Jesus’ utmost will for His people is that they glorify Him through holy lives—lives that reflect surrender to His lordship, dependence on His counsel, and committed faith in all His Word as the rule of life. Indeed, this makes sense, for God’s plan in creation—to have a world filled with surrendered image-bearers who worship Him comprehensively and joyfully—is restored in and through Christ now and in the future. God means to have a “new humanity” that will gloriously fulfill this mandate, and the church is the current group of people expressing that humanity. This is why God hates sin particularly in His people—they have the knowledge, the ability and the inclination to choose obedience instead, and it goes against their very new nature and His stated design for them and their lives (e.g., Eph. 5:26-27; Col. 3:10, 12a; 1 Thess. 4:8). Further, unholy Christians cannot be effectively used by God for evangelism—the unsaved will not be drawn to something that looks like them and their wicked culture, at least not for any saving, God-exalting reasons. Our distinctiveness is the whole power of our gospel witness. Because this is God’s plan for His people, it is not surprising that Satan opposes this with great fervor and force. Acts 5 describes the first concerted attack of Satan on the purity of the church, how God responded, and how He once again favored the broken, repentant church. For context, the outline begins in chapter four.
A. God’s Favor on the Church (4:32-37)
This little section shows the favor of God demonstrated on His Church as it faithfully obeyed Him. There was great unity (v. 32a), and sacrificial giving in love (v. 32b). The apostles enjoyed Spirit-empowered ministry as they testified about Christ (v. 33). The last half of verse 33 is interesting. It says “and abundant grace was upon them all” (i.e., upon the whole church). Then, verse 34 begins with “for.” The verses combined say grace was upon them because, or, the way you knew grace was upon the church was. What was that way? The fact that there wasn’t a needy person among them, for everyone that had sellable property would do so and bring the money to the apostles to distribute it to the needy church members. God was personally attending to them, through the hands of His people. The text then gives an example of this in Barnabas, who sold a piece of land he owned and laid the money at the feet of Peter and the other apostles (v. 37). What is moist interesting and tragic is this very manifestation of God’s empowering grace (v. 34) would be the occasion for two carnal believers to express wicked motives and experience the chastening of God.
B. God’s Chastisement of the Church (5:1-11)
Luke is intentional in giving a textual contrast between Barnabas and Ananias and Sapphira. This is why he puts Barnabas’s example first, and introduces the married couple’s tale with a “but.” They, too, had property—the Greek text has the word for an estate, and, given that it is the same word used for the rich young ruler’s property, it is likely they were fairly well-to-do. We do not know if they made a profession of faith at Pentecost, at the second conversion sweep in chapter four, or at some other time. We technically do not even know if they were truly converted. I tend to think they were, as it would have been extremely difficult for unsaved people to associate with the church during this highly pristine and persecuted era. But regardless, we do know that Satan has influenced them significantly—he has energized and molded their flesh, possibly put thoughts into their heads to get the ball rolling (cf. v. 3). And we know what the end result is—out of a desire to look sacrificial but not be such, they sold their estate and kept part of the money for themselves, while both intentionally giving the impression and directly stating (v. 8) that what they gave the apostles was the entire price. It is most important to know that they did not have to sell anything, and even if they did, they were free to only give a portion. The problem was that they wanted to be greedy and hypocritical—greedy for money, for men’s praises, for a good image that would be helplessly attractive to people but that was far from reality.
First, Ananias comes in with the actual money and gives it to Peter. Without talking to him or anyone else, Peter has supernatural knowledge of what has transpired. He sharply rebukes Ananias, indicating that by their hypocrisy they have lied to the Holy Spirit who indwells them and who is the person who is causing this manifestation of God’s grace they are abusing. Perhaps most stingingly, Peter underscores that their behavior was not merely tricking a few people—likely how they rationalized it, “No one will ever know, it’s just a few people,” etc.—but attempting to lie to God Himself. God, who without question knew their hearts, their motives, and every detail of their plan. If nothing else, Ananias shows how bafflingly stupid sin is. One has to be mentally skewed to think they can lie to an omniscient being and not have consequences.
Ananias is immediately judged by God through death, causing intense fear of God’s power and holiness to fall upon the whole church (v. 5). Younger men there picked up his body and buried him (v. 6).
An interval of three hours went by, and then Sapphira came in. I do not know what was going on in the church service during this time—likely much sobriety, prayer, and repentance if nothing else! Evidently it was still going, on, as she came into the same room or building where everyone had been three hours before. It is likely she decided to be “fashionably late” to make an entrance and to ensure word had sufficiently spread so everyone would know how wonderfully sacrificial she and her husband were. But no. Peter simply walks up to her and asks if she and her husband sold the property for the “full” price Ananias had given. She repeats the lie, having no idea her husband is dead and that everyone knows they are blatant hypocrites and liars. Peter pronounces judgment on her too, and she also drops dead and is buried alongside her husband (vv. 9-10).
The inspired commentary is most interesting. “Great fear came upon” translates a phrase that can be more literally rendered “Mega terror happened to.” God striking two people dead for one lie, one instance of inordinate devotion to their image, would have deeply impressed God’s holiness and sovereignty on the young church. The God with whom they had to do was deeply loving—indeed, love was His essence. But they were not the only things He loved. God also loved His holiness, His glory, and His worth, and when those things were flagrantly violated God had every right to act in swift and decisive judgment. God is ineffably, blindingly holy, and Jesus’ death for sinners does not change this. Most people tend to think because judgment does not fall now, God is not accounting, wrathful, or indignant. The way He dealt with Ananias and Sapphira is most instructive in teaching fleshly people that what we deserve is to be in Hell, not go to Hell. God did with them what He could do with any one of us, and it is only sheer mercy and grace that preserves us from it. Indeed, it is also the furtherance of God’s plan that keeps us here, for God uses sinful people to further that plan. This is itself a mercy (2 Cor. 4:1a). It is to a fresh manifestation of that mercy that we now turn.
C. God’s Renewed Favor (vv. 12-16)
If anyone wishes to argue that the fear of God is an impediment to truly fruitful, effective ministry, those people have not read the book of Acts. Twice in the last section we read of how intense fear came upon the church because if what happened to the couple (vv. 5, 11). Indeed, those who wish to evacuate the pan-Biblical concept of the fear of God of any notion of dread, terror, or fright will have an extremely difficult time dealing with this passage, as if anything the dominant note seems to be the abject trembling dread of being in the presence of unmixed holiness. (Surely the holiness of God is so pure and so unspeakably Other that to be in its direct presence would, even for a blood-covered believer, create a deep sense of majesty, otherness, and sheer terror at the vast difference, and the implications of that difference, between itself and it.) Yet, this fear, rightly felt and acted upon, unleashed a fresh wave of God’s gracious attendance to and dealings with and through the church. This also indicates that it is only a pure church that can be fully and freely used by God. God makes use of all things, and no church is perfectly pure. But those wishing to see a fresh manifestation of supernatural power and divine approval had better offer a pure church to God.
Miraculous signs, testifying to the Messiah who had come and was now reigning over and acting upon earth, were once again being done by the apostles (v. 12). The Spirit was no longer hindered nor quenched by unrepentant sin, so He was free to break the natural order of things to glorify Jesus Christ. Unbelievers did not associate with them out of fear and shock at the power and holiness manifested among them. The church would have been aggressively pursuing purity atop the fact that it was known as a place where people simply dropped dead for blatant sin. It was not a place where pagans would want to be! Yet, the church was respected for its high moral standards and virtue (v. 13). John MacArthur has said the early church here has no church growth strategy, yet God is doing all the work to add literally multitudes of people to the church (v. 14). Knowing of God’s healing power demonstrated through the apostles, these new believers brought all their sick family and friends and Peter healed them—but what is interesting is it seems word spread to the cities around Jerusalem, where Peter did not even go, and gathering those ill people together healed them too (v. 16). Such was God’s power manifested through a holy, surrendered church!
The local church is the only institution through which God is working today. In order to see the fullest progress of His plan and be most effectively used by Him, the church must be a humble, broken, pure, surrendered, Spirit-filled, Word-centered, and Christ-exalting body that is yielded to His directives and reflects the joy of His holiness to a watching world.