Sapphira had the opportunity to stand with her man, so she did. And God killed her for it.
One of the most remarkable features of the Ananias and Sapphira account in Acts 5 is often understated: God was not pleased with wifely loyalty.
Perhaps many thought that Sapphira would get a pass. After all, she had to submit to Ananias. And, furthermore, a careful reading of Acts 5 seems to suggest that Ananias would be the real beneficiary of their lie since he was keeping back “for himself” the proceeds, albeit with his wife’s knowledge. Peter seems to think Ananias had Mr. Ananias primarily in mind when he probed about about the money:
Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back for yourself part of the proceeds of the land? While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal? Why is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart. You have lied to men, but not to God.”
Singular. Every you and your in that query is in the singular. It is not too imaginative to speculate that Ananias was the instigator of the plot to deceive the Apostles and that Sapphira, though complicit, was much less culpable. Jewish household code of the day made it extremely difficult for a wife to refuse to become complicit in her husband’s crimes even if she had been so inclined. Israel at the time was under Roman governance and the culture of the day was pater-potestas, fathers were the potentates of the house and slaves, children, and wife were all completely at the disposal of his will. It is conceivable, though not likely, that Sapphira complied with Ananias’ plan under duress, but certainly by modern sensibilities she was a victim of abusive suppression simply for being a woman in that culture.
But a church-wide announcement was about to be made. Pater-potestas or not, a woman in the Church was expected to stand with the Spirit of Jesus and not her man if her man was asking her to agree to something that was clearly against truth.
When Sapphira walked to the meeting place, perhaps to find her husband, she was greeted by Peter who asked her if they (the you is plural here) had sold the land for the price Ananias had stated. Here was her opportunity to say to the man who would later write, “wives, be subject to your husbands” in one of his epistles that she knew something different than what her husband claimed to be true. She saw this as an opportunity to be the good wife and stand with her man when Holy God was giving her the opportunity to be a good disciple. Perhaps deluded by the household code of the day, the culture that encouraged wives to not only cover for their husbands but embrace their role as a cover for their own ambitions, as well as the natural desire a woman has to please her man, she unhesitatingly affirmed the lie.
Even though the law of the day put all the power in Ananias’ hands and even though, according to Peter, Satan had put it in Ananias’ heart (not necessarily Sapphira’s) to lie about the sale of the property, because Sapphira knew about the deal and, like a good wife, decided to go along with him, Peter said that she had “agreed together” with her Satan-inspired husband to test the Spirit of the Lord.
The reason Sapphira died was because she did not cherish her union with Christ as more precious than her union with her man. While it is certainly stated in Scripture that a Christian women must submit to her husband, this is only done in the context of a more enduring and important reality. While it is true (and even mysterious) that she is one with her husband, that wonderful union is merely an illustration of a better union.
Ephesians 5 on the household code (husband, wives, fathers, children, masters, slaves) cannot be understood properly apart from Ephesians 1 and 2. The central theme of Ephesians is oneness with Christ and His people and it follows that a woman (or slave, or child, or anyone) who is one with Christ and His people cannot allow her oneness with her man (or the father/child, master/slave, citizen/state union) to do damage to the ultimate and holiest oneness.
The Church was afraid after this couple died. Husbands realized they could not abuse their role as the unchallenged power of the home (Roman law or not) and sin with cavalier ease because the wife that Roman law gave him the right to consign to death if he deemed it necessary was expected to say no if she needed to! She could view him as a brother and, when he sinned against her, initiate the process of Church discipline if he did not repent of his sin.
On the other hand, wives were also afraid. This was a bold new world for them. She could not smugly decline responsibility for the egregious sins of her man because even if her man chose not to kill her, God could. Sinful women just don’t get the “wives submit” portion of Scripture. Some chafe under it and see it as stifling oppression; others, however, love it for the wrong reasons. They obsequiously submit and never report, resist, and, yes, refuse to follow their husbands when their sinning men are concocting plans that damage the Church of Jesus Christ.
The tragedy is that because Christians don’t view submission in lesser unions as subservient to the ultimate union, the Church today is afflicted with child abuse, extortion, prideful division, and immorality. The same apostle who said, “Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution” (1 Peter 2:13) also said, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). I think that Peter would say to wives today, “Yes, be subject, but didn’t you read what I said? For the Lord’s sake.” This precludes meekly standing by with knowledge about your husband that no one else has when he is lying against the Holy Spirit in the face of the Church. Be the Church, lady, and expose the lie.
Or die with your man.
It’s hard to believe that Peter would ever want a women to be a Sapphira. I’m persuaded, however, that the Church today has many an Ananias who counts on his Sapphira to prop up the lie.