Ananias and Simeon
But a 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, he laid it at the apostles' feet. But Peter said, "Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back some of the price of the land? "While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not under your control? Why is it that you have conceived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to men but to God." And as he heard these words, Ananias fell down and breathed his last; and great fear came over all who heard of it. (Acts 5:1-5)
With many people I know, this story can have strong negative resonance. It seems to be something that might fit better into the kind of stories one would expect in the Old Testament, so when something of this nature shows up in the middle of all the early exciting stories resulting from the pure truth about God embraced by the early church, we wonder why it is inserted where it is. Is this some sort of confirmation that we must remember that God is not really as consistently agape loving as some insist? Was this a stern warning to the early believers that they should not violate God's rules in the slightest or they too should experience disproportionate violence if they stepped out of line, even in such little ways? That is what many people might conclude upon reading this story.
This story of Ananias and Sapphira is not one that we tend to want to dwell on very long. And in a way I think this is sad. Not because I think we need more fire and brimstone kinds of threats like some people like to frighten people into repentance. If you know anything about me at all you will know I believe quite the opposite of that. No, rather I am sad that we don't face this story more intentionally precisely because we have allowed it to retain dark assumptions about God that have long found refuge and fertile ground in this story. These negative views about God continue to infect our hearts with fear-based beliefs about how God deals with sinners.
What brought this stroy to my attention was our pastor who reviewed this story yesterday in a board meeting that I attended. While he didn't seek to address the issues about God implicated, he make a comment something to the effect that it must have seemed like a setback to the momentum of the growth for the early church. This would be normal to assume if one does not look more intently into what really transpired in this event and the surprising good news behind what most of us assume was very bad news in what happened.
I have written some about this in the past but it has been some time so I feel I need to revisit this again to refresh my own mind with some of the discoveries that were such an encouragement to me when I first saw the real truth in this story. As some might begin to suspect, the punchline of this story is far different than what most people assume from just a surface reading of this account.
First of all, we must be aware of the context of this account or we will certainly be in the dark about what might actually be intended for us to learn from this tragedy. Sadly Bible translators have placed a chapter break at a most unfortunate location in the passage here. That problem occurs in a number of places throughout Scripture that causes many to mistakenly take a break right in the middle of a very important thought. But doing this can create much confusion and even cause us to arrive at very different assumptions than what we might see if these breaks were not artificially placed there.
This story needs to be seen as a direct continuation, even in the same sentence if possible, of the narrative at the end of the previous chapter.
And when they had prayed, the place where they had gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak the word of God with boldness. And the congregation of those who believed were of one heart and soul; and not one of them claimed that anything belonging to him was his own, but all things were common property to them. And with great power the apostles were giving testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and abundant grace was upon them all. For there was not a needy person among them, for all who were owners of land or houses would sell them and bring the proceeds of the sales and lay them at the apostles' feet, and they would be distributed to each as any had need. Now Joseph, a Levite of Cyprian birth, who was also called Barnabas by the apostles (which translated means Son of Encouragement), and who owned a tract of land, sold it and brought the money and laid it at the apostles' feet. (Acts 4:31-37)
When we disconnect this story of Ananias and Sapphira from its context it has the effect of creating potential insinuations about God that are false but yet have been circulating and gaining ground for centuries. As I said previously, many assume that this story, planted as it is in the middle of the stories created by the effects of the gospel in the lives of these early believers, is meant to be a reminder that God has a dark side so to speak; that He can resort to violence and force if someone crosses His will. But is this really what this story was meant to convey? And if there is any truth in that assertion (and that certainly is part of what was emphasized to me in this story as I was growing up) then why were the after-effects of this story so unexpectedly positive? That is another good clue for me that we have likely taken the wrong side on this issue when reading this story.
Before we can have a better understanding of how to interpret this event, it is helpful that we first begin to appreciate and embrace more biblical views of what God is really like and how He relates to sinners as expressed explicitly in the life and teachings of Jesus. When we give too much weight to the Old Testament more than to Jesus, we can almost be guaranteed that we will come up with wrong conclusions. It is never safe to rely on anything other that the explicit picture of God as found in Jesus, God's Son, when trying to discern God's ways in any story. And the same is true for this event.
First of all, I long for the day (and I am beginning to the light of it leaking through the cracks even now) when we too will begin to grasp the incredible truth about God's goodness, His pure, undiluted agape love as seen in the life and death of Jesus that so energized and transformed the people who embraced this same truth back then. It was this revelation about God that caused them to become an overwhelming force that could hardly be resisted in the early days of the church. It was not until Satan began to infiltrate the church with dark views about God, false, fear-based notions and confusing interpretations about the life and teachings of Jesus that the church began to lose its divine power.
I am fully convinced that the reason we fail to see anything even close to what was witnessed in the lives of those early believers is because we still have not discovered for ourselves the nucleus of the gospel, that radioactive center of genuine good news that cannot fail to light a fire of passion for God in the heart of anyone who chooses to embrace it with their heart. The passion that was observed in the early disciples has seldom been seen since. But I believe God is preparing a people in these last days who will once again rediscover and fully embrace the real gospel that has been so long obscured through blinding religious doctrines that keep us afraid of God. Until we expose and renounce these dark teachings about our God that prevents His power from being unleashed in our lives, we will continue to live in the lethargy of Laodicea.
This may bring into view some underlying reasons why we have been so reluctant to read this story enthusiastically and to see the passionate love of God for us in it. Yet if we do not see the passion of God's love in this story it may be because we have not yet fully embraced the truth about the purity of His love to start with. Our feelings and opinions about God's character always controls how we interpret what we hear and reflect about Him. So if we do not use the truth about God's character as the light to discern His love in this unusual event, then we are more likely to take away false, fear-based ideas about God whenever we just brush through this account.
A word that comes to my mind that describes this particular story is the word Judgment. Now, before anyone jumps to commonly assumed meanings about this word, let me define it according to how I have come to see it as used in the Bible. What I now see as the fundamental meaning of this word Judgment as heaven uses it is what we think of as exposure. During an encounter when an old man named Simeon was privileged to see the baby Jesus at His dedication in the temple, he spoke a prophecy over Jesus and His mother Mary. And although this prophecy did not directly use the word Judgment, the things he expressed are descriptive of what I see throughout Scripture connected to the concept of Judgment.
Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying: "Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you now dismiss your servant in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all people, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel." The child's father and mother marveled at what was said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother: "This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too." (Luke 2:28-35 NIV)
Later Jesus Himself made the connection even clearer.
This is the judgment, that the Light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil. For everyone who does evil hates the Light, and does not come to the Light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. But he who practices the truth comes to the Light, so that his deeds may be manifested as having been wrought in God. (John 3:19-21)
When this concept of sword as mentioned in Simeon's prophecy is traced throughout Scripture, especially in the New Testament writings, it can also be seen that it is actually a representation of judgment – an exposure of what is hidden. Learning this meaning for the concept of judgment has been a tremendous help for me to unravel many disturbing passages in Scripture as I apply this meaning where this word is used. When I see that God's kind of judgment simply means to expose what has long been secret, covered up and hidden so that others are not aware of what is really going on, then even the day of Judgment itself takes on radically new significance and can lose much if its fearful aspect. This updated understanding of judgment also has powerful implications about God's judgment and how at last everything that has been suppressed and distorted and hidden from us about God's dealings with sin and sinners will be the best news that we could ever know. The gospel can then be seen clearly in the very term that has long prevented people from learning the good news about God.
When we take this passage about the prophecy of Simeon and overlay it on the story of Ananias just a few years later, the implications can be quite revealing. It was the intense presence of Jesus and a high level of the power from His agape love that was experienced in the hearts and in the fellowship of those early believers. That is the key context to be grasped in order to interpret this story more clearly. Until we begin to sense that the atmosphere among those believers was super-charged by the passionate love of God for them and for those around them, we will fail to discern the real reasons why Ananias and his wife experienced such an unexpected demise. As strange as it may sound, love is the real key that will unlock this story and can also explain why this event had such an unexpected positive outcome.
Take more time to soak in the descriptions given in the above quotation from Acts 4 about the spirit and dispositions of each one involved in that amazing new society infused with the passionate love of Jesus in their hearts. No imitation of this close, intense, free and loving group of believers can be comparable to it. Communism may have similarities to what we see described in this account. But as most people are now aware, communism is a far cry from the agape love-oriented community that defined these believers who cared deeply for each other without any prodding on the part of their leaders.
Why is it impossible to imitate what we read about here in Acts? Because every time Christians or anyone else for that matter, attempts to create such a society it never succeeds because it misses the key element of agape love along with the presence of the Holy Spirit as the compelling force bringing about such loving unity. When we attempt to achieve unity within our churches by imposing rules instead of experiencing the gospel in an astounding revelation of who God really is, we fall into traps using Satan's counterfeit methods to try to achieve godliness. But every such attempt will be doomed to miserable failure sooner or later.
We should try to get into the head-space of those early believers to seek to discern why Ananias and his wife encountered such a surprise. When we see the openness, the transparency, the complete vulnerability at the deepest level that was produced by the gospel as encountered in Jesus Christ, it begins to emerge what the real problem was with Ananias. A spirit of dishonesty was hidden in the hearts of Ananias and his wife Sapphira and they were in complete agreement about it. But this put them out of sync with the very opposite spirit of total transparency as seen in the descriptions of everyone else among those believers.
In essence, we see that Satan was attempting a desperate effort to insinuate a virus that could quickly disarm the power of that pure, super-charged atmosphere of agape love enjoyed by those early believers. If a spirit of pride could be introduced, a spirit of dishonesty with others that would ruin the freedom enjoyed between all hearts involved; then a spirit of selfishness and temporal values would be inserted into that group like a piece of bacteria onto a clean petri dish. And the contagion of these motives would quickly destroy most of the effects that the gospel had achieved and it would not be long before the joy and power of the gospel would have disappeared altogether.
But the question at the center of this story is: How did God relate to this serious threat that had the potential to stop the gospel cold just as it was increasing in power and overcoming evil and the darkness of lies about Him? Did God suddenly shift gears from the methods of Jesus and choose to strike Ananias and Sapphira down in cold blood because they were a threat to what Jesus had started?
Honestly, if we entertain such thoughts, that God had to resort to using methods of His archenemy like force and intimidation to strike fear into the hearts of people, we must be suffering seriously from the insanity caused by Satan's lies about God. It is these lies about how God relates to sinners that keeps us misinterpreting over and over again so many things in the Bible that we assume prove our dark assertions about Him. Until we challenge and expose and dispense with these diabolical lies that dull us to the potency of that love that these early believers embraced, we will never be able to experience what they experienced but will settle for cheap imitations at best.
What is vital to perceive in this story is the enormous inherent power present among that group. It is analogous to a high-tension electric utility transmission cable designed to move enormous amounts of electricity at very high voltage around our country. This extremely high potential power has enormous potential benefits something like the benefits of the Holy Spirit as these early believers demonstrated in their spontaneous relationships with each other. But power can also have very lethal side-effects if one violates the underlying principles of power.
We would not be so silly as to think that a high voltage transmission line might somehow have a hidden diabolical intent to harm someone who happened to climb one of the towers to reach out and grab one of those wires. We understand that there are principles of reality, principles that we sometimes call 'laws', that govern how electricity must be handled. We usually understand, even without going to electrical training school, that no one should be so foolish as to think that they could be exempt from these principles of electricity just because they educated. It matters not whether one believes in these principles or not or even knows about them; if one chooses to mishandle powerful currents of electricity they will suffer the NATURAL consequences of any such mistake. And we would not be so silly as to accuse the wires or even the electric company of dark intentions against any such person who might suffer death or become damaged in such an event. We realize there is a difference between arbitrary enforcement of artificial laws versus natural consequences of violating natural laws.
This I believe is a key to help us see how love unlocks the true meaning of what happened with Ananias and Sapphira. Far from receiving severe punishment from an offended, angry deity bent on self-protection; Ananias and Sapphira encountered the natural consequences of making the fatal mistake of trying to live in contact with a highly charged atmosphere of supernatural power, a rare atmosphere found only in the intense presence of the agape love of God while remaining grounded to this world's principles. Thus the outcome of what happened to them can be properly perceived using the same logic we could use to see the foolishness of anyone grabbing a high power line while remaining grounded to earth.
But one is tempted by one's own desire, being lured and enticed by it; then, when that desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin, and that sin, when it is fully grown, gives birth to death. (James 1:14-15 NRSV)
This text identifies the real cause of death. But at the same time, it must be remembered that it is possible to actually live in an atmosphere of intense power, even with electricity if one is fully committed, i.e. fully disconnected from anything connected to earth. Does that have any parallel implications for us spiritually?
How many of us are pleading with God to unleash His power while failing to notice how many connections we maintain with the things of this world? How many of us insist that we are fully willing to be all God's while in our hearts we are still holding back things that are valuable to us? How many of us say we are willing to be completely transparent, totally sold out, completely submitted to God and yet still we secretly cling to private sins, practices, attitudes or even beliefs about God that serve as grounding points for us? Are we really safe experience the enormous power inherent in the presence of pure, passionate, agape love? Or may we too be lying to the Holy Spirit while professing loyalty?
We should be extremely grateful that God has not answered most of our prayers for His power up to this point. We should be tremendously relieved that He has been so patient and gracious as to not pour out His Holy Ghost power like He did back then, because He knows that to many of us would simply drop dead like Ananias and Sapphira when they saw how their hidden resistance to surrendering fully to agape love proved to become their very self-destruction. This is like what happens when a resistor is exposed to more electrical current than it can handle – it simply self-destructs.
It is very important for us to grasp the central truth in this story that those early believers and even onlookers quickly began to appreciate. While God was not the initiator of the death of these two deceivers, yet it was the potent power of God that was involved in their death. It was not God's plan for them to die so as to elicit fear as the motivation to keep others in line. God is love, and in pure love there is no fear at all. Study 1 John chapter 4 intently; soak in it, grasp it, let the heart begin to absorb the profound truths found there until the heart begins to see that God is not the one using violence to get His way. These individuals thought they could have the best of both worlds, but as seen in the laws of physics and high-voltage electricity, that is impossible to attempt without tragic results.
When we view this story from this perspective, it can start to become a beacon of hope for us just as it is reported in the aftermath of this tragic event. Far from being a setback for the early church, this sharp revelation of the purity and intensity of God's agape love enjoyed by those who had chosen to let go everything connected to 'ground', served as an even greater power to attract more who had been wondering if this gospel living was as good as it appeared. On the other hand it also explains the report that none of the rest dared to associate with them; however, the people held them in high esteem.
Given the NATURAL PRINCIPLE made explicitly plain by this experience of a couple who thought they could play with power and get away with it, everyone both inside and outside the church became keenly aware that one cannot live close to immense power and still disregard the governing principles or failing to respect how that power operates. In this case, it became very clear that if anyone wanted to experience all the benefits seen in the lives of those who had given themselves totally over to this amazing love as revealed by the good news about God, they had better be prepared to fully disengage from anything that would serve to link them to their former ways of thinking and living. And while it became plain that this was an all or nothing decision, the benefits and privileges were so stupendous and attractive that it is recorded that all the more believers in the Lord, multitudes of men and women, were constantly added to their number...
So long as we see this story as reinforcing negative implications about God's dealings with sinners, we will continue to also miss out on the exciting revelations contained in this passage that can open our eyes to our own dangers as well as our own potential to experience what that early church experienced. We sometimes work hard to increase the numbers of members attending our churches but yet fail to tap into the power of real love that attracted thousands into the early church without any use of high pressure tactics to convince people to change their allegiance to some list of doctrines.
I read almost nothing about the apostles preaching about a list of doctrines; but I do see them time and again preaching Jesus who was a shocking revelation of a God people had never imagined before. Something about the implications in what they proclaimed about Jesus had enormous attractive power to draw people like flies to want to experience what they saw these believers experiencing. They had an intimate, loving, selfless fellowship with each other and had the safety to mature in a community where everyone felt secure to be completely transparent without fear of being shamed, condemned belittled or guilted. And while this fellowship included accountability to each other as they were growing up into the perfect character that they saw in Christ, the methods used within that community of believers were radically different than the methods used by religion or by the world.
I long to be filled with this intense, even dangerous passion of God by becoming willing to let go of anything and everything that would endanger me while experiencing the full strength of the power of God's undiluted passion. I want to become a safe channel through which God can pour His Spirit of passionate love so that my life will become a flaming light to attract others to discover this same God for themselves.
I am tired of playing church, of keeping up appearances, of trying to be a good Christian and wondering how well I am doing by leaning on what others think of my performance. I am tired of muddling along in my dysfunction and not being able to make a real difference in the lives of those around me who are sick at heart and weary like myself of being bound by chains of Satan's lies and even oppression by demonic forces. I want to live joyfully in a community, a family of individuals that are all like-minded, super-charged with this love that I am starting to glimpse that draws my heart out toward the Object of my deepest affection for which it has so long yearned. I want to experience the healing power of this intense love that can annihilate every disease, eliminate every kind of pain, resolve every dysfunction and link my heart with others through the cords of His love as His healing grace restores me to wholeness in this community filled with true, agape love.
Bless the LORD, O my soul, and forget none of His benefits; Who pardons all your iniquities, Who heals all your diseases; Who redeems your life from the pit, Who crowns you with lovingkindness and compassion; Who satisfies your years with good things, so that your youth is renewed like the eagle. (Psalms 103:2-5)