership of it.
In holding back a portion, they were therefore stealing from God that which now rightfully belonged to Him. They claimed to have given it to God for His work, and holding back was stealing both the money and the work it would have accomplished. In addition, however, Ananias and Sapphira were stealing God’s glory by stealing the glory of His work through the Holy Spirit.
Whichever way we look at it, and even though we may still feel we haven’t plumbed the depths of this event, it’s clear that there is a warning here for every believer. Our motives before God cannot be hidden from Him. Ananias and Sapphira could not deceive the Spirit, and neither can we. Our lesson is to bring our motives before God and allow Him to examine our hearts. Do we give because we feel we are compelled to? Do we give because we want a measure of acclaim, or the power that goes with being ‘a great giver?’ Do we give according to our preferences rather than the leading of the Spirit? Do we hold back a portion, even when prompted to give it all?
On the surface, these things seem relatively excusable. We are human, after all, and none of us are perfect. And certainly, we aren’t ‘sold out to the purposes of the devil’ like Ananias and Sapphira. But the spiritual principle of the lesson is one we should take to heart. It’s all too easy to slide into complacency and to imagine that no one – not even God – knows the real motive behind our actions. We may even come to a place where we feel that God, in not challenging us on it, is somehow condoning it. This is dangerous territory, the place where we lay ourselves wide open to the temptation of the devil who will seduce us to greater deception.
‘Search my heart, Oh Lord,’ should be a daily cry. Our protection against the fate of Ananias and Sapphira lies in humility and surrender, a willingness to seek God’s direction, to obey the leading of the Spirit, to give ourselves and what we have according to His guidance, not our plans or purposes. Our God is loving, just, and merciful, and His grace without measure. He will never ask of us more than we are able to do or to give or to endure, but His is the choosing. Obedience is better than sacrifice, and hearts that are turned only to Him will be guarded, protected and guided. Today, let us all take a moment to examine our motives in His light and wisdom and make the changes He desires in willing obedience to His Word and leading.
Thank You for Your grace, Lord. Forgive us for those times where our motives have been wrong, where self has been more important than seeking Your glory. Help us to come with humble hearts, surrendering them to Your searching, so that we may live according to Your purposes.