Some thoughts from my personal Bible study, mainly asking questions of the text and pondering some potential answers.
Who was Joseph, and is he important?
At the end of chapter 4 we have a brief mention of a man called Joseph, who sold a field and donated the proceeds to the Apostles. Most times I’ve heard him mentioned it’s in relation to Ananias and Sapphira, by way of contrast – he gave completely, while they did not. But I wonder if there’s more to this Joseph than just a comparison.
For starters, he’s given a new name – Barnabus. If he was just included by way of illustration, why include the detail about the change of name? Could this be the same Barnabus who accompanied Paul on some of his journeys? Maybe someone on the internet can clarify that for me…
Another notable detail included here is that he is a Levite. That’s significant, given what else is happening in these two chapters. The Apostles are going up against the leaders of the temple, and many of them would have been Levites too. Levites aren’t quite the same as Pharisees, who we know Jesus had many arguments with, but it seems significant that while the Apostles were teaching in the temple and being threatened by the Jewish authorities to shut up, one of their number recognises the truth and joins them. It must have been hard to go back into work the next day! In fact, there may have been all sorts of consequences that aren’t recorded here, such as frayed relationships with friends and family. Standing up for what you believe in, especially if it goes against your peers, isn’t easy, but it is rewarding. Maybe that’s why the Apostles called him “Son of Encouragement”.
Why did Ananias and Sapphira keep back some of the money?
We’re not told explicitly, so I’m guessing here. We know that the Believers were well-respected in society at this point, and that they were gaining a lot of momentum with thousands of followers. We also know that there wasn’t a needy person among them. Clearly, there are a lot of positive reasons to be part of this group, including status and security. Maybe that was the driving force behind their decision.
I wonder, though, what their relationship was with God. Peter tells them off for trying to “lie to the Holy Spirit” and “put the Holy Spirit to the test”. Was that really their goal? Did they set out with the aim of deceiving God? I can’t imagine that anyone with any understanding of God would imagine they’d get away with that. But I can imagine that someone with only a casual belief in a distant God might think they could get away with deceiving other people. They expected to get into the club, by twisting the truth just a little, and clearly weren’t expecting something impossible to happen – impossible like Peter knowing about their deception.
There’s a warning here for those with only a casual relationship with God. It may not seem like a big deal to swear, or gossip, or fancy that sexy person, or do any of those things that the Bible ‘technically’ says we’re not meant to do, but which everyone else does anyway. We bend the rules to suit us, not because we think God won’t notice, but because fitting in with society is more important to us. The lesson here is that even if we do succeed in the short term, in the long run we’re heading for disaster.
“Fear seized the whole church” – were they afraid or respectful?
The word “fear” has various different meanings; sometimes it means beind afraid, other times it’s more about respect. Which is it here? Arguably it could be either, or both. People may well have been afraid, in case their sin was found out too. Or they may have had increased respect for the Apostles, who clearly were chosen by God and not lunatics at all.
This is where I turn to my handy Greek Interlineal Bible app, which shows the New Testament in the original Greek with the literal English underneath for direct comparison. This shows me that the Greek word “phobos” is about being afraid or alarmed. That makes sense. If someone died because of something I was considering doing, I’d be pretty terrified too! It brings a whole new level of realism to what you’re doing when mortality becomes a factor.
Did Gamaliel’s gamble pay off?
The Pharisees generally get a raw deal in the New Testament, but here’s an example of one with his head screwed on properly. We don’t know whether he believed or not, but at least he was using sound logic. “If this plan… is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them.” Well said, that man.
With hindsight, we can see that indeed the plan was God’s, and no attempt of the Jews could stop the Word spreading across the globe. What is less clear is which way Gamaliel expected it to go. I’d like to think his voice of reason was an indication that he in some way saw the sense in what the Apostles preached, and that he was trying to subtly help them out of trouble. Then again, he may just have been a Jew who hated dischord and who wanted the other Jewish leaders to stop being so ridiculous.
Maybe it’s also a reminder to us that logic has an important part to play in our own faith. Believing in God isn’t silly, it isn’t blind, it isn’t for the weak, it isn’t unthinking. God created us with brains, and he expects us to use them. We need to analyse the evidence before coming to a decision, we need to use logic to help us understand the world (and God). Yes, there are things we have to accept we won’t completely understand, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.