5:1-11 The hypocrisy of Ananias and Sapphira
The story is very upsetting. A couple sold some property (as did Barnabas in 4:36-37) and they gave part of it as a donation to the church in Jerusalem. The problem is that they had agreed to pretend they had given the whole amount of the proceeds to God's work. They were not required to give anything, and it would have been acceptable for them to say they were only giving a part of the proceeds for the work of the community (5:4). So Peter accuses them of lying to the Holy Spirit by trying to deceive the church community, "You did not lie to us but to God" (5:4).
The couple both died, presumably from a heart attack (5:5, 10). And what triggered the heart attack seems to have been the shock of their hypocrisy being exposed in the community. Whatever the cause of death, the important lesson for the early church was that hypocrisy is a deadly cancer in the body of the church. If the various organs of our human body ever began deceiving one another, we would quickly die.
What had gone so badly wrong? Taking God's name for hypocritical purposes was forbidden in the third of the ten commandments. "You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not acquit anyone who misuses his name" (Exodus 20:7). This is often interpreted as a condemnation of swear words like God, and damn, Jesus, hell, and other four letter words. They certainly do not embellish the English language, but what is condemned here is much more serious. It is using God's name to pretend we love him and deceive our Christian brothers and sisters..
Jesus spoke about "blasphemy against the Spirit" (Matthew 12:31). It involved calling Jesus' work of healing satanic. Calling good bad, or what is bad good, is a total denial of ordinary morality. But the sin of Ananias and Sapphia was also a deliberate denial of the oneness of the family of the Spirit to which they were committed. A similar horrendous situation would be a husband giving his wife an expensive gift, which was meant to prove his love for her, while at the same time having an affair with another woman..
Hypocrisy is deadly for family relationships, for the church community we belong to, for our own integrity, and it makes genuine faith in God impossible..
5:1-2 This was not ordinary badness but a deliberate collusion to deceive the community of the Holy Spirit. As Peter pointed out, Ananias and Sapphira were free to keep any of the proceeds of their sale of land for any purpose whatever (5:4). What went wrong was hiding what they had kept back, and hypocritically trying to pretend that they had given everything for God's work.
5:3-4 Peter may have had a report of the deception, but it seems more likely that Peter was given the gift of discernment to know what had happened, and he knew that Satan's work is to lie and deceive. Jesus said "he is a liar and the father of lies" (John 8:44), and here the devil is trying to enter and destroy by lies the infant church as he had entered to destroy the garden of Eden.. The lie is against the Holy Spirit (as in 5:9) who is the animator and source of loving oneness in the body of the church (1 Corinthians 12:13). We also note that the Holy Spirit is very personal. You can only lie to a person, not a life force (see 7:51).
5:5 It was hearing Peter's exposure of Ananias' hypocrisy that caused his sudden heart attack, and he dropped dead there and then. This caused fear and consternation, not only among the Christians but also among others who heard about it. No doubt others realized that they also had been hypocritical.
5:6 In the Middle East (and many other countries) a body is wrapped in a burial shroud and burial takes place as soon as possible the same day..
5:7-8 There was an interval of three hours before Sapphira came back, unaware that her husband had already died and been buried. Peter, knowing what Ananias had done, asked Sapphira to confirm that the amount they had donated to the community was the full price of the land. She made it clear by confirming the lie that they had agreed on that she was party to their joint hypocritical deception.
5:9 When Jesus was tempted by Satan to impress the crowd by throwing himself from the pinnacle of the temple, he answered "Do not put the Lord your God to the test" (Matthew 4:7, a quotation from Deuteronomy 6:16 which referred to the testing of God by demanding water from the rock in Exodus 17:2, 7). Here the couple had decided to test God to see if they could get away with lying to the community by pretending they had given all the proceeds of the land to the community.
5:10 Presumably Sapphira died from a heart attack caused by the sudden shock of their joint hypocrisy being exposed (or was it the news that her husband was already dead and buried?). We should not add that this couple were condemned by God to eternal torture in the fires of hell. They did suffer the serious consequence of a sudden death, but God does not exclude us from his love for horrendous sins (Peter denied he had ever known Jesus). He welcomes any, however bad (including those who have disobeyed each of the ten commandments). A murderer can face the penalty of his crime and be hanged, but we cannot tell whether his heart had turned to the light and love of heaven (John 3:19-21).
5:11 The result was that the whole church realized the awfulness and danger of hypocrisy. There is no greater condemnation of hypocrisy than Jesus' words to the Pharisees (Matthew 23:4-7, 13-15, 16, 23-24, 25, 27-28). Although his words against hypocrisy may not have been written in Matthew's Gospel till thirty years later, Peter and John and the other apostles must have taught what Jesus said as part of the teaching of disciples after baptism (Matthew 28:19). It is interesting that outsiders fault Christians for being hypocrites, forgetting that there are hypocrites among politicians, salesmen, teachers, doctors, and many parents (see Rights and Wrongs chapter 3).
5:12-16 Church Growth in Jerusalem
Luke has already mentioned the rapid growth of the early church (2:41, 47, 4:4, see also 6:1, 9:31). Now he wants to add the fact that large numbers of women as well as men were being baptized and becoming disciples (5:14). This could never have happened unless this was already the practice of Jesus when he baptized and taught his disciples (John 4:1). The rabbis had said that women should not be allowed to study the torah (the law of Moses, strictly referring to the first five books of the Bible, but later including the Historical Books, the Prophets, Psalms, and Wisdom Books). But Luke is careful to show how women were not only baptized and taught (8:12, 9:36, 16:15, 33-34, 18:8, 26) but the Jewish authorities had viewed women disciples as equally dangerous and deserving of imprisonment (8:3, 9:2).
5:12-13 Signs and wonders are the visible result of some of the gifts of the Spirit such as "the working of miracles" and "deeds of power" (1 Corinthians 12:9, 28). There was a clear distinction between the general public who "held them in high esteem" and the disciples who gathered in Solomon's Portico (as in 3:11).
5:14 For a note on rapid church growth see the introduction to this section.
5:15-16 Peter had engaged in a healing ministry with the sick and those tormented by demons during his preaching tours with Jesus (Luke 9:1, 10:9, 17). But here he is evidently viewed as having a special gift of healing (1 Corinthians 12:9, 28). All members of the body of the church are involved in healing by prayer, and love, and service, but some have a special gift in the community. In Jesus' healing ministry, in some cases the laying on of hands was not necessary but the sick person's faith (or their friends) seems to have been involved.
5:17-26 Prison Doors Opened
As noted earlier (4:1, 5), the main opposition at this time was from the high priest of the temple and the priests who belonged to the Sadducee party. They were "filled with jealousy" (5:17) presumably because those who became Christians still met in the temple, but they paid more attention to the apostles than to them. The arrest was made by the Captain of the temple guard (as in 4:1-3). Later many of these priests became disciples (6:7). The Pharisee opposition came later when Saul and others realized that their teaching authority as rabbis was being undermined. But to persecute the Christians Saul (who was a Pharisee, Philippians 3:5-6) still needed to have the authority of the Sadducee high priest (9:1-2).
5:17-18 The high priest and his assistant priests belonged to the Sadducee party. And they ran the vast temple establishment in Jerusalem. Their jealousy is understandable as more and more people disregarded their temple services and met to learn Jesus' way with the apostles (5:14). As Stephen would say before his martyrdom (7:48) the temple was no longer needed (as in Hebrews 8:13). The high priest would have ordered the Captain of the temple (4:1) to arrest and imprison the twelve apostles with a view to them being brought before the sanhedrin the next day (5:21).
5:19 Luke records several angelic interventions in the Book of Acts (7:30, 8:26, 10:3, 22, 11:13, 12:7, 23, 27:23), as well as those he recorded in his Gospel (Luke 1:11, 1:26, 2:9). Peter was similarly delivered from prison by the opening of the prison doors the night before he was to be executed (12:7, 10).
5:20-23 After a brief sleep, the apostles went back into the temple, as the angel had instructed them, and carried on their teaching ministry as if nothing had happened in the night. When the sanhedrin convened apparently the prison guards did not know the apostles had escaped the prison (5:22).
5:24-25 We can imagine the perplexity of the impressive assembly when the twelve prisoners could not be found, and then someone announced that the apostles were teaching in the temple as usual.
5:26 Normally the Captain of the guard and his soldiers would have made a violent arrest, but by now the crowd was on the side of the apostles (see 5:13).
5:27-42 The Apostles Flogged
5:27-28 Finally, after this embarrassing delay, the sanhedrin was able to question the prisoners. The high priest, acting as presiding judge, reminded the apostles that they were under strict orders not to teach in Jesus' name (4:17-18). But already Jerusalem was filled with the good news and their teaching about the name of Jesus the Messiah (for the name see 3:6, 16, 4:7, 12). The religious authorities were also sensing that the people were holding them responsible for the blood of Jesus (see Matthew 27:25).
5:29 Peter's defense was based on the first of the ten commandments, "you shall have no other gods beside me" (Exodus 20:2). In trying to silence the apostles, the high priest was setting himself up as a little god. Jesus had divided our duty to God from our earthly obedience to those in authority. "Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor's, and to God the things that are God's" (Matthew 22:21). And here the high priest was demanding that the apostles obey his command to stop preaching and so neglect their duty to God who wanted the Messiah recognized.
5:30-31 Peter pointed out that they had crucified Jesus, but he was raised from the dead by the Old Testament God of the Jewish people. Jesus the Messiah was now already reigning as their leader, and he was calling them to change course and be assured of forgiveness for what they had done.
5:32 The twelve apostles then stated that they were the appointed witnesses of Jesus' life and death and resurrection (1:21-22). And their witness was confirmed to any who were willing to hear by the Holy Spirit of God. One interpretation is that God gives the Holy Spirit to those who obey him (meaning God the Father). I prefer to think of God giving the Spirit to those who are willing to submit to his direction. An artist has to be obedient to inspiration. A prophet must be open to and submit to the prophecy he or she is given. Every Christian needs to accept the special function that the Holy Spirit appoints in the body (1 Corinthians 12:4-7, 11).
5:33-34 The religious leaders were furious, and were ready to have the apostles killed there and then. But Gamaliel intervened. He was a highly respected Rabbi of the Pharisee party (Paul had studied under him, 22:3). While the disciples were taken out of the court, Gamaliel was able to quieten the assembly with his wise words.
5:35-37 He reminded them that Theudas and Judas the Galilean had both collected large numbers of followers, but when they died their movement soon disintegrated.
5:38-39 Similarly, if the Jesus movement was merely of human origin, it would fail. But if this was God's intervention there was no way they could crush it, and in fact they might find themselves fighting against God himself. This wise counsel prevailed.
5:40 But they still expressed their vindictiveness by having the twelve apostles flogged (the Greek verb dero means to beat with a rod or flay till the skin is damaged). Then they were let go with a warning not to speak in the name of Jesus (see 5:28).
5:41-42 Rather than submit to this illegal demand, the apostles were full of joy for the privilege of suffering for the Messiah, and they continued teaching about him, and proclaiming him to all and sundry.