Beginning with verse 3, we have Peter’s reply to Ananias. It is very significant. “Ananias, how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit and have kept for yourself some of the money you received for the land? Didn’t it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn’t the money at your disposal? What made you think of doing such a thing? You have not lied to men but to God” (vv. 3-4).
Peter makes three important points in this response.
First, he teaches the right of private property. This first item is not the first thing Peter mentions. I mention it first only because, to my mind, it is the least important. When Peter says to Ananias, “Didn’t it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn’t the money at your disposal?” he is repudiating communism, even a sanctified “Christian” kind of communism. Some people have looked at this period of sharing in the early church and have held it as a permanent ideal for all Christians. Peter’s words make clear that this does not follow.
Peter was not inventing the right of private property. It is something that was already in the Old Testament. You have it in the Ten Commandments. The Ten Commandments say, “Thou shalt not steal” (Ex. 20:15). In order to steal, you have to take something that belongs to somebody else. But if it belongs to that other person, then it really belongs to him or her. That one owns it. Thus there is the right of private ownership. If a person does not have the right to something, then it is not stealing to take it. If he does own it, then taking it is wrong. This is what Peter recognized. “You have the right to it,” said Peter. “You didn’t have to sell it. And after you sold it, you didn’t have to give it.”
The problem was not that Ananias did not give everything he had, but that he pretended to be giving it when actually he was holding back some. That is, the problem was his hypocrisy, his lying, and not the fact that he owned property. He was part of the church, and falsehood destroys its fellowship.
The second point Peter made was about the role of Satan: “How is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit?”
This would be important under any circumstances, but when Peter spoke on this occasion, he was conscious of speaking under the direct impress of the Holy Spirit. There were times in Peter’s life, especially before his conversion when, like many of us, he simply blurted out whatever happened to be in his mind. Often it wasn’t much! An occasion presented itself, and Peter said whatever nonsense he was thinking. That is just the way Peter was. Indeed, even after his conversion, though he was a much wiser and steadier man, there must have been occasions when Peter said things that were not true. He may have thought they were true, but they would not have been. Yet here, if ever in his life, Peter was a true mouthpiece of God. He was speaking by inspiration of the Holy Spirit. So when he said, “How is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit?” it is certain that this is precisely what Satan had done.
I emphasize this because we have a tendency to refer to Satan in glib terms. “The devil made me do it,” we say. Or, “Maybe it was Satan.” I sometimes say, because Satan is only a creature and therefore can only be in one place at any one time, that it is probably unlikely that he has ever tempted you personally. If you did wrong, you probably just did it on your own. But having said that, I nevertheless also need to say that there is such a thing as spiritual warfare and that it is quite possible to be tempted either by Satan or by one of those fallen angels who sinned with him.
This is what happened in these early days. Satan was outraged by what was happening in this early Christian fellowship. Satan, the one who wants everything for himself, who makes people as selfish as he possibly can make them, must have hated the spirit of generosity and unity among the early Christians. So with devilish wisdom he said, “I’ll turn this around. I’ll use the spirit of sharing to break down the very generosity it is supposed to be expressing. I’ll get them to lie and introduce chaos to the church.”
Satan is a limited being. He is not omniscient, as God is. He does not know everything. He is not omnipotent, as God is. Only God is all-powerful. He is not omnipresent, as God is. He is not everywhere, though he certainly gets around, “roaming up and down in the earth,” as he said of himself in Job (Job 1:7; 2:2). No, Satan is not the equivalent of God. But he is powerful. He is a very formidable enemy.