The couple sat at the kitchen table and stared at the fifteen-thousand-dollar check. The silence was a respite. The last half hour had been twelve rounds of verbal jabs and uppercuts. She blamed him for the idea. “You just had to give the money away.”
He snapped back, “You didn’t complain when everyone clapped for you at church, now did you?”
“Who would have thought that piece of dirt would bring this kind of price?”
Ananias hadn’t expected to get fifteen thousand dollars. Ten thousand at best. Eight thousand at least. But fifteen thousand for an undeveloped acre off a one-lane road south of Jerusalem? He had inherited the property from his Uncle Ernie, who had left this note with the will: “Hang on to the land, Andy. You never know. If the road expands from one lane to four, you’ve got a nest egg.”
So Ananias had taken the advice, locked the deed in a safe, and never thought about it until Sapphira, his wife, got wind of a generous deed done by Barnabas.
“He sold his beachfront condo and gave the money to the church.”
“You’re kidding. The condo in Jaffa?”
“That’s what I heard.”
“Whoa, that’s prime real estate.”
Ananias knew Barnabas from Rotary. Of course, everyone knew Barnabas.
The guy had more friends than the temple had priests. Ananias couldn’t help but notice the tone people used when discussing Barnabas’s gift. Respect. Appreciation. It would be nice to be thought of that way.
So he mentioned the acre to Sapphira. “We’re never going to build on it. I’m sure we can get eight thousand dollars. Let’s give the money to the church.”
“All of it?”
They would have been better off just doing it, just keeping their mouths shut and giving the gift. They didn’t need to tell a soul. But Ananias never excelled at mouth management.
During the next Sunday’s worship service, the apostle Peter opened the floor for testimonials and prayer requests. Ananias popped up and took his place at the front.
“Sapphira and I’ve been blessed beyond words since coming here to the Jerusalem church. We want to say thank you. We are selling an acre, and we pledge to give every mite to the Widows’ Fund.”
The congregation, several thousand members strong, broke into applause. Ananias gestured for Sapphira to wave . . . she did. She stood and turned a full circle and blew a kiss toward Ananias. He returned the gesture and then saluted Peter. But Peter was not smiling. Ananias chose not to think much of it and stepped back to his seat. Later that night he called a real-estate agent and listed the property. He fell asleep with the thought of a foyer named after him.
Uncle Ernie’s hunch about road expansion was spot-on. Two land developers wanted the property. Neither winced at the ten-thousand-dollar price tag. By the time the bidding was finished, the couple had a check for fifteen thousand.
So they sat at their kitchen table in silence. Sapphira stirred her coffee.
“What if we tell them we sold the property for just ten thousand dollars?”
“Who has to know?”
Ananias thought for a moment. “Yeah, we’ll just let everyone think we closed at ten thousand. That way we get credit for the gift and a little cash for something special.”
She smiled. “Like a five-thousand-dollar down payment on a Jaffa condo?”
“No harm in that.”
“No harm at all.”
And so on the following Sunday, Ananias stood in front of the church again.
He waved a check and announced, “We sold the property for ten thousand dollars!” and he placed the check in the offering basket. He basked in the applause, signaled for Sapphira to stand. She did.
They thought their cover-up was a success.
On Sunday afternoon the apostles called Ananias to a meeting.
“They surely want to thank us,” he told Sapphira as he tightened his necktie.
“Probably wondering if we’d be self-conscious at a recognition banquet.”
“I’d be okay with one,” she assured him.
He smiled and walked out the door, never thinking he wouldn’t return.
According to Luke the meeting lasted only long enough for Peter to ask four questions and render a single verdict.
Question 1: “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and keep back part of the price of the land for yourself?” (Acts 5:3). So much for the cover-up. Luke’s phrase for keep back means “misappropriate.” The apostles sniffed out the couple’s scheme for what it was: financial fraud.
Question 2: “While it remained, was it not your own?” (v. 4). No one forced the couple to sell the property. They acted of their own accord and free will.
Question 3: “After it was sold, was it not in your own control?” (v. 4). At any point the couple could have changed their minds or altered their contribution. The sin was not in keeping a portion of the proceeds but in pretending they gave it all. They wanted the appearance of sacrifice without the sacrifice.
Question 4: “Why have you conceived this thing in your heart?” (v. 4). This deceitful act was not an impulsive stumble but a calculated, premeditated swindle. Ananias had every intention of misleading the church. Did he not realize he was lying to God?
Peter made it clear with this verdict: “‘You have not lied to men but to God.’
Then Ananias, hearing these words, fell down and breathed his last” (vv. 4–5).
The body of Ananias was wrapped and buried before Sapphira had any clue what had happened. When she came to meet with Peter, she expected a word of appreciation. Peter gave her a chance to come clean.
“Tell me whether you sold the land for so much” (v. 8).
(Come on, Sapphira, tell the truth. You’re in over your head. Just shoot straight, and you may live to tell about it.) She doesn’t.
“Yes, for so much.”
“How is it that you have agreed together to test the Spirit of the Lord? Look, the feet of those who have buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out” (vv. 8–9).
As they carry Sapphira to join her husband in the cemetery, we shake our heads. Dare we wonder out loud what we’re wondering inside? Ask the question we all think? Since no one else will ask it, I will.
Was that really necessary?
Ananias and Sapphira deserved punishment, for sure. They deserved a stiff sentence. But the death sentence? Does the punishment fit the crime? What they did was bad, but was it that bad?
Let’s think about it. Exactly what did they do?
They used the church for self-promotion. They leveraged God’s family for personal gain. They attempted to turn a congregation into a personal stage across which they could strut.
God has a strong word for such behavior: hypocrisy. When Jesus used it, people ducked for cover. He lambasted the Pharisees with this blowtorch:
All their works they do to be seen by men . . . They love the best places at feasts, the best seats in the synagogues, greetings in the marketplaces, and to be called by men, “Rabbi, Rabbi.” . . . But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut up the kingdom of heaven against men . . . Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you devour widows’ houses, and for a pretense make long prayers . . . You cleanse the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of extortion and self-indulgence. (Matt. 23:5–7, 13–14, 25)
Jesus never spoke to anyone else with such intensity. But when he saw the religious hypocrite, he flipped on the spotlight and exposed every self-righteous mole and pimple. “They love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men” (Matt. 6:5).
This is the working definition of hypocrisy: “to be seen by men.” The Greek word for hypocrite, hypokritēs, originally meant “actor.” First-century actors wore masks. A hypocrite, then, is one who puts on a mask, a false face.
Jesus did not say, “Do not do good works.” Nor did he instruct, “Do not let your works be seen.” We must do good works, and some works, such as benevolence or teaching, must be seen in order to have an impact. So let’s be clear. To do a good thing is a good thing. To do good to be seen is not. In fact, to do good to be seen is a serious offense. Here’s why.
Hypocrisy turns people away from God. When God-hungry souls walk into a congregation of wannabe superstars, what happens? When God seekers see singers strut like Las Vegas entertainers . . . When they hear the preacher—a man of slick words, dress, and hair—play to the crowd and exclude God . . .
When other attendees dress to be seen and make much to-do over their gifts and offerings . . . When people enter a church to see God yet can’t see God because of the church, don’t think for a second that God doesn’t react. “Be especially careful when you are trying to be good so that you don’t make a performance out of it. It might be good theater, but the God who made you won’t be applauding” (Matt. 6:1 msg).
Hypocrisy turns people against God. So God has a no-tolerance policy. Let the cold, lifeless bodies of the embezzling couple issue their intended warning. Let’s take hypocrisy as seriously as God does. How can we?
Expect no credit for good deeds. None. If no one notices, you aren’t disappointed. If someone does, you give the credit to God.
Ask yourself this question: If no one knew of the good I do, would I still do it? If not, you’re doing it to be seen by people.
Give financial gifts in secret. Money stirs the phony within us. We like to be seen earning it. And we like to be seen giving it. So “when you give to someone in need, don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing” (Matt. 6:3 nlt).
Don’t fake spirituality. When you go to church, don’t select a seat just to be seen or sing just to be heard. If you raise your hands in worship, raise holy ones, not showy ones. When you talk, don’t doctor your vocabulary with trendy religious terms. Nothing nauseates more than a fake “Praise the Lord” or a shallow “Hallelujah” or an insincere “Glory be to God.”
Bottom line: don’t make a theater production out of your faith. “Watch me!
Watch me!” is a call used on the playground, not in God’s kingdom. Silence the trumpets. Cancel the parade.
Enough with the name-dropping. If accolades come, politely deflect them before you believe them. Slay the desire to be noticed. Stir the desire to serve God.
Heed the counsel of Christ: “First wash the inside of the cup and the dish, and then the outside will become clean, too” (Matt. 23:26 nlt). Focus on the inside, and the outside will take care of itself. Lay your motives before God daily, hourly. “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. Point out anything in me that offends you, and lead me along the path of everlasting life” (Ps. 139:23–24 nlt).
Do good things. Just don’t do them to be noticed. You can be too good for your own good, you know.