Peter said, “Ananias, how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit and have kept for yourself some of the money you received?”
When I enter one of the world’s great cathedrals—Notre Dame in Paris, for example—I sometimes wonder what I’d hear if one of the first Christians were beside me. Frankly, I don’t think they’d recognize where they were. Early Christianity wasn’t a religion, but a left-wing sect of Judaism. It had no hierarchy, no governmental structure, no real plan or objectives. And it had no money to operate. According to Acts 4.32, “All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had.” Early Christianity was about more than giving a few dollars in the weekly collection or tithing 10% of one’s income. Early Christians made pitching in everything the cost of entry—selling all one owned and donating the entire proceeds from the sale to the common good. In this respect, the first Christians predated Karl Marx by nearly 1800 years.
Why did the early Church demand so much from its constituents? First, remember that the apostles all left their professions to shepherd the flock of early believers. But, second, I also think requiring such severe sacrifice was a test—of character, commitment, and obedience. Imagine how many hangers-on lost interest when they heard, “Welcome to Christianity! Now, before we get you situated, you’ll need to auction off your possessions, contribute all your earnings to the kitty, and spend all of your time working for the growth and success of this tiny band of believers in Jesus!” Like the rich young ruler, who walked away in disappointment after Christ told him to sell his holdings and donate the revenue to poor people, one imagines many wannabe believers couldn’t bank that curve. Others, like Ananais and his wife, Sapphira, thought they saw an opportunity to get over on the naïve, idealistic believers.
In Acts 5, Ananais shows up with his gifts and lays them before Peter. Prior to this, he and Sapphira have schemed to hold back a certain percentage for themselves. (One might think of this as their personal “nest egg” or “bonus.”) His action implies that he’s giving his all, however, and it’s here that Ananais falls into trouble. Why have you lied to God, Peter asks. And before he can stammer and stutter his way through some kind of weak-kneed explanation, Ananais falls over dead. Next, here comes Sapphira, not knowing what fate befell her husband. When asked about their donation, she upholds his story. Down she goes—and they drag her away to be buried beside her husband.
The modern mind has problems processing this story. Sure, Ananais and Sapphira were con artists. Sure, they schemed to cheat God’s people by claiming to have made less than their transactions actually profited. Sure, they lied. But were these crimes so grave to merit death? If we think things through, we discover there’s more to the story. Why were Ananais and Sapphira holding back? The Bible doesn’t say. But any answer one arrives at isn’t good. Perhaps they feared this Christianity business wouldn’t last—they were afraid of giving up everything for a losing cause. Perhaps they wanted to ensure their financial security through tough times; they weren’t convinced of God’s daily provision. Perhaps they wanted to maintain a social/financial edge over the other believers—to stay a cut above their brothers and sisters; they hadn’t yet outgrown their proud urges. Whatever compelled them to lie to Peter and cheat God’s people, it was a bigger issue than just misrepresenting truth. It was deadly and thereby made the lies told to support it deadly.
To Tell the Truth
It’s hard to resist the urge to look at these two shysters and go off on a rant about all the con artists and unregulated investment bankers currently in our news. Yet there’s a much larger truth here that we all should internalize. When we come to God, it’s essential to tell the truth. “Couching” reality, being “discreet,” or glossing over aspects of our lives we’d prefer not to mention are pointless, because God sees all, hears all, and knows all. In 2 Kings 19.27, God says, “I know where you stay and when you come and go,” and in 1 Corinthians 4.5, Paul writes, the Lord “will bring to light the hidden things of darkness, and will make manifest the counsels of the hearts.” When we deal with our Maker, there’s nothing we can reveal. There’s no need to hide anything about us—because it’s pointless. And thinking we can lie to Him about ourselves is as foolish as it is deadly serious.
During this season of repentance, humility, and prayer, it’s important to come clean in our confession. We bring Jesus all we are, as we are, without shame or reservation or pretense. There’s nothing to hide because nothing can be hidden. But more than that, given that He knows everything, why should we ever resist giving God all we have. Jesus told the Samaritan woman, “God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth.” (John 4.24) Lying is sinful. Lying about sin can be deadly. True worship begins with truth.
Ananais falls after he deals dishonestly with God.
(Tomorrow: Unworldly Peace)