The sacred writer gives two instances of the practice which we last evening inquired into—one an example, another a warning.
The first case is that of Joses, a man who, from his excellent qualities and amiable manners, acquired the surname of Barnabas, or “son of consolation.” This name, which afterwards became illustrious in the church, was that of a Levite, who, although then residing at Jerusalem, was a native of Cyprus. This person sold his estates, and voluntarily bringing to the apostles the produce—which, from the manner in which his conduct is singled out for contrast with that of another less amiable character, was doubtless very considerable—rejoiced to take his share in the general distribution. Although this extent of relinquishment was not obligatory, yet it was natural that those who thus manifested their love to the brethren, and their devotedness to the service of the church, should appear to great advantage, and be much looked up to in comparison with those who, although not strictly bound to follow such examples, at least had the same motives to disinterestedness and zeal. Those who abstained from this noble and generous course, unless prevented by some special and recognizable reasons, must, in such a state of society, have appeared in a strange and anomalous position, and could not fail to be held in less esteem, if only as “weak brethren.”
This was felt by a disciple named Ananias, and his feeling was shared by his wife Sapphira—a beautiful name, which the infamy of this woman has unhappily thrown out of use. They loved the praise of men, and could not be content to be held in less consideration than such bright examples as Barnabas. But, on the other hand, they loved money quite as well—even better. They could not bear the idea of giving this price for the good opinion of others to which they aspired. They had not faith to cast their cares upon God, by giving up all they had for Him. They feared they might come to want—they feared to endanger their comforts beyond recall—they wished to retain some security against the contingencies which the future might produce. In one word, they loved money, and had not the heart to part with it altogether. No doubt man and wife tallied over this matter night and day, until they fell upon what both regarded as a brilliant conception, an admirable device for securing both objects, winning the respect of the church, without altogether abandoning their substance. It was known that they possessed an estate; this they would sell—really sell it. This every one would know; but it would not have been known what they received for it; for estates were not in those days sold by auction, and it is likely that the estate was away somewhere in the country, and not near Jerusalem. What so easy, then, as to give into the hands of the apostles, for the general good, a certain sum as the whole produce of the sale, reserving the rest as a secret treasure for themselves. They would thus enjoy their private comforts and satisfactions, their little securities against the time to come; and while thus pursuing very second-rate conduct, they would win the credit of first-rate sacrifices. What could be easier than this? Nothing. For, “as easy as lying,” is a proverb. It was altogether a most precious plot, neat and well compacted. In it nothing was forgotten—except God; everything was remembered—save Him. Yet, although they could deceive man, they could not deceive Him—and He was to be their Judge in that day when the dark secrets of many hearts shall be revealed in the eyes of men and angels. And even here, they would not have realized what they sought; for every day the thought how little they had really deserved the credit they had acquired among their fellows, would have been a sharp sting in the midst of all the enjoyments of their secret wealth.
But there was an eye even on earth that saw it—the eye of Peter. He was apprised of what took place by special revelation, perhaps; or it may be that the important faculty of “discerning of spirits,” by which those who had plenarily received the Holy Ghost, as the apostles had, were able to read the hearts and souls of others, sufficed for the occasion.
When, therefore, Ananias appeared with his money, and tendered it to the apostles as the produce of his estate, generously and liberally offered by him for the wants of the Church, he was confounded by the stern and solemn voice in which Peter addressed him—“Ananias, why hath Satan filled thy heart to lie unto the Holy Ghost, and to keep back part of the price of the land? While it remained, was it not thine own; and after it was sold, was it not in thine own power?—thou hast not lied unto men, but unto God.” At these words, which disclosed the deformity and guilt of his conduct to himself, which declared it in the presence of others; and, above all, when he was denounced as one who had lied unto God, the wretched man was overwhelmed, and, without uttering a word, fell to the ground—dead. This was the finger of God—his finger, whether, as some suppose, by the instant and judicial immolation of the offender by supernatural means; or whether the death was accomplished through natural means—the smiting terrors of his conscience, the shame, the horror, the exposure, at the moment when all seemed most secure, giving such a shock to the frame as might quite suffice to produce sudden death. It has often done so in the cases of other men. Peter did not sentence him—did not denounce his death. But God undoubtedly designed that he should die, to warn the church of His abhorrence of hypocrisy; and whether He saw fit to inflict that death by natural means is of small consequence.
This awful judgment made a deep and powerful impression upon those by whom it was witnessed, and indeed upon all who heard of it. When the first agitation had a little subsided, the young men of the congregation who were present, advanced to prepare the body for interment. They wound it up in the usual burying cloths and bandages, which served instead of coffins among the Jews, as is still the case in Eastern nations, to which such receptacles for the dead are unknown. They then bore the body away, to deposit in the cemetery beyond the city. All seems to have been done in an orderly and decent manner, though there must have been an absence of those circumstances which ensued when a man died among his relatives, and in his own nest—the wailings, the train of mourners, and the like. The Jews usually buried their dead soon after death, as we have more than once seen; but this was quicker than usual—simply because it was desirable to remove the body, and there was an object in not taking it to his own home, even indeed if those then present knew where that was.
As some little time had elapsed in the first instance, as then the body had to be prepared for burial, and taken beyond the city, and as the grave had to be digged when the spot was reached, it was three hours after the death of Ananias before the young men returned from the burial. It was just as they reached the place, that another similar judgment upon the wife of Ananias supplied a fresh occasion for their painful services.
Sapphira had then entered quite ignorant of all that had occurred, and prepared, no doubt, to receive her share of the consideration and approval which the Christian generosity of her husband must, she supposed, have secured. But Peter knew or suspected her complicity in this shameful business, if, indeed, the crime had not been originally of her suggestion—tempting, like another Eve, her husband to the sin which ruined both.
Peter immediately spoke to her when she came in, asking her if the land had been sold for “so much?”—naming the sum which Ananias had brought as the entire produce of the sale. Thus was an opportunity graciously afforded her for repentance—and in many a guilty but more ingenuous heart, the very question of the apostle would have produced instant and tearful confession of the wrong that had been done. Such a moment for reflection as was given to her, has often by God’s grace saved a soul. But Sapphira’s heart was hardened; and she made herself more guilty than her husband, by deliberately and emphatically confirming the fraud, in answer to a direct question from one of the pillars of the church, and in the presence of that assembly, composed of persons who had come out from the untoward generation of worldly men. Under the fixed eye of the apostle, which was looking into her soul, she blenched not to answer, “Yea, for so much”—an assertion which must have given a thrill of dismay and horror to those, then present, who had not long before witnessed the doom of her husband. Peter himself dealt with this atrocity even more severely than in the case of the husband. Then, he had declared the crime, but did not denounce the punishment. But now, he not only declares the offence, but judicially sentences the offender. “How is it,” he said with painful emotion, “that ye have agreed together to tempt the Spirit of the Lord;” and then raising his voice, yet shrinking to name directly the doom he felt impelled to pronounce, he cried “Behold the feet of them which have buried thy husband are at the door—and shall carry thee out.” Thus in one moment she heard the dreadful information of her husband’s end and of the instant approach of her own. Thereon she fell to the ground and died, as he had done, and the young men then coming in, took away the body, and buried her beside her husband. This latter case being most manifestly the act and judgment of God, shows that both were so. It might be said, and could not be disproved, that Ananias died naturally, though suddenly, from the nervous shock his system had received. But this was not the case in the latter instance; for Sapphira’s death, then and there, was distinctly declared by the apostle—and however possible it might be that the shock might kill her also—the apostle could not have reckoned upon that as a certainty, and, from the hardihood the woman had evinced, the probabilities were rather against than for this result. The hand of God was visible here. It seemed good to Him by this severity of judgment to attest his hatred of worldliness, and double-dyed hypocrisy; to confirm the authority of the apostles, for judgment no less than mercy; and to maintain the purity of the infant church, which would have been seriously endangered had such offences as these passed without most signal punishment.
The effect upon the church of these miracles of judgment was important and solemnizing. “Great fear came upon all the church, and upon as many as heard these words.”—“And fear, rightly directed, is both proper and salutary to such a creature as man. The fear of God and the dread of sin, as displeasing to God, is the greatest blessing to the soul. This awful example would produce and cherish it. Great fear might well come upon all the disciples when they saw before their eyes the consequence of sin. The consequence we are ready to acknowledge; the difficulty is to feel a due conviction of the truth. We confess that the wages of sin is death. But ‘because sentence against an evil work is not executed speedily, therefore the heart of the sons of men is fully set in them to do evil.’ Note: Ecc_8:11. Here the sentence was executed speedily: here that judgment was witnessed, which it is part of our probation to believe—to receive on faith. And the whole event may well incline us to pray with David: ‘Keep back thy servant, O Lord, from presumptuous sins: let them not have dominion over me; then shall I be upright, and I shall be innocent from the great transgression.’” Note: Psa_19:13. Archbishop Sumner’s Practical Exposition of the Acts of the Apostles. 1838.