Series: An edited adaptation of the book Prayer, Power, and Proclamation by C.L.Peppler published by Chrispy Publications in 2009 (ISBN 978-0-620-43583-3). Chap 4; part 2:
Let’s consider a very disturbing incident in the life of the early church where another intriguing indication of the power of proclamation occurs in Acts 5. Peter appears to speak death to Ananias’ wife, Sapphira. Verses 9-10 record how Peter, “said to her, ‘How could you agree to test the Spirit of the Lord? Look! The feet of the men who buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out also.’ At that moment she fell down at his feet and died. Then the young men came in and, finding her dead, carried her out and buried her beside her husband.”
You could argue that God merely backed up Peter’s words by striking the woman dead, but that would indicate that God was responsible for a brutal response to what appears to be a rather minor offence. It is equally unlikely that both Ananias and his wife would have died from shock. I suppose this could have happened, but one incidence would have been most unusual, let alone two! It makes more sense to understand that Peter was utilising the authority and power given to him and under his control. We may well question Peter’s use, or abuse of this power, but this is surely preferable to laying the blame at God’s feet.
I must tell you, though, that the common interpretation of this passage does put the blame squarely on God. The idea is that God needed to nip any form of dishonesty and self-serving in the bud. In my view, if this was his intent, then the strategy failed miserably. For instance, the members of the church in Corinth behaved disgracefully and obviously took no warning from the Ananias incident. Significantly, God did not strike any of them dead!
There is a revealing parallel to this event recorded in Acts 13:9 – 12 where Paul deals with Elymas, a Jewish sorcerer and false prophet. Paul says this to him, “’You are a child of the devil …You are going to be blind, and for a time’ …When the proconsul saw what had happened, he believed, for he was amazed at the teaching about the Lord.” The point of similarity is that Paul, like Peter, proclaimed negatively, and the results were exactly as spoken. There are, however, some major differences. Ananias and his wife were children of God and disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ, while Elymas was a child and disciple of the devil. Despite this, Paul did not proclaim his death but just a temporary blindness. The result of Peter’s action was fear amongst the people and a huge reticence to join the church, while the result of Paul’s action was a pagan official turned to Jesus.
Would Jesus have struck dead two of his followers because of a ‘white lie’? No! Jesus healed and raised the dead; he did not kill! Why then would we think that he would do any differently in his dealings with his church?
For me, the inescapable conclusion is that Peter abused his authority and misused his power. The Holy Spirit gifted him with a Word of Knowledge, so that he could correct the couple’s behaviour, but instead of correcting them he terminated them!
When I was teaching on this passage, a few people got upset with me on two counts. Firstly, they felt that I was criticising Peter, the great man of God. Well, yes I am. Peter was an ordinary man with strengths and faults. He was impetuous and sometimes arrogant. I believe that he made a grave mistake in his handling of the situation. His lesson is our lesson. Christian leaders often emotionally ‘shoot’ their erring church members. Of course, nowadays we don’t actually shoot them; we just criticise them, speak badly of them, and run them out of the church!
Secondly, my gentle critics objected to the inference that the Bible was inadequate because it recorded this event without censure. The Bible tells things as they are. The book of Acts is, in part, a history of the early church. It contains both good and bad models and examples. They are there for our instruction. I appreciate this about the Bible, and I draw hope and instruction from the mistakes committed by biblical characters. I can relate to them because I constantly make mistakes and require God’s grace and mercy.
But what actually happens when a spirit-filled believer speaks words of blessing or curse? The Bible gives no direct answer to this question, so I will try to set out my understanding in upcoming blog posts.
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