Acts 5 contains two major accounts: Ananias and Sapphira (1-11) and the apostles’ miraculous ministry and run-in with the Sanhedrin (12-42). In the opening verses, we see two members of the newly formed church pretend to be more generous than they actually were. Their hypocrisy is considered a direct affront to God (“lied . . . to God”—4; “test the Spirit of the Lord”—9). The consequences of their actions are lethal for them and instructive to the church. This sad scenario doesn’t stop the momentum of the new church. The apostles preach and heal many in Jerusalem, leading to the continued growth of the church. The jealous religious leaders have them jailed. But before they can be brought to trial, an angel miraculously delivers them and instructs them to return to the Temple and continue their teaching. The next day, the apostles are once again arrested and. this time, successfully brought before the Sanhedrin. Showing no cowardice, the apostles proclaim the good news of Jesus—which is bad news to the religious leaders. While the leaders want to have the Christians killed, they are cautioned by Gamaliel, and settle for having them flogged. The apostles, rejoicing that “they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name”(41), continue their very public ministry of preaching the “good news that Jesus is the Christ” (42).
The story of Ananias and Sapphira continues the discussion of life within the church, showing the shadow side of the sincerity and generosity discussed in 4:32-37. Ananias and Sapphira’s actions contrast those of Barnabas. Both sold land and brought money to the apostles to be used for meeting needs in the church. Ananias and Sapphira however, devise a plan to look more generous than they were. They claimed to give the total proceeds from the sale, but kept back some of the money for themselves. Their sin was not their decision to give only part of the money; their sin was being deceptive about their giving.
I want to allow the point of the passage to hit me in fresh ways. Lord, are there ways I am pretending to be better than I am living? Am I conspiring with my wife (or anyone else) to create an image that doesn’t match reality? Am I living for the praise of people even if it means “lying to God” and “testing the Spirit of the Lord”? Where am I tempted to do this? Where am I most vulnerable to hypocrisy?
One further note about the first eleven verses: here is biblical evidence that biblical submission does not expect a woman to follow her husband into sinful behaviour. While the couple “agree to test the Spirit of the Lord” (9), the text points to Ananias as the leader in this scam. Verse 2 says “with his wife’s full knowledge he kept back part of the money”; the wording points to his leadership in the plan. Peter gave Sapphira a chance to come clean and do the right thing when he had a private conversation with her three hours after Ananias died (7). She lied, continuing the cover-up, and experienced the same judgment as her husband (10). The implication is that she should have refused to join in her husband’s sin. A wife is to submit to her husband “as to the Lord” (Eph. 5:22). The phrase “as to the Lord” clarifies (points to the attitude) and qualifies (establishes the limits) the command to submit. A wife, when asked to go against what the Lord would want and engage in sinful behavour, is to echo the words that Peter speaks later in the chapter: “[I] must obey God rather than men” (29). Another clear implication is that husbands are never to ask their wives to do what God would forbid believers to do. If we are to be a small picture of Christ’s love for his Church, we must remember Christ never leads his bride away from the will of God. Neither must we.
Beginning in verse 12, we have an extended section that details the growing church and growing opposition to the church in Jerusalem. Verses 12-16 describe the faithful teaching and miraculous healings done by the apostles. The Lord answered their prayer: “Stretch out your hand to heal and perform miraculous signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus” (4:30). People with sickness and evil spirits flock to Jerusalem from surrounding towns, and “all of them were healed” (16). Word on the street causes people to line the streets, even hoping Peter’s shadow would fall on them (we’re not told if this led to further healings).
The growing church was “highly regarded by the people” (literally “magnified”—13) and highly threatening to the jealous Jewish leaders (“filled with jealousy”—17). Luke records a paradox in verses 13-14: “no one else dared join them” and “more and more men and women believed in the Lord and were added to their number.” On one hand, the church was seen as frightening; on the other, it was inviting. People realized that there could be a cost in associating with this upstart movement (“feared to join them” may speak of the “fear of the authorities”). But in spite of the cost, the church grew.
Lord, what would it take for the church in our land to regain this kind of reputation and magnetism. Please give us Spirit-filled, fearless leaders who bear witness to Jesus and point people to Him. Please stretch out your hand to do the mighty and miraculous, showing people your life-changing power (physically, emotionally and spiritually).
Luke’s retelling of the arrest, jailbreak, re-arrest, and punishment of the apostles covers the rest of the chapter (17-42). This time, instead of just Peter and John being put in prison, “the apostles” are arrested—presumably the entire group of twelve (or at least a large percentage of them). Verse 17 highlights the motive for the roundup: the religious leaders were “filled with jealousy” at the power and popularity of the followers of Jesus. So they go after the leaders to try and decapitate the movement.
During the night, an angel of the Lord miraculously springs them free (“an angel of the Lord opened the doors of the jail and brought them out”—19). This must have been done without commotion, perhaps by causing the jailors to sleep deeply (as in Acts 12).
The next morning, when the authorities send for the apostles, the jail doors are still locked tight and the guards are “standing at the doors” (23). But rather than instruct the apostles to hide or leave Jerusalem, the angel commands them to go back to the Temple (the scene of the “crime”) and resume teaching about Jesus. Specifically, they are told to “tell the people the full message of this new life” (20). Literally, the text reads the “sayings of this life.” The phrase could mean the specific teachings that are part of the Christian life. It could also mean the teachings of Jesus (He is the way, the truth, and the life—John 14:6). Functionally, the meaning would be the same: the teachings of Jesus about the life He offers to all people. This shows that the message of the apostles was not simply a witness of the reality of the resurrection but also an explanation of Jesus’ words as they relate to His way of life.
At daybreak on the next morning, the apostles return to the Temple to obey the angel’s instruction; predictably they are re-arrested and brought before the Sanhedrin, who are now in a really bad mood.
When interrogated and reprimanded, “Peter and the other apostles” give a classic (and convicting) reply: “We must obey God rather than men” (29). Here is the principle of a higher authority—when human laws conflict with God’s commands, believers must choose to obey God though it means disobeying human authority. This is the exception to Paul’s teaching that we are to “submit . . . to human authorities”(Romans 13:1). There is a place for disobedience to the state, even though this will be seen as political subversion and criminal rebellion.
In spite of hearing a clear gospel presentation (30-32), the religious leaders are “furious” and want to execute the apostles (33). Not all who hear the gospel are moved to respond with repentance and faith; some respond with fury and hate. Blinded eyes, heart hearts, and enraged emotions can lead to deadly force. The story could have ended with the elimination of the twelve apostles (actually 11 plus Matthias) that Jesus has spent three years training. But a wise, respected rabbi named Gamaliel (the one who trained Saul/Paul) talked sense into them. God used an unbeliever to preserve his leaders.
Gamaliel gave an insightful warning to the Jewish leaders: “For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God” (39).
What a theologically accurate and ministry-helpful insight. If our activity is only human in its origin—if it was something we dreamed up—it will fail. However, if we are engaged in work that is “from God”—originated and empowered by Him—it is unstoppable. God accomplishes His purposes. As the psalmist put it: “Our God is in heaven; he does whatever pleases him” (Psalm 115:3).
Lord, may I spend my life doing what is “from God.” May I listen until I hear your voice and then step out in obedience to “obey God rather than men.” This doesn’t ensure ease of accomplishment (there may be jail terms and beatings along the way), but it does promise ultimate success. God will accomplish His will on earth as it is in heaven.