This chapter in Act leaves us with both questions and affirmations. We read these words and find ourselves shaking our heads in wonder and confusion. And we also read these words and find ourselves nodding our heads with approval. Some things here don’t make a lot of sense, and some things here leave us feeling bold.
Ananias and Sapphira wound up dead. It was like Peter was the judge and the Holy Spirit was the executioner. They fell down and breathed their last.
This story should remind us of a similar story from the history of God’s people – about 1,500 years earlier – when the Israelites were just entering into the Promised Land. The people conquered the city of Jericho. You can read that story in Joshua 6. But then Israel promptly lost a battle against the people of Ai. You can read that story in Joshua 7.
The crux of the problem was a man named Achan, who kept some of the loot from Jericho for himself. He buried it in his tent. God had said the people were to keep none of it. But Achan kept back some of the proceeds from that victory for himself. He undermined the holiness of God’s people. The people suffered for it. And it cost Achan his life.
Now here again in Acts 5, a new covenant was being established by God among his people. It was a new community, a new order. And God was demonstrating how things would go. God’s people would be truthful with one another. They would not seek position among each other. They would not compete with one another to be the most generous as a way to gain status. And they would not lie to the Holy Spirit.
One of the powerful pieces of doctrine we learn here is the Holy Spirit is divine – is part of the Godhead. It is a grave sin to lie to God. And God was establishing a new covenant people – and his discipline was fierce at first. Ananias and Sapphira had lied to the Holy Spirit, and they were deceiving the church. They were undermining the new thing, the new community, the new family, that God was building.
And perhaps more than this: We shouldn’t be surprised that sin leads to death. After all, we know, “For the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). Perhaps we should be surprised whenever our sins don’t result in immediate death. Perhaps it is a sign of God’s grace that he lets us keep trudging along day after day, despite our sins.
And so Ananias and Sapphira were dead. The people of the church and the community took note of this. The disciples were suddenly men whom the people needed to be careful around. They weren’t exactly going to win popularity awards – and the Jesus movement they were leading carried some risks. But “more than ever believers were added to the Lord, multitudes of both men and women.”
And again we are reminded the church is built through the power of God, through the work of the Holy Spirit. Even a seeming public relations gaffe can’t stop the kingdom.
And the story immediately entered yet another miraculous story. Instead of two people dropping dead because of sin, the twelve disciples were miraculously freed from prison. Instead of the church and community stunned into the fear of God, the religious leaders were shocked into the fear of the people. The disciples were popular again.
But the high priest and his council wanted to disband the church. They were fearful. And the disciples said, “We must obey God rather than men.”
There’s a great balancing act in Scripture. On the one hand, the apostle Paul gave us Romans 13 – “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities.” On the other, Luke tells us this story – “We must obey God rather than men.” There’s always a great tendency within the church to strike a bargain with the governing authorities or the powers that be. But Peter and the apostles provide a check on that tendency. We must find the balance here – and these COVID-19 times are opportunities learn that balance!
Part of me wonders whether the disciples saw the collapse and death of Ananias and Sapphira as a sure motivator from God. “Obey God rather than men.” Perhaps as the apostles stood there in front of the high priest and the council, they thought of those two corpses. Perhaps they thought of the danger of making deals with the world, of seeking one’s own profit at the expense of God’s people. Perhaps they thought of Jesus’ words, “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul” (Matthew 10:28). Perhaps they knew the danger of trying to serve two masters – God and something else.
Regardless, the authority of God emerges clearly here. We are to have one – and only one – allegiance. And that is to God and his church. Everything else is secondary. We listen to to no other voices. We give into no other temptations. We obey nothing contrary to our heavenly Father.
“And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.” Are we among those who obey him.
In the passage just before the deaths of Ananias and Sapphira, Luke records the story of the church. The people of the church, Luke wrote, were “of one heart and soul.” I don’t think we can underline that with ink that is bold enough.
These were one people who had allegiance only to God and each other. Only one thing was on their minds – the kingdom of heaven. Ananias and Sapphira would have undermined that. The high priest and his council would have disbanded it. The one-ness of the church was under threat.
What threats does the one-ness of the church face today? Does it come from attitudes within the church? Or dangers from outside it? What keeps us from being of one heart and one soul?
It is a question worth asking.