In the fifth chapter of the Book of Acts we read one of the more interesting and chilling passages in the New Testament. A man named Ananias and his wife Sapphira sell a piece of property, keep part of the money and give the rest to the church. Trouble is, they tell the church they are giving the full price received for the land:
But a man named Ananias, with his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property, 2 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 apostles’ feet. 3 But Peter said, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back for yourself part of the proceeds of the land? 4 While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal? Why is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to man but to God.” 5 When Ananias heard these words, he fell down and breathed his last. And great fear came upon all who heard of it. 6 The young men rose and wrapped him up and carried him out and buried him.Acts 5:1-6
As a result of this deception, God struck both of them dead. This has always seemed harsh to me. While it’s true the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23), that payment is not usually required on the spot – thank goodness! Why so in this case? Of all the sins we see recorded in scripture, why instant death for lying about the price of a piece of property?
The answer can be found by looking at the context of this passage in the Book of Acts and how God deals with His people throughout scripture.
This passage comes between the first arrest of the Apostles by the Jewish authorities (Acts 4:1-31) and the second (Acts 5:17-42). From her beginning the New Testament church was under attack. The Enemy tried to destroy her one of two ways – the same two ways he does today – either from without or from within. When the first attempt to stop the spread of the gospel using the external threats of the Jewish leaders failed, there was a change of tactic. Satan tried to weaken the church from within using the deceit of Ananias & Sapphira (Acts 5:3) and the Holy Spirit dealt with that decisively. This was God protecting the church in her infancy.
God takes the purity of His church seriously. A pure church is a powerful church. It’s no accident that right after Luke tells us about the purge of Ananias and Sapphira we again read about signs and wonders done by the apostles and an increase in the number of believers.
We see a similar pattern in the Old Testament.
Shortly after the Levitical priesthood was inaugurated, the sons of Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, failed to follow God’s instructions regarding the fire used for burning incense before the LORD. This was likely because they were drunk (Leviticus 10:9). As with Ananias and Sapphira, God immediately struck them dead and their bodies were carried outside the camp (Leviticus 10:4). Then, right after the conquest of Jericho, the very first battle in the Promised Land, the disobedience of Achan was dealt with similarly. He and his entire family were killed at the LORD’s command (Joshua 7:15).
In each of these cases, a new chapter has begun in the history of God’s people. In each case as well, an internal threat to that new work arises and the Lord takes decisive action to address the threat and provide an example for others. The deaths of Ananias and Sapphira lead to a healthy fear of the Lord within the church (Acts 5:11).
It’s significant that it was not the Jewish officials persecuting the church who were struck dead but two church members. The lesson is that internal threats to the church are far more serious than external ones. External persecution tends to strengthen the church whereas internal threats tend to weaken her.
When churches die or apostatize it is virtually always because they failed to take seriously deceit, false teaching, personal sin or other disobedience to the Lord within their ranks.
The Trojan Horse is more dangerous than the battering ram. To remain healthy churches must, as Jude tells us, “contend for the faith once for all entrusted to the saints.” (Jude 3).