Chapter 11: A double death
1 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. 3 But Peter said, ‘Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and keep back part of the price of the land for yourself? 4 While it remained, was it not your own? And after it was sold, was it not in your own control? Why have you conceived this thing in your heart? You have not lied to men but to God.’
5 Then Ananias, hearing these words, fell down and breathed his last. So great fear came upon all those who heard these things. 6 And the young men arose and wrapped him up, carried him out, and buried him.
7 Now it was about three hours later when his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. 8 And Peter answered her, ‘Tell me whether you sold the land for so much?’ She said, ‘Yes, for so much.’ 9 Then Peter said to her, ‘How is it that you have agreed together 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 Then immediately she fell down at his feet and breathed her last. And the young men came in and found her dead, and carrying her out, buried her by her husband. 11 So great fear came upon all the church and upon all who heard these things.
Ananias—the sad pretender
The background facts to the unexpected deaths of Ananias and his wife, Sapphira, are simple. We have seen how some early Christians voluntarily sell their property and put the proceeds of sale in the apostles’ hands to distribute to needy people.1 They are not commanded to do so. They are free to choose to sell or not to sell, and to keep or give away any money received. Acts 4:36–37 mentions Barnabas as someone who decides to sell and give. Christian giving is primarily a personal matter between the giver and his, or her, Lord. But it is wrong to give a false impression of higher devotion, or greater generosity, to God than is the case. That breaks God’s moral law, the Ten Commandments,2 especially the ninth commandment not to ‘bear false witness’.3 That commandment can be broken by an outright lie, or a slight exaggeration, or by deceiving someone in another way. Do not pretend to be what you know you are not!
Ananias is a sad pretender. Perhaps he and his wife see how impressed people are with Barnabas when the news gets round that he has sold his property to give the money to the apostles to use. Unlike Barnabas, Ananias keeps some sale proceeds for himself. That is acceptable. The choice is his whether to donate none, part or all of the money. What is unacceptable is lying to the Holy Spirit. He pretends to have given all he received. His wife is ‘aware of it’ and is also led astray. She joins in his attempted deception. This is almost the Garden of Eden in reverse, where the woman, Eve, took and ate the forbidden fruit and offered it to the man, Adam, who also took it and ate.4
We are not told how Peter knows Ananias is lying. Since the lie is to the Holy Spirit, we assume that the Holy Spirit lets His apostle know somehow. Maybe Ananias’ guilty behaviour gives him away? Perhaps their secret leaked out and Peter heard? The fact is that he has lied in his heart and Peter tells him directly, ‘You have not lied to men but to God’.5 He and Sapphira know they have boasted of giving everything when they have given less.
Ananias falls down dead at Peter’s accusation. All who hear what has happened experience ‘great fear’. No doubt the Holy Spirit convicts all true Christians of God’s requirement that they must be truthful and holy. God is more concerned about the purity of the new Christians’ testimony to His saving grace than about the early deaths of two disobedient, but still eternally saved, blood-bought children.6 God sometimes allows or brings sickness as a chastisement or discipline to bring compromised Christians to repentance. He may even remove the lives of some who spoil and soil their public witness about their changed lives.7
Ananias’ body is covered up by the young men, carried away, and buried. But what about his wife Sapphira?
Sapphira’s conspiracy to deceive
Three hours later Sapphira comes in, unaware that she is now a widow. Peter first wisely checks that she actually did share in her husband’s deception. Then he asks if the land was sold for the price that Ananias had dishonestly stated to him. She confirms that it is so. Another lie! Like dirty flies, lies breed lies. Peter asks why have they ‘agreed together to test the Spirit of the Lord’. This suggests that the Holy Spirit has probably revealed their dishonesty directly to him. He tells her of the timely return of her husband’s burial party. She ‘immediately’ falls down by Peter’s feet and dies. The young men now deal with her body as they recently did with Ananias’ body. How sad. How unnecessary. How avoidable. How challenging for us.
Great fear falls on the people again
After her death, again ‘great fear came upon all the church and upon all who heard these things’. God requires His people to walk in the light with transparent honesty. They must be truthful in heart, word and deed before God, before the church leaders, before each other, and before an often critical world. Many wrongly consider lies as minor sins and so tell them too easily. Revelation 21:8 declares that ‘all liars’ will be judged.
Concluding comment: what if God worked like that now?
These are uniquely exceptional times in the early church, as the events on the Day of Pentecost showed. The early church’s selfless view of possessing ‘all things in common’ is exceptional, too.
Although the principles of generous giving and caring hospitality re permanent the practice here in the early church is not a pattern for all Christians for all time. They are helping persecuted and homeless believers who are destitute and have lost their ‘bread earners’. Paul later tells the Christians in Thessalonica to go and work with their own hands to support themselves (rather than receive support) and live honestly. He also instructs Timothy to teach that needed support for widows should be by believing relatives working to support them, wherever possible, rather than asking the church to do so.10
Similarly today, happily for us, God does not judge by immediately killing all dishonest people. As far as we know He chooses only Ananias and Sapphira in the early church to die like that. Why them? We do not know. God always has His own good reasons. If God dealt with western Christians in the same way as he deals here with Ananias and Sapphira empty churches and very rich undertakers (or morticians) would result!
But sadly, as one of the deceased, I would not witness it! How many Christians would remain if all liars were suddenly taken? The effect on the world would be amazing too. God’s strict judgement leading to death might remind men and women of His far more severe eternal judgement after death.11 Would not people see the enormity of their guilt for any sin against the one and only God of total holiness? Would not some repent, trust Christ and be saved? Strangely, it is God’s mercy, longsuffering, and patience which allow men and women the time to turn from sin and trust Christ, and so avoid eternal judgement.12
But like Ananias and Sapphira, one day we will breathe our last breath. Also like them, we cannot know when we will die, either. Because life is short, we should ask the Lord Jesus Christ to be our daily Guide through life and the Lord of every detail of our lives from now on. By His strength and with His help, we must live for Him, who is Lord.13
It is urgent for anyone without personal faith in Christ to turn from wrongdoing and wrong attitudes and trust Him now, while there is still time. God’s time to come to Christ is always ‘now’. 2 Corinthians 6:2 reminds us that the ‘accepted time’ and the ‘day of salvation’ is now!
Questions on Chapter 11
A double death—Acts 5:1–11
A. Why is it so important to be open with God, to tell the truth, and not to lie to anyone?
Acts 5:3, Acts 5:9, John 16:13, John 14:6, 1 John 3:21, 2 John 1:3, James 1:18
B. What effect did Ananias and Sapphira have on each other? How could it have been different?
Acts 5:1–2. Acts 5:7–9, 1 Peter 3:7, Ephesians 5:25, 33, Amos 3:3 (see NIV for this verse.)
C. In what ways may fearing God be a good thing? What other words or phrases can be used to describe this godly fear?
Acts 5:5, 11, Psalm 111:10, Proverbs 1:7, Proverbs 8:13, Proverbs 14:27
- Acts 4:32–37 ↩
- Exodus 20:1–17 ↩
- Exodus 20:16 ↩
- Genesis 3:6 ↩
- In a sense every lie to man is a lie before God. He hears and sees all and requires that we only tell the truth. ↩
- Were Ananias and Sapphira truly saved? Some say ‘No. They act falsely: perhaps their claim to be saved is false.’ Others say ‘Yes, but they have failed badly.’ Each view is based on truth. Truth takes over a saved person’s life, but a saved person can sin. Someone saved cannot lose his or her salvation: John 10:27–30, Romans 8:31–39. The author has taken the second view. ↩
- 1 Corinthians 11: 27–32, on the Lord’s Supper. To take the supper unworthily caused sickness and even death. (See verse 30.) ↩
- Revelation 21:27 is abbreviated to read anything that causes a lie in order to emphasise how seriously God regards lies. ↩
- The word ‘false’ occurs in the NKJV 113 times. The list repays careful attention—and maybe some personal repentance. ↩
- 1 Thessalonians 4:9–12,1 Timothy 5:16 ↩
- Hebrews 9:27, Romans 1:18 ↩
- 2 Peter 3:9 patient (NASB, NIV, ESV) is translated longsuffering in NKJV. See DayOne booklet, How can God allow suffering? ↩
- Proverbs 3:5–6, Romans 14:9 ↩