Why did Ananias and Sapphira drop dead?

September 1, 2016

mockingbird_devotionalAny pastor who preaches annual stewardship sermons knows that the Bible doesn’t say what we want it to say when it comes to financial giving. We’ll take free grace over Law every day of the year except “Commitment Sunday.” I’m talking, of course, about the Old Testament law of the tithe. If only we could convince our parishioners that Christ has set them free from every law except that one!

No one believes me when I point to the generosity of Zacchaeus or greed of the Rich Young Ruler and say, “See… Ten percent may not be enough for us Christians!”

All that to say, I like this insight concerning Ananias and Sapphira (in Acts 5:1-11) from Jeremy Coleman in The Mockingbird Devotional:

What’s terrifying, then, is that Ananias and Saphhira don’t drop dead for deceiving or withholding truth from God, but for believing what is untrue of God. They believe they must give something; that in order to be acceptable before God and church, something is required. Ananias and Sapphira hold as truth their requirements and pretenses, and reject the truth of Christ’s freedom. Because they believe their lives are being tallied, God takes their lives, leaving them in the only thing Jesus needs for their resurrection: their death.[†]

While I would have modified that first sentence (“…Ananias and Saphhira don’t drop dead merely for deceiving or withholding truth from God, but also for believing what is untrue of God.”), I still like it.

Jeremy Coleman, “September 11” in The Mockingbird Devotional (Charlottesville, VA: Mockingbird, 2013), 311.

33 Responses to “Why did Ananias and Sapphira drop dead?”

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    Yeah, you would at least have to add “merely.” Personally, I don’t agree with the general proposition itself. I think it was a matter of God’s culling out the “hypocrisy” that Jesus so preached against the Pharisees–“public show” with a “bad heart.” It may be the case that God needs nothing from us, but I really can’t see that as being the point here.

  2. Grant Essex Says:

    I’ve always thought that the fundamental concept of tithing was that God was due the first 10%, the “first fruits”. But, that God also loves a cheerful giver, and that giving from the remaining 90% was where the joy was to be found.

    Sadly, I don’t do very well on this one….

  3. Marshall Says:

    It really is a poser to justify the event. My question is, Why are the deaths attributed to God rather than to Peter? Peter received authority from Jesus in Mat 16 and demonstrates the reality by healing and preaching as in Acts 3, wouldn’t his explicitly pronounced condemnation also have force?

    • brentwhite Says:

      I assume that’s a typo in the first sentence? Did you mean it’s “impossible” to justify? If so, I disagree. The wages of sin is death. That God hasn’t or doesn’t strike all of us down for our sins is an act of mercy. God had a good reason for doing this, whether we know what it is or not.

      As for Peter’s responsibility, does the Holy Spirit grant supernatural power to do evil (assuming that’s what you think this was)? Perish the thought!

      Isn’t it more likely that Peter had prophetic insight that God was going to take their lives?

      • Marshall Says:

        Thanks for reply. I meant “it’s a puzzle” or at least it seems to be a problem many have worked on. The idea here isn’t one I’ve seen elsewhere. Usually the focus is on social-climbing (being like Barnabas) or lying about having “given it all”, although if cheating on your tithes is the unforgivable sin I fear for many.

        It seems odd to me that the Fisherman himself has that little to do, ignoring Matt 16:19. He isn’t an empty shell, after all. … but if he was coming from prophetic insight, couldn’t he have spared a little pastoral concern for Sapphira? Who just lost her husband and has only moments to live herself? Gloating seems inappropriate to me.

      • brentwhite Says:

        “Gloating”? He was pronouncing judgment.

        I’m still confused: Do you believe Matthew 16:19 implies that Peter has some supernatural power to strike people down—and to do so out of malice, pride, or whimsy? That’s incomprehensible to me. Regardless, I’ve never read that interpretation before.

        As for cheating on your tithes being “unforgivable,” we have no reason to think, at least from this text, that Ananias and Sapphira were excluded from heaven on the basis of this sin. Moreover, if they are in heaven now, they don’t hold any hard feelings toward Peter. There are worse things than dying, as Jesus makes clear. For all we know, their deaths were a mercy to them; maybe they would have (literally) lost their souls if they had continued down this wicked path. Who knows? Not any of us.

        Finally, we all deserve judgment for our sins. It’s mercy alone that prevents God from striking all of us down! But if he did, he wouldn’t be unfair to do so. Every breath and every heartbeat is nothing but pure gift on God’s part; we’re not entitled to a moment of it.

      • Marshall Says:

        > “Gloating”? He was pronouncing judgment.

        That was my original contention, but you suggested he was merely prophesying what was to come. Do you not believe in spiritual power, in the power of prayer? Peter was given an extraordinary place and promised the power to open and close the gates of heaven! It seems that to deny him actual power or any responsibility for events is to preach against the Church.

        As to his motives, as you say we all deserve judgement. Peter was a son of Adam, therefore capable of sin. Obviously he had an important role to play in God’s plan, but only one was without fault. As we have many contemporary examples, being at the head of a great congregation is a great temptation.

        As to the guilt of Ananias, we must suppose that all things necessary for salvation are written. Based on the facts here presented Ananias’ conduct seems no more than quite typical of a wealthy parishioner making a substantial gift, worthy of correction (as all are worthy of accountability) but surely not condemnation?

      • Tom Harkins Says:

        Marshall, it is true that we are all fallen and can therefore take actions “in the name of God” which are erroneous or sinful. However, it does seem to me to be a different situation when God allows for supernatural power to be used. Thus, I could preach a sermon in “bad faith,” but I don’t believe I could, for example, cast out a demon in a “sinful manner.” “Does Satan cast out Satan?” Jesus asks, implying a negative answer.

        As for Ananias, his sin had practically nothing to do with how much he was “offering.” It was because he was lying, which is what Peter said. While thankfully God does not strike us all dead for that, he does sometimes “make an example” in that regard to emphasize the evilness of such behavior. Consider Achan, and Uzzah. Scripture says that Ananias’ death brought about “great fear”; in other words, people were forewarned that such conduct would be punished by God, whether dramatically now or on Judgment Day.

      • brentwhite Says:

        Achan and Uzzah are perfect parallels.

      • brentwhite Says:

        I’m not Catholic. I don’t interpret Jesus’ words as applying to Peter alone—or to his (mythical) successors. If I’m preaching against the Church, so be it. Jesus’ words, I believe, are about the proclamation of the gospel and its power, not the power of any person.

      • Marshall Says:

        Achan stole what was never his and expressly forbidden, and when Joshua called the assembly he persisted in his lie. Peter said the sale proceeds were legally and properly Ananias’ to do with as he wished, and he was given no chance to repent his misdemeanor falsehood. Uzzah was a hero who gave his life to keep the ark from falling into the ditch. Might mention Uzzah demonstrates the physical power of spiritual things. How God is drawn to do things he might not wish to do, such as punish the innocent.

        Perhaps you are right and Peter is fully justified. But the theological principle at work seems to be “Peter can do no wrong”, leading to the unavoidable conclusion that “this can’t be as ugly as it looks.”

      • brentwhite Says:

        So, Marshall, you’re suggesting that there’s some law or principle above God to which even God is beholden—and this law or principle is ethically questionable at times? To say the least, this is deeply heterodox.

        Peter can certainly do wrong (as Paul himself points out in Galatians). In this case, however, Peter did nothing other than pronounce God’s judgment in obedience to God.

        What is your religious background, Marshall, if you don’t mind telling me?

      • Marshall Says:

        We must believe that God could choose to make everything right in an instant but he chooses not to. He chooses to allow evil in the world. As a result, all, I say all events in the world are mixed with sin, except for the one unique instance at the cross. In the case of Uzzah, God’s ethical nature conflicted with his corporeal orderliness. Uzzah’s death was consequence, not punishment.

        Peter did nothing other than pronounce God’s judgment in obedience to God.

        God didn’t ordain the rule of the first assembly, Acts shows Peter stepping forward as directed in Matthew 18. So grant him the right and power to pronounce such a judgement (although WWJD?). I don’t see it necessary to browbeat on Ananias, and the disrespect shown to Sapphira as he delivered his judgement to her is fairly characterized as “gloating”. For rough pastoring compare Mark Driscoll’s history at Mars Hill Seattle.

        … personally, I accept the principles of the Bebbington Quadrilateral as originally formulated, leaning Puritan. A varied institutional background.

      • Tom Harkins Says:

        Marshall, I am not sure I am understanding you clearly, and if I am, then I am in disagreement. None of Jesus’ conduct was “mixed with sin,” for example, and there have been plenty of specific actions of believers which were not “mixed with sin”; such as, most notably, the writing of scripture, wherein holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Spirit. If you simply mean that sin is all around, that is certainly true–in fact, there was plenty of sin involved in the crucifixion, but not on the part of Jesus. Similarly, Ananias and Sapphira were guilty of the sin of lying hypocritically, but Peter, for his part in the episode, was not acting out of sin, but as moved by the Spirit.

        I don’t know where you get “gloating” from whatsoever. Do you think that every time a man of God is involved in someone’s death he is sinning? Clearly that is directly contrary to much of scripture. So, I cannot understand why you seek to denigrate or castigate Peter and glorify Ananias and Sapphira. You are turning things up side down and backwards!

      • brentwhite Says:

        “God’s ethical nature conflicted with his corporeal orderliness.”

        I don’t know what you mean. If it was ethically wrong for Uzzah to be struck down, then God wouldn’t have struck him down. If Peter’s actions were sinful in any way, Luke is unaware of it. There isn’t even a hint of disapproval in the passage.

    • Marshall Says:

      Oops!: “Matthew 18” meant Mat:16:18-19 as previous in this thread.

  4. Grant Essex Says:

    Seems to me that a lot of folks use “WWJD?” in an attempt to put God in a box. Jesus came as Savior, but He will return as Judge. Too many people don’t get that.

    • brentwhite Says:

      Then consider that Christ, who is God, acted in the Old Testament and guided, alongside the Father and Holy Spirit, its writers to write what they wrote. Even if WWJD were a useful question to ask, the “sample size” is actually much larger than the four gospels.

  5. Grant Essex Says:

    Good point. It has been said that you can “find Jesus” on every page of the Bible. That the whole Book points to Him.

  6. Marshall Says:

    brentwhite Says:
    I don’t know what you mean. If it was ethically wrong for Uzzah to be struck down, then God wouldn’t have struck him down. If Peter’s actions were sinful in any way, Luke is unaware of it. There isn’t even a hint of disapproval in the passage.

    In this world God permits ethical wrong, that much is clear. And he has a hand in all that transpires.

    My take is that Luke is reporting history, not making judgements. Luke also doesn’t mention inspiration here but he does report that following this meeting “great fear” came over the church. Fear of the Lord is a good and useful thing, as Uzzah had good reason to be fearful of the Ark, which is why he is a hero who reached out his hand anyway whereas Ananias was a dopey guy who got made an example of. Life-or-death fear of church leadership is not healthy. This episode is significant in that it sits at the hinge between the convivial earliest days after the Resurrection and the days of division and persecution leading up to the Roman sack in year 70.

    … I appreciate what you said this week about lives under grace. Thank you for your message.

    Grant Essex Says:
Seems to me that a lot of folks use “WWJD?” in an attempt to put God in a box. Jesus came as Savior, but He will return as Judge. Too many people don’t get that.

    

The way to follow a Rabbi is by “walking in his footprints”. “Follow me”, he said, “take my yoke.” I am willing to make judgements where he made judgements, in faith my errors will be corrected and forgiven.

    Tom Harkins Says:
    I don’t know where you get “gloating” from whatsoever. Do you think that every time a man of God is involved …

    You skip away from what one mortal man did once. Is gotcha questions like v.8-9 how your senior pastors expect their juniors to behave?

    During his ministry Jesus was constantly interacting with sin. He didn’t do it but he didn’t shy from it either. … I hope you understand that the Cross of Jesus marks a unique point in history.

    • Tom Harkins Says:

      Marshall, are you suggesting that God can do something wrong? That is contrary to so many scriptures that no particular ones need be cited. For example, James 1 states: “God cannot be tempted to sin, neither tempts he any man.” So I am not sure where you are getting your theology from, but it does not seem to be the Bible.

      You say: “Life-or-death fear of church leadership is not healthy.” But you also say: “Fear of the Lord is a good and healthy thing.” So, it simply depends on whether the church leader is acting as God’s instrument in the particular situation, wouldn’t you agree? Peter clearly says to Ananias that he “lied to the Holy Spirit.” So, Peter WAS promoting “fear of the Lord” in what he did as an Apostle, wouldn’t you say?

      Also, you say Uzzah was a “hero.” Is that why you think God struck him down (as the scripture clearly says that He did), because he was acting as a “hero”? Don’t you rather think God was emphasizing the holiness of the ark, which no one was to touch? I agree that Uzzah is a “tough case,” but the answer can’t be to make Uzzah the hero and God the culprit. Again, that is totally contrary to scripture. “Let God be true, and every man a liar” (if they contradict God), the Bible says.

      As far as my question to you about “gloating,” I believe that was your reference. Do you actually think that Peter was “gloating” over Ananias? Rather, don’t you think he was acting as “God’s agent” to maintain the purity of the Church from liars and hypocrites, as directed by God in that “unusual” situation?

  7. Grant Essex Says:

    I’ve got to admit. I’ve lost track here. Marshall, what is your main point in all of this?

    • Marshall Says:

      That Peter’s conduct in this instance was officious, arbitrarily cruel, and not proportionate to the offense, indeed obviously so, and that the universal compulsion to attempt to justify it is quite remarkable.

      I do wish to thank people who have been willing to engage with me on this question.

  8. Marshall Says:

    Tom Harkins Says:
    Marshall, are you suggesting that God can do something wrong? That is contrary to so many scriptures that no particular ones need be cited. For example, James 1 states: “God cannot be tempted to sin, neither tempts he any man.” So I am not sure where you are getting your theology from, but it does not seem to be the Bible.

    I think right or wrong are inappropriate categories for God, as he himself told Job. He does what he does, according to his will and plan, not ours. Evidently he permits his children extraordinary liberties, which men perceive as “free will”. That is, he grants that men’s will be potent, even against his desires (innumerable scriptural examples. King Saul!). Much that we see as evil comes from this … do you deny that there is Evil in the world? … but not, we must believe in faith, the defeat of his plan.

    You say: “Life-or-death fear of church leadership is not healthy.” But you also say: “Fear of the Lord is a good and healthy thing.” So, it simply depends on whether the church leader is acting as God’s instrument in the particular situation, wouldn’t you agree? Peter clearly says to Ananias that he “lied to the Holy Spirit.” So, Peter WAS promoting “fear of the Lord” in what he did as an Apostle, wouldn’t you say?

    You don’t seem to grasp the distinction I’m making. It’s a very dangerous thing for the church (and unhealthy for the individual) when leadership tries to speak as if it were Jesus. We have so many examples of tyrants who were acting as if they were instruments of God, or History, or their own personal Charisma. Caiaphas, for instance. Mark Driscoll. Jim Jones.

    Fear of the leadership is misdirected. Where does Paul say you should promote the gospel by making people afraid of you? Luke 9:55-56

    Also, you say Uzzah was a “hero.” Is that why you think God struck him down (as the scripture clearly says that He did), because he was acting as a “hero”? Don’t you rather think God was emphasizing the holiness of the ark, which no one was to touch? I agree that Uzzah is a “tough case,” but the answer can’t be to make Uzzah the hero and God the culprit. Again, that is totally contrary to scripture. “Let God be true, and every man a liar” (if they contradict God), the Bible says.

    When you touch the third rail, it doesn’t matter why, there are consequences.

    I knew a man: he was at a train crossing when a child (a stranger) foolishly tried to cross in front of a train. His bike got tangled in the rails and he fell. My friend had no time to decide; he ran, grabbed the child, and threw him to the other side. In the event he was able to dive to safety, but supposing he was not, he would even so have counted it as a victory since the child was saved, so he told me. God could have sent an angel to lift the train over him, and God could have sent an angel to steady the oxen; but he did not, lest he deny the victory.

    As far as my question to you about “gloating,” I believe that was your reference. Do you actually think that Peter was “gloating” over Ananias? Rather, don’t you think he was acting as “God’s agent” to maintain the purity of the Church from liars and hypocrites, as directed by God in that “unusual” situation?

    That’s what I said, quite so. Why do you think he was so directed by God? What was unusual about the situation of some parishioner trimming?

    So how did “maintaining the purity of the Church” work out for him? By Acts 5:13 they’ve taken over a corner of the Temple and “no one else dared join them”. This power play (like the Occupy movement) enraged the Sadducees, et seq, et seq. The Zealots arose to be more pure than the pure and started the disastrous revolt against Rome, and while the Romans were besieging outside, factions within the city were burning each others’ food supplies. Causeless hatred sinat khinam until not one stone was left on another stone.
    Meanwhile, Peter’s Jerusalem church hardly made it past the stoning of Stephen. But God’s plan is not mocked, another took his place of leadership.

    • Tom Harkins Says:

      Well, I will leave you the last comment on this. Suffice it to say, I can’t understand why you are preferring the lying, hypocritical lovers of mammon Ananias and Sapphira over the Apostle Peter, him of whom Christ said, “Upon this rock I will build my Church” (unless Christ was speaking of Peter’s confession–it is not clear which, or whether in part both).

      • Marshall Says:

        If Ananias were as avaricious as you all say, he could have just kept the money and gone to Temple like a good Pharisee. Those who can’t read the plain words will have no defense when Satan asks, “Hath God said?”.

      • Tom Harkins Says:

        Indeed.

  9. Grant Essex Says:

    Thanks Marshall. Got it. So, let’s back up:

    All of the early church members in this story were filled with the Holy Spirit and were selling assets (some were quite wealthy) and giving the proceeds to the Church. It doesn’t say that they sold all that they had. Just that they gave all the proceeds to the Church. By this, they were inspiring one another to do the same. This was pleasing to God.

    This couple said they had given all the money they’d made from a piece of property to the apostles when, in fact, they had kept some of the money for themselves. Peter first confronted Ananias, telling him that Satan had filled his heart and that he’d lied not only to people, but also to God.

    Ananias immediately dropped dead. His wife showed up three hours later and Peter confronted her as well. He gave her a chance to repent, but she stuck to her lie. Peter then pointed out that she had conspired with Ananias against the Lord and would now join him in the grave, at which point Sapphira fell over dead.

    I take this to mean that they had “grieved the Holy Spirit”, which is the unforgivable sin. How did they grieve the HS? They lied about what they were doing in order to impress the others, including Peter. (Sapphira even had an opportunity to admit the deception.)

    As for Peter’s role, he apparently could discern what they had done. He confronted them with their deception, but he was not the one to slay them. That was God. Peter did “pronounce judgement”, as an explanation for what happened. He didn’t kill them. He could not have saved them.

    All that said, you are right. This has been a controversial passage for Christians, especially the liberals.

    • Marshall Says:

      I am happy for you if no one in your church has ever lied about what they do in order to impress others, including pastor and bishop.

      I don’t consider myself a liberal, they don’t read either. I believe there is real power in prayer, and I don’t understand why you all want to deny that to Peter. But if you insist that Peter doesn’t have the power in himself to call on God to heal or condemn (in despite of Acts 5:12, etc), consider that perhaps Ananias and Sapphira were old and frail as many church donors are. Ananias brings what he feels is a substantial gift, expecting as you say preferment (although those who buy respect must pay every day), and instead Simon called Peter, the Rock of Jesus, speaking from the Center of the Assembly as the Representative of Christ on Earth, Surrounded by his Young Men, Pronounces Judgement and Slams open the Gates of Hell. Is it any wonder if the man fell down dead from such a shock, such a pitiless rejection. It sure could stop my heart. And the like and worse for Sapphira, new-made widow. If you believe that the husband is the head of the household, then surely Sapphira, loyal wife, at least deserves a tender moment of pity before being pitched headlong. John 13:35, eh?

      • brentwhite Says:

        Marshall, you may dislike Peter’s words in this episode as much as you like. I still think you are evading the main point: God is the One who takes the life of this couple, not Peter. Whatever spiritual power Peter possesses, he possesses only by virtue of the Holy Spirit, who is not going to work evil through Peter.

        You said earlier that God permits all kinds of evil to take place. Well, yes… Human being routinely have the freedom to do terrible evil, and we evil-doers are sustained into existence at every moment by the Spirit. But this incident is a question of God’s acting, not merely permitting. Surely you see the difference.

        I’m aware of the interpretation that the couple drops dead naturally, but doesn’t that seem like an ad hoc rationalization? And what would be the point? Do you disagree that God has the right to take this couple’s life? Won’t God take all of our lives in the end—at least those not alive at the Second Coming?

      • Marshall Says:

        Brent, personally I believe it would be blasphemous to claim that our God would rise in wrath to strike down one of the saints for such a commonplace offense, and Luke doesn’t say he did. Death as a penalty for fudging your giving is grossly inappropriate and may rightly be called evil. Since as you say God does not work to evil, the root of Ananias’ dropping dead is perforce the sin of Adam. We will never be surprised to find sin in any man, even in Peter. All sin: the wicked persist, the righteous repent.

        Ananias’ spirit fled of itself, as many do. His heart was broken, no need to invoke a miraculous intervention. Still I don’t think it’s quite apt to call his death “natural” while passing over circumstances. Old people should not be treated that roughly.

      • brentwhite Says:

        Guess I’ll risk being a blasphemer, Marshall, because I couldn’t disagree more.

      • Marshall Says:

        God bless you and forgive us all our many errors. Thanks again for this stimulating discussion!


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