The Judgment on Ananias and Sapphira

5:1 Now a man named Ananias, together with Sapphira his wife, sold a piece of property. 5:2 He kept back for himself part of the proceeds with his wife’s knowledge; he brought only part of it and placed it at the apostles’ feet. 5:3 But Peter said, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and keep back for yourself part of the proceeds from the sale of the land? 5:4 Before it was sold, did it not belong to you? And when it was sold, was the money not at your disposal? How have you thought up this deed in your heart? You have not lied to people but to God!”

The chapter division is unfortunate.  The word ‘also’ links this account with that of Barnabas, Acts 4:36f.

This whole account is an example of the Bible’s honesty and forthrightness. This episode is the first recorded occasion of sin in the church. From then on, the sins of the saints became a perennial problem for the church, as the letters of Paul testify.  Moreover, opposition to and divisiveness within the infant church will become more prominent, as noted in various ways in Acts 4-6.

It is, perhaps, significant that this unusually prompt and severe punishment of dishonesty at the beginning of the early church mirrors the similarly stern punishment of Achan at the beginning of the promised land, Josh 7.

The church had begun as a sharing community, Acts 4:32-37. They had true spiritual unity: they were growing rapidly, and yet ‘were of one heart and soul’, cf Php 1:27; they shared all their possessions; cf. 2 Cor 8:14 1 Jn 3:16; they were nourished by powerful preaching, Acts 4:33 5:2.

Those with surplus possessions had sold them, and placed the proceeds at the apostles’ feet, Acts 4:34f. The apostles distributed the funds to those in need. Barnabas was one of those who sold a piece of property in this manner.

With his wife’s full knowledge – Collusion exacerbates sin.

‘They thought to serve both God and mammon—God, by bringing part of the money to the apostles’ feet, and mammon, by keeping the other part in their own pockets.’ (MHC)

Simeon: ‘Many in the Church sold their possessions, and laid the whole produce of them at the Apostles’ feet, to make a fund for the support of the Church at large [Act 4:34-35.]. Barnabas in particular is mentioned as having done this [Act 4:36-37.]. Doubtless this generosity gained them high credit in the infant Church: and Ananias and Sapphira determined to come in for a share of this honourable distinction. They sold their estate therefore; but not being able to trust God for their future support, or not choosing to relinquish all their temporal comforts, they agreed to keep back a part of the price, and to present only a certain portion of it to the Apostles. Wishing however to appear as eminent as others, they professed to give the whole produce; thus endeavouring to obtain the full credit of others, without making their sacrifice. This was their sin; a mixture of ostentation, of covetousness, of unbelief; a seeking of credit which they did not deserve, and a pretending to virtue which they did not possess.’

‘The church has always attracted people with impure motives: hucksters who want to profit financially from religion, power mongers seeking control, the self-centered who want to be pampered and cared for, and glory seekers who want to be noticed and affirmed for their “holy” acts.’ (Life Application Bible Commentary)

We may suppose that Ananias and Sapphira were envious of Barnabas. But ‘the proper response to a “Barnabas deed” is not to become jealous but to follow the example. When we see a Christian life lived correctly, a marriage done right, or children reared successfully, we must not become envious; instead, we should rejoice with them and be motivated to continue in our own task of growing into Christ’s likeness.’ (Life Application Bible Commentary)

Hughes conjectures that wanted to be regarded as on the inside, as belonging to this new movement, or that they craved recognition by the leadership, or even that they wanted to rise in the power structure.

“Satan has…filled your heart” – Now, as then, the Christian church is woefully imperfect, and susceptible ‘even within vivid memories of Pentecostal blessing, loving fellowship, and supernaturally shaken prayer meetings’ (Milne) to Satanic influence.

Ananias brought the money to Peter, and perhaps waited a few moments, basking in what he thought was approval. Imagine his shock! Pragmatism might argue, ‘He brought something along, and who are we to question his motives?’ Not Peter. The saints had been giving out of a Spirit-filled heart. Ananias’ sin reveals a Satan-filled heart.

Just as a person is responsible for his actions when under the influence of alcohol, so we are responsible for actions taken under Satan’s influence.  Kistemaker: ‘When Satan comes to a believer to lead him into sin, man is fully responsible if he gives Satan permission to enter his life. The believer must be aware of the power of the devil and resist him by standing in the faith (1 Pet 5:8-9).’

‘If the devil’s first tactic was to destroy the church by force from without, his second was to destroy it by falsehood from within.’ (Stott)

The motive of Ananias and Sapphira appears to have been spiritual prestige. They wanted to appear to be giving sacrificially, but were too attached to their money, cf 1 Tim 6:10 Heb 13:5. Their sin was not that they did not give everything: their sin was their lie. They committed deliberate public hypocrisy. Worse still, they had lied to God, 5:4. Was their sin any worse than that of many today, who appear to be giving more than they actually are? Cf Mt 6:2ff. It may seem petty to us, but God hates hypocrisy and feigned holiness, Lk 12:1.

The selling up of land and houses was neither compulsory nor universal.  For example, Mary, John’s mother, still owned her own home, Acts 12:12.

‘Ananias had deliberately presented his gift as if it was the full payment for his property, no doubt relishing the praise, and the moral and spiritual kudos, which accrued to him in the eyes of the community; but in fact all the while he had duplicitously kept back a portion of the total for his own use. In other words he had deliberately tried to deceive the apostles and the church fellowship. He had lied, to men, and worse, to God.’ (Milne)

‘Ananias and Sapphira disregarded the presence of God in the Christian community, the sacredness of that fellowship in God’s eyes, and the relational aspect of their sin. They failed to discern that a deliberate act of deceit against the church was a sin against the Lord of the church.’ (Peterson)

This incident clearly demonstrates the serious nature of attempting to lie to God. Of course, we can conceal nothing from him, yet we often imagine that if we can hide something from others, our secret is safe.

Not casual deception, but spiritual hypocrisy

Hughes says, ‘We must be absolutely clear as to what Ananias’ sin was. It was not casual deception. Rather, he feigned a deeper spiritual commitment than he had. We share Ananias’ sin not when others think we are more spiritual than we are, but when we try to make others think we are more spiritual than we are. Examples of Ananias’ sin today include: creating the impression we are people of prayer when we are not; making it look like we have it all together when we do not; promoting the idea that we are generous when we are so tight we squeak when we smile; misrepresenting our spiritual effectiveness…When a preacher urges his people toward deeper devotion to God, implying that his life is an example when in actuality he knows it is not, he is repeating Ananias’ sin! When an evangelist calls people to holy living but is secretly having an affair with his secretary, he is an Ananias! This gives us all a lot to think about, if we dare.’

Hughes adds: ‘Dante portrayed hypocrites in the Eighth Circle of Hell wearing gilded capes that were beautiful to the eye but were actually made of lead, producing the burdened cry, “O weary mantle of eternity.”  Beautiful as hypocrites may be in appearance, they carry debilitating weight throughout life, suppressing the life of the church.’

5:5 When Ananias heard these words he collapsed and died, and great fear gripped all who heard about it. 5:6 So the young men came, wrapped him up, carried him out, and buried him. 5:7 After an interval of about three hours, his wife came in, but she did not know what had happened. 5:8 Peter said to her, “Tell me, were the two of you paid this amount for the land?” Sapphira said, “Yes, that much.” 5:9 Peter then told her, “Why have you 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!” 5:10 At once she collapsed at his feet and died. So when the young men came in, they found her dead, and they carried her out and buried her beside her husband. 5:11 Great fear gripped the whole church and all who heard about these things.

When Ananias heard this, he fell down and died – He had been ‘found out’; somehow, Peter knew all about the scheme he had concocted.

He fell down and died – Note that the text does not say that ‘God struck them down’.  ‘It does not appear whether Peter designed and expected that this would follow upon what he said to him; it is probable that he did, for to Sapphira his wife Peter particularly spoke death, v. 9. Some think that an angel struck him, that he died, as Herod, ch. Acts 12:23. Or, his own conscience smote him with such horror and amazement at the sense of his guilt, that he sunk and died away under the load of it.’ (MHC)

What are we to make of this?

5:1 Now a man named Ananias, together with Sapphira his wife, sold a piece of property. 5:2 He kept back for himself part of the proceeds with his wife’s knowledge; he brought only part of it and placed it at the apostles’ feet. 5:3 But Peter said, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and keep back for yourself part of the proceeds from the sale of the land? 5:4 Before it was sold, did it not belong to you? And when it was sold, was the money not at your disposal? How have you thought up this deed in your heart? You have not lied to people but to God!”

5:5 When Ananias heard these words he collapsed and died, and great fear gripped all who heard about it. 5:6 So the young men came, wrapped him up, carried him out, and buried him. 5:7 After an interval of about three hours, his wife came in, but she did not know what had happened. 5:8 Peter said to her, “Tell me, were the two of you paid this amount for the land?” Sapphira said, “Yes, that much.” 5:9 Peter then told her, “Why have you 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!” 5:10 At once she collapsed at his feet and died. So when the young men came in, they found her dead, and they carried her out and buried her beside her husband. 5:11 Great fear gripped the whole church and all who heard about these things.

James Dunn calls this ‘one of the most unnerving episodes in the whole of the New Testament.’

Various explanation have been suggested:-

  1. that the story is legendary: but Luke is to be regarded as a reliable historian, and it is difficult to imagine the point of inventing such an account;
  2. that the event actually occurred, but the deaths of Ananias and Sapphira were more or less coincidental: but it beggars belief to suppose that two such deaths occurred coincidentally;
  3. that the event actually occurred, but the deaths of Ananias and Sapphira were due to unreasonable psychological pressure on Peter’s part (with no opportunity given for repentance);
  4. that the event actually occurred, and their deaths were due to their overwhelming realisation of their sin, seen in the light of the heightened awareness of God and his holiness which obtained at the time.  Witherington points to the honour/shame culture of the day in support of this view.
  5. that their deaths were as a result of an exceptional judgment of God for their dishonesty.  Marshall: ‘The death is no doubt to be regarded as a divine judgment upon his sin, although there is no sentence of death contained in Peter’s words.’  Peterson: ‘Luke represents these events as unique acts of divine judgment, manifesting the awesome presence of God at this critical stage in the life of the early church.’

In conclusion, we agree that some combination of 4 and 5 best fits the case.  Stott wisely comments: ‘Even if the anguish of a violated conscience contributed to their death on the human level, Luke clearly intends us to understand that it was a work of divine judgment.’  Packer’s explanation has considerable merit: ‘The most natural view is that in that revitalised community, where sensitiveness to the presence of God and hence to the foulness of sin was exceedingly strong, the realisation of what he had done so overwhelmed Ananias that his frame could not stand it, and he died of shock; and Sapphira the same. They literally could not live with their sin.’ (Packer, God in our Midst, 30)

It is quite possible, then, that Ananias died out of sheer terror. However, an element of divine judgement is implied, especially in Peter’s words to Sapphira, v9, and in the reaction of general fear that Luke is at pains to record.  Of course, God does not always judge sin in this way, but consider other examples, such as Nadab & Abihu, Lev 10; Korah, Num 16; Achan, Josh 7; and Herod, Acts 12. These are solemn reminders that sin brings death, Rom 6:23; 1 Cor 11:29f.

Peterson (Pillar) comments on the similarity with the judgment on Achan’s sin as recorded in Josh 7:- ‘The most that can be said is that a serious act of deceit marked the early days of the life of God’s people under both covenants and that a remarkable expression of God’s wrath followed. In both cases, the event was a manifestation of God’s distinctive presence with his people and a warning about his intention to preserve their holy identity and character.’

Mild as Ananias’ sin may seem to us, we see his sin, and all sin, in its true light when we see it in the light of the cross of Christ.  ‘If God in dealing with human sin must endure the cross in His divine trinity, then clearly sin is no passing peccadillo but a monstrous contradiction of His nature and purpose. Viewing the cross at this point also enables us to understand, with Scripture from Genesis to Revelation, why there is, inevitably, a far more fearful judgment still to come for all who refuse to part from sin, or who willingly, even eagerly in many cases, trample underfoot the promptings of conscience, and sell themselves into sin’s destructive slavery.’ (Milne)

Great fear seized all who heard what had happened – As Peterson notes, the fact that Luke mentions this again in v11 should be taken as an indication that he wishes his readers to take note of it and take it to heart.

As Milne says, ‘The reaction is not unlike Isaiah’s centuries before, who was suddenly awakened to the awesomeness of having God actually present ‘in the midst’ as ‘the Holy One of Israel’ (Acts 6:1–4), and responded, ‘Woe to me! I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips and I dwell amid a people of unclean lips; and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.’ Often, as we gather for worship, and invite God to ‘show Himself,’ and to ‘come among us,’ we may be thankful that He does not answer that prayer in its fullest terms, for, as Malachi pertinently asks, ‘Who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears?’ (Acts 3:2). Yet, the prophet is nonetheless able to continue, ‘for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise, with healing in its wings’ (Acts 4:2). We may be entirely confident that had Ananias and Sapphira found the courage to publicly acknowledge their sin, and repent of it, they too would have found shelter beneath these wings of mercy.’

Sapphira herself made a grand entrance, perhaps expecting admiration for their great act of generosity (‘thinking to find her husband in highest honour among the apostles’, Trapp).  Peter immediately confronted her, and she lied deliberately, proving her part in the conspiracy. She likewise died on the spot.

To many eyes, it looks as if Peter is seeking to entrap Sapphira, when he might just have warned her.

To test the Spirit of the Lord – ‘That is, to make trial of him whether he be omniscient and able to detect and punish your hypocrisy. No man is a gross hypocrite, but he is first an atheist.’ (Trapp)

‘The idea of putting God to the test is prominent in the stories of Israel’s wandering in the desert (e.g., Ex. 17:2, 7; Nu. 14:22; Dt. 6:16; 33:8). In practice it meant provoking God to judge, by misrepresenting him, disobeying his commands, or refusing to believe his promises.’ (Peterson)

‘To test God is to see how much one can get away with before God will respond or act according to his Word (see Ex 17:2; Deut 6:16; Mt 4:7; Lk 4:12 for further passages on testing God). The entire direction of this lie by Ananias and Sapphira was wrongheaded, self-serving, church-destroying, and, to put it simply, sinful.’ (Life Application Bible Commentary)

To the question whether Ananias and his wife were ‘true’ believers, and were finally saved, despite this severe temporal punishment, the passage itself gives no answer.  It is possible (but only possible) that Paul’s teaching in 1 Cor 5:1-5 is relevant here: that their bodies were destroyed in order that their spirits might be saved.

Matthew Henry wisely says: ‘Some put the question concerning the eternal state of Ananias and Sapphira, and incline to think that the destruction of the flesh was that the spirit might be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus. And I should go in with that charitable opinion if there had been any space given them to repent, as there was to the incestuous Corinthian. But secret things belong not to us.’

Here are Matthew Henry’s useful reflections:- ‘This punishment of Ananias may seem severe, but we are sure it was just:-

(1.) It was designed to maintain the honour of the Holy Ghost as now lately poured out upon the apostles, in order to the setting up of the gospel kingdom. It was a great affront which Ananias put upon the Holy Ghost, as if he could be imposed upon: and it had a direct tendency to invalidate the apostles’ testimony; for, if they could not by the Spirit discover this fraud, how could they by this Spirit discover the deep things of God, which they were to reveal to the children of men? It was therefore necessary that the credit of the apostles’ gifts and powers should be supported, though it was at this expense.

(2.) It was designed to deter others from the like presumptions, now at the beginning of this dispensation. Simon Magus afterwards was not thus punished, nor Elymas; but Ananias was made an example now at first, that, with the sensible proofs given what a comfortable thing it is to receive the Spirit, there might be also sensible proofs given what a dangerous thing it is to resist the Spirit, and do despite to him. How severely was the worshipping of the golden calf punished, and the gathering of sticks on the sabbath-day, when the laws of the second and fourth commandments were now newly given! So was the offering of strange fire by Nadab and Abihu, and the mutiny of Korah and his company, when the fire from heaven was now newly given, and the authority of Moses and Aaron now newly established. The doing of this by the ministry of Peter, who himself with a lie denied his Master but a little while ago, intimates that it was not the resentment of a wrong done to himself; for then he, who had himself been faulty, would have had charity for those that offended; and he, who himself had repented and been forgiven, would have forgiven this affront, and endeavoured to bring this offender to repentance; but it was the act of the Spirit of God in Peter: to him the indignity was done, and by him the punishment was inflicted.’

Practical lessons (Barnes)

(1) That God searches the heart, and knows the purposes of the soul. Comp. Ps. 139.

(2) God judges the motives of men

(3) God will bring forth sin which man may not be able to detect, or which may elude human justice. The day is coming when the secrets of all hearts shall be revealed, and God will reward every man according as his works shall be.

(4) Fraud and hypocrisy will be detected. They are often detected in this life. The providence of God often lays them open to human view, and overwhelms the soul in shame at the guilt which was long concealed. But if not in this life, yet the day is coming when they will be disclosed, and the sinner shall stand revealed to an assembled universe.

(5) We have here an illustration of the power of conscience. If such was its overwhelming effect here, what will it be when all the crimes of the life shall be disclosed in the day of judgment, and when the soul shall sink to the woes of hell?…

(6) We see here the guilt of attempting to impose on God in regard to property. There is no subject in which men are more liable to hypocrisy; none in which they are more apt to keep back a part. Christians professedly devote ALL that they have to God…And yet, is it not clear that the sin of Ananias has not ceased in the church?…

(7) Sinners should fear and tremble before God. He holds their breath in his hands. He can cut them down in an instant…

Church – This is Luke’s first use of the word ekklesia.

Concluding reflections

God is serious about the purity of the church. Ananias and Sapphira has sinned not only against God, but against the church.  He gave an early and unforgettable lesson about how he views sin in the fellowship. He is not prepared to ‘play church’ with us. He is not interested in being ‘user-friendly’. He desires righteousness, truth, and sincerity.

Not very user-friendly?! The ‘user-friendly church’ stands in stark contrast to the Jerusalem church of Acts 5. There, there was ‘great fear’, v11, and outsiders didn’t dare associate with the believers, though they respected them, v13.  ‘We must be careful, in an age of marketing the church and trying to make the gospel user-friendly, that we do not skim over this truth: God is to be feared! It is true that he is a God rich in love and abounding in mercy. But it is also true that he hates and judges sin. Note the response of everyone in the Bible who ever caught a glimpse of God. The reaction was always one of dread (for example, Isaiah 6:1–6). The good news of the gospel is that because of what Christ has done on our behalf, we can come boldly into the very presence of God (Hebrews 4:16). But let us do so with “deep reverence and fear” (Philippians 2:12 NLT). God is holy!’ (Life Application Bible Commentary)

Not a pattern for all time.  It has been rightly said that in this incident ‘God was making a point, not stamping a pattern’ (Michael E. Phillips).

A foretaste of judgement to come.  Trapp says: ‘the Judge of the earth keepeth his petty sessions now, letting the law pass upon some few, reserving the rest till the great assizes, 1 Tim 5:24’ (Trapp)

HSB draws two lessons in particular from this account: ‘First, Christians are not to put God to the test. Jesus gave the proper example of endurance under testing in Matthew 4:7. Christians are to follow suit and trust God in hard places. Second, the presence of the Spirit in the church is not without its dangers. Some died for ignoring the presence of the Lord (1 Cor 11:30; the sin is a rubbing of salt in the wounds of social divisions in the church). The church was given the authority to make declarations that may have the same effect as Peter’s (although perhaps not with such an immediate result; 1 Cor 5:3–5; compare 2 Cor 13:10)…The church today often prays for revival. Perhaps it should ask if it really wants what it is praying for. Obviously we would welcome the power of God in evangelism and signs among us. We might even welcome a growing presence of the Spirit in prophecy. But reading this passage in the context of Acts should remind us that “in the church where the lame walked liars died.” With the power of God comes his holiness, and those who are not prepared to live in his holiness will do well to fear rather than to seek his power.’ (Emphasis added)

Stott says that this passage reminds us of the importance of keeping clear conscience before God: ‘The ‘brethren’ of the East African revival, who lay great stress on this teaching, amusingly illustrate it by expressing their desire to ‘live in a house without ceiling or walls’, that is, to permit nothing to come between them and either God or other people.’

Stott adds that we are taught here the important of discipline within the church:-  ‘The church has tended to oscillate in this area between extreme severity (disciplining members for the most trivial offences) and extreme laxity (exercising no discipline at all, even for serious offences)…Presbyterians are right to ‘fence the table’, that is, to make access to the Lord’s Supper conditional. For, although the Lord’s table is open to sinners (who else either needs or wishes to come to it?), it is open only to penitent sinners.’

‘While the judgment on Ananias and Sapphira came because of their deceitfulness, the temptation to hoard money selfishly must not be overlooked. Greed corrupts Christians’ lives. It can affect families, churches, and ministries of all kinds. We must be very careful in handling money.’ (Life Application Bible Commentary, emphasis added)

Our sins of deception and hypocrisy will be brought into the light either in this world or in the world to come:-

Of the first of these possibilities, Charles Simeon comments: ‘How often does it happen, that a person, who on the whole has maintained externally a creditable profession, is instigated by his predominant passion, whether of lust or covetousness, to an act that blasts his character for ever!’

Of the second, Simeon says: ‘But, if no such exposure take place in this world, the mask will be taken off as soon as we come into the presence of our God. Alas! what will be our sensations, and the sensations of many around us, when we are interrogated by our Judge in relation to things from which perhaps we gained the greatest credit? What must have been the surprise of Ananias and Sapphira, and of all their friends too, when the act which appeared so excellent, was proved so faulty, and was visited with so awful a judgment! Let us endeavour to realize that scene, and we shall have some faint idea of the hypocrite’s feelings at the day of judgment. We may easily deceive men; but “God will not be mocked:” to him every secret thought is open; and in the last day “he will make manifest all the counsels of our hearts [1 Co 4:5; Psa 44:21].” Then, if not before, “our sin shall find us out;” and “the Holy Ghost himself,” whom we have tempted and deceived, shall “be a witness” against us to our everlasting confusion [Heb 10:15; Mal 3:5].

By way of application, Simeon reminds those who indulge open and known sins that they have cause for fear.  ‘If this liberal act of Ananias was so abhorred of God, because of the insincerity that attended it, and brought such a tremendous judgment upon him, do you think that your iniquities shall pass unpunished?’

And, says Simeon, those who profess faith in Christ have reason to fear too, ‘lest your services at last should be found to have been only splendid sins. Remember that “God requireth truth in the inward parts.” If you had the whole armour of God upon you, and it were not fastened on with the girdle of truth, it would leave you exposed to all the arrows of the Almighty [Eph 6:14]. Those who are “hypocrites in heart heap up wrath [Job 36:13];” and “fearfulness will at last surprise them [Isa 33:14].” Behold then, as our Lord said even to the Apostles, so say I to you, “Beware of hypocrisy [Lk 12:1]:” beware lest ye profess more than ye design to practise [Jer 42:20-21]. Seek to have “your hearts right with God.” Entreat him to give you “the wisdom that is from above, which is without partiality, and without hypocrisy.” Then will the Spirit of God abide with you [1 Co 3:16-17]; then will the blood of Christ also cleanse you from the defilement which cleaves to your very best actions [1 Jn 1:7]; and God the Father will delight in you to all eternity [Pro 11:20].’

Hughes suggests some practical steps:- ‘First, we should take an honest look at our lives regarding deceit. Are we truthful people? Do we engage in exaggeration and coloring? Are we promoting spiritual deception about our own commitments. Are we trying outwardly or subtly to make ourselves appear to be what we are not? Perhaps, to acquire objectivity, it would be helpful to seek the perspective of another person—your spouse, if you are married, or perhaps a trusted, honest friend.’

The Apostles Perform Miraculous Signs and Wonders

5:12 Now many miraculous signs and wonders came about among the people through the hands of the apostles. By common consent they were all meeting together in Solomon’s Portico. 5:13 None of the rest dared to join them, but the people held them in high honor. 5:14 More and more believers in the Lord were added to their number, crowds of both men and women. 5:15 Thus they even carried the sick out into the streets, and put them on cots and pallets, so that when Peter came by at least his shadow would fall on some of them. 5:16 A crowd of people from the towns around Jerusalem also came together, bringing the sick and those troubled by unclean spirits. They were all being healed.
Magic and Miracle
Mk. 6:56 and Acts 19:12 contain similar accounts of healings which seem to us to have a ‘magical’ quality about them. It is clear from other passages, however, that the NT authors distinguished the Christian movement from contemporary magic and sorcery (see e.g. the encounter with Simon the Sorcerer in 8:9-25). What seems most likely is that God is willing to ‘speak the language’ that people require. He is willing to meet their expectations in order to take them further. In that regard, people with superstitious expectations about God’s power, such as the woman who touched Jesus’ cloak in Lk 8:43-48, receive what they honestly desire and more. Those who concern themselves to control supernatural power rather than place themselves at God’s disposal, however, are less successful (see Acts 8:9-25; 19:13-16).’ (NBC)

Further Trouble for the Apostles

5:17 Now the high priest rose up, and all those with him (that is, the religious party of the Sadducees), and they were filled with jealousy. 5:18 They laid hands on the apostles and put them in a public jail. 5:19 But during the night an angel of the Lord opened the doors of the prison, led them out, and said, 5:20 “Go and stand in the temple courts and proclaim to the people all the words of this life.” 5:21 When they heard this, they entered the temple courts at daybreak and began teaching.

Wiersbe identifies three reasons why the officials opposed the apostles at this time.  ‘To begin with, Peter and John had not obeyed the official orders to stop preaching in the name of Jesus Christ. They were guilty of defying the law of the nation. Second, the witness of the church was refuting the doctrines held by the Sadducees, giving every evidence that Jesus Christ was alive. Third, the religious leaders were filled with envy (“indignation”) at the great success of these untrained and unauthorized men (see Matt. 27:18; Acts 13:45). The traditions of the fathers had not attracted that much attention or gained that many followers in such a short time. It is amazing how much envy can be hidden under the disguise of “defending the faith.”‘

The Sadducees – ‘who had a particularly enmity to the gospel of Christ, because it confirmed and established the doctrine of the invisible world, the resurrection of the dead, and the future state, which they denied.’ (MHC)

Filled with jealousy – Just as the first attack on the apostles was provoked by the success of their healing ministry, so was this second attack.  They were jealous of both the power and the popularity of the apostles.

Some scholars regard this account as implausible – ‘an extremely vague and casual angelic deliverance, which we can hardly take as serious history’ (Hanson).  William Neil suggests that this was the action of ‘a sympathetic warder’ or ‘s secret sympathizer among the gaurdroom staff’.  But such views say more about the critics’ antisupernaturalistic presuppositions than their historical judgment.

An angel – Notable, since the Sadducees, who had put the apostles into jail, did not believe in angels (Acts 23:8).  We may loosely designate the Sadducees as the rationalists, and the Pharisees as the moralists, of the day.

‘You are tempted to smile as you imagine the surprised looks on the faces of the guards when they discovered that their most important prisoners were gone. And just imagine the astonishment of the envious members of the Sanhedrin when they heard the report! Here they were trying to stop the miracles, but their actions only multiplied the miracles!’ (Wiersbe)

‘There is no prison so dark, so strong, but God can both visit his people in it, and, if he pleased, fetch them out of it.’ (MHC)

“Go, stand in the temple courts”– ‘One would think, though they might not quit their work, yet it had been prudent to go on with it in a more private place, where it would give less offence to the priests than in the temple, and so would the less expose them. No; “Speak in the temple, for this is the place of concourse, this is your Father’s house, and it is not to be as yet quite left desolate.” It is not for the preachers of Christ’s gospel to retire into corners, as long as they can have any opportunity of preaching in the great congregation.’ (MHC)

“This new life” – Lit., “all the words of this life.” The word ‘new’ (NIV) is not in the original.

‘We note that the disobeyed the Sanhedrin, who had told them not to speak in the name of Jesus (Acts 4:17), in order to obey the angel who told them to speak the words of life.’ (Stott)

Now when the high priest and those who were with him arrived, they summoned the Sanhedrin—that is, the whole high council of the Israelites—and sent to the jail to have the apostles brought before them. 5:22 But the officers who came for them did not find them in the prison, so they returned and reported, 5:23 “We found the jail locked securely and the guards standing at the doors, but when we opened them, we found no one inside.” 5:24 Now when the commander of the temple guard and the chief priests heard this report, they were greatly puzzled concerning it, wondering what this could be. 5:25 But someone came and reported to them, “Look! The men you put in prison are standing in the temple courts and teaching the people!” 5:26 Then the commander of the temple guard went with the officers and brought the apostles without the use of force (for they were afraid of being stoned by the people).

‘Luke obviously enjoyed the humour of the situation as the council sat waiting for the prisoners to be brought, quite unaware that they were back in the temple.’ (Marshall)

Puzzled – ‘It occasioned various speculations, some suggesting that they were conjured out of the prison, and made their escape by magic arts; others that the keepers had played tricks with them, knowing how many friends these prisoners had, that were so much the darlings of the people.’ (MHC)

‘Prisoners, that have broken prison, usually abscond, for fear of being retaken; but these prisoners, that here made their escape, dare to show their faces even where their persecutors have the greatest influence.’ (MHC)

‘We may think, if God designed this, “Why were they rescued from their first imprisonment?”‘ (MHC)

‘It may be observed that neither here, nor anywhere else, do the Christians respond with violence to being arrested; the lesson of Luke 22:50f had been learned.’ (Marshall)

‘This says something about the early Christians’ response to Jesus’ example of nonviolence and nonretaliation during his own arrest (cf. Mk 14:43–50), for they might have begun a riot and thus extricated themselves. It also continues the theme of “the favor of all the people” in Acts 2:42–47.’ (Expositor’s Bible Commentary)

5:27 When they had brought them, they stood them before the council, and the high priest questioned them, 5:28 saying, “We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name. Look, you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching, and you intend to bring this man’s blood on us!” 5:29 But Peter and the apostles replied, “We must obey God rather than people. 5:30 The God of our forefathers raised up Jesus, whom you seized and killed by hanging him on a tree. 5:31 God exalted him to his right hand as Leader and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. 5:32 And we are witnesses of these events, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him.”

…to be questioned by the high priest – But the interrogation, as recorded by Luke, contains no questions, no attempt to enquire into the apostles’ motives and behaviour.  There is a hardness of mind and heart here (“I’ve already made up my mind – please don’t confuse me with the facts”).  Further evidence for this is found in the refusal to even speak the name of Jesus.

“You…are determined to make us guilty of this man’s blood” – To the Jewish authorities, Christ’s death was the result of due legal process.  But the apostles had made it out to be an act of murder for which those authorities were themselves responsible (cf. v30).

‘The high priest realized that if the Apostles were right, then the Jewish leaders had been wrong in condemning Jesus Christ. Indeed, if the Apostles were right, then the council was guilty of His blood (Matt. 27:25; 1 Thes. 2:14–16).’ (Wiersbe)

The high priest would not even speak the name of Jesus, lest he defile his lips.

“We must obey God rather than men!” – In saying this they ‘laid down the principle of civil and ecclesiastical disobedience.  To be sure, Christians are called to be conscientious citizens and generally speaking, to submit to human authorities (Rom 13:1ff; Tit 3:1; 1 Pet 2:13ff).  But if the authority concerned misuses its God’given power to command what he forbids or fobid what he commands, then the Christian’s duty is to disobey the human authority in order th obey God’s.’ (Stott)

‘Discipleship sometimes calls for disobedience. Indeed, civil disobedience is a biblical doctrine, for there are four or five notable examples of it in Scripture. It arises naturally from the affirmation that Jesus is Lord. The principle is clear, even though its application may involve believers in agonies of conscience. It is this. We are to submit to the state, because its authority is derived from God and its officials are God’s ministers, right up to the point where obedience to the state would involve us in disobedience to God. At that point our Christian duty is to disobey the state in order to obey God. For if the state misuses its God-given authority, and presumes either to command what God forbids or to forbid what God commands, we have to say “no” to the state in order to say “yes” to Christ. As Peter put it, “we must obey God rather than men!” Or in Calvin’s words, “obedience to man must not become disobedience to God.”’ (Stott, The Conetemporary Christian, 96)

Here, in verses 30-32, is a brief summary of the gospel as preached by the apostles.  We should ask whether our own evangelistic message reflects this.

“The God of our fathers” – implying that the murder of Jesus was an act of rebellion against their own God and a violation of their own religion.

You had killed by hanging him on a tree – ‘This unusual way of describing his crucifixion seems to be an allusion to Deuteronomy 21:22–23, suggesting that Jesus was under the curse of God.’ (Edwards, p76)

God exalted him to his own right hand – ‘That Jesus Christ is at God’s right hand is a key theme in the Scriptures. The right hand is, of course, the place of honor, power, and authority. Psalm 110:1 is the basic prophecy, but there are numerous references: Matthew 22:44; Mark 14:62; 16:19; Acts 2:33–34; 5:31; Romans 8:34; Ephesians 1:20; Colossians 3:1; Hebrews 1:3; 8:1; 10:12; 12:2; and 1 Peter 3:22. Soon, Stephen would see Jesus standing at God’s right hand (Acts 7:55).’ (Wiersbe)

Prince and Saviour – A remarkable pair of titles, ‘the first word expressing that Royalty which all Israel looked for in Messiah, the second the Saving character of it which they had utterly lost sight of.’ (JFB)

‘The word Prince means “a pioneer, one who leads the way, an originator.” The Sanhedrin was not interested in pioneering anything; all they wanted to do was protect their vested interests and keep things exactly as they were (see John 11:47–52). As the “Pioneer of life,” Jesus saves us and leads us into exciting experiences as we walk “in newness of life” (Rom. 6:4). There are always new trails to blaze.  Hebrews 2:10 calls Him “the Pioneer [captain] of their salvation,” for our salvation experience must never become static. The Christian life is not a parking lot; it is a launching pad! It is not enough just to be born again; we must also grow spiritually (2 Peter 3:18) and make progress in our walk. In Hebrews 12:2, Jesus is called “the Pioneer [author] … of our faith,” which suggests that He leads us into new experiences that test our faith and help it to grow. One of the major themes of Hebrews is “let us press on to maturity” (Heb. 6:1, nasb), and we cannot mature unless we follow Christ, the Pioneer, into new areas of faith and ministry.’ (Wiersbe)

‘The title Savior was not new to the members of the council, for the word was used for physicians (who save people’s lives), philosophers (who solve people’s problems), and statesmen (who save people from danger and war). It was even applied to the Emperor. But only Jesus Christ is the true and living Saviour who rescues from sin, death, and judgment all who will trust Him.’ (Wiersbe)

The same Israel that rejected and killed Jesus is offered forgiveness.

“Give repentance” – i.e. give the opportunity for repentance.

“…and so is the Holy Spirit” – The gift of the Holy Spirit to the church is a witness to the exalted power of Jesus.

“…whom God has given to those who obey him” – That is, to those who obey God’s command to repent and believe in his Son.  ‘God does not suggest that sinners repent and believe; He commands it (Acts 17:30).’ (Wiersbe)

5:33 Now when they heard this, they became furious and wanted to execute them. 5:34 But a Pharisee whose name was Gamaliel, a teacher of the law who was respected by all the people, stood up in the council and ordered the men to be put outside for a short time. 5:35 Then he said to the council, “Men of Israel, pay close attention to what you are about to do to these men. 5:36 For some time ago Theudas rose up, claiming to be somebody, and about four hundred men joined him. He was killed, and all who followed him were dispersed and nothing came of it. 5:37 After him Judas the Galilean arose in the days of the census, and incited people to follow him in revolt. He too was killed, and all who followed him were scattered. 5:38 So in this case I say to you, stay away from these men and leave them alone, because if this plan or this undertaking originates with people, it will come to nothing, 5:39 but if it is from God, you will not be able to stop them, or you may even be found fighting against God.”

They became furious – Similar expression to Acts 2:38 (‘they were cut to the heart’) but very different import, one leading to thoughts of murder, the other to repentance.

‘The Pharisees looked for a Messianic Age and a personal Messiah; they accepted a doctrine of the resurrection of the dead (though they understood such a doctrine to mean either the immortality of the soul or the resuscitation of the body); they believed in the presence and activity of angels and demons; they held in balance the tenets of God’s eternal decrees and human freedom of will; and they tried to live a life of simple”] piety apart from needless wealth and luxury.’ (Expositor’s Bible Commentary)

Gamaliel belonged to the moderate school of Hillel and had a reputation for piety and fair-mindedness.  Saul of Tarsus had been one of his pupils (Acts 22:3).

Some critics regard the behaviour attributed to Gamaliel as improbable, and lacking historical confirmation.  But, as Marshall remarks, Luke’s account itself provides the necessary historical evidence, especially when no historical evidence is adduced against it.

The fact is that evidence of a somewhat favourable attitude towards Jesus on the part of some Pharisees can be found in the Gospels and in Acts.  See Lk 7:36; 11:37; 14:1; Acts 15:5; 23:6.  Generally, they were not so hostile to Christ and the gospel as the Sadducees, Acts 23:6-9.

It might be asked: If the meeting was held behind closed doors (v34), how did Luke know what had been said?  But such information can readily be made public after the event.

A (small) problem of chronology

A Pharisee whose name was Gamaliel, a teacher of the law who was respected by all the people, stood up in the council and ordered the men to be put outside for a short time. 5:35 Then he said to the council, “Men of Israel, pay close attention to what you are about to do to these men. 5:36 For some time ago Theudas rose up, claiming to be somebody, and about four hundred men joined him. He was killed, and all who followed him were dispersed and nothing came of it. 5:37 After him Judas the Galilean arose in the days of the census, and incited people to follow him in revolt. He too was killed, and all who followed him were scattered.

This account of Theudas appears to be somewhat at odds with Josephus’ account of an episode involving a man of the same name.

Luke records Gamaliel as stating that the revolt of Judas the Galilean took place after that of Theudas.  But Josephus places Theudas in the governorship of Fadus (44-46 AD).  This would have about a decade after the incident recorded here by Luke.  Judas the Galilean, on the other hand, rose up around 6 AD, according to Josephus.

It has been pointed out that since Josephus describes four different men names Simon and three named Judas within a few years (all of whom instigated rebellions), he and Luke may actually be referring to different individuals.

As Peterson states, it is unlikely that Luke (and, we might add, impossible that Gamaliel) has misread Josephus, since his work was not published until about AD 93.  It is probable (says Peterson) that Gamaliel is referring to a different Theudas.

Alternatively (since Josephus is know to have made a number of historical errors, and Luke is a demonstrably accurate historian), we might opt for Luke’s account rather than that of Josephus as being correct.  Yet another option might be allow that Luke (or Gamaliel himself!) might have made a (trivial) error here (this is the suggestion of I.H. Marshall, in his book Inspiration; he cites this passage in support of his contention that Scripture is best described as ‘infallible’, rather than ‘inerrant’).

Calvin thought that the words here translated ‘after that’ meant ‘over and above’ or ‘besides’.

Keener writes that ‘Theudas is not a common enough name to make an earlier revolutionary named Theudas likely, although the name does occur (e.g., in a Jerusalem tomb inscription). Luke may simply fill in names of the most prominent revolutionary leaders known by his own period rather than a less-known name Gamaliel might have cited (historians sometimes adjusted characters’ speeches in their own words); the alternative would be that either Luke or Josephus is mistaken.’ (IVPBBC)

Barrett thinks that it is possible, but not probable, that the present account is historically accurate.  He writes that the ‘simple solution’ would be to say ‘that Luke, writing Gamaliel’s speech (for the Christians can hardly have had inside information of what was said in the Sanhedrin after v. 34—unless Gamaliel’s pupil, Saul of Tarsus, was present!), made a mistake, either unaware of the true date of Theudas or confusing him with some other rebel.’

My own instinct is to side with the historical accuracy of Luke’s account, but I cannot be certain about this.

‘We should not be too ready to credit Gamaliel with having uttered an invariable principle.  To be sure, in the long run what is from God will triumph, and what is merely human (let alone diabolical) will not.  Nevertheless, in the shorter run evil plans sometimes succeed, while good ones conceived in accordance with the will of God sometimes fail.  So the Gamaliel principle is not a reliable index to what is from God and what is not.’ (Stott)

Although, in the end, truth will triumph, in the shorter term Gamaliel’s counsel is unreliable.  ‘Success is no test of truth, in spite of what the pragmatists say. False cults often grow faster than God’s church. This world is a battlefield on which truth and error are in mortal combat, and often it looks as if truth is “on the scaffold” while wrong sits arrogantly on the throne. How long should the council wait to see if the new movement would survive? What tests would they use to determine whether or not it was successful? What is success? No matter how you look at it, Gamaliel’s “wisdom” was foolish.’ (Wiersbe)

He convinced them, 5:40 and they summoned the apostles and had them beaten. Then they ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus and released them. 5:41 So they left the council rejoicing because they had been considered worthy to suffer dishonor for the sake of the name. 5:42 And every day both in the temple courts and from house to house, they did not stop teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus was the Christ.

‘Here we have a concrete example of that “rejoicing in suffering” which should be the hallmark of the Christian under persecution (1 Pet 4:13; cf. Mt 5:11f; Rom 5:3f; 2 Cor 6:10; 1 Pet 1:6f).’ (Marshall)

In many ways, places and times, the Christian church has continued to be a persecuted church.  ‘Still today, especially in some Marxist, Hindu and Muslim countries, the church is often harassed.  But we need not fear for its survival…Persecution will refine the church, but not destroy it.  If it leads to prayer and praise, to an acknowledgement of the sovereignty of God and of solidarity with Christ in his sufferings, then – however painful – it may even be welcome.’ (Stott)

Suffering disgrace for the Name – ‘The early Christians, who were proud to “suffer indignity for the sake of the Name”, were eager to evangelise in the same cause.  Even love for the commands of Christ and love for the lost sheep of Christ and subordinate to and dependent on this love for the name of Christ.  ‘Love for hs name is not a sentimental attachment either to his person name “Jesus” or to his official title “Christ” or to any of hs designations in Scripture.  Instead, it is a concern for his honour in the world, an ardent desire for the fulfilment of our prayer: “Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to thy name give glory” (Psa 115:1).  It is a recognition that God the Father has exalted him “far above…every name that is named” (Eph 1:21) and indeed “bestowed on him the name which is above every name”, with a view to securing “that at the name of Jesus”, before his supreme rank and dignity, “every knee should bow…and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord…” (Phil 2:9-11).’ (Stott, Our Guilty Silence, 20)

They took every opportunity to witness to Jesus.  Wiersbe says, ‘Every Christian is a witness, either a good one or a bad one; and our witness either draws others to Christ or drives them away. It is a good practice to start each day asking the Lord for the wisdom and grace needed to be a loving witness for Christ that day. If we sincerely look for opportunities and expect God to give them to us, we will never lack for open doors.’

In the temple courts and from house to house – They used the religious venues that were available but, not having church buildings of their own, used whatever homes would accept them.

The good news that Jesus is the Christ – They did not preach religion, or self-improvement.  Still less did they preach themselves.  They preached Jesus.