Isaiah (Part 34): Authority (Lesson 3)
Moving from the study of authority in the Trinity, we now look to its place in the community of Christians. Our anchor verse has been Matthew 28:18 in which Jesus said, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth.” The question that now comes to mind is whether Jesus assigns this authority to others. Was that in fact what he was doing in Matthew 28 as he uttered these words? Jesus was about to ascend to heaven, leaving the disciples. We can imagine in a corporate structure that the CEO delegates authority to the directors of divisions and the managers of departments. The CEO does so because it is impossible for that leader to exercise his/her authority in both the macro direction and micro details of a corporation. But with Christ this is not so. Jesus is both man and God. He leaves the earth in Matthew 28 with the words, “And remember, I am with you always” (Matt 28:20b). Jesus left the earth bodily, but remains intricately involved in the affairs of this earth and of his church. He ascended to heaven, yet he knows our every action, word, and thought. He is God, and therefore Jesus doesn’t need to delegate authority. But although it is not a need…does he delegate?
As we move around through the New Testament, we find emphasis on Christ’s continued direct authority. And in that emphasis, there exists a counter to any other authority. Note for example the exclusive claim in 1 Timothy 2:5: “For there is one God and one mediator between God and humanity, Christ Jesus, Himself human.” Not only does this verse express the authority of Jesus as mediator, but it excludes consideration of any other mediator. We read in Romans 8:34: “Who is the one who condemns? Christ Jesus is the One who died, but even more, has been raised; He also is at the right hand of God and intercedes for us.” Paul’s argument carries the same exclusive authority idea. If one has the right to condemn, that one must have earned the right or be worthy of that right. Paul says that Jesus earned that right through his death and resurrection—his mission accomplishing redemption. We read of this worthiness gained through his accomplished redemption in Revelation 5. In that scene Jesus—the Lion of Judah and slaughtered Lamb—is the only one found worthy to take from the hand of God the scroll unfolding post-redemption’s restoration plan. There is exclusivity of authority by the worthiness of the one who accomplished redemption.
But Christianity does have leaders even among us mortals. Can Jesus be serious that leaders in Christianity function as leaders but without positional and personal authority? The subject of leadership and authority comes up several times in Matthew. The last time it is discussed is during Christ’s final journey from Galilee to Jerusalem just before his death. On that trip, Salome (who happens to be his aunt) approaches him with a request for her sons, Jesus’ cousins, James and John.
<<Side note>> How do we know James and John were cousins to Jesus? In each gospel the narrative of the scene at the cross includes a comment that certain women were there watching. Luke doesn’t name them, but the other three all provide some identification. Matthew notes in 27:55-56 that these women were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee (who are, of course, James and John). So the mother of the sons of Zebedee, who asks for exalted places for her sons, is one of the women watching the crucifixion. Mark also identifies these three. Mark 15:40 tells us that the three were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome. So, in Mark’s account, instead of calling her the mother of the sons of Zebedee as Matthew does, he provides her name—Salome. John’s comment is very interesting. John puts them in a different order and adds the fact that Jesus’ mother was also there. John names Mary Magdalene. John refers to Mary the mother of James and Joseph (or Joses) as the wife of Clopas. John mentions that Jesus’ mother was there. And John states that “his mother’s sister” was also there. The third person, whom we know from the other gospels to be Salome, the mother of James and John, is called by John the sister of Jesus’ mother. That means Salome was Jesus’ aunt. It also means that James and John, the disciples, were Jesus’ cousins. <<End of side note>>
So, Salome approaches Jesus on this journey and asks if he would grant special places of prominence to her sons, James and John, in his kingdom. Jesus doesn’t argue that places of prominence do not exist, but he does address the fact that authority does not go along with these positions. He says, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles dominate them, and the men of high position exercise power over them. It must not be like that among you” (Matthew 20:25-26a). Many commentators have tried to water down this passage, arguing that Jesus spoke merely to the attitude while exercising authority rather than to the issue of authority itself. But that thought, it would seem to me, ignores the context. James and John were not asking (through their mother) for the right to malign and degrade those beneath them. They simply asked for positions of prominence, which they evidently associated with authority. Jesus’ answer in verses 25-26a, therefore, addresses their presumption that prominence includes authority. And his answer is no. He introduces a structure that is upside-down of the world’s view. He tells them, first, of the world in verse 25: those in positions of prominence exercise authority. Then he tells them that in his kingdom this “must not” be the same. And in verses 26b-27 he provides the startling contrast of his kingdom: “On the contrary, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must be your slave.” Jesus attacks not simply an over-bearing attitude among power-hungry leaders, he dismisses the very notion of authority in the human leaders of his kingdom.
Why does Jesus dismiss authority (apart from himself) in his kingdom? We have discussed one reason already: Jesus owns all authority because he is the one worthy of “blessing and honor and glory and dominion” (Rev 5:13). And secondly, the attitude sought is one of service. Throughout the New Testament we are urged to give of ourselves (e.g., Luke 10:25-37), to prefer others over ourselves (e.g., Phil 2:3), and to love as our new (John 13:34) and greatest (Matt 22:37-38) commandment and superior way (1 Cor 12:31; 13:13). Paul tells us in Ephesians 5:21 that we should be “submitting to one another in the fear of Christ.” That is Christianity. That is the Way. That is the Christian attitude, life, and desire. It makes Christian marriages work. It makes Christian relationships work. It makes the local church work. It makes the Kingdom of Christ work. Paul closed his first letter to the Corinthians, saying, “Brothers, you know the household of Stephanas: They are the firstfruits of Achaia and have devoted themselves to serving the saints. I urge you also to submit to such people, and to everyone who works and labors with them” (1 Cor 16:15-16). The “with them” is not in the Greek. The verse should end without those two words, or provide a more fitting ending that fits the thought—“I urge you also to submit to such people and to everyone who works and labors in a similar manner—devoting themselves to serving the saints.” So it is no wonder that when Paul turns to address problems in the Corinthian church, he begins rightly by telling them, “I do not mean that we have control of your faith, but we are workers with you” (1 Cor 1:24).
Some may wonder, however, about passages that seem to indicate an authority structure for leaders. Hebrews 13:17 certainly implies that: “Obey your leaders and submit to them: for they keep watch over your souls as those who will give an account.” The KJV seems even stronger, telling us to “obey them that have the rule over you.” This verse is not fighting against the ideas of the other passages we’ve looked at. Scripture should be interpreted by Scripture. The word “obey” in this verse is the Greek peitho. Peitho can mean obey, but it can also mean persuade or be persuaded by. It can mean to listen to and have confidence in. Thus, with this background and in conjunction with the thoughts of Jesus and Paul, the Hebrews’ author is probably urging us to pay full attention or “Listen to your leaders.” Likewise, the word for leaders in the Greek (which the KJV translates as those who “have the rule over you”) is hegeomoi. Again, this word can mean those who have authority over others. But it is also used of those who consider or deem or think of others or something else as there first or foremost thought. Examples of this (in verb form) are the following:
2 Corinthians 9:5 “Therefore I considered it necessary to urge the brothers to go on ahead to you.”
Philippians 3:7 “But everything that was a gain to me, I have considered to be a loss because of Christ.”
1 Timothy 1:12 “I give thanks to Christ Jesus our Lord who has strengthened me, because He considered me faithful, appointing me to the ministry.”
Going back to our verse in Hebrews, then, the idea presented is to “listen to those whose job it is to consider your spiritual welfare and submit to them.” This, then, is no different from what Paul had been saying or from what Christ had been teaching. Pastors have the job of studying carefully for the benefit of those in their congregations. They are to present pure, true doctrine and defend against false doctrine. In this they submit themselves to their congregations for the benefit of their congregations. The congregants also are to submit themselves to their pastors, understanding that their pastors are providing for them, listening to them, paying attention, considering what they are saying, and then if in agreement under the authority of Christ, they submit. This is exactly what Paul had in mind in the verse we discussed from 1 Cor 16:15-16: “Brothers, you know the household of Stephanas: They are the firstfruits of Achaia and have devoted themselves to serving the saints. I urge you also to submit to such people, and to everyone who works and labors in the same manner.”
Returning to Matthew 28:18, we may understand Jesus to be claiming all authority in heaven and earth to mean that he and he alone holds all authority even on earth. But to truly understand this verse, we have to look at it in the perspective of its context. The whole section (verses 16-20) reads as follows: “The 11 disciples traveled to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had directed them. When they saw Him, they worshiped, but some doubted. Then Jesus came near and said to them, ‘All authority has been given to Me, in heaven and on earth. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’”
Notice the sentence just before Christ’s claim of authority. These disciples had heard Christ preach, had seen his miracles, had seen him crucified and rise from the grave—and they…doubted? I think that while doubting is definitely involved in idea of the Greek word distazo used here, it probably needs more explanation. This is not an intellectual doubting of Christ’s claim as Savior and God. This is a fearful struggle with faith to go on. The only other time the word is used in the New Testament is in Matthew 14:31. Peter had just walked on the sea. But fearing the storm, he began to sink. Jesus rescued him but then asked him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” From this story we can visualize Peter’s doubt a bit better. Jesus said he lacked faith to accomplish the task. The narrative tells us that Peter became afraid. So this fear and faint faith is the doubt we see in some of the disciples when Jesus comes to meet them in Matthew 28.
Their fear is much the same as what they experienced at the Last Supper in John, when Jesus tells them he is going away and has to reassure them saying, “Your heart must not be troubled” (John 14:1). The disciples in Matthew 28 were again troubled. Jesus was leaving them. They were to face the Pharisees, the Sanhedrin, the Roman government, all with what?...some kind of drumming up of their own authority could match, oppose, and withstand those daunting powers? After all, they knew they were not Jesus, the Son of God. He was the one speaking to the crowds “as one who had authority” (Matthew 7:29). Notice in Matthew 28 what Jesus does: as soon as we hear about the troubled disciples, Jesus “came near and said to them, ‘All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth.’” This statement is not as a final show of power. It is meant as a comfort to the quavering disciples. They will not oppose the world based on their own authority. Jesus holds the authority, and he will be “with them always, to the end of the age.” They need not fear.
The statements that Jesus has for them in this final talk actually form a chiasm:
All authority has been given to Me
Go, make disciples
Baptize them in the name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit
Teach them Jesus’ Commands
He is with them always
In the chiasm, the authority claimed is matched with being with them always. Therefore, both statements must be meant as words of comfort to his followers. And if words of comfort, then the distinct meaning of all authority being held by Jesus tells us that he doesn’t delegate that authority, but holds it as his own.