Quick answer: In Acts 5, the historian Luke tells readers that Ananias and his wife, Sapphira, lied to the Holy Spirit about their donation to the church. As a result, they were struck dead—on the spot. Read this post to gain answers to the following questions:
- Exactly what happened to Ananias and Sapphira?
- Why did God judge them so harshly?
- How did Peter know that they lied?
- How is this story relevant to Christians today?
What Happened to Ananias and Sapphira?The early church maintained a radical way of life: they shared their possessions with everyone among them who had need. Giving generously is a core aspect of how Jim Putman and I define church in The Revolutionary Disciple (see Chapter 8, “It’s God’s Church, Not Ours”). While Barnabas—the foil of these two—had rightly sold his property and given the proceeds to the apostles for use in the church, Ananias and Sapphira wrongfully donated their money. This begs an important question:
How can one wrongfully contribute money to the needy?
That is, why does it matter how we give? Can’t we just give to the needy? But how we give is more important than what we give, which the story of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5 reveals. Like Barnabas, they sold a piece of property and gave money to the apostles for use in the church. The problem was in how they gave: they gave only part of the proceeds. Why was this wrong? It wasn’t wrong to give only some of the money from this real estate transaction; it was wrong to give only some of the money while acting like they gave all the money.
The sin of Ananias and Sapphira was deceit at the deepest level.
Their level of deceit was to deceive the Holy Spirit in front of the church to make themselves look more spiritual than they were. Why did they give the money? We don’t know. But their hearts were not right. And they made this decision together. Acts 5:2, “With his wife’s full knowledge [Ananias] kept back part of the money for himself, but brought the rest and put it at the apostles’ feet.” They not only lied to people but also to God. So God struck them dead, one at a time. God judged them with the strictest judgment—death. They did not give in the right way, and they faced the consequences. We too must guard against this in all forms. For more information about giving to the poor in the right way, check out When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor . . . and Yourself by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert.
Why Did God Judge Them so Harshly?You might wonder, Aren’t Christians under the new covenant of God’s grace? So how could God kill a Christian for sin? Isn’t that unduly harsh? Great questions to which I’ll respond. We know they were likely true believers or church attenders because they were part of the community at the time. So we know based on the immediate context of this passage in Acts 4:36–5:11 that they were not outsiders (more on this below). Thus, the context implies they were indeed followers of the Way—genuine converts to Christ. This was because a) Peter knew them by name, b) their offering was accepted by the apostles in parallel to Barnabas’s gift (Acts 4:36–37), and c) the result of their death was that “Great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events” (Acts 5:11).
Why would the whole church be afraid if it had been a donation from outsiders?
For those reasons, they were likely legitimate disciples of Jesus, who had been saved from their sins. Yet they greatly sinned against God by lying. This brings us back to the question: If they were Christians and we’re under the covenant of Christ, who is full of grace and truth, then was God harsh to kill them for a mistake? God struck them down for three reasons:
1. Satan filled their hearts.Similar to how Satan entered Judas’s heart, Satan filled Ananias’s and Sapphira’s hearts. Judas was a disciple of Jesus, and while I’m sure he doubted like the other apostles—see Matthew 28:17—but the fact remains: “Satan entered Judas” (Luke 22:3). Now, granted “entering” and “filling” are different, but Judas wasn’t innocent in this great sin of betraying Jesus, just as Ananias and Sapphira weren’t innocent in their deceit. But let’s be clear: They were not acting on their own. The great enemy of our souls was working to destroy and divide the early church. In contrast:
God wants a unified and holy church.
This leads to the second reason God struck them down.
2. God wants a radiant, pure, and holy bride.That is, God cares so much about the unity of his church, that he’s willing to fight for it—even if that includes death. For many of us, death feels like the worst thing that can happen to us, but in God’s economy of grace and mercy, there are far worse things than death.
God hates division, deceit, and disunity in his church.
When Satan tries to divide God’s church, God responds with a vengeance. While it might appear harsh to us—even cruel and unusual—that’s how our human eyes see it. I’m sure to God that it’s severe, but harsh? The harsh thing would be to let this kind of deceit affect the church in the earliest stages and grow like gangrene—eventually decimating God’s church with deceit. That would have been terrible for God’s long-term vision of a holy and united church. So the question is not exactly “Why was God harsh?” but, “What other elements were at play that led God to act so severely?” I answer that question below, but first we must acknowledge their part in this—because Satan wasn’t the only player involved in this deceitful plot of internal destruction in the church.
3. Ananias and Sapphira willingly lied to the Holy Spirit.They didn’t just make a mistake; they willfully sinned against God. In Acts 5:2 Luke writes, “With his wife’s full knowledge [Ananias] kept back part of the money for himself, but brought the rest and put it at the apostles’ feet.” They both knew full well what they were doing. In other words, they had discussed how they were going to deceive. This was a choice they made. They didn’t slip into it, backslide into it, or “make a mistake.” They deliberately chose to do this. We don’t know why they did it, but they made their choice. God often deals with us not according to our life circumstances or mishaps but according to the status of our hearts and the direction of our lives. While Ananias led the way in their deceit as a couple, they both faced individual judgment. Plus:
Peter gave Sapphira an out.
He asked her, “Tell me, is this the price you and Ananias got for the land?” (5:8). That was her saving grace, but she didn’t take the opportunity for receiving grace and mercy. Instead, she stuck with her deceitful decision and affirmed her lie. No fooling God though! She fell down and died too. So why did God deal “harshly” with them? Because of the three reasons I laid out: 1) Satan filled their hearts, 2) God wants a pure bride, and 3) they willfully sinned. That’s God’s part, but how did Peter know about this deceit?
How Did Peter Know They Lied?Bottom-line answer: Peter was an apostle full of the Holy Spirit, and the indwelling Holy Spirit revealed this to him. It seems God revealed this to Peter, which parallels another moment of divine revelation for Peter when he confessed Jesus as “the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven” (Matthew 16:16, 17). That’s why:
Just as the Father revealed Christ’s identity to Peter, the Holy Spirit revealed Ananias and Sapphira’s duplicity to Peter.
How did God reveal this? The Scriptures are not exactly clear, but God likely placed the idea in Peter’s heart with such clarity that Peter knew it was from God.
How Is This Story Relevant to Christians Today?The early church—inspired by the Spirit through the pen of Luke and later affirmed by the early church councils—preserved this story for the health and holiness of the church throughout all generations. How, then, is this story relevant for us today?
1. We must live in the fear of the Lord.If you’re terrified by the quick deaths that Ananias and Sapphira experienced, that’s the point! Plus, you’re not alone: “Great fear seized the whole church” (Acts 5:11). So why did God want the church to be gripped with fear? He wanted to make sure the church moved forward in the fear of the Lord. From other places in Scripture, we know:
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge (Proverbs 1:7). The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Proverbs 9:10).But the story of Ananias and Sapphira also reveals that:
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of church health.Just because we’re living under the mercy seat of Christ, it doesn’t mean we should no longer fear God. Fearing God has never been a bad posture of the heart. God still expects us to live in holy fear of him—not afraid of his random acts of harshness but afraid of what he holds the power to do in general terms.
God is not a force to be reckoned with.
Lest we think we can live however we want, we must live in a healthy fear of God. Even Jesus, God’s Son, in whom the fullness of the deity dwelled in bodily form, lived in reverence of God the Father. That’s why he called him “Abba, Father” (Mark 14:36); and that’s why we’re expected to cry out “Abba, Father” (Romans 8:15). “Abba” means more than just “Daddy.” It connotes, “Father, I will obey you.” I’ve written about the meaning of Abba at length if you desire a fuller explanation of this. Thus, even disciples of Jesus must live with a holy fear of God, which is why God instantiated this principle in Acts 5 by killing Ananias and Sapphira. Their story produced fear in the early church, and it should produce fear in us as well—a holy fear of God’s power. We can also rest assured that God will not unjustly punish us. He doesn’t execute his judgments arbitrarily. Instead, he’s full of compassion as he deals with his people through patient endurance and forgiveness (Exodus 34:6–7). The lesson for us here, though, is not just about maintaining a healthy fear of the Lord. It also involves our speech. Joy Dawson’s book Intimate Friendship with God: Through Understanding the Fear of the Lord instructs us further on this topic of the fear of God. Read this book to understand better the fear of the Lord.
2. We must keep deceit far from our lips.As far as we can tell, Sapphira could have lived if she had not verbally tried to deceive the Holy Spirit and the church.
Sapphira’s verbal lie condemned her.
That is, even though deceit was in her heart, her lips sentenced her to death. Jesus warns us, “I tell you that men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matthew 12:36–37). James, the brother of Jesus, also reminds us that our speech (and actions) hold real consequences for us: “Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment!” (James 2:12–13). James reminds us of the power of the tongue: “Likewise the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell” (James 3:5–6).
The tongue holds unique power with regard to God’s judgment.
We must be very careful with our speech, which means we must guard our hearts. For Jesus said, “Out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks” (Matthew 12:34). So the deceit of Ananias and Sapphira started in their hearts and solidified on their tongues.
We must guard our hearts and watch our mouths.
Even Proverbs speaks of the power of our words. For example, “Reckless words pierce like a sword, but the tongue of the wise brings healing” (Proverbs 12:18). By God’s grace, may our speech be seasoned with salt, stayed by the Spirit, and sanctified after the example of the Son.
3. We must give generously from the heart.While we must live in fear of God, we must not live in fear of giving! Let’s not forget the relevance—and challenge—of this passage to be generous. Ananias and Sapphira were not rebuked for not giving enough but for not giving in the right way. So don’t be discouraged from giving. Instead, joyfully:
Give with honesty.
You don’t even need to tell anyone you’re giving! Jesus told us to do everything we can to keep our giving a secret. But sometimes, we can’t give 100% anonymously, no matter how hard we try (case in point: Ananias and Sapphira). So give with honesty, and give generously! John Wesley famously outlined a threefold approach to giving in his sermon “The Use of Money”:
- Gain all you can.
- Save all you can.
- Give all you can.
Notes John Wesley, “The Use of Money,” in The Sermons of John Wesley: A Collection for the Christian Journey, ed. Kenneth J. Collins and Jason E. Vickers (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2013), 302–311.
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