But a certain man named Ananias, with his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property, and kept back some of the price for himself, with his wife’s full knowledge, and bringing a portion of it, he laid it at the apostles’ feet. But Peter said, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit, and to keep back some of the price of the land? “While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not under your control? Why is it that you have conceived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to men, but to God.” And as he heard these words, Ananias fell down and breathed his last; and great fear came upon all who heard of it. And the young men arose and covered him up and after carrying him out they buried him.
Now there elapsed an interval of about three hours, and his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. And Peter responded to her, “Tell me whether you sold the land for such and such a price?” And she said, “Yes, that was the price.” Then Peter said to her, “Why is it that you have agreed together to put the Spirit of the Lord to the test? Behold, the feet of those who have buried your husband are at the door, and they shall carry you out as well.” And she fell immediately at his feet, and breathed her last; and the young men came in and found her dead, and they carried her out and buried her beside her husband. (Acts 5:1-10)
Some might be wondering why I am including Sapphira in a series on early Christian women disciples. After all, if Sapphira and her husband Ananias did such a grievous thing that God punished them both with death, can they even be Christians? Should they be included in a series on disciples? I believe that they were Christians. They are really no different than other Christians. They just really blew it as they fell to the temptation of Satan. We all commit sin. Thankfully, God does not punish us as much as we deserve all of the time.
Why was Sapphira’s and Ananias’ punishment so severe?
First, we have no reason to believe that Sapphira was not a Christian. She was part of the community that “were of one heart and soul; and not one of them claimed that anything belonging to him was his own, but all things were common property to them” (Acts 4:32). This was the group that had just gathered to listen to Peter proclaim the Gospel. The new converts had believed Peter’s words and prayed and then “the place where they had gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak the word of God with boldness” (Acts 4:31). This was a group of Spirit filled Christians whose desire to follow Jesus was so strong that they willingly gave up even their own possessions in order to do as Jesus did – preach and serve others. Sapphira and Ananias were part of this group.
At this time in the early church believers were on a spiritual high. But that did not mean that they were perfect. The joy they experienced in forgiveness of their sins and a relationship with Christ caused them to respond in extraordinary ways.
Sapphira was not so different from other human beings; she wanted to be well thought of by the rest of her group. Sapphira and her husband had brought only a portion of the proceeds from the sale of their land to give to Peter but they lied and said they brought the whole amount. They did not need to lie; the money was theirs and they could have given only a part if they wanted to. The community would have been grateful for that.
But Sapphira lied to the Holy Spirit. Sapphira’s sin was “to put the Spirit of the Lord to the test” (Acts 5:9). Why did she an Ananias lie?
One commentator suggested that Sapphira was covetous and that her sin was that she loved money. But the Bible doesn’t really say that. Instead we have other clues as to what the trouble probably was – she wanted recognition.
Other disciples, such as Barnabas, had sold their land and brought the money to Peter to share with the community (Acts 4:36). No doubt Barnabas was seen as someone special because he was probably very wealthy. Ananias and Sapphira wanted this esteem for themselves. They wanted to appear very generous and receive the approbation of the entire community; hence the great show with which they brought the money to Peter and laid it at his feet.
Peter himself was filled with the Spirit and gifted as an apostle. The Holy Spirit prompted Peter as to the disingenuousness of the couple’s actions. Peter gave the opportunity to Ananias and Sapphira to confess. They both continued in their lie. Ananias was the first to drop dead. Luke tells us that great fear came on everyone who heard about it. This is one of our clues as to why God inflicted such a severe punishment on them. Lying to the Holy Spirit is very serious.
Perhaps in the new community made up of mostly Jewish believers a testimony that the Holy Spirit is God was needed. The Jewish converts were just getting used to the idea that Jesus is God; now they will see that the Holy Spirit has all of the authority of the triune Godhead as well. As Jews they were monotheists and thinking of God as a Trinity would take some getting used to. Luke presents to us the fact that the promised Holy Spirit has come. The evidence is that the community loves God and each other. And they show this with their actions. What Ananias and Sapphira did ran counter to everything the new church was experiencing.
Sapphira did not know what had happened to her husband when she came along three hours later. Peter gave her an opportunity to tell the truth. Sapphira told the same lie that she and her husband had agreed on. She immediately fell down dead. Again, we are told that great fear came on all of the church when they heard about this.
What can we learn from this story about Sapphira?
This sign to the whole church, that it is a grievous offense to lie to God, is one reason why Sapphira’s punishment was so severe. The new community in Christ would see that God takes sin seriously, especially when those who have been granted many blessings fall to sin. To whom much is given; much is required. Christians are held to a higher standard. Since Sapphira and Ananias wanted to be held up as examples in their community, God held them to a higher standard. Since we are held to a high standard our lives should show it. We should look different from the rest of the world – we should serve because we love Jesus and others, not because we are looking for a reward or the congratulations of others.
The new community was also committed to sharing with one another. Our commitments to each other should be sincere and honest. Our fellow believers should be able to trust us. The early church was doing so well as they started on the road to serving Jesus. They did not need a couple of rotten apples in their barrel. God rooted them out as an example to all that He takes our words and our commitments seriously. By taking the lives of Ananias and Sapphire, God showed that He allows believers to suffer the consequences of their actions. God still loves us and wants the best for us; we receive forgiveness after our wrong actions. We are grateful that He does not always exact such a severe punishment as He did on Sapphira. In gratitude, we move on towards being even more faithful in our lives.