Acts (Part 09) - Building the Church
The account of Ananias and Sapphira has an Old Testament feel to it. We read stories matter-of-factly in the OT of men coming through a fiery furnace unharmed or walls of water lining the path of Moses and the Israelites as they came through the Red Sea. But were we confronted with a superhuman Samson or a flaming chariot event in our time, we’d be incredibly astonished. But we accept the OT events because, well, that’s how it was in OT times. What makes the Ananias and Sapphira incident appear odd is that it is an event of OT miraculous proportion but occurring in this age—our age!
But although occurring in this age, it does happen during the transition period—what we call the Apostolic Age—from old covenant to New Covenant. It occurs alongside other events such as tongues, prophecy, healings—all miraculous incidents, intended for transitional reasons. So when we read of Ananias and Sapphira and wonder why God took their lives for this sin of pride and a self-centeredness opposing the new church’s outward focus on God and community, we must remember this greater context of apostolic time of transition. God wanted his new covenant community (and us) to see how important was life for God and not for self. He wanted us to know that evil would attempt infiltration into his church. And he wanted us to know, just as in OT examples, how dramatically serious is sin.
The shock and fear reverberating from this incident through the church and to everyone outside the church that heard of it is noteworthy. It is a strike of some sort and to some degree against a community that up to now had enjoyed only favor (grace – 4:33) of the greater population of Jerusalem. Perhaps some people now began to have concerns about this new faith. Luke expresses those words of fear (5:11) at the beginning of a short summary section. This summary (5:11-16) holds a kind of tension, balancing fear with favor. We see a punishment of death executed by God within the Christian community. But still signs and wonders are performed (5:12a). We see the apostles gathering together in Solomon’s Portico in the temple in 5:12b, but in the next verse we read that other Christians were fearful and didn’t dare go to the temple.
Some interpreters understand the “they” that were all together in verse 12 to be all believers (see NIV translation). But this cannot be correct. If all believers were together in the temple, who are “the rest” in verse 13 that would not dare be among them? Are “the rest” the unsaved populace of Jerusalem? That would seem at odds with the fact that the people held them in great esteem (5:13b) and the fact that more than ever people were coming to Christ (5:14). And even 5:25 indicates that the apostles were teaching the people in the temple. So the people did dare to go to the temple.
The only satisfying way to interpret 5:12-13 is that the apostles were the ones that entered the temple and taught while (v. 13) the other believers dared not go there. This does not mean that they were huddled in their houses afraid even to mention Christ. It means only that they dared not go into the arena of the priests and Sanhedrin to tell of Christ. They very well may have been spreading the gospel through the city. And indeed, with verse 14 saying that more than ever people were coming to Christ, this seems to be the case.
Verse 14 also has a strange connection to verse 15. Verse 14 emphasizes the great number of people coming to Christ. Verse 15 indicates a result of this being people carrying out the sick into the streets for healing. Now, how does it follow that people would be increasing healing concerns because of more people coming to Christ? It makes sense only if there is a connection. In other words, only if faith in Christ came about first so that the faith motivated them to believe in the healing by God through the apostles. That is, in fact, what we have seen in Peter and John’s insistence that they gaze at the lame man and he look at them as well. The apostles were looking for faith to heal—just as Paul was in 14:9 as he met a crippled man and began “looking intently at him and seeing that he had faith to be made well.” The healing miracles by the apostles were signs (just as tongues and prophecy) of this transition from old covenant to New Covenant. Tongues were a sign that the gospel would go out to all the world. Prophecy was a sign providing believers with knowledge of God’s principles for kingdom living. Healing was a sign that the condemnation and death of the old covenant was changed by Christ into new life in the New Covenant. All three of these signs were necessary in this transition—apostolic age—period. The reasons for the signs are gone today. The gospel has gone out to the world. The completion of the New Testament gave us all God’s revelation for the kingdom. And Christianity has been defined and is understood as separate from old covenant religion (Judaism). With the reasons for the signs removed, the signs themselves seem to have ended.
In 5:17 we read that the priests—the Sadducees—have had enough. They had seen the favor (grace – 4:33) of the people for the apostles. They had noted the honor (esteem – 5:13) that the people had for the apostles. And they were jealous. Although it would seem likely that the Pharisees would be jealous as well, they are not mentioned. Most likely, the Pharisees didn’t feel as threatened as did the Sadducees—especially the priests. These priests were men of high social standing—the aristocracy of the Jews. They also controlled the major activity of their religion—all temple worship. They also made up much of the Sanhedrin—the political government of the Jews. Their high-brow authority was challenged by these peasant fishermen that dared come in to the temple—their home turf!—to promote a contrary doctrine (resurrection). And what drove these aristocrat priests to anger and jealousy was that the people honored these commoners more than them. And so “filled with jealousy” (5:17) they arrest the apostles.
The timing of the arrest probably mirrored the first arrest in Acts 3. No doubt the apostles were at the temple at the same time—around the evening sacrifice—so that they would have as great an audience as possible. Since the Sanhedrin met only between morning and evening sacrifices, the apostles were thrown into a holding cell (as before) to be tried the next day when the Sanhedrin was in session. But unlike their previous night in jail, an angel comes to let them out of jail. The angel tells them to go back to the temple to proclaim the gospel. And the apostles do exactly that, appearing at the morning sacrifice to continue their teaching.
The angel must have brought them out in some miraculous way. The guards standing before the doors of the cells were not aware that the cells were empty. After the Sanhedrin is in session, ready to try the apostles, they find them missing and are perplexed. But this is the last we hear of their perplexity. It’s not mentioned again. You would think that the first thing the rulers would ask when the apostles were discovered and brought before them would be, “How’d you get out?” But it seems that their jealousy and anger were so much greater than their curiosity that the circumstance is ignored and immediately they get to the heart of their own concern.
In 5:28 they complain first that their authority was challenged—“We strictly charged you not to teach in this name.” Then they exclaim their embarrassment—“…yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching.” And finally, since making them jealous by attracting the favor and esteem of the people was not exactly a crime, they charge them with sedition—“and you intend to bring this man’s blood upon us.”
Now wait. Didn’t they shout at Pilate, “His blood be on us and on our children!” (Matthew 27:25)? Well, yes. But Pilate was calling Jesus innocent and washing his hands (ridding himself of the guilt) of crucifying an innocent person. The Jewish rulers did not think Jesus was innocent. They considered him a blasphemer troublemaker. So their statement to Pilate was that they would assume responsibility (his blood be on us) IF Jesus turned out to be innocent (which they, at the time, thought impossible). Now, Peter and the apostles were preaching that Jesus, in fact, was innocent and favored by God. That meant that the rulers would have to accept responsibility (guilt) for putting him to death. And that is the charge against the apostles—daring to declare the Jewish rulers guilty of wrongful death.
In his reply in verses 29-32, Peter makes five statements: (1) “We must obey God rather than men.” In other words, they operated by God’s authority, not the Sanhedrin’s. (2) “The God of our fathers raised Jesus.” God’s favor is on Christ. (3) “…whom you killed by hanging him on a tree.” They were guilty of unjust rejection of Messiah. (4) “God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sin.” Again, God’s favor is on Christ. (5) “And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.” Also again, they operated by God’s authority, not the Sanhedrin’s.
Notice that this reply is a chiasm in which the first and last statements are connected; the second and fourth statements are connected; and the reply focuses on the answer to the charge in the middle statement—yes, the rulers ARE guilty of putting God’s anointed, favored, guiltless Son to death.
The Sanhedrin rulers become enraged (5:33), so much so that they want to kill the apostles. But why? Hadn’t they heard these accusations before? During the first trial, Peter said much the same. The first statement here can be found in 4:19. The second and third statements in 4:10. The fourth statement repeats 4:12. But the rulers were not enraged to the point of killing before. Why now? The difference is Peter’s fifth statement. Peter tells them that God gave them his Holy Spirit! This enrages the rulers. You can almost hear them yelling: “We are the ones of status and privilege! We are the ones with authority! We are the ones who mediate with God! Who are you common peasant scum to dare to go to God without our representation and intercession!”
It is a Pharisee—one who does not feel so threatened—that calms the council. He may have been more Godly than the rest. Perhaps he had been attracted to the gospel message. It could also be merely that he was concerned that the unrestrained anger could end with Pilate’s intervention. They, by Roman law, were not supposed to be killing anyone. Of course, putting people to death was overlooked by Pilate if no disturbance came about. What Rome wouldn’t be upset about, Pilate could easily overlook. But putting the apostles to death—these people who had the favor and esteem of the whole of Jerusalem—was sure to end in rioting. That could threaten the Sanhedrin’s existence if Rome decided to disband them. And so, the suggestion by Gamaliel to let it go was accepted—for now.
Again they threaten the apostles, this time beating them as well. But the apostles go out rejoicing (putting us in mind of our Lord’s instruction in his Sermon on the Mount – Matthew 5:11). And what did the apostles do then? We read in 5:42 that “every day, in the temple and from house to house, they did not cease teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ.” They turned right back to the lion’s den. And their sovereign God answered their prayer of Acts 4:24-31 that they would “continue to speak [his] word with all boldness.”