It is just a small story, tucked away in the Book of Acts, but to most people today the brief account of the death of Ananias and Sapphira stands as one of the most difficult and bewildering passages in the New Testament.
In this simple narrative, familiar to many Christians, Ananias and his wife Sapphira sold a piece of property and agreed together to keep some of the money for themselves while giving the rest to the Church. Although the passage in Acts 5:1-11 does not explicitly say so, Ananias apparently pretended to be giving it all. For as soon as he laid the money at the apostles' feet, Peter reproached him for lying to the Holy Spirit and keeping back some of the money, and Ananias fell down dead.
Sapphira, arriving later, was questioned by Peter as to the amount of the sale. She, too, apparently lied, for Peter reproached her for agreeing to "put the Spirit of the Lord to the test," and she fell down dead as well. Then the story concludes with the statement, "Great fear came upon the whole church, and upon all who heard of these things."
The best that many readers can make of this story is that "things were a lot different back then." God at that time saw fit to punish Ananias and Sapphira severely, but He's not doing things that way today. The trouble with such a vague understanding is that it leaves you with a picture of an arbitrary and schizophrenic God -- someone you can't really trust.
After all, what was wrong with what Ananias did? Was it that he held on to part of the money? What's wrong with that? Most Christians are taught today that you don't have to actually give up everything to follow Messiah -- you only have to be willing. Ananias was so willing that he actually sold his property and gave most of the money to the Church, keeping only a portion for himself. If someone did that in one of today's churches, he would be praised for his generosity. So why was Ananias struck dead?
Some people say that the sin of Ananias wasn't just that he kept something for himself but that he did so while saying he had given everything to the Lord. But how is that different from the millions of Christians whose houses, cars, businesses, or sailboats supposedly belong to the Lord, while in reality they retain full control of them?
Actually, the sin of Ananias was two-fold. Peter said, "Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit, and to keep back some of the price of the land?" So it wasn't just that he had lied, but also that he had been greedy. Many people ignore this point, claiming that in Acts 5:4 Peter told Ananias the property was his to keep and the money from the sale was his to do with as he liked. But what Peter actually said was, "While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not under your control?"
Far from condoning the action, Peter condemned it severely. His language contrasted Ananias' deeds with that of all the other believers, for "not one of them claimed that anything belonging to him was his own," and "all who were owners of land or houses would sell them and bring the proceeds of the sales, and lay them at the apostles' feet," thereby relinquishing their own control.1
Ananias had schemed to go against the clear commands of the Master to "give up all his own possessions,"2 and to "sell your possessions and give to charity."3 And it wasn't just a misunderstanding. Obviously Peter had obeyed the great commission of "teaching them to observe all that I commanded you,"4 for the entire Jerusalem Church was doing these things willingly and joyfully. So Ananias and Sapphira's deed was deliberate, willfully ignoring the Master's commands, as well as His warning to "be on your guard against every form of greed; for not even when one has an abundance does his life consist of his possessions."5
Obviously the lives of Ananias and Sapphira did not consist of their possessions. Instead they lost their lives as an example of the judgment that awaits all who ignore Messiah's commands, even as Peter proclaimed:
The Lord God shall raise up for you a prophet like me from your brethren; to Him you shall give heed in everything He says to you. And it shall be that every soul that does not heed that prophet shall be utterly destroyed from among the people. (Acts 3:22-23)
All of this is clear, but it still leaves a person wondering why things seem to be so different in Christianity today. You can hardly find a Christian today who doesn't retain control of his possessions, and yet who is being "utterly destroyed from among the people?" Is it that no one knows what the Master said? Does no one have a Bible?
Most are forced to conclude that, without notification, God changed his mind, and that the words of "that prophet" no longer are valid. Thus there would be no consequence for not heeding "everything He says to you." But if Messiah is "the same yesterday and today, yes and forever,"6 then we'd better take God's word seriously and "not be carried away by varied and strange teachings."7
So if the offense for which Ananias and Sapphira perished hasn't somehow mysteriously become acceptable to God, then what is going on? Why aren't people being utterly destroyed from among the denominations? Is Christianity not God's people? Isn't her purity worth protecting? Who is being eradicated from the Christian churches of today, those who disobey Messiah's commands or those who call for their literal fulfillment?