“God’s anonymous: Ananias and Sapphira”
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus.
Let’s begin today with a little game--I’ll give you a name, and you tell me what name goes along with that name.
The first one’s this--Bonnie and…
Clyde! Of course! After they met in Texas back in January of 1930 when Bonnie was 19 and Clyde was 20, from that moment on, they were reportedly “smitten.”
And if you know their story, and I’m sure you do, just as soon as they met, they began a two-year crime spree together, (which included robbery and murder), that ended rather abruptly on a rural road just outside of Sailes, Louisiana.
How about a little harder one--Katharine Hepburn and…
Spencer Tracy! Though they never really married, it’s been said that there’s never been, nor will there ever be a more perfectly matched pair than Hepburn and Tracy. In all, they starred in nine movies together, including Keeper of the Flame and Woman of the Year.
Or how about another one? Antony and…
Cleopatra! He was a Roman general and politician and she was the queen of Egypt. But after having three children together, she died at the age of 38 and he died at the age of 53.
And one more--Joe DiMaggio and…
Marilyn Monroe! According to her autobiography, My Story, she didn’t even care to meet him at first. She thought he was, and I quote, “a stereotypically arrogant athlete.” But after eloping in January of 1954, they enjoyed all of nine months together. Can’t win ‘em all!
It seems that there are quite a lot of names that go together. Think of French scientists Marie and Pierre Curie or John and Abigail Adams or June Carter and Johnny Cash. When asked his definition of paradise, he answered, “This morning, with her, having coffee.”
The Bible has its share of famous couples too--think of Adam and Eve, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Ruth and Boaz, Hosea and Gomer, and Joseph and Mary.
And somewhere on that long list of the most famous and even infamous couples of all time, you’ll find one more--Ananias and Sapphira.
I’ll read the words of Acts chapter 5: “A man named Ananias, with his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property, and with his wife’s full 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?’
Then skipping down to verse 5: “When Ananias heard these words, he fell down and breathed his last. And great fear came upon all who heard of it” (Acts 5:1-3, 5).
So what’s going on?
Thanks to a physician and historian named Luke, the book of Acts tells us what happened just as soon as Jesus died, rose again and ascended into heaven. Peter preached on Pentecost to a crowd of three thousand, Stephen spoke to the Sanhedrin and Paul traveled all the way from Corinth to Ephesus to Thessalonica and even to Athens.
It was a time of great power and grace and incredible church growth! To put it another way, God was real, Christ was alive, and the Spirit’s power was surging through them. From the beginning of time, the world had never seen days like these!
But in spite of all that power and grace and growth, the church also endured some of the most difficult challenges of all. Stephen was stoned in Jerusalem, Paul and Barnabas were beaten and jailed in Philippi, and persecuted believers were expelled from Rome.
And one of the most difficult challenges of all is found here in Acts chapter 5.
Now if truth be known, this story doesn’t seem to belong in the book of Acts at all! In the midst of all this talk about grace and growth, Luke suddenly interrupted his account with the death of a husband and wife.
But isn’t that just the way the Bible is! As one author put it, instead of a “cover up,” we get a National Enquirer “tell all”!
Now if you’d glance just a chapter before, you’d see things had been going extraordinarily well! The Bible says in chapter 4, “Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common” (Acts 4:32). And it says, “There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need” (Acts 4:34-35).
And among the many kind and remarkably generous people of God, there was even a man named Barnabas who sold his field and laid that money at the apostles’ feet.
Did he have to? Did anyone have to? Not at all! It was purely a matter of Christian love and devotion between each man and woman and God.
And somewhere in that mix of early Christian women and men, there was also a husband and wife named Ananias and Sapphira.
Now as far as we can tell, there wasn’t anything that set them apart from anyone else at all. They were just another Christian couple who loved their Christian community and who loved their Lord. Together with Peter and Andrew and James and John, they were fellow brothers and sisters in Christ, knit together in the bonds of Christ’s life and Christ’s love.
Even their names can tell us something. The name Ananias is a name that meant, “The Lord is gracious” and the name “Sapphira” meant “beautiful” or “pleasant,” the very same name we call a sapphire, that beautiful, deep, purplish-blue stone.
But while she might have been so “beautiful” and “pleasant” on the outside, there was a completely different story on the inside.
Now we’re not exactly sure how it all started. But suffice it to say that the early Christian’s concern for one another touched not only their hearts, but also their wallets. And realizing that everything they had was a gift of God and not for their own exclusive use, believers began to share their wealth with fellow believers--with no coercion involved. Anyone was free to own property if he chose and anyone was free to give as he chose. It was always and only completely up to them.
But apparently, when it came to Ananias and Sapphira, they wanted more than just acceptance. They wanted acclaim. And instead of seeking the humble, heartfelt praise of God, they were bitten by the green-eyed monster of jealousy and bargained for the praise of men. And so, together, they conspired, they collaborated on a plan to sell their property, but to stash some of the money away for themselves.
Could they have kept some for themselves? Of course, they could have! In fact, they didn’t even have to give anything at all!
But what made it wrong, so wrong, is that they wanted everyone to believe the lie. They wanted everyone to stand in awe of their so spiritual, so self-sacrificing, surrender-it-all-to-Jesus hearts, when, in fact, they were as dishonest, deceitful and hypocritical as anyone could be.
In the words of Bible commentator John Stott: “They wanted the credit and the prestige for sacrificial generosity, without the inconvenience of it. So, in order to gain a reputation to which they had no right, they told a brazen lie. Their motive in giving was not to relieve the poor, but to fatten their own ego.”
That’s why, in verse 3, 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?” And he said, “You have not lied to men, but to God.”
Then what happened? Let’s just say that judgment was swift. Verse 5: “When Ananias heard these words, he fell down and breathed his last. And great fear came upon all who heard it.”
But we’re not done. There’s more.
Luke wrote in verse 7: “After an interval of about three hours his wife came in, not knowing what happened.”
Now if you think about it, this was her big chance. Would she honor God or honor her husband? Would she hold on to the lie or would she tell the truth?
Verse 8: “Peter said, ‘Tell me whether you sold the land for so much.’ And she said, ‘Yes, for so much.’”
Then what? The Bible says, “Immediately she fell down at his feet and breathed her last…And great fear came upon the whole church and upon all who heard of these things” (Acts 5:10-11).
Like I said, this is a pretty hard text. In the midst of great power and grace and growth, we’ve got a dead husband and wife!
Now here’s a question--were they struck dead simply because they lied? I’d say no, they weren’t. If that were the case, there’s quite a lot of others who should have died too.
Think about it--Abraham lied twice when he said Sarah was his sister. Jacob lied when he tricked his father Isaac. Rahab lied about the men she hid who came to spy out Jericho. And the apostle Peter lied three times when he said he didn’t even know who Jesus was!
So why did God deal so harshly with Ananias and Sapphira?
Because if He had permitted them to continue in their charade, it would have destroyed the witness of the early church. That’s why He acted so quickly and so decisively.
And that’s why, just a few verses later, the Bible says, “And more than ever believers were added to the Lord, multitudes(!) of both men and women” (Acts 5:14).
So what’s the lesson we should learn? Simply this--the first century Christian church was not a perfect community and neither are we. In fact, there’s never been a time when God’s people were perfect.
So the question isn’t, “Why did they die?” Instead, it’s “Why are we still alive?”
The answer? Grace. Grace that took us as we are and made us as we ought to be.
In the words of Psalm 103: “He has not punished us according to our sins, nor does He deal harshly with us, as we deserve” (Psalm 103:10).
So this story about Ananias and Sapphira is a story about judgment. That’s perfectly clear. But it’s also a story about the power, the grace and the glory of our God.
As you most likely know, the Statue of Liberty that stands in New York Harbor on Liberty Island was once a gift from the people of France. After it was designed by Frederic Bartholdi and built by Gustave Eiffel, it was dedicated in October of 1886.
In her left hand, Lady Liberty holds a tablet that’s inscribed with the Roman numerals, July 4, 1776. In her right hand, there’s a torch raised high in the sky, and a broken shackle and chain lie crushed at her feet.
And if you’d look at the rest of the statue, you’d see that the sculptor not only devoted a great deal of time to her face and arms, he also did a painstaking job on her hair.
Why is that strange? Because when it was built, the only ones that would have seen the top of her head were seagulls! Wilbur and Orville Wright wouldn’t even fly for another seventeen years!
In our Christian lives, there are things that we do too that only God knows. But God knows. So be genuine. Be the people Christ has called you to be.
We thank You, dear Father, that You have taken us by Your grace and made us Your own. Help us to follow in the footsteps of our Lord Jesus Christ, as we seek to faithfully follow You, for His sake. Amen