Luke records more accounts of the early Church in Jerusalem for us, focusing on three episodes. And two of them are troubling.
We’ve just heard about the commonality of all the possessions of those early Christians at the time, and here we have an account of a husband and wife who didn’t join in. As you read through this passage you may be struck by the severity of the consequences. And you wouldn’t be wrong to be struck by them; yet it only impresses upon us the severity of sin.
Ananias and Sapphira didn’t experience judgment and death simply because they didn’t give everything they had. It wasn’t a burden laid upon people to do this; what Luke was describing at the end of chapter 4 was a free expression of faith. This couple’s grave sin was their hypocrisy. They made it seem like what they gave was the whole selling price for this piece of land (which seems to be, from the wording, not their only property; it was “a” piece of property that they owned). Had they simply been honest all would have been well. But they presented themselves as doing one thing while secretly doing another. As Peter says, their true sin was that they lied to God, not to people.
It is clear that this was a planned thing between the two of them, an intentional defrauding of the Church and hypocritical action done with clear minds. This wasn’t a “falling into” sin; it was utterly sinful. We don’t make any claims as to their eternal judgment because the text doesn’t say, but their earthly consequences were swift. This event rightly produced fear in those around them (5:11), not because it made them think that anyone who didn’t sell all they had and give it away would die, but to see the consequences of sin so strikingly (call to mind what Paul wrote to the Corinthians in 1 Cor. 10:6-12).
We are reminded that the power of the signs and wonders done by the Apostles is God’s, not their own. We’ve already heard about this in 4:8-12, when Peter was explaining how the man had been healed. And so it is not the shadow of Peter that has the power to heal, but the Word of God. It’s not Peter himself, or any of the apostles; they had been called into a specific office by Jesus Himself to preach and perform healings and cast out demons. So they are exercising this apostolic office and being filled with the Holy Spirit to accomplish that office.
In the same vein as earlier, in chapter 4, the Apostles are imprisoned for their preaching of Jesus as the Life (4:20) and healings. This time, they are miraculously freed from the prison in order that they might continue their ministry. That miracle didn’t always happen, and yet the Apostles continue. It calls to mind the response of the three men of Israel in Daniel 3:16-18, when Nebuchadnezzar threatened to throw them in the fiery furnace. A quote (with emphasis added) will help us see the connection:
16 Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego answered and said to the king, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter. 17 If this be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. 18 But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.”
The young men declared that even if God didn’t miraculously save them, they would still be faithful. So too the Apostles.
5:29 (“we must obey God rather than men”) has been widely used in all sorts of political contexts, but we need to be careful, as with all Scripture passages, to be faithful interpreters. This statement wasn’t an outright refusal to obey any lawful authority; it was a refusal to stop preaching and teaching about Jesus as the Saviour, and about the religious leaders’ roles in His crucifixion. In that context, Christians, and particularly those who continue the apostolic work of preaching and teaching, will not abandon the proclamation of God’s Word, even when an earthly authority tells them they must stop it in favour of other teachings that do not honour it. We’ve seen this all over the world throughout the ages, and even here in Acts 5, the Church grew in the midst of persecution by earthly authorities.
5:33-40 is a most interesting account. One of the Jewish leaders, Gamaliel, gave council to the council to be wise about what they were doing. (Again, remember that this is a situation where political and theological considerations are intertwined.) If it’s not of God, then let it die out because it’s not going to last. But if it’s of God, then you don’t want to be on the opposing side! Either way, stop persecuting them. And so, even though the motivation was self-interest, the authorities do decide to let the Apostles go, after one last beating.
5:41 Notice that the Apostles are rejoicing (!) in the midst of suffering - not in the suffering itself, but in the fact that it was on account of Jesus. Jesus had told them this is what was going to happen (e.g. John 15:18-27).
5:42 The Apostles do their work in formal settings (the temple) and informal ones (house to house). Take note of the language here: “teaching and preaching that the Christ is Jesus”. This seems to be a primarily Jewish outreach, because the Jewish people were looking for the Christ, which is a title more than a name (Messiah, Anointed One). So the primary message of the Apostles to Jewish people was: this One that you’re waiting for? He’s come, and it’s this man Jesus of Nazareth.