This week I want to focus in on a famous story from the book of Acts that has sometimes rubbed people the wrong way. The story of Ananias & Sapphira parallels a handful of other stories in the Bible, and yet it tends to run contrary to many people's perception of the Bible as consisting of a brutal and mean Old Testament and the nice, loving New Testament. As a matter of fact, this story says, here we are in the New Testament, and two people are about to drop dead for their sins. It leaves many people scratching their heads and wondering ... why?
The chapter divisions here start to function a little less well. In order to get the full picture, we are going to re-tread some of the territory we already covered in the ending parts of Acts 4. This episode from Acts 4:32 to acts 5:16 is one story about how the church community is like a temple, and the dangers of the Temple accompany the joy and power of the Temple. It's ultimately about how the intense and immediate presence of God in the church community is a beautiful, good thing, but also about how that goodness can be profoundly dangerous.
Acts 4:32-37 | The Light of the Church
- The Church so far as been enduring some (light) persecution, performing miracles, and declaring the Gospel to the community in Jerusalem. While the Sadducees in the Temple are trying to put a stop to their activities, the disciples of Jesus are experiencing the immediate personal presence of God that would have formerly manifested itself in that very Temple. But now, it's happening in their own homes as they pray and share together.
- The previous section showed us just how powerful their prayer times were: "After this prayer, the meeting place shook, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit. Then they preached the word of God with boldness." (Acts 4:31 NLT) The idea of the meeting place shaking echoes various passages in the Hebrew Bible where God's arrival causes shaking.
- This part of chapter 4 concludes with a demonstration of the positive outcome of being near to God's presence. The fullness of self-giving love is on display. People sell whatever belongings they can spare in order to redistribute their resources among those who might be in need in their community. The coming of the Messiah and the Spirit signals to them that it's time to live a new kind of life - the life of the Kingdom of God. It means living as if we are on our way back to Paradise - in fact, living as in Paradise is already here in the person of Jesus. It means symbolically living out the truth that a new and better way to exist is here.
- Barnabas becomes a prime example of what this lifestyle looks like in practice when he sells a field that he owned, and gives all of the money to the church. It's pretty radical. These believers are so open-hearted before God and each other that they don't consider their own belongings to be their own in an exclusive sense. So they share in stunning and beautiful ways. And that is what sets up the next big problem.
Acts 5:1-11 | The Death of Ananias & Sapphira
- Given the background of chapter 4, we now come to Ananias & Sapphira. They have witnessed the power of generosity that is flowing out of a church saturated in God's presence. They want in that the glow, on the light, on the optics. They want to look like they are participating in this wonderful way of doing things. They want to be counted as participants in this massive sharing exercise, and to belong to this community. They want the reputation of being generous. But they also want to keep a bit of the money. So they sell a piece of property, keep some of the money back for themselves, and then present the remaining portion to the Apostles as if it's the full amount.
- Note that Peter accuses Ananias of lying to the Holy Spirit. This is an important point in establishing that the Holy Spirit is more of a someone than a something. More of a person and not so much an impersonal force. Ananias has lied to someone, and that Someone happens to be God.
- Sapphira comes in later and repeats the same lie. She, like her husband before her, drops dead on the ground.
- Note, it's not the church community or the people who kill these two. They simply drop dead when caught lying in the midst of the church. This has naturally raised a number of questions for people: How and why did they die? Did God kill them? If so, did he do so out of anger? Is he vengeful and hot-tempered? What happened to God's mercy and forgiveness? Why such a harsh punishment - death! - for such a seemingly commonplace sin?
- It's also important to point out that some preachers may go too far by misapplying the message of this passage and saying that people aren't giving enough money to the church/their ministry. The amount of money itself is actually never the issue, and neither is the couple keeping the money. Peter, in verse 4, makes this clear: "Didn’t it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn’t the money at your disposal?" In other words, these donations that the community was making were not compulsory. Nobody said they had to give everything. It just so happened that people felt that way, and proceeded to be exceptionally generous. But there was no obligation for Ananias and Sapphira to give the whole amount they got. In other words, if they had come forward and said "Hey, we sold a field, we got X amount of money for it, and we need to keep some of it, but here is what we are willing to share right now" - that would have been completely fine. Maybe some of the people might have judged them for not being as generous as the next person, but they would have avoided judgment from God.
- The way I just worded that last part makes it seem like God must have intentionally killed them. But this isn't necessarily the case. In order to understand what is happening here, we need to look at some of the Old Testament background concerning the temple.
Leviticus 10:1-7 | Nadab & Abihu
- This story in the Torah shows us two priests, Nadab & Abihu, dying while serving in the temple because of improper behaviour in God's presence. These two are Aaron's sons, and therefore Moses' nephews. They bring "unauthorized fire" into the Tabernacle and burn it as an offering before God, and as a result, "[...] fire blazed forth from the Lord’s presence and burned them up, and they died there before the Lord." (Leviticus 10:2 NLT)
- There is a reference later in verses 8-9 where God specifically warns that any other priests must avoid drinking alcohol before coming into the Tabernacle, and to be careful to distinguish between what is clean and unclean, sacred and common. Total and complete purity is required in order to enter that closely to God's presence.
- It's possible to see this incident as God lashing out in anger, but I don't think that's what is going on here. Rather, what we have is an example of how God's holiness is both good and dangerous. This video by the Bible Project does an excellent job explaining this concept:
- Rather than seeing the deaths of Ananias & Sapphira, or those of Nadab & Abihu as a violent outburst of rage on God's part, it's a bit more like people made out of wood walking into the middle of a fire. It's a natural consequence of bringing flagrant, high-handed sin into the midst of God's intense presence. It's like flying directly into the sun.
Acts 5:12-16 | Immense healing power
- This section concludes with further positive demonstrations of the Spirit's power. God is heavily present among his followers and as a result, miracles are happening all around them. As long as, by grace, they stay in right relationship with that power, they are not consumed. In a sense, they can stand in the middle of the fire because they themselves are born of fire. Fire creatures.
- At first glance, it may seem strange to have the story of Ananias & Sapphira sandwiched between extreme generosity and overflowing healing miracles, but given the rest of the Old Testament backdrop, it starts to make sense. The presence of God has life-giving power, just as the sun gives life and energy to everything on earth. But also like the sun, God's presence is a powerful, consuming fire, and anything that is unfit to be within that presence will naturally be extinguished.
- What I am about to propose here is speculative, not certain. But I feel like it's worth saying. In church, many of us talk about experiencing the presence of God, or being in the midst of God's presence. And I believe that it's true - we do encounter God when we worship him alongside other believers, or even by ourselves at home in our own prayer time. But I do wonder sometimes if maybe, just maybe, God is holding back some of that power out of sheer mercy. If perhaps, we are just collectively not ready to stand with full integrity in the thick of that powerful presence.
- Consider how many scandalous stories of abuse, mismanagement, manipulation, and unchecked sin emerge from churches all over the world on a regular basis. I wonder sometimes if perhaps we don't experience the full power of God in our journey as the Christian church today simply because God knows we aren't ready to handle it, or even survive it. If, perhaps, our incomplete repentance and failure to put evil out of our communities makes our communities unfit for the full dosage of Yahweh's fire.
- I believe wholeheartedly that our salvation is by grace alone through faith alone, and that our right-standing with God is a free gift given to those who believe. But I do also know that repentance is about more than simply saying "sorry" and not meaning it, and that it is possible to throw God's grace back in his face. I wonder, sometimes, if maybe part of God's mercy for us is not giving us more power than we are ready for. It's something for us to consider, even as we rest in the assurance that there is nothing we can do to add to the salvation that Jesus has bought for us.
Next week we will complete our journey through Acts chapter 5 before jumping into the story of the first Deacons in Acts 6.