Sermon Series- The Acts of the Apostles: The First Thirty Years
Read Part 1
But a man named Ananias, with his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property, 2 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. 3 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? 4 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.” 5 When Ananias heard these words, he fell down and breathed his last. And great fear came upon all who heard of it. 6 The young men rose and wrapped him up and carried him out and buried him.
7 After an interval of about three hours his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. 8 And Peter said to her, “Tell me whether you[a] sold the land for so much.” And she said, “Yes, for so much.” 9 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.” 10 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. 11 And great fear came upon the whole church and upon all who heard of these things.
Our passage from last week, Acts 4:32-37, begins with a soaring description of the early church in Jerusalem. Luke says they were of “one heart and soul.” We see the physical manifestation of this unity in the remarkable way they began to handle their personal property. No one viewed what they owned as their own. Like a family, their hands were open to each other. There was no expectation that each owed the other. But a completely voluntary Holy Spirit-inspired generosity began to grow up among them. If there was a need, and another had the financial wherewithal to alleviate the poverty of his brother, they did. They did it by selling their extra land or houses and then giving the money to the apostles. (Acts 4:34-35) Luke uses a particular phrase that I want to draw our attention to this morning. When someone came to give a gift, he says they “laid it at the apostles’ feet.” (4:35, 37, 5:2)
Barnabas, an influential early Christian teacher, is introduced into the narrative at the close of chapter 4. Curiously, he is presented while in the act of giving. Acts 4:36-37, “Thus Joseph, who was also called by the apostles Barnabas (which means son of encouragement), a Levite, a native of Cyprus, 37 sold a field that belonged to him and brought the money and laid it at the apostles’ feet.”
Twice in three verses, Luke uses the phrase, “laid it at the apostles’ feet.” in chapter 4 (vs 35, 37). Then in Chapter 5, it pops up again almost immediately. Ananias gave a gift, “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.” (Acts 5:2). The phrase “laid it at the apostles’ feet,” occurs only three times in Scripture and all of them in this close span. It is in every other verse beginning in Acts 4:35.
For this reason, I believe the Ananias and Sapphira event should be connected to the events of chapter 4 and not chapter 5. Also, as an aside, the first four verses of chapter 4 should be included as part of chapter 3. Let’s read Acts 4:32-5:11 all together so we can see it as one whole cloth. I’ve taken the liberty of grouping the section as I think it should be.
In some way, Ananias, it seems to me, is being contrasted against Barnabas and the other patron disciples. A patron is someone in the Roman world that supported an artist or the arts broadly through public giving. They used their wealth to help pay for large public works that displayed the beauty of Roman society through architecture, arts, building projects, etc. Patronage was not unique to Rome, but the word comes to us from them. Patron, like patriarchy, is rooted in the Latin word for father. A patron through their wealth is fathering or broadly protecting and encouraging something. In this case Christian patrons are protecting and encouraging their brothers and sisters who are in need.
Consider that it was probably about as common then as it is now for people to have multiple houses and lands lying around that they could sell. Doing something like this would have enduring costs to the owners. It is highly UNLIKELY that the Bible is suggesting that people were selling their useless lands and empty houses. What I mean is that these houses and lands likely had tenants or were used for agricultural production. In other words, they were properties and businesses that paid residual incomes to the owners. They were the sources of their wealth. These sales of land and houses were a more significant sacrifice than I think we realize. The sale would have lowered the standard of living for the sellers. Since that is true, it seems very much like these cases of property divestment were meant to be signs of total surrender. These rich men were making themselves poor for the Gospel’s sake and the aid of their brothers. This is why the proceeds from the sales were being “laid it at the apostles’ feet.” They were coming and saying, “All that I have and all that I am belongs to Jesus Christ. Use it and me as you see fit” They are offering themselves as “living sacrifices” to God in Christ.
Look for Part 3 of “Finding & Losing Our Lives For Jesus’ Sake” tomorrow.
Blessings and may God be with you!