The story of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5 is difficult. It strikes many
readers as harsh, a return to Old Testament retribution. “Why this swift
act of judgment? Why no opportunity of for repentance and
No amount of commentary will ever take the edge off this passage
and that may be the point.
Below I offer five insights for unlocking why Luke, under the Spirit’s
inspiration, may have included this story in Acts. My goal isn’t to send
you away with every question answered (though these insights helped
me with mine), but to leave you with a new question drawn from the
1. Ananias and Sapphira are a foil
In all the shock and awe of the couple’s fate, it’s easy to forget the first
word in the story: “But.” (The chapter division certainly doesn’t help,
Ananias and Sapphira’s deceit and greed stand in contrast to the sincerity and generosity of the community of faith (4:32–37). Read 5:1–11 and then go back and read the paragraph before, and a sense of sadness may come upon you. There is euphoria and utopia in the scene described. “One heart and soul,” “everything in common,” “not a needy person among them.”
“But a man named Ananias . . .” A dark cloud invades the scene. Greed and deceit enter the community like a virus. Amid the glorious expansion of the church, Ananias and Sapphira sneak in as a threat.
Note, too, that Sapphira falls down dead at Peter’s feet (5:10), whereas
Joseph brought all his money and laid it at the apostles’ feet (4:37). The
generous disciple held God’s authority in high esteem and showed it by
laying his possessions at his appointed messenger’s feet. Ananias and
Sapphira did not, and God made his authority known by laying them
2.There are strong parallels to Joshua 7
Commentators are quick to point out parallels, whether intended by
Luke or not, to the story of Achan in Joshua 7. F.F. Bruce writes in the
Acts commentary in the NICNT series:
The story of Ananias is to the book of Acts what the story of Achan is
to the book of Joshua. In both narratives, an act of deceit interrupts the
victorious progress of the people of God. It may be that the author of
Acts himself wished to point this comparison: when he says that
Ananias “kept back” part of the price (v. 2), he uses the same Greek
word as is used in the Greek version of Josh. 7:1 where it is said that
the Israelites (represented by Achan) “broke faith” by retaining for
private use property that had been devoted to God.1
In the very least, this parallel reminds us it is not out of character for
God to bring swift judgment and guard his holiness.
But the parallels go beyond verb choice:
i.Both events happen amid new beginnings: Israel just coming into the promised land and the New Testament Church taking root in Jerusalem. Could it be God is zealously guarding his tender shoot?
- Both events concern greed and possession. God had commanded the
Israelites not take any devoted things into the camp (Jos. 6:8), and the
budding church had made it a practice to sell all that they had.
iii. God swiftly and corporately punishes both parties. A notable
difference is that Achan’s whole family is punished with him, whereas
Ananias and Sapphira are punished individually.
And so it seems reasonable to suspect that one reason for God’s swift
judgment here is to guard the holiness of his people and their growing
community. While the narrative does not state that outright, the
parallels are striking, the response of the people is suggestive (v. 5, 11),
and other passages in the New Testament command guarding the
church’s purity (1 Cor 3:16–17; 5:1–5; 2 Cor 6:14–18).
3. Satan was trying to thwart the Spirit of God
Ultimately, this passage is not about Ananias and Sapphira lying to the
assembly and keeping back a portion for themselves. It’s about them
lying to God (5:3, 9).
Peter himself indicates that the two could have just as well kept back a
portion for themselves; it was theirs to do with as they pleased (v. 4).
Instead, they presented it as all they had (in context, the phrase “laid it
at the apostles’ feet” in verse 2 makes this clear).
You see in Peter’s somewhat prophetic statement in verse 3, “Ananias,
why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit”?” that
principalities are at war. Satan is trying to get a foothold because he
sees how powerfully the Spirit is moving. Whereas the community was
“filled” with the Holy Spirit (4:30), Ananias was “filled” with Satan;
“he has become Satan’s plaything.”2
As John Stott put it, “If the devil’s first tactic was to destroy the Church
by force from without, his second was to destroy it by falsehood from
And so this is not simply a story of greed in the early Church. It’s about
an attack on the church from within an enemy scared and trying to
stop the great momentum of the gospel.
4. The story is not normative
There is nothing in this story, Acts, or the New Testament as a whole
that indicates this is a pattern for how God acts. In fact, if it were, the
pattern would break in Acts 8 with Simon the sorcerer. Though Ananias
and Simon’s acts and motivations are slightly different, Peter’s rebuke
has a similar solemnity to it—and death is even warned. However,
Simon responds with a repentant heart and is seemingly spared.
It is better to take this as a unique moment of sudden divine judgment.
The people’s great fear indicates this was not something they were
accustomed to, either.
5. The Assembly’s response matters most
As is often the case with difficult texts, there is a temptation to read
more than is there.
But a rule of responsible Bible reading is to pay the most attention to
what the author draws the most attention to.
Luke’s repeated “Great fear came upon all who heard it / the whole
church” (v. 5, 11) is the focal point. In fact, this is not the only time
awe is inspired in Acts (2:43; 9:31; 19:17), which reinforces this
reading. The phrase “and the word continued to spread” functions this
way in Acts, too (6:7; 12:24; 19:20; 13:49). Throughout Luke and Acts,
Luke often ends stories with such summative statements (see Luke
1:12, 65; 2:9; 5:26; 7:16; 8:25, 35, 37; 9:34, 45; 21:26).
So what are we to do with our questions about this passage? I appreciate
what Bruce says:
It is no part of a commentator’s work to pass moral judgment on Peter;
it would be necessary, in any case, to know much more than is stated
in the narrative. Sapphira, for aught that is known to the contrary, may
have suggested the deceit to her husband. [I disagree with Bruce
verse 1 suggests Ananias took the initiative.] It is not Peter’s character
or even Ananias and Sapphira’s deserts in which Luke is primarily
interested. What he is concerned to emphasize is the reality of the Holy
Spirit’s indwelling presence in the Church, together with the solemn
practical implications of that fact.4
Our takeaways from the text should probably be no more and no less
than that of the people who witnessed the event: fear and awe. God is
a holy God who vanquishes evil and zealously defends his holiness. His
judgments are his, and he only makes some of them known.
Why did God strike down Ananias and Sapphira rather than give them
a chance to repent? How is it that Satan filled Ananias’ heart to lie (v.
3) but that Ananias also contrived the sin himself (v. 4)? Why didn’t
Peter show the same grace toward Ananias and Sapphira that he was
shown for his deceit and denial of the Lord (Matt 26:69-75)?
We do not know. The text does not speak to these questions, though
other passages may help us find answers.
Ultimately, though, it’s the text that demands an answer from you: Do
you fear God?