We often hear the names of Ananias and Sapphira mentioned rather glibly, suggesting that perhaps they were two of the greatest liars that the world has ever known. One of our former presidents, a man who led a strenuous life and was very straightforward and hated hypocrisy, was in the habit of consigning political associates who made untrue statements to the “Ananias club.” And yet, in what did the sin of this couple really consist? And to what degree are we in danger of sinning similarly against God and against His Holy Spirit?
Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-11)
As we read the record I am sure nobody is struck with the horror of their sin on the surface. Nobody feels that Ananias and Sapphira were very much worse than many of the people we meet every day. And some of us, if our consciences are active, would admit they were not much worse than we are.
What was the offense of Ananias and Sapphira? They pretended to a greater degree of Christian devotedness than they really possessed. That was all; but it was a tremendously evil thing in the sight of God.
We are told Ananias “sold a possession, And kept back part of the price.” That may not mean anything to us until we remember the attitude of the first believers as described in Acts 4. Love was working among those early Christians and they were so concerned about their brothers that all selfishness seemed to be banished for the time. We read, “Neither was there any among them that lacked: for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the prices of the things that were sold, And laid them down at the apostle’s feet: and distribution was made unto every man according as he had need” (Acts 4:34-35).
No one told them they had to do this. It was not a rule of the early church that they were to establish a communistic association of some kind. No instructions were given that if men had property they were to dispose of it. The point is this: the Spirit of God, who is the Spirit of unselfishness, was working in such power in the hearts of the early believers they simply could not consider anything as their own. They considered their possessions as a trust from God to be used as a blessing to other people. What a wonderful testimony the church would have today if Christians everywhere regarded that which God put in their keeping as a stewardship from Him, to be used in alleviating the distress of others and assisting Christians in getting out the gospel message. But sadly, we Christians are so concerned about our own comfort, nice clothing, a home for ourselves and the little luxuries of life, that we often forget the deep needs of those about us.
We are reminded by the apostle Paul that we do not find the greatest happiness in using God’s gifts for ourselves. In impressing the Ephesian elders with the importance of unselfishness in the Christian life he said, “Remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he said, It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). This quote is not found literally in any of the Gospels. How did Paul know that Jesus said that? Evidently those words had been uttered so frequently by the Lord Jesus that they had been carried throughout the world. Indeed those words give us the spirit of the Lord Himself who “came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28).
You know, many Christians are not even tithers. They take all God gives them and use practically everything for themselves and do not think of the needs of others. When it comes to the Lord, an occasional dime or quarter is the extent of their benevolence. Actually they live for themselves; but when God controls the heart, it is different. I might argue, “But is it not my own money? Did I not work hard for it? Have I not earned it?” Yes, but I must remember it was God who gave me the ability to earn it. Of course I have the responsibility of supporting my family, and I need a certain amount to live. But if I am to be a follower of the Lord Jesus Christ, I am to use a large measure for the blessing of others.
At the time of the first Christian believers the curse of God was hanging over Jerusalem. In a little while the city was to be destroyed, not one stone was to be left on another; so these early Christians said, “We will sell what we have to further the work of the Lord and help the needy.” They sold their possessions and distribution was made out of a common fund to every man as he had need. And we are given one outstanding example—Barnabas, who had property over in Cyprus. Now judgment was not hanging over Cyprus, so there was no real reason for him to sell his property. But he did sell it and brought the money and laid it at the apostles’ feet (4:36-37). Those standing by could not help giving him a certain amount of credit. They probably said, “What a remarkable thing to do! Isn’t he a generous man?” He did it out of love for Christ and His people.
Ananias and Sapphira, who were no doubt among those present at the time, may have thought,
We had better get in on this, too. Then they put their heads together and said, “After all, it is not necessary to bring in all the money.” It wasn’t! If they had been honest and straightforward and come to the apostles and said, “We have kept some; here is the balance to be used,” it would have been all right. But they said, “We do not need to say anything about it. Others are giving their all, but we will keep a little for a rainy day, for a nest egg. Nobody will know the difference. They will take it for granted that this is all, and we will get credit for devotedness.” That was what was in their hearts.
And so they came and laid down their money. No doubt the people looked on approvingly and commented, “Isn’t that nice of Brother Ananias and Sister Sapphira? Are they not generous?” And doubtless Ananias turned away with a bright, happy countenance, pleased to get the others’ approbation. But Peter called him back. He did not say, “We certainly do appreciate this. What a wonderful thing you have done.” There was no idle flattery with Peter. “A man that flattereth his neighbor spreadeth a net for his feet” (Proverbs 29:5). He said, “Ananias, why hath Satan filled thine heart to lie to the Holy Ghost?” Notice that again and again in this part of the book of Acts you read of men being filled with the Holy Spirit. Well, just as it is possible to be filled with the Holy Spirit of God so is it possible to be filled with the spirit of Satan. When the Holy Spirit dominates and controls your entire life, selfishness and everything incongruous with the Christian life disappear. But when you are under the control of Satan you are dominated by that which is selfish and evil.
Ananias was a man who wanted people to think he was thoroughly devoted to the will of God, but Peter said, “Satan filled thine heart to lie to the Holy Ghost.” How had he lied to the Holy Ghost? He had not said anything. You do not need to say anything to lie to the Holy Ghost. Lying to the Holy Ghost is a sin that has often been repeated down through the centuries. He is present in the church and people have come into the church and acted hypocritically. They have pretended to devotedness that was not sincere, to a surrender of life they have never actually made. They have pretended to be totally committed to Christ when ulterior motives lay behind their actions. And the Holy Ghost said, “You have lied to Me.” It is a serious thing to be untrue in the congregation of God. God desires truth in the inward part. He wants people to be genuine, absolutely honest before Him.
Peter continued, “Whiles it [the land] remained, was it not thine own? and after it was sold, was it not in thine own power? why hast thou conceived this thing in thine heart? thou hast not lied unto men, but unto God.” Notice the Holy Ghost is God. Just as the Father is God and the Son is God, so the Holy Ghost is God. Peter explained that in lying to the Holy Ghost, Ananias had lied to God. Don’t forget it. God exists eternally in three Persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Notice Peter’s reasoning. He said in effect, “That was your own land, Ananias. God gave it to you and you were entitled to it. After you sold it you could have kept the money, but you came and put it down as though it were all you received. You gave these people the impression that you were doing what others had done, making full surrender of what God had entrusted to you.”
We talk about being surrendered, wholly yielded to God, and yet after all, how much self-seeking comes out in so many different ways! I am a preacher of the Word—a glorious privilege—and if I have prayed once I have prayed a thousand times and said, “Don’t let me be able to preach unless in the power of the Holy Ghost.” I would rather be struck dumb than pretend it is in the power of the Spirit. Yet it is so easy to pretend. It is so easy to come before men and take the place of an ambassador for God, and still want people to praise the preacher instead of the Lord Jesus. What if He had gifted me with the ability to sing His praises. I have a voice that would thrill thousands and I say, “Lord, I give Thee my voice.” Then I sing and as people praise and applaud I take the praise all to myself. I become guilty of the sin of Ananias and Sapphira. Perhaps God has caused somebody else to do the singing and I, who am supposed to be yielded to Him, find envy and jealousy rising up in my heart. I feel that others are appreciated where I am not—and yet I talk about full surrender to the Lord! You see, then I am pretending to devotedness I do not possess.
Perhaps God has entrusted me with money. When opportunity comes I would like to do a little for the Lord and I think I could, maybe, and so after fighting with myself, I decide to part with a dollar or two. God knows I can give much more than that trifling amount. It is true that my Lord appreciates to the full the small coin that comes from the needy purse. How He appreciated the two mites the widow gave! But He would not appreciate two mites from one with fifty thousand dollars in the bank. The way the Lord estimates our gifts is not by the amount we give, but by what we have left. He is not interested in the impression we are making on others at the time. I am sure if the Spirit of God applies this truth to many of our hearts we will realize that Ananias and Sapphira were not sinners above all others. Others have sinned as much, and perhaps we are among them. We need to go before God and cry, “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow” (Psalm 51:7).
Ananias had no answers for Peter. Even as Peter spoke, Ananias fell down and gave up the ghost. Those standing by carried out his dead body to prepare it for burial. Three hours later Sapphira, evidently missing her husband and wondering about him, came. I sup- pose she expected everybody to greet her with: “My sister, that was a wonderful gift you gave, you and your dear husband. You are doing a lot for the Lord, and you will get a great reward at the judgment seat of Christ!” But the people were nervous and troubled. They avoided her gaze as she came up to Peter. Peter said, “I want to ask you a question. “Tell me whether you sold the land for so much?” And she, taken by surprise but without a moment’s hesitation, answered, “Yes, for so much.” That is what some people call a white lie. My dear friends, there is no such thing as a white lie. A lie is as black as its father, and the devil is the father of lies. What Sapphira said was true in one sense. They sold it for so much—and so much more.
Then Peter said unto her, “How is it that ye have agreed together to tempt the Spirit of the Lord? Behold, the feet of them which have buried thy husband are at the door, and shall carry thee out.” And in a moment she dropped, smitten by the power of God.
If the Spirit of God were working in that way today, what a lot of work there would be for the undertakers! There would not be enough of them in any of our cities to bury those who drop dead. In those early days the church walked with God in holiness and righteousness. Today sadly the church has drifted so far away from God, and there is so much sin and hypocrisy and unreality, that God (I say it reverently) does not think it worth while to deal with people in this manner. The church refuses to listen to His voice. Do not let us think of Ananias and Sapphira as so very different from other people. They are like many of us today.
We are then told, “And great fear came upon all the church, and upon as many as heard these things.” Well, we too have heard them. God grant that great fear will come upon us. Fear of what? Fear that we shall dishonor the Spirit of God by pretending to be what we are not, by pretending to be genuinely devoted when we are full of hypocrisy and unreality. If the Spirit of God speaks to any of us and we are saying in our hearts, I haven’t been genuine, I haven’t been real-—may we face God about our hypocrisy today. By His grace let us put all unreality out of our lives and turn wholly to Him as the One alive from the dead? Let us renew our consecration to God and say, “By His grace, I want to be all for Christ. I want to be real, that others may be reached by my testimony and brought to know my Savior too.”
I’ll live for Him who died for me,
How happy then my soul shall be!
I’ll live for Him who died for me,
My Savior and my God!
(Ralph E. Hudson)
The Apostolic Testimony (Acts 5:12-16)
In these verses we read of many miraculous signs done by the apostles in confirmation of the gospel message. It is interesting to note that at the beginning of any dispensation miracles are customary. (By dispensation we mean a special ministry God commits to men at a particular time.) But as the dispensation moves on and the truth God has given becomes better known, miracles in a large measure are withdrawn. So in the beginning of the church era mighty works of power were manifested.
We read, “By the hands of the apostles were many signs and wonders wrought among the people; and they were all with one accord in Solomon’s porch.” There was a blessed unity and God could move in a marvelous way. There was no mass effort on the part of outsiders to identify themselves with the Christian company. Men were rather filled with fear because of the judgment that had come upon Ananias and Sapphira, so people were slow to take a place in fellowship with the Christians. Would that it had always been so! The curse of Christianity today is that vast numbers of members of Christian churches have never been saved! Their hearts are in the world and they love the things of the world. This mixed multitude has always hurt the testimony of the church.
In the early church nonbelievers dared not join themselves to the Christians, but the people generally magnified the apostles as they recognized the wonderful way in which God was working through them. However, believers, “multitudes both of men and women,” were added to the Lord. I call your attention to the phrase “added to the Lord.” What does it mean? Well, you see, a new dispensation had come in when all who believed in the baptism of the Holy Spirit were joined to the Lord Himself. Though we do not get the doctrine of the one body until God gave it to the apostle Paul, we have the fact of the unity of the body everywhere. It is implied here where we read of people being “added to the Lord.” The only way to be added to the Lord is by becoming members of His body.
“Insomuch that they brought forth the sick into the streets, and laid them on beds and couches, that at the least the shadow of Peter passing by might overshadow some of them.” This is a thoroughly oriental picture and very interesting. Even today in the Middle East people imagine a man’s shadow carries his influence. Parents will ran to draw their children away from the shadow of someone they dislike; while on the other hand, should some honored person pass by, they will endeavor to have the children come within his shadow, hoping thereby to bring good fortune on them. These people were so impressed by the power that Peter possessed that, when he was passing along a certain street or road, they brought their sick into the streets so that his shadow might fall on them. We are not told that anyone was healed in that way. Their action shows us their appreciation of Peter. It is also suggestive because while in the Orient it speaks of one’s influence, it raises the question: What about our influence? Are we so walking with God that people like to come in contact with us? Or is there so little of Christ about us, are we so self-centered and worldly that no one would think of bringing people within our influence to be blessed and helped? There is a shadow influence even today.
I have often told how my oldest son at one time had an eclipse of faith until one day several of us were invited to spend an afternoon with William Jennings Bryan in his Florida home, and I was asked to bring my son. During that visit, for two or three hours we discussed the Word of God and exchanged thoughts on precious portions of Scripture. The young man sat apart and said very little, but as we left that place he turned to me and exclaimed, “Father, I have been a fool! I thought I couldn’t believe the Bible, but if a man like that with his education and intelligence can believe, I am making a fool of myself to pretend I cannot accept it.” So much for the shadow ministry of William Jennings Bryan. I wonder if we know anything of the shadow ministry. As people come in contact with us, even if we do not utter a word, is there something about us that makes them say, The more I see of that person the more I want to know God? I think that is what the beautiful picture of Peter’s shadow suggests. We are told, “There came also a multitude out of the cities round about unto Jerusalem, bringing sick folks, and them which were vexed with unclean spirits: and they were healed every one.” God’s power was working mightily. But again this stirred the ire of the leaders of the people. This time they took a more stringent stand. So in the next section we will see how the chief priests attempted to hinder the work.
Arrest and Liberation of the Apostles (Acts 5:17-28)
The leaders of the Sadducean party were very indignant because the apostles continued to testify of the resurrection. They did not believe in the resurrection, and yet here were the disciples preaching it. In truth the resurrection was the deathblow to all the philosophy and theology of the Sadducees. They were exceedingly disturbed. This message was being carried throughout the land. They therefore arrested the apostles and shut them up in prison. But an angel of the Lord came and opened the doors and told them to go and “speak in the temple to the people all the words of this life.” Here was direct angelic, supernatural intervention.
So they went early in the morning in obedience to the command laid on them. Word of what was going on soon reached the high priest. Filled with amazement he called together the Sanhedrin of Israel and commanded that the apostles be brought before them. The officers went first to the prison, but returned saying, “The prison truly found we shut with all safety, and the keepers standing without before the doors; but when we had opened, we found no man within.” Then they went to the temple and there they found the apostles preaching Christ, and brought them the second time before the chief priests. They reproved them saying, “Did not we straitly command you that ye should not teach in this name? and, behold, ye have filled Jerusalem with your doctrine, and intend to bring this man’s blood upon us.” They meant: “You are trying to give people the impression we are responsible for His death!” What had these same leaders said only a few weeks before in Pilate’s judgment hall, when Pilate asked, “What shall I do?” They cried, “Let him be crucified…His blood be on us, and on our children.” But now they say, “You are trying to bring this man’s blood upon us.” Oh, no, Peter was not trying to do that. But he was trying to show them that God had made a way through the shedding of the blood of the Lord Jesus Christ by which all their sins and guilt might be washed away if they would but trust in the Savior they had rejected.
Peter’s Testimony (Acts 5:29-32)
Peter refused to stop teaching in the name of Jesus. He had received a commission from the Lord Himself to go into all the world and preach the gospel. He said, “We ought to obey God rather than men.” Notice that the Christian has his responsibility to human government. As long as rulers do not attempt to thwart the purposes of God, the believer is to be subject to the powers-that-be. But when human government would hinder his obeying the Lord’s voice, then it is for the child of God to answer with Peter, “We ought to obey God rather than men,” and to be prepared to take the consequences.
Peter took this as an opportunity to preach to the leaders in Israel. The boldness of this man is amazing. Consider how cowardly he had been before—afraid to confess Jesus to the young girl on the porch, and later even cursed and swore that he did not know Him. Now you see him facing the most august assembly of Jewish leaders and philosophers, challenging them in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. How can we account for it? It is accounted for by the fact he had received the Holy Spirit of God who had baptized him into Christ. He had anointed Peter, empowered him, as Jesus had promised. There was now no fear in him.
“The God of our fathers raised up Jesus, whom ye slew and hanged on a tree.” Peter did not beat around the bush. He did not attempt to mollify these dignitaries in Israel. They were guilty. They had stirred up the rabble and so Peter faced them with their sin; not that they might be condemned but that they might be saved by turning to God in repentance.
“Him hath God exalted.. .to be a Prince and a Savior.” That is the message of the gospel. That is the word we are to bring to all men everywhere today. We look toward the throne of God and there by faith we see the man Christ Jesus, who shed His precious blood for our redemption, sitting on the right hand of the Majesty in Heaven. There He is in the presence of God the Father, ever living to make intercession for us, and through His name the message of salvation is sent out into all the world.
The Lord Jesus Christ is the Savior. He is not simply a helper— be clear about that. Many believe that if we do our best, our part, the Lord Jesus will make up the rest. That is not the gospel at all. Somebody has suggested that in many places today the old hymn “Jesus Paid It All” might well be changed to read:
Jesus paid a part,
And I a part, you know;
Sin had left a little stain,
We washed it white as snow.
That is not the gospel. Christ did not say, “When you have done your best, I will make up the rest.” Jesus is not a crutch, a makeshift. He is the Savior. He does it all!
I have often told about the man who had been converted and got up in a meeting to testify what the Lord had done for him. The leader, who was quite a legalist, said, “Our brother has told about God’s part, but he forgot to tell his part before he was converted. Brother, haven’t you something more to tell us?” The man replied: “Brethren, I completely forgot to tell you about my part. I sure did my part. I was doing my part running away from God as fast as I could for thirty years and God took after me ‘til He ran me down. That was His part.”
We do the sinning; He does the saving. That means He has to get all the glory. If salvation were a partnership affair, then when we get to Heaven we would sing, “Unto Him that loved us, and unto myself who did my best to put away my sin.” But there will be nothing like that in Heaven. Jesus must get all the glory because He did it all.
And so Peter proclaimed Christ as a Prince and a Savior. As a Savior He is exalted to give repentance to Israel: repentance—change of mind, complete change of attitude. Well these dear people in Israel had rejected Him. Now Christ is waiting for them to turn toward the One from whom they had turned away. That is repentance. And Gentiles also need to turn to Him from their sin and folly. When a sinner trusts in the Lord Jesus Christ, his sins are all put away and he stands before God as though he had never sinned at all.
People come to me and say, I have trusted Christ but I can’t forget my sins. It may be salutary that you shouldn’t forget them. It may be well for you to remember, in order that you may walk carefully. “Let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall” (1 Corinthians 10:12). But God has forgotten them! He says, “Their sins and their iniquities will I remember no more” (Hebrews 8:12). Of how many people is this true? Of all who put their trust in Jesus Christ, “To him give all the prophets witness, that through his name whosoever believeth in him shall receive remission of sins” (Acts 10:43).
That was Peter’s message. That is the message we carry to the world. That is the message of the church. So often today some dear brethren forget their message is to go to the lost world. I often hear messages over the radio. I seldom manage to hear them in churches because I am constantly kept on the go. Some sermons I’ve heard broadcast are rhetorically beautiful and, so far as they go, true and Scriptural. Yet no mention is made about the blood of Jesus Christ, and no word is spoken about His atoning sacrifice! I hope the day will never come when I speak a half-hour without telling of Christ crucified. He is the only Savior for lost sinners, through whom forgiveness and justification are granted to all who trust Him. This is our message. It was Peter’s message. “We are his witnesses of these things.”
But our witness alone would not amount to very much. We do not have any power in ourselves. The power comes through the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who repent and believe the gospel. When people repent and believe the message, then the Holy Spirit comes to seal them as God’s beloved children and He indwells them, giving them power for testimony. Mark this—I shall only be given power for testimony if I do not grieve Him. The reason so many Christians are powerless is that they allow so many things in their lives, secretly or openly, to grieve the Spirit of God. Vanity, pride, selfishness, carelessness, worldliness, unkind thoughts and feelings—all these things grieve Him. Covetousness grieves Him. The love of money grieves Him. There are so many other things we might add, which grieve the Holy Spirit of God and hinder the testimony for Christ. I wonder if we have all gone into the presence of the Lord and said, “Search me, O God, and know my heart: try me, and know my thoughts: And see if there be any wicked way in me” (Psalm 139:23-24). Then, did we wait for Him to search us, and have we dared to open our hearts to Him, and have we been honest with Him? Did we put these things out of our lives? If we were more zealous about this, we would count more for God. The Holy Spirit is given for testimony to them that obey Him, and it is as we walk in obedience that His power is revealed in our lives and words.
Gamaliel’s Counsel (Acts 5:33-42)
We are told the learned doctors “were cut to the heart” by Peter’s message. It sounds well, but it was not divine conviction. Their natural feelings were stirred—but with hatred. “They were cut to the heart, and took counsel to slay them.” You see, instead of yielding to repentance through the Word of God, they hardened themselves and would have added sin to sin by killing the very messengers who told them of the grace of God in Christ Jesus.
But in the last section we read that there was one man among them whose name we always honor because of his kindly moderation. Of course, he should have gone farther than he did and said, “Brethren, these men are right. Let us turn to God, too, and accept His blessed Son.” You will remember that Rabbi Gamaliel was the teacher of Saul of Tarsus. Saul had been brought up at his feet. Gamaliel turned to them and said in effect: “Brethren, let us not be too extreme. Take heed what you do touching these men. There have been people before who came among us with certain strange doctrines. There was a man who thought he was called of God to overturn the Roman power and deliver us from the Roman domination; and another who led a party out into the wilderness, proclaiming himself to be a divinely appointed leader. After a while their claims proved to be fraudulent. Now Jesus may be another man like them and perhaps these disciples are simply misled. By and by the truth will be made known. Of course, if they are right, we do not want to be found fighting against the truth. And if this be of God, you cannot overthrow it. Let us be careful lest we be found fighting against God.”
That was good advice. Yes, very good advice, as far as it went— but it did not go far enough. He should have said, “Brethren, let us investigate for ourselves, and if we find these men have a message from God, let us accept it with all our hearts.” If Gamaliel had done that there might have been another Paul going throughout the world. At any rate, we give Gamaliel credit for his kindly spirit, and it is well to keep his counsel in mind and be very slow to judge anything that may turn out to be truly based on the Word of God.
“And to him they agreed: and when they had called the apostles, and beaten them [they weren’t going to kill them, or keep them in jail; the beating showed what their feelings were], they commanded that they should not speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go.”
We read, “They departed from the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for his name. And daily in the temple, and in every house, they ceased not to teach and preach Jesus Christ.” They could not do otherwise. Their hearts were full of Christ and out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh. And if our hearts are full of Christ and if we really know Him as our Savior, we will want to tell others about Him.
Would you not like to know Him? Would you not like to acquaint yourself with Him and be at peace? “He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life.”