As other wealthier Christians were selling their land and donating the money to the church, Ananias and Sapphira saw their opportunity. They wanted to be a power couple in the early life of the church, and this would be how to get there. Perhaps their faith in Christ started off with better motives and they lost their way, but it seems their involvement in the church had become about themselves – not about God, and not about serving others. In the end, they were judged and put to death by God for their deceptive godliness.
I am convinced every church has modern-day Ananias and Sapphiras. Their example reminds us that God cares about motives. It is good to give generously of your time, money, and talents in order to build up the church. However, it is evil to give those things because you want to be seen doing them. The Christian is called to self-forgetfulness, not self-promotion.
“But a man named Ananias, with his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property, 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. 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? 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.” When Ananias heard these words, he fell down and breathed his last. And great fear came upon all who heard of it. The young men rose and wrapped him up and carried him out and buried him.
After an interval of about three hours his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. And Peter said to her, “Tell me whether you sold the land for so much.” And she said, “Yes, for so much.” 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.” 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. And great fear came upon the whole church and upon all who heard of these things.”
(Acts 5:1–11 ESV)
Did the Punishment Fit the Crime?
Ananias and Sapphira were not guilty because they kept some of the money for themselves. Peter’s comment makes that clear (“And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal?”). Instead, they were confronted because of their deception. In Acts 4:34-37 we read that others in the church were selling their land and giving it to the church for distribution to the poor and needy.
Barnabas is named as one among many who had done this, and perhaps that’s because while he was Jewish (from the tribe of Levi) he was from Cyprus and thus considered ‘less Jewish’ than those who were from Jerusalem. I’m reading into this, but I think it’s probable that Ananias and Sapphira felt a degree of competition and thus sold their land in order to be among those who were perceived as leaders and shareholders in their church.
They hid self-serving motives behind godly service. Their contribution accomplished much for those who were in need. They truly blessed the church through their gift. And yet, in the eyes of the Lord, their contribution was evil and unacceptable. Ananias and Sapphira schemed and agreed how they would answer questions if they were confronted about their gift to the church. As if the church is a human institution led by mere people, rather than the God-ordained bride of Christ.
Peter’s comments make it clear: they were judged because they “lied to the Holy Spirit” and “agreed together to test the Spirit of the Lord.” These are severe offenses, especially in the days of the church’s infancy. In the same way we discipline our young children to teach them important lessons, God was doing the same with the church.
God set the record straight: this is not how Christians should contribute to the life of the church. In the church, the HOW matters just as much as the WHAT….
A Warning for You and Me and the Church
If God was setting a pattern, our churches would be very empty and we’d have church members dropping dead on a regular basis. God was not setting a pattern, he was offering a clear warning to the church, and that warning remains today.
- As a pastor – do not serve in the church for a paycheck. I am not an employee, merely completing my job description. It is an honor and a gift of grace to serve in vocational ministry. Don’t forget that.
- As a church member – give faithfully (and yes, even sacrificially when there are great needs to be met), and get personally involved in the work of ministry… but do so with a heart that desires to honor the Lord. If you give and serve in order to please or impress others, be warned. Motives matter.
- As a church – do not be consumed by a desire to look good in the eyes of others. It is good to know your reputation, so that you can be rebuked in case of unnecessarily offenses, but do not plan your ministry in order to be perceived by the world in a positive light. Instead, be about God’s work in the world, and trust Him with your reputation as you build believers and serve the world.