The way it has been popularly presented, the story of Ananias and Sapphira in Chapter 5 of the Book of the Acts of the Apostles is one of the most frightening and perplexing accounts of the New Testament. For those unfamiliar with it, Ananias and Sapphira were a husband and wife who were struck dead after the Apostle Peter accused them of lying to the Holy Spirit, following a deception perpetrated by them in which they sold a plot of land and pretended to present the whole of the proceeds to the church, while actually giving only part of the money.
For generations, Ananias and Sapphira have been presented as a dishonest Christian couple, who brought God's wrath upon themselves by their duplicity, and suffered the due penalty as a salutary lesson to all believers, to avoid following in their footsteps.
So, is this a true reflection of the biblical account, or quite another story that has been reinterpreted to reinforce a legalistic agenda? To put it bluntly, were Ananias and Sapphira Christian believers at all?
I submit that a close examination of the text, with reference to the "whole counsel of the word of God", sheds an entirely different light on the matter, which demonstrates that not only were Ananias and Sapphira most certainly not believers, but that their tragic fate has been used for centuries to support a legalistic paradigm, designed to control the church.
In its full context, the circumstances occur between Acts 4:32 and 5:11, which begins by telling us that the believers in the early church "were of one heart and of one soul: neither said any of them that any of the things which he possessed was his own; but they had all things common".
The passage further states that "great grace was upon them all", and "as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the prices of the things that were sold, and laid them down at the apostles' feet: and distribution was made unto every man according as he had need".
Cited for special approval in this regard, is a Cypriot Levite called Joseph, who the apostles nick-named Barnabas (meaning, Son of Encouragement).
Chapter 5, then begins with the account of Ananias, with Sapphira, who appear to emulate Barnabas' generosity by selling a property, but who in fact, we are told, "kept back part of the price", while bringing the remainder to the apostles.
However, no doubt much to his surprise, far from receiving the same thanks and approval givewn to Barnabas, Ananias finds himself challenged by Peter who asks: "Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit, and to keep back part of the price of the land?"
As Peter explains, neither Ananias nor his wife, were under any constraint or compulsion to sell their land or given all the proceeds to the Apostles, so why had they lied to God?
What happened next has been a source of consternation to Christians for generations: "And Ananias hearing these words fell down, and died: and great fear came on all them that heard these things".
Shortly afterwards, Sapphira arrives, altogether unaware of her husband's demise; when she is quizzed by Peter concerning the same matter.
She sticks to her story, claiming that the money she and Ananias had given to the church was the whole sum obtained from the sale of their property, whereupon Peter says:
"How is it that you have agreed together to tempt the Spirit of the Lord? Behold, the feet of them who have buried your husband are at the door, and shall carry you out". Upon which Sapphira falls down dead on the spot.
"And great fear came upon all the church, and upon as many as heard these things." I bet it did.
So, is this evidence of the severity of judgement that Christians can expect under the undiluted anointing of the Holy Spirit?
I say no!
To suggest so, is to deliberately ignore the evidence of Scripture and grievously misrepresent the grace of God. But, before examining what the Bible does say, let's be very clear about what it does not.
For instance, nowhere does the text say that God struck Ananias or Sapphira dead. But if he didn't who did? And nowhere do we read that they were believers. But what evidence is there that they were not?
Both answers are related, because, as we read already, great grace was upon all the believers who were "of one heart and of one soul" and held all their property in common.
Does either description accord with the attitude or behaviour of Ananias or Sapphira? Not in the least! They simply don't fit the profile of those the Bible calls believers.
Luke's inclusion of the account is not merely to highlight the couple's fraudulent behaviour but to contrast it with Barnabas' sincerity. Barnabas was a believer who moved in grace while Ananias and Sapphira were a couple of unbelievers who saw the adulation afforded to Barnabas and pretended to emulate him, for any number of reasons from kudos to financial advantage and influence in the believing community.
So, why did they die?
Well, as unbelievers, they were not under the "great grace" mentioned as covering the whole church, because Romans 8:1 famously says: "There is now no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus". In God's eyes, forgiveness of believers is a matter of grace and is total, being established by the New Covenant in Jesus' blood. However, for those not "in Christ Jesus" that condemnation, which Jesus' blood redeemed all believers from, is still in force. Jesus said so, in John 3:18. And that is what killed Ananias and Sapphira.
Acts does not say that the Holy Spirit struck either of them down, but that they died when they heard they had been exposed. This is because, as unbelievers they had not been redeemed from the law of sin and death and they effectively died of shock following Peter's confrontation and consequent realisation that their hearts and consciences were fully exposed before God's holiness.
They fell dead to the ground, self-condemned by their own law-consciousness of guilt. Because as Paul says in Galatians 2:21: "I do not frustrate the grace of God: for if righteousness come by the law, then Christ is dead in vain". God does not kill Christians not even badly behaved ones. But the law has a legitimate claim on every unredeemed life.
No wonder it says that "great fear came upon all the church" Except it doesn't stop there; notice again that almost throwaway reference: "and upon as many as heard these things".
We them mentioned again in verses 12-14:
"And by the hands of the apostles were many signs and wonders done among the people; (and they were all with one accord in Solomon's porch. And of the rest dared no man join himself to them: but the people magnified them. And believers were the more added to the Lord, multitudes both of men and women.)"
The crucial phrase is: "of the rest dared no man join himself to them". Clearly there were those moving among the church community who were not themselves believers. And I submit that it was to this group that Ananias and Sapphira belonged.
Rather, they belonged to a group about whom believers are amply warned throughout Scripture variously described as false shepherds and wolves in sheep's clothing: those who spot an opportunity to profit from the generosity of Christians, by posing as being of their number.
Romans 8 continues, in verses 2-8,
"For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has made me free from the law of sin and death.
"For what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh: That the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit.
"For they that are after the flesh do mind the things of the flesh; but they that are after the Spirit the things of the Spirit.
"For to be carnally minded is death; but to be spiritually minded is life and peace. Because the carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be.
"So then they that are in the flesh cannot please God."
This is a truth that Ananias and Sapphira tragically discovered the hard way, because the lie they perpetrated against the Holy Spirit was not merely a matter of money, but their presumptuous pretence of being true believers.