In the book of Acts, they dropped dead. Why? To understand what happened, it is important to keep the Old Sinai Covenant and the New Covenant separate.
The translation of Acts 5:1-11 is mine. If you would like to see the verses in many translations, please go to biblegateway.com.
1 A certain man named Ananias with his wife Sapphira sold their tract of land, 2 and he misappropriated some of the proceeds and, with his wife being aware, brought some of the portion and placed it at the feet of the apostles. 3 But Peter said, “Ananias, why did Satan fill your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit, in order to misappropriate the proceeds of the land? 4 Is it not the case that what remained belonged to you, and once you sold it, the money was authoritatively at your disposal? Why did you concoct this matter in your heart? You lied not to man, but to God!” 5 On hearing these words, Ananias fell and breathed out his life-soul. And a great awe spread around all the people who heard. 6 Some young men got up and wrapped him and carried him out to bury him.
7 There was an interval of about three hours. And his wife, not knowing what had happened, came in. 8 Peter examined her: “Tell me if this is the amount from the land sale you gave away.” And she said, “Yes, that’s the amount.” 9 And Peter replied to her, “Why did you agree together to tempt the Spirit of the Lord? Oh, look! The feet of the men who just buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry your out!” 10 And instantly she fell at his feet and breathed out her life-soul. Entering, the young men found her dead and carried her out and buried her next to her husband. 11 And a great awe spread around the entire church and everyone who heard it. (Acts 5:1-11)
How do we interpret this startling episode? The best ways is in its historical, cultural and theological context.
The main point will be that it is imperative to distinguish between the Old and New Covenants.
Over eight thousand souls were added to the church, and more were coming in (Acts 2:41, 47 and 4:4). At least a few of them, human nature being what it is, must have nibbled around the edges, between the Old Covenant and the New Covenant. Ananias and Sapphira were some of the nibblers who never left the Old, while others were participants in the New, for example, those filled with the Spirit in Acts 4:31.
Let’s examine the evidence, step by step, looking at this equation:
Satanic Plot of Lying + God’s Holy Presence + Old Covenant = Disaster
1.. Let’s begin with the satanic inspiration.
“Why did Satan fill your heart…?” (v. 3). Satan can tempt and harass and attack Spirit-filled believers, but he cannot fill their hearts. Their hearts are occupied by the Holy Spirit (Rom. 5:5). Ananias and Sapphira were not in the room that God shook and where the believers were once again filled with the Spirit (Acts 4:31).
2.. What was God’s Holy Presence like?
The atmosphere was electric with the convicting and awesome power of God. This verse shows it:
And while they were praying, the place in which they were gathered was shaken, and all of them were filled with the Holy Spirit, and they spoke the story of God with confidence. (Acts 4:31, my translation)
It’s an odd thing. Ananias and Sapphira stood in the Old Covenant and nibbled on the edges of the New, but then added the factor of a lying in God’s holy presence. Satan saw them as easy targets, for reasons we don’t know, nor can we ever know.
3.. Now let’s look at the Old Covenant background and Judaism. This is the key point, so it is the longest.
Two of the closest Old Covenant parallels to the deaths of Ananias and Sapphira concern Aaron’s two sons, Nadab and Abihu, and Uzzah (Achan misappropriated some items, but he was stoned to death, not struck down, in Joshua 7:25).
Scripture about Aaron’s two sons:
Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu took the censures, put fire in them, and added incense; and they offered the unauthorized fire before the LORD, contrary to the command. So fire came out of the presence of the LORD and consumed them, and they died before the LORD. Moses then said to Aaron, “This is what the LORD spoke of when he said, ‘Among those who approach me I will be proved holy; in the sight of all the people I will be honored.’” (Lev. 10:1-3, NIV)
The case of Uzzah, when David was transporting the ark of the covenant back into his custody, is as follows:
When they came to the threshing floor of Nakon, Uzzah reached out and took hold of the ark of God, because the oxen stumbled. The LORD’s anger burned against Uzzah because of his irreverent act; therefore God struck him down, and he died there beside the ark of God. (2 Sam. 6:6-7, NIV)
The big difference between the three cases—Ananias’s and Sapphira’s case on the one hand and Aaron’s sons and Uzzah cases on the other—is that God is never said to have struck down Ananias and Sapphira. Rather, as F. F. Bruce suggests, the husband and wife died from the shock of his being discovered and her hearing about her husband’s death (p. 164).
At this point we could stop the discussion with the observation that the deaths of Ananias and Sapphira were on them, not God. However, Peter was somehow involved. And since many interpreters believe God did it, let’s assume it too, for the sake of argument.
So why did Ananias and Sapphira die in the era of the New Covenant, after Jesus came? It takes a while for the gospel to spread around—and even for the gospel preachers to learn what it means.
Picture two overlapping circles. Label one “Judaism” and the other “the Way” or “the Earliest Jesus Movement.” How much overlap is there? Complete, so the two circles become one? No, that’s too far. Three-fourths overlap? Wherever you draw the overlapping circles, the earliest Jesus Movement was firmly connected to Judaism, at this stage.
First, these Messianic Jews still met in the temple precincts or in Solomon’s Porch (or Portico or Colonnade) on the east side of the temple in Jerusalem, the capital of Judaism. This was bound to keep Judaism on everyone’s mind.
Second, animal sacrifices were still going on. This too kept Judaism alive, right before their eyes. Later, Paul and the author of Hebrews were inspired to develop a theology of Jesus’s atoning sacrifice, which replaced animal sacrifices.
Third, in Acts 2-5, Peter and the others stayed close to the temple and devout jews because they really believed they could forever transform Judaism, probably keeping much of the law. In Peter’s three sermons (Acts 2:14-36; 3:12-26; 4:8-12), he did not tell his fellow Jews to get past the Old Sinai Covenant, its law, and the temple, while Paul was accused of doing this (Acts 21:27-28), and Paul’s epistles everywhere bear this out. Peter needed to develop the gospel beyond the limited borders of Judaism, which beings in Acts 10.
To wrap up the third point, Peter was learning and growing. In Acts 10 he learns God receives Gentile, too. His two epistles are far more developed than his earliest preaching. When Ananias and Sapphira showed up in the Messianic community, the two circles of Judaism and the Way overlapped a lot. The break had not happened completely, but things were transitioning in the earliest Jesus Movement. But Ananias and Sapphira did not make the transition.
4.. So how does God express his wrath in the New Covenant?
In contrast to the Old Covenant cases of Ananias and Sapphira, Nadab and Abihu, and Uzzah, and Herod (see below), Paul was inspired to write that God showed his wrath in the era of the New Covenant in this way:
For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoers. (Rom. 13:4)
As the kingdom of God worked its way to the larger Greek and Roman world, God did not strike people dead for stealing or misappropriating funds. Instead, he used (and still uses) the authorities to be agents of his wrath—that is, his judgment. Call it judicial wrath.
Within the church the apostles could turn a man over to Satan in something like shunning, where Satan could have his way with the him (1 Cor. 5:1-5), so he could repent and rejoin the community (2 Cor. 2:5-11), but this is not the same as God striking him dead.
5.. My interpretation receives confirmation with the case of Herod Agrippa I. In a speech, he did not give glory to God when people exclaimed he was a god. An angel of the Lord struck him down (Acts 12:20-23). He was punished by Old Covenant standards because he was steeped in it. The great conservative scholar F. F. Bruce writes of him: “In Palestine he sedulously cultivated the goodwill of his Jewish subjects, observing their customs and showing preference for their company, so that even the Pharisees thought well of him. On one occasions, when he publicly read Dt. 17:14-20 (the “law of kingship”) at the Feast of Tabernacles in 41, he is said to have wept at the words of v. 15 (“you may not put a foreigner over you, who is not your brother”), for he remembered his Edomite ancestry; but the people called out repeatedly, ‘Be not dismayed; you are indeed our brother!’ (mSota 7.8)” (The Acts of the Apostles, the Greek Text with Introduction and Commentary, 3rd ed Eerdman’s 1990), p. 280.
If Agrippa I lived by the Old Covenant standards in perfect concord even with the Pharisees, then he died by those standards far outside the New Covenant.
6.. Let’s conclude.
From the passages in Lev. 10:1-3 and 2 Samuel 6:6-7 (and Joshua 7:25), and Ananias’s and Sapphira’s judgment, including the case of Herod Agrippa I, it is clear that Ananias and Sapphira still lived within the Old Covenant. Yes, Peter stood squarely within the New Covenant, but Ananias and Sapphira were judged by the standards of the obsolete Old (Heb. 8-10). The parallels between the four cases are too obvious to miss.
Bottom line: God does not express his judgment and wrath by striking people down in the era of the New Covenant. It is imperative that we interpret this whole episode in light of the differences between the New and Old Covenants. Ananias and Sapphira still lived in the Old. Thankfully we live in the New, and all of humanity benefits from this covenant, as well, whether it realizes this or not.