“The Wiles of the Devil” series (post #12)
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?” (Acts 5:3, N.K.J.V.)
The husband and wife team of Ananias and Sapphira were part of the early church in Jerusalem. That church was nothing less than the world’s first church, and it was a “megachurch” from its very inception. It was birthed on site in Jerusalem when approximately 3,000 people got saved and baptized following Peter’s powerful sermon on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:1-41).
The new church met daily in the Jewish temple complex, possibly during the regular Jewish times of prayer at the temple (Acts 3:1). A popular meeting spot was Solomon’s Porch (Acts 3:11; 5:12), which was located on the east side of the complex and was covered with a roof. But the members also met regularly in homes for meals and fellowship (Acts 2:46-47). According to Acts 2:42, the church programs were: continuing in the apostles’ teaching (which included evangelism and baptism), fellowshipping with one another, breaking bread (which included partaking of the Lord’s Supper), and praying.
That program worked so well that in just a few weeks the church’s numbers exploded to approximately 5,000 men (Acts 4:4). Who’s to say how many woman and children aren’t even included in that number of 5,000 men? Whatever the true number of church members was, it would continue to multiply as the church kept on spreading the gospel and kept on turning new converts into full-fledged disciples (Acts 6:7).
And there was one other fascinating aspect to the first church in Jerusalem: It was communal. Two passages tell us this:
Now all who believed were together, and had all things in common, and sold their possession and goods, and divided them among all, as everyone had need. (Acts 2:44-45, N.K.J.V.)
Now the multitude of those who believed were of one heart and one soul; neither did anyone say that any of the things he possessed was his own, but they had all things in common. (Acts 4:32, N.K.J.V.)
What originally made this communal system necessary was the fact that most of the church’s founding 3,000 members were out-of-towners who didn’t live or work in Jerusalem. They had been visiting Jerusalem to take part in the feast time of Pentecost, had heard Peter’s sermon and gotten saved, and had remained in town to sit under the teaching of Peter and the other apostles and to get to know their new brothers and sisters in Christ. As for the countries and lands from which these foreigners came, Acts 2:8-11 provides an extensive list.
It was the church’s communal system that set the stage for the sin of Ananias and Sapphira. The couple sold some land and secretly kept a certain percentage of the profits for themselves. Then they deceptively presented the remaining percentage to the apostles as if it constituted the full amount of the sale (Acts 5:1-2).
To be clear, their sin had nothing to do with keeping the land, selling it, or even holding back a percentage of the profits. The communal system was completely voluntary, and everyone understood that the couple had the right to do whatever they wanted to do with their property and its proceeds (Acts 5:3-4). The line of sin was crossed when Ananias made a show of presenting the monetary gift as if it was the entire sale price. That was deceitful. That was dishonest. That was lying. Since Peter described the act as lying to the Holy Spirit, it seems likely that Ananias and Sapphira had promised to donate the full amount of the sale.
So, who motivated Ananias and Sapphira to do such a thing? It was Satan. Peter rebuked Ananias by saying, “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?” The Greek word translated as “filled” is the same one that is used in reference to those early Christians being “filled” with the Holy Spirit. What such a filling amounts to is control. To be filled with the Holy Spirit is to be controlled by the Spirit; to be filled with Satan is to be controlled by Satan.
The Bible doesn’t tell us how Peter knew that Ananias’ gift wasn’t the complete amount. Perhaps he had heard how much the couple had made on the sale. Or perhaps the Holy Spirit gave him the spiritual discernment on the spot. We also aren’t told why Peter blamed their motivation on Satan. Evidently the Holy Spirit game him special insight about that. What we know for sure is that Peter came down like a sledgehammer on Ananias, saying of the possession:
“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.” (Acts 5:4, N.K.J.V.)
You’ll notice that Peter didn’t prophesy doom upon Ananias. Nevertheless, God sent it. As soon as Peter’s words were uttered, Ananias dropped dead on the spot. In the wake of that shocking death, the Bible says, “…great fear came upon all those who had heard these things” (Acts 5:5, N.K.J.V.). Yes, that will do it. If my preacher blasted one of my fellow church members concerning some sin, and that church member immediately fell down dead, that would get my attention too.
For some reason, Sapphira was not with Ananias when Peter confronted him. It wasn’t until three hours later that she approached Peter (Acts 5:7). As she came, she didn’t know that her husband was not only dead but was already buried (Acts 5:6)! My guess is that she asked Peter if Ananias had presented their donation to him, but the Bible doesn’t record the entire conversation. It opens the encounter with Peter asking Sapphira, “Is this the price you and Ananias received for the land?” That simple question provided Sapphira with a chance to confess. However, in clear evidence that she had been in collusion with the plan, she kept up the lie by answering, “Yes, that is the price.”
What followed next was every bit as shocking as the previous death of Ananias:
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 dead at his feet and breathed her last. And the young me came in and found her dead, and carrying her out, buried her by her husband. So great fear came upon all the church and upon all who heard these things. (Acts 5:9-11, N.K.J.V.)
There is some debate as to whether or not Ananias and Sapphira were legitimate Christians. Some classify them as lost unbelievers who shouldn’t have been “church members” anyway. This view is supported by the fact that the Bible never specifically calls them “believers” (Acts 5:14) or part of the “brethren” (Acts 6:3).
Others, however, classify them as true Christians and point out that the terms “believers” and “brethren” are rarely used to describe any of the members of the Jerusalem church. Also, the fact that the couple were able to lie to the Holy Spirit and test Him seems to show that the Spirit indwelt each of them. The Bible doesn’t use such language in regards to the Holy Spirit’s dealings with lost unbelievers.
As for me, my take is that Ananias and Sapphira were true Christians who committed what 1 John 5:16-17 describes as “sin leading to death” (N.K.J.V.). Later on, some of the Christians of the church in Corinth would commit this same type of sin (1 Corinthians 11:29-32). If this is a correct interpretation, the souls of Ananias and Sapphira went to heaven at the moment of their physical deaths (2 Corinthians 5:1-8).
Here’s something else: It is a Bible fact that God tends to judge sin more severely at the beginning of a new era. First, at the beginning of the age of the law, He sent fire down from heaven to consume Nadab and Abihu (two priests, two sons of the high priest Aaron) for using “unauthorized fire” (N.I.V.) in the tabernacle (Leviticus 10:1-3). Second, in the early days of Israel’s conquest of Canaan, He commanded that Achan and his family be burned because Achan disobeyed the order regarding the spoils of Israel’s victory over Jericho (Joshua 7:1-26). Third, in those earliest days of the church age, God struck Ananias and Sapphira dead.
But let me close out this post by helping you apply this terrifying story to your life. Whether you are a Christian or not, you are susceptible to Satan motivating you to commit sin. Why are prophecies about Satan woven into God’s condemnation of the King of Babylon in Isaiah 14:3-21? It’s because God wants us to understand that Satan was the motivating force behind that earthly king’s decisions. In Ezekiel 28:1-19, God does the same thing in His condemnation of the King of Tyre. The point of both passages, not to mention this story from Acts 5:1-11, is that Satan really does have the power to motivate people to do his bidding. Whether you are a unbelieving king or a Christian commoner, he can motivate you to do bad things. So be warned, be wise, and beware.