Read the Passage: Acts 4:32-5:11
Communal Sharing (4:32–37)
In our previous study of Acts 2:42–47 we focused on the Acts communal sharing example that is reiterated in Acts 4:32–37. In that investigation we concluded that the instance of sharing in the early church is not a prescriptive model for a type of Christian communism, but rather is an example of Jesus’ command, “Sell what you have and give alms [to the poor]” (Luke 12:33). Christ gave this exhortation following His parable of the rich fool. In our study of Acts 2:42–47 we noted that the example here is an emergency aid-based event that was sparked by the large number of foreign converts in Jerusalem (cf. Acts 2:41, 47). Further, this is a narrative account, not a prescriptive teaching, which differs from other biblical teachings and examples related to material stewardship, such as the parable of the talents (cf. Matt. 25:14–30) and Paul’s personal example of labor (cf. 2 Thess. 3:7–9).
In regard to addressing poverty, it is important to understand that there are three categories of causes of poverty. These are: personal sin (or moral failure), oppression by others, and natural evil (or the fallenness of the world). These are important to discern for they help guide the way in which poverty is addressed. In regard to poverty caused by oppression or natural evil, the best course of action is an aid-based model of relief that entails gratuitous help, immediate relief, and advocacy. In regard to poverty caused by personal sin, the best course of action is usually a developmental model of relief that aims at repentance, equipping, and moral reform. To identify the wrong cause of poverty or to provide an inappropriate model of relief can result in more harm than help. We also must keep in mind the biblical principle of moral proximity (cf. Rom. 12:13; Gal. 6:10; 1 Tim. 5:4, 8).
Ananias’ Lie (5:1–2, 7–8)
In Acts 4:36 Luke introduced Barnabas, who was also known as Joseph, into the narrative. Barnabas would become a main character in the book of Acts, as a traveling companion of Paul, in chapters 9–15. However, in Acts 4:36–37 Luke simply notes that Barnabas sold some land and donated the money to the church. In Acts 5:1 Luke tells us about a previously unknown couple named Ananias and Sapphira who were apparently part of the church. Like Barnabas, this couple sold some land, but only donated part of the money to the church. Ananias and Sapphira intentionally erred, however, in reporting to the church that their donation was the selling price of their land (cf. Acts 5:8). This deception shows that their rationale for selling their land and giving funds to the church was not altruistic. Rather, Ananias and Sapphire likely gave money in order to be seen as generous or for some other self-promoting reason.
Peter’s Rebuke (5:3–6, 9–11)
Peter’s rebuke of Ananias for his deception may seem harsh, but given the context it is appropriate. Remember that some of Jesus’ harshest words were directed at the Pharisees and concerned their improper motivation for religious service, including prayer, fasting, and good deeds, among other activities (cf. Matt. 6:1–7, 16–18; 23:1–36). In his interrogation of Ananias, Peter asks four rhetorical questions, “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? 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 5:3–4). In a divine act of judgment, which foreshadows eternal judgment, Ananias died, apparently without saying a word.
Perhaps the most tragic part of this narrative is the account of Sapphira’s death. While Sapphira was aware of the deception, Luke had reported in Acts 5:2 that it was Ananias “who kept back part of the proceeds.” While Sapphira willfully consented to the sin, she appears to have been led into the sin by her husband Ananias. Solomon had warned, “He who walks with wise men will be wise, but the companion of fools will be destroyed” (Prov. 14:20). Likewise, Paul later taught, “Do not be deceived, evil company corrupts good habits” (1 Cor. 15:33). Because she had been a willful participant in the deception, Sapphira met the same fate as her husband, albeit three hours later. In Acts 5:11, Luke reports that as a result of the divinely carried out deaths of Ananias and Sapphira, “great fear [or reverence] came upon all the church and upon all who heard these things.”
- What is the difference between blaspheming (cf. Matt. 12:31), lying to (cf. Acts 5:4), grieving (cf. Eph. 4:30), and quenching (cf. 1 Thess. 5:19) the Holy Spirit?
- What is the difference between economic equality and economic justice? Which does the Bible call Christians to pursue?
- How can we best help those who are in poverty within the church? For whom are we most morally responsible in regard to material provision?
- What is the proper motivation for giving to the church (cf. 2 Cor. 8:12; 9:7)? Do most people give with right motives? Have you ever given improperly?
- Why do you think the Lord judged Ananias and Sapphira so quickly, without giving them a chance to repent? Are you holding back anything from God?