This is part of an ongoing study of the book of Acts. If you’d like to catch up, you can read the previous studies here. Before you begin today, be sure to read the entire chapter of Acts 5 here, and don’t forget to sound off in the comments below.
We ended chapter 4 with Barnabas selling a field he owned and bringing all the income to the apostles and donating it to the needs of the church. Really, Acts 4:32-37 fit better into chapter 5, because Luke is going to give us a stark contrast between two actions: that of Barnabas and that of Ananias and Sapphira.
Ananias and his wife Sapphira also sold a property they owned. The conspiracy that the two engaged in was not withholding part of the money from the church, but pretending like they were giving all the proceeds away. They wanted to look like Barnabas and others who were doing the same thing. They wanted the praise of the apostles and the other believers but they didn’t want to give up all their money.
When Peter confronts Ananias, he tells him that the property was his to do with as he chose. Ananias was certainly free to come to Peter and say, “Sapphira and I sold a property and we want to give you half of the proceeds.” What is amazing is not that Ananias withheld part of the money, but that Peter already knew that.
Miracles of Another Sort
We’ve already seen in Acts that Peter and John have healed someone and now we see that Peter is calling someone out with a prophetic word. I prefer to call these types of revelatory encounters, “words of knowledge.” They are not overtly prophetic in the narrow sense of the word because they are not telling the future, but they are prophetic nonetheless in the sense that they are a tidbit of revelation straight from the Lord. There is no way Peter could have known this unless the Holy Spirit told him.
The fact that Ananias died at the end of Peter’s rebuke has caused many people great fear, and that is the point. Ananias’ death caused great fear amongst all the believers there because God was making it known that nothing is hidden from Him. Even though Jesus was no longer with them, God was still the one in charge. He could still run His church without being physically present.
Love and Fear
Many people today believe that we should not fear God, but love Him. The problem with that thinking is that it is incomplete. The truth is that we should do both. Paul tells us in Romans 11:22 that we should consider the “kindness and the sternness of God.” For those who love God with all their “heart, soul, mind and strength,” it goes really well for us. Existing in a loving relationship with a God who is love is a wonderful thing, but there is considerable wisdom to fearing the one who has the power over our souls.
In the parable of the talents in Matthew 25:14-30, Jesus tells us that two of His proverbial servants loved Him and therefore served Him well. The third servant knew God to be a “hard man.” What was Jesus’ response to him? If he knew his master was such a hard man, why didn’t he at least fear him and put the money given to him on deposit to earn interest.
Hear what Jesus is saying here: even if we don’t love Him, choosing to obey Him out of fear is at least a wise choice. The message of the gospel is not one primarily of obedience, but of love. Mankind has never been able to obey God without loving Him, but the power of obedience in love is great! The consequences for disobedience and lying to the Holy Spirit can also be great, as we see here in Acts. That is why a healthy fear of God is also wisdom. Ananias and Sapphira could have used such fear.
The church feared God when they saw what happened, and it did not weaken their love. We need to understand love and fear of God as symbiotic partners, not combative forces. The Lord intends for them to coexist in our relationship to Him for our good, something that is almost wholly lost on our culture today.
No One Dared Join Them
The signs and wonders performed by the apostles didn’t stop at the death sentences of self-absorbed liars. What a testimony in scripture to say that “all” the sick people that were brought before the apostles were healed. Even Peter’s shadow healed people! Imagine the amount of faith and reverence for the Lord that must have existed in Jerusalem in those days.
Although they were well regarded by everyone at that point, people were still afraid to join with them because of the stories they had heard like the one about Ananias and Sapphira. But even though people were afraid to join with the believers, they couldn’t resist the power of God. Acts 5:13-14 speaks of that paradox. No amount of fear can ever keep us from the God of love. In fact, it was probably that healthy fear that led people to abandon their self-righteousness and run to the Jesus the apostles preached.
There is a pessimistic saying that says, “no good deed goes unpunished.” The apostles miracles, signs and wonders did not go unnoticed by the religious ruling elite. The Saducees, who detested the theology of a resurrection, were jealous of these “fishermen” who were stealing the hearts away from them to believe in eternal life. They arrested all the apostles and threw them in a prison.
An angel came and sprung the apostles overnight and told them to continue preaching the very thing the Saducees loathed: “new life.” The apostles did just that and when the Saducees arrived the next morning, they were shocked, but miracles had obviously not swayed them. Even though it was clear that the apostles had not forcibly escaped, they had them arrested again, and the apostles went willingly!
Luke tells us in Acts 5:28 the condition of the religious rulers hearts. They told the apostles they were upset at them for teaching people they were guilty of Jesus’ blood. Imagine knowing you had only a few months earlier put a man to death and now trying to say you were innocent! That is exactly what the Sanhedrin (the religious ruling class) was doing.
Peter didn’t let them off the hook. He plainly told them that they had, in fact, killed Jesus (verse 30). What really angered the rulers was when Peter told them that he and his fellow apostles were truly the ones obeying God, not them. They were mad enough to kill Peter on the spot.
Then a name appears that we will see again in Acts. Gamaliel. He conferred privately with the Sanhedrin and retells two extra-biblical accounts of rebel leaders who were killed and their cause amounting to nothing. Gamaliel personifies the wisdom of fearing God.
Two Wrongs Don’t Make Right
Gamaliel understood that killing these men would not be honoring to the Lord, like Israel’s son Rueben knew that killing Joseph was just as wrong (Genesis 37). Like Rueben, Gamaliel wasn’t willing to go against the flow of the religious rulers, but he feared God enough not to completely do what he knew to be wrong. He would not join the apostles, but neither would he see them killed. That fear and wisdom is something we’ll see shortly when we are introduced to Gamaliel’s disciple, Paul
To make the point that the Sanhedrin did not like the apostles’ teaching, they had them flogged. We don’t know exactly what that means or to what severity, but we can miss the significance if we pass by this statement too quickly. Flogging meant that they at least received lashes with a whip. It could have also meant lashes with a “cat of nine tails,” a horrific torture device of glass and jagged shards embedded into the end of a whip. The apostles were either beaten severely or to within an inch of their lives. Either way, they must have taken days to recover. However they were beaten, we know for sure that “flogging” did not mean they were slapped on the wrist.
That makes their joy all the more amazing. They were thrilled that they were worthy to suffer the same shame Jesus had suffered. And it had the opposite effect on the apostles than what the Sanhedrin had intended. Instead of scaring the apostles, it emboldened them. And the church began to grow even faster because of it as we’ll see next in chapter 6.
Questions for Chapter 5
- How many people have been killed by God in your church for lying? Have you lied to the Lord recently?
- Why do you think God killed Ananias and Sapphira, but doesn’t always act so swiftly?
- What do you think it would feel like to be arrested for teaching people about Jesus? What would it feel like if your pastor arrested you for preaching about Jesus?
- How would you respond if you were given lashes? What about if you were beaten so badly it took you weeks to recover, all for the name of Jesus. How would you feel if it was your pastor who did that to you?