Acts 4:36 – 5:11

A preacher was preaching on our text today, about Ananias and Sapphira who were struck dead when they told a lie. He said to his congregation, “God doesn’t strike people dead for lying in these modern times. If he did, where would I be?” The people in the congregation smiled and then he continued. “I’ll tell you where I would be. I’d be right here preaching to an empty church.”

This would be a lot more funny if I hadn’t been preaching to an empty church for the past four months, but in our covid-19 world, some jokes need some imagination.

We all have lied at one point or another in our lives and that is what makes this story of Ananias and Sapphira so strange, so uncomfortable. They made a gift to the church, a substantial gift to the church, and instead of the church leaders doing cartwheels and back flips because of this gift, Peter condemned them for lying and in God’s judgement of them, they were struck dead.

This is a strange and bizarre story. At the end of the account Luke writes,
Great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events.

Is it any wonder? If this happened in our church, wouldn’t you think twice before giving or doing something for the church? Wouldn’t you be asking a lot of questions? What if your motives for giving were not pure? Would you be judged for that? And since when have any of us ever had pure motives for anything we have done? This was a very unsettling experience for the early church and it continues to be an unsettling story for us to read.

When you consider the number of words in English for lying, you have to conclude that lying is a pretty big deal for us.

We have lies, half-truths, untruths, exaggerations, whoppers, fibs, misrepresentations, white lies, fabrications, falsehoods, prevarications, distortions, ambiguities, equivocations and misstatements. We tell blatant lies, stretch the truth, get overly imaginative, mislead, twist the facts, overstate the evidence, misspeak, make factual errors, get momentarily confused and fail to tell the truth.

We are familiar with lying. My mother used to make me and my two older sisters sit on the steps until one of us confessed who had done something. After a while, my oldest sister would get up and tell my mother she had done it and my mother would tell her, “Go back and sit down, I know you didn’t do it.” It was always my sister Cathy or me who had done the foul deed.

One year at Thanksgiving, when we were back from university, my sister Cathy and I began to confess all our crimes: who had eaten the chocolate cake, who had played with the bridge cards and so on.

There are many reasons why people lie. People lie to get something they want. People lie to avoid being blamed for something they have done. People lie because of insecurity. People lie because they have unmet needs to be loved and valued. People lie because they want people to be impressed with themselves.

From time to time we read about politicians who have exaggerated their resumes. For example, someone goes to university and drops out before getting a degree. They regret not finishing their degree. They wish they had finished and graduated. They run for a local office and tell people they went to university. People assume they graduated. Ten or twenty years later they tell people they graduated from university and may even say they graduated with honors. They told the lie so many times it became their reality.

Politicians get caught in their lies because they become public figures and reporters and political opponents check their past to see if what they tell about themselves is true or not. But there are many other people who have created a reality of who they wish they had been and project that image of themselves to the people they meet.

Let’s take a look at the account of Ananias and Sapphira and then we can speculate about what made them exaggerate the generosity of their gift.

Luke has set up this story by writing about the spirit of sharing in the church. (Acts 4:32–37)
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. 33 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 34 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 35 and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.

It was not that they did not own property, but that they did not consider the property that was legally theirs to be their own. When the Spirit encouraged them to help with needs in the church, they sold a piece of property or a house they owned and gave it to the apostles to be distributed to those in need.

Luke follows this summary of the church community with the positive example of Barnabas.
Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus, whom the apostles called Barnabas (which means “son of encouragement”), 37 sold a field he owned and brought the money and put it at the apostles’ feet.

I shared last week about Barnabas. He was a generous man. He knew he was loved by God and was secure in his relationship with others. People liked him, and why not? He was an encourager and we all love to be in relationships with people who are encouragers. Barnabas was someone who believed people could change and gave people in his life a second chance after they failed. He did this with Paul after he met Jesus on the road to Damascus. He did this with his cousin Mark after he deserted Paul and Barnabas on their first missionary journey.

When Barnabas sold a piece of land he owned and gave the proceeds to the apostles, the Jerusalem church talked about how wonderful a gift that was. “Did you hear what Barnabas did? He is such a great man, so generous. And he is so humble. We didn’t find out what he had done from his own lips; one of the apostles told us what Barnabas had done.”

Those who were new to the church heard about Barnabas because of his generosity. They were told about his kind and encouraging character. Barnabas gave out of his heart and received gratitude and honor from the community for his gift.

But not everyone moves through life with the inner peace and security Barnabas had. Barnabas did not seek to be honored; honor came to him because of his actions that came from his heart.

I imagine that Ananias and Sapphira were insecure people. They looked around at leaders in the church and wished they were more like them. They needed to be loved and valued, as we all need to be loved and valued, but in their inner being they felt unlovable.

We don’t know much about Ananias and Sapphira but we can speculate about what might have motivated them to do what they did.

One possibility is that when Ananias heard about the gift Barnabas had made and saw the honor that was bestowed on Barnabas, he said to himself, “I would love to be treated that way. I would love to be respected like Barnabas is respected.” Ananias was envious of the attention that was being given to Barnabas.

So he said to himself, “I want to sell a piece of property and give the money to the apostles so I too will be held in honor and esteem by the church.”

Or perhaps he was caught up in the excitement of what Barnabas had done. People were all talking about what a great thing Barnabas had done and Ananias spoke up impulsively and said to the people he was with, “Sapphira and I have a piece of property we are going to sell so we can give the proceeds to the apostles.”

Where was Sapphira in all of this? Was she also hungry for honor and esteem? Did she and Ananias plan together about how to get the esteem of the church and also keep some of the money for themselves?

Or perhaps she was also caught up in the excitement and she and Ananias sold their piece of property and then, when they got home and looked at all that money, she said to Ananias, “You know, that is a lot of money. Maybe we could only give some of it to the apostles.”
Ananias objected, “But I told people I was going to give all the money we received from the sale.” “True,” replied Sapphira, “but no one knows how much we received from the sale. You know Ananias, sometimes you are too impulsive. If we give half of what we received, that would still be a generous gift, more than most people are giving.” “But,” Ananias said, “Barnabas gave all that he received.” “Barnabas is a much wealthier man than we are,” Sapphira countered, “and the amount we give will be a larger percentage of what we have than what Barnabas gave.”

Whether they decided from the beginning or their plan evolved over time, Ananias, with his wife’s full knowledge, kept part of the money for themselves and gave the rest to the apostles.

How did Peter know what Ananias and Sapphira had done? Did someone who knew the person who bought the piece of land from Ananias and Sapphira tell Peter about the sale and how much they received? Did Peter know the value of real estate and what the sale of a piece of property should be?

Or did God reveal to Peter what had happened? Did Peter have what is called a word of knowledge? I am inclined to think this is the case because there is a supernatural element in this story.

Peter challenged Ananias.
“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? 4 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.”

What was the offense of Ananias and Sapphira? It was not that they kept some of the money for themselves. Peter told Ananias, “Didn’t [the money] belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn’t the money at your disposal?”

Their offense was that they told Peter and the church they were giving all they had received when they sold their property but secretly kept some of it for themselves.

Frederick Buechner writes about this story:
It wasn’t because Ananias held back from the poor box some of the proceeds of his real-estate deal that Saint Peter came down on him so hard. The poor would get by somehow. They always had. What got the old saint’s goat was that Ananias let on he was handing over his whole pile instead of only as much as he thought he wouldn’t be needing himself.

“You do not lie to us but to God:’ Peter said (Acts 5:4), and the undeniable truth of the charge together with the unbearable shame of it were more than Ananias could take, so he dropped dead. His wife, Sapphira, had been in on the real-estate deal with him, and when she turned up three hours later and found out what had happened, she dropped dead too.

Lying to God is like sawing the branch you’re sitting on. The better you do it, the sooner you fall.

This is the hard part of the story. When Peter confronted Ananias,
he fell down and died. And great fear seized all who heard what had happened. 6 Then some young men came forward, wrapped up his body, and carried him out and buried him.

About three hours later Sapphira showed up. Now if it were me, I would have told her what happened to Ananias and given her a chance to confess and repent. But this is not what Peter did. Peter asked her, “Tell me, is this the price you and Ananias got for the land?” Sapphira kept the family secret and said, “Yes. That is the price.”

And then, as swiftly as she answered, the axe fell.
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.”
10 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. 11 Great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events.

There was no need for Luke to write verse 11, “Great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events,” we could have figured that out for ourselves.

So how do we understand this story? It seems overly harsh. If I had been asked what to include in the Bible and what to take out, I would have taken out this story. It doesn’t seem to fit with the rest of what we know about how God works in the church. Where was the grace and mercy of God in the judgment against Ananias and Sapphira? It seems to have taken a vacation.

There is another story in the Bible that this incident is compared to, the story of Achan in Joshua 7.

The background for this story is that Moses led Israel out of slavery in Egypt. Because of Israel’s rebellion, instead of heading to the promised land of Caanan, they wandered through the wilderness for forty years until the generation who rebelled were dead. And then Moses handed the leadership of Israel over to Joshua who led them across the Jordan River. Their first conquest was the city of Jericho.

Before they attacked, Joshua warned them that they were to destroy the city and everyone in it, everyone except for Rahab the prostitute who had helped the two Israelite spies.

He warned them that the silver and gold and articles of bronze and iron were sacred to the Lord and were to be put in the treasury of God. He warned them against taking anything for themselves or they would be destroyed.

They were successful in the conquest of Jericho and afterwards Joshua picked the small city of Ai as their next target. He did this for strategic reasons since Ai was in the hills and offered better protection than where they were in the plains.

Scouts were sent out and reported that this would be an easy conquest, but the soldiers who attacked Ai were defeated and Joshua prayed to God, asking him why they had been defeated.

The Lord told Joshua that someone had taken some of the treasure of Jericho for themselves. The Lord said to Joshua, “Stand up! What are you doing down on your face? 11 Israel has sinned; they have violated my covenant, which I commanded them to keep. They have taken some of the devoted things; they have stolen, they have lied, they have put them with their own possessions. 12 That is why the Israelites cannot stand against their enemies; they turn their backs and run because they have been made liable to destruction. I will not be with you anymore unless you destroy whatever among you is devoted to destruction. 

So the next day Joshua assembled Israel and began the process of finding out who had taken the treasure of Jericho that had been declared to be sacred, given to the Lord.

The leader of each tribe came before Joshua and the tribal leader was declared to be chosen or not chosen by some method, perhaps two stones, one white and one black, in a sack. The first stone to fall out of the bag declared the tribe to be chosen or not.

When the tribe of Judah was chosen, the leader of each clan in the tribe of Judah came before Joshua until the Zerahites were chosen. Then the head of each family in the clan of the Zerahites came before Joshua until the family of Zimri was chosen. Then Joshua had each man of the family come before him until Achan was chosen.

This must have been an excruciating experience for Achan as the arrow pointing to him got closer and closer.

Then Joshua said to Achan, “My son, give glory to the Lord, the God of Israel, and honor him. Tell me what you have done; do not hide it from me.” 
20 Achan replied, “It is true! I have sinned against the Lord, the God of Israel. This is what I have done: 21 When I saw in the plunder a beautiful robe from Babylonia, two hundred shekels of silver and a bar of gold weighing fifty shekels, I coveted them and took them. They are hidden in the ground inside my tent, with the silver underneath.” 

After this confession Joshua took Achan, the things he had stolen, his sons and daughters, his livestock, his tent and everything he had out to the Valley of Achor. Israel stoned Achan, his family, his livestock, put them and all Achan had owned into a pile and burned them. Over the ashes they heaped up a large pile of rocks.

This judgment ended the line of Achan. There would be no descendants to carry on his line.

Once again, this seems like an overly harsh reaction. I know this is the Old Testament, but where was the mercy and grace of God in this judgment? Where was the opportunity to repent that was given to David over and over again?

The account of Ananias and Sapphira and the account of Achan are unique events and share a number of things in common.

First, the Greek word translated in Acts as “kept back” some of the money is the same word used in the Greek translation of the Old Testament when Achan “took some” of the sacred things dedicated to God. The only other time this word is used in the New Testament, in Titus 2:10, it is translated as “to steal.”

Joshua told Israel that the treasures of Jericho were dedicated to the Lord and so were sacred. He warned them not to take any of these things for themselves. When Ananias and Sapphira announced that they were selling a piece of land and giving the proceeds to the church, that gift became sacred and by keeping some of the money for themselves, they were stealing from God.

Second, the accounts of Achan and Ananias and Sapphira came at critical moments. Israel had just crossed the Jordan River into Canaan and they were vulnerable to attacks that would drive them back into the wilderness. They were not yet established in Canaan.

In Acts, the church was in its infancy. The church had not yet been established beyond Jerusalem. It did not yet have a firm footing. It was vulnerable to attack and weaknesses that would destroy it.

In these critical moments, God took a strong hand in enforcing purity in the community of Israel and in the church. This is not the way God acts in other times in the history of Israel or in the history of the church, but at these critical moments when his people were in a fragile situation, he acted with strength to protect Israel, protect the church.

It is a mistake to take the story of Ananias and Sapphira and use it to warn people that if they lie, God will strike them down. This account is not normative; it is exceptional.

Given that, there are lessons we can take from this account.

First, lying is destructive. The devil attacked the growing church with persecution and then he attacked the growing church with moral compromise. Peter understood that the lie Ananias and Sapphira told was encouraged by Satan. Peter said, “Ananias, how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit.”

The devil does not waste time attacking insignificant things. He attacks where it will hurt God the most. The lie he encouraged Ananias and Sapphira to tell carried the potential to wound and weaken the church community that was thriving and growing.

This leads to the second lesson, lying weakens the witness of the church.

I said this in last week’s sermon.
You can see how powerful a tool sharing possessions with others is because the devil attacked it. Barnabas made a generous gift and the church was encouraged. Others shared what they had and the church was encouraged. So the devil tried to disrupt this source of encouragement by introducing false motives for giving. If it could be demonstrated that someone who gave a gift was doing it to receive honor and power rather than simply giving the gift out of a heart full of gratitude to God, it might cause people to challenge the motives of others who gave gifts to the church. It would weaken the encouragement that came from sharing possessions.

When we begin to view the positive acts of people in the church as hypocritical, the witness of the church suffers. When I was considering becoming a follower of Jesus, one of the obstacles I had to get over was the hypocrisy of the people I knew in the church when I was growing up. I saw what church elders did during the week, how they conducted their business. I heard what they said at parties and did not want to have anything to do with them or the church they went to on Sunday.

I was talking with a member of our church who told me that a woman was visiting Rabat a few weeks ago. The woman is going through a difficult time in her marriage and the member of our church invited her to watch the online service of RIC on Sunday. This woman who was visiting told her she used to go to church but had given it up because of all the hypocrisy in the church. On that Sunday Chris Loose was preaching via video and the woman left reconsidering her decision to no longer go to church.

The damage done by lying, by living a hypocritical life can be undone over time, but it is an obstacle to people who are being invited to come into the kingdom of God.

Third, lying dehumanizes us.

Let me share another quote from Frederick Buechner.
There is perhaps nothing that so marks us as human as the gift of speech. Who knows to what degree and in what ways animals have the power to communicate with each other, but to all appearances it is only a shadow of ours. By speaking, we can reveal the hiddenness of thought, we can express the subtlest as well as the most devastating of emotions, we can heal, we can make poems, we can pray. All of which is to say we can speak truth—the truth of what it is to be ourselves, to be with each other, to be in the world—and such speaking as that is close to what being human is all about. What makes lying an evil is not only that the world is deceived by it, but that we are dehumanized by it.

What does it mean that we are dehumanized by our lies? N.T. Wright wrote in his recent book, God and the Pandemic, that humans were created in the image of God. This means that to be human is to be who God created us to be. Who God created us to be is wonderful. Being human is wonderful. But our sin dehumanizes us. It makes us less than human. Our lies diminish who we are. Lies dehumanize us.

Fourth, when we lie, we lie to God.

Peter told Ananias,
“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? 4 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.”

“You have lied to the Holy Spirit.” “You have not lied just to human beings but to God.”

David committed adultery with Bathsheba and then had Uriah murdered to cover up her pregnancy. Who did David sin against? Certainly Uriah and probably Bathsheba because he took advantage of his power to seduce her. But what did David say to God in his psalm after Nathan confronted him with his sin? (Psalm 51:4)
Against you, you only, have I sinned
and done what is evil in your sight;
so you are right in your verdict
and justified when you judge.

Fifth, lying tries to keep secret the truth about us which may work with others but it does not work with God.

God knows our thoughts. (Psalm 139:4)
You have searched me, Lord,
and you know me.
You know when I sit and when I rise;
you perceive my thoughts from afar.
You discern my going out and my lying down;
you are familiar with all my ways.
Before a word is on my tongue
you, Lord, know it completely.

Over and over again, Jesus knew what people were thinking. When Jesus sat in the home of Simon the Pharisee, he knew what Simon was thinking about the woman who was washing his feet and anointing them with perfume.

We can lie to others and get away with it, but we cannot lie to God because God knows the truth. Peter did not try to deny that he had denied knowing Jesus three times. He did not try to slip his denials past the other disciples, despite the embarrassment and shame his denying Jesus caused him. Peter faced up to the truth about what he had done because Jesus had looked at him after his third denial. Peter knew that Jesus knew what he had done.

When I was in university and stealing books in stores, I was OK until I became aware that God existed. Once I knew that God was watching me, I was unable to go into the store to steal books I wanted. I have a vivid memory of standing in front of the door of the store, thinking, and then turning around.

Sixth, lying separates us from God, other people, and ourselves.

God knows the truth about us, but when I lie, I deny God because I ignore what he knows about me. My relationship with God becomes blocked and my human nature to focus on myself takes over. I begin to justify my lies. I begin to create a new reality in which God is not present – or where God may be present but he does not know the truth about me. I create a world to live in where God is not present to me.

My lies put a barrier between me and other people I relate to. They see me and think they know me, but what they see is not who I really am. I cannot be open and vulnerable with others because that would expose what I am trying to hide. This destroys intimacy in close relationships.

And then, after I live with a lie long enough, that lie becomes my life. The walls I have built up around the lie becomes strong enough that I believe the lie about myself to be the truth. This is what I referred to in the beginning of the sermon when I talked about people who exaggerate their accomplishments and over time begin to think they have done what they exaggerated.

In the creation story in Genesis, after Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, they were separated from God and hid from him in the garden when he came to be with them. They were separated from each other. When God asked them if they had eaten from the tree, they stood apart and Adam accused Eve of the sin. They were separated from themselves. When they heard God in the garden, they knew shame and covered themselves. Lying separates us from God, separates us from each other, separates us from ourselves.

We need to know we are loved by God so that when we do something wrong, when we do something we are ashamed of doing, we will stand and tell the truth, not fabricate a lie that will hide who we are and what we have done. We need to know we are loved by God so that we will not need to create a reality that puts us in a better light, a more glamorous light, a more heroic light.

Be wary of those who use their gifts, talents, and abilities to bring honor and glory to themselves. Seek those who use their gifts, talents, and abilities with humility.

Don’t present an image of yourself that is greater than who you are. Rejoice when you see someone using their gifts for the church. To use the parable Jesus told, some of us have five talents and others of us have one talent. Rather than being envious of the gifts of others, use the gifts God has given you and rejoice that he allows you to work with him in building his kingdom.

Don’t be afraid to be yourself. We are all works in progress. None of us is perfect. All of us make mistakes, do things we wish we had not done.

We are on the path to the celestial city, the kingdom of God. None of us walk straight down the path. All of us wander from the path. But we persevere. As you walk, encourage those who walk with you. Be open and honest with them.

Let the love of God for you go deep into your heart so you will walk with confidence, with each step becoming more of the person God created you to be.

Proverbs 12:22
The Lord detests lying lips,
but he delights in people who are trustworthy.