I was there the day Ananias and Sapphira died. I still miss them, they were my friends, my siblings in the faith. But what they did and the way they died… I’m getting ahead of myself. The church, the believers… let’s start with the believers.
Back then, there was such a buzz, such an excitement! Some of us had actually seen and heard Jesus when he was here on earth. Can you imagine! And we were a proper little community. Well, I say little, but by the time Ananias and Sapphira did what they did, there were at least 5,000 of us, all believing, all calling Jesus our Saviour, and all filled with his Spirit.
The powerful talks the apostles gave changed our lives in so many ways. They taught us about Jesus; his life, his death, his resurrection and his saving grace. And his Spirit was at work so powerfully in our lives. Words were turned into actions. It was as if the words Peter and the others spoke lit a fire inside us that burned to make changes, burned to help others, burned to show the love of God in our everyday lives.
We cared so much for each other. There was a real and obvious unity between all of us. Community life to us meant both mission and mutual care – outreach and in-reach. We loved sharing the good news about Jesus and we loved worshipping him, and we also loved looking after each other and living our lives together. We saw our love for each other as a way of worshipping God. I don’t know about you, but in my experience that kind of unity – where our hearts and souls totally line up with each others’ – doesn’t happen naturally, because usually people like to think our own thoughts, go our own way and do our own thing. But we shared Jesus as our Saviour, and we all wanted to reflect the unity and reconciliation and love that he brings us. We wanted to live out what it meant to each of us to be saved and accepted by him. We wanted to live out Jesus’s love!
One of the ways we did that was every now and then, those of us who owned land or houses would sell them, bring the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet to share out. Some people went from barely scraping by to having enough to eat every single day. What an amazing blessing! We shared everything we could, not because we had to, but because we wanted to.
And none more so than dear Barnabas. Lovely man, so full of encouragement and always happy to get stuck in and lend a hand. He was the first of us to accept Paul when he came along with his dodgy reputation and dubious bright lights story. But he was right to accept him, wasn’t he? I mean, just look at him now, pioneering, church planting, letter writing…!
But I’m getting ahead of myself again. The point is, Barnabas sold his field and brought all the money he got for it and put it at the apostles’ feet. He’s just one of those people who embodied and reflected exactly the spirit and ethos of our community at that time. He lived out Jesus’s love. And we loved him for it!
Ananias and Sapphira knew about Barnabas’s field. And they knew how much we all loved him. I’ve often wondered over the years whether they’d have done what they did if Barnabas hadn’t been so generous and we hadn’t been so grateful. It’s funny, isn’t it, that we never really know people’s motivations for doing things. I mean, someone comes along and says they’ve sold something and are giving the money to the poor, you’d naturally think they’d done it to feed the poor people. But what if they hadn’t? What if they’d actually done it so people would pat them on the back and tell them they’re wonderful? And I mean, the poor would still get fed, so would it really matter? Well, like I said, I was there when Ananias and Sapphira died, and I’m very sure it does matter – it matters to God.
You know, this stuff isn’t easy to talk about. There are so many questions in my head about what happened, and I was there! If God is love, and if Jesus died for our sins, why did Ananias die without even a chance to repent? Was holding back a bit of the money really so terrible when they gave the rest away? Did Sapphira want to keep part of the money too, or was she just going along with Ananias because he was her husband and wives aren’t meant to question their husbands (in our culture, anyway)? And what on earth had got into Peter? Did he forget to put on his What Would Jesus Do bracelet before he left for church that morning? I mean, it wasn’t long before all this happened that he’d been forgiven by Jesus for saying in that courtyard he didn’t even know him! Ha. Lots of questions. And the answers probably aren’t all going to be all that comfortable either. I mean, here I am talking about the unity and shared heart and mind of our community, and we have this story all about deceit right in the middle of it!
Anyway, that day Ananias walked up to the apostles and laid some money at their feet, saying he’d sold some land and here was the money. He stood back, looking pretty chuffed, and waited for the thank yous to start pouring in. But the thank yous didn’t even trickle. Peter looked Ananias straight in the eye and said, “Ananias, how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit and have kept for yourself some of the money you received for the land? Didn’t it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn’t the money at your disposal? What made you think of doing such a thing? You have not lied just to human beings but to God.”
Well, my goodness, you could have heard a pin drop. But instead we all heard Ananias drop as he fell to the floor stone dead! The shock! I’ve heard other people tell this story, and they say, “And great fear seized all who heard what had happened.” Ha! Great fear?! That’s not even the half of it! The man dropped dead in front of our very eyes as soon as Peter finished speaking!
And pretty much straight away some of the younger men gathered Ananias’s body up, took it away and buried it, without any fanfare or even a kind word or two. In our culture, burial is done on the same day, but this was unusually hasty even for us. And burying a man without even telling his family was even more unusual. But Ananias was struck down ‘by the hands of heaven,’ a bit like Achan back in Joshua’s time. So like Achan, Ananias was immediately wrapped up, taken away and buried. And nobody told Sapphira.
So along came Sapphira three hours later, probably expecting some back-patting for the money they’d given over. But she didn’t get any thank yous either. Peter looked at her carefully, asking,“Tell me, is this the price you and Ananias got for the land?” And she said, “Yes, that’s the price.” Oh dear. Sapphira had the chance to tell the truth and rectify the wrong, but she didn’t take it. She carried on the lie. Then Peter said to her, “How could you conspire to test the Spirit of the Lord? Listen! The feet of the men who buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out also.” And they did.
When I told my friend Rebecca about all this, she said, “what right had Peter got to judge poor Ananias and Sapphira like that? I mean, it’s not as if he’s never done anything wrong.” And I told her she’d missed the point completely! Peter wasn’t doing the judging. He confronted Ananias and Sapphira; the judgement came from God. And actually, that’s probably a challenge to all of us, isn’t it? When was the last time you or I confronted someone about their sinful behaviour? But, as Peter showed us that day, sharing accountability and honesty is just as much a part of being church together as sharing food and fellowship.
And honesty and accountability was missing from Ananias and Sapphira’s behaviour leading up to that day. Because their sin wasn’t keeping some of the money back – anyone could do that. They didn’t have to sell their land in the first place. Sharing and giving was only ever voluntary for us. They could have kept the land, or all the money, or some of the money and it would all have been fine… as long as they didn’t lie about it. But Ananias and Sapphira wanted the back-pats and the thank yous. Their problems started when they took God out of their decision-making equation. Unlike Barnabas, Ananias and Sapphira made their decision to give money for human reasons, not because they were stirred by the Holy Spirit. They were giving to gain, rather than giving to give.
I do wonder if they’d still have lied about the money if they’d chatted their plan over with their friends. Sin of any kind always seems so much more justifiable – or get-away-with-able – if it stays in our heads or we only talk about it with people we know will feel the same, doesn’t it? Imagine if they’d gone along to their Life Group and started talking about their plan to sell the land but secretly keep some of the money. I wonder if they’d have felt able to go through with the plan once they’d said it out loud to other people. Our dirty laundry is always so much more uncomfortable to look at if we know others can see it too! And it’s scarily easy to squirrel away our dishonest or sinful thoughts and hide them from other people – and even try to hide them from ourselves, but as Peter made clear to Ananias and Sapphira the day, God sees and God knows. And God takes sin seriously.
If Ananias and Sapphira had really understood that “the Lord detests the sacrifice of the wicked,” as the old proverb goes, they’d have known that nothing can please God that doesn’t come from a wholehearted devotion to him. That’s why Jesus praised the widow’s offering of two tiny coins more than the great and showy offerings of the rich folk. It’s not the how or the what of giving that matters to God, it’s the why. And actually, this goes further than just giving. What Ananias and Sapphira did was about their wrong motivations and deceit about money, but it could just as easily have been about any other part of life. God’s people are called to holiness and we are accountable to God for it. God takes all sin seriously.
Because actually, sin isn’t just how we act, it’s why we act. Sin is turning away from God and towards ourselves. It’s building our life meaning on anything – even a very good thing – more than on God. Whatever we build our life on will drive our passions and choices. And for Ananias and Sapphira, however much they loved God, they loved their reputations more. Their desire for human praise was more important to them than being faithful to God, so they lied to the church and, in doing so, they lied to God. And God saw it all.
And this is why we were all filled with such fear. Our church wasn’t, and isn’t, perfect, and we were all reminded in a new and very tangible, right-in-front-of-our-noses kind of way that our God is a holy God, and our sin is offensive to his holiness. Looking back, the Jews among us should have remembered all this from our scriptures – there’s plenty in the Torah that shows just how holy our God is! But for the gentiles, the ones who hadn’t grown up hearing our ancestral stories, it must have been a massive shock to suddenly be confronted by God’s holiness like that. And I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who had lurking reasons to tremble and think, ‘There but for the grace of God, go I.’ All our thoughts and behaviours and motives – our shadow selves that we stuff into cupboards so the neighbours won’t see. God sees it all.
To be completely honest with you, I really struggled that day. I found it difficult to square God’s actions with his love and forgiveness that Peter and the others taught us about. But looking back, I think that was because of my ignorance of my own sin, and my ignoring of God’s holiness. I’ve realised I shouldn’t have been asking, “Why did they die?” But rather, “Why am I still alive?”
And I don’t know about you in your culture, but we often talk about and focus on love and grace and faith for salvation, which is all wonderful and true, but then we sometimes sort of ignore the bit about also needing to be responsible and obedient, to be holy as God is holy. We need to be shocked awake by what happened to Ananias and Sapphira that day, we need to wake up to the issue of sin and actively do some uncomfortable self-examinations. We need to take a big, bright torchlight and search out and destroy the sin in our lives. We mustn’t just tolerate it, and we also mustn’t assume it’s God’s job to deal with it. We must never grow to be on easy terms with the presence in our lives of that which nailed Jesus to the cross. So yes, great fear seized us all, and we ended that day with a new understanding of our own sin, and a deeper awe at the holiness of God. God knows the heart of every believer. God is love, and God is also holy.
“But,” my friend Rebecca said, “people are people, motives are often muddy and behaviours aren’t always blameless, and surely Jesus died and rose again so we could be cleansed and forgiven?” And I said, yes, of course he did, but that doesn’t mean we can skip merrily through life doing whatever we want. Jesus wasn’t nailed to a cross to give us a ‘get out of jail free’ card. God deserves our obedience, and we should give it, even if we know our motives are a bit mixed and muddy.
“But,” my friend Rebecca said, “how can I be obedient? I’m human, and I know that I’m not perfect.” And I said, well, when Paul wrote that letter to Titus, he said that it’s the “grace of God that brings salvation and teaches us to say ‘No’ to sin.” And grace means God, through Jesus, “saved us, not because of good things we’d done, but because of his mercy. We don’t deserve it, but God’s given it and keeps on giving it. And that’s the good news; that’s the gospel.
So if we want true, deep down, real change, we need to let this incredible story of God’s saving grace through his Son, Jesus, teach us, to train, discipline, and coach us over our whole lives. In other words, we need to let the gospel argue with us, wrestle with us, challenge us and ruffle our feathers a bit. We need to let the story of Jesus sink in so deeply it transforms our views and our motivations.
“But,” my friend Rebecca said, “how can we actually do that? Like, in real life?” And I said, I know I’ve banged this drum before, but I’m going to keep on banging it because it’s so important. It all starts with turning towards God and trying to live all our minutes and hours and days with him as our priority. And she rolled her eyes a bit, but she was smiling, and she knew as well as I do that it’s true.
When we learn and keep learning about Jesus, and we let the truths about him sink all the way in, our hearts and minds and lives are transformed. We can go from thinking of ourselves first, to thinking of the Lord first. We can start really living as if God isn’t ‘over there’ but is always ‘right here,’ and behaving as if we can see God with our own eyes. Not in a terrifying ‘being watched’ kind of way, but in a ‘he’s my Lord, he’s my Saviour, he’s so much more important and wonderful and worthy than the sin I’m tempted to commit’ kind of way. It’s a bit like the ‘minute on the lips, a lifetime on the hips’ thing. But it’s more ‘a minute’s cheap thrill versus the cross up on the hill.’
I’m not saying it’s easy. Nothing worthwhile is ever without a cost, whatever the money lenders say! We’re people, and people are very distractible! Our sinful thoughts and desires and things and idols beckon us away from God with their sparkly promises of instant rewards. But if we try to live our lives turning away from our own importance and towards God, we’re at least facing in the direction of holiness.
And if God is our priority, we won’t be trying to behave properly and morally because it gets us what we want or makes us feel better about ourselves. We’ll be trying to know, resemble, please, and love the One who saved us. The gospel leads us to do the right thing not for our sake but for his. And when we do turn away and take a tumble into sin, we need to own up to it, confess it before God, and accept his love and forgiveness for us. And we need to remember that this forgiveness isn’t a quick fix sticking plaster, this forgiveness cost Jesus everything.
We need to tell stories like Ananias and Sapphira’s even though they’re uncomfortable, because they warn us, instruct us and lead us to walk carefully and humbly with God. So I make sure I remember Ananias and Sapphira, my friends, my siblings in the faith. I remember them and I open my eyes further to the grace of God in Jesus Christ towards us. I remember that Jesus walked among us in order to restore the world. He didn’t come to make bad people good, he came to make the dead alive. He came to restore us and to transform us. And that transformation begins when we turn away from ourselves to fully face towards our holy God.
Yes, I was there the day Ananias and Sapphira died.