In the days after Pentecost, the Holy Spirit gave believers a fervent love for each other. This love was more than a warm feeling. It changed their lives. No one blessed with material possessions refused to share them with poorer brethren. "For as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the prices of the things that were sold, and laid them down at the apostles' feet: and distribution was made unto every man according as he had need" (Acts 4:34-35).
Yet even in the selfless concern that believers had for each other, Satan saw an opportunity to attack the church. He thought he might find people who could be tempted to share with the wrong motive. Such were Ananias and his wife Sapphira. They should have given to the church out of a desire to help others. Instead, because sharing was seen as a mark of spirituality, their motive was to gain applause. They sold a valuable piece of land and gave part of the proceeds to the apostles. The rest they kept for themselves. But Satan prodded them to seek greater credit than they deserved. He convinced them to claim that they were giving the entire proceeds.
Peter did not think their sin was minor. He had the wisdom to recognize an attack of Satan. He knew that Satan was trying to plant sin in the church so that the Holy Spirit would withdraw His aid, which was essential for the church to be effective in preaching the gospel. The very name of the Holy Spirit suggests His nature. Because He is holy, sin grieves Him, and He refuses to empower a church that tolerates sin.
Peter confronted Ananias when his wife was absent and accused him of lying to the Holy Spirit. He gave him no opportunity to explain himself. The man had already been judged by God. Why? No doubt the Holy Spirit had repeatedly assailed the man's heart with gripping conviction of sin, but the man had warded it off until now he was a hopeless case. His heart was as hard as rock. So, as soon as Peter stated the charges, Ananias fell down dead. Immediately the young men wrapped him in burial clothes, carried him out, and buried him. The effect on all who heard about his death was to make them afraid. The incident was a strong reminder of how much God hates sin.
After three hours, Sapphira came in, unaware of what had happened to her husband. Peter immediately began to question her about her role in the deception. Perhaps the apostles had spoken with Ananias about the sale, but not with his wife. Thus, for the sake of justice, it was necessary to determine whether she, when separated from her husband, would repeat his false claim. She replied that indeed all the proceeds of the sale went to the church.
In God’s eyes she was, like her husband, a stubborn sinner with a history of ignoring the Spirit’s rebuke. So, with solemn anger, Peter declared his verdict that she had been her husband's accomplice in the deception, and he pronounced the same awful sentence on her that fell upon her husband, the sentence of death. She dropped dead, and the young men who were just returning from burying her husband carried her out as well. They made her grave beside his. Again, the news that God struck down a liar in the church had a sobering effect on all who heard it.
A Grave Offense
The charges that Peter brought against the couple reveal just how serious the sin was. It was serious for four reasons.
1. Ananias told a lie. Lying is the sin especially characteristic of Satan. Perhaps the most fundamental difference between God and Satan is that God is Truth, whereas Satan is a despiser of truth. Jesus said of Satan, "He was a murderer from the beginning, and abode not in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaketh a lie, he speaketh of his own; for he is a liar, and the father of it" (John 8:44). God was therefore extremely displeased when untruth, the mark of His enemy, entered His beloved church.
2. Ananias lied to God, not man. Specifically, he lied to God in the person of the Holy Spirit. In fact, he and his wife had lied to the church, but Peter identifies the church with the Holy Spirit, because the Holy Spirit indwells the church and is responsible for its existence.
3. In saying that Ananias lied to the Holy Spirit, Peter meant that Ananias actually imagined that he could fool God. Ananias thought that God Himself would fail to detect the lie and would bless the couple for their generosity. How demeaning of God's great wisdom and knowledge!
4. As Peter said when pronouncing his judgment on Sapphira, she and her husband tempted the Holy Spirit.
Sin in the Camp
The lie told by Ananias and Sapphira defiled the whole church. Christians refer to sin in the church as "sin in the camp," an expression derived from the story of Achan in the Old Testament (Josh. 6:1–7:26). Achan was a soldier of Israel when Joshua led the nation into Canaan. The first city in the path of conquest was Jericho, which the Israelite army took easily by following God's directions. He told them to march around the walls once each day for six days and seven times on the seventh day, then to raise a great noise. They obeyed His instructions, and immediately after they shouted on the last day, the walls collapsed, allowing a direct assault on the city. The Lord commanded the soldiers to take all metallic objects found in Jericho and deposit them in the Lord's treasury. Everything else was to be burned. But Achan carried away spoil for himself and hid it under his tent. Thus, he brought sin into the camp of Israel. The result was that God withdrew His power and blessing from the whole nation, and Israel went down to defeat at the very next battle, the battle for Ai. After revealing the sin to Joshua, the Lord commanded that Achan be put to death. He required the nation to stone and burn not only the man himself, but also his children and animals. God knew that severe measures would, in the long run, save many lives.
Achan's story exactly parallels the story of Ananias and Sapphira. Both show God taking drastic measures to remove sin from among His people. God's judgment on Ananias and Sapphira was no less severe than his judgment on Achan, although they committed the lesser offense. Like Achan, they stole from the Lord and used deception to cover up their sin. Yet they violated no direct command of God, and what they took was theirs to begin with.
After the Sanhedrin warned Peter and John to stop preaching Christ, the church prayed earnestly that God would increase their power to witness. They prayed also that God would verify their message by enabling them to perform signs and wonders. Not long afterward, in the incident involving Ananias and Sapphira, God tested how the church would react to sin in their midst. The church reacted just as He wanted, by judging the sinners and purifying itself. Then He was able to grant their requests.
The signs and wonders He enabled them to perform stirred up much talk throughout Jerusalem and the surrounding region. Soon, the apostles had the reputation of being miracle workers. Crowds from neighboring cities came to the apostles with their sick friends and relatives, and the apostles healed every one. The people of Jerusalem held Peter in such high regard that they brought the sick into the streets, hoping that he would stop and heal them as he passed by. Many believed that the touch of Peter's shadow could heal the sick even if he took no notice of them.
Was this thinking superstitious? No, the author of Acts clearly implies that some people were healed just by coming under Peter's shadow. But it was not his shadow that healed them. They were healed because they had faith in the power that was working through Peter—the power of Jesus' name.
All Jerusalem was watching developments with intense interest. The company of believers was still meeting daily at Solomon's Porch within the Temple. It was perhaps the most public place in the city. The multitudes who worshiped at the Temple could stand at a distance and watch what the believers were doing. Some of the onlookers had enough courage to step forward and join them, and the church continued to grow. But most of the Jews were afraid to side with Jesus' followers, lest they suffer the wrath of the Sanhedrin. Even the fearful and undecided admired the believers greatly. They "magnified them," recognizing that they had the power of God.
Imprisonment and Escape
Popular feeling was running so strongly in favor of the church that the high priest and his allies became alarmed. They were afraid that the masses might rise up in revolt, seeking revenge upon the leaders for killing Jesus. They therefore resolved to take stronger measures to silence the church.
The Sadducees arrested the apostles and threw them into prison. The expression "laid hands on them" (v. 18) suggests that the soldiers came with violence and handled them roughly. But just as the grave could not hold Jesus, so a prison could not hold His apostles unless He allowed it. An angel visited them at night and opened the prison doors. He sent them out with the instruction to continue preaching in the Temple.
The apostles were glad to obey the angel. As early as possible the next day, they returned to the Temple and resumed preaching. At about the same hour, the leaders convened the Sanhedrin and sent officers to bring the prisoners. Imagine their surprise when the officers reported back that the prisoners were gone! The prison was shut up tight and secure. Outside the guard was standing vigilant. But inside there was nobody. The prisoners had vanished and left no trail of escape.
The emotion that drove the authorities to arrest the apostles was "indignation" (v. 17). They were upset that the apostles were stirring up public opinion against them. But now their emotion turned to wonder and fear. Feeling themselves trapped by events beyond their control, they were unsure what to do next. What they finally decided to do shows that unbelief at last reduces a man to complete stupidity. As we will see in the next passage, they decided to arrest the apostles again.
When the leaders heard that the apostles were again teaching in the Temple, they sent officers to arrest them. This time the officers went without their superiors. The leaders probably figured that it was safer to stay in their chambers. The apostles were surrounded by sympathetic crowds who might stone anyone who came to arrest them. Also seeing this danger, the officers approached the apostles cautiously. They did not try to manhandle them. Rather, they ushered them away without violence.
As soon as the officers set the apostles before the council, the leaders attacked them with angry words. They rebuked them for disregarding the council's ruling at the previous hearing—the ruling that the apostles must cease witnessing for Christ or face severe penalties. Also, they accused the apostles of seeking revenge for Jesus' death. Obsessed with protecting themselves, they imagined that the apostles' motive for preaching was not to save souls, but to make the Jews angry with their rulers.
At this hearing Peter was not alone in answering the charges. The other apostles joined him in giving a brief but complete defense, stressing three points:
- To prove that their preaching was intended not to overthrow the rulers but to save souls, they preached to the rulers themselves.
- They repeated what Peter told the council before, that they had to obey God rather than men.
- To prove that they were doing God's will, they reviewed the facts about Jesus. He was no criminal, but God's chosen instrument to save Israel from their sins. God had raised Him from the dead, and He now sat as a Prince at the right hand of the Father. They offered themselves as witnesses that these facts were true. If the council wanted another witness, they could consult the Holy Spirit. God would give them the Holy Spirit if they would simply start obeying God.
The apostles sought to make the council understand what a terrible crime they committed when they killed Jesus. They succeeded in making them feel guilty, but a hard shell of pride kept conviction from penetrating deep enough to cause repentance. The rulers were cut to the heart, but the result was wrath rather than sorrow. They agreed among themselves that the only way to resolve the crisis was to slay the apostles.
While the council seethed with talk of murder, a leading member stood forward and gave his opinion. He was Gamaliel, a man highly respected as a teacher of the law. Among Jews today he is remembered as one of the great rabbis in antiquity.3 One of his pupils was Paul, who later became Christ's chief ambassador to the gentiles (Acts 22:3).
Gamaliel’s command in regard to the apostles that they should be "put . . . forth a little space" is better translated "put . . . out for a short while."17 Evidently they were conducted out of the session, because after Gamaliel spoke, they had to be recalled (v. 40).
Gamaliel had a calming effect on the Sanhedrin. They were ready to rise up and do violence against the apostles, but he stopped them with sensible advice. He reminded them that Jesus was not the first who attracted many followers by claiming to be close to God. Others included a certain Theudas, "boasting himself to be somebody; to whom a number of men, about four hundred, joined themselves: who was slain; and all, as many as obeyed him, were scattered, and brought to nought." The second troublemaker Gamaliel mentioned was Judas of Galilee, who "arose in the days of the taxing, and drew away much people after him: he also perished; and all, even as many as obeyed him, were dispersed." Historical sources apart from the New Testament are silent concerning any Theudas active before Judas, but Judas is remembered by Josephus.18
Judas of Galilee led a revolt against the Romans in AD 6.19 Caesar Augustus had sent two prominent officials, Cyrenius and Coponius, to take charge of affairs in the province of Syria, which included Judea. Their particular assignment was to conduct a census and taxation. Judas with the help of another rabble-rouser, Sadduc, gained a national hearing by boldly declaring that the measures undertaken by the imperial legates were nothing less than the first steps of enslavement, and they promised God’s help if the nation would rise up in revolt. With a wide following among the masses, they started a civil war, but, according to Gamaliel, Judas was killed, and his revolt came to nothing.
Gamaliel finished his address to the council by arguing that there was no risk in tolerating the religious movement started by Jesus, but great risk in opposing it. It was either a work of man or a work of God. If it was a work of man, it would also come to nothing. But if it was a work of God, they dared not fight against it unless they wished to fight against God Himself.
In composing his narrative, Luke may have included this incident at Paul's request. As we argued in our introductory lesson, Luke wrote Acts probably to assist in Paul's defense before the authorities in Rome. Probably he was with Paul when he wrote it. Paul no doubt retained affection for his old teacher and wanted him to be remembered not for any of his faults, but for the best moment in his life, when he defended the cause of Christ.
The council accepted Gamaliel's advice. The warning that the apostles might be right made the council afraid to kill them, but led to no change of heart. The leaders were still intent on showing who was in command. They called in the apostles and declared them guilty of disobeying the Sanhedrin. For punishment, they had the apostles beaten. The beating was not as severe as Jesus suffered at the hands of the Romans, but it was a serious matter. It was humiliating, because the leaders probably stood by and watched. And it was painful, because the apostles probably received thirty-nine lashes across a bare back. The limit set by the law was forty (Deut. 25:1–3), but to avoid an excessive number by mistake, the Jews customarily gave no more than thirty-nine.33 After the beating was finished, the leaders again commanded the apostles to refrain from preaching Christ.
Again, the apostles paid no attention. They left the council rejoicing that God considered them worthy to suffer for Christ's sake. As soon as possible, they resumed teaching in the Temple and in private homes, and they continued in the work day after day.