[5:1-16]. The hypocrisy of the spouses Ananias and Sapphira struck with death.
Many Christians think that the God of the Old Testament is substantially different from Jesus and, for them, the episode we are considering would be a “remnant” of the Old Testament. This interpretation has all kinds of holes, but it is not easy to move them away from their theological infantilism, because they are fond of a God who “has become good” like Jesus, while they can’t stand the “terrible” one of the Old Testament.
We certainly cannot dwell on the relationship between severity and patience of God, between law and grace. Let us just say, briefly, that God has always been “slow to anger” (Exodus 34:6; Mt 21:33-45), that the law without grace would have immediately broken the relationship between God and man (sin of Adam in Gen 3, golden calf in Exodus 32), while grace without law makes no sense (For without the law there is no sin, and, therefore, there would be no need of grace, cf. Rom 7:7-13). From Adam onwards, God always dealt with man on the basis of grace, both before Moses (with Abraham) and after Moses (with David) (Rom 4:1-16). Indeed, the more God shows patience and openness to man, the more severe He is if that availability is not appreciated (Heb 10:28-29; 12:18-25). To conclude, not only can we draw a parallel between the law given by Moses on Mount Sinai and Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount” (Mt 5-7), but also affirm that it is quite clear that Jesus is more demanding than Moses.
Coming to the text of Acts which we are examining, Peter made it clear that selling one’s goods was not obligatory, nor was it obligatory to bring the proceeds to the apostles: only falsehood was not admitted. Peter merely rebuked Ananias and was probably surprised to see him die immediately. All those present were shocked and it took some youthful unawareness to take the initiative to take away the body and bury it (vv. 5-6).
Did Peter share this severity of God or did he dissociate himself from it? The answer came three hours later, when his wife Sapphira arrived, who also fell into hypocrisy and to whom Peter announced, consciously and explicitly, the mortal judgment of God that would immediately fall on her too (v. 9).
In those days, God was working in the Church in an extraordinary way which aroused enthusiasm. Ananias and Sapphira appear as infiltrators who undermine the very foundations on which the new work was growing and this can help us to understand the severity of God who, through this episode, discouraged “others” (v. 13, i.e., those who did not give themselves completely to Jesus) from attempting to insert themselves in the Church incorrectly.
A Church (and a leader like Peter) so full of love for holiness, enjoyed the full trust from God, so not only were «many signs and wonders done among the people» (v. 12), but even Peter’s shadow did miracles and «all were healed» (v. 16): «all», as Jesus had done (Luke 6:19); we should stop for a moment to think about, and remember, this when we ask ourselves why in the world diseases multiply.
The Church was exalted by the people (v. 13), that is, by those who did not believe! The crowds flocked (v. 16). The Church kept herself clean. Quite a big moment, which presaged, I wonder, what achievements. As when the sun is at noon, however, that maximum of light is preparing for its decline. Because (as we shall see) the Jewish leaders would then have behaved in a manner similar to Pharaoh, that is, hardening themselves and increasing rebellion to every new miracle they saw. The people themselves, as we have already said, would have let themselves be led astray again; after having forgotten John the Baptist and abandoned Jesus, they would have been complicit in the stoning of Stephen (chap. 7) and the removal from Jerusalem of precisely those believers who were enlightening it (8:1); those would have brought that light elsewhere, while darker times were being prepared for Jerusalem (destruction by the Romans in 70 AD).
[5:17-42]. New arrest of the apostles.
This section roughly repeated the script already seen in chapter 4 (vv. 1-21), with opposition to the apostles led by the Sadducees and with the final release of the apostles, also due to their popularity (v. 26). In this case not only Peter and John were arrested (as in chap. 4), but the whole group of apostles (vv. 18 and 29), who continued not to be intimidated (vv. 29-32).
In this episode we find the miraculous liberation from prison by an angel and it is significant how the angel himself tells the apostles to go and preach in the Temple (v. 20). Jesus also loved to preach in the Temple (Mt 26:55; Jn 18:20), which he called «the house of my Father» and therefore his house (Jn 2:16). It is natural that for the apostles, then, the Temple was “the house of Jesus”, that is exactly the opposite of what many Christians think today, who are convinced that, when a Jew accepted Jesus, he automatically detached himself from the Temple and the various Jewish institutions! When these Christians read in Acts that the first disciples were “frequently” in the Temple, they suppose that the apostles had not yet understood well, giving, therefore, a wrong example (in short, they are convinced to understand Christianity better than the apostles!).
In the final part of chapter 5, there is a long insert (vv. 34-40) in which we see appearing «a Pharisee in the council named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law held in honor by all the people», who began to suspect that, behind everything the apostles were doing, there could really be the hand of God. Taking into account the immediate context, it seems that this character has been given an exaggerated relevance, somewhat like in the case of Barnabas at the end of the previous chapter.
Even the name of Gamaliel (coincidentally!) will then re-emerge in the events of Saul, so the name was not so essential for the history of the Church, but it was useful to Saul, who, not surprisingly, prided himself before the Jews of having been educated «at the feet of Gamaliel» (22:3). Taking into account the insert in vv. 34-40, then, Saul’s belief in Jesus appears almost as a natural development of the setting of the great wise Gamaliel. In short, Saul has not yet officially entered the scene, but these signs show that it is precisely towards Saul/Paul that Luke positions his story (as will be seen better later).