Now the company of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things which he possessed was his own, but they had everything in common. And with great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles' feet; and distribution was made to each as any had need. Thus Joseph who was surnamed by the apostles Barnabas (which means, Son of encouragement), a Levite, a native of Cyprus, sold a field which 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 brought only a part 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 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." When Ananias heard these words, he fell down and died. 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 tempt the Spirit of the Lord? Hark, the feet of those that have buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out." Immediately she fell down at his feet and died. 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.
Two Effects of Believing in Jesus
Two of the effects of believing in Jesus are that the heart is loosened in relationship to things and tightened in its relationship to people. We see this in verse 32: "Now the company of those who believed"—notice the word! This is the key: believing in Jesus as Savior and Lord, trusting him for all you need, being satisfied with all that God is for you in Jesus—that's the key, that's the root of what's happening in this story. Everything good comes from that.
Now this authentic believing in Jesus has two effects: "Now the company of those who believed were of one heart and soul"—there you see the first effect: believing in Jesus tightens the heart's relationship to people—especially other Christians. When you become united to Jesus by faith, you become united to people by love.
Then comes the other effect as we read on: "Now the company of those who believed were of one heart and soul, [here it is] and no one said that any of the things which he possessed was his own, but they had everything in common." So there is second effect of trusting in Jesus: first, the heart is tightened in its relationship to people, and second, the heart is loosened in its relationship to things. Faith in Christ creates a bond of love to people, and cuts the bond of love to things.
One of Luke's Main Burdens
Now if you will read Luke's gospel, you will see that this is one of his main burdens: he wants us Christians to be FREE from the love of things! And he wants us FIRM in our love for people. And he does not believe that you can have both at the same time. Because if your heart is united in love to people, then you will sit loose to things, because things will have value only as means of loving people.
That's what this story is all about. It's a snapshot of a community of people whose hearts have been utterly revolutionized by believing in Jesus. They found themselves freely caring about people, and freely selling land and houses and giving the money to the church for distribution to those with special needs.
Jesus had said in Luke 12:32–33, "Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions and give alms." This is exactly what they were doing here in Acts 4. And it was not because they had to in order to earn God's favor or keep church rules. It was because they heard the word of the Master and believed: "Fear not, little flock, it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom." Faith in the promises of God's fatherly care produces freedom from fear, freedom from anxiety, and therefore freedom from things and freedom for people and freedom for love.
The Freedom of Faith
Luke stresses the freedom of this liberty from things and this love for people in Acts 5:4. Ananias had sold a field and brought part of the proceeds to the apostles and said that he brought all of it. He lied. Peter imagines that this might be the way you would act if there were some external constraint on you, if this were not a matter of freedom. So he tells Ananias that there is no such constraint in the generosity Ananias sees all about him in the church. These people are acting out of freedom. That's what true faith means—an authentic change of where your heart is, so that your acts of love are free—they are what you want to do, not what you feel coerced to do.
So Peter says in verse 4: "While [your property] remained unsold, did it not remain your own?" There aren't any church rules here that say you have to sell your property . . . that it's not yours anymore. Ananias, if people around you are saying: "My possessions are not mine anymore," this is not because they have to say this. It's because they want to say this. They've been changed from the inside out by trusting in Jesus. They're free.
Then he goes on (v. 4b): "And after [your property] was sold, was it not at your disposal?" In other words, nobody coerced you to bring any of your money in here. If your heart doesn't tell you bring it, don't bring it.
What Luke is describing for us here in this story is the radically freeing effect of true faith in Jesus. Christianity is not a matter of external conformity to religious expectations. It is a matter of internal liberty. It is not a matter of force and law. It's a matter of freedom and love. Being a Christian means being changed from the inside out so that you fall in love with people and fall out of love with things.
Two Examples of What Being a Christian Means
And what Luke does to make this real for us is to give us two living examples—Barnabas, a man who really experiences on the inside the freedom of faith in Christ; and Ananias and Sapphira, a man and woman who try to fake it on the outside when it is not really there.
Barnabas is mentioned briefly in Acts 4:36–37, "Joseph who was surnamed by the apostles Barnabas (which means, Son of encouragement), a Levite, a native of Cyprus, sold a field which belonged to him, and brought the money and laid it at the apostles' feet." That's all it says for now. Later we will meet him as the advocate of the new convert Paul (9:27), and the shepherd of the new Gentile converts in Antioch (11:22), and the one trusted with relief for the poor (11:30), and the first partner of Paul on his missionary journeys (13:2), and the advocate for giving John Mark a second chance (15:37).
He shines as one of the most mature, reliable, loveable leaders of the early church. And right here in Acts 4:36–37 Luke shows us how Barnabas' trusted ministry began—it began with a demonstrated freedom from the love of things, and a heart of love for the poor. He sold his field and gave all the proceeds to the apostles. In this story he stands for the way true faith in Christ creates a bond of love for people and cuts a bond of love for things.
Ananias and Sapphira
Ananias and Sapphira stand for the exact opposite, namely, people who have not really been changed on the inside by being satisfied with all that God is for them in Christ, but who still want some place in the visible church. The reason they drop dead is not because this happens to all hypocrites. For example, it doesn't happen to Simon the Magician in Acts 8:20–24. The reason they drop dead is to give a stunning warning to the whole church that phony Christians will all end up this way, sooner or later.
God means for his people to fear hypocrisy. He means for us to be afraid of treating the Holy Spirit with contempt. Notice at the end of verse 5, after Ananias had died: "And great fear came upon all who heard of it." Then again in verse 11 after Sapphira died, "And great fear came upon the whole church and upon all who heard of these things." This is the lesson Luke wants us to get: faking faith in the presence of God is a fearful thing.
Acts 9:31 says, "So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria had peace and was built up; and walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit it was multiplied." The fear of the Lord and the comfort of the Holy Spirit bring peace and growth to the church. Treating the Lord with contempt by religious fakery should remain a fearful prospect in the church. God is not mocked. And the Holy Spirit is a great comfort here, because it is precisely by his indwelling power that we become real and authentic.
Four Things Wrong with Ananias and Sapphira
What was wrong with Ananias and Sapphira?
- They loved their money. They made the sale, they looked at all that cash, and they couldn't bear the thought of giving it all away. So they kept some back (v. 2).
- They wanted to look more generous than they really were. They wanted the apostles to think that they were like Barnabas perhaps. They wanted external religious approval. They not only loved money, they loved the praise of men—the two almost always go together (Luke 16:14–15).
- They lied (vv. 3–4). To cover their covetousness, and to give the impression of generosity, they lied. If you love possessions and you love the praise of men, your love for truth will dissolve into deception and fraud. That's the meaning of hypocrisy.
- And this always comes with hypocrisy—they discredited the Holy Spirit. Verse 3 says they lied to the Holy Spirit. Verse 4 says they lied not to man but to God. Verse 9 says they tempted the Lord.
How Is This a Discrediting of the Holy Spirit?
One of three possible ways.
- One is that they may not have even believed the Holy Spirit was even present in the church. Maybe they didn't even reckon with his reality. They may have simply functioned on a human level and never even thought about the real presence of the Spirit of the living God.
- Or maybe they believed in his presence in some theoretical way, but just didn't think he knew the thoughts of their mind. He was there, maybe, but he wasn't real. He wasn't a person who knew things and felt things and acted in real ways—like making people die!
- Or perhaps they thought he was there and real, but that he wouldn't really punish them. Perhaps they had a view of grace that says, "No matter how devious and hypocritical you are, God always tolerates everything."
And so it is that the Holy Spirit is discredited in the church today. Some people come to worship and operate totally on the human level, never even reckoning with the living presence of God in this room. Some come and give theoretical assent to his presence but don't really come to terms with the awesome fact that he hears every thought in their mind and sees every imagination of their heart. And others come and convince themselves that the thoughts of the heart are not serious enough to forsake because grace always means tolerance. In each of these three cases the Spirit is discredited and demeaned. Hebrews warns that it is possible to outrage the Spirit of grace (Hebrews 10:29).
This is the warning Luke puts before us so that we will fear bringing contempt on the Lord through hypocrisy.
How Was Barnabas Different?
But let's end with our eyes fixed on Barnabas and not on Ananias. How was he different? He was different at every point.
- He did not love money and things. When he sold his field he did not dream about all the comforts and pleasures he was giving up. He reveled in the freedom of faith. He dreamed about the good that would be done with his gift and the glory it would bring to Jesus.
- He did not want to appear more generous than he was. He did not need the praise of men. He had the approval of God. ("Fear not, little flock, it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom.) What you saw was what you got. He was real.
- Therefore he did not lie. He loved the truth. He could be trusted. His integrity became legendary in the early church.
- And finally, he brought no reproach on the Holy Spirit. He knew that the Spirit was alive and real in the church. He knew that his every thought was open and laid bare before the Spirit of truth. And he knew that the gift of grace in his life was not the permission of God to keep on loving things, but the power of God to start loving people.
Let's be like Barnabas and not Ananias.