Acts 5:3 – The Lie against the Holy Spirit
Then Peter said, ‘Ananias, how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit....’Acts 5:3
The terrible events of Acts 5:1-11 show a sharp contrast to the life of the early church in Jerusalem as recorded at the end of chapter 4. Twice do we find in Acts such a description of the life of the congregation (cf. Acts 2:41-47). It is not without reason that Luke records these descriptions in his second book. In this way he wants to show us that God’s Word, through the witness of the apostles, bears rich fruit. In Jerusalem a congregation is established, marked especially by unity and mutual fellowship.
This was not a matter of course. It was the miracle of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Pentecost. He created the bond with the Lord Jesus and so also with each other as brothers and sisters. In Jerusalem it was made visible that the church is the communion of saints, of which we confess in the Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 21, “that believers, all and everyone, as members of Christ have communion with Christ and share in all his treasures and gifts” and that therefore “everyone is duty-bound to use his gifts readily and cheerfully for the benefit and well-being of the other members”.
The Holy Spirit caused them to be one in heart and mind. He also gave them a new mind-set with respect to their possessions. The brothers and sisters in Jerusalem knew that their possessions belonged to Christ, and that they with their possessions had a place in the congregation. That conviction made them have all things in common. This did not mean that all their possessions were joint property with everybody else. But it did mean that with their own possessions they wanted to serve and help others. Led by the Spirit they understood that Christ wants to make life in the congregation a feast for everyone. That was the reason why, when a certain need arose, they sold plots of land or houses and laid the proceeds of the sale at the apostles’ feet. From the verbal form Luke uses in Acts 4:34 it is apparent that this happened repeatedly, time and again. The brothers and sisters in Jerusalem really lived as Spiritual people. They were led by the Spirit, also with respect to their financial resources.
As a prime example of such a Spiritual man, Luke mentions Joseph whom the apostles had surnamed Barnabas (which means Son of Encouragement). He knew how to encourage, not only with words, but with deeds as well. He sold a field he owned and brought the money and laid it at the apostles’ feet.
Over against this wonderful example of Joseph-Barnabas, the actions of Ananias and Sapphira form a sharp contrast. They too fulfill the spiritual trio of selling, bringing and laying at the apostles’ feet. But in all this they are hiding a horrible falsehood, a terrible lie.
The sin of this couple was not that they did not give all they had. The apostle Peter tells Ananias explicitly, “Didn’t it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn’t the money at your disposal?” No one in the congregation was forced to sell his own possessions. But the sin of Ananias and Sapphira was that they pretended to give everything while secretly they kept part of the proceeds for themselves. Peter’s judgment of their behavior shows us how serious their sin was: Satan, God’s great adversary, has filled the heart of Ananias and his wife to lie to the Holy Spirit. When God’s work of salvation is gloriously revealed, then Satan is always there to counteract. This happened also in the life of the congregation in Jerusalem. The unity worked by the Spirit of Pentecost has to be broken. Satan uses Ananias and Sapphira to accomplish this.
They were not helpless victims of the evil one. We hear a very clear accusation in Peter’s words. Ananias and Sapphire allowed Satan to fill their hearts. In their deliberations they did not let themselves be governed by the Holy Spirit but by the spirit of the abyss. That is how they came to lie to the Holy Spirit. They gave the appearance of being better than they were, by pretending to give all they had. This lie was not merely a sin against men, against the apostles and the members of the congregation, but a sin against the Holy Spirit. Ananias and Sapphira played games with the work of the Holy Spirit. They acted as if they were filled with the Holy Spirit exactly like Joseph-Barnabas was. This game served their pride and selfish ambition; in their deceit they sought the praise of men.
I do not think we should label them complete hypocrites. Scripture does not warrant that. Peter does not expose them as pseudo-Christians but condemns what they have done. Their act of selling and laying the money at the feet of the apostles was untruthful. By that falsehood they gave Satan a foothold and lied to the Holy Spirit.
When the apostle Peter admonishes Sapphira, he even speaks of “tempting” the Spirit of the Lord. He accuses her, “How could you agree to test the Spirit of the Lord?” By their deceit Ananias and Sapphira tempted, provoked the Spirit of Christ. This was probably not their intention. But, without covering up anything, Peter says exactly what it comes down to. With their actions they have tempted the Spirit to see if he would notice their deception and tolerate their selfish ambition.
Both are disillusioned. The Spirit exposes them by the mouth of the apostle Peter. A sudden judgment is executed: they fall dead at Peter’s feet.
In the congregation of Christ we are not just dealing with people but with the Holy Spirit. He lives in the congregation and unites her into one body. Anyone in the congregation, who seeks his own glory with pious words and gestures, is busy deceiving the Spirit. He sins against the Spirit who wants to make life beautiful and glorious in the church. What happened in the young church right after Pentecost is a warning for us: If our works and activities for the church and kingdom are not done out of true love, then all our busyness is a tempting of the Spirit of Christ.
His wrath is kindled against that. For he is the Holy Spirit, who does not tolerate the lie in his house.