A Healthy Fear

Death of Ananias, Raphael, 1515.

Acts 5:1-11 (NRSV)

But a man named Ananias, with the consent of his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property; with his wife’s knowledge, he kept back some of the proceeds, and brought only a part and laid it at the apostles’ feet. “Ananias,” Peter asked, “why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back part of the proceeds of the land? While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, were not the proceeds at your disposal? How is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You did not lie to us but to God!” Now when Ananias heard these words, he fell down and died. And great fear seized all who heard of it. The young men came and wrapped up his body, then carried him out and buried him.

After an interval of about three hours his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. Peter said to her, “Tell me whether you and your husband sold the land for such and such a price.” And she said, “Yes, that was the price.” Then Peter said to her, “How is it that you have agreed together to put the Spirit of the Lord to the test? Look, the feet of those who have buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out.” Immediately she fell down at his feet and died. When the young men came in they found her dead, so they carried her out and buried her beside her husband. And great fear seized the whole church and all who heard of these things.


Just to be sure we are all on the same page, I should point out what most careful readers will observe. This harsh, shocking story is not about money.

It is instead about the very serious nature of Christians’ relationship with their church, “church” being a gathering of people sharing a mutual belief in Jesus Christ, and the mission flowing from that belief.

Readers of the Bible have struggled for centuries with this story, finding themselves confused by the rapid judgment falling upon this couple. Was there no room for them to repent and find grace?

Peter’s words and a particular Greek verb in the text, one used only when divine judgment is at hand, make it clear the answer is “no.” Working through the hearts of this couple, Satan had dared to enter the holy group established by God to spread the gospel over all the earth.

Such deceit from this couple could not be tolerated. These two likely were hoping to leverage their false gift into acclaim, and their acclaim into power, and God could not allow the devil to embed himself so deeply in the fledgling church.

We should read this story as a reminder to take very seriously the vows we make as Christians, be they the words we say at baptism and confirmation or commitments we make later. We especially need to be sure that any actions we take to support or participate in the life of the church are intended for the glory of God.

The devil still seeks to find entry, and God still sees his holy, catholic church of believers to be precious and worth defending.

Lord, help us to search our hearts continually as we serve the kingdom through the church. May our motives be pure. Amen.

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