(1, 2) A certain man named Ananias.—The name meets us again as belonging to the high priest in Acts 23:2, and was the Greek form of the Hebrew Hananiah. It had the same significance as John, or Johanan, “The Lord be gracious.” “Sapphira,” is either connected with the “sapphire,” as a precious stone, or from a Hebrew word signifying “beautiful” or “pleasant.” The whole history must be read in connection with the act of Barnabas. He, it seemed, had gained praise and power by his self-sacrifice. Ananias thought that he could get at the same result more cheaply. The act shows a strange mingling of discordant elements. Zeal and faith of some sort had led him to profess himself a believer. Ambition was strong enough to win a partial victory over avarice; avarice was strong enough to triumph over truth. The impulse to sell came from the Spirit of God; it was counteracted by the spirit of evil, and the resulting sin was therefore worse than that of one who lived altogether in the lower, commoner forms of covetousness. It was an attempt to serve God and mammon; to gain the reputation of a saint, without the reality of holiness. The sin of Ananias is, in some aspects, like that of Gehazi (2 Kings 5:20-27), but it was against greater light and intensified by a more profound hypocrisy, and it was therefore visited by a more terrible chastisement. We may well trace in the earnestness with which St. James warns men against the peril of the “double mind”—i.e., the heart divided between the world and God (James 1:8; James 4:8)—the impression made on him by such a history as this.
To lie to the Holy Ghost.—The words admit of two tenable interpretations. Ananias may be said to “have lied unto the Holy Ghost,” either (1) as lying against Him who dwelt in the Apostles whom he was seeking to deceive; or (2) as against Him who was the Searcher of the secrets of all hearts, his own included, and who was “grieved” (Ephesians 4:31) by this resistance in one who had been called to a higher life. The apparent parallelism of the clause in Acts 5:4 is in favour of (1); but there is in the Greek a distinction, obviously made deliberately, between the structure of the verb in the two sentences. Here it is used with the accusative of the direct object, so that the meaning is “to cheat or deceive the Holy Spirit;” there with the dative, “to speak a lie, not to men, but to God;” and this gives a sense which is at least compatible with (2). The special intensity of the sin consisted in its being against the light and knowledge with which the human spirit had been illumined by the divine. The circumstance that it was also an attempt to deceive those in whom that Spirit dwelt in the fulness of its power comes in afterwards as a secondary aggravation.
Thou hast not lied unto men, but unto God.—The parallelism between this and “lying to the Holy Ghost” in Acts 5:3 has often been used, and perfectly legitimately, as a proof that while the Apostles thought of the Spirit as sent by the Father, and therefore distinct in His personality, they yet did not shrink from speaking of Him as God, and so identifying Him with the Divine Essential Being.
Wound him up.—The word in this sense is found here only in the New Testament. It implies the hurried wrapping in a winding-sheet. It was followed by the immediate interment outside the walls of the city. Custom, resting partly on the necessities of climate, partly on the idea of ceremonial defilement, as caused by contact with a corpse (Numbers 19:11-16), required burial to follow quickly on death, unless there was a more or less elaborate embalmment. In the act itself we note something like a compassionate respect. There is a reverence for humanity, as such, perhaps for the body that had once been the temple of the Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19), that will not permit men to do as the heathen did, and to inflict dishonour on the lifeless corpse. The narrative implies that the new society had already a burial-place to which they had free right of access. Was it in the Potter’s Field that had been bought to bury strangers in? (Matthew 27:7.) Did the body of Ananias rest in the same cemetery with that of Judas? (See Note on Matthew 27:8.)
Behold, the feet of them. . . .—In this instance the coming judgment is foretold, and the announcement tended to work out its own completion. Here, to all the shame and agony that had fallen on Ananias, there was now added the bitter thought of her husband’s death as in some sense caused by her, inasmuch as she might have prevented the crime that led to it. The prophetic insight given to St. Peter taught him that the messengers, whose footsteps he already heard, had another task of a like nature before them.
They were all with one accord in Solomon’s porch.—See Notes on Acts 3:2; John 10:23. It was, we have seen, at all times a favourite place of resort for teachers. The chronology of this period of the history is still, as before, left somewhat indefinite; but assuming some months to have passed since the Day of Pentecost, what is now related would be in the winter, when, as in John 10:23, that portico, as facing the east and catching the morning sunlight, was more than usually frequented. On “with one accord,” see Note on Acts 4:24.
Both of men and women.—The mention of the latter forms an introduction to the dissensions connected with the “widows” in Acts 6, and is itself characteristic of St. Luke as a writer who had seen and known the effect of the new Religion in raising women to a higher life, and whose knowledge of its history was in great measure derived from them. (See Introduction to St. Luke’s Gospel.) So in Acts 8:3 women are named as prominent among the sufferers in the first general persecution.
That at the least the shadow of Peter . . . .—It is implied in the next verse that the hope was not disappointed. Assuming that miracles are possible, and that the narratives of the Gospels indicate generally the laws that govern them, there is nothing in the present narrative that is not in harmony with those laws. Christ healed sometimes directly by a word, without contact of any kind (Matthew 8:13; John 4:52); sometimes through material media—the fringe of His garment (Matthew 9:20), or the clay smeared over the blind man’s eyes (John 9:5) becoming channels through which the healing virtue passed. All that was wanted was the expectation of an intense faith, as the subjective condition on the one side, the presence of an objective supernatural power on the other, and any medium upon which the imagination might happen to fix itself as a help to faith. So afterwards the “hand, kerchiefs and aprons” from St. Paul’s skin do what the shadow of St. Peter does here (Acts 19:12). In the use of oil, as in Mark 6:13, James 5:14, we find a medium employed which had in itself a healing power, with which the prayer of faith was to co-operate.
On the “beds and couches,” see Note on Mark 2:4. The couches were the more portable pallets or mattresses of the poor.
Vexed with unclean spirits.—In this work the Apostles and the Seventy had already experienced the power of the Name of the Lord Jesus (Luke 10:17). Now that they were working in the full power of the Spirit, it was natural that they should do yet greater things (John 14:12).
Which is the sect of the Sadducees.—The fact, of which this is the only distinct record, is of immense importance as throwing light on the course of action taken by the upper class of priests, both during our Lord’s ministry and in the history of this book. From the time of the teaching of John 5:25-29, they must have felt that His doctrine was diametrically opposed to theirs. They made one attempt to turn that doctrine, on which, and almost on which alone, He and the Pharisees were in accord, into ridicule, and were baffled (Matthew 22:23-33). The raising of Lazarus mingled a dogmatic antagonism with the counsels of political expediency (John 11:49-50). The prominence of the Resurrection of Jesus in the teaching of the Apostles now made the Sadducean high priests their most determined opponents. The Pharisees, on the other hand, less exposed now than they had been before to the condemnation passed by our Lord on their unreality and perverted casuistry, were drawing off from those with whom they had for a time coalesced, into a position at first of declared neutrality; then of secret sympathy; then, in many cases, of professed adherence (Acts 15:5).
Filled with indignation.—The word is that elsewhere rendered “zeal,” or “envy.” Both meanings of the word were probably applicable here. There was “zeal” against the doctrine, “envy” of the popularity of the Apostles.
They that were with him.—Probably those named in Acts 4:6, who seem to have acted as a kind of cabinet or committee.
All the senate. . . .—Literally the word means, like senate, the assembly of old men, or elders. They are here distinguished from the Sanhedrin, which itself included elders, in the official sense of the word, and were probably a body of assessors—how chosen we do not know—specially qualified by age and experience, called in on special occasions. They may have been identical with the “whole estate of the elders” of Acts 22:5.
The captain of the temple.—The commander of the Levite sentinels. (See Notes on Acts 4:1; Luke 22:52.)
Whereunto this would grow.—Literally, what it might become, or, possibly, what it might be. They do not seem to have recognised at once the supernatural character of what had taken place, and may have conjectured that the Apostles had by some human help effected their escape.
Ye have filled Jerusalem with your doctrine.—Better, with your teaching, both to keep up the connection with the previous clause, and because the word is taken, as in Matthew 7:28, in its wider sense, and not in the modern sense which attaches to “doctrine” as meaning a formulated opinion.
To bring this man’s blood upon us.—There seems a touch, partly of scorn, partly, it may be, of fear, in the careful avoidance (as before, in “this name”) of the name of Jesus. The words that Peter had uttered, in Acts 2:36; Acts 3:13-14; Acts 4:10, gave some colour to the conscience-stricken priests for this charge; but it was a strange complaint to come from those who had at least stirred up the people to cry, “His blood be on us and on our children” (Matthew 27:25).
We ought to obey God rather than men.—The words are an assertion of the same general law of duty as that of Acts 4:19-20, but the command of the angel in Acts 5:20 had given them a new significance.
A Prince.—See Note on Acts 3:15.
To give repentance.—We note, as in Acts 2:38, the essential unity of the teaching of the Apostles with that of the Baptist (Matthew 3:2). The beginning and the end were the same in each; what was characteristic of the new teaching was a fuller revelation (1) of the way in which forgiveness had been obtained; (2) of the spiritual gifts that followed on forgiveness; and (3) the existence of the society which was to bear its witness of both.
Commanded to put the apostles forth a little space.—The practice of thus deliberating in the absence of the accused seems to have been common. (Comp. Acts 4:15.) The report of the speech that follows may have come to St. Luke from some member of the Council, or, probably enough, from St. Paul himself. The occasional coincidences of language with the writings of that Apostle tend to confirm the antecedent likelihood of the conjecture.
Take heed to yourselves.—Compare our Lord’s use of the same formula (Matthew 6:1; Matthew 7:15; Matthew 10:17), and St. Paul’s (1 Timothy 1:4; 1 Timothy 4:13; Titus 1:14).
It will come to nought.—Better, it will be overthrown, so as to preserve the emphasis of the repetition of the same verb in the next clause of the dilemma.
And beaten them.—Here we trace the action of Caiaphas and the priests. They were not content without some punishment being inflicted, and the party of Gamaliel apparently acquiesced in this as a compromise in the hope of averting more violent measures. And this is accordingly to be noted as the first actual experience of persecution falling on the whole company of the Twelve, and not on Peter and John only. They were probably convicted of the minor offence of causing a disturbance in the Temple, though dismissed, as with a verdict of “not” proven, “on the graver charge of heresy. The punishment in such a case would probably be the “forty stripes save one,” of Deuteronomy 25:3 and 2 Corinthians 11:24.
And in every house.—Better, as in Acts 2:46, at home: in their place, or, it may be, places, of meeting.
To teach and preach Jesus Christ.—Better, to teach and to declare the good tidings of Jesus Christ. The word for “preach” is literally to “evangelise,” as in Acts 8:4; Acts 8:12; Acts 8:25; Romans 10:15, and elsewhere.
As the chief members of the Sanhedrin disappear from the scene at this stage, it may be well to note the later fortunes of those who have been prominent up to this point in the history. (1) Annas lived to see five of his sons fill the office of high priest (Jos. Ant. xx. 9, § 1); but his old age was overclouded by the tumults raised by the Zealots under John of Gischala, in the reign of Vespasian, and before he died the sanctuary was occupied by them, and became in very deed a “den of robbers” (Jos. Wars, iv. 3, § 7). (2) Joseph, surnamed Caiaphas, his son-in-law, who owed his appointment to Gratus (Jos. Ant. xviii. 2, § 2), was deposed by the Proconsul Vitellius, A.D. 36 (Jos. Ant. xviii. 4, § 3), and disappears from history. (3) On John and Alexander, see Notes on Acts 4:6. (4) Gamaliel, who is not mentioned by Josephus, continued to preside over the Sanhedrin under Caligula and Claudius, and is said to have died eighteen years before the destruction of Jerusalem, and to have sanctioned the Anathema, or “Prayer against heretics,” drawn up by Samuel the Little (Lightfoot, Cent. Chorograph, c. 15). Christian traditions, however, represent him as having been secretly a disciple of Christ (Pseudo-Clement, Recogn. i. 65), and to have been baptised by Peter and Paul, with Nicodemus, who is represented as his nephew, and his son Abibas (Photius Cod. 171, p. 199). In a legendary story, purporting to come from a priest of Syria, named Lucian, accepted by Augustine, he appears as having buried Stephen and other Christians, and to have been buried himself in the same sepulchre with the Protomartyr and Nicodemus at Caphar-algama (August. de Civ. Dei xvii. 8, Serm. 318). Later Rabbis looked on him as the last of the great Teachers or Rabbans, and noted that till his time men had taught the Law standing, while afterwards they sat. The glory of the Law, they said, had departed with Gamaliel.