Fresh Graves in the Churchyard

Acts 5:1-11

February 15, 2014 | Ray Pritchard

I still remember the first time I saw a dead person.

It happened when I was in junior high school and a classmate suddenly died. It shook me up because I had been to his home and he had been to mine. We were just typical good friends. And then he died.

The whole school was dismissed for the funeral. When I walked into the church sanctuary, I saw the open casket in front of the platform. I remember standing at the back of that crowded auditorium and seeing the outline of his face above the edge of the coffin. I was too scared to go up for a closer look.

Years later I was touched by death again when my father died just as I was starting seminary. One night my mom called to say that Dad was sick. A little over two weeks later he died. No event has ever shaken my life like my father’s death. It took me a long time come to grips with the fact that he was gone.

We all have our own way of coping with death. Mostly we avoid the subject if we can. No one ever says, “Come over to the house this Friday night. We’ll have pizza and talk about death.”

Death shocks us, scares us, and sobers us up. It forces us to confront the reality that someday we too will die.

But sometimes we can’t avoid it.

Sudden Death

Though the Bible is filled with stories about death, perhaps none is more shocking that the account we find in Acts 5:1-11. In the midst of the growth and blessing of the early church, we encounter sudden, unexplained, mysterious death.

This is the story of Ananias and Sapphira.
Perhaps it happened something like this . . .

Sunday dawned bright and beautiful in Jerusalem. Throughout the city, merchants began uncovering their wares and mothers began to feed their children. For most people, that Sunday promised to be just another day.

But for a certain group, Sunday was a special day they called the Lord’s Day. For them, the highlight of the day was the meeting of the church. They didn’t have their own building, just a borrowed room. And to that room on Sundays the believers came–happy, joyful, expectant.

They came prepared to sing, pray, rejoice, and give. Yes, to give. Those early Christians specialized in giving. They not only gave money but clothes, food, tools, and the title deed to property. Sometimes they sold their land and brought the money to the church.

The early Christians loved to give!

As the morning sun rose in the sky, the believers made their way to the meeting. Among their number was a man called Ananias. He like the others brought his offering with him. I imagine it went something like this: Peter stood up and said, “Now if anyone has an offering, let him come forward.” Ananias shuffled up to the front and said, “I had some property outside the city, a beautiful little piece of pasture land. I sold it last week for $300. Here is the money.” With that he took his leather coin bag, turned it upside down, and emptied the contents on the table. The coins tumbled out, clinking together on the hardwood top. He turns to go back to his seat, satisfied with himself and his gift.

Sensing something is wrong, Peter speaks to him:

“Stop, Ananias, you are a liar. Satan has filled your heart so that you have lied to the Holy Spirit. You have kept back part of the price of the land.”

It was true. Ananias had indeed sold the land, but perhaps he sold it for $800, kept $500 for himself, and gave $300 to the church. He and his wife Sapphira had talked it over and decided that was the best thing to do. After all, they really needed the money, but they wanted to leave the impression that they had given the full amount.

Ananias lied about what his gift represented

Ananias turns to say something but his face betrays him. His lip quivers, his face flushes, he opens his mouth but the words won’t come out.

Peter speaks again.

“Why did you do it? Why did you lie to us? Why did you act like you had given everything when you had only given a part? You didn’t have to lie. You didn’t have to give anything. The money was yours to give or keep. What made you do it, Ananias? You have not lied to men but to God.”

As he heard those words, Ananias doesn’t know that he will be dead in a few seconds. He raises his arm to speak, when suddenly he falls to the ground with a moan. He is dead before he hits the floor.

A dead man in the church service!

It had never happened before. No one said a word, then someone screamed, “He’s dead!” A crowd gathers around the crumpled form on the floor. One of the men bends over and touches the warm body, the eyes wide open in the terror of sudden death, the face still flushed with shame.

Ananias had gotten up in the morning happy and content. He had his wife, his home, and money to spend. He put his clothes on, got his money, and set off for church. When he arrived, he shook hands with the greeters and took his normal seat, three rows from the front. When they sang the Psalms, he sang along. When they prayed, he prayed. When the time came for the offering, he was the first in line. When he stood up to come forward with his money, he had less than a minute to live.

Now he lay dead on the floor, struck down by the hand of God.

This story is for insiders, not outsiders

After the initial shock wore off, Peter motioned for the young men to come forward. “Get him out of here.” They covered his limp body with a rough woolen blanket. His feet stuck out from the end.

Two of them went around by his head, each grabbing an arm. Two more went to the feet. Two went to the midsection. Slowly they lifted the corpse of Ananias off the floor. His head rolled from side to side, his hands dangled from limp arms. They drug the body off as if it were a sack of heavy grain.

Through the back door and down the stairs they labored with the body, now slipping, now stumbling, barely managing to make it outside. In the back of the building was a small plot of ground. They laid Ananias down and found a shovel. They dug a shallow grave, heaved the body into it, and covered it with a mound of dirt. Their mission accomplished, they turned and left without a backward glance.

Beautiful Sapphira

But the story is not over. It is still bright and hot, now the middle of the afternoon, about three hours later. The shock was so great that word has not spread very far. Sudden death. Now no one wants to leave the building. They stay and talk and wonder about it all.

In walks Sapphira. Her name means “Beautiful,” and evidently she was. They stared at her, thinking she would be wearing black, would be tear-stained, would be nearly hysterical. But no, she smiles, laughs, greets her friends. Suddenly, it dawns on all of them at once. She doesn’t know! She hasn’t heard!

Sapphira means “beautiful”

Before anyone can tell her, she walks up to greet Peter. The apostle looks her straight in the eye and asks the one question she doesn’t want to hear. “Did you sell that land for $300?”

She gasps, blinks her eyes, and looks away. A tinge of guilt plays on her conscience, but she manages to look at Peter and say, “Yes, that was the price.”

Like her late husband, she turns to go to her seat, but Peter stops her in her tracks.

“Why have you agreed together to put the Spirit of the Lord to the test? Why have you told this lie? Look, Sapphira, look at the door. Do you see the feet of those young men? Those feet carried your husband out. Now they will carry you.”

For a tiny moment her face looks startled, then contorts into a grimace. She dropped to the floor with a gasping moan. Now pandemonium breaks loose. Women are screaming, children crying, people dashing for the exit. Two people dead in one day. It was scarcely 3:00 p.m.

Peter turned and motioned with his arm to the young men. By now accustomed to their grisly task, they take another rough cloth and wrap it around the warm corpse. They carry Sapphira out the door, down the stairs, into the backyard. There they begin to dig another shallow grave, the hot Judean sun burning their backs as they hacked away at the hard brown clay. Sweat dripped from their foreheads, past their eyes, down their noses and dropped to the ground.

Finally, the hole was deep enough. No ceremonies, no prayer, no Bible reading. Just roll the body over, pack in the dirt, and make a small mound above the body. After burying Sapphira next to Ananias, they turned and walked away, hoping that no one else would die in church that day.

Two people died in church that day!

Acts 5:11 tells what happened when word spread throughout Jerusalem: “Great fear came upon the whole church, and upon all who heard of these things.”

That Sunday had dawned bright and clear and hopeful.
It is not yet sundown and there are two fresh graves in the churchyard.

That’s the story. It is simple enough. Chilling, macabre, frightening. No Halloween tale can match this true account. If death scares us, then the story of Ananias and Sapphira stops us cold.

Why Did They Die?

That brings us to a crucial question that can be asked different ways:

Why did they die?
What did they do that was so terrible?
Why did God single them out for judgment?

It is easier to answer in the negative.

Beware of the sin of pretended commitment

First, they did not die simply because they told a lie. True, they did intentionally lie. They conspired together to deceive people. But it’s not just the fact of the lie. If God routinely killed people for telling lies, then most of us wouldn’t make it through another day. The undertakers would become overnight millionaires. Lying is a sin, and it is punished by God, but that’s not the whole story here.

Second, they did not die because they held back part of the money. True, they kept some of the money for themselves. But Peter makes it crystal clear that they had every right to do so. When the early Christians gave everything they had, they did it voluntarily. This is not a text to prove the dangers of not giving 100% of our money. If it were, then none of us would survive the offering next Sunday morning.

There is something much deeper than that in this story. Something that touches very close to home, something that makes me look in the mirror and hold my life up for inspection.

So why did they die?

When Ananias and Sapphira brought their offering, they gave the impression that it represented 100% of the purchase price. Anyone watching would have said, “What wonderful Christians, they have given all they have.” That’s what they wanted people to think. Apparently they thought God would be fooled too. That was their great sin. That is why they died.

This is not just about lying

They tried to fool the church.
They tried to fool God.
And they dropped dead in their tracks for it.

Here is a fact worth pondering. The sin of hypocrisy always starts on the inside. A hypocrite on the outside was a hypocrite on the inside first. That’s what makes it so dangerous. It’s not always easy to spot.

Hyprocrisy starts on the inside

The warning of Ananias and Sapphira is a warning for church members, not for the disinterested. It’s a warning for insiders, not for outsiders. It’s a warning for the saved, not for the lost. It’s a warning for me and for you.

The more religious you are, the easier it is to be like Ananias and Sapphira. I say that simply because Christianity involves both the inward and the outward. It’s easy for us to go through the religious motions with little heart commitment.

The distance between us and them may not be as big as we think. Not that I think we are likely to drop dead in church next Sunday. We might, but it doesn’t happen very often. In thirty-five years of ministry, I’ve seen people get sick, pass out, and in one or two cases apparently have a heart attack, but I’ve never seen anyone drop dead in church.

It could happen, but it’s not a common thing.
We could be just like Ananias and Sapphira and live to be 99.
God isn’t obligated to kill us like he killed them.

Back Door Revival

That leads me to my final point. On a first reading of the text, it seems fearful, as if God was sending a warning from heaven. And of course that’s exactly the right response. If we can read this text and not be afraid, then we need to read it again . . . slowly. Remember that “great fear” came upon everyone who heard about this (Acts 5:11).

We need a “back door” revival

The whole church got scared.
But so did their neighbors.

All the non-Christians who knew Ananias and Sapphira got scared when they heard about it. I remember a remark made by a friend who taught elementary school back in the day when you could spank the students. “Spank one boy,” he said, “and 300 other kids sit up straight.”

Note what happens immediately after this double death in church:

  1. No one wanted to join the Christians even though they were highly regarded (v. 13).
  2. Many men and women believed and were added to their number (v. 14).

In other words, something like a revival broke out in Jerusalem. Once the shock wore off, people respected the Christians even more because they realized God was with them so eventually many more were saved and joined their number.

A revival broke out in Jerusalem!

William Arnot tells us what this really means:

“The judgment that fell on Ananias and Sapphira is of the nature of a miracle. A true miracle is never wrought unless there is a worthy object to be attained” (The Church in the House, p. 121).

We probably don’t think of this as a miracle but Arnot is right. The “worthy object” to be attained is the purity and unity of the church. God cares so much about purity and unity that he will make an extreme example of Ananias and Sapphira so that the lesson would be tattooed on the soul of the early church.

When G. Campbell Morgan wrote about this passage, he drew an important conclusion:

“The church pure is the church powerful. It has always been so. Mathematics have no place in the economy of God, numbers are nothing; quality is everything” (Acts of the Apostles, p. 157).

We used to talk about a “back door revival” where God cleansed the church by removing some people who didn’t need to be there. That’s exactly what happened to Ananias and Sapphira. Their sudden death was a kind of “severe mercy” from the Lord because it made the church stronger, caused more people to fear the Lord, increased respect in the community, and led to more people being saved and joining the company of believers.

The church pure is the church powerful

That’s how God builds his church.
That’s how God cares for his church.
That’s how God protects his church.

God will be praised even in the death of hypocritical church members.
What seems like harsh judgment turns out to be surprising grace.

So here are two lessons for us to ponder:

You can’t fool God so don’t even try.
God’s discipline yields gracious fruit.

Don’t be like Ananias and Sapphira!

We can say this another way.

Don’t be like Ananias and Sapphira.
Give God time to make his purposes clear.

The words of William Cowper (writing in 1774) put this strange story in its proper perspective:

Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
But trust him for his grace;
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face.

Many of us face what seems to be a “frowning providence” at this very moment. But the ways of God go far beyond our “feeble sense.” What seemed to be disaster for the church in Jerusalem became a channel for much greater blessing. Sudden death led to fear that led to new respect that led to new interest in the gospel. Those fresh graves in the churchyard were the seeds of a harvest yet to come.

What a God we serve!
He judges and then he blesses.
If we do not lose heart, we will see his goodness overflowing to us.

Let God be God and all will be well.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?