(Act 5:1-2 ESV) 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.
We learned at the end of chapter 4 that many Jerusalem Christians were selling their land. In fact, this is how we’re introduced to Barnabas –
(Act 4:36-37 ESV) 36 Thus Joseph, who was also called by the apostles Barnabas (which means son of encouragement), a Levite, a native of Cyprus, 37 sold a field that belonged to him and brought the money and laid it at the apostles’ feet.
The passage is not describing asceticism, that is, a vow of poverty or such like. Nor communism, as it doesn’t appear that everyone was required to sell everything (unlike the Essenes). The point isn’t that the church has created a new economic system but that the members of the church were extraordinarily generous to those among the group in need. They took care of their own, and wealth was considered an opportunity to serve others.
This is very contrary to the Greek thought of the day, as Greek society was highly stratified, and Luke makes clear that the generosity crossed economic lines.
Thus, the early church included members from all strata of society. It wasn’t a movement of only the poor or the working class. All sorts of people — rich and poor — were part.
Thus we see the setting for the striking story of Ananias and Sapphira.
(Act 5:3-10 ESV) 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.
Notice that Peter himself did not strike the couple dead. The cause is not mentioned directly, but that God killed them is strongly implied by “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit” and “How is it that you have agreed together to test the Spirit of the Lord?”
The lie strikes us as not that serious a sin — except on the technical argument that all sin is serious. But who among us would have recommended the death sentence for their lies?
Obviously, God disagrees. They lied to the church. They sought status by lies. Rather than being givers, they were takers — claiming status they did not deserve in the guise of generosity.
There’s a subtle lesson here: mutual accountability and transparency. Ananias was not required to sell his land or to give the proceeds to the church. His sin was in his deception. Thus, the standard he violated was not merely honesty but transparency. To be in community with someone, you must be willing to be yourself — not to play the hypocrite and put up false fronts.
This implies that the church must be willing to accept you as you really are, but also that the church has permission to hold you accountable.
How rare it would be in today’s church to hold ourselves to such a standard! Rather than pretending to be better than we are and rather than seeking status and praise, we could be truly honest — and by being honest, we could ask the church to hold us accountable — to be honest and to grow in Jesus.
(Act 5:11-16 ESV) 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.
“Great fear” … no kidding! How else would real people have reacted? But the fear did not slow down growth, because the community wasn’t filled with liars but rather with open, transparent people.
The discipline of God led to an outpouring of the Spirit, with countless miracles being performed by the apostles — which led to rapid growth of the church.
(Act 5:17-18 ESV) 17 But the high priest rose up, and all who were with him (that is, the party of the Sadducees), and filled with jealousy 18 they arrested the apostles and put them in the public prison.
The authorities could not be passive any longer. The continuing preaching of the resurrection (Acts 4:33) directly challenged the credibility of the priestly class — and they enjoyed the power they held by collaborating with the Romans.
The Christians could have avoided persecution for a while had they de-emphasized the resurrection in their preaching (as many today do for entirely different reasons). But they considered the resurrection too central to the gospel to avoid the subject. After all, the resurrection proved that Jesus is the Messiah, indeed, King of the Jews and, ultimately, the Son of God. And the resurrection promised the Christians hope of a bodily resurrection, not the awful afterlife of shades and shadows imagined by the Greeks.
(Act 5:19-20 ESV) 19 But during the night an angel of the Lord opened the prison doors and brought them out, and said, 20 “Go and stand in the temple and speak to the people all the words of this Life.”
God is more powerful than prisons. Many Christians were later jailed and died there. God doesn’t always rescue his people. But in this case, God wanted to make a point to the authorities. And part of his point was that they could not silence the gospel.
(Act 5:21-25 ESV) 21 And when they heard this, they entered the temple at daybreak and began to teach. Now when the high priest came, and those who were with him, they called together the council, all the senate of the people of Israel, and sent to the prison to have them brought. 22 But when the officers came, they did not find them in the prison, so they returned and reported, 23 “We found the prison securely locked and the guards standing at the doors, but when we opened them we found no one inside.” 24 Now when the captain of the temple and the chief priests heard these words, they were greatly perplexed about them, wondering what this would come to. 25 And someone came and told them, “Look! The men whom you put in prison are standing in the temple and teaching the people.”
Again, the apostles go to the Temple, as told by God. Why the Temple? In part because the Temple was God’s holiest place, indeed, the place from which God spoke — and God chose to speak through his apostles.
But also because the Temple was the place where the priestly class’s authority most mattered. Rather like Napoleon, he chose to attack the enemy not where he is weakest but where he is strongest.
(Act 5:26-28 ESV) 26 Then the captain with the officers went and brought them, but not by force, for they were afraid of being stoned by the people. 27 And when they had brought them, they set them before the council. And the high priest questioned them, 28 saying, “We strictly charged you not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching, and you intend to bring this man’s blood upon us.”
The apostles appear to have cooperated in being brought before the council. After all, they couldn’t be taken by force.
“This man’s blood” is evidently a reference to Jesus — with the priests seeking to avoid the blame for his crucifixion.
(Act 5:29-32 ESV) 29 But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than men. 30 The God of our fathers raised Jesus, whom you killed by hanging him on a tree. 31 God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. 32 And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.”
The apostles again repeat that they will not obey human rules that violate God’s instructions. He then accuses them of the crucifixion — exactly what they hoped to avoid. And then he asserted that he is a witness to Jesus being “raised” — that is, bodily resurrected — again, exactly what they did not want to hear. Finally, Peter implicitly accuses them of disobedience to God, as he claimed to have the Spirit in contrast to them. He was claiming the authority of an Old Testament prophet (as he would have been heard) as well as claiming that the Spirit had been outpoured by God, meaning that Kingdom had arrived.
(Act 5:33 ESV) 33 When they heard this, they were enraged and wanted to kill them.
This was predictable. Peter was as “in your face” as could be, and couldn’t be silenced or jailed.
(Act 5:34 ESV) 34 But a Pharisee in the council named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law held in honor by all the people, stood up and gave orders to put the men outside for a little while.
We learn in Acts 22:3 that Paul was a disciple of Gamaliel. We learn from history that Gamaliel was a greatly revered rabbi.
(Act 5:35-37 ESV) 35 And he said to them, “Men of Israel, take care what you are about to do with these men. 36 For before these days Theudas rose up, claiming to be somebody, and a number of men, about four hundred, joined him. He was killed, and all who followed him were dispersed and came to nothing. 37 After him Judas the Galilean rose up in the days of the census and drew away some of the people after him. He too perished, and all who followed him were scattered.
Gamaliel’s speech, as reported by Luke, is inconsistent with Jewish history as reported by Josephus. Many historians immediately conclude that Josephus was right and Luke mistaken. However, Ben Witherington demonstrates in his commentary on Acts that Josephus has been shown to have many many factual errors of the same sort, and therefore there is no basis to assume that Luke is the one in error.
(Act 5:38-39a ESV) 38 “So in the present case I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone, for if this plan or this undertaking is of man, it will fail; 39 but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them. You might even be found opposing God!”
Gamaliel’s advice carried the day — perhaps because even the priests couldn’t deny that miracles were happening! They were cynical, political people, but they also believed in the Living God. And so they hedged their bets.
(Act 5:39b-40 ESV) So they took his advice, 40 and when they had called in the apostles, they beat them and charged them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go.
“Beat them” was no light punishment. The word could refer to being beaten with rods or even whips.
(Act 5:41-42 ESV) 41 Then they left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name. 42 And every day, in the temple and from house to house, they did not cease teaching and preaching that the Christ is Jesus.
The result? The apostles rejoiced in their beatings! And they refused to stop preaching.
These Christians had upside-down values, giving away wealth, speaking truth to power at any cost, and celebrating persecution.