Simon Peter, Fisher of Men
10 - Ananias and Sapphira
They came, in a long line extending to the end of the spacious room, one by one stepping up to the waiting Apostles and depositing their gifts of money in the large earthenware vessel standing there on the floor. The room was filled with singing, songs of praise ascending on high to God, interrupted by an occasional pause whilst someone or another in the assembly raised his voice in impassioned prayer. This was a meeting of the church, a meeting characterized by all the fresh zeal and enthusiasm of the newly converted. The mood was one of jubilation at the outcome of the abortive Sanhedrin trial of Peter and John. With this evidence that the power of Christ from beyond the grave was working on their behalf and preparing the way for the mission of evangelization which was their privilege, the brethren had come together in this spontaneous exhibition of fraternal love and wholehearted dedication to Divine service. None of them now looked upon what they possessed of this world's goods as for their personal enjoyment; all was held as a stewardship from God to be used for the welfare of the believers and for the preaching of the Gospel. So the needs of each became the concern of the many; they sold houses and lands and possessions of all kinds, and brought the money and laid it at the apostles' feet, and distribution was made to everyone according as they had need. The prevalent atmosphere was of expectation that their resurrected Lord would very soon be with them again to establish His promised Kingdom of righteousness. They would recall, no doubt, His predictions concerning the very imminent destruction of Jerusalem and disruption of the nation and they must have felt that houses and lands were best disposed of and the proceeds put to immediate good use in promoting the interests of the coming Kingdom. So they sang their praises and said their prayers, while those who had something to contribute waited their turn to appear before Peter and the others and offer their gifts.
Heads were turned; eyes followed a stalwart figure who strode through the doorway and attached himself to the end of the line. Barnabas of Cyprus had become a well-known and much loved character during these past weeks. Visiting Jerusalem for the Feast of Pentecost, he had become a convinced believer in Christ at the very first preaching and had very quickly manifested the depth and sincerity of his newfound allegiance to Christ. A comparatively prosperous farmer, he had decided to throw in his lot with the disciples and devote his life to the proclamation of the faith he had espoused. He had sold his farm and now appeared in the midst of the assembly to hand over the proceeds to be added to the gifts already given. In after days Barnabas was to be used mightily in the work of the Gospel, first at Jerusalem, then at Antioch, and in later times as a missionary to the wider world. For the present he was content to offer his gift and take his place among the rest of the brethren assembled.
Another stir at the doorway as a second newcomer entered. Ananias and his wife Sapphira were relatively new converts and not yet well known to the brethren in general but they had participated in all that was being done and had been received into full fellowship. Now Ananias came forward, looking to left and right as he did so, carrying a small bag of money that he swung carelessly so that all could see it. As Barnabas stepped aside, Ananias proffered his bag to Peter; "we got this for the land we sold. Take it for the Cause" he said in a voice loud enough to be heard by the assembly. Peter's warm, friendly eyes suddenly clouded over and became sombre. "Ananias", he responded in a voice that was infinitely reproachful and infinitely sad "why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back 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? How is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to men but to God!" (vv 3,4 RSV)
The singing had stopped; dead silence reigned in the room. Ananias, the complacent smile suddenly gone, stood ashen-faced. Peter knew! Peter had seen through his subterfuge. He had done what he had done in order to gain glory from his fellows for an act of self-sacrifice, while retaining some of the money for his own use, and he had not thought anyone would ever know anything about it. But Peter had known! How could he have known? Suddenly the shattering realization came. Of course, God knew! There was a reality about God that he had not fully understood or believed but now it came to him that his petty deceit had been open to the eyes of God all the time. He felt the eyes of the assembly upon him, accusing eyes, wondering eyes, curious eyes, and he looked up in desperation to the group of apostles before him, all with faces turned towards Peter awaiting such action as he felt compelled to take. He saw Peter's eyes too, shadowed and sad. Like Moses, thought Ananias, about to pass judgment upon some man of Israel who had transgressed the covenant; he suddenly remembered Achan who had committed much the same kind of deceit that he had himself and had brought defilement upon Israel in consequence. Now, he had brought defilement upon the assembly that had received him as a brother. He was guilty as had been Achan and merited the same punishment. With a strangled cry he sank to the ground, lying there a crumpled heap.
One of the apostles took three quick steps and knelt down beside the recumbent body. A quick examination and he looked up to Peter, watching. "Dead! " he exclaimed. Peter's face was serious. "It is of the Lord" he said gravely. "Our brother erred, but his judgment has been taken out of our hands. He is in the care of the Righteous Judge".
It must have come as a shock to Peter to realize that there could be enemies within the circle of the faithful as well as outside. The animosity of the priests and Pharisees, the hostility of the people, all this he was prepared for and ready to combat. The outcome of his recent appearance before the Sanhedrin had given him confidence that by the name of Jesus and faith in His Divine power there was no external enemy that could harm them. So far as that factor was concerned he could expect the work of the Gospel to continue without let or hindrance. But now he became suddenly conscious of a new and more insidious enemy, the traitor from within. The evangelical power engendered by the sincerity and wholehearted dedication of the disciples could easily be sullied and weakened by treason among their own number; perhaps for the first time Peter realised that he must henceforth be prepared to fight a battle on two fronts.
It is noteworthy that he did not condemn Ananias. He pointed out the gravity of his offence but the man's death was not brought about by Peter; its cause must be sought in other fields. The witnesses would take the view that it was a Divine judgment, a visitation from God: according to Acts a most salutary impression was created. It is probable that everyone who had been there or heard about it was a little more careful from then on.
It would seem that the meeting continued, albeit almost certainly on a more subdued note. The tragedy which had occurred in their midst must have made them all the much more conscious of the gravity of their position before God. They had been called to a standard higher than that of the world around them, a standard that made no allowance for divided loyalties or the service of two masters. Their service was to God and God alone; He required absolute sincerity and complete dedication of life and talents and possessions, their all. Even though that life and those talents and possessions were handed back to the person making the offering to be used as a stewardship, the fact still remained that all belonged to God. Some of them began to realize the principle that underlay Peter's words. Ananias had every right to apportion his money in whatever fashion seemed good to him in the exercise of such a stewardship; it was the element of insincerity, of deception, of hypocrisy, which was obnoxious in the sight of God.
Three hours later, the assembly was still in session when Sapphira walked in, knowing nothing of what had happened. Peter's words to her have been branded as callous and brutal, but this may be doing the Apostle an injustice. The printed page cannot convey the tone in which the words were spoken nor the attitude of the speaker; in this instance they may well have been uttered in tones of deep sorrow and sadness. First of all Peter gave her the opportunity to confess the truth about the unhappy matter, to put herself right with God, but she, not aware that Peter already knew the truth, adhered to the story upon which she and her husband had agreed. It might well have been that at this point Peter, by the inward inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the possession of which he manifested in a number of incidents in his life, knew within himself what the outcome of this matter was going to be. So he uttered the fateful words which both told the unfortunate woman of the untimely death of her husband and also predicted her own. "Hark, the feet of those who have buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out" (v.9 RSV). It is much more likely that the words were uttered sadly, and with gentleness, than brusquely and with severity. Peter must have been bitterly grieved at this, the first example of sub-normal Christian behaviour amongst the faithful. In later days he would become more accustomed to such things. Now, in the first flush of exhilaration at the rapid growth of the Church and the spontaneous sincerity of its fellowship, it must have been a bitter blow to find that even here the evils of the outside world could find lodgment. It is much more likely that he spoke in sorrow and not in anger.
(to be continued) AOH