The first few chapters indicates that there was remarkable growth in Jerusalem after Pentecost. But in Acts 5:13, Luke tells us “none of the rest dared join them, but the people held them in high esteem.” Even those within the church were greatly afraid.
For insiders, Spencer points out two factors which may have enhanced the fear of the church. Ananias and Sapphira were not outsiders who joined the church without fully understanding what they were getting into. These were part of the group who were “of one mind” in 4:32 and had decided to sell property to help the community. If these full members of the community were caught in a sin worthy of death, what of the rest of the group?
Second Spencer, draws a parallel to the shame of Adam and Eve. Ananias and Sapphira are the first of the new community to sin and be judged with death (75). While we know Jesus’ death atoned for sin, the earliest community had not worked out all of the implications of the death and resurrection and were quite seriously living with expectant hope in the return of the Lord almost immediately. They are the first “new covenant believers” to die, therefore any member of the community is in danger of not surviving to the return of Jesus.
Perhaps this is a result of the death of Ananias and Sapphira. Acts 5:11 says not only was the whole church greatly afraid, but anyone who heard about the deaths was also afraid. For outsiders, the deaths meant the Jesus movement dealt with infractions quite seriously indeed! It is likely the rumors of the untimely deaths of Ananias and Sapphira but a damper on evangelism, and no outsiders dared join them, although v. 14 says “more believers were added.”
Craig Keener understands the fear in 5:11 more positively, since fear is often a response to God’s work in Luke and Acts. He gives several examples both in Acts and other literature of the positive nature of “fear falling” on a person. But not all his data supports a positive response: Acts 19:17 indicates fear came on both Jews and Greeks in Ephesus as a result of the beating of the Sons of Sceva and the name of Jesus was extolled (μεγαλύνω, the same word as Acts 5:13). The people who were afraid were outsiders and the result is they spoke highly of God, but the text does not say they became disciples.
In fact, in Acts 5:13, Luke chooses a verb (κολλάω, kollao) which as the sense of clinging to something very closely. For example, dust clings to a cloak (Luke 10:11) or a man to his wife (Matt 19:5) or a man to a prostitute (1 Cor 6:9). The connection is of a very close, intimate relationship. Luke uses the term in Acts 17:34 to describe individuals who become disciples of Paul. The word appears in 1 Macc 3:2 with the same sense as the brothers of Judas Maccabees join their father to fight for Israel.
In Acts, it seems to me people outside of the apostolic community respected the apostles, but they were increasingly less likely to join in their community. Why? Perhaps they did not want to suffer the fate of Ananias and Sapphira, but it is also possible the growing popularity of the apostles inevitably would lead to confrontation with the Temple aristocracy. Keener suggests this fear may have even prevented other Christians from joining the apostolic community (2:1199).
There were other followers of Jesus who did not sell possessions to support the poor or go up to Solomon’s Portico to preach and teach. These were respectful but afraid of the community led by Peter and John and may have wanted to avoid confrontation with the authorities. Could one “accept Jesus as Messiah and Savior” without joining Peter’s community? Possibly, since Stephen and Philip seem to consciously expand the movement away from the Temple to the Hellenistic synagogue and later to the Samaritans.
Bibliography: F. Scott Spencer, “Scared to Death: The Rhetoric of Fear in the ‘Tragedy’ of Ananias and Sapphira.” Pages 63-80 in Reading Acts Today. London: T&T Clark, 2011.