God clearly cannot stomach hypocrisy. The account of Ananias and Sapphira is not about ‘giving’, but about ‘lying’. There is indeed something worse than a lack of generosity: a false generosity! The previous chapter ends with descriptions of almost miraculous financial giving, of open hearts and open wallets towards the poor, and of believers choosing to sell expensive possessions so as to redress the balance between rich and poor. No amount of government intervention will remove the poor from the world (“The poor will always be with you”, said Jesus himself in Mark 14:7), but we can remove poverty from our churches!
In any other era, Ananias and Sapphira would have been celebrated and commended. They were generous and probably gave a great deal of money to the apostles for the benefit of the poor. There was no problem with them keeping back some of the proceeds of the sale of that land for themselves either. The only sin was that they pretended that they had given it all when they hadn’t. They lied. By lying to the church leadership, they had lied to the Holy Spirit (v3), to God himself (v4). (Which is a nice proof text that supports the doctrine of the Trinity, btw.)
In most other eras, a sharp rebuke from a leader would have sufficed, but in that day of miraculous power, revival, the seemingly close proximity of God’s holiness, and the absolute requirement for God’s people to set a heavenly example… it meant a judgment involving death! And when the wife returned home – unaware of her husband’s demise – she compounded the deceit at the cost of her own life. God had ‘upped the ante’ on the requirement for holiness in his people and would not tolerate such blatant lying and hypocrisy.
If you are shocked by what occurred, think about something else that is shocking: Christians in the West today seem able to get away with deceit, economy with the truth, hypocrisy and a two-faced attitude – without being struck dead by the Lord! That is a measure of the low spiritual temperature in which we live and the low standard of commitment we expect God to be satisfied with. If the price to be paid for a great spiritual awakening in our society is a high bar of holiness, then let us embrace it!
There is a general rule in scripture that when the Holy Spirit is moving in power, he moves in holiness too – the clue is in the name! Compare the divine judgments in Leviticus 10:2; Joshua 7:25 and 2 Samuel 6:7. It is true that our salvation is secure (and it would have been for Ananias and Sapphira too), but there is a measure of earthy punishment and discipline meted out by God on his children in response to unacceptable behaviour. See Romans 13:4; 2 Corinthians 2:6; 10:6; 1 Thessalonians 4:6; and Hebrews 12:6. This is done by the Father out of a heart of love, with a view to restoration and repentance in his church.
The consequence of our Acts 5 narrative was that great fear and respect filled the whole church and the local population. Our God is mighty! The believers were inspired to greater integrity and holiness in their dealings with one another, since they realised that they were ‘on camera’ every second of their lives. Miracles were done in great numbers and the church gathered frequently in large numbers to share their stories, to pray, to be taught and to break bread together. Only those who really wanted to follow Jesus dared to join them, but the surrounding population brought their sick and dying to be healed in great numbers.
The movement became impossible to stop, as the leaders continued to teach New Covenant life and doctrine, and to proclaim the gospel of Christ. Persecution did not even make a dent!