Couldn’t we just focus on Barnabas?

Currently at ABAC we’re in the middle of a series that we’re calling Us to Us. If you’re curious about that, you can check out the messages here:

Week One

Week Two – recording failed this week, this is a link to the manuscript

Week Three

As with any teaching series, we need to make decisions about what the focus is going to be and what we need to cover in order to explore that focus. Inevitably we have to pass over certain details and stories for the sake of time. One of those stories happens in Acts 5. You can read it by following this link: Acts:4:32-5:16. There are three different translations that you can compare and contrast if you care to take the time. 

This story might be one of the strangest and most disturbing occurrences in Acts that readers, both in church and out, have wrestled with. Within the context of the rest of the Bible there appears to be either gross injustice or hypocrisy happening here: Injustice because the punishment looks like a wild overreaction to the nature of the transgression; hypocrisy because of the grace that Peter received after doing something similar. It also appears on the surface to uncharacteristically cast Peter and the church as cold hearted and even power mongering. So what can we do to make sense of this account of what happened as the church was being established? What can we make of this instance of immediate divine justice? What can we learn about the nature of God from this story?

As with anything, it is always a good idea to put the thing you’re looking at into context. Remember, the overview of Acts is that it is the story of the church as it transitioned from a small, niche group of people to a far flung and diverse movement of people unified by their faith in Jesus. Zooming in a bit, the story of Ananias and Sapphira is sandwiched between two examples of good things happening in the church community. On the front half, we read about Barnabas, a man so highly regarded for his generosity and service that his nickname literally means “son of encouragement.” He’s an example of church done right. His generosity is enormous, genuine, and humble. He does not demand recognition, but his actions invite others to follow his example and facilitate service and blessing for people in need. 

On the other side of the story, we get an account of the signs that legitimised the ministry of the church. As the people were faithful to gather, more and more people were compelled to find their salvation through Jesus as well. This led to an influx of needs coming to the door of the church that were cared for miraculously. The miraculous nature of the church’s ministry is something that deserves its own message or post so I won’t get into the details here. The point is that the account of Ananias and Sapphira doesn’t exist in a vacuum; it has been intentionally inserted in this spot by the author for the sake of juxtaposition. Let me show you what I mean.

First, let’s juxtapose Ananias and Sapphira with Barnabas. It is made pretty clear by the placement of their story immediately after the account of Barnabas that they were motivated by a desire to gain the same kind of favour or recognition. They saw the way that Barnabas was admired for the blessing and joy that he spread through his generosity, not to mention the rad [sic] nickname he got from the apostles. Ananias and Sapphira wanted to be highly regarded in the church too, but unlike Barnabas, they were unwilling to give quite as generously. Barnabas had sold a field and given the whole amount of the sale to the apostles for the purpose of ministry to the poor. We don’t know a lot about Barnabas other than what we read in the Bible. He was a Levite named Joseph and chances were that he came from a decently wealthy background. As a Levite, he likely would not have owned land (look back on the land divisions in Numbers and Deuteronomy). However, he may have sold his burial plot. This would have been seen as generous, but it’s also true that the early church believed that they would live to see the second coming of Jesus. In light of this, it actually makes sense that Barnabas would sell a burial plot – if he thought he wouldn’t need it anyway, what was the point of hanging on to it when the money from a sale could do so much more good than an unused piece of land? This is not meant to undermine the depth of his generosity, only to give a bit of insight on his probable train of logic. Whatever the case, his gift was noted along with his sincere ministry of teaching and serving in the church. Barnabas gave and served out of a genuine outpouring of his experience with Jesus. Ananias and Sapphira on the other hand, simply wanted the same level of recognition, but they were not willing to make the same sacrifice. Instead, they chose to lie about their offering.

Something that needs to be said here is that the issue with Ananias and Sapphira was not that they held back a portion of the money they made. Peter says pretty clearly that the money was theirs to do with as they saw fit. The issue was also not strictly their jealousy, although that was certainly wrong as well. The greatest issue seems to be who they were attempting to fool. Peter asks Ananias, “how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit?” Later he asks Sapphira, “how could you conspire to test the Spirit of the Lord?” It was petty enough that they wanted an elevated status in the church, but the heart issue they had was that they were attempting to gain credit with God by lying to him about the nature of their gift. 

This is already getting too long, but what Peter says in verse three about Satan filling Ananias’ heart is too important to breeze by. Long story short, this is an example of what theologians and Bible commentators refer to as “demonization.” This is not the same as demon possession; it’s much more akin to being led astray by a corrupting or lying influence. C.S. Lewis does a masterful job of illustrating the insidious and subversive nature of demonization in The Screwtape Letters. It’s important to not gloss over the fact that the Bible speaks candidly of an enemy who is alive, active, cunning, powerful, evil, and more than willing to latch on to the things that live in the hearts of people, Christians included. Ananias and Sapphira, like the disciples before them, desired status in God’s kingdom, and they allowed themselves to be deluded into thinking that they could deceive God. Had they been honest about the nature of their gift I am certain this story, along with many other stories of giving in the early church, would not have even been mentioned. Ironically, it was that lack of specific recognition that they couldn’t live with.

Here’s the second juxtaposition – compare this story with the following one in Acts 5:12-16. Notice that the apostle’s ministry is confirmed by signs and wonders that bring relief and hope and healing. When you read in verses 5 and 11 that the people who saw what happened to Ananias and Sapphira were gripped with fear, there is a very real risk that fear could become the basis for the authority of the church. If disobedience or deception were punishable by death then the leadership of the church could conceivably rule through fear, thereby setting up a regime that would be no different than the Romans. This is not the basis for authority in God’s kingdom. Instead, Jesus taught that the first in his kingdom must serve and that the highest love that could be shown is to lay down one’s life for a friend

On the other hand, there is also the holiness of God to be considered. Some of the language in this passage is reminiscent of specific words used in a story that comes from Joshua 7 where a man named Achan looted items that were supposed to be dedicated to God and kept them for himself. The result was that the next time Israel went out to battle, they got trounced and routed because God had not delivered the city into their hands. When Achan was discovered, he and his household were destroyed as an act of atonement for the community. While this is not a one-to-one repeat of that story, the heart of the matter still remained the same. Achan thought that he could deceive God and brought judgement down on the whole community. His sin was not against the community, but God. The same is true of Ananias and Sapphira. They had not really harmed the community in what they did. In fact, they had given a significant enough amount of money that it could have been the proceeds from a land sale. However, their sin was that they wanted to be held up as an example of godly living, and that involved deception. This is the duality of what the Bible refers to as the fear of God. He is loving, he is kind, he is patient, and he wants to offer blessings. However he is also holy and does not tolerate sin, deceit, coercion, or injustice. In this story, Peter did not pronounce a curse on this couple and it does not say that they were struck dead; they fell dead when their sin was found out. This was not Peter exercising his authority over the church, that was affirmed as he and the other apostles served. Also notice that the church did not grow as a result of the judgement on Ananias and Sapphira, but it was purged of ambition for recognition through duplicitous actions. 

So where does that leave us when it comes to understanding the story of Ananias and Sapphira? This is what I would suggest:

  1. Their story comes in the middle of a bunch of details that describe how the people of the church were getting things right. This couple stands out as an example of how people in the church could get things very wrong.
  2. Their death was not the result of Peter executing them to affirm the apostles authority, it was the Spirit of God enacting his justice on people who lied in order to be proclaimed holy.
  3. Authentic Christian living is rooted in a healthy fear of God, not a fear of the church community or leadership.

There is a lot more that could be said, but this is already twice as long as I intended it to be and I want to leave room for you to explore for yourself. Speak with others, dive into resources, read broadly, listen to and engage with criticism and make a habit of being in the Bible daily. It is how we grow the depth and breadth of our faith, knowledge, wisdom, appreciation, and love for God and others. 

Know that you are loved.