Acts 5:1-42

A Bible Study led by Dr. Larry Reynolds

March 5, 2009

The first attack on the new church came externally, with the Jewish religious leaders seeking to silence the apostles from speaking about Jesus (Acts 4:17).  The apostles resisted this attack and continued doing what God called them to do (Acts 4:31).  The second attack on the church came from within.  The story is told in the last part of Acts 4 and the first part of Acts 5.


The story of Ananias and Sapphira is one of the most vivid in the book of Acts.  The way Luke relates the story is a reminder of the honesty with which the Bible deals with the people of God.  The Scripture does not gloss over the weaknesses and failures of its main characters.  William Barclay puts in this way:

This is one of the stories which demonstrate the almost stubborn honesty of the Bible.  It might well have been left out because it shows that even in the early church there were very imperfect Christians.  [William Barclay, Acts, Daily Bible Study Series]


Acts 4:36-37 introduces Barnabas into the story.  Luke’s introduction of Barnabas at this point in the narrative sets the stage for the story of Ananias and Sapphira.  Barnabas appears several times in the book of Acts.  For example, we see him in:

·         Acts 9:27 befriending Saul (Paul) shortly after his conversion at a time when the other disciples were afraid of him.

·         Acts 11:22 going with Paul to Antioch where a large number of Gentiles had come to faith in Jesus.

·         Acts 11:30 going with Paul back to Jerusalem from Antioch carrying an offering from Antioch for the suffering Christians in Judea.

·         Acts 12:25 going back to Antioch with his cousin John Mark and Paul after they had delivered the offering.

·         Acts 13-14 being sent out along with Paul and John Mark by the church at Antioch under the direction of the Holy Spirit on Paul’s first missionary journey.

·         Acts 15 speaking with Paul at the Jerusalem council where the church addressed the issue of Gentiles becoming Christians without first becoming Jewish proselytes. 

·         At the end of Acts 15 disagreeing with Paul over taking John Mark on the second missionary journey.

Barnabas played such a key role in the early days of the church it was inevitable that we would meet him in Acts.  But Luke inserts him at this point to highlight the evil deed of Ananias and Sapphira.  These two verses tell us all that we know about the background of Barnabas.

·         His given name was Joseph, but he was given the nickname, Barnabas, which Luke tells us means Son of Encouragement or Consolation.  It was his nature to help and encourage others.  (See Acts 9:27 and 15:37-39)

He was from the tribe of Levite.  Some say that as a Levite, Barnabas was forbidden by Mosaic Law from owning property in the Promised Land.  They argue that Barnabas’ selling of the property was both an act of repentance and generosity. [The Book of Acts, the Smart Guide to the Bible series]

·         He was a native of the island of Cyprus which is in the Mediterranean about 200 miles northwest of Caesarea.

Apparently Barnabas’ unselfish act of selling a tract of land and making the money available for the apostle’s was noticed by others.  Though he was not seeking it, perhaps he received the admiration of the fellowship for his unselfish deed.  Ananias and Sapphira noticed this admiration, and they desired it for themselves.


The attempt of Ananias and Sapphira to deceive the apostles (Acts 5:1-11)

Verses 1 & 2 describe what they did. “But a certain man named Ananias with his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property, and kept back some of the price for himself, with his wife’s full knowledge, and bringing a portion of it, laid it at the apostles’ feet.”

“But” – The word in Greek is de and can be translated either and or but.  In this case but is the appropriate translation because Luke is contrasting the pure motives of Barnabas with the impure motives of Ananias and Sapphira.

“Ananias” – The name means God is gracious.

“Sapphira” – The name means beautiful.  They were apparently members of the Jerusalem church.  They are mentioned in the New Testament only in this passage.

“kept back some of the price for himself” – That was not their sin.  Their sin was being deceptive which was rooted in their desire for praise and their love for money.


Verses 3-4 describe Peter’s response to their deed.  How did Peter know about the deception of Ananias and Sapphira?  Luke does not tell us, but the clear implication is that it was revealed to him by the Holy Spirit (see John 16:13).  Peter acknowledged that before the land was sold, it belonged to them to do with as they pleased.  After the land was sold, the money belonged to them to do with what they pleased.  However, they had no right to pretend to be giving all of the money from the sale of the land when in fact they were withholding some for themselves.  Such an act was not only an attempt to deceive other believers but an attempt to deceive the Holy Spirit.


Verses 5-10 describe the punishment.  They both fell down and died, Ananias in verse 5 and Sapphira in verse 10.  Notice that it was not Peter who struck them dead.  Presumably, it was the hand of God.  While the punishment may seem harsh from our perspective, two things need to be kept in mind:

·         The nature of their sin – Lying to the Holy Spirit is no small thing.  Jesus warned in Matthew 12:31-32 that the only sin for which there is no forgiveness is “…blasphemy against the Holy Spirit…”  In the context in which those words were spoken (the Pharisees accused Jesus of casting out demons in the name of Beelzebul or Satan) that phrase means to reject Jesus and to attribute His works to Satan.  This sin in unforgivable because it is a rejection of the only means God has made available for our forgiveness.  While lying to the Holy Spirit as Ananias and Sapphira did may not be the exact same thing as blaspheming the Holy Spirit, it is certainly in the same family and is a very serious sin!

·         The newness of the Christian movement – It was imperative that the integrity of the fellowship be maintained.  The Jewish leaders were looking for any reason to discredit the movement, and dishonesty in finances certainly would have given them fodder.  As one writer put it:

“If Ananias and Sapphira had been able to accomplish their deceptive plan undetected, it would have spelled doom for the early church.  The followers of Christ were having difficulty enough in trying to convince their opponents that they were telling the truth. [T.C. Smith, Broadman Bible Commentary, p.42] 


This story is reminiscent of the story of Achan in Joshua 7.  Achan disobeyed God by taking some spoils from Jericho.  As a result, Israel suffered a humiliating defeat at Ai.  When Achan’s evil deed came to light, Achan and his entire family were put to death.  The evil deed of Ananias and Sapphira had the potential of doing to the young church what Achan’s evil deed did to Israel.


Verses 11-16 describe the results of this event.  The results were twofold:

·         “And great fear came upon the whole church, and upon all who heard of these things.” (v.11) – The word translated fear is the same word translated awe in Acts 2:43 – “And everyone kept feeling a sense of awe…”  It is the word phobos and it means reverence or deep respect.  The young church recognized that the power of God was not something with which to trifle.  There was a healthy respect for God in the early church and this event served to deepen that respect.

·         “And at the hands of the apostles many signs and wonders were taking place among the people…” (v.12a)

“And” – There is a close connection between this paragraph and the preceding paragraph.  The church had been purged of evil and was living in reverence and awe of God.  It is not surprising that miraculous things were happening.

“were taking place” – The tense of the verb (imperfect tense) suggest these things were being done continuously.


Verse 12b tells us the apostles continued to meet “in Solomon’s portico” which was a long, covered porch on the east side of the court of Gentiles.


The statement in verse 13a that “…none of the rest dared to associate with them…” is puzzling because Luke does not identify who he means by “the rest.”  Does he mean Christians other than the apostles who feared the Jewish leaders?  Does he mean Jews who had not yet believed, perhaps even the Jewish leaders?  There is no way to know for certain.


Verses 13b & 14 report that the masses of people still held the apostles in high regard and that many were continuing to come to faith in Jesus as the Messiah.


Verses 15-16 indicate that news of the deeds of the apostles was quickly spreading outside Jerusalem.  It should be noted that while miracles were occurring regularly, they always used the miracles to point people to Jesus.  Miracles were not and are not an end in themselves.  They are tools God uses to give validity to the Christian message.  Also it should be noted that not even the apostles could perform miracles at will.  2 Timothy 4:20 speaks of Paul leaving his friend, Trophimus, sick at Miletus.  If Paul could have performed miracles at will, he no doubt would have healed his friend.


Practical application from Acts 5:1-16

1.      If Satan cannot destroy the church from without, he will attempt to destroy it from within.

2.      Christians always face the temptation of doing the right thing with the wrong motive.  God is as concerned with our motives as our actions!

3.      God’s power flows through those who are right with Him.  It is not that one has to be perfect to be used by God.  However, unconfessed sin renders us powerless.


The arrest, miraculous release, re-arrest, and release of the apostles. (Acts 5:17-42)

Verses 17-18 describe the arrest.  This is similar to what happened in the previous chapter after Peter and John healed the lame man in the temple.  As before, the arrest was instigated by the Sadducees.  The main difference is this time it was not just Peter and John but all the apostles who were arrested.


Verses 19-25 describe the miraculous release of the apostles.  Notice the reference to “an angel of the Lord” in verse 19.  Several other times in Acts an angel of the Lord appears.

·         In Acts 8:26 an angel of the Lord directs Philip to go to the road that goes from Jerusalem to Gaza where Philip met the Ethiopian official.

·         In Acts 12:7-10 an angel of the Lord frees Peter from prison in the middle of the night.

·         In Acts 12:23 an angel of the Lord struck Herod dead.

After their release, the apostles went right back to doing what God told them to do, preaching the good news of Jesus.


Verses 26-32 described the re-arrest of the apostles and their testimony before the Jewish high court.  Again, Peter seems to be the spokesman for the group.  In his speech to the court he does five things:

1.      Reaffirms their determination to obey God rather than men (v.29)

2.      Proclaims the resurrection of Jesus (v.30a)

3.      Charges the Jewish authorities with the death of Jesus (v.30b)

4.      Proclaims forgiveness of sins and salvation in Jesus (v.31)

5.      Affirms their God-given mission (v.32)


Verses 33-39 describe the counsel of Gamaliel. 

“cut to the quick”(v.33) – Literally the phrase means “cut to the heart.”  This is the same feeling the multitude at Pentecost had.  When Peter preached that day Acts 2:37 says the people were “pierced to the heart.”  But the reactions of the two groups were totally opposite.  A large number of the people at Pentecost repented and turned to Jesus for salvation.  The Jewish leaders became incensed and began looking for ways to kill the apostles.  This is a classic case of not liking the message so shooting the messenger!

“Gamaliel” (vv.33-39) – Gamaliel was a Pharisee and he perhaps enjoyed seeing the Sadducees upset by the followers of Jesus.  Gamaliel was a respected teacher in the 1st century and a descendant (probably a grandson) of the famous rabbi, Hillel.  Saul of Tarsus (who later became known as Paul) was one of Gamaliel’s students in Jerusalem (Acts 22:3).   In his speech, Gamaliel makes reference to two specific Jewish insurrectionists.

·         Theudas (vv.35-36) – His identity is unknown.  Josephus, the Jewish historian in his Antiquities makes reference to a man named Theudas who led some people to the Jordan River promising to part the waters as Joshua once did.  The Roman procurator Cuspius Fadus, who succeeded Herod Agrippa I in 44 A.D., sent soldiers who killed Theudas and his followers.  Some try to identify that Theudas with the man mentioned by Gamaliel.  However, that event occurred at least a decade after the events of Acts 5.

·         Judas of Galilee (v.37) – This man led a revolt against the Romans over the issue of taxation in 6 A.D.  While his revolt was crushed by the Romans, his efforts planted the seeds of the Zealot party (at least one of the twelve disciples, Simon the Zealot, identified with that party) which eventually led a rebellion against Rome in A.D. 66.  This rebellion led to the destruction of Jerusalem and of the Temple by Titus, the Roman general, in 71 A.D.

Gamaliel’s advice was not to over-react to the Christian movement.  He wisely reminded the court that if God is in the movement that could not stop it and if God is not in it, the movement would not last.


Verse 40 describes the decision of the court.  The court did two things:

“they flogged them” – This was no light punishment.  Flogging generally consisted of thirty-nine (39) lashes with a leather whip which contained many strips of leather with small pieces of stone or glass tied into the end of each strip.  Such punishment resulted in severe laceration of a person’s back.

“ordered them to speak no more in the name of Jesus” – This is the second time the Jewish high court gave such an order to the disciples (see Acts 4:17).


Verses 41-42 describe the response of the apostles to the actions of the court.

“they went on their way … rejoicing…” (v.41) – What an amazing statement!  Instead of feeling sorry for themselves because they had been severely beaten, they considered it a badge honor to be called upon to suffer for Jesus.

“they kept right on teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ” – They were not in the least bit deterred from their mission.  Notice they did not rail against those who persecuted them; they just kept talking about Jesus.


Practical Application of Acts 5:12-42

1.      God does not promise that serving Him is going to be easy.  As a matter of fact, Jesus said just the opposite.  He said in John 16:33 – “…in the world you have tribulation (the word is thlipsis which means to be under great pressure), but take courage; I have overcome the world.”

2.      Opposition to God’s work often come from well-meaning, religious people.

3.      God watches over those who are faithful to Him.  Sometimes He rescues us as He did the apostles from prison in Acts 5:19-20.  Other times He gives us the grace to endure hardship as He did the apostles in Acts 5:40-41.  He never abandons us!