One might wonder about how to understand the case of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-10) in light of the main point of my earlier post, which was that misfortune should not be interpreted as divine punishment for sin. Because the passage does not say God punished Ananias and Sapphira for their sin, a careful look at the passage—while bearing in mind other truths taught in scripture—will have to be given to see whether that interpretation is justified. I will consider three interpretations of the passage (the interpretations are not meant to be exhaustive, nor incompatible with each other in every respect).
According to the first, the calamity that befalls of Ananias and Sapphira is understood to be God’s punishment for their sin. However, due to the exceptional circumstances of the incident, it should be seen as a particular exception to the general rule that one’s misfortune is not divine punishment for one’s sin. According to the other two interpretations, the calamity that befalls of Ananias and Sapphira should not be understood as punishment for their sin, and so is in no way an exception to the general rule.
We should begin by noting that the incident occurs when the early church was in its infant stages, which, like it is for newborns, is a time of particular vulnerability. Because of the high-stakes circumstances, more drastic measures were called for to protect and preserve the church. Those measures amounted to smiting Ananias and Sapphira for their sin. And it worked: “And great fear seized all who heard what had happened” (Acts 5:5; 5:11). As Donald Guthrie puts it, the episode “was a serious warning which was to have a salutary effect on the developing ethic of the Christian church” (New Testament Theology, p. 911).
In fact, we see this same theme elsewhere in scripture. Consider two examples. Example 1: The context is the post-Exodus building of the tabernacle, emphasizing the importance of and commitment to holiness as the defining characteristic of God’s people. Aaron’s sons broke this new order when they offered a sacrifice “contrary to [God’s] command,” (Lev 10:1) and so were consumed by fire “from the presence of the Lord” (Lev 10:2). Example 2 bears an uncanny resemblance to the case of Ananias and Sapphira. The context is Israel’s finally entering the Promised Land. The period of success followed by Israel’s obedience soon came to an end when Achan “acted unfaithfully in regard to the devoted things” (Josh 7:1) by holding back for himself some booty from Jericho. Achan was stoned for this act of defiance, a sentence that satisfied the lord’s anger. Some commentators suggest Luke intends for his readers to see the parallel with Achan (e.g., F. F. Bruce: “The story of Ananias is to the book of Acts what the story of Achan is to the book of Joshua. In both narratives an act of deceit interrupts the victorious progress of the people of God.” The Book of Acts, p. 102.). If a general principle can be gleaned from these examples, it might be that sin is judged more severely during periods that mark the beginning of a new phase in God’s relationship with his people.
Furthermore, a rule, standard, or norm serves as an interpretative framework in which we recognize and understand exceptional cases as such. But exceptional cases to not negate the norm. Most rules come with an implicit “all things being equal” qualification. But in some cases, not all things are equal, and exceptions have to be made. Other examples of this obvious point would be what seem to be permissible instances of polygamy, incest, and divorce in the Bible. But it would be a bad hermeneutic to view these rare and exceptional cases as negating the Biblical norm of life-long monogamous marriage between extra-filial relations. Similarly, because of the exceptional circumstance in which it occurs, it would be a bad hermeneutic to view the case of Ananias and Sapphira as negating the general rule that one’s misfortune is not divine punishment for one’s sin.
The circumstances of the incident were exceptional in that it occurs just as the ministry of the Holy Spirit is being established in the early church. It is noteworthy that Ananias’ sin is in part due to Satan’s influence (Acts 5:3) (the text indicates that Ananias allowed Satan to fill his heart). John Stott goes so far as to say “the chief actor” in this passage “almost seems to be Satan” (The Message of Acts, p. 88). Up to that point, “being filled with the Holy Spirit,” the Christian community experienced unparalleled unity (Acts 4:31-35; unity is a hallmark of the Spirit’s presence. See Eph 4:1-6; Phil 1:27). Satan threatened this unity by introducing deception and discord in the church, directly challenging the Holy Spirit’s sovereignty and influence from the start. Or as Stott puts it, “As soon as the Spirit came upon the church, Satan launched a ferocious counter-attack” (ibid., p. 105). Peter makes clear that it wasn’t the church being sinned against, but the Holy Spirit Himself (Acts 5:3-4). God responded by dealing with the threat immediately and decisively. The spiritual dynamics involved, therefore, render plausible the supposition that the episode is primarily an act of judgment on Satan, but simultaneously act of mercy on Ananias and Sapphira (cf: 1 Cor 5:5, where Paul speaks of handing a man “over to Satan, so that the sinful nature may be destroyed and his spirit saved on the day of the Lord”). So understood, the case of Ananias and Sapphira’s lot should not be interpreted as God’s judgment on them, and so should not be interpreted as a counterexample to the original point (on interpreting God’s dealing with Ananias and Sapphira as an act of mercy, see Bruce, idem., p. 114. To be clear, Bruce does not consider the possibility that God’s act of judgment is on Satan. Rather, he sees it as both an act of judgment and mercy on Ananias and Sapphira).
It could be argued that the circumstances were exceptional in that Ananias and Sapphira’s sin was exceptional. Some commentators (e.g., John Stott, The Message of Acts, p. 111) have noted that their sin resembles the “unpardonable sin” spoken of by Jesus (i.e., blasphemy of the Holy Spirit. See Matt 12:31-32; Mark 3:28-29). More plausible, however, is that Luke records the incident to illustrate the importance of repentance for forgiveness. As Guy Nave notes in his book The Role and Function of Repentance in Luke-Acts, “conveyed throughout the Lukan narrative, repentance provides forgiveness of sins and deliverance from destruction (Luke 3:3, 7-14; 10:13-14; 11:32; 16:27-30; 17:3-4; 24:47; Acts 2:38; 3:17-23; 5:31; 8:20-24; 17:30-31; 26:16-20)” (p. 178). Moreover, and more importantly, Nave shows that Luke presents God’s judgment and condemnation not as resulting from sin, but from failure to repent (see e.g., Luke 10:13-14; 11:32; 13:1-9) (see Nave, ch. 4, esp. pp. 176ff.). It is commonly argued that Ananias and Sapphira were exemplary in their lack of repentance. Had they repented, maybe things would have gone differently (as promised in 1 Cor 11:31; 2 Cor 7:10; 2 Pet 3:9). So, really, it’s not Ananias and Sapphira’s sin that was exceptional, but their lack of repentance.
In summary, it is not at all conclusive that Ananias and Sapphira’s fate was God’s judgment for their sin. But even if it were, because the incident occurred in such exceptional circumstances, it should not be seen as negating the general rule that hardship and calamity should not be interpreted as divine punishment for sin. Rather, the incident should be seen a rare exception to that norm. None of the three interpretations therefore constitute a counterexample to the main point of my earlier post.