Acts 5:1-11 is not the easiest passage in the book of Acts to read or understand: Howard Marshall says of this passage, ‘The story must be ranked among the most difficult for modern readers of Acts.’ The explosive start of the church following the Day of Pentecost and the apparently unhindered growth of the growth make for exciting reading, but here, after the news of a tremendous healing and unprecedented unity, we have the story of Ananias and Sapphira, a couple who found their deceit and dishonesty were not tolerated by God or by the church and whose deaths remind us, if we needed reminding, that it is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. (Heb 10:31) Peter was later to write that ‘it is time for judgment to begin with God’s household’ (1 Pet 4:17), and there is no doubt that this shocking account leaves us stunned with the severity of the judgment and can make us feel very uncomfortable and uncertain.
John Stott comments that this account ‘illustrates the honesty of Luke as a historian: he did not suppress this sordid episode. It throws light on the interior life of the first Spirit-filled community: it was not all romance and righteousness. It is also a further example of the strategy of Satan.’ The attitude of Ananias and Sapphira is contrasted with that of Barnabas in Acts 4:36-37 and is also reminiscent of Achan, whose sin led to the Israelites’ defeat at Ai (Joshua 7). This is the story of how two members of the community attempted to gain credit for a greater personal sacrifice than they had actually made by offering only part of the proceeds of a sale to the apostles and passing it off as if it were the whole amount. There was no compulsion on them to sell their land and give to the apostles (Acts 5:4), but their lack of integrity and hypocrisy (wanting to appear more virtuous than they were) are judged severely by God, speaking through Peter.
The ultimate truth of this story is that God is not tame or cosy. He will not be fitted into our image; He is holy and just, righteous and true. We may question the severity of the judgment meted out by God, but this shows us how radically God views sin and how easy we find it to gloss over sin, categorise it and rank certain sins higher than others. This passage illustrates that the church is founded upon truth, and it grows by means of truth. The unity of the church is also dependent upon truth. ‘Deception is an attack on the truth, and it is also one of the primary means of attack employed by Satan, the liar and deceiver. To tolerate even a small deception is to open the door to an attack on the truth which would be devastating and thus the consequences of the actions of these two people are extreme.’ (Bob Deffinbaugh)
The core of the sin described in this passage is lying to God (Acts 5:4). Lying can often seem so inconsequential to us, but all lies gradually erode truth and therefore must be shunned. We need to heed the warnings of Acts 5:1-11 and learn from the example of Ananias and Sapphira.