THE TRUTH ABOUT LYING
1 But a man named Ananias, with his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property, 2 and with his wife's knowledge he kept back for himself some of the proceeds and brought only a part of it 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 to keep back for yourself part of the proceeds of the land? 4 While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal? Why is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to man but to God.” 5 When Ananias heard these words, he fell down and breathed his last. And great fear came upon all who heard of it. 6 The young men rose and wrapped him up and carried him out and buried him. 7 After an interval of about three hours his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. 8 And Peter said to her, “Tell me whether you sold the land for so much.” And she said, “Yes, for so much.” 9 But Peter said to her, “How is it that you have agreed together to test the Spirit of the Lord? Behold, the feet of those who have buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out.” 10 Immediately she fell down at his feet and breathed her last. When the young men came in they found her dead, and they carried her out and buried her beside her husband. 11 And great fear came upon the whole church and upon all who heard of these things.
— Acts 5:1-11, ESV
There are few stories in Holy Scripture as shocking as the death of Ananias and Sapphira. The truth is they lied. Then, almost immediately, God struck them dead. If this were normative, we’d all be in big trouble. But the context of redemptive history grants us a little reprieve.
Consider the connection between instantaneous miracles and spontaneous death. Only during three biblical periods did God grant certain persons the power to perform miracles on demand. This was during the time of Moses and Aaron, Elijah and Elisha, and Jesus and the Apostles. Interestingly, during those same three periods God killed certain persons who defied the Lord’s anointed.
During the days of Moses and Aaron, two sons of Aaron named Nadab and Abihu offered “strange fire” to the Lord. They violated God’s regulative principles of worship, and God stuck them dead (ref. Leviticus 10). If God were to do that today, there would be no such thing as TBN, Hillsong, or most of the megachurches that dot Christianity’s landscape.
During the days of Elijah and Elisha, a gang of hoodlums were harassing and trying to discredit Elisha as he was beginning to fill the big shoes of Elijah. God sent two bears to literally devour the blasphemers (ref. 2 Kings 2). If God were to send wild animals to eat every critic who made fun of bald-headed preachers, all of my enemies through the years would have died a slow, painful death.
During the days of Christ’s Apostles, as the gospel spread and the church took form, two of the first Christians — and yes, I think Ananias and Sapphira were true believers — told a lie. They lied to each other, they lied to Peter and the Apostles, and they lied to God. One by one, God killed the two, their bodies laid on the spot where they lied. If God killed every church member who told a lie today, we’d have no churches, only church cemeteries. These were not normative times.
The Truth About Lying
To get to the truth about Ananias’ and Sapphira’s lie requires a little digging. On the surface, it appears God killed the couple for not giving all the proceeds of their land sale to the church. This is not the truth.
It is true that a Jewish Levite turned Christian named Joseph had just given a great offering to the church (ref. Acts 4:36-37). Jesus encouraged secret giving, but gifts to the church can be made public when they motivate other Christians to give. Joseph’s gift, all of the proceeds of a significant land sale, was made known and made Joseph known. It also gave him a cool new nickname, “Barnabas,” son of encouragement. He rose in the ranks of the church and would go on to partner with the Apostle Paul.
Ananias and Sapphira wanted some of this celebrity. They wanted to be famous, praised, perhaps given new nicknames of their own. They sold some of their own God-given land, for a price God gave them full stewardship over, kept some of the money, which would have been their God-ordained right, then gave a chunk of it to the church, which could have been a God-honoring gift. But they lied about it, claiming they were giving all, when they only gave some.
Remember this lie. They pretended to give all, but they only gave some. Somehow Simon Peter knew it. Obviously, God the Holy Spirit knew it (and yes, the Holy Spirit is God, as is the Son, as is the Father). Soon, everyone in the church knew the truth about lying, as God gave them the death penalty for this particular sin. That’s the truth about lying, in the case of Ananias and Sapphira.
Lying About The Truth
So what do we call Ananias and Sapphira, and those like them who lie about the truth? What label is there for professing Christians who pretend to give all, to be totally committed to Christ, but are not? What is the term for robbing God of glory, God’s people of unity, and God’s gospel of advancement and acceptance?
We could call them hypocrites, for professing but not practicing Christianity. Hypocrites have abounded in the church for two thousand years. They lift holy hands on Sundays but practice deceit and dishonorable behavior the other days of the week. This is the preacher who pretends to spout out great sermons, when he is actually plagiarizing another’s hard work. This is the deacon family ministry plan leader who is helping himself to someone else’s wife. This is the bigmouth in the business meeting who criticizes every penny the church spends while never contributing one of his own. Yes, there always have been and always will be hypocrites in the church. You can go to church with them, or go to hell with them, take your pick. But I do not think Ananias and Sapphira were two of them.
We could call them lukewarm, half-hearted, backsliding Christians. This would be closer to the truth about their lies. Those who pretend to give all but only give some do make Jesus sick (ref. Revelation 3:16). The faith that saves is the faith that puts Christ first in one’s life, for second place can never save a soul. But saved people do let Jesus slide in the rankings sometimes. They blow off Sunday worship for something they think is more fun (worship is not supposed to fun nor entertaining, it is supposed to be serious, God-centered, and mandatory). They withhold offerings for more pleasurable personal purchases. They try to hide sin from God and God’s people, which as you can see from this story cannot be done. They may not be unbelieving fools, but they are fooling themselves about the kind of believers they truly are. Ananias and Sapphira did backslide, at least in this episode, by lying about the true price of their land. What a price they paid!
Remember how young, pure, and powerful the church was as this early stage. I don’t think Ananias and Sapphira were hypocrites, because there had not been enough time yet for hypocrites to be highlighted in the church. I’m not sure backslider is the best term, either, for they were active, they were givers, they were in the center of church life when their lives ended. I think they were good Christians who made a bad decision at a crucial time.
Listen to the text as it tells us to whom they were listening. “Satan filled your heart to lie.” This is Luke’s first mention of the devil in the Acts of the early church. Furthermore, this story includes the author’s first use of the word for “church,” too. Satan tried to persecute the church from without, and it did not work. Now He was trying to contaminate the church from within, and had gained a foothold. God nipped it in the bud, severely, taking the lives of two of His own children. This kept the early church pure and preaching the gospel.
As the Apostle John wrote, “There is a sin that leads to death” (ref. 1 John 5:16). He was writing about Christians. The truth is, this lie at this time fits this description.
Lessons To Be Learned
If you’re old enough to remember Watergate, then you know it wasn’t the crime of breaking and entering that got Nixon impeached, it was the coverup, the lying. The same was true for another president, the one from Arkansas, who could have gotten away with seducing an intern for sexual pleasure, but he got impeached for lying about it to the grand jury. For Ananias and Sapphira, their deaths had nothing to do with land ownership, real estate transactions, or church offerings. The truth is they lied, to the Supreme Being, at a strategic time, and they died. What should we learn from the truth about lying?
Don’t give in to guilt, do yield to the Holy Spirit. Guilt comes from Satan, conviction from the Holy Spirit. Everyone was giving offerings, Barnabas gave everything. Ananias were motivated by guilt, they listened to Satan, they were not in a position to give all the proceeds of that land sale, and did not have to, but lied about it anyway. They should have listed to God and given, or not, according to God’s word and will.
Don’t give in to jealousy, do love your brothers and sisters in Christ. Ananias and Sapphira were jealous of Barnabas. They should have loved him, appreciated him, applauded him instead. But they wanted the attention, they wanted nicknames, they wanted to be leaders when God had called them to be mere followers. By the way, there is a nickname for mere followers of Christ, it is “Christian.”
Don’t give in to sin, confess them right away. Sin is like snakebite. Hide it and it can kill you. Remedy it right away, and you’ll be fine. Granted, God did not give Ananias and Sapphira much time for repentance and confession. When you do something wrong, make it right, with God and whomever you may have sinned against. Who knows what clock is ticking in the timing of the Lord?
Don’t give in to fear, at least the fear of people. Do, however, be afraid, very afraid, of God. And I mean real fear and reverential fear. Fear of man is weakness. Fear of God is wisdom.
The case of Ananias and Sapphira closes with this statement, “And great fear came upon the whole church and upon all who heard of these things” (vs. 11). That was God’s idea all along. Today, you’ve heard about these things. Fear God. Follow Jesus. Listen to the Spirit and the word of God. And, live.