June 9

Giving to God with a Pure Heart (Part I) (Acts 5)

Daniel Watts

When we moved to Poland in 1991, we met some American missionaries who had been traveling in and out of the former Soviet Union and its satellite countries for years. It was like meeting characters from a Christian spy novel. They were legends!

Jay, for instance, lived with his Austrian wife east of Vienna near the Hungarian border. For years Jay had traveled in and out of countries where the threat of danger was very real and very high. Whenever I visited him, he always had some amazing “war stories” to share.

Whenever he talked about his adventures, Jay downplayed the danger—which somehow made the accounts even more exciting. He visited us in Poland several times, our family traveled to visit his family in Austria on several occasions, and we developed a great friendship.

After Jay and I had been friends for several years, I called and asked if we could stop by on our way to Vienna. The family welcomed us warmly for the night and allowed us to rest before we caught a flight the next day. After dinner, Jay invited me into his study to chat.

When we sat down, he told me he had something important to share with me—and the announcement sounded ominous. He explained that during the Communist years, missionaries like him had to take security precautions to protect both the Christians they visited and themselves.

One of those precautions was the use of a fake name so that if Christians were arrested, they would identify their foreign contact by their fake name. That contact’s fake name didn’t match the legal name that was on the contact’s passport—and these contacts were very careful to keep their real legal name secret.

This practice continued after the collapse of the Soviet Union even when there was no longer any risk. However, many missionaries felt strange about using the name that wasn’t their real name, so they decided to come clean. Jay told me that, after careful thought and prayer, he’d decided to start using his real first name. Jay looked right at me and said that his real name was Robert. Jay was Bob!

Let me tell you, it is so weird to find out that someone you’ve been friends with for several years has a different first name. I knew him as Jay. I called him Jay. Jay was my friend—not Bob! Suddenly I felt like I didn’t know Jay… because Jay was Bob.

And I felt a sudden urge to check with all my friends and find out if I knew their real names. What if David was Phil? Things aren’t always as they appear! That night, as I went to bed on Jay/Robert’s pullout couch with my wife, I wondered if her name really was Marla.

The Account’s Two Difficulties

Giving to God with a pure heart

These issues of honesty, perception, and appearances swirl around the topic of giving in Acts 5, the account of Ananias and Sapphira, one of the Bible’s most difficult and intriguing stories.

Rarely does a sermon or lesson about giving address this passage, yet in my years of teaching the material in this book, the passage always comes up in the discussions.

In fact, our ministry team noted that the Ananias and Sapphira passage comes up more than any other by far, yet as a rule, it definitely doesn’t get that kind of attention in the church. The story’s well-known difficulties are twofold.

First, Peter seems to have imposed the rule of law on Ananias without allowing any opportunity for Ananias to repent (vv. 4-5), and then Peter appears to have spoken a kind of curse on Sapphira (vv. 9-10). And this scene took place shortly after Peter’s denial of Christ on three occasions and his Lord’s subsequent forgiveness. Peter’s actions are quite difficult to reconcile with those of his Master.

Second, the impropriety regarding the death of Ananias and the subsequent treatment of Sapphira is difficult to reconcile with long-standing cultural expectations regarding death and burial. It is difficult to imagine that Ananias would have died and Sapphira be left uninformed. Then, when she stood in front of Peter and before he began his inquiry, he didn’t tell her that her husband had died. This, too, is difficult to comprehend.

Some scholars sense these difficulties and then choose to dismiss the story as legend or some kind of fabrication by the early Christians. Alternately, we can commend Luke, the historian, who did not shy away from the story and its difficulties.

The good doctor certainly had to be aware of the above-mentioned issues when he chose to include the account in his history of early Christianity. And because Luke did, I believe we can conclude that the above concerns can be satisfactorily explained.

The Story of Achan

The story of Achan in Joshua

First, we note—as others have—the parallels between this incident and the Joshua 7 incident involving Achan.

In fact, the same verb ἐνοσφίσατο is used in the Septuagint version of Joshua 7:1 (“took some”) and in Acts 5:2 (“kept back”). This similarity may indicate that Luke was intentionally drawing a parallel between this passage and the story of Achan:

Now a man named Ananias, together with his wife Sapphira, also sold a piece of property. With his wife's full knowledge, he kept back part of the money for himself, but brought the rest and put it at the apostles' feet. (Acts 5:1-2 NIV)
The sons of Israel acted unfaithfully in regard to the things under the ban, for Achan, the son of Carmi, the son of Zabdi, the son of Zerah, from the tribe of Judah, took some of the things under the ban, therefore the anger of the Lord burned against the sons of Israel. (Joshua 7:1 NASB)

In both passages, the people of God were experiencing a time of growth, expansion, and spiritual vibrancy. In Joshua 7, the Israelites were conquering the promised land and in the midst of an enormous transition.

In Acts 5, we read about the founding of the church, another enormous transition for God’s people. The sinfulness and deceit of Achan, Ananias, and Sapphira apparently came at a crucial time in the life of God’s people, so the three were dealt with forcefully.

The Seriousness of Lying at the Watts’ Home

Giving to God with a pure heart

Although I committed my life to Christ as an adult, I did attend Sunday school when I was little, and I was deeply disturbed by this “You Lie, You Die” Ananias/Sapphira story.

Lying, you see, was an occasional problem in my life. Like the time Mom and Dad went out on a date and left us five kids home under the supervision of my eldest brothers. Now, inexplicably, Dad and Mom had banned the playing of football in the house. After they left, we divided into two teams and squared off under the lights… in the living room.

Just after halftime I went down and out, and my brother overthrew the ball and hit mom’s favorite lamp, breaking it into six or eight large pieces. This was not good, so we huddled together and decided to place all the pieces back on the table and then collectively deny any knowledge of what happened. If we all stonewalled, Mom and Dad would never know.

About thirty minutes after they returned, Dad called all of us kids into the living room. We lined up like the Von Trapp kids, oldest to youngest. Starting with my oldest brother, Dad went down the line to my youngest sister asking what happened to Mom’s lamp.

We all answered with the well-practiced “I don’t know” shoulder shrug and eyebrow lift. With almost no hesitation, my dad explained we were all going to get spanked, four for lying and one for breaking the lamp. Ten eyes popped, and five heads looked back and forth from side to side at this unexpected announcement.

Dad reached for my sister—she’s less than two years younger than me—and said, “You’re first.” Since my entire purpose in life at that time was to protect my little sister, I panicked and blurted out, “Tim did it!” Chaos broke out! My little sister and I were crying, and the older kids protested loudly, calling out for mercy with “It was an accident!”

Dad calmed the chaos and sat us down. He explained that he was disappointed that we’d broken the rules about football in the house and then Mom’s favorite lamp, but then he talked longer about the seriousness of lying.

I’m glad I didn’t drop dead that night.

The account of Ananias and Sapphira, though, is more than a simple story about lying. Consider the context. The Christian community in Jerusalem was experiencing tremendous growth, and the spiritual vitality of the community was evident in the sharing of material wealth for the common good.

This passage, however, is teaching something more than the importance of telling the truth and not lying. Next week we’ll look at the Acts 5 as it relates to Christian fund-raising and giving. 

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