Wealth, God and Ananias & Sapphira

Depositphotos Image ID: 8644150 Copyright: jalmeida

This is the third in a three part series on wealth and relationship with God. In the first part, we looked at the story of the rich young ruler. He was self-reliant, self-righteous and saddened at the prospect of parting with his wealth and following Jesus. In the second piece we looked at Zacchaeus, the tax collector, who responded joyfully to Jesus’ invitation to stay with him and offered, without prompting, to give half his wealth to the poor and payback four times what he took by fraud from people.

We have considered that God knows our hearts, and His knowledge of the rich young ruler and of Zacchaeus made a difference in how Jesus related to them. We have considered that our relationship with God does not depend on how many commandments we keep, how much we give to the poor or what we can do to earn God’s favor. We can’t be good enough, and we can’t do enough to earn God’s favor.

God’s favor is freely given to those who freely and genuinely receive Him. Eternal life isn’t earned; it is wholeheartedly received.

With the third story, we face some sobering truth. The stakes are high. The story of Ananias and Sapphira[1] shows us that our heart’s condition is not only important, it is ultimately a matter of life and death. Pretense leads to death; while genuineness of heart leads to life.

Their story takes place right at the beginning of the foundation of the Church, after the day of Pentecost when thousands heard Peter breach in the streets of Jerusalem and believed. Many were being added to the number of the followers of Jesus every day. It was a beautiful scene:

“Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common. And with great power the apostles were giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.”[2]

It sounds like the kind of social utopia that people tried to replicate in the 60’s (and have longed for since the beginning of time). In the midst of that social utopia, a hard truth was about to be unveiled. It started with a man named Joseph who sold a field that belonged to him. He took the money he made and “laid it at the apostles’ feet” as others had done.[3]

Joseph turned out to be an influential man in the early church. He was called Barnabas by the apostles, meaning “son of encouragement”. It was Barnabas who introduced the converted Paul to the apostles.[4] Barnabas became a messenger of the early church.[5] Barnabas got Paul started preaching the Gospel in Antioch.[6] Barnabas accompanied Paul as he became “the apostle to the Gentiles”.[7]

The backdrop to the story of Ananias and Sapphira is that landowners among the early followers of Jesus were selling their properties, including the influential man, Barnabas, and laying the proceeds at the apostles’ feet in a show of dedication and commitment. In like fashion, Ananias and Sapphira sold a piece of property. They decided together to bring only some of the proceeds from that sale and lay them at the apostles’ feet. They kept back some of it for themselves.

They made a showing of doing what the others had done before them when they left the entire amounts they made from the sales of their properties, but Ananias and Sapphira didn’t bring it all. Peter called them out on their “lie”:

“But Peter said, ‘Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back for yourself 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? Why is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to man but to God.’”

The sobering part of the story is what happens next. When Peter calls out Ananias, when Peter exposes the ruse, Ananias dies right on the spot! Three hours later, when Sapphira comes along, not knowing what just happened, Peter confronts her and tells her that she will suffer the same fate. No sooner had he finished when she, too, keels over – dead!

What in the world are we to take away from this?

To begin with, we must never forget that God knows our thoughts and the condition of our hearts. When we try to deceive others, God is not deceived. When we try to deceive others and to appear more spiritual than we are, we are really thinking we can deceive God.

We need to be brutally honest with ourselves. God will not fault us for being honest. Jesus was harsh with the self-righteous, but He was kind to the humble. Jesus called self-righteous religious leaders “white-washed tombs” who were full of hypocrisy and lawlessness in their hearts![8] Jesus commended the despised tax collector who knew he was a sinner, while he condemned the self-righteous people who held the tax collector in contempt.[9]

Was it that fact that Ananias and Sapphira held back some of the proceeds that was their undoing? Or was it the fact that they tried to appear like they were giving it all in a deceptive show of false dedication? I think it was the latter.

Peter called them out for the deception, not for holding back. He focused on their lying, not on giving only a portion.

We don’t know what Peter thought about them giving only some of the proceeds, but we see clues in the stories of Zacchaeus and the rich young ruler. Zacchaeus was a tax collector who climbed a tree to try to get a glimpse of  Jesus when He was passing by. Jesus called him down and invited Himself to Zacchaeus’ house.

Zacchaeus received Jesus joyfully and pledged half his goods to the poor. Only half! Yet, Jesus told him, “Today salvation has come to this house”![10]

Meanwhile Jesus challenged the rich young ruler to give all of his possessions away. Why all from the rich young ruler, and only half from Zacchaeus?

The differences are in the genuineness and integrity of the response. The rich young rule sought to be justified, but no one can be justified by being good. The rich young ruler claimed to be willing to do whatever he needed to do to be righteous, and Jesus called him out on it.

Jesus must have known that the rich young ruler was fooling himself in in his heart or simply trying to appear to look good. The challenge to give away all his possessions exposed the condition of his heart.

Zacchaeus, on the other hand, was an open book. He received Jesus joyfully. He responded without being asked by offering half his possessions to the poor. He pledged to return fourfold to the people he defrauded in genuine response to Jesus. There was no pretense in him, sinner that he was.

Ananias and Sapphira wanted to be seen as one of the honored and influential people who sold their land and gave all to the apostles. They didn’t give it all, but they wanted people to think they gave it all. It was a pretense.

Not even the rich young ruler was as pretentious as Ananias and Sapphira. When Jesus told him he needed to go and give all us possessions to the poor, he made no pretense of doing it or offering to do it. Instead he walked away sad.

In that response he was, at least, genuine. The candid realization that wasn’t ready to give it all away suggests hope for the rich young ruler. There was no hope for Ananias and Sapphira, however. They thought they could deceive men to obtain favor from them while ignoring God.

God is more interested in our hearts than our show. If we really believe God is who He is, we know that He knows! We can’t fool God. Our reward is with God, not in how people see us. If we receive our reward in the affirmation of people and in the things we possess in the world, we have no reward in heaven.

“Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.

“Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. but when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.[11]

The story of Ananias and Sapphira is shocking. The instant death they suffer for their attempt to deceive the apostles and (more importantly) God seems unduly harsh. It’s hard for us to reconcile Zacchaeus, who made no pretense of giving half of his possessions to the poor, and Ananias and Sapphira, who for all we know may have given more than half the proceeds of their land they sold to the poor.

The difference is that they were striving for favor from men, not God. They were more concerned about how they appeared to the apostles and the influential members of the church than they were concerned with their relationship with God. If it was God they sought to please, there would have been no pretense.

We don’t know what would have happened if they announced they were only giving half the proceeds from the sale of their land, but the story of Zacchaeus suggests the outcome would have been very different.

Our wealth and possessions can stand between us and God if we value them too highly. They are often the means by which God tests us. And, sometimes, we test God to our detriment in the way we deal with our possessions and wealth.

More important than what we do with our wealth, however, is the integrity with which we relate to God. Let’s face it: He knows our heart already, so any pretense before God (and men therefore) is wasted effort. it may even be deadly to our spiritual well-being!

All three stories (the rich young ruler, Zacchaeus and Ananias and Sapphira) reveal that we should value God above all things, above our wealth and possessions, and above the pretense of how we want to appear to others. Our relationship with God is ultimately more valuable than all the possessions, wealth and pretense in the world.


[1] Acts 5:1-11 (“But a man named Ananias, with his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property, and with his wife’s knowledge he kept back for himself some of the proceeds and brought only a part of it 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 for yourself 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? Why is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to man but to God.” When Ananias heard these words, he fell down and breathed his last. 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[a] 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 test the Spirit of the Lord? Behold, the feet of those who have buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out.” Immediately she fell down at his feet and breathed her last. 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.”)

[2] Acts 4:32-35

[3] Acts 4:36-37

[4] Acts 9:26-27

[5] Acts 11:22

[6] Acts 11:25-26

[7] Acts 13:46

[8] Matthew 23:27-28 (“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.)

[9] Luke 18:9-14

[10] Luke 19:1-10

[11] Matthew 6:1-4

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