Can God’s people use his power for evil? At first glance, it seems like a shocking proposal, but Scripture seems to indicate that it is quite possible. But how?
Think of the type of power that the government gives to police officers. The government, hopefully, gives officers this power with the intent that they will use that power for the good of the people. But as we all know, the police will sometimes abuse their power and harm or murder people, regardless of the intention that the government had when they gave them power. The same can be said of how God gives his people power. Just because someone receives authority from God doesn’t mean they always use it in a way that lines up with God’s will.
We’ll take a look at a handful of people from the Bible and how they used the supernatural divine authority that God entrusted them with.
Jesus is fully God, but he is also fully human (John 1:14; Hebrews 2:14, 17). Because Jesus is fully human, he was tempted in every way a human can be tempted (Hebrews 4:15). Jesus came to do his Father’s will, but he had the option not to (John 6:38; Matthew 26:39, 42). Paul says that Jesus “humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8). Jesus had to learn obedience and because he was tempted in every way, he could have been disobedient (Hebrews 5:8-9).
The Father gave Jesus all his power, and it was up to Jesus how he used it (John 13:3). When Peter used his sword on the night of Christ’s arrest, Jesus rebuked him for resorting to violence and said that he could have called “twelve legions of angels” to fight for him if he wanted to (Matthew 26:53). So even though he could have used his divine authority to call twelve legions of angels to fight, he didn’t, because it was against his Father’s will.
In the wilderness, Jesus was tempted two times by the devil to use his supernatural power, entrusted to him by the Father, in ways that would go against God’s will (Matthew 4:2-7). These could have only been genuine temptations if Jesus was actually able to use his divine authority that he was entrusted with to succumb to them. Jesus was entrusted with divine authority, and he chose not to misuse it. The same cannot be said for lesser men.
God entrusted Moses with his power in order to free the Hebrew slaves in the land of Egypt. The Bible says that Moses was entrusted with the “staff of God” that apparently held God’s power (Exodus 4:20). Moses was instructed by God, saying to “perform before Pharaoh all the wonders I have given you the power to do” (Exodus 4:21).
God entrusted Moses with divine authority but had to tell him what to do with it. This implies that Moses could have not used the power he was given for God’s purposes, and it implies that Moses could have used the power he was given for other purposes. Moses did what he perceived that God told him to do with the staff, but he also decided to use the divine authority he was given for selfish purposes.
After the Israelites had escaped from Egypt, they once again became untrusting of God and complained about not having food and water. On one occasion, the people gathered in opposition to Moses and demanded water (Numbers 20:2-5). Moses consulted God, and he gave him specific instructions on how to create water miraculously. But later, reacting to the Israelite’s complaints, Moses strikes a rock with his staff out of anger, creating water but not in the way God instructed. According to the biblical narrative, God was so angry with Moses over this fit of anger that he didn’t allow him to enter into the Promised Land (Numbers 20:12). Even though Moses used the staff in a sinful way, it still worked. Moses used the divine authority he was entrusted with for evil.
The prophet Elisha is another man of God who used his divine authority in a way that runs contrary to the will of God. In one story, Elisha was traveling on the road when some boys came out of town and started insulting him. Elisha’s response? He turned and called down a curse upon them (2 Kings 2:23-24). Then two bears came out of the woods and killed 42 of them.
Those 42 boys were cursed by Elisha, who was entrusted with the supernatural authority to carry out God’s will. This short and particular story illustrates that while power is sometimes entrusted to men in order to partner with God, no one is perfect or sinless—except Jesus.
When Jesus was entrusted with divine authority he always submitted to the Fathers will, even to the point of sacrificing himself for the sake of others. Scripture tells us that this is what love is—the greatest commandment. When Elisha used his divine authority to kill 42 boys, he was defending himself by sacrificing others, thus going against the will of God. Elisha used the divine authority he was entrusted with for evil.
If there was ever a man who was entrusted with a great deal of divine authority, it was Elijah. In the biblical narrative, we see him perform quite a few remarkable miracles. In one narrative, a battalion of 50 Samaritans was sent to ask Elijah to come to see the king. When they arrive, Elijah is said to rain fire down from the sky, slaughtering them all. After that, another battalion came to talk to Elijah and he once again murdered them with the power God had given him, mistakenly thinking that the Samaritans meant him harm (2 Kings 1:10-12). A third time a battalion is sent to talk to Elijah, but this time an angel intervenes and tells him not to be afraid and to go to the king (2 Kings 1:15).
This short story makes it clear that what Elijah did with the divine authority that was entrusted to him was not God’s will. What he did was completely unnecessary and it didn’t accomplish anything. Elijah mercilessly murdered 100 innocent men who had no ill intent towards him. The fact that the angel of the Lord wanted Elijah to follow them to the king shows that Elijah simply used his entrusted power for senseless self-protection in a way that was against God’s will.
If we needed any more proof that what Elijah did was against God’s will we can look to Jesus in Luke’s account of the Gospel. While leaving several Samaritan villages that rejected their message, Christ’s disciples asked him if they could rain fire down from the sky on them, just like Elijah did (Luke 9:51-54). Jesus rebukes them, saying that they want the will of the devil rather than God’s (Luke 9:55-56 NKJV). It is clear that Jesus would not have approved of what Elijah did (John 10:10). Elijah used the divine authority he was entrusted with for evil.
Samson, a favorite character of Sunday School stories, was one of Israel’s Judges that was given supernatural divine authority (Judges 14:6, 19). Like Moses’ power was linked to his staff, Samson’s power was linked to his long hair. Samson is another great example of someone who was given power, who clearly had the ability to misuse it.
One time Samson murdered thirty innocent people who were minding their own business, just to steal their clothes in order to pay off a bet (Judges 14:12-20). Samson is known for being an immature, whiny baby who lashed out constantly (Judges 15:18). He was sexually immoral and repeatedly was manipulated by evil women (Judges 14:16-17, 16:1). He murdered thousands of people in selfish revenge (Judges 15:14). It isn’t difficult to see that Samson was a failure in many regards, infantile and degenerate, yet he was still entrusted with divine authority.
When we look to Jesus, we can see that most of Samson’s actions do not reflect the will of God. At no point in the narrative does Samson seek God’s will about the use of his supernatural power. Despite this, God entrusted him with divine authority even though he only used it for revenge and personal gain. Samson killed himself while killing thousands of people, showing that the wisdom of Jesus is true—those who live by violence will die by violence (Matthew 26:52). Samson used the divine authority he was entrusted with for evil.
Gifts of the Spirit
These Old Testament stories show us that God is willing to bestow some of his power to individuals who don’t always use that power for good. Sometimes that power is used at cross purposes to God’s will. This freedom to fail is seen to continue into the New Testament as well.
When Paul instructs the Corinthians on the use of supernatural gifts of the Spirit, he seems to indicate that they can be misused. The very fact that he gave them guidance means there is a right and wrong way to use the gifts (1 Corinthians 14:13-17, 27-32). Paul claims that the supernatural power is under the control of the user (1 Corinthians 14:32).
When exceptional authority is given to someone, there’s no guarantee that they will use it the way they should. That is how free will works. In God’s love, he is always willing to remain in relationship with these people despite their misuse of the divine authority they were given. This is never more on display in the case of Peter and the early Church.
Out of all of Christ’s disciples, Peter was always the first to ignore the way of Jesus and jump to violent retribution. When Jesus explained that he must suffer and die, Peter rebuked him. Clearly, Peter didn’t understand the way of God yet, as Jesus goes as far as calling him “Satan” in response (Matthew 16:21-23). Peter didn’t understand the peacemaking, nonviolent way of the suffering servant when he refused to let Jesus wash his feet (John 13:6-8). Peter was steeped in the ways of the Old Testament accounts of God and didn’t want to let go (Luke 9:33). On the night of Jesus’ arrest, it was Peter that ignored the Sermon on the Mount and lashed out in violence (Matthew 26:50-52, John 18:10, Luke 22:50-51). It took Peter quite a while to grasp the most foundational of Christ’s teachings (Acts 10:34-35). Just like the examples shown above, God still works with and uses those who are in process.
All of this is vitally important to how we read the story about Ananias and Sapphira. The book of Acts gives the account of the early Church who often sold possessions and land in order to be generous within their community (Acts 2:45).
God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.
We are given two specific examples of people who sold their land. One is a man named Joseph who sold his field (Acts 4:36-37) and another is, husband and wife, Ananias and Sapphira. This married couple also sold their land, but they decided to keep some of the money for themselves (Acts 5:1-2). When they brought the money to the apostles, Peter let Ananias know that he knew what he had done. After Peter finished speaking Ananias fell down and died (Acts 5:5). Several hours later, when Sapphira arrived, Peter spoke to her saying, “How could you conspire to test the Spirit of the Lord? Listen! The feet of the men who buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out also.” (Acts 5:9). At that moment she fell down and died as well (Acts 5:10). Did Peter use the divine authority he was entrusted with for evil?
Making Sense of Murder
Throughout the New Testament, we see that Peter has been given divine authority to use supernatural powers (Acts 9:32-35). When Peter encounters a man begging for money, he says, “I do not possess silver and gold, but what I do have I give to you, in the name of Jesus Christ: Walk!” (Acts 3:6). Notice that Peter didn’t pray to God for this man to be healed, as most of us would do today. Rather, Peter knew he had already been given the power to heal people, so he simply commanded the man to start walking. God gives flawed men extraordinary supernatural power (Mark 11:23).
If you pay attention, you’ll notice that Luke’s account of Ananias and Sapphira’s fate never says that God killed them as some claim. It is a very serious thing to falsely charge someone of murder. The text doesn’t say how they died, just that they did. Some commenters suspect that they had pre-existing health conditions, while some conclude they died of shock.1 What is more likely is that Peter used his supernatural divine authority in a way similar to how we see Elijah using his when he rained fire down on innocent men.2 The text certainly doesn’t seem to indicate that Peter’s lethal use of his divine authority was in accordance with God’s will.
Paul instructs followers of Jesus that “if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently” (Galatians 6:1). Peter did not do this. Ananias and Sapphira had allowed Satan to fill their hearts, but Jesus instructs his followers to drive Satan out when he says, “drive out demons, freely you have received; freely give” (Matthew 10:8). Peter did not do this. Instructions for how to deal with sin in the Church are laid out clearly by Jesus (Matthew 18:15-17). Peter did not do this. Grace was extended to Peter when he betrayed the Lord three times in one night as a pattern to imitate (Luke 22:54-62, Ephesians 4:32). Peter did not do this. There was no chance given for repentance, which seems to go against all of Christ’s teachings (Matthew 3:2). It is interesting that later in Peter’s life, he seems to grasp the importance of urging repentance, but it doesn’t seem like at this point he understood that (2 Peter 3:9).
Spirit of Fear
There is one final aspect of this story to consider. What was the fallout of Ananias and Sapphira’s death? The church was gripped with a spirit of fear.
Great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events.
God doesn’t give us a spirit of fear (2 Timothy 1:7 ESV). God doesn’t rule with fear, force, or coercion. The spirit of God wasn’t on display in how Ananias and Sapphira were handled. We can see how Jesus dealt with sin in stories like the woman caught in adultery—complete forgiveness (John 8:10-11). Jesus came to save lives, not destroy them (Luke 9:56 NKJV). Scripture claims that Satan has the power of death, not God (Hebrews 2:14-15, 1 Corinthians 5:5). Perhaps, just like James and John, Peter didn’t know what spirit he was of (Luke 9:55 NASB).
God didn’t kill Ananias and Sapphira. If anyone did, it was either Peter or Satan. Patristic scholar, Brad Jersak, puts it this way, “Satan was certainly working lies and crippling condemnation in their hearts, and possibly in the hardening Peter’s heart toward them as well which kept him from ministering protective mercy. But, Satan was the true assassin here any way you look at it.”
As we’ve seen, just because someone has been given supernatural abilities doesn’t guarantee they will use it for good at every opportunity. There is even one account of the apostle Paul, who also had a history of violence, using his divine authority to temporarily blind a man, inflicting the same type of infirmity that Jesus went around healing (Acts 13:8-11). How could Paul and Peter be able to curse other people? As theologian Gregory Boyd puts it, “the Semitic concept of ‘curse’ had the connotation of lifting protection off of someone to render them vulnerable to hostile agents, whether human or spiritual.”
In the case of Ananias and Sapphira, a couple who had allowed Satan to fill their hearts (Acts 5:3), all Peter had to do was use his divine authority to remove God’s protection from them. With that protection gone, the couple was fully given over to the one in their hearts, who “comes only to kill and to steal and to destroy” (John 10:10) and “who holds the power of death” (Hebrews 2:14). Since God brings life, not death, we can know that what happened to Ananias and Sapphira was not something he wanted.
Peter must have heard Christ’s teachings hundreds of times and yet he still made mistakes. Paul even had to oppose him at least on one occasion for spiritual error (Galatians 2:11 NLT). Why shouldn’t we? Flawed men can use their divine authority for evil, and it grieves God. But because this is possible we are able to know that Jesus was indeed tempted in every way. Christ’s rejection of using God’s power to commit violence makes him all the more praiseworthy. Instead of using the divine authority he was entrusted with to kill his enemies, he allowed himself to be killed by his enemies out of love for his enemies. His obedience to the Father’s will is what we must model our life after.
- I. Howard Marshall, Acts: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 5, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1980), 116–118.
- The early church father, John Chrysostom, agrees with this position when he writes, “And Peter too wrought a twofold slaughter, nevertheless what he did was of the Spirit.” John Chrysostom, “Homilies of St. John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople on the Gospel according to St. Matthew,” in Saint Chrysostom: Homilies on the Gospel of Saint Matthew, ed. Philip Schaff, trans. George Prevost and M. B. Riddle, vol. 10, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1888), 121.