Fear and trembling (part 2)

The church was growing by leaps and bounds. Everyone in the city knew the pastor by reputation. People were so enthusiastic, so taken by the warm sense of community, that some gave large gifts to the church, and their generosity was cause for humble celebration.

One couple in the church decided to get in on the action. They cashed in some of their investments, kept some of the money for themselves, and gave the rest to the church’s discretionary fund. But they didn’t want anyone to know that they had kept some of the money back. They preferred others to think that they had given away 100% of the proceeds from the sale.

But the pastor knew they were lying. So he publicly confronted the husband on his hypocrisy, and the husband dropped dead on the spot.

A few hours later, the wife came strolling in, unaware of what had happened to her husband. The pastor caught her in the same lie, and she fell dead at his feet.

They were buried next to each other. And everyone in the church was afraid.

Very afraid.

It’s one of the most unsettling stories in the New Testament: the death of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5. It takes us by surprise. We’ve just finished reading, at the end of chapter 4, of the wonderful unity of the early church in Jerusalem — of how the believers loved and cared for each other like family. Barnabas is held up as a shining example of the kind of spontaneous and voluntary generosity the believers had toward one another.

Then, at the beginning of chapter 5, this. Ananias and Sapphira sell a piece of property and give part of the proceeds to the church. We’re not told why, but they lie about how much money they got for the sale and pretend that they’re being more generous than they really are. Peter knows it’s a lie and confronts them, one at a time. And by the end of the tragic story, both spouses have dropped dead at Peter’s feet.

It feels excessive, maybe even unfair. Sure, sure, they shouldn’t have lied. But didn’t the church benefit from their gift? And as consequences go, isn’t death a little extreme? Do they have to die over a little white lie? Isn’t Peter being over the top, especially as someone who has a little experience with lying himself?

We have to be careful how much we read into the story. We don’t really know Ananias and Sapphira’s motivations. We’re not told the cause of death; for all we know, when they realized what they had done, they may have suffered heart attacks. And there is nothing in Peter’s words that needs to be interpreted as calling down a curse from heaven. Prophetic insight into what happened and what would happen next, yes. Curse, not so much. He may have been deeply grieved to say what he did.

A blatant lie is involved. But Luke isn’t giving us a morality tale about the evils of lying. He’s telling us about the miraculous movement of the Holy Spirit in a way that should remind us of the holiness of the God of Scripture.

Recall, for example, the unfortunate story of Achan in Joshua 7. Achan coveted some of the spoils of war that were supposed to be devoted to God. He pilfered some gold, silver, and a beautiful robe, and hid them in his tent. That act of disobedience cost the Israelites dozens of lives as they lost their next battle, a battle they should have won. When the truth was finally revealed, Achan paid for his sin with his life and the lives of his family.

Again, does that sound extreme?

The story of Achan can’t be read in isolation. It has to be read against the background of the whole book of Joshua, just as Joshua has to be read against the background of the story of Israel. Achan’s problem was not just greed, but spiritual blindness. And the same could be said of Ananias and Sapphira.

What kind of blindness might that be? I’ll take that up in Sunday’s post.