Two things are vital to the understanding of this most curious little affair: First, we must recognize that this is a part of the same narrative as 4:32-37. We must not be confused by the chapter break which is entirely arbitrary and added centuries later. Second, we must properly understand what is meant by “kept back” in verse 2.
Luke has just given his readers the example of Barnabas in 4:35-36, an example of sincere giving that recognized both the authority of the apostles and the legitimate needs of some of the community of believers. In this passage, Luke provides an example of something that was not so sincere. It would appear that Ananias and Sapphira were rich enough to own real property and that they have announced their intention to sell it and give the entire proceeds of the sale to the apostles to be used in their ministry of benevolence, but when the sale had been completed and Ananias had delivered the sale proceeds, he did not set all at the apostles’ feet, having “Kept back” some of the money.
To be very clear, this was money that belonged to Ananias and Sapphira, and they were under no legal obligation to give all of it to this ministry, yet it is clear from the text that at some point they had represented to the apostles that they would give the entire proceeds to God’s service. We can also infer from this that had conditions or circumstances changed in a way that necessitated their retaining a portion of those proceeds, they could have made those facts known, but they had made no such disclosures. I am taking this inference from Luke’s use of the Greek word nosphizō in 5:2 which is rendered “kept back” in the NIV. The word means “to deprive, rob; to misappropriate or to make secret reservation of something”. Peter confronted both of them; here is his conversation with Ananias:
Then 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 for the land? Didn’t it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn’t the money at your disposal? What made you think of doing such a thing? You have not lied just to human beings but to God.” (5:3-4)
Then a curious thing happened as the Holy Spirit took over:
When Ananias heard this, he fell down and died. And great fear seized all who heard what had happened. Then some young men came forward, wrapped up his body, and carried him out and buried him. (5:5-6)
In these verses, Peter is acting in the role of God’s prophet, able to perceive the thoughts and motivations of others and pronouncing God’s righteous indictment, a role so evident nowhere else in the New Testament. I can’t help but add that one of my preacher friends calls verse 6 “History’s first youth group project”.
I’ve always thought that it is quite interesting that Peter attributes this to Satan, but I doubt that he does so because Satan cares about keeping cash out of church coffers, for in spiritual matters money is about as noteworthy as horse dung. No! Money is entirely our hang up, not God’s, and not even Satan’s. In truth, this curious affair is entirely apocalyptic in nature, for Ananias and Sapphira have told of their intention to give their all to the work of the Holy Spirit in the midst of the church, and when the moment came, they held onto the world’s greatest prize− money. A person may choose whether or not to follow Jesus Christ. If we choose to follow Him, we can do so wholeheartedly or we can do so halfheartedly, but we do not get to promise the former and do the latter and then willfully and deliberately lie about it to God, for falling short of the mark is one thing, and attempting to defraud God is quite another.
Needless to say, this little episode made quite an impression back in the day! The ministry of the apostles kept moving forward, as we will see next time…