Acts Lesson Nine – 5:1-11 Don’t Test the Spirit

1 But a man named Ananias, with his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property. 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. 

Then Peter said, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and keep back part of the proceeds from the field? 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 men but to God!” When he heard these words, Ananias dropped dead, and a great fear came on all who heard. The young men got up, wrapped his body, carried him out, and buried him. 

There was an interval of about three hours; then his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. “Tell me,” Peter asked her, “did you sell the field for this price?” 

“Yes,” she said, “for that price.” 

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. (HCSB)

The last lesson ended with a display of generosity by Barnabas. In this lesson, we will see a polar opposite, greed, and jealousy by Ananias and Sapphira, which leads to their physical death. There are a couple of interesting points regarding their names; Ananias means “God is gracious” while Sapphira means “beautiful.” We may think that the punishment handed out to them was too severe for the crime. However, as we dig into this passage, we will see that our infinitely holy God was following a pattern of judgment that goes back to the Old Testament book of Leviticus. Here are some examples of divine judgment on seemingly minor offenses.

  • Nadab and Abihu were killed for presenting false fire in Leviticus 10.
  • Achan was killed for disobeying orders after Israel entered the Promised Land in Joshua 7.
  • Uzzah was touching the ark as it was being transported in 2 Samuel 6.

In each of these cases, it may seem that the punishment was too severe. However, judgment is passed according to an infinitely holy God’s standards and not ours. Another thing to note regarding each case above and the one in this passage is that God judges sin severely at the beginning of a new period in salvation history. 

Today’s passage will be broken into two parts. The first covering Ananias and background/general information, with the second part covering Sapphira and concluding thoughts.

Verses 1-6

In this section, we see that Satan was the culprit behind the couple’s actions. This doesn’t remove the guilt from them or us if we also follow Satan’s direction. But it does point to the issue of spiritual warfare that believers face. Up until this point, the young church was thriving and resisting the spiritual attacks from the outside, primarily from the Jewish religious leaders up to this point. Now, Satan changes his focus and decides to try and undermine the church from the inside by using members of the church to discredit it. If we fast-forward to Acts 20:28-31, we read where Paul warns the church leaders to be on the lookout for these attacks from the inside. Often these are the most difficult to see and the most damaging. Nothing discredits a church more than one of its leaders or prominent members involved in a public scandal. Believers need to read and apply Paul’s admonition in Ephesians 6:10-18 to continually put on our spiritual armor and be prepared for spiritual warfare.

As we look at the sin they committed, there are three distinct features.

  • It was energized and directed by Satan. 
  • It was motivated by pride.
    • They were possibly jealous of Barnabas’ gift at the conclusion of chapter four and wanted everyone to see that they were just as generous. We could call this religious “keeping up with the neighbor.”
    • God hates pride. Proverbs 8:13b I hate arrogant pride, evil conduct.
    • Jesus made it clear that how we give is essential. Is it for God’s glory or ours? See Matthew 6:1-4 and 19-34.
    • All that we have we have received from God. We are stewards of His possessions.
  • Their sin was directed against God’s church.
    • There is no reason to doubt that they were followers of Jesus.
      • The young church had such a high spiritual level that it is doubtful that a fake Christian could have invaded the church at this point.
      • They also lied to the Spirit (verse 3) and tested the Spirit (verse 9). This indicates that they had the Spirit living within them.
    • God loves His church and jealously guards it. The church was purchased by the blood of Jesus. The church has been put on the earth to glorify Him and complete His work. 
      • Satan wants to destroy and discredit the church. The easiest way is from the inside.
      • The church is the “pillar and foundation of the truth.” 1 Timothy 3:15.
      • The church is God’s temple in which He dwells. 1 Corinthians 3:16.
      • The church is God’s army. 2 Timothy 2:1-4.
      • The church is safe as long as Satan is attacking from the outside. When Satan gets a foothold within the church, that’s when danger is present.

Their sin was not withholding the money, essential robbing God. It was in lying to Him and robbing Him of the glory of selfless giving among the believers. There was no mandate that they had to sell the property; it was purely voluntary. Even after selling it, there was no stipulation that any or all of the money must be donated to the church. It was their overwhelming desire for recognition that contributed to their actions.

There are numerous interpretations of how Ananias died; zapped, heart attack, fear, overwhelming guilt. The how isn’t important when we look at this passage. What we can determine from the context of the passage is that it wasn’t an ordinary death; they saw God’s hand in his death. Otherwise, there would be no reason for great fear among the believers. The Greek word for fear in this passage means “great respect and awe for God.” 

The speed at which the burial was conducted also sheds some light on the circumstances. Burials were usually not lengthy affairs, but three hours or less would be considered fast in that culture. However, a hasty burial was the norm for deaths surrounded by unusual circumstances, such as suicides, executed criminals, and judgments from God.

Verses 7-11

We now move to the second participant in the conspiracy, Sapphira. There are several things to note in this section.

  • Sapphira was unaware of what had happened to Ananias. Although it wouldn’t accomplish anything, it is interesting to speculate what her actions would have been had she known what had happened a few hours earlier.
    • Would she have tried to continue the deception, thinking it couldn’t happen to her?
    • Would she have run away or disappeared out of fear?
    • Would she have come before the church with a repentant heart?
  • What we do know is that Peter gave her one last chance to come clean when he asked, “did you sell the field for this price?”
    • We need to note and follow Peter’s role in this encounter. Peter was not the judge; he was merely confronting both individuals with a question and allowing, at least with Sapphira, an opportunity to repent.
    • God was the judge, and swift consequences resulted from her refusal to repent.
  • There is great irony in this passage. First, Ananias laid the money at the feet of the Apostles. Second, both ended up dying at the feet of the Apostles. 
  • The church is intended to be a holy body, a place where the Spirit resides within the people who make up the church.
  • The church depicted at the beginning of Acts worked miracles, evangelized without fear, and was blessed with extraordinary growth. The Spirit was the power behind the unity and the unity as the power behind its witness.
  • This is the first time the Greek word for church, ekklesia, occurs in Acts. The word signifies the people of God gathered together as a religious community. It is probably no coincidence that it first appears in this passage. The church only thrives when it lives in the trust of its members, where there is unified trust the church flourishes in the power of the Spirit. When distrust appears, its witness fades.
  • Although Ananias and Sapphira experienced divine judgment, there is nothing to suggest their death was more than a physical one. 

Now let’s look at some general concepts and conclusions from this passage.

  • As strong, vibrant, and Spirit-filled as the early church was, it still was not a perfect church. We will never find a perfect church on this side of eternity. That doesn’t mean churches shouldn’t strive for that, but it’s unreasonable to expect it. Since there is no perfect church, we shouldn’t engage in “church shopping” once we’ve settled into a community of believers. The only exception to that is if the church, church leadership, or teaching becomes heretical and refuses to repent and return to being a biblically-based church.
  • The use of possessions and money. Using these in the wrong way or with the wrong intention is a serious sin in God’s sight. As we journey through Acts, we’ll see that there a quite a few instances where economic issues are dealt with in the Christian community. As we take a survey of churches today, we’d probably see quite a bit of the “health and wealth” or “prosperity gospel” heresy being proclaimed in churches. When we look at the New Testament, we’ll see an abundance of teaching on the dangers of wealth. Although wealth and possessions are not inherently wrong or evil, the proper biblical attitude is to understand that they are a blessing from God to be used to bless others.
  • Lying to make ourselves appear to be something that we aren’t. Ananias’s goal was to enhance his self-esteem and prestige within the church. How often do we see that in today’s church? This leads us to be dishonest with ourselves. A key component to receiving God’s grace is acknowledging our need for Him. Pride can slam shut the door that allows God’s grace to enter our lives.
  • A reverential fear of God and the consequences of sin. Sin and scandals will occur within the body of believers. How that is dealt with is an indicator of whether or not the church has a reverential fear of God. The early church dealt with the issue of sin quickly. In today’s world of tolerance and acceptance, the opposite often occurs. The example of Ananias and Sapphira’s behavior was a cancer that needed to be removed from the church for it to be healthy. We are all sinners, but the sin must be confronted and not condoned.
  • The demonization of believers. Although believers can’t be possessed by Satan, the Holy Spirit lives inside believers and is stronger than Satan; we can allow ourselves to be directed and used by Satan. It happened to Ananias and Sapphira. We’ve probably all read of Christian leaders who have had moral failures. Often it can start as an innocent mistake, but then it snowballs out of control. These moral failures aren’t limited to the area of sexual misconduct. It can also occur when we feel wronged and plan an appropriate response. It can happen in professional ambition. There are countless examples that could be listed here. We must never forget that we are engaged in spiritual warfare with an unseen enemy. This can lead us to become complacent and not consider the spiritual realm. 

Applications

  • As we bring our offerings, we need to stop and examine our hearts and our motivation for giving. Is there any selfish motivation behind our gift, or is our gift meant to glorify God? If there is any selfish motivation, we need to stop, repent, and prayerfully reconsider our giving. Once our motivations are pure, then we can continue with our giving.
  • If we knowingly or unknowingly have impure motivations and a Christian brother or sister confronts us, we need to repent. We should also thank them for holding us accountable to pure living. This is one example of why an accountability partner is essential for our spiritual health.
  • If we see a Christian brother or sister sinning, do we gracefully confront them in a timely manner, or do we avoid and condone the behavior? Scripture indicates that we need to take action for their benefit as well as the church’s benefit.
  • We need to have a reverent fear for God and His holiness. This reverence needs to be evident in our words, thoughts, and actions.

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