This article is part of the Tough Passages series.
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1But a man named Ananias, with his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property, 2and 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. 3But 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? 4While 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.” 5When Ananias heard these words, he fell down and breathed his last. And great fear came upon all who heard of it. 6The young men rose and wrapped him up and carried him out and buried him.
7After an interval of about three hours his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. 8And Peter said to her, “Tell me whether you sold the land for so much.” And she said, “Yes, for so much.” 9But 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.” 10Immediately 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. 11And great fear came upon the whole church and upon all who heard of these things.
Two New Testament scholars offer passage-by-passage commentary through the narratives of John and Acts, explaining difficult doctrines, shedding light on overlooked sections, and making applications to life and ministry today.
New Covenant Context
The account of Ananias and Sapphira causes understandable trouble for readers. Some believe their punishment to be “harsh,” exceeding the principle of “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” (Matt. 5:38; cf. Ex. 21:24; Lev. 24:20; Deut. 19:21). However, we should read this account in the context of the description of the believing community that begins at Acts 4:32. This community is living proof of the Spirit’s indwelling in fulfillment of new covenant promises. The believers are living for one another in unity, voluntarily sharing what they have, devoted to prayer, and committed to the apostles. Barnabas provides an example of the kind of other-focused ethos that prevails among the Jerusalem Christians.
Ananias and Sapphira, in contrast, sell a field and secretly keep back some of the money but bring their gift as though it was all of the proceeds. It was their field and money, and they could do with it as they pleased. They were under no compulsion to sell it, nor to bring all of the proceeds, as Peter makes clear (Acts 5:4). But Sapphira’s lies are a clear indication that the couple intends to mislead Peter and the rest of the community (Acts 5:8). Instead of prayer and praise to God, the couple engages in falsehood (Acts 5:3–4). Instead of being filled with the Spirit, they are “filled” with Satan (Acts 5:3). There is more involved here than telling a lie.
The new covenant context is key to understanding this text. The Spirit dwells in the community: God is present in and with them. Thus in the apostles and community we see the true people of God. The place and role of the temple and of the Jewish leaders are eclipsed by the church—they are not replacing but fulfilling national Israel, through faith in Israel’s Messiah and in fulfillment of Israel’s Scripture according to the plan and foreknowledge of Israel’s God. God now dwells not in a building made by human hands, as Stephen puts it later (Acts 7), but with his people. Lying to the community and the apostles is, thus, lying to God himself (Acts 5:4). The community itself, as Wright puts it, is sacred.1
Once again we see a narrative description of truths taught in propositional form in the Epistles. Some years later Peter writes to believers, citing OT texts such as Psalm 118 (cf. Acts 4:11), and says:
As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For it stands in Scripture:
“Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone,
a cornerstone chosen and precious,
and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.”
So the honor is for you who believe, but for those who do not believe,
“The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone,”
“A stone of stumbling,
and a rock of offense.”
They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do. But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. (1 Pet. 2:4–10)
The Jerusalem Christians are a living example of Peter’s description of the church. It is in this context that Ananias and Sapphira sin. Like the OT examples of Nadab and Abihu (Leviticus 10), Achan (Joshua 7), and King Uzziah (2 Chronicles 26), in which people are punished for sins related to both temple and community, so Ananias and Sapphira are punished for bringing sin into the new covenant sanctuary.2
Another new covenant aspect involves the issue of lying specifically.3 Zechariah prophesied a time in which God would turn to do good to Judea and Jerusalem (Zech. 8:6–8), a time of eschatological blessing in which “many peoples and strong nations shall come to seek the Lord of hosts in Jerusalem and to entreat the favor of the Lord” (Zech. 8:22). It is in this prophetic context that God commands the people, “Speak the truth to one another; render in your gates judgments that are true and make for peace; do not devise evil in your hearts against one another, and love no false oath, for all these things I hate, declares the Lord” (Zech. 8:16–17). Truth telling is a characteristic of the new covenant and of the relationships its members are to have with one another. Thus Paul tells the Ephesians, while encouraging them to renewal and spiritual vitality, “Having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another” (Eph. 4:25). Ananias and Sapphira bring falsehood to a place in which there should be only truth, and their particular form of lying at this place and time witnesses to the fact that they are not truly a part of the new community.
Truth telling is a characteristic of the new covenant and of the relationships its members are to have with one another.
Furthermore, Luke’s ongoing emphasis on the Spirit’s filling of believers, making it clear that their actions are Spirit-driven, stands in contrast to Peter’s statement that Satan, the Father of Lies (John 8:44), filled Ananias to lie (Acts 5:3). Spirit-filled prayer, praise, and gospel declaration come from the mouths of the believers, but Satan-filled lies come from this couple. Instead of living waters flowing from their hearts, in fulfillment of the promise of the Spirit (John 7:38), evil deception flows instead. These are not believers punished for lying but unbelievers filled with Satan and bringing wickedness into the covenant setting as a satanic attack. The contrast between the Spirit and Satan leads to the conclusion that Ananias and Sapphira are not lapsed believers, nor do they lose their salvation. They are like Judas, deceived by Satan and in rebellion against God. And like Judas, they meet with a decisive, fatal end (Acts 5:5, 10). Thus Luke is not first and foremost describing how to deal with lying in the church. Ananias and Sapphira are not church members disciplined for their sin. Their sin, against the overwhelming Spirit-filled context, points to their unbelief. They betray the community and show their true nature.
Lying to God
Furthermore, just as the miracles and boldness of the apostles is a manifestation of God’s working through them, so here the judgment of death originates not with Peter or the community but with God. Peter is merely the agent and messenger of God’s verdict over the couple. Peter tells Ananias that he has lied to the Holy Spirit (Acts 5:3) and then repeats the idea with a slight but important change: “You have not lied to man but to God” (Acts 5:4).
Thus lying to the Holy Spirit is the same as lying to God—which implies that the Spirit is God. The divinity of the Spirit is also alluded to in Peter’s words to Sapphira: he asks her why she and Ananias “agreed together to test the Spirit of the Lord” (Acts 5:9). This language is reminiscent of OT texts concerning Israel’s testing of God (e.g., Ex. 17:2; Num. 14:22; Deut. 6:16; Pss. 95:9; 106:14).
Peter either believes the Spirit is divine or is not being careful or mindful of what he is saying. The second option seems impossible, to say the least.
The deaths of Ananias and Sapphira provide more evidence of the shift from the old covenant to the new. Judgment is carried out not on the temple grounds or in the council of Israel’s leaders but in the community of believers led by the apostle Peter. He is the one with the authority to speak on God’s behalf, and through him comes God’s judgment for unfaithfulness. God is with the believers in both salvation and judgment. The word “fear” appears after both deaths (Acts 5:5, 11) and connotes the healthy fear of the Lord that comes from knowing who he is and recognizing what he is able to do. This fear now grows in the company of believers, apart from the temple and those who rejected Jesus Christ of Nazareth.
- N. T. Wright, Acts for Everyone, Part 1: Chapters 1–12 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2008), 80.
- Truth telling as a mark of the new covenant was brought to my attention by my colleague Peter J. Gentry, in particular his “Speaking the Truth in Love (Eph 4:15): Life in the New Covenant Community,” SBJT 10/2 (Summer 2006): 70–87. The views expressed here are thoroughly influenced by that article and by personal discussion.
This article is by Brian Vickers and is adapted from the ESV Expository Commentary: John–Acts (Volume 9) edited by Iain M. Duguid, James M. Hamilton Jr., and Jay Sklar.
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