WE have seen the success of the Apostles in persuading many of the Jews to acknowledge Jesus of Nazareth, to whose crucifixion they had lately consented, to be the Messiah promised to their fathers. These converts were formed into a new society, different from other societies, not only in its external aspect, and the design of its institution, but likewise in the principle by which its component parts were united. In associations for political or commercial purposes, all the individuals retain a regard to their private interest in its full strength, and concur in measures for the general good, because they will contribute to their personal advantage. But the first Christians were animated by a nobler spirit. Pure disinterested love was the soul of the rising Church, and gave birth to such expressions of benevolence, as have been rarely equalled in succeeding ages.
Among those who in the beginning embraced Christianity, it may be supposed that there were many persons in indigent circumstances. Few of the rich and great are, at any time, attracted by the humble and spiritual religion of Jesus Christ; and a profession of it was less likely to be adopted by many of that description, when the Church was not established by law, and neither honours nor emoluments were attached to the faith. It appears, however, that the primitive believers were not all in the lower ranks of life. Some of them, as we learn from the preceding chapter, had possessions of lands and houses, which, with generosity hitherto unexampled, they devoted to the supply of their brethren in need. "They sold them, and brought the prices of the things, that were sold, and laid them down at the Apostles' feet," that a common stock might be formed, out of which distribution should be made to the widow, the fatherless, and the orphan. Thus the new religion infused its best spirit into the breasts of the Jewish converts. Among its earliest effects, we see it prevailing over selfishness and want of feeling, the baneful influence of which often poisons the comfort of our social relations. It did not, however, operate in this manner upon every person who joined himself to the Apostles. The passage now read presents an instance, in which base passions were detected under the mask of pretended piety, and the semblance of disinterested goodness.
"But a certain man, named Ananias, with Sapphira his wife, sold a possession, and kept back part of the price, his wife also being privy to it, and brought a certain part, and laid it at the Apostles' feet." It is evident, that Ananias and Sapphira were numbered among the disciples; and there is no reason to doubt, that they were admitted to enjoy all the external privileges of the Church. As their conduct shows them not to have been sincere, we are led to inquire, by what motive they were induced to connect themselves with a society, which held out no allurement to the worldly passions; and the inquiry may be extended to many others, who, without experiencing the saving power of the truth, have since assumed the Christian profession, and even affected, on some occasions, no common zeal for religion. The same account may. be given of all such cases. There are different motives, which may be conceived to operate upon different minds, yet all terminating in the same result; such a conviction of the truth as commands the assent of the understanding, and overawes conscience, but does not subdue the aversion of the heart; a general persuasion of the necessity of some religion, in consequence of which we embrace that which is best recommended; the example of others, which we implicitly follow; the authority and solicitations of friends; and sometimes a design to conceal, under a show of piety, the moral defects of the character.
It will be granted, perhaps, that these causes operate with great force in ordinary cases; but it will be objected, that their efficacy could not be the same in the days of Ananias and Sapphira, when contempt and persecution were the portion of the disciples of Jesus. This representation is not perfectly accurate. The rulers, the priests, and the scribes, looked upon the Apostles, and their adherents, with detestation and scorn; but the people at large entertained more favourable sentiments. Luke informs us, that "they were in favour with all the people; and that the people magnified them." The Apostles had been lately summoned before the council, but they were dismissed without punishment; and as yet, through the care of providence, the Church had sustained no rude assault from its enemies. The religion of the gospel, it must be acknowledged, was new, was contrary to the inveterate prejudices of the Jews, and was discountenanced by the persons of the highest authority and learning in the nation. But to these disadvantages, under which it laboured, were opposed the discourses of the Apostles, which were earnest and impressive, and the miracles which they performed in confirmation of their doctrine. It is no just ground of surprise, that in such circumstances some were induced to associate with them, whose minds had not been "brought into captivity to Christ," by the converting power of the truth. We learn from the history of the following ages, when Christians held their property and their lives at the caprice of every tyrant who swayed the Roman sceptre, and were exposed to frequent persecution, that many intruded themselves into the Church, whose conduct betrayed the baseness of the motives in which their profession was founded.
Ananias, with the consent of his wife, sold his possession. This was the common practice among the believers. It was the fashion of the time; and this couple could not but comply with it. Had they done otherwise, their character might have been suspected; and although the Apostles would not have called them to an account, because the sale of possessions was entirely voluntary, there being no law which obliged to it, there was a probability that their reputation would suffer in the public estimation. They would not be behind the most distinguished of the disciples; they would imitate Barnabas himself. Example has a powerful influence upon hypocrites, not, indeed, to excite them to the sincere practice of the holiness which they see in the saints, but to produce a studied imitation of their most distinguished actions, that tinsel may pass for gold. To the rivalship of excellence, to the love of praise, must be attributed many of those deeds which have a fine show of goodness and generosity; the zeal of religionists, the charities of the ostentatiously liberal, the grimace and fervour of the devotee.
But Ananias and Sapphira, when they sold their possession, did not, after the example of the other disciples, bring the whole of the price to the Apostles. Had they been influenced by a sincere faith, and by that generous love which animated their brethren, they would have made the same sacrifice to the public good, and have made it with the same promptitude and cheerfulness. But the absence of pure principle in this transaction, left room for opposite passions to contend in their breasts. A regard to reputation required the sale of their possession; but avarice considered it as too valuable to be exchanged for fame. Between the two passions, the dexterity of hypocrisy suggested a compromise. Avarice was contented with the retention of a part; and vanity was gratified by the surrender of the rest, under the pretext that it was the whole. In this manner, I think their conduct should be explained. They had two purposes in view; and in endeavouring to accomplish both, they were engaged in a train of meanness, deceit, and impiety, which merited the severe reprehension of Peter, and the dreadful punishment which divine justice inflicted.
Ananias and Sapphira, never doubting that the plan, which they had concerted, and executed with so much privacy, was secure from detection, expected to be welcomed by the Apostles with high commendations of their zeal and liberality. How much, then, must the unhappy man, who came alone with the unhallowed offering, have been dismayed, when Peter saluted him with these terrible words "Ananias, why hath Satan filled thine heart to lie to the Holy Ghost, and to keep back part of the price of the land?" His crime is traced to the instigation of Satan, who had filled his heart with vanity, covetousness, dissimulation, and an impious disregard for the omniscience and justice of heaven. This is not to be understood as a figurative expression, denoting the turpitude and atrocity of his conduct; but as a true account of the secret influence by which he was impelled to commit so daring an action. The human heart is itself sufficiently wicked to contrive and perpetrate very aggravated crimes; but some sins are so heinous in their nature, and are marked with such characters of audacity and profligacy, that they seem to have been suggested by a spirit more completely depraved even than man. It is a fact ascertained by the Scriptures, that Satan does tempt the children of men, or that he excites their corrupt principles to action, by stimulating the imagination and the senses, and by perverting the reasoning faculty, although it is impossible to explain the mode of his agency. He is the "spirit, who works in the children of disobedience."
The sin, to which Satan had successfully solicited Ananias, consisted "in lying to the Holy Ghost, and keeping back part of the price." Some have represented it as the sin of sacrilege, which is the diverting of a consecrated thing from the service of God, the reservation of what had been previously dedicated to him for our own use, or the application of it to a secular purpose. This seems to be a mistake, as there is not a hint in the narrative that Ananias and Sapphira had devoted their possession to God; and Peter expressly says, that after, as well as before, it was sold, it was in their power to do with it what they pleased. The nature of the sin is distinctly pointed out as a lie to the Holy Ghost. As the construction of the original language is here different from that in the end of the fourth verse, where he is said," not to have lied to men, but to God," some choose to read the words thus; "Why hath Satan filled thine heart to belie the Holy Ghost?" "Why hast thou pretended to be moved by the Spirit of God, to express sincere and generous love to the brethren, by giving the whole price of the possession for their use; while it appears, from the keeping back of a part of it, that thou art influenced solely by vanity and covetousness?" But I see no reason for altering our translation, as according to the one construction of the words as well as the other, they may be translated "to lie to the Holy Ghost."
That the charge brought by Peter against Ananias may appear to be well founded, it is necessary to recollect, that he and his colleagues acted under the direction, and by the assistance, of the divine Spirit, who not only instructed them in the mysteries of religion, but besides other extraordinary gifts, endowed them with the power of discerning spirits; that is, with the occasional knowledge of the thoughts, purposes, motives, and spiritual condition of certain individuals, for the regulation of their conduct in particular emergencies. When Ananias laid down part of the price at the feet of the Apostles, saying, by this action, which was meant to be understood according to the general practice, that he laid down the whole of it, he unquestionably told a falsehood; and although his intention went no farther than to deceive the Apostles, yet the lie was ultimately told to the Holy Ghost, who resided in them. As they were his ministers and agents, what was done to them was virtually and interpretatively done to him. Those who rejected their doctrine, rejected the Holy Ghost; those who lied to them, lied to the Holy Ghost.
Of this sin there were two aggravations. First, it was a sin of choice, committed with perfect freedom of will, and not under the influence of compulsion, or the terror of punishment. "Whiles it remained, was it not thine own? and after it was sold, was it not in thine own power? why hast thou conceived this thing in thine heart?" Ananias could have avoided this sin in different ways. He might not have sold his possession; he might have retained the price; or he might have contributed to the public stock any portion of it, great or small, provided that he had stated the amount of the donation, and had not attempted to make a part pass for the whole. So far is the example of the Christians of Jerusalem, in selling their possessions, from being obligatory upon succeeding generations, that it was not binding in their own age. Every man was then, as much as at present, absolute master of his property; and the only positive obligation, to which the Jewish converts were subject, is common to the disciples of Christ to the end of the world; namely, to devote a just proportion of their substance to the use of the poor, and the service of the Church. It is evident, from the words of Peter, that the extraordinary offerings then made were entirely voluntary. No law was enacted upon the subject by the Apostles; nor do we find in the New Testament any traces of the practice beyond the time to which this history refers. It was a spontaneous expression of charity, occasioned, we may suppose, by peculiar circumstances of the primitive Church, with which we are not acquainted. There was nothing, therefore, to alleviate the guilt of Ananias. He could plead no external motive of such force as to constitute what is called an irresistible temptation. It was his own wicked heart to which the whole blame was imputable. He sinned with a willing mind.
The conduct of Ananias was farther aggravated by the dignity of the person against whom it was an offence. "Thou hast not lied unto men, but unto God." He had, indeed, lied to men, in attempting to deceive the Apostles; but Peter means that he had not lied to them alone. It is observable, that whereas he affirms, in the preceding verse, that Ananias had lied to the Holy Ghost, he now charges him with having lied to God. It follows, that the Holy Ghost is not a creature, nor a rhetorical name for a divine operation or influence, but a person possessed of proper divinity. It is to no purpose to object to this inference, that an equivalent phrase is used, where it is manifest that the same conclusion cannot be drawn from it. When the Israelites murmured for want of flesh against Moses and Aaron, they are said to have murmured against God. The instances are not parallel. In the latter case, the Israelites were guilty of murmuring against God, because they complained of Moses and Aaron his ministers; but in the former, Ananias is said not only to have lied to the Holy Ghost, because he lied to the Apostles, who were inspired by him, but to have lied to God in lying to the Holy Ghost; a charge, which would not have been true, unless both designations had belonged to the same person. In this, then, consisted the greatness of his sin, that it was an insult offered to the Spirit of truth and holiness, speaking and acting in the ambassadors of Christ. Every lie which is told to man is an offence against God, of whose law it is an express violation; but the proper object of this lie was the Holy Ghost, who was present with the Apostles in a manner totally different from the mode of his presence with any other person.
The expostulation of Peter with Ananias was terrible, because every word was re-echoed by his conscience; but still more terrible was the event which immediately followed. "Ananias, hearing these words, fell down and gave up the ghost; and great fear came on all them that heard these things." The suddenness of his death is not to be attributed to the violent agitation of his mind, as instant dissolution has been known to be the effect of paroxysms of joy and grief. The stroke was inflicted by the hand of God, who was pleased, for reasons which will be afterwards mentioned, to give this example of his holiness and severity. In this case, we see a specimen of those visible and alarming judgments, which, contrary to his usual procedure, he sometimes executes upon distinguished transgressors. In general, "no man knoweth love or hatred by all that is before him. All things come alike to all: there is one event to the righteous and to the wicked; to the good, and to the clean, and to the unclean." But on certain occasions, God steps aside from his ordinary course, when, by such deviation, some great end of his moral government will be gained. As it discovers rashness and presumption to construe common calamities as proofs of the peculiar guilt and demerit of the sufferers; so not to observe the clear tokens of the divine displeasure against individuals, which appear in the nature and circumstances of their punishment, indicates a high degree of stupidity, a temper approaching to atheism, under whatever pretences of caution and charity it may be disguised. There is a particular providence; and, consequently, there are particular interpositions of wrath as well as of mercy.
Let it not be supposed, that the severity of Peter, on this occasion, was ill suited to the mild genius of the gospel, and to the character of an ambassador of peace. He rebuked Ananias for his crime with the severity which it deserved; but it was not he who inflicted the punishment, nor is there any evidence that he knew that it would immediately follow. When he afterwards denounced the same judgment upon Sapphira, he might be directed by a supernatural suggestion, or he might infer it from the doom of her husband. Whether he was apprized, or not, of the event, Ananias died by the visitation of heaven; and Peter is vindicated from the suspicion of having carried his zeal and resentment to excess.
The next verse relates the burial of Ananias. "And the young men arose, wound him up, and carried him out, and buried him." I have no remarks to make upon these words; and shall not take up your time with inquiring who the young men were, by whom the last office was performed to this unhappy man, as I could only amuse you with conjectures, and the subject is of no importance. Let us proceed to the sequel of the story.
"And it was about the space of three hours after, when his wife, not knowing what was done, came in." For what reason she did not come with her husband, we are not told; but as three hours had passed since he left her, she had leisure to reflect upon her conduct, and there was a favourable opportunity for conscience to remonstrate. It has sometimes happened, that solitude, by leaving a person to his own thoughts, and leading him to review his purposes, with their aggravations and probable consequences, has made him startle at the projects of guilt which he had concerted with others, and tremble to execute what in company he had cordially approved. The presence of associates, the courage which they assume, the arguments which they employ, and the flattering hopes which they hold out, conspire to keep fear and remorse at a distance. It is not commonly till sinners have become hardened in iniquity by repeated acts, or by long indulging it in their hearts, that they are able to bear their own reflections. Sapphira, however, in the absence of her husband, continued steady to her purpose; and having received no intelligence of his fate, came, as soon as her affairs permitted her, to the place where the Apostles were assembled. Supposing, no doubt, that Ananias was already enjoying the reward of their pretended generosity, she made haste to share in the admiration and applause, bestowed by the bystanders upon a pair, so distinguished by their zeal and charity. But their dissimulation was detected and exposed; and nothing awaited her but stern reproof and exemplary punishment.
"And Peter answered unto her, Tell me whether ye sold the land for so much. And she said, Yea, for so much." This question might have suggested to her, that a suspicion was entertained of something unfair in the transaction, as it is not probable that she had ever heard any of the disciples interrogated in the same manner. Peter does not abruptly charge her with dishonesty and impiety, as he had done in the case of her husband. He simply inquires, whether they had sold the land for the sum presented as the full price. The unexpected question would have disconcerted an ordinary transgressor, who finding his plan discovered, would have been overwhelmed with confusion, and have either confessed his crime, or stood speechless. A guilty mind is naturally timid; the utmost precaution cannot render it perfectly secure and quiet; a look, a whisper, a casual expression, which seems to glance at the purpose of which it is conscious, will awaken its fears. Happy would it have been for this woman, if the question had staggered her ill-founded courage, and had led her, with unfeigned repentance, to acknowledge her wickedness. We have no authority to say, that her sin was unpardonable. She might not, indeed, have escaped the temporal judgment which was executed upon her husband, for God sometimes takes vengeance upon the inventions of those whom he pardons; but she would have died, like Achan, glorifying God by making confession. She affords an awful example of obduracy in sin. Still ignorant of the miserable end of her husband, experiencing no uneasiness from conscience, and intent upon consummating the base design in which they were engaged, this audacious woman was determined to brave the Apostle to his face. With a composed countenance, and an unfaltering tongue, she answered, "Yea, for so much;" aggravating her dissimulation by a deliberate and resolute falsehood.
"Then Peter said unto her, How is it that ye have agreed together, to tempt the Spirit of the Lord?" To tempt is commonly used in a bad sense for soliciting a person to evil. "But God cannot be tempted with evil; neither tempteth he any man." The word has sometimes a different meaning in Scripture, signifying to make trial of a person. Thus, when God "tempted'" Abraham, he did not entice him to sin, but proposed a difficult act of obedience, and, in this manner, tried the strength of his faith and love. Concerning the Israelites in the wilderness, we are informed that they tempted the Lord; and we learn from their own words what was the nature of their crime. "They tempted the Lord, saying, Is the Lord among us, or not?" Notwithstanding the evidences which they had already seen of the presence of God, they presumptuously demanded a new proof of it. When Peter, therefore, charges Sapphira with having dared, in concert with her husband, "to tempt the Spirit of the Lord," the meaning obviously is, that their sin was a bold experiment, whether the Holy Ghost, by whom the Apostles were inspired with the gifts of tongues and of miracles, was a discerner of spirits, or could know the thoughts and intentions of the heart. As the Israelites called in question the power of God when they said, "Can he furnish a table in the wilderness?" so did they call in question the omniscience of the Spirit, by their attempt to impose upon his ministers. They ventured to make the trial, and flattered themselves that they should escape with impunity. The plan was the result of mutual counsel; and it was no small aggravation of it, that they had abused the intimacy and confidence of the conjugal relation, to stimulate one another to so nefarious a deed..
Then follows the sentence pronounced upon the unhappy woman, which divine justice immediately executed. "Behold, the feet of them which have buried thy husband are at the door, and shall carry thee out. Then fell she down straightway at his feet, and yielded up the ghost: and the young men came in, and found her dead; and, carrying her forth, buried her by her husband." Both were alike guilty. Whoever suggested the plan, the other party heartily concurred in it. The superior prudence and caution of the husband did not check the forwardness of the wife; nor did the wife, from the timidity natural to her sex, oppose any obstacle to the boldness of her husband. The same unhallowed love of reputation, the same base hypocrisy, the same disregard for the all-seeing eye of heaven, influenced both. They were hateful in their lives, and in their death they were not divided. They perished by the same doom; and their end ministers a solemn warning to others, that they may hear, and fear, and do no more wickedly.
This was the design of the signal vengeance executed upon those sinners, and was the effect which it actually produced. "And great fear came upon all the Church, and upon as many as heard these things." The first and great end of miracles, is to attest the divine commission of the person, by whose ministry they are performed. Nicodemus expressed the dictate of sound reason, when he said to our Saviour, "Rabbi, we know that thou art a teacher come from God: for no man can do these miracles that thou dost, except God be with him." But, besides this general end, they may be subservient to other purposes, and be employed as symbols or representations of spiritual things, and as characteristic of a particular dispensation. The Mosaic economy, which was dark and awful, "the way into the holiest of all being not yet made manifest," was ushered in by terrible displays of the divine power. The gospel was confirmed by miracles of mercy well fitted to express its gracious nature. Yet, as all the miracles of the old dispensation were not of the terrific kind, so those of Christ and his Apostles were not all gentle and beneficent. Some of them were indications of the just severity of God against sinners. In this mixture, we observe a contrivance of divine wisdom, for correcting the natural propensity of men to take encouragement from mild and lenient proceedings, to venture upon acts of disobedience. By occasional manifestations of the holiness and justice of God, sinners are intimidated, and saints are inspired with salutary fear. The fate of Ananias and Sapphira was a solemn admonition to the disciples of Christ, to take heed to themselves, lest they also should provoke the Spirit of the Lord; and to others, to beware of entering into the Church, unless their conviction of the truth was sincere, and their motives were upright. One design of divine punishments in this life, is the good of those who see them, or hear of them; what other purpose, besides satisfaction to incensed justice, they will serve in the world to come, we have no means of knowing. To thoughtless and secure sinners they say, "Except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish;" and upon believers they inculcate the exhortation of Paul, "Let us have grace, whereby we may serve God acceptably, with reverence and godly fear. For our God is a consuming fire."
I shall conclude with the following reflections upon the passage.
It is vain to expect, that in this world the Church shall ever be perfectly pure. I mean, not only that imperfections will always adhere to the members of the Church, because "there is not a just man upon earth, that doeth good, and sinneth not;" but farther, that hypocrites will be found intermixed with the saints. The wheat and the chaff lie together upon the barn-floor. No precautions, however strict, can prevent their admission; no discipline, however vigorous, no doctrine, however faithful, will be able to expel them. There were an Ananias and a Sapphira in the society over which the Apostles presided.
We should guard against the predominance of every sinful passion, whether it be avarice, ambition, sensuality, envy, pride, or any other lust of the flesh or of the spirit. As "one sinner destroys much good," so one sin reigning in the heart, counteracts the efficacy of the best means, and may carry us to a very great length in depravity. If the restraints of providence are removed, and a strong temptation is presented in favourable circumstances, it will precipitate us into such excesses, as shall dishonour us in the eyes of men, and provoke God to pour out upon us the fury of his wrath. You see the dreadful effects of vanity and covetousness, in the conduct of Ananias and Sapphira.
Impenitent sinners are always in danger of perishing by the vengeance of heaven. Judgment, indeed, is God's "strange work;" but it is a work, which a regard to his glory sometimes calls upon him to perform. And when one victim falls, it is impossible to tell who shall be the next. A sentence of death is passed upon all unbelievers, and execution of which is delayed only by the longsuffering and patience of God. Let not men presume upon his patience; for, although divine, it has its limits, beyond which it will not extend. "Let sinners in Zion be afraid; let fearfulness surprise the hypocrites: who among us shall dwell with the devouring fire? Who among us shall dwell with everlasting burnings?" Such is the God with whom you have to do. He is a fire to consume the workers of iniquity; it flames around you, and is ready to kindle upon you; and there is no possibility of escaping from it, but by calling for help to Him who rescued the three Jewish confessors from the king of Babylon's furnace.
Let us, above all things, study to be sincere in religion. What will hypocrisy avail? Can our artifice impose upon Cod? Are we able to conceal from him, under a mask of piety and goodness, the real features of our character? Do not "his eye see, and his eye-lids try, the children of men?" "There is not any creature that is not manifest in his sight; but all things are naked and opened unto the eyes of him with whom we have to do." In vain did Ananias and Sapphira secretly concert their plan, and assume the confidence of conscious integrity to quash any suspicion of their baseness. A good name, the esteem and friendly offices of Christians, and even worldly advantages, may be the recompense of dissimulation in this world; but what awaits in the next? "What is the hope of the hypocrite, though he hath gained, when God taketh away his soul?" One faint spark of genuine religion is more acceptable to God than the ardent flames with which he offers up his devotions. Let it then be your constant and earnest prayer, that through grace you may be what you profess. "Let integrity and uprightness preserve me; for I wait on thee." The time will come, when, stript of every disguise, men shall appear in their real character; and, the false-hearted shall be exposed to the scorn of those, whose admiration they are now so eager to obtain. But then undissembled goodness shall be brought to light. Often concealed by modesty, by indigence, by reproach, and by obscurity of station, it shall be displayed at the tribunal of God, to the praise of his grace which inspired it, and to the honour of the possessor. "Thy Father, O Christian, who seeth thee in secret, will reward thee openly."