Let me be honest, right at the start. I find this one of the most challenging passages in the New Testament, if not the whole Bible itself.
That perhaps says more about me than it does about God. But we come to God, through Jesus, as we are – so let’s pray, as we are, as we come to this passage.
God, there are times where Your Word comforts and delights us – and times where it challenges us; where we must wrestle with it, and with ourselves. Please give us Your wisdom and insight as we consider the painful story of Ananias and Sapphira, and what it means for us as Christians today.
What is perhaps so challenging about this passage, is that it takes place in the New Testament, early on in church history. That God does, at times, intervene directly and bring judgement upon an individual, is clear in the Old Testament, when specific commands and laws are violated. But in the New Testament, how does this fit into a doctrine of grace ultimately won for us by Jesus on the cross? What law have Ananias and Sapphira broken that could result in such devastating consequences?
At first glance, it might seem to be about the money. We’re given the example of Barnabas, who sells a field and gives the proceedings to the apostles. Ananias and Sapphira do the same – but keep back part of the profit, whilst pretending that they have donated the entire amount. And here is the real crux of the matter. They are not condemned for not offering all of the money – indeed, Peter makes it clear that the money was theirs, and it was up to them what they did with it. The sin is that they have lied to God.
Let us hold onto that thought, and ask another question – a difficult one. Why, having sinned in this way, do Ananias and Sapphira die?
I can only offer reflections. Ananias’ response could have stemmed from fear – or it could have been God’s direct judgement. The same holds true for Sapphira, although Peter clearly has a premonition that she will die. But taking the passage as a whole, the sense seems to be that this is in some way a punishment, a consequence, for a serious sin.
That is a hard message to hear.
So what do we do with this, as Christians, who follow a God that we believe to be love, but also holy?
Again, I can only offer reflections.
I think it’s important to state that, when it comes to the New Testament, this is very much the exception, rather than the rule. Later in this series, we will hear the story of Simon the Sorcerer, who offers the apostles money if they will teach him how to bestow the Holy Spirit upon people – earning himself a thunderous rebuke from Peter. But Simon repents, and keeps his life. That is the message of the gospel, and it is to that that the New Testament constantly encourages us, as Christians, to hold. And it’s also important to note that the text makes no comment on what God’s judgement will or will not be on Ananias and Sapphira after death. All we know is their earthly fate, not their eternal one.
Why did God choose to exercise judgement on Ananias and Sapphira, and withhold it so often elsewhere? That is a question beyond my answering. There are valid theological reasons: not least, the need for the early church to understand and display God’s holiness and the seriousness of sin – here, specifically, lying to God – from the very outset. This passage prompts me to examine whether I grapple enough with either of those concepts – painful though they might be. And it reminds me that it is God’s right to dispense justice, as well as mercy.
There is perhaps one final lesson to take into our own relationship with God. The story of Ananias and Sapphira starkly reminds me that there are parts of the Bible – parts of God’s character – that, as a human being, I find hard, even painful, to comprehend. At times, God seems to act in ways that either my mortal mind, or my mortal heart, cannot grasp. What do I do, when this happens? Who do I turn to? Who do I trust?
And yet, as a human being, it is not a case of ‘whether’ my understanding is flawed, but ‘how’ it is flawed, when it comes to all aspects of God’s character. Strangely, this brings me some comfort. God is not something that we can ‘get our heads around’. But He does tell us – and no more so than through Jesus – that He loves us, that He died for us, and that He invites us to come to Him – not merely in spite of our fears and questions – but with them, bringing them to Him, and trusting that, in the end, He is God, and He does understand.
God, where do we, as humans, even begin? Thank You for Your love, and Your promise of grace in Jesus. As we come to you, we acknowledge that, while we are here on this earth, our view of You, of ourselves, and of reality is something that ‘we know in part.’ We long for the day where we ‘shall know fully, even as we are fully known.’ In this time of waiting, help us to see more of Your perspective. Help us to know more fully those aspects of Your character that You want to reveal to us. Help us to walk with You, even when we wrestle with difficult questions. Thank you that we can be honest with You.