The Disturbing Story of Ananais and Sapphira

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The Disturbing Story of Ananais and Sapphira

19 July 2023 Hits:2239

The unsettling story of Ananais and Sapphira is found in Acts chapter five. The first two verses summarise the story:

“Ananias, together with his wife Sapphira, also sold a piece of property. With his wife’s full knowledge, he kept back part of the money for himself, but brought the rest and put it at the apostles’ feet.”

Their duplicity, described by Peter as “lying to God,” led to their untimely death.

Interestingly, Peter makes such a big deal of this deceit, especially in light of his betrayal of Jesus. Peter received nothing but grace for his error and yet is quick to pronounce judgment on others. I’m glad Christians don’t behave like that anymore! So, how should we understand the disturbing story of Ananias and Sapphira?

A Parable?

The story may be a parable rather than a literal historical event. For example, the Bible Background Commentary reveals some rabbis allegedly disintegrate foolish pupils with a harsh look. We still talk about someone giving a withering look, but the “look” doesn’t literally shrink the person. We understand the expression metaphorically.

The New Interpreter’s Study Bible says about this story: “Theological and pastoral questions arise. Why is Peter so harsh in not offering the couple an opportunity to repent? Does God really punish sinners in such a drastic manner? The story is more folklore than historical and is meant to underscore the serious breach that occurs when members of the community lie to one another.”

And so, what KIND of truth is found in Acts 5? Is it factual, or is it symbolic, a parable designed to teach truth while itself not being a true story?

People sometimes get hung up on facts rather than truth. For example, instead of trying to work out how a large fish swallowed Jonah, ask yourself what truth is being taught in this story. What can we learn, and how can we apply this truth daily?

An Ancient Teaching Method?

A well-known educational tool in the first century was comparing positive and negative examples. Acts chapter four ended with a general statement of the church’s generosity and then a specific instance – Barnabas sold a field he owned, and laid the money at the apostles’ feet.

And then Luke, the author of Acts, compares this with the story of Ananias and Sapphira, who also sold a piece of property. Remember, there were no chapter divisions in Luke’s letter.

Many people who had become Christians were from different nations and had stayed in Jerusalem after Pentecost (Acts 2). These people had no means of support – no social security benefits. The church was their lifeline, and there were no churches beyond Jerusalem.

These freewill gifts were entirely at the discretion of the giver. The land was sold and placed “at the apostles’ feet,” indicating that the offering was not for the apostles but for them to distribute to those in need. Barnabas demonstrated the right way to do this. Ananias and Sapphira displayed the wrong way.

The message in these stories is this: when you give, do it like Barnabas and not like Ananias and Sapphira.

An Older Story?

The story of Ananias and Sapphira contrasts with the account of Achan in Joshua 7, in which the sin of one man brought death upon many others—in the story of Ananias and Sapphira, the demise of two people brought purity to a community rather than death. God takes the corporate holiness of his people very seriously.

Honesty is the Best Policy

The Acts 5 story shows that God takes sincerity in claims very seriously. Pastors should remember this when asked about the size of the church we lead. Far too many of us become evang-elastic in our answers.

The whole scenario with Ananias and Sapphira was utterly unnecessary. They were likely a very wealthy couple (Sapphira was an uncommon name and always found amongst rich women). The property was theirs. No one had asked them or forced them to sell it. It was a matter of their own volition.

Furthermore, they had conspired to keep some of the money but made out they were giving it all, exposing their pride in the pretence. They lied to and tested the Holy Spirit (God). Was this a form of blaspheming the Holy Spirit? Was this sin unforgivable? Whatever the case, one truth that stands out in this story is honesty is the best policy.

A Harsh Sentence

The Dead Sea Scrolls excluded such an offender from the communion table for a year. But here, a much stricter sentence is imposed. There’s no mention that God did the killing. Peter pronounced the sentence, possibly operating a gift of the Holy Spirit. Was he a novice in using these powers? Did he learn from this? To my knowledge, there is no record of anything like this happening again. And I’ve never had anyone die during an offering at Bayside Church – not yet, at least!

Concluding Comments

The punishment doesn’t appear to fit the crime. Far worse sins are recorded in the New Testament Scriptures without death as the punishment. Consider the case of a young man committing incest with his stepmother and Peter’s rank hypocrisy that Paul condemns to Peter’s face. But Peter doesn’t drop dead as a result.

If this is a literal historical event, my only thought is that the apostles wanted to protect the baby church. Such protection wasn’t needed as the church matured.

A literal understanding of this story troubles me because it doesn’t appear to reflect God’s nature of unfailing love and forgiveness. Neither does it demonstrate Jesus’ statement, “the Son of Man did not come to destroy men’s lives but to save them” (Luke 9:56)

If Ananias and Sapphira were real people, they were a part of the church and Christians. They would have been considered “saved.” There is no pronouncement that they were “lost”. I hope they’re in heaven.

Rob Buckingham

Senior Minister

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