Levites tended not to be very wealthy, since the tribe of Levi had been given no physical inheritance in the land. The Lord was to be their inheritance. That meant they were dependent, even to putting food on their table, on the gifts the people brought to the temple. There was no set salary. There were no guarantees. When the years were really lean, they could temporarily try to farm, but most of the time, they simply had to make do with whatever was given.
So, for Joseph, the Levite from Cyprus, to be wealthy is already unusual. It’s also unusual that he was from Cyprus (that’s a very important detail you should tuck away for later).
As you can see from the map, Cyprus was an island near the northernmost coastline of Palestine, actually what had been Phoenician territory—Tyre, Sidon, and Akko (which, though technically given to the tribe of Ashur, was never integrated into old Israel).
Cyprus itself was—and still is—a beautiful land, and a wealthy land. Well-known for its wine, ceramics, and dyes, Cyprus was the gateway into the Bay of Akko, and the connecting point between near east Asia, and western Europe. In the Diaspora, Joseph’s ancestors somehow ended up on this lovely isle, and, without the temple to tend, they must have developed other careers.
And Joseph was known for his gift of encouragement. In fact, people affectionately called him Barnabas, which is the Greek form of an Aramaic name meaning “Son of” (bar) consolation, or exhortation, or comfort. Luke wrote that he was a “good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith,” and a man of such dignity and authority the people of Lycaonia mistook him for the god Zeus. We’re going to see a lot of Barnabas in the Book of Acts.
Now, so far in these chapters, we’ve seen the Holy Spirit, come at Pentecost, and now indwelling every new believer, create a profound unity among the brethren. They had a greater desire to sacrifice and share with each other. They saw themselves as stewards of what God had given them, not owners. God gave them great power in their testimony, He gave them great grace in everything.
Barnabas himself was deeply affected. He saw the practical need for money to take care of those who had nothing. So, he sold some of his property and gave the money to the disciples to do with as they wished, no strings attached.
This left a considerable impression on everyone, but in particular on a married couple named Ananias and Saphira.
They must have admired Barnabas, along with everyone else, but they also must have felt somewhat envious of all the honor he received, and gratitude, and affection. They, too, wanted to get in on all the admiration and prestige of being viewed as one of the big donors. But, they didn’t really want to sacrifice like Barnabas, they just wanted people to think of them as giving like he did.
Having integrity means living what you truly believe, even if what you believe isn’t very popular.
Ananias and Sapphira lacked integrity. They had made a conscious choice to gain glory for themselves by pretending to be giving to God. No doubt everyone had been impressed by the size of Barnabas’ generous gift. But it wasn’t the size that would have mattered to God. God, as he so vividly put it once, owns all the cattle on a thousand hills. God can rustle up money when God needs it. It’s the heart that matters to God.
What we give is prompted by the Spirit, it’s an act of worship, a thanksgiving, and it is also an act of trust, that God will provide. It’s a conscious and intentional statement that our hands are open to give and to receive, as the sluice gate of a dam, the depths of God’s riches are ready to pour through us so long as we are open.
God gave Peter discernment into what was happening, and once again the Holy Spirit filled his mouth with what to say, “Ananias! Why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit? How is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You did not lie to us but to God!” The public accolades Ananias had been scheming for turned into horrifying public humiliation, as his plot was exposed.
But nothing prepared any of them for Ananias falling down dead, right in front of Peter. Horror turned to terror. What were they to make of this? Their Lord of love and life had seemingly struck dead one of their own. What did this mean for them? They dared not even consider what the risk of sin might now mean.
One way I make sense of this story is to see it not as God’s judgment on a man, but rather God’s severe rescue of Ananias, and judgment on Satan. God’s enemy had slipped into the intimacy of God’s restored relationship with His people, seeking to tear it apart again. The church had faced opposition from without, but now here was opposition from within. Ananias, if we accept what Jesus described, went straight from the floor at Peter’s feet into the arms of God Who loved him.
About three hours later, here came unsuspecting Sapphira. Peter tried to warn her, asking her if she was sure, sure, sure the sale of the land was the amount she was donating? Oh yes, yes that’s definitely the amount! Once again God’s judgment came down against Satan, and against the deceit that would have harmed the new church’s intimacy with God, by gathering Sapphira up to Paradise as her body fell dead before the horror-stricken gathering.
The church had great power and great grace. Now there was great fear, a deep awe and trembling reverence for the purity of God and His holiness. Later, no doubt remembering this early chapter in the life of the church, Peter would write,
Let none of you suffer as a murderer, a thief, a criminal, or even as a mischief maker. Yet if any of you suffers as a Christian, do not consider it a disgrace, but glorify God because you bear this name. For the time has come for judgment to begin with the household of God; if it begins with us, what will be the end for those who do not obey the gospel of God?1 Peter 4:15-17 (NRSV)
So, here we have the full cycle, again.
- The church had prayed together in Acts 4:31
- The Spirit filled them and they all “spoke the word of God with boldness”
- The Spirit worked powerfully among them as well, 4:32-36, for everyone took care of everyone
- And now came opposition from within
Which was now to be matched by persecution. Peter and John had not obeyed their official gag order, and the church was refuting the doctrines held by the Sadducees by claiming Jesus was resurrected and now alive. The religious rulers were filled with a teeth-grinding jealousy and envy at the amazing success of this movement. Their plan? Haul all twelve apostles to prison.
That oughtta do it!
The Sanhedrin thought they were shutting down the miracles. But, what they really did was to create the opportunity for another spectacular supernatural event—an angel releasing all the apostles from prison so they could preach and teach again in the temple!
So, having now jumped from the frying pan into the fire, the Sanhedrin became frenzied with fury. Gamaliel ended up being the one cool head in the room. (That’s another important data point to tuck away for later).
The big takeaway from this tumbly turvy chapter comes right at the end: As the twelve apostles left the council (and what, I wonder, did Matthias make of all this, the newest member of their crew?), they actually rejoiced that they were considered worthy to suffer dishonor for the sake of the name of Jesus.
[Death of Ananias | Jan Steen [Public domain]