“There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. Thus Joseph, who was also called by the apostles Barnabas (which means son of encouragement), a Levite, a native of Cyprus, sold a field that belonged to him and brought the money and laid it at the apostles’ feet. But a man named Ananias, with his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property, and with his wife’s knowledge he kept back for himself some of the proceeds and brought only a part of it and laid it at the apostles’ feet. But Peter said, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back for yourself part of the proceeds of the land? While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal? Why is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to man but to God.” When Ananias heard these words, he fell down and breathed his last. And great fear came upon all who heard of it. The young men rose and wrapped him up and carried him out and buried him. After an interval of about three hours his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. And Peter said to her, “Tell me whether you sold the land for so much.” And she said, “Yes, for so much.” But Peter said to her, “How is it that you have agreed together to test the Spirit of the Lord? Behold, the feet of those who have buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out.” Immediately she fell down at his feet and breathed her last. When the young men came in they found her dead, and they carried her out and buried her beside her husband. And great fear came upon the whole church and upon all who heard of these things.” (Acts 4:34 – 5:11 ESV)
It’s easy to read this story and lose sight of the main point. I think that may be because we see our own failures towards God and ‘great fear’ falls upon us because it may resemble the failures of Ananias and Sapphira. While it is certainly possible that we’ve attempted to deceive and lie to God regarding an act of charity, I think it is important to really understand the heart of this sin and God’s subsequent judgments upon them. Let’s take a look…
Luke initially introduces us to Barnabas, an outstanding example of Christian love and charity and he does so to draw a distinct contrast between Barnabas and Ananias/Sapphira. Barnabas is a man of great integrity and compassion. Notice that Barnabas’ given name was Joseph but he had been given the nickname Barnabas by the Apostles. This, in itself, is a testimony to the type of man he was. We generally give nicknames out of deep contempt or out of deep affection. Sometimes nicknames are associated with physical characteristics, like Rusty for a redhead, and sometimes they are associated with personality traits, like Grumpy. But Barnabas was an encourager and the church gave him that nickname, Joseph Barnabas, the son of encouragement.
The early church seems to have had a very obvious socio-economic diversity among its members. There were those who had means and money and those who had none. I think one of the most beautiful and important statements in all of scripture is Luke’s observation that “there was not a needy person among them” because those who had the means sold either land or homes to make certain the needs of those who didn’t have means were being met. That is a beautiful picture of grace and transformed love and one the church needs to be reminded of today. Love of God and love for His people overshadowed love of things. Well, at least it did for most folks and that’s the heart of this story.
Barnabas is one of those who had some means (at least one parcel of land) and when he became aware of needs within the fellowship he sold the land and brought the proceeds to the Apostles. It appears that his actions may have spurred others to action and it, no doubt, caused a bit of attention to be placed upon him and his actions. In fact, Luke points out in his gospel that Barnabas’ actions are to be the new normal for followers of Jesus.
“And he said to them, “Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” (Luke 12:15 ESV)
“Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give to the needy. Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail…” (Luke 12:32-33 ESV)
To be honest, I think we would still be impressed with someone like Barnabas in the church today. His actions are certainly not the norm in today’s church and I fear we hear Jesus’ words, as quoted by Luke above, and question them. Surely, Jesus didn’t say THAT! If he did, he must have meant something different than what Luke implies or what Barnabas did. How could He possibly have meant for us to do something so RADICAL? That’s CRAZY… cult crazy. Really!
And yet, that is precisely how the Jerusalem church interpreted it, understood it and began to live out Jesus’ commands. Selling possessions and meeting the needs of those in the church who were needy. Our tendency is to try and interpret these “radical” statements of Jesus as hyperbole or exaggerated examples that are simply meant to shock us but certainly not as commands we are supposed to simply follow. If that’s where your thoughts go, then please pay close attention to this next section…
When Barnabas’ actions became public knowledge, others began to respond similarly. It is obvious from our text that he was not the only one to give so sacrificially. Among those who heard about Barnabas’ actions was a couple named Ananias and Sapphira. Their response to Barnabas’ lead is quite revealing and gives us several lessons on what not to do…
First, notice that Ananias and Sapphira conspired together to sell the property and to pretend before the church to mirror Barnabas’ generosity. It appears that once they sold the property they couldn’t bring themselves to follow through on giving the entire amount for distribution to those in need. So, they agreed together to mislead everyone by claiming that they sold the property for a lesser amount and donated the “entire” sale price to the church for distribution to those in need, while privately keeping that “unreported” portion for themselves.
Here’s the key to this story, the land and money were entirely under Ananias and Sapphira’s control both before and after the sale. They were under no obligation to sell the land or donate the money. While Jesus taught that believers should give and help, it should be done out of love for God and never out of obligation. In fact, this is the basis for our entire relationship with Christ and obedience to his commands. We’re told that the greatest commandment in scripture is to love God with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength. The real question in this story is whether Ananias and Sapphira’s love is real or contrived?
How could I possibly come to that conclusion? Peter says that the lie they told was to the Holy Spirit and not the church. So, the real issue here is not about the sale of their land or the donation of the proceeds for the needy. Those are symptoms, not the disease. Peter says the sale of the land and the distribution of the money is entirely at their discretion. The real issue is a matter of the heart and that’s also the heart of the issue in the Luke passage I quoted above. Jesus commands regarding money and the subsequent parables he told, as recorded in Luke 12, are all about our love for God. Do we love God more than we do our money or possessions?
Wait, isn’t this story about showing love for others, especially others in the church who are needy. Why are you making it about loving God more than our possessions? Because those two things are intricately tied together. As a matter of fact, they are the same thing. It is impossible to love others, as God intends, without first loving Him above everything else. For Barnabas to have been able to make the sacrifice he made he must first love God more than he loved himself and that resulted in him being able to give sacrificially to the church. In contrast, Ananias and Sapphira were unable to do so because they still loved themselves more than they did God.
So, the real issue at hand is not about giving to the needy but about claiming to fully love God while really lying about it. That is the lie they told the Holy Spirit and for which they were held accountable. By the way, it is the same one for which we will be held accountable. Do we love God above all else, even ourselves? Especially ourselves. When we truly love God in that way, our actions will begin to mirror Barnabas’ actions.
Let me close with one final observation. Luke notes that great fear came upon the church as a result of this incident. There is a sense in which this type of fear is healthy. Just like physical pain causes us to pull back from dangerous actions, spiritual pain and fear should cause us to recoil from sinful actions and evaluate our beliefs, motives and decisions. Are we fully obedient when it comes to our possessions or are we believing a lie? If you’re unsure, go back and read that full passage in Luke 12, very prayerfully. Then model Barnabas, not Ananias.