Acts 5:1, “A certain man named Ananias, with Sapphira his wife, sold a possession. And he kept back part of the proceeds, his wife also being aware of it, and brought a certain part and laid it at the apostles’ feet.”
The author of Acts — a man known historically as Luke — begins this important story by introducing us to this couple “Ananias” (Hebrew for “God is gracious”) and his wife “Sapphira” (Aramaic for “beautiful”). This couple were quite a match — Grace and Beauty!
Luke then tells they “sold a possession.” We’ll come to find this possession was land. In context it would seem they sold this parcel of land with the intent of giving the full “proceeds” to the church. Note: “Proceeds” means “the full sale price.” Keep in mind no one asked them to do this. Selling this land and giving the money was a choice they freely made.
Luke continues by letting us know that after they sold this “possession” Ananias and Sapphira decide to only give part of the “proceeds” to the church — not the full sale price. This would appear to be the first of two serious missteps. This phrase “kept back” means “to misappropriate or embezzle.” In Titus 2:10 the same word is translated as “pilfering.”
The picture Luke is painting is one where Ananias and Sapphira had given the “possession” to God and had therefore determined to give the entirety of the “proceeds” to the church. However, once the “possession” likely sold for more than they thought, they reneged and “kept back” for themselves what had already been allocated to God.
Though the text doesn’t specifically say, it’s implied from the context of the remainder of the story, that Ananias (under the directive of Sapphira) “brought a certain part” of the proceeds to give to the Apostles under the false pretense he was actually giving the whole.
Acts 5:3-4, “But Peter said, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and keep back part of the price of the land for yourself? While it remained, was it not your own? And after it was sold, was it not in your own control? Why have you conceived this thing in your heart? You have not lied to men but to God.”
“But Peter...” Clearly, we see in this instance another manifestation of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Apostle Peter. Though there was no way for Peter to know what Ananias had done since it had been a scheme hatched with Sapphira in secret, we can conclude he had been given the “Gift of Knowledge” — supernatural insight into the situation.
While there is no question sins committed in private, demand a private rebuke, since this sin was committed in public, it became necessary for Peter to issue a public rebuke of Ananias before the entire church. He begins, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and keep back part of the price of the land for yourself?”
Peter is clear that the offense was not that Ananias “kept back part of the land,” but that he presented his gift under this false presence. The severity of the crime becomes evident in the reality Peter actually accuses him of “lying to the Holy Spirit.” The original language indicated that Ananias was presenting a deliberate falsehood through his actions.
In essence Ananias’ crime was one of hypocrisy! His actions revealed he was masquerading as someone he wasn’t. He was pretending, faking, engaged in a deliberate deception. And what’s worse... This hypocritical deed had been done because he had allowed “Satan to fill his heart!” The passion behind this act of generosity was not Christ and the care of His church. Ananias’ desire was instead to bring attention and glory to himself.
Peter continues, “And after it was sold, was it not in your own control? Why have you conceived this thing in your heart? You have not lied to men but to God.” Though Satan had been the motivation behind his actions, Peter isn’t letting Ananias off the hook.
“It was in your control. This was something you conceived and did deliberately.” Yes, it’s true that hypocrisy in the life of an individual might be a sin witnessed by men, but this passage makes it clear that, at its core, hypocrisy is actually a greater offense to God.
Acts 5:5-6, “Then Ananias, hearing these words, fell down and breathed his last. So great fear came upon all those who heard these things. And the young men arose and wrapped him up, carried him out, and buried him.”
Upon “hearing these words” Ananias “fell down and breathed his last!” The Greek word for “fell down” means to descend from an erect to prostrate position. It was a term that spoke of those suddenly falling dead. To be clear Ananias was dead… In telling us he “breathed his last” Dr. Luke is making it clear the “breath of life” had departed from the body.
Contrary to a common, popular understanding of this passage, Peter did not pronounce a death sentence on Ananias. All he did was confront him on his sin. I’m fairly certain Peter was just as surprised as anyone else when Ananias ended up falling down dead!
Acts 5:7-10, “Now it was about three hours later when his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. And Peter answered her, ‘Tell me whether you sold the land for so much?’ She said, ‘Yes, for so much.’ Then Peter said to her, ‘How is it that you have agreed together to test the Spirit of the Lord? Look, the feet of those who have buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out.’ Then immediately she fell down at his feet and breathed her last. And the young men came in and found her dead, and carrying her out, buried her by her husband.”
Though we already know Sapphira had been in cahoots with her husband as I’m sure Peter was equally aware, the Apostle graciously provides her an opportunity to come clean. Sadly, Sapphira not only maintains the same lie she had concocted with Ananias, but unlike her counterpart she brazenly denies any improprieties.
Because of her role in this scheme, Sapphira would justly experience the same judgment as her husband Ananias. Peter tells her, “‘How is it that you have agreed together to test the Spirit of the Lord? Look, the feet of those who have buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out.’ Then immediately she fell down and breathed her last.”
And this is where things undoubtedly grow complicated... If just left to the description of Ananias’ death, one might reasonably concluded he simply died of natural causes. Kind of like he was so shocked by Peter’s rebuke that he actually had a heart-attack and died.
However, the death of Sapphira clearly presents a picture of divine judgment. If Peter had been surprised by the death of Ananias, he was so certain of Sapphira’s impending death he even predicted it was about to happen before it occurred. As such the reality that God judged Ananias and Sapphira by striking them dead is therefore unavoidable.
The majority of Bible teachers present this story as a warning against hypocrisy within the church. I’ve even heard commentators point to this story as being a perfect illustration for the way God deals with people “within the church” much differently than He does those “outside the church.” The basic “with revelation comes a greater responsibility” theory.
I’ve also heard Bible teachers explain the extreme way in which God dealt with Ananias and Sapphira as being consistent with the reality that when God begins a “new work” such as the church He always goes to extremes to establish a clear precedent.
These expositors like to point out that when the children of Israel entered the land of promise, experienced their first victory by conquering Jericho, but suffered a humiliating defeat because of the sin of Achan, the death of this man and his whole family was used by God to establish the precedent of the importance of obedience and purity!
And while I have the upmost respect for those that espouse both explanations, in light of the assumed belief that Ananias and Sapphira were Christians, I must be honest that neither conclusion as to why God would judge believers in such a harsh way makes sense to me.
Though I agree hypocrisy within the church cannot be tolerated because of its destructive effects on both the individual and the church at large… And while I also agree that God views the issues of obedience and purity among His people with extreme seriousness...
The notion that God would kill two believers bought with the blood of Christ simply to establish a precedent for a “new work” doesn’t sit well with the rest of Scripture.
If Ananias and Sapphira were believers as most suppose, then weren’t they living under grace and not the law? And if this was the case hadn’t their sin (past, present, future) already experienced the judgment of God when His wrath was poured out on Jesus?
Now don’t get me wrong... I do believe that even the sins of believers bring with them very natural consequences, but this was God’s direct judgment! If they were believers, Ananias and Sapphira made a tragic mistake, but was the crime really worth the punishment? And if it was.... Why do we not see hypocrisy in the church experience the same judgment today?
You see I’m of the opinion that this passage becomes unnecessarily complicated because we assume Ananias and Sapphira were actually believers. If you look back at the text you will notice that never once does the passage indicate this was the case. As a matter of fact, in diagnosing the core problem, Peter observes the contrary… He says what could never be said of one filled with the Spirit, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart?”
Understand, Satan’s initial strategy when it came to opposing the work God was doing through the church was through intimidation. In order to squelch this incredible work God was doing, in the first part of Acts 4, the religious establishment “severely threatens” Peter and John to no longer “speak or teach in the name of Jesus.”
And yet, not only did Peter and John refuse to cave to their demands, in response to the fresh filling of the Spirit that came in Acts 4:31, we’re told “they spoke the word of God with boldness.” It was clear this new church was not going to be silenced through intimidated!
This is why, as we enter chapter 5, Luke presents this story of Ananias and Sapphira to illustrate that Satan had shifted to a new strategy in his attempts to derail the work Jesus was accomplishing through this church... Infiltration!
To me this provides a much better explanation as to why God dealt so swiftly, deliberately, and publicly with Ananias and Sapphira. God deliberately intervened in such a dramatic way in order to preserve the integrity of His work from the corrosive infiltration of the Enemy!
You see, as demonstrated by their own actions, it was clear Ananias and Sapphira were not interested in giving to care for the needs of the church. They wanted to give so that they could receive a greater place of influence within the church.
I believe this was not a story of God correcting the behavior of believers or seeking to set a precedent for how He would handle hypocrisy. Rather, this story was all about how God would protect the church from non-believers seeking to infiltrate the ranks!
Notice the results of this divine act were that (1) “Great fear came upon all the church...” and (2) “None of the rest dared join them, but the people esteemed them highly.” One could imagine this type of holy intervention would have had a negative effect on the growth of the church, but we’re told that instead of a dip in church attendance...
Acts 5:14, “Believers were increasingly added to the Lord, multitudes of both men and women.” “Increasingly” is the Greek adverb “mallon” indicates that following this event “believers” were being “added to the Lord” in a greater degree than anytime previously!
What I find interesting about this story is that it defies the conventional wisdom of church growth gurus who believe the only way a church can be effective in the 21st century is by creating a Sunday worship environment whereby “unbelievers” feel accepted and welcome.
To accomplish this aim many “seeker-friendly” and attractional churches intentionally dumb down the presentation of the Gospel, avoid topics of moral absolutes, incorporate slick marketing and multimedia techniques all with the desire of fostering a positive, non-threatening, spiritual experience for everyone who might be in attendance.
What makes this so ironic is that the church in Acts took the exact opposite approach. Beyond that, this story illustrated how dangerous a place church was for the unbeliever. While it’s true there were indeed unbelievers who stayed away out of fear, Luke tells us as a direct result of this reverential atmosphere “multitudes” were drawn to the church, turned from sin, converted, and followed Jesus. If fact… To many to be counted.
And why was this church so successful? I believe the key to its success was that it was (A) clearly distinct from the culture around it, and (B) demonstrated authentic power! This church stood in stark contrast to the world because it offered people a genuine experience with God through Jesus that neither religion nor hellenistic culture could provide.
While there are some who claim we live in a different time… What is interesting to me is that the conditions we find in first-century Jerusalem are actually very similar with what we find in our own 21st century culture. Empty religion and pagan hedonism had left people hungry for something real, authentic, genuine, and spiritual.
Though the seeker-friendly model of church has proven incredibly successful in attracting Generation X (those born after the post-WW2 baby boom up to 1980), I am convinced this model will die out because of its ineffectiveness in reaching Millennials (born after 1980).
I’m not going out on a limb when I say that Gen X or the “MTV Generation” is without a doubt the most superficial, image driven, ego-centric, commercialized, materialistic generation in American history making them perfect for the “big church with little substance” model.
And yet, though much research still needs to be done, it doesn’t take a PHD in sociology to recognize that Millennials are radically different than their predecessors.
A few years ago Pew Research Center issued the first report of its kind in which they discovered that a singular characteristic of Millennials is that this new generation has become increasingly “detached from institutions.” It’s the most general characteristic.
According to their report, 50% of Millennials (today age 38 and younger) describe themselves as being politically independent with 29% claiming zero religious affiliation. Pew notes, “These numbers are at or near the highest levels of political and religious disaffiliation recorded for any generation...”
Pew also observes that Millennials have been keeping their distance from marriage (another core institution of society.) Just 26% of adult Millennials are married (down 10% from Gen X, down 22% from the Baby Boomers, and down 39% from the Silent Generation) with the median age at first marriage now being the highest in modern, American history... 29 for men and 27 for women.
In response to the question, “Generally speaking, would you say that most people can be trusted or that you can’t be too careful in dealing with people” just 19% of Millennials say most people can be trusted (down 12% from Gen X and 21% from the Baby Boomers). Again this Pew study observes, “Millennials have also emerged into adulthood with the lowest levels of social trust than any other generation before them!”
Should we be surprised the Barna Group (who’s compiled data concerning the Millennials and church for the last 20 years) claims 52% of Millennials do not attend church with 59% who grew up in church walking away at some point during the first decade of adulthood.
When Millennials who have remained faithful attenders were asked to identify what has helped their faith grow, “church” or for that matter church-attendance doesn’t even make the top 10 list. Instead, Millennials identify prayer, family, friends, the Bible, having children, and their relationship with Jesus as the most common drivers of spiritual growth.
David Kinnaman (author of the book unChurched) commented, “Millennials are rethinking most of the institutions that arbitrate life, from marriage and media, to government and church. They have grown up in a culture and among peers who are often neutral or resistant to the gospel... Millennials often describe church as ‘not relevant’ or say that attending worship services ‘feels like a boring duty.’ One of the specific criticisms Millennials frequently make about Christianity is that it does not offer deep, thoughtful or challenging answers to life in a complex culture.”
As a Millennial myself I believe the reason this younger generation is leaving the church in droves is actually very simple. Church (along with other institutions) is no longer perceived as being genuine and authentic, and what’s worse.... They’re 100% correct!
Here’s an example to my point… Why are Millennials abandoning the traditional view of marriage for a more libertine approach? Because, more often than not, a Millennial’s experience with this institution has has been negative. With over 50% of their parents marriages ending in divorce should we be surprised Millennials don’t believe the “sanctity of the institution” argument is a valid reason to deprive a gay couple in love the right to marry?
Personally, I’m convinced seeker-friendly churches that have appealed to Gen X will be resisted by Millennials for the same basic reasons. Because churches that attempt to appeal to everyone end up standing for nothing and in the end present what is perceived to be an empty, meaningless, superficial, spiritual experience. Recent data actually shows that most Attractional Church models haven’t grown in the last 5 years.
On the flip-side, Millennials don’t attend traditional churches for the same reason. Because these “steeples in the community” are viewed as being legalistic, filled with blatant hypocrites, and have been mired in scandal, Millennials no longer find them trustworthy.
Should the Christian community, with all this in mind, be shocked that only 16% of Millennials say they have a “good impression” of Christians — with the most common perception of Christians being that they are judgmental (87% of Millennials hold this position). Once more, should we be surprised that churches are literally failing to reach the next generation?
And yet, there is hope — and it’s one of the main reasons Calvary316 has the culture we do. While skeptical of institutions, Millennials are draw to authenticity.
In a recent article written by Carey Nieuwhof titled, “5 Reasons Charismatic Churches are Growing and Attractional Churches are Past Peak,” he writes, “If you’ve been around church world for the last few decades, it’s easy to think that you need polish to pull off effective ministry. Another $50,000 for lights or sound and you’ll be good. But if you’re sitting there thinking that you need a better soundboard, some new LEDs and a much better band to reach people, think again. Passion is free. And passion beats polish.
The effective churches I’ve visited by no means had the best lights, stage or production… not nearly the level you see at some churches. What did they all have in common? Passion. When it comes to reaching the next generation, passion beats polish.” He then adds, “Don’t fake passion—people can smell fake from a mile away. In an age where nothing seems real anymore, people are looking for authentic.”
After being raised in a society that oozes commercialization, Millennials have reacted with a craving for things that seem genuine and authentic — while also having a distaste for things that appear contrived or disingenuous. Examples of this are everywhere!
Unlike X’ers who drove Bud and Miller to being American staples, Millennials are instead the driving force behind the micro-brew and craft beer movement. Unlike the X’ers who made Jack and Jim a college necessity, Millennials are making pre-prohibition whisky vogue and have inspired the resurgence of classic America Cocktails.
Unlike the X’ers who gave up on good music for a digital imitation, Millennials are instead raiding their grandparents basements in search of real, analogue, record players. Unlike the X’ers who sold out on quality for a quick, processed Happy Meal, Millennials are instead fostering a commercial shift back to natural, home grown produce.
When comparing the 20-somethings who remained active in church beyond high school with those who dropped out, the Barna Group uncovered a significant difference between the two… They discovered that those who stay plugged into church were twice as likely to have a close personal friendship with an adult inside the church.
Again David Kinnaman observed, “Among those who remain active, this much is clear: the most positive church experiences among Millennials are relational. This stands true from the inverse angle as well: 7 out of 10 Millennials who dropped out of church did not have a close friendship with an adult and nearly 9 out of 10 never had a mentor at the church.”
His conclusion is where I respectfully disagree... “The implication is that huge proportions of churchgoing teenagers do not feel relationally accepted in church. This kind of information should be a wake-up call to ministry leaders as well as to churched adults of the necessity of becoming friends with the next generation of believers.”
In the 10 years I spend as a youth pastor before Calvary316 I have seen first-hand the incredible impact adult mentors have on Millennials. And yet, it’s not because this connection makes the Millennial “feel relationally accepted” that kept them in church… The key is that these relational connections model for the a Millennial an authentic, genuine form of Christianity that can be embraced — because it’s respected, real, and often raw.
Let me bring this home… Not only do we desire Calvary316 to be as close to Jesus’ model for the church as it can be, but we’re convinced the best way to reach the next generation (and honestly every generation) is by personally demonstrating and verbally encouraging people to have a genuine, authentic Christian experience as modeled by Christ Himself.
I really do believe people no longer have an appetite for the Gospel dumbed down into self-help nuggets or surface level Bible lessons. In a crazy, complex, information-driven world that presents more problems than answers — people crave “deep, thoughtful, challenging answers” in how to find meaning and purpose “to life in a complex culture.”
Millennials want the Word of God taught, but they also desire logically based explanations not fast-paced overviews. And since Millennials challenge everything, before applying or discussing the implications of a truth, pastors must first validate the truth itself.
Additionally, Millennials don’t want a worship experience relegated into nothing more than mindless repetitions or energetic, pop-driven sing-a-longs. In a superficial and emotionally draining world Millennials crave a deeper more passionate way to express themselves to God. Millennials want to praise God with both the mind and the heart! This is why we’ve seen a renaissance of old hymns within the Millennial church community.
I am convinced Millennials will embrace a “church life” they find to be logically consistent and clearly in-sync with what the Bible has to say. But I am also keenly aware that, because Millennials have a built-in distrust of people, they will quickly and passionately resist submitting to a “church life” based solely upon the opinions of man. God’s Word is crucial.
If you show a Millennial what God has to say about various issues and explain why God took this approach, a Christian-Millennial will often embrace it. However, if a Millennial perceives that a person in authority is enforcing a position beyond what God has to say, they’ll reject it and leave the church because their distrust of people and institutions was just reinforced.
There is no question we live in a culture that is equally dominate by empty religion and pagan hedonism similar to what we find here in Acts 5. Today (as then), people are hungry for something real, authentic, and genuine, and at Calvary316 that’s all we’re trying to be. I should also add this is the type of church God wants for such a time as this!
There is no pomp and circumstance in what we do here. Our worship is crafted to engage as much of your mind as your heart. Our teaching is Bible-centric. We partake of communion and have wine available because that seems most Scriptural. We believe if it’s ok to have a beer at home after working in the yard it’s ok in the company of brothers at Sunday lunch.
We want to be a community of believers who’s focus is simply on developing Christians who love Jesus, love people, and live lives consistent with the truth of God’s Word. We want to be known as being genuine and authentic when it comes to our Christian experience. And to do this we fully acknowledge hard truths must be discussed that aren’t always easy to swallow.
In the case of Ananias and Sapphira God acted decisively to protect the integrity of the church community. They were church-attenders pretending to be Christ-followers. They were faking it to gain influence and status. God took this seriously, because to allow such a dynamic would have robbed the church of its heavenly fragrancy and standing in the world.
Again, I want Calvary316 to be a place where God moves is such a real way that “great fear came upon all the church” and where fakers “dared not join them” because they held that church in “high esteem.” I know this is counter to the pervasive wisdom and ministry approach of the churches thriving in our community, but I believe — like this church in Acts — being such a place will result in “believers being increasingly added to the Lord!”
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