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The Spreading Flame - Series 1: Episode 8

Ananias and Sapphira – truth and deceit

| Martin Charlesworth
Acts 5:1-16

Ananias and Sapphira were part of the community of the church. They lied about giving the whole amount from selling their field which was in fact embezzlement. They were hypocritical in trying to gain favour by doing this. They died as a result. The church grew in awe and respect for God and continued to grow in numbers.

Ananias and Sapphira were part of the community of the church. They lied about giving the whole amount from selling their field which was in fact embezzlement. They were hypocritical in trying to gain favour by doing this. They died as a result. The church grew in awe and respect for God and continued to grow in numbers.


In today’s episode we’re continuing with the dramatic and eventful story of the church in Jerusalem, which covers the whole of Series 1. We’re near the end of the story and in every episode something unique and significant seems to happen, as Luke paints this picture of the Church growing and developing in the city of Jerusalem, from right back to the Day of Pentecost and the amazing outpouring of the Holy Spirit. If you’ve followed the earlier episodes, you’ll see how the story is developing; how vast numbers of people have come to believe; how the church has taken up a residence, so to speak, in the public areas of the Temple courts, where they’re having regular meetings; you’ll have heard about the amazing miracles that the Apostles performed and the impact they had; and also, we’ve been seeing how the religious authorities are now pushing back and trying to stop the growth of the Church and threatening the Apostles.

Background and Introduction

In the last episode there was a very positive move forward. After Peter and John, in chapter 4, had been interrogated and imprisoned for one night by the religious authorities and then released with threats, we find the church gathers to pray, and in a very dramatic prayer meeting, they encounter the presence of God, through feeling the ground shaking under their feet, and sensing the Holy Spirit filling them. So, the church continues to move forward.

Before we start our story, I need to tell you that Luke is a very honest writer and he includes bad and negative things in the story, as well as incredibly positive things. This is a characteristic of the writing of the Bible, that people who fail are not taken out of the story from embarrassment. People of faith who fail are in the story. We see their failures; we see their humanity; we see the loss of their ministry and the difficulties their actions cause. This happens a lot in the Old Testament. Many of you will be familiar with the stories of King David and King Solomon who, in very different ways, made serious mistakes. We find in the New Testament, Peter’s mistakes are not edited out of the text and here, Luke writes in a very tragic story of the failure of two of the early disciples, a married couple called Ananias and Sapphira. It’s the first such story that appears in Acts where the church has been doing so well: there’s strong unity; great success; and the problems have been external. But now we have an internal problem. Many of you will be familiar with that, because churches do have internal problems and difficulties and we’re going to encounter one in the story of Ananias and Sapphira.

At the end of Acts 4, something is added by Luke which is very significant for the passage we’re going to read today. We need to go back to the story of Barnabas, the man who sold a field in order to raise money for the poor people within the church. Let’s re-read what it says about Barnabas in Acts 4:36 - 37

36 ‘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.’

Acts 4:36-37, NIV

Now this is an example of something that some richer members of the church were doing, selling possessions in order to fund poorer believers, who numbered many hundreds in the church.

Ananias and Sapphira

That is what is in the back of our minds as we come to read the story of Ananias and Sapphira - a couple in the church, who’d shared in the life and the fellowship and the events of the recent months of the church’s life as it has been growing and developing. They were part of the community and they decided they were also going to sell a piece of property that they had. They had disposable wealth available. We need to read this story carefully, and think about it. We’re going to read the whole of the story from Acts 5:1 - 11:

1 ‘Now a man named Ananias, together with his wife Sapphira, also sold a piece of property. 2 With his wife’s full knowledge he kept back part of the money for himself, but brought the rest and put it at the Apostles’ feet. 3 Then Peter said, “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.” 5 When Ananias heard this, 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. 7 About three hours later his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. 8 Peter asked her, “Tell me, is this the price you and Ananias got for the land?” “Yes,” she said, “that is the price.” 9 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.’

Acts 5:1-11, NIV

In order to understand this surprising, and shocking story, we need to think about what exactly is being described here. We need to make the comparison between Barnabas and Ananias and Sapphira. What Barnabas had done was he had sold a field and he had given the whole amount of money to the Apostles to do with as they wished, in order to help the poor. He’d stated clearly that this was the whole money for the sale of the property. He’d given it in its entirety. Ananias and Sapphira imitated Barnabas’ action, but they made a private decision to withhold some of the money for themselves. As Peter describes to Ananias his actions, he makes it clear that they had every right to do that. They were not under any obligation to give all the money. But what they did was, they clearly told the Apostles that it was all the money. It was clear that they were pretending to give all the money, but they only gave a proportion of it. They were giving the impression that they had given all the money to the Apostles. It was not a sin to keep back some of the money. In fact, if they’d sold the property and given the Apostles five or ten percent of that money, that would have been a generous gift, as long as they were being clear and not pretending that they were doing something different. There were no rules about giving. Peter wasn’t criticising them for breaking a rule. The decisions they made were entirely their own decisions and they were free to make whatever decision they wanted about property. They were free to decide whether to sell it or not; they were free to decide what proportion of money was given to the Apostles’ fund for the poor.

The Sin Committed

What really is the problem here? We need to identify what sin Ananias and Sapphira are guilty of. Then we need to see why there was such a drastic outcome as a result of these sins, which is obviously unique in itself. First of all, let’s analyse what sins have they carried out or committed? We can identify three different things that have gone wrong in this situation; three different sinful actions that are identified in the New Testament as being contrary to the spirit of Christian discipleship. Number one: deceitfulness or lying. It’s clear that they had formally stated to Peter that this was all the money. It wasn’t just an implication. They must have made it clear because that is implied in the way that Peter speaks to them. Yet we know that lying, being deceitful to your fellow believers, is a sin that’s identified in the New Testament, in a number of different places, but let me give you an example. Colossians 3: 8 - 10,

8 ‘But now you must also rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips.’ (and notice in verse 9) 9 ‘Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices 10 and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator.’

Obviously, we shouldn’t lie in general, but this specific application is to the church, which is the context that Peter is dealing with, with Ananias and Sapphira. They weren’t telling the truth.

The second thing that we can say about this particular action, is that they were holding back money as a result of lying, which becomes a form of stealing - you say you’re going to do this and then you don’t carry it out. There’s an English word for this which not everybody knows. It’s the word embezzle, or embezzlement. This is a translation of the word in the Greek, which means basically keeping something back for yourself which doesn’t legitimately belong to you. This same word is used by Paul in Titus 2, where he is speaking to New Testament slaves in a household where they were working for families. Paul says, in Titus 2:10, he says, “do not steal from them, but to show that they can be fully trusted, so that in every way they will make the teaching about God our Saviour attractive.” ‘Do not steal’. How could a slave steal? They could literally take something from the possession of the family. Here’s an example of how it might have worked: a very common experience in households where slaves were working was for the master or the mistress of the household to give them money to go and buy something from the market. The slave might go to the market to buy this item and then come back and the item cost less than the money. What happens to the leftover money, or the change? Do they give that money back in honesty, or do they take it for themselves? That’s the sort of context Paul had in mind. It’s a very easy temptation, when people are given this responsibility, to keep some money back for themselves. That’s embezzlement. That’s actually stealing. That’s exactly what Ananias and Sapphira have done. They said, “We’re doing this. Yes, we’re giving all our money to you.” When they’re not. They’re keeping back what they have promised to another. The first sin is lying, the second sin is stealing; it’s actually stealing to say one thing and do another.

That links to the third aspect of this issue, which is the sin of hypocrisy; appearing to do one thing and doing another; appearing to be one thing but actually being another; not being true to yourselves. They wanted the appearance of being like Barnabas, -being as generous as Barnabas and others who’d sold property, who gave all the money. They wanted the public acclaim, the public popularity within the church. They wanted to be amongst those who were known to be big donors. That is a temptation for people who are rich - wanting to be known for the scale of their donations. This is what Ananias and Sapphira did.

Jesus had warned, in Matthew 6, that it is very dangerous to perform any religious action for the sake of impressing other people. If you look at Matthew 6, which we deal with in the Life of Jesus, Series 4, Episodes 11 - 13, you will see Jesus goes through three main religious practices, and gives his disciples very clear teaching. One of them is prayer. Don’t pray in such a way as to cause other people to be impressed by your prayers. Focus your prayers on secretly praying privately with your door closed, when nobody knows what you’re praying. That’s the first one. Secondly, if you’re fasting, don’t go around telling people about it in order for people to think you’re particularly holy or religious and thirdly, in Matthew 6, very interestingly and relevant to this text, Jesus says, “When you are giving, don’t advertise the scale of your giving, and the fact of giving, and the fact of being generous.” That’s basically the hypocrisy of Ananias and Sapphira. They fell into the trap of thinking they would gain popularity and status through this particular act, and tragically they sinned.

The Outcome

This passage raises a number of other questions. First of all, how did they die? From what cause was their death? The cause of death is not formally stated in the text. Some people have said that it was the shock of being confronted by Peter and being exposed, that caused perhaps a heart attack. This is possible but unlikely, because it is unlikely to happen to two people in exactly the same way, at a three hour distance from each other. It looks much more like an act of divine intervention. Implied, but not stated, was that this was an act of judgement from the Lord. Peter, in a prophetic moment, knew that God wanted to do something about this, for reasons that we’ll explain in just a moment. He understood that they were going to lose their lives. So, probably this was an act of divine judgement.

The second key question about Ananias and Sapphira, which will exercise the minds of everybody reading this passage is, did they lose their salvation? One thing we need to be careful with in interpreting the Bible, is not to allow a story or a narrative to define our doctrine, without carefully looking at other passages that speak more clearly about this topic. This is an important consideration in this particular passage because we don’t know. It doesn’t say they lost their salvation. It just says they lost their lives at that point. However, Paul addresses this issue very clearly in 1 Corinthians 3: 10 - 16. It is a very important passage. He describes the difference between Christian ministry, Christian actions in the Church based on good motives and good intentions, and those based on bad motives and bad intentions and selfishness. It’s interesting to see the outcome that Paul describes. 1 Corinthians 3: 11 - 16:

11 ‘For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. 12 If anyone builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, 13 their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work. 14 If what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward. 15 If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved—even though only as one escaping through the flames. 16 Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst?’

1 Corinthians 3:11-16, NIV

Here Paul is distinguishing between people whose commitment to the Christian community, the church, and their leadership roles, if that applies, are based on selfishness and insincerity and lack of focus on God’s priorities. He says they will find that their actions, on the day of judgement, will be shown to be insubstantial and selfishly motivated, but they won’t lose their salvation. They’ll escape as someone escaping through the flames. But those who’ve committed their life to Christ, and their discipleship is wholehearted, will receive a reward. This text helps us to interpret this rather dramatic story and not draw the wrong conclusion. We cannot say that Ananias and Sapphira lost their salvation but there was an act of judgement at that particular moment.

The Impact

Our passage ends with a statement of what happens next. The significance of this event was enormous. Great fear came upon people; great respect for God; great awareness that you can’t deceive God, you can’t hide your sins. Acts 5:12 - 16 describe another remarkable step forward:

12 ‘The Apostles performed many signs and wonders among the people. And all the believers used to meet together in Solomon’s Colonnade. 13 No one else dared join them, even though they were highly regarded by the people. 14 Nevertheless, more and more men and women believed in the Lord and were added to their number. 15 As a result, people brought the sick into the streets and laid them on beds and mats so that at least Peter’s shadow might fall on some of them as he passed by. 16 Crowds gathered also from the towns around Jerusalem, bringing their sick and those tormented by impure spirits, and all of them were healed.’

Acts 5:12-16, NIV

Despite this setback the Gospel continues to move forward. In fact, somehow rather this setback stimulates further growth because the awe and respect for God increases within the community. The church meetings are filling the Temple courts with hundreds, and at times thousands, of people who then respond to the faith, and incredible miracles are taking place. Notice here, we have a reference to the towns around Jerusalem. The Gospel is beginning to spread out from the city. It is not going to be contained in the city for much longer; it is going to be spreading out.


This is a dramatic, challenging and shocking story. What can we learn? What are our reflections? The integrity of the church fellowship is vital. It’s interesting that in this passage, in verse 11, the Greek word for church, is used by Luke for the first time in the book of Acts. This is the primary word for the community of the church. He’s used other words such as disciples, and fellowship, which speak of church life, but he’s using the noun ‘church’. The integrity of our church really matters. Unity had been emphasised, in the last episode, and now disunity was threatening the church. God, in his sovereignty, decided that the unity of the church at this time was too important to allow this disunity, this hypocrisy, this deceitfulness, this stealing, this embezzlement, to come into the church at this particular point because the energy for its growth was vital for the wider mission. The integrity of the church is vital. We all know that when Christians lack integrity and significantly sinful actions are discovered, for example, financial theft or stealing, sexual affairs and immorality, serious factions and other things, it has a really dangerous effect on the integrity of the church. This is something we need to take seriously. This passage is here as a moral lesson for us in our discipleship.

The other thing that comes to mind as a reflection is the significance of generosity. Financial generosity has been a hallmark of the Early Church. Ananias and Sapphira weren’t as generous as they appeared. But the other generosity behind it - Barnabas, and all the other people who’d made significant gifts - was a crucial thing and that generosity is an important value in the Church.

My third reflection is this, in any church context, when things are going well, do not lose the awareness that sin can come in and corrupt what is going well. Many churches, many Christian families, have the experience of things going well for a long period of time, and then sinful actions coming in and corrupting what’s going on and leading to really negative circumstances, which then have to be dealt with drastically.

This leads me to my final point, with which we conclude this episode. There’s much talk in the Church about revival. It’s a very common word in churches all over the world. When we talk about revival, we often look in the book of Acts and we see a remarkable move of the Holy Spirit, people being filled in large numbers, and great miracles taking place. But one thing that we can easily forget, that is described in the book of Acts, which is central to this episode, is that when the presence of God is felt there is also great respect, great awe, great fear of God himself, a great desire to be right with him and to be aware that if we sin against him there are consequences. One of the triggers for the success of the church, at this particular point, was that great fear seized the whole church, and all who heard about these events. True revival is when we see God in his greatness and his holiness, and we respond accordingly by coming to him in faith, humility and repentance. What an amazing passage! A challenging passage to look at, but one which we can’t avoid, and should not forget about, or pass over as we study the book of Acts.

Next time we continue this story and we find the threat comes from outside again as there’s a further move against the Apostles from the Jewish rulers. I hope you’ll join us for the next episode.

Study Questions

The following questions have been provided to facilitate discussion or further reflection. Please feel free to answer any, or all the questions. Each question has been assigned a category to help guide you.

  • Exploring Faith
    Exploring Faith
    1. Which sin was worse in your opinion? Why?
  • Discipleship
    1. Are the 3 types of sin in your church community? Pray about them
    2. Are you as generous with money as you can be?
  • Further Study
    Further Study
    1. What 3 types of sin are Ananias and Sapphira guilty of?
    2. Did Ananias and Sapphira lose their salvation? What do you think?
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