Luke gives an ideal example: Joseph the Levite, also known as Barnabas (4:36) Barnabas is a significant figure in the book of Acts, introduced here as a member of the community at Jerusalem. Barnabas sold some property and turns the proceeds over to the apostles. This stands in contrast to Ananias in the next paragraph, who claims to do the same thing but is not telling the truth. Ananias also participated in communal living, but not fully (5:1-2) Taking the end of chapter four together with the beginning of chapter 5, it looks as though Barnabas and Ananias are intentionally place in contrast with each other.
Since the sale of property is voluntary, there is no reason for Ananias to lie about the price of the property – what is his motivation? Possibly he is simply motivated by greed, he did not want to give as much as the price of the property but when others gave the whole amount, he claimed a larger amount that he actually gave. Since Peter describes him as “filled with Satan” many scholars see him as parallel to Judas, another man who was filled with Satan, whose sin also include money (eventually) used to buy some land.
Ananias “held back” some of the money from the sale. The word Luke uses here (νοσφίζω) refers to financial fraud, such as embezzlement or “a type of skimming operation” (BDAG). The word is used for people who hold back some of their crops which are to be used for the public good (Diodorus Scourus, 5, 34, 3). A more surprising use of this word is in LXX Joshua 7:1, 19-26 to describe the sin of Aachen. In that text, Aachen holds back some property which was supposed to be devoted to the Lord. His theft is therefore described as stealing from the Lord.
Peter confronts Ananias and his judgment is immediate (5:3-6) Peter tells Ananias that Satan has filled his heart. How is this possible, if the Jerusalem community is was filled with the Holy Spirit? Was Ananias possessed, or does this language simply describe temptation? This must be parallel to the experience of Judas, who was the only other person in the gospels described as “filled by Satan.” Peter makes it clear that Ananias’ sin is against the Holy Spirit – his lie is not told to the apostles or the apostolic community, but to the Holy Spirit. His wife Sapphira also lies, and is likewise judged (5:7-11) Luke tells us about three hours have passed since Ananias died before Sapphira came to Peter. We know that Ananias acted with the full support of his wife. Just as the apostolic community is of “one mind and heart,” so too this couple was of one mind in heart.
The community in Jerusalem was like a new Israel. Like the original Israel, there is no room for the double-minded. Ananias is a negative example of someone not fully committed to the new community. Barnabas is fully committed, and will be a significant player in the missionary efforts of the earliest church.
The problem is how we “apply” this story to a present day church situation. I doubt very many churches use this text to prod people to “catch up” on their tithe or faith promise, but what reasons do we have for ignoring that aspect of the story? Usually we have to add a great deal to the story in order to make the story more applicable. Go watch this well done video on YouTube. The application is fine, but is this application what Luke intended?
Does God “strike people down” who lie/steal from the Church? (At least in my experience this does not happen, some televangelists would be in big trouble!)
What principles should we draw from the story?