Acts is not a textbook of Church doctrine. And, while it is an account of what happened in the early days of the church, as accurately as Luke could tell it, it is ultimately an invitation to you and me to lives that are powerful witnesses for Jesus in and through our lives.
At the end of Acts 4, there’s been a fresh and continuous outpouring of God’s Spirit upon “all flesh.” As a result, the disciples are operating in great power and authority, as seen in Acts 3 when they healed the lame man, as recorded in Acts 3.
As a result of this move of God, the early followers of Jesus shared everything they had for the greater good and care for others, selling their possessions and giving to those in need. They sensed they were a part of something bigger than themselves and were willing to adjust their lives to capture the moment to the fullest. This selling and giving of the proceeds was a genuine response to God, not a requirement. There is no record made by Luke of a command from God or the disciples, now called Apostles, to the early believers to do this.
It’s easy for us to forget or overlook this, but selling their houses and possessions wasn’t fickle; it was wise. In light of Jesus’ words in Matthew 23 and 24, they knew an occupation by a foreign army was imminent. He told them to flee the city when this took place, meaning they would likely lose their property anyway!
Luke 20:20-21 – “But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, you will know that her desolation is near. Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains, let those in the city get out, and let those in the country stay out of the city.”
They gathered together and cared for those around them while awaiting the fulfillment of his prophecy and their salvation from the impending destruction of their city. Their generosity and evangelistic zeal were fueled by the instructions, teachings, and prophetic words of Jesus. (Matt. 23, 24).
Acts 4:34-37 – “And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time, those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.”
Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus, whom the apostles called Barnabas (which means “son of encouragement”), sold a field he owned and brought the money and put it at the apostles’ feet.”
Acts 5:1-11 – “Now a man named Ananias, together with his wife Sapphira, also sold a piece of property. 2 With his wife’s full knowledge (they conspired, unnecessarily) he kept back part of the money for himself, but brought the rest and put it at the apostles’ feet.
3 Then Peter 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? 4 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.”
5 When Ananias heard this, he fell down and died. And great fear seized all who heard what had happened. 6 Then some young men came forward, wrapped up his body, and carried him out and buried him.
7 About three hours later, his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. 8 Peter asked her, “Tell me, is this the price you and Ananias got for the land?”
“Yes,” she said, “that is the price.”
9 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.”
10 At that moment, she fell at his feet and died. Then the young men came in and, finding her dead, carried her out and buried her beside her husband.
11 Great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events.
Let’s begin our breakdown of this passage by remember that Luke is reporting the historical facts. The what, and not the why. He tells what is taking place in the early days of the church and leaves out commentary. Nowhere in the text does Luke say that God killed Ananias and Sapphira. It does say they dropped dead as a result of their deception.
We assume it was God because Peter caught them lying, and he must have been acting out what God desired. While it is true that Peter was operating in a massive amount of what we would call “divine authority,” we must not assume that how he wielded it was automatically God’s way.
In this historical context, the concept of “semi-autonomous power” (Boyd, Crucifixion of the Warrior God” pp. 1194) is crucial to understand. We find many examples of it throughout scripture.
Throughout Scripture, God gives power and authority to people in a semi-autonomous way. Meaning, free will remains intact as people use or misuse the power that God bestows on them.
Moses and his Staff
“Use it to perform the signs I have shown you…” (Exodus 4:17)
God gives Moses a miraculous staff, and instructs him to use display miracles that would validate his position as an agent of God sent to rescue His people from Egypt. The implication is that he could use it in other ways, which is what happened toward the end of his life (Numbers 20:10-13), and the consequence was God restricting Moses from entering the Promised Land with His people.
Jesus and the Legions of Angels
Matt. 26:50-54 – Then the men stepped forward, seized Jesus, and arrested him. 51 With that, one of Jesus’ companions reached for his sword, drew it out, and struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his ear. (But Jesus answered, “No more of this!” And He touched the man’s ear and healed him. Luke 22:50)
52 “Put your sword back in its place,” Jesus said to him, “for all who draw the sword will die by the sword. 53 Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels? 54 But how then would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen in this way?”
When Jesus said, “don’t you think I could call legions?” he is implying that they would have responded to his power and authority, but that would have been out of the will of the Father. Jesus goes on to say, “but how then would the Scriptures be fulfilled?”
Jesus walked in power and authority but also in complete submission to the will of His Father. Just because He had it, didn’t mean he could use it however he desired. We can’t assume that someone with power/authority from God uses it within God’s will. Even Jesus had to orient his use of power to this reality.
Paul and the Charisma Gifts
In 2 Cor. 13-14, Paul addresses the misuse of charismatic gifts in the early church. Paul doesn’t question the authenticity of the move of the Spirit or what is happening, but he does question the application of those gifts and gives them guidelines.
He says something that makes great sense in light of our discussion of semi-autonomous power. “the spirit of the prophet is subject to the prophet,” meaning the people couldn’t say “we can’t help it, this is what happens when the spirit pours out!” Paul made it clear that what God does through them is still subject to the will and motive of that person.
They were experiencing a genuine move of the Holy Spirit, but how they used it was up to them, and Paul simply called them up to a place where their use of the gifts wouldn’t hinder people from coming into the community of believers and faith in Jesus.
Elijah Calling Down Fire
The prophet Elijah, in 2 Kings, calls down fire on a legion of fifty soldiers sent by King Ahaziah, not once but twice, because he was afraid of what the king wanted. The king desired to talk to Elijah, but instead of going with the soldiers, Elijah destroyed 100 lives with his power and authority from God.
Before he could do it again to the third group of 50 soldiers, “The angel of the Lord (theophany/Yahweh in human form) said to Elijah, “Go down with him; do not be afraid of him.” So Elijah got up and went down with him to the king. (2 Kings 1:15).
Essentially, God had to intervene to stop Elijah from using his power out of fear, which was a recurring theme of Elijah’s life. This incident marked the end of Elijah’s ministry and a moment in the Biblical narrative where God stopped someone from the misuse of divine power and authority.
The Disciples Calling Down Fire
In the same area of Samaria where the story of Elijah took place, the disciples were sent by Jesus ahead to a city in Samaria as they were traveling back to Jerusalem, and the people of the city rejected Jesus. They chose to offer no hospitality or stay to Jesus and his band of followers. (Luke 9:52).
The disciples’ response was to use God’s power as Elijah had. “Do you want US to call down fire on them?” (Luke 9:54). They wanted justice and to do what Elijah had done, but Jesus emphatically rejects them, and says “you don’t know what kind of spirit you are of.”
By this, Jesus meant that their hearts and response were completely foreign to what Jesus was doing. Jesus essentially said, “What you look at in the old testament as being something to emulate isn’t what I’m about!” Jesus demonstrated a Kingdom of love and forgiveness, and while he operated in great power, He used it to heal and redeem, not to dole out “justice” upon people. Jesus forgave those who were murdering him while they were murdering him, but he could have destroyed them with a single command!
Jesus told the disciples, “All authority has been given to me…” (Matt. 28:18). You may notice that when Jesus healed and ministered, He wasn’t praying to God to do something; He just did it, moving in power and authority. The disciples also didn’t ask (see Acts 3). Authority had been given to them, and they were allowed and able to use it. And sometimes, it’s not clear whether that was “of God” or not.
We can’t assume that it always was. Luke is reporting what happens, not why it happens, operating as someone documenting the early days of the move of God and the spread of the message of Jesus. When we read the Bible, we must not automatically assume that just because something is in the narrative, or everything supernatural that takes place, directly reflects God’s will, intention, or heart.
So, what happened to Ananias and Sapphira? I propose that Peter had tremendous divine authority and used that authority to uncover them and release them to Satan, the one who we know brings death.
I’m going to lay this at the feet of the one who “prowls around, looking for someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8), the one who partners with the religious and legalistic to “steal, kill and destroy” people (John 10:10).
Peter turned them over to their mistake, mishandling the moment and in the misuse of divine authority and the power to speak life and death over people. He immediately exposes them, judges them, and hands them over to a willing accomplice who takes their life – not God, but Satan. Satan would certainly have been trying everything possible to weave deceit, fear, darkness, and death into the purest move of God in history.
It’s unfortunate that in his zeal, Peter once again acts in his nature but out of character with Jesus. In his effort to keep sin out of the community of early believers, he instead infects it with fear. He lays the groundwork for a controlling, hierarchical religious model within the church that has proven challenging to undo throughout history.
What We Know
Any genuine work of Jesus doesn’t result in fear. It may cause it for those acting against Him or who don’t yet know Him – but fear between man and God is what He came to destroy. A genuine work of Jesus will bring us into awe of God, wonder, reverence, and repentance – not fear.
“I am not worthy to approach God because I might drop dead in my sin” is an Old Covenant reality that Jesus came to undo.
“I am made right in Jesus, and can come boldly into God’s presence to receive GRACE and MERCY from my Father and King” (Heb. 4:16) is where we now exist.
Now, at this point, you may be thinking – “Who do you think you are? Who are we to question Peter?”
Jesus rebuked Peter – Mark 8:33 – “But when Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, he rebuked Peter. “Get behind me, Satan!” he said. “You do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”
Paul opposes Peter – Gal. 2:11 – “But when Peter came to Antioch, I had to oppose him to his face, for what he did was very wrong.”
Paul had the courage to “withstand Peter to his face” when Peter was wrong. Perhaps we, too, should “withstand Peter to his face” in this passage as well?
But regardless of my reading of this passage, one thing should be clear: God did not kill Ananias and Sapphira. Satan was undoubtedly working lies and crippling condemnation in their hearts, and possibly in the hardening of Peter’s heart toward them as well, which kept him from ministering protective mercy and spoke death where he could have spoken life.
The level of power and authority Peter carried is staggering. His shadow healed people, the lame rose up and walked at his command, and Acts 5 records that everyone brought to him and the Apostles were healed! But after this incident in Acts5 with Ananias and Sapphira, we see his ministry and influence recede, and Paul becomes the more prominent leader of the early church throughout the remainder of Acts and the formation of the New Testament. Could that be because of the humility and grace he carried in conjunction with the power and authority that God placed on him?
What Can We Learn?
- From Peter, I believe we can be reminded that our responses to people “caught” in sin, mistakes, or messes matters!
- What would have happened if Peter responded as Jesus had instructed? (Matthew 18:15-35)
- What would have happened if Peter responded the way Jesus responded to him? (John 21)
- What would have happened to Peter if Jesus responded to Peter the way Peter responded to Ananias and Sapphira? (Luke 22:51)
- From Ananias & Sapphira, we can be reminded that lying to God/ourselves/others about areas of our lives sets us up for the devastation of guilt, shame, and stress [and opens the door for the enemy to try to convince us we are condemned].
I hope that this discussion and study will bring healing from any misuse of this passage that forced you into perfectionism or performance or confused you about God’s response to people’s sin and failure. I also pray and revoke any way this passage has been used to bring you guilt and fear around financial giving to a church.
I pray this brings healing to any areas a leader or leaders have used their power and authority (we most often refer to that as “anointing” these days) to misrepresent God, drive fear, or spiritually abuse those who trust them.
Just because someone has an anointing to lead or teach, or can cast out demons or heal the sick in Jesus’ name, doesn’t mean they, or their methods, are always right. They shouldn’t be revered any more than others. Just like you and I, they too can be tempted toward pride, spiritual shortcuts, laziness, and the harmful misuse of God’s power and authority. Maybe you’ve experienced that, and it’s left you deeply confused. I pray that something in today’s teaching will light up a hallway that will lead you into complete healing.
Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life, and can be trusted with your full heart and life! Men/women may fail and misuse the grace God has placed on their lives, but that doesn’t change the truth of who Jesus is, how He loves you, or the truth of the Gospel. There is no end to what He has in store for you as you move into healing and fresh revelation and follow Him!