Commentary on Acts 4-5 (Ananias and Sapphira)

The verses of Acts 4:32-35 describe the situation of the small, but growing, church in Jerusalem. The community is united in “heart and soul,” and this unity causes them to freely share their material possessions with each other. There is nobody who is lacking the essentials of food, clothing, or shelter. As the wealthier members of the church see the needs of the poorer members, they sell their houses and land and give the proceeds to the apostles so that the apostles can distribute the money to the poor in the Jerusalem church.

In addition, the apostles continue preaching the resurrection of Jesus to the people of Jerusalem. Because of this preaching, God showers grace on the entire community of Christians in Jerusalem.

As an example of the generosity that characterizes the early church, Luke introduces us to Barnabas. Barnabas, a Levite from Cyprus, sells a piece of land and brings the funds the apostles to be distributed. Barnabas, the Son of Encouragement, is an important character in the book of Acts. John Polhill, in vol. 26, Acts, The New American Commentary, fills in some details:

He was the encourager, the advocate, the paraklete par excellence of all the characters in Acts. When the Christians in Jerusalem shied away from Paul after his conversion, Barnabas interceded and introduced him to them (9:26f.). When Paul refused to take Mark on his second missionary journey, Barnabas took up for Mark (15:36–39). When the Christians of Jerusalem became concerned over the orthodoxy of the Antiochene Christians in their witness to Greeks, Barnabas again served as intercessor, saw the gracious work of the Antiochene Christians, and encouraged them (11:20–23). Indeed, 11:24 well sums up the portrait of this ‘Son of Encouragement’: ‘He was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith.’

We also learn that Barnabas was a Levite from Cyprus. Levites were officials in the temple cultus, subordinate in rank to the priests. Prohibited from offering sacrifices and barred entrance to the holy place, they served in such capacities as policing the temple grounds, keeping the gates, and providing the music at sacrifices and on ceremonial occasions. According to ancient provisions (Deut 10:9; Num 18:20, 24), Levites were not supposed to own land, but that no longer seemed to apply in Barnabas’s day. (Indeed, Jeremiah, a priest, owned land [Jer 32:6–15].)

We are not told where the field was located, whether in Judea or his native Cyprus. Nothing was made of Barnabas’s Levitical status in Acts. He may never have served as a Levite. Such service was in no way compulsory for one of Levitical lineage. Just how strong were Barnabas’s Cypriot roots we also are not told. Luke simply said here that he was a Cypriot by birth. His family may have moved to Jerusalem when he was quite young, and it is in and around Jerusalem where we find Barnabas active in the early chapters of Acts. On the other hand, it is probably not by chance that Paul and Barnabas’s mission work together began on the island of Cyprus.

In chapter 5, Luke reveals that not everyone in the Jerusalem church is united in heart and soul. Specifically, a man named Ananias and his wife, Sapphira, sell a piece of land and promise to give all the proceeds to the apostles. Instead, they keep some of the money for themselves without telling anyone.

Peter confronts Ananias and accuses him of being influenced by Satan and of lying to the Holy Spirit. Peter reminds Ananias that Ananias freely committed to selling his land and then freely committed to giving all the proceeds to the church. There was no coercion involved. So, when Ananias pretends to give all the proceeds to the church, but in actuality only renders a portion of the proceeds, he is attempting to deceive God.

Immediately after hearing Peter’s words, Ananias falls to the ground and dies. The implication seems to be that God has judged Ananias for his sin by taking his life. Similar judgments occurred in the Old Testament: Leviticus 10:2 (fire consumes Nadab and Abihu), Joshua 7:1, 19–26 (with Achan), and 1 Kings 14:1–18 (Abijah’s death). Some young men hastily take his body away and bury him. Luke remarks that great fear came upon those that heard about Ananias’ death.

After three hours had passed, Sapphira comes to see Peter. She does not know what has happened to her husband. Peter gives Sapphira a chance to tell him the truth about the profits from the land sale, but she sticks to the lie that she and Ananias concocted. Peter accuses her, just like he did with Ananias, of lying to the Holy Spirit. He then tells her that she is about to face the same punishment as her husband, death.

When she falls down and dies, the same young men carry her away and bury her beside her husband. Luke closes the story with another statement about the great fear that came upon all those who heard about what happened.

Why did Ananias and Sapphira lie about the money they received from the land sale? We can speculate that there were at least a couple of motivations. First, they desired to receive praise from the apostles and community by selling the land and giving all the proceeds to them. Second, they apparently wanted to hold on to some of their wealth, despite their commitment to give it away. They were not “all in.” Darrell Bock, in Acts, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, explains what we can learn from this tragic story:

In sum, this is a difficult passage because the judgment against Ananias and Sapphira is instantaneous and direct. This judgment indicates, however, how serious sin is to God and how gracious God is in often deferring such judgment. Most sin is not treated so harshly, but at this early stage, such a divine act serves to remind the community of its call to holiness and its loyalty to God. God sees and knows all. Sin is dealt with directly. The resulting fear that the judgment creates is exactly what the passage seeks to engender—respect for God and for righteousness as well as a recognition that sin is destructive and dangerous. There is honesty in this report as well. The church is not a place of perfect people (Fernando 1998: 198).

The sequence of sin is never isolated. The desire for praise and perhaps a desire to hang on to possessions led to lying. Fernando (1998: 201–3) calls the sin of the couple primarily one of pride and deceit. Manipulating their reputation was more important than allegiance to God and God’s reputation. Abuse of possessions can undergird a manipulated reputation. Lying led to deceit and an offense against God. Sin almost never comes in a single package; it begets more sin.

The passage has another lesson: sin will be dealt with. The passage emphasizes a path of honesty and integrity, as Ananias and Sapphira are counterexamples, standing in contrast to the earlier Barnabas (Stott 1990: 109).