Satan's Attack


Acts 5:1-2

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 approval. 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.


Getting Practical


We might think that their sin was minor. After all, to give the church any proceeds from the sale of their property would have been a good deed. Their only offense was to exaggerate how generous they were. Who was hurt by their boasting? Don't we all do a little boasting from time to time? When we stand before the church and give a testimony, do we always tell the exact truth about ourselves? Or do we, like Ananias and Sapphira, exaggerate our good works and our devotion to God?

Anyone given the task of introducing a speaker at church easily strays into boasting. He can make it sound as if the speaker is so important that the church of Jesus Christ would collapse without him, but really he is just another sinner like you and me.

Two Confrontations


Acts 5:3-11

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. 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.

With solemn anger, Peter then 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.


Three Grave Offenses


The charges that Peter brought against the couple reveal just how serious the sin was. It was serious for three 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 has no truth in him. 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.


Getting Practical


God has a special loathing for lying. If a man says he is a Christian but he lies without a troubled conscience, without guilt on his face and pain in his heart, his profession is doubtful. We are not saying that a Christian cannot lie. Rather, we are saying that if a Christian lies, the Holy Spirit will register a strong objection. He will instill fear of divine judgment and demand repentance.

Many children lie automatically and fluently. Sad to say, some never outgrow this sort of childish behavior. Instead, they grow up to be habitual liars. How do you teach children to hate lying?

  1. Set an example of loving truth. Always stress how important truth is to you, and let them see you choose truth over falsehood even when truth costs you something.
  2. Always punish any infraction much more severely if they lie to cover it up. To teach them transparency about their failings is important preparation for a spiritual life. A right relationship with God and with the people around us is impossible unless we are willing to confess sin.
  3. Teach them that lying is the way of a coward. It takes courage to base your life on truth. Cover-up is always cowardice.

2. Ananias lied to God, not man. Specifically, he lied to God in the person of the Holy Spirit (v. 3). 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. 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!


Pondering a Question


How did Ananias imagine that his lie would go undetected?

Ananias was indescribably foolish. He could see from day to day that the Holy Spirit was speaking to the apostles and showing them the mind of God. He should have known that the Holy Spirit would notice the lie and point it out to Peter. But really he was no more foolish than any of us who sin, imagining that we will escape the consequences. We cannot hide our sin from God. "Be sure your sin will find you out" (Num. 32:23).

3. As Peter said when pronouncing his judgment on Sapphira, she and her husband tempted the Holy Spirit.


Pondering a Question


How could Ananias and Sapphira be blamed for tempting the Holy Spirit when the Bible says that God cannot be tempted (James 1:13)?

Indeed, James says that God cannot be tempted. Yet Scripture speaks of temptation coming to all three members of the Trinity. Men can tempt God the Father (Heb. 3:9), although they are forbidden to do so (Matt. 4:7). Satan tempted God the Son (Matt. 4:1; Heb. 2:18). And here in Acts we learn that Ananias and Sapphira tempted God the Holy Spirit.

All these texts use the same word for "tempted." But James's exact wording—"tempted with evil"—explains his meaning. He means that God will never find evil attractive, nor will He ever consider doing evil. The other references to God being tempted are referring not to any moral struggle in the heart of God. Rather, they are describing someone's attempt, witting or unwitting, to maneuver God into a position of doing wrong. That's what the Israelites did when they provoked God the Father to break His covenant promises. That's what Satan did when he urged Jesus to cast Himself off the pinnacle of the Temple. Likewise, that's what Ananias and Sapphira did when they dared God to go on blessing the church after they had infected it with sin.

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. 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.

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.


Pondering a Question


Why did Ananias and Sapphira suffer a penalty equal to Achan's?

Because guilt is in proportion to knowledge. Achan had no Bible or any portion of it. The instruction he had received in the ways of God was rudimentary. But Ananias and Sapphira probably owned the entire Old Testament, and they sat daily for instruction at the feet of the apostles. Perhaps they even heard Jesus teach.


Getting Practical


What about us? We have the whole Bible, and our understanding of it is enriched by two thousand years of Bible study. Thus, having more knowledge than Ananias and Sapphira, we dare not think that if we bring sin into the camp, God will view it lightly. In His mercy, He may not strike us down. Yet He will surely remove His power from our attempts to serve Him, and our work will amount to nothing. And He will surely chasten us. He will bring pain and guilt into our lives to show us that we have taken the wrong path.

Supernatural Power


Acts 5:12-16

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" (v. 13), recognizing that they had the power of God.


Imprisonment and Escape


Acts 5:17-23

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. 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.


Frustration


Acts 5:24

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. They decided to arrest the apostles again.


Pondering a Question


How did the religious leaders maintain their unbelief in the face of all the evidence that Jesus came from God?

Consider how foolish these leaders were. They knew about the miracles that Jesus performed. They knew the overwhelming evidence that Jesus rose from the dead. They knew that His apostles healed a man lame from birth and worked many other signs and wonders. They knew that the same apostles disappeared from a prison under maximum security. How did the leaders explain all these strange happenings? The only rational explanation was that Jesus was truly the Christ. Yet although these were the most intelligent and capable men in the nation, they could not see the obvious. Why? They were blinded by pride and by love of privilege.

The stubbornness of their unbelief should not surprise us. In our own day, many esteemed as great thinkers do not grasp the simplest and most important truths—that God exists, the Bible is His Word, and Jesus is our Savior from sin.


Delving Deeper


It is nothing less than amazing that the leading intellectuals in our day believe in evolutionary theory, the most sophomoric theory ever to win the support of modern science. Of all people, these intellectuals should know how complex a living cell is. They should know that it is vastly more complex than anything that could be assembled by random processes. They should know that chance is not constructive but destructive in its effects. They should know that lengthening the time scale does not make evolution more plausible, for time favors dominant processes like decay and dissolution. They should know that there is no evidence for evolution that meets the standards of observational or experimental science. They should know that much of the highly publicized evidence depends on bias and circular reasoning. They should know that Darwinism rests on two assumptions that are wholly irreconcilable: one, survival of the fittest; two, evolution is gradual change through a series of intermediate forms that may be useless or even detrimental to survival. But we digress. Suffice it to say that intellectuals are no different than the rest of humanity. By nature we are all sinners who would rather believe almost anything than believe in God.


Delving Deeper


The religious leaders in Jesus' day could not see the truth because they were blinded by sin, especially pride. But what process of thought did they use to justify themselves in rejecting the apostles' message? No doubt the process was what psychologists call assimilation-contrast.

By "contrast," I mean that they distanced themselves from Jesus and the apostles by finding ways to belittle or even dehumanize them. They noticed that Peter was an unlearned man—in other words, he did not go to the right schools. Neither did Jesus. Besides, Jesus and most of His followers were Galileans in origin and tradesmen by occupation, both marks of inferiority from the perspective of the Jewish elite. So, it was not hard for the leaders to convince themselves that the people in the new religious movement centered on Jesus were ignorant troublemakers. To support this conclusion, they told each other lies defaming Jesus' character—that He was conceived by fornication, that He taught the people to break the Sabbath law, that He allied Himself with Beelzebub in order to perform miracles. They made little effort to refute His profound teachings, contenting themselves instead with ad hominem arguments—that is, arguments attacking the man rather than what He said. In logic, an ad hominem argument is considered the weakest type. It is generally the last resort of someone who has no substantive objection.

By "assimilation," I mean that the leaders looked to their friends for support. They took their picture of reality from each other. Any of them alone might have caved into the evidence that Jesus was the Christ, but together they reinforced each other's unbelief. Of course, the person whose opinion counted most was Caiaphas's. To get ahead in the Jewish religious establishment, you had to put yourself on his good side. Everyone hung on his words as if he spoke for God. Since his eminence depended on maintaining the illusion that he was always right, he was in no way inclined to admit that he was wrong in condemning Jesus, and once he set down the party line, the others followed out of self-interest.

To examine how the minds of such men worked not only makes the events in Acts more real, but cautions us against similar thinking. Also, it shows us the ways of God. Because the Jewish leaders would not repent, He forced them to do their worst, so as to leave them without excuse on the Day of Judgment. When God pronounces them guilty, Caiaphas and his cronies will have nothing to say except to praise God for His justice.


Getting Practical


When we look at Caiaphas and his friends, we marvel at how stubborn they were in their unbelief. But really their stubbornness was very human. We all are prone to hold on to our ideas despite the evidence. That's why we must decide to follow the truth even when it hurts our pride. We must adopt the policy that we would rather be right than win an argument. In my teaching, a student sometimes points out a mistake in what I have said or in what I have written on the board. It is then tempting to use my authority and superior knowledge to maintain the illusion that I am right. A teacher or leader instinctively fears that if he admits he is wrong, he will lose respect. But the opposite is true. In the long run, he wins greater respect and confidence if people know that he is quick to admit his mistakes.

But although we should try to be flexible, that doesn't mean we should be changeable. When we give our word or render a judgment, others should be able to bank on it. Thus, we should never give our word or render a judgment except after careful thought—except on the basis of good and compelling reasons that events will not overturn. True wisdom requires us to keep a balance between flexibility and stability, between being easy to entreat and being dependable.

Another Hearing


Acts 5:25-33

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:

  1. To prove that their preaching was intended not to overthrow the rulers but to save souls, they preached to the rulers themselves.
  2. They repeated what Peter told the council before, that they had to obey God rather than men.
  3. 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.


Gamaliel's Advice


Acts 5:34-39

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. One of his pupils was Paul, who later became a great apostle of Christ.

Gamaliel had a calming effect on the Sanhedrin. They were ready to rise up and do violence against the apostles, but Gamaliel stopped them with sensible advice.

Gamaliel reminded the council that Jesus was not the first who attracted many followers by claiming to be somebody special. Others included a certain Theudas. Critics say that this reference to Theudas is an anachronism. According to Josephus, the Jewish historian, Theudas lived somewhat later than the events recorded in Acts 5. But Theudas was a common name, and revolts and agitations of all kinds were common in the history of Judea. We need only suppose that Gamaliel was referring to a Theudas overlooked by Josephus. According to Gamaliel, this Theudas won four hundred men to his side before he was killed and his supporters were scattered.

The other figure Gamaliel mentions is well known thanks to Josephus. Judas of Galilee led a revolt against the Romans in AD 6. He convinced many Jews that the census and taxation in that year were the first steps of enslavement. But he too was killed, and his revolt came to nothing.

Gamaliel argued 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 included this incident perhaps at Paul's request. As we argued in an earlier 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 and a sense of loyalty 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.


Outcome


Acts 5:40-42

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. Afterward, 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. As soon as possible, they resumed teaching in the Temple and in private homes, and they continued in the work day after day.


Getting Practical


Firsts in the Bible are often significant. This account records the first time that someone received physical abuse because of his testimony for Christ. As the apostles made their way back from the Sanhedrin to their lodgings in Jerusalem, all were in pain from severe wounds. All were weak from loss of blood. Perhaps some were faint and had to be supported by their friends. Yet their suffering did not defeat them. Instead of reducing them to grief, it lifted them to joy. The obvious purpose in this account of a first is to show us how to act when we are persecuted. As Peter said years later, "But rejoice, inasmuch as ye are partakers of Christ's sufferings; that, when his glory shall be revealed, ye may be glad also with exceeding joy" (1 Pet. 4:13).


Getting Practical


Any kind of trouble tends to discourage us and make us unhappy because we are too soft. Unlike many in past generations, we live in a world of comfort. If you are a senior saint, the home of your youth was perhaps not very fancy. But today's children are raised in the lap of luxury. We cater to their fleshly wants even in our Christian colleges. No wonder so many pursue a self-indulgent life rather than a life of sacrifice. No wonder they would find persecution difficult to accept.