Isaiah (Part 32): Authority (Lesson 1)

08/10/2012 08:36


We have noticed not only in Isaiah 29 but also in several passages of the book so far that God is displeased with those who abuse authority. And it is in regard to his covenant people that we view this displeasure. But what exactly does he dislike? How exactly is authority abused? And what kind of authority do we have that we can abuse? A little side study on authority seems to be in order.

A good place to start is with Christ’s words in Matthew 28:18. At this point, Jesus had accomplished redemption. He had lived sinlessly, died for our sin, rose again, and was now about to ascend bodily to his Father. He begins his very last instruction to his disciples with a statement that matches an idea he had spoken to them about on several occasions, most recently on the trip to Jerusalem just before his arrest and death. As he is about to leave he tells them, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth.” This is an interesting and significant statement for its general informational purpose, but before we get to that, let’s look at the way Jesus presents it.

He says that all authority “has been given” to him. Who gave this authority to Jesus? Well, obviously the only one who has authority over Jesus would be God. So God gave Jesus the authority. But Jesus is God too, right? So, to be more specific, it must be God the Father who gives Jesus the authority.

This raises an interesting question. Since the Father is God and Jesus is God and the Father gives to the Son authority, it would seem that there is an implied hierarchy in the relationship. But is this true? Can their be hierarchy within the Trinity?

Well, the Father is called Father, and the Son is the Son of the Father. The names themselves show a relationship of hierarchy. And in describing that relationship we notice the word (especially in the KJV) begotten used to describe this relationship, as in Jesus being the only begotten of the Father. What does begotten mean?

Two words are translated begotten in the KJV. One is gennao. This form is used in the begat listing of generations and other places in which the intention is merely of being born to or giving birth. The other word is monogenes, which means a birthing that is single of its kind. It is used in other Greek literature to speak of an only child, as an only son or an only daughter.

It is spoken of Jesus only a few times including in the most well known of verses, John 3:16. Back when the NIV first came out, many conservative scholars were rather upset because the word was translated as “one and only.” Their thought was that begotten carried a theological implication that should not be lost by the mundane “one and only.” But the Greek word did mean “one and only.” The HCSB follows the NIV’s lead in that translation. It is not so much that the word means something else theologically as it is that its use to speak of the relationship of the Father and the Son is meant to emphasize something.

The word is used applied to Jesus only five times in the New Testament and all from the pen of John (four times in his Gospel and once in his first letter). John’s emphasis with monogenes (only begotten) is a little startling as we pause to consider it. After all, the Bible tells us that we who have been saved and are entered into the New Covenant of Christ are all sons and daughters—children—of God. So, in what way is Jesus the only begotten—the one and only son—of God?

Is it because Jesus is God? Is John’s emphasis to say that Jesus is the only son of God who actually is God? I don’t think so, although some aspect of that must follow into our answer. If we examine the five passages in which John describes Jesus as the only begotten of the Father, we notice that in every instance it relates to Jesus in his humanity. John uses the word twice in the first chapter of his Gospel. And in that section he introduces the discussion by saying, “The Word became flesh and took up residence among us” (John 1:14a). So it is specifically of Jesus in his humanity to which John applies the begottenness. In John 3:16 and 18, John tells us that Jesus was the only begotten in reference to his redemption ministry as a man. And finally in I John 4:9, we are told that God sent “his only begotten Son into the world”—a clear reference to Christ’s mission as a man.

John’s emphasis, then, of Jesus being the one and only Son of God is that unlike all other people born in sin without special relationship to God, this one—this Jesus—was born into this world directly from God, with direct special sinless relationship already established with the Father. The rest of us become children of God only through this one man, Jesus, the one and only sinless son of the Father.

So we realize a unique relationship here between Jesus and the Father. Is this a relationship of hierarchy? Again, before getting ahead of ourselves, let’s step slowly through certain aspects of God and the relationship to understand it fully—or as fully as we are able to.

The Bible presents three broad periods or stages of the life of the second Person of the Godhead. There was the pre-incarnate deity of the Christ. Prior to his coming to earth, he existed eternally as one Person in the one essence of the Trinity. In the second stage, he took on human form—he became a man—limiting himself to the limitations of humankind (still without dismissing his deity because God could never cease to be God). And then following his redemptive work of sinless life, sin-bearing death, and holy resurrection, Jesus is exalted as King of kings and Lord of lords. Paul speaks of all three stages in Philippians 2:6-11.

Pre-incarnate Deity: (Phil 2:6) “who, existing in the form of God, did not consider equality with God as something to be used for His own advantage.” Here we see the 2nd Person of the Trinity as being—existing—as God with all the transcendent qualities of being this entails (infinity, eternity, unchangeableness). But he would not grasp or hold on to those things to forego the mission he would undertake in becoming human—limited and not transcendent.

Limited Incarnation: (Phil 2:7-8) “Instead He emptied Himself by assuming the form of a slave, taking on the likeness of men. And when He had come as a man in His external form, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death—even to death on a cross.” The emptying must have to do with his transcendent qualities. We know that Jesus, as a man, was limited to his bodily space, limited in his thinking to his own human mind (albeit illumined by the Spirit as the Spirit deemed right), and limited in the expression of his power to doing only the will of the Father. He became a slave—a servant—a person who’s was in subordination. And that subordination, again, was to the Father’s will—the obedience to the mission of redemption through death on the cross.

Exaltation as Lord: (Phil 2:9-11) “For this reason God highly exalted Him and gave Him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow—of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth—and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

What we should see in Paul’s description and in view of the greater expression throughout the Bible of Jesus as God and Jesus as man is that as God, the 2nd Person of the Trinity is transcendent and therefore equal with God but as the begotten Son—in other words, as a man or in his humanity—Jesus was limited and therefore less than and obedient in subordination to the Father. John 14:28 bears this out as Jesus explains, “The Father is greater than I.” And even in a broader sense, speaking of the whole mission of Jesus the man, Paul explains in 1 Corinthians 15:20-28: “But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. [notice that we are speaking of Jesus in his humanity] For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead also comes through a man. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ, the firstfruits; afterward, at His coming, those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when He hands over the kingdom to God the Father, when He abolishes all rule and all authority and power. For He must reign until He puts all His enemies under His feet. The last enemy to be abolished is death. For God has put everything under His feet. But when it says ‘everything’ is put under Him, it is obvious that He who puts everything under Him is the exception. And when everything is subject to Christ, then the Son Himself will also be subject to the One who subjected everything to Him, so that God may be all in all.” In this passage we learn that Jesus the man is exalted until all enemies are gone. And that purified kingdom will be turned over from Jesus the man to GOD—the Godhead (of whom the 2nd Person of the Trinity is one)—that God in his transcendent glory “may be all in all.”

Notice the demarcation between Jesus in his humanity and in his deity. Jesus in his humanity is subordinate to the transcendent God. But Jesus in his deity is transcendent God.  

With that understanding, let’s now turn to the subject of the Trinity to try to understand that relationship as the Bible presents it to us. We will never totally get our minds around the concept. That which is limited can never bound the infinite. But that does not excuse us from not reaching for all that God has given us in revelation.

We understand God to be one in essence and three in persons. In the history of orthodox Christian thought, heresies have arisen as we lean too heavily on one or another aspect of the Trinitarian structure. Placing too much emphasis on the oneness of God, we trail into modalism, the idea that the one God merely acts or functions in three different ways—sometimes as Father, sometimes as Son, and sometimes as Holy Spirit. That is a heresy against our fundamental and necessary understanding as three in one.

Placing too much emphasis on the three persons of the Trinity can lead to Tritheism, the idea that there are three separate Gods. Not only is this heresy, but it is ontologically impossible and epistemologically incoherent (unless we change the definition of God). Two infinite beings simply cannot exist at the same time. One being would necessarily be limited by the other.

Finally, in a combination of modalism and tritheism, some of slipped into the idea of subordinationism in which there is one supreme God and two lesser gods, so that only the supreme God (God the Father) holds transcendent qualities while the lesser gods (Son and Spirit) are limited by and subordinate to the Father. This, of course, is also heresy, contradicting the Bible’s emphasis on the transcendence of all Trinity persons. Only the structure of Trinity marries the concept of three persons with one transcendence in Being that does not do violence to Scripture’s presentation.

Next time we will discuss an idea about the Trinity reintroduced in our contemporary era that attempts to promote hierarchy among equals.