In the book of Acts, we find a story so shocking that none of us would have written it. Children’s Bibles completely ignore it and it’s rarely taught in church.
This is the story of when God killed a church-attending married couple because they lied about their giving. (Acts 5:1-11)
The first century context was that Christians were selling their possessions and belongings to meet each other’s needs. (Acts 2:45) Joseph of Cyprus, aka Barnabas, sold his field and gave the money to the apostles for ministry. Ananias and Sapphira followed his example and sold a piece of their property to support gospel ministry. (Acts 4:36-5:1)
On the outside, Ananias and Sapphira looked like Gospel Patrons, but inside something was different.
What Was Wrong?
Before they gave the proceeds of their land, Ananias and Sapphira agreed upon a deceitful plan. They conceived a conspiracy. Ananias went first to carry it out “and with his wife’s knowledge he kept back for himself some of the proceeds and brought only a part of it and laid it at the apostle’s feet.” (Acts 5:2)
Initially, we might ask: What was wrong with keeping a percentage of the proceeds for themselves?
Peter makes clear that owning and selling property was not the problem. Likewise, they were free to decide how much of it to give. He addressed both of these in his confrontation with Ananias, saying, “While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal?” (Acts 5:4)
There wasn’t a rule or a percentage that Ananias and Sapphira broke. God is clear. He desires that “each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” (2 Corinthians 9:7) The problem was that God was the farthest thing from Ananias and Sapphira’s minds.
What Was Their Sin?
Peter’s unvarnished rebuke shows us their sin. He said, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit … You have not lied to man but to God.” (Acts 5:3-4)
Peter had seen all this before. He witnessed Satan fill a man’s heart. He was there at the Passover as Jesus dipped a morsel of bread into a cup and gave it to Judas. He watched when after Judas had taken the morsel, “Satan entered into him.” (John 13:27)
Just as Judas used to help himself to the funds given for Jesus’ ministry (John 12:6), Ananias and Sapphira held back for themselves part of the funds they claimed they were giving to ministry. They wanted the apostles to believe they were giving 100% of the proceeds when they weren’t.
Peter asked Sapphira, “Tell me whether you sold the land for so much.” And she said, “Yes, for so much.” (Acts 5:8)
Their sin was pre-mediated, secretly agreed upon. Ananias and Sapphira were not Christians who made a minor mistake. They were deceivers, hypocrites, wolves in sheep’s clothing. Their sin was the sin of Judas.
A Surprising Judgment
It seems Ananias and Sapphira thought their money could buy them praise and reputation. When Joseph of Cyprus sold his field and gave the money, the apostles nicknamed him Barnabas, which means son of encouragement. (Acts 4:36-37) Perhaps, Ananias and Sapphira thought they would receive a similar status.
Instead of denying themselves as Jesus taught, they exalted themselves. (Mark 8:34) Like Adam and Eve, they did what they wanted and treated God like a child who can be deceived. Instead of seeking the glory of God, they were seeking the glory of man. People were big and God was small. This was contempt for God, blatant rebellion.
But God sees and God knows. (Exodus 2:25) God gave Peter spiritual discernment to see that Ananias and Sapphira were not serving God, but money. Mammon was their master.
When Ananias heard Peter’s rebuke, he fell down and breathed his last. Three hours later, Sapphira came in. She too lied and immediately fell down and breathed her last. (Acts 5:10)
A Lesson For Us All
This is the kind of story we would expect to find in the Old Testament, but here it is in the New Testament. The severity of it shouts to us, “No servant can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.” (Luke 16:13)
It’s not that you shouldn’t serve God and money, it’s that you cannot. It’s impossible. Both God and mammon compete for first place in our hearts and we can only have one master. God does not give his glory to another. (Isaiah 42:8)
Ananias and Sapphira remind us that we are all tempted to lie about money in ways that benefit us. We’re all tempted to perform for the attention and praise of people. We’re all tempted to believe God is not looking, to hide and cover our sin rather than repent of it.
But God doesn’t want our gift if he doesn’t have our hearts. (Isaiah 29:13) What God values most is not our religious activity but our faith in the sacrifice he made. It’s our recognition that God is the greatest giver. He gave what was most valuable — his one and only son, Jesus. And Jesus gave his life, dying in our place for our sin. And when he rose again on the third day, his offer to the world is the free gift of eternal life.
Now our highest calling is to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. (Mark 12:30-31) Even if we give away all we have, but have not love, the Bible says we gain nothing. (1 Corinthians 13:3) Therefore, let's examine our hearts and pursue loving God above everything else. When we start here, generosity is simply the overflow.