1 But a man named Ananias, with his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property, 2 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. 3 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? 4 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.” 5 When Ananias heard these words, he fell down and breathed his last. And great fear came upon all who heard of it. 6 The young men rose and wrapped him up and carried him out and buried him. 7 After an interval of about three hours his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. 8 And Peter said to her, “Tell me whether you sold the land for so much.” And she said, “Yes, for so much.” 9 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.” 10 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. 11 And great fear came upon the whole church and upon all who heard of these things. 12 Now many signs and wonders were regularly done among the people by the hands of the apostles. And they were all together in Solomon’s Portico. 13 None of the rest dared join them, but the people held them in high esteem. 14 And more than ever believers were added to the Lord, multitudes of both men and women, 15 so that they even carried out the sick into the streets and laid them on cots and mats, that as Peter came by at least his shadow might fall on some of them. 16 The people also gathered from the towns around Jerusalem, bringing the sick and those afflicted with unclean spirits, and they were all healed.
When I was a boy there was a pastor in a church in my hometown who was accused of behaving immorally with a woman in the congregation. Word of this had spread among the church members and, on the following Sunday, he stood in the pulpit before a large audience to preach his final sermon on his way out. A friend of mine was sitting in the sanctuary and observed what I am telling you today.
This church is an old church and a stately church and had at the time an elevated, partially enclosed pulpit that the preacher ascended into to preach. Above that pulpit was a huge chandelier that came down to a point in which sat a large light bulb that shone down upon the pulpit. The minister preached his final sermon, neither affirming or denying the allegations, and, when he stopped preaching, the large light bulb hanging above the pulpit detached, fell, and shattered just before the pulpit. A friend of mine was present in this service and witnessed this happened. He shared that it was a very weird and very strange thing that caught everybody’s attention.
We should perhaps be careful not to read too much into these things, but we should also be careful not to read too little into them. After all, the Lord God reserves the right to make powerful and chilling points when He needs to. God above sometimes speaks in startling and unexpected ways, especially, it seems, when the holiness of his church is at stake.
God is Jealous for the Holiness of His Church Because He is Himself Holy
God has so spoken before, but in much, much more dramatic fashion. Our text provides us with this incident. The Church is growing. It has passed its first test of persecution and people are coming into fellowship with Christ and His Church in droves. Then we read this:
1 But a man named Ananias, with his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property, 2 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. 3 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? 4 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.”
This is a startling rebuke, and one that we need to consider carefully. To begin with, let us note that, contrary to what some have said, the early church was not practicing communism in its radical sharing of goods. There was no ideological rejection of the idea of private property and no ideological affirmation of the idea that the leadership somehow possessed inherent rights of ownership. On the contrary, what the early church practiced was nothing other than an agreed-upon generosity and life together. They gave what they had to ensure that the poor would be cared for. They were driven not by political ideas or coercion, but rather by the Spirit of God.
Peter recognizes precisely this when he says, “While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal?” Meaning, “The property was yours and yours to do with as you would.” What, then, was the problem. The problem was dishonesty and ego-driven posturing. The problem was that Ananias and his wife Sapphira acted as if they were giving all the proceeds of the land so that people would think them more generous than they were. Had they simply come and said, “We would like to give half the proceeds from the sale of the property,” there would have been no issue. But what they did was give a portion of the proceeds and claim that they had given all. This is why Peter says that they had lied to God.
It is important that we not miss a crucial insight into the nature of the Trinity in the language of Peter’s rebuke. Please note that Peter says in verse 3 that Ananias lied “to the Holy Spirit.” Then, in verse 4, that Ananias lied “not…to man but to God.” The implication is clear: to lie to the Holy Spirit is to lie to God. The Venerable Bede commented, “It is therefore clear that the Holy Spirit is God.” Furthermore, Basil the Great, the 4th century Cappadocian Father, said that Peter’s words “show that sins against the Holy Spirit and against God are the same.”
It is a serious thing to lie to God, as we will now see.
5 When Ananias heard these words, he fell down and breathed his last. And great fear came upon all who heard of it. 6 The young men rose and wrapped him up and carried him out and buried him. 7 After an interval of about three hours his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. 8 And Peter said to her, “Tell me whether you sold the land for so much.” And she said, “Yes, for so much.” 9 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.” 10 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. 11 And great fear came upon the whole church and upon all who heard of these things.
Oh my! What is happening here?! Why has God struck these two members of the Church dead? It is because of a fact that the modern Church is close to forgetting: God is jealous for the holiness of His Church because He is Himself holy! Do you understand the seriousness and the tragedy of the moral and ethical and spiritual collapse of the Church? If the Church of the first century were to fall, imploding inwardly as a result of unchecked wickedness like that trafficked in by Ananias and Sapphire, then the primary vehicle through which God reaches the nations with the gospel would disintegrate. It is imperative that the Church survive, and for it to survive as the Church, it is imperative that it walk in obedience.
It is indeed no small thing for those who claim to know and walk with Jesus to harbor a spirit of rebellion against Him in their hearts and to risk spreading that rebellion to others. Erasmus questioned why it was that Ananias and Sapphira were treated so harshly “because a little bit of money was withheld in an otherwise generous act” when just before this he held out the hope of redemption to those who killed the Lord Jesus. He answered astutely that Jesus “wished to show by the destruction of a few how much more serious it is to fall back into sin after the grace and light of the gospel have been received.”
Ours is Church age of permissiveness and sentimentality and latitudinarianism. But the early Church was not like this. They knew that visibly associating with the Body of Christ, ostensibly because of having been born again through the blood of Christ, carried with it high demands for obedience and integrity. Peter, before whose feet Ananias and Sapphira fell, further elaborated on this need for holiness in 1 Peter 1.
13 Therefore, preparing your minds for action, and being sober-minded, set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ. 14 As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, 15 but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, 16 since it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.” 17 And if you call on him as Father who judges impartially according to each one’s deeds, conduct yourselves with fear throughout the time of your exile, 18 knowing that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, 19 but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot. 20 He was foreknown before the foundation of the world but was made manifest in the last times for the sake of you 21 who through him are believers in God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are in God.
If you are going to call God “Father,” then you should live as His child. Jesus said in John 14:15, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” You will. This is not legalism or an unrealistic demand for protection. The New Testament throughout exalts the forgiving nature of God. He forgives us and we are to forgive one another. The Church is comprised of struggling pilgrims en route, and we must be patient with one another. But patience does not mean acquiescence to known rebellion.
To know the truth is to be accountable for it. To know the truth well is to be even more accountable. In James 3:1, James writes, “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.” There is a greater judgment that comes with knowing the truth. As a result the Church must be careful to be vigilant in personal holiness.
Many of you are familiar with William R. Newell’s 1895 hymn, “At Calvary.” I remember especially liking this hymn as a boy when I would stand beside my parents and brothers and we would sing it in church.
Years I spent in vanity and pride,
Caring not my Lord was crucified,
Knowing not it was for me He died on Calvary.
Mercy there was great, and grace was free;
Pardon there was multiplied to me;
There my burdened soul found liberty at Calvary.
By God’s Word at last my sin I learned;
Then I trembled at the law I’d spurned,
Till my guilty soul imploring turned to Calvary.
Now I’ve given to Jesus everything,
Now I gladly own Him as my King,
Now my raptured soul can only sing of Calvary!
Oh, the love that drew salvation’s plan!
Oh, the grace that brought it down to man!
Oh, the mighty gulf that God did span at Calvary!
Many of you have also heard of Donald Grey Barnhouse. Barnhouse was pastor of the Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania from 1927 to his death in 1960. He was a faithful pastor and a great man of God. You may be interested to know that Barnhouse refused to allow Tenth Presbyterian Church the third stanza of “At Calvary.”
Now I’ve given to Jesus everything,
Now I gladly own Him as my King,
Now my raptured soul can only sing of Calvary!
He explained that he forbade this because he feared that God might strike those dead who were singing this halfheartedly or flippantly. He used our text this morning as his justification. Had not God struck dead Ananias and Sapphira for their dishonest overtures of having given God all when they had not? And does God not change? And does God not have rights over His creation to do as He deems best?
Oh, Church: consider carefully and well what you are saying when you claim to have given God all!
God Uses the Holiness and Integrity of His Church to Clarify Spiritual Reality and Further the Spread of the Gospel and the Reach of the Kingdom
God strikes Ananias and Sapphira dead for their duplicity and deceitfulness. The verses that immediately follow should be seen as arising from this jarring display of divine holiness. What is recorded here is directly connected to the terrifying display of power just witnessed.
12 Now many signs and wonders were regularly done among the people by the hands of the apostles. And they were all together in Solomon’s Portico. 13 None of the rest dared join them, but the people held them in high esteem. 14 And more than ever believers were added to the Lord, multitudes of both men and women,
Do not miss the flow of the account or the amazing implications inherent therein: there is a direct connection between the obedience and faithfulness of the Church and its effectiveness in the world. This is not because the Church is working on its own and solely accountable for any so-called “results.” On the contrary, the Lord God is always working above and beyond the obedience of His own people…but He also works through it. It would be better to say that the obedience of the Church is itself fruit of and evidence for that kind of faith that the Lord uses to do great works. He moves mountains through mustard seeds. Where His people have faith, God moves. Where His people abandon faith, we are unable to see His mighty deeds. We may see this truth in the lack of miracles performed in Nazareth (as recounted in Matthew 13), when Jesus visited there.
53 And when Jesus had finished these parables, he went away from there, 54 and coming to his hometown he taught them in their synagogue, so that they were astonished, and said, “Where did this man get this wisdom and these mighty works? 55 Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? 56 And are not all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all these things?” 57 And they took offense at him. But Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor except in his hometown and in his own household.” 58 And he did not do many mighty works there, because of their unbelief.
So it is today as well. Our disbelief and our lack of faith stymies what we can become and what God will do through us. We close ourselves off to the greater works of God when we fail to trust and to obey. Disobedience is an inevitable fruit of such a lack. As a result, the world is robbed of the Church’s true calling: to be transformative salt and light in its living out, stewardship, and proclamation of the gospel.
However, when such disobedience and faithlessness is rooted out, God works mightily through His people. Our text paradoxically says that many were too afraid to join the Church but that others came in as a result. This is how the gospel works: it draws and it repels. Upon hearing it, some hate it, some fear it, and some come to Christ. This dynamic was at work in the early Church and it is at work in the Church today as well. This is seen in the above-mentioned growth of the Church, but also in the continuing works of power being wrought through the Church.
15 so that they even carried out the sick into the streets and laid them on cots and mats, that as Peter came by at least his shadow might fall on some of them. 16 The people also gathered from the towns around Jerusalem, bringing the sick and those afflicted with unclean spirits, and they were all healed.
This is most astounding! People were being healed to the point that the sick were being brought where Peter was walking in the hopes that his shadow would fall upon them and they would be healed. This raises a fairly obvious question. Did Peter’s shadow have healing properties? Of course not. It is God alone who heals. Rather, it was their faith, mixed, perhaps, with a degree of chaff, that opened their hearts and bodies to the healing power of God. A.T. Robertson wrote of this:
There was, of course, no virtue or power in Peter’s shadow. That was faith with superstition, of course, just as similar cases in the Gospels occur (Matt. 9:20; Mark 6:56; John 9:5) and the use of Paul’s handkerchief (Acts 19:12). God honours even superstitious faith if it is real faith in him. Few people are wholly devoid of superstition.
He is right. Oftentimes saving faith is weak faith, faith that does not fully understand, faith that must grown more deeply in its understanding. Such was the faith of those who came seeking Peter’s shadow. They would afterward, no doubt, come to understand more clearly that it is Christ that heals, but do their actions here not evidence an admirable faith in the healing power of God?
See what God can do through a people yielded to Him! See a Church alive through the empowering Spirit: obedient, powerful, world changing! See the holy fear that falls upon the assembled saints when they give themselves completely to King Jesus! See the watching world: partially resisting, partially hating, partially trembling, partially coming! See the Church tremble in awareness that the God upon Whom they call and in Whose name they advance is a holy consuming fire who is not mocked!
See the life to which we have been called!
The Church, the Body and Bride of Christ!
 Francis Martin, ed. Acts. Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture. New Testament, vol.V. Thomas C. Oden, gen. ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006), p.60-61.
 Esther Chung-Kim and Todd R. Hains, eds. Acts. Reformation Commentary on Scripture. New Testament, vol.VI. Timothy George, gen. ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2014), p.63.
 R. Kent Hughes, Acts. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1996), p.76.
 A.T. Robertson, Acts. Word Pictures in the New Testament. Vol.III (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1930), p.62.