Acts Chapter Five by Rev. Dr. Nadine Burton

Acts Chapter Five

“But if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them” (Acts 5:39a)

In Acts chapter five, the plot thickens. Ananias and Sapphira died because they withheld a portion of the proceeds from the sale of their land. Ananias came in first and presented the monies to the Apostles. Peter asked Ananias why satan filled his heart to hold back part of the proceeds. Peter suggests that he lied to the Holy Spirit, and not to them. When Ananias heard these words, he dropped dead. He didn’t have time to explain, apologize or repent. “Repentance is both a human act and gift of God.”[i] The young men carried him out and buried him. 

Three hours later, Sapphira came in. Peter questioned her, asking if the sum of money was what she and her husband received from the sale. She said, “Yes that was the price.”  Peter asked, “why is it that you have agreed together to put the Spirit to the test?” I guess she did not have time to respond or repent, either. Peter asked her to look at the feet of those who had carried and buried her husband, as they were waiting to carry her out. At that moment, she fell dead, and they carried her out and buried her next to her husband. What about the ceremonial burial rituals during that time? I have my hermeneutical suspicions here.   

You may want to read Boring and Craddock’s perspective on problems and considerations within this story,   i.e., objectifying literal history in the bible, God’s attitude of judgement against human sin, and the entrapment drama of Sapphira by the church. We must be careful with the “lack of compassion shown to these individuals, which is not the way of Jesus’ teaching on compassion and forgiveness (See Luke 17:3-4; 23:34).”[ii]

Those who heard what happened were afraid, and fear seized the whole church. It was not a fear of death, but a reverence of being in the presence of God. “This is what Ananias and Sapphira lacked, they supposed that they were only dealing with human beings, as when people, inside and outside the church, suppose that the church is only a human institution, worthy cause or organization.”[iii] 

Many other signs and wonders were done through the Apostles. The church was together in Solomon’s Portico. However, the church had grown by the thousands, and we cannot assume that the whole church was there together. Many sick folks were healed. Believers were added to the church. They carried the sick into the streets, laid them on cots and mats, hoping that they would be healed by Peter’s passing shadow. People brought those who were sick and tormented by unclean spirits, and they were all cured. “Luke, who distinguishes Christian faith from superstition and magic, understands these to be expressions of the power and presence of God in the church.”[iv]  The high priest and the sect of the Sadducees were filled with jealousy. They had the Apostles arrested and put in prison.

During the night, an angel helps them to escape and charges them to go and stand in the temple and tell the people the whole story about life. “The Christian message is not merely speculative doctrine about God and Jesus, but it has to do with life: the purpose and meaning of life, and how to live. A message claiming to be Christian but unrelated to ethics is no Christian gospel (see 2:28).”[v]   When the officials went to retrieve them from the prison, they did not find them there. The doors to the prison were locked and secure, but there was no one in there. Someone came and reported that the men who were arrested were in the temple preaching and teaching. There is no other mention of the miraculous escape from prison.

They brought them before the high priest, the body of elders of Israel, and the Sanhedrin council. This time the temple police and captain brought them without violence because they were afraid the people would stone them. The high priest said, “Did we tell you not to preach and teach anymore in this name?” He felt that the men were determined to bring blood on his hands for what happened to Jesus.

Here is their answer to the high priest’s question. “We must obey God rather than any human authority.”  Everyone wants to obey God, but how do we discern that what we hear and see is of God? The Sanhedrin wanted to obey God as well, by keeping religious revolutions and heresies minimized. They thought they were followers of God. Peter, speaking for all the Apostles and witnesses to Jesus Christ, tells the story of how the God of the ancestors raised him from the dead. “In Luke’s view, the Holy Spirit witnesses to the truth of the wonders that occur in the life of the church, but also in and through the obedience of those who respond to the Christian message.”[vi]

When the religious leaders heard this, they were enraged and wanted to kill them. Gamaliel, a teacher of the law (Paul also studied under him), stood up and suggested a laissez-faire policy on how to respond to the new Christian Sect. He used examples of Theudas, who rose for a time and was eventually killed, and Judas the Galilean, who rose up during the census and got people to follow him and eventually perished.   He charged the council to keep away from the men “because if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail, but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them – in that case you may even be found fighting against God!” Gamaliel’s words were persuasive. His point was that “God will empower the true deliverer and his followers so that they cannot be destroyed, but false claims will perish in the ordinary course of history.”[vii]

They called the Apostles in again, flogged them, ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go. The Apostles rejoiced that they were considered worthy to suffer dishonor for the sake of the name. This did not stop them from preaching and teaching Jesus as the Messiah. “The question throughout is not “who is Jesus? But who is the Messiah, the Savior sent from God (See 3:20).” [viii]

Dear God:  There are some difficulties in this chapter. Open our hearts to study and hear the message that we need to hear from this reading. We thank you that the story of Jesus as Savior continued throughout history, giving us the opportunity to hear and respond in obedience to follow his teachings. Amen.   

[i] Boring and Craddock, pg. 384.

[ii] Ibid., pg. 381.

[iii] Ibid., pg. 382.

[iv] Ibid., pg. 383.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Ibid., pg. 384.

[vii] Ibid., pg. 385.

[viii] Ibid.