July 3, 2021 - Authority

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Today we’re going to talk about the word “authority.” The word “authority” (the Greek word for it is exousia) is found all over the New Testament. Exousia is used 102 times. But never do we find it used for the concept of “priesthood authority” we often hear around us. Let’s take a look at the many ways the word is used.

Bauer’s lexicon (the industry standard in Biblical studies) summarizes the uses of exousia into the following categories. The first is freedom of choice, the right to act or decide. We find this meaning in John 10:18, where Jesus says, “I have the right/authority to lay down (my life), and I have the right/authority to take it up again.” The second is ability, capability, might, or power. The 2 prophets in Revelation 11:6 have the ability (obviously given to them by God) to stop the rain, to turn the waters into blood, and strike the earth with any plague.

The third meaning of this word is authority or absolute power to give orders. devil says to Jesus in Luke 4:6 that he will give power over the whole world to Jesus, “because it has been handed over to me, and I give it to whomever I wish.” fourth and final meaning of this word is the ruling powers themselves, both human and cosmic, people or spirits who are in a position to command. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:24 that one day Christ will abolish every ruler and authority and power.

What kind of authority was given to the priesthood in God’s word? The answer is: very little. We don’t find the subject at all in the New Testament. In the Hebrew Bible, priests are given authority to declare people clean or unclean, to assess the value of people and property, and offer sacrifices on behalf of worshippers. They also had the responsibility to teach God’s law, but here, their authority was entirely dependent on God’s revealed written word.

The Gospels tell us that Jesus grabs attention immediately when he began to preach, because he spoke “like one having authority” (Matthew 7:29 = Mark 1:22 = Luke 4:32). He didn’t speak like the rabbis, who quoted long lists of “Rabbi So-and-So said” citations to back up their teaching. He was able to speak on his word alone, and people knew that it was from God. Jesus could say, “But I say to you,” and people knew it was far more than his personal opinion.

Jesus grabs more attention when he claims and proves to have the authority to forgive sins, a department that ultimately belonged to God alone (Matthew 9:6 = Mark 2:10). While some sins are also wrongs done against fellow humans who have the option to forgive the wrongs done to them, only God is in a position to forgive all wrongdoing. We humans have no right or authority to announce the forgiveness of anyone’s sins against God, except on the basis of what God has done through the cross of Jesus Christ, as proclaimed in God’s word.

Jesus shares with the Twelve the authority to cast out demons and to heal, meaning, the power to speak and make it happen (Matthew 10:1 = Luke 9:1). Here is one place where we find ourselves totally dependent on God. Even Simon the sorcerer knew he did not have the channel to God that the apostles had, and he found that not even money could buy that power.

After Jesus cleanses the Temple, the Jerusalem leaders demand to know by what authority Jesus acts and speaks (Matthew 21:23-27 = Mark 11:28-33). Why should we listen to you? Who backs you up? Jesus counters by asking where John the Baptist’s authority came from, a question they are afraid to answer. The leaders seem to know that John and Jesus get their authority from the same place, an authority that they don’t have, even though they occupy the offices where that authority ought to reside.

Pilate thought he had authority over Jesus: “Do you not know that I have the authority to release you, and the authority to crucify you?” But Jesus reminds Pilate that he has no authority except what was given him from above (John 19:10-11).

At the end of his earthly ministry, Jesus makes it clear that he commands far more authority than his earthly audience ever could have fathomed up till then: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given unto me.” (Matthew 28:18) The fact that he commands such authority gives us the grounds for his Great Commission: “Go 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 all that I have commanded you.”

Some authority will never be delegated. God has fixed times and seasons by his own authority (Acts 1:7). Jesus says he has the authority to judge the world (John 5:27). Only God has the authority to cast people into Gehenna / Hell (Luke 12:5). And while we are told that God allows the powers of evil to exercise some measure of authority here and there, God also reserves the option to shut that authority down at any time.

In Luke 22:53, Jesus surrenders to the “power of darkness” to allow him to be arrested. In Revelation 13:2, the beast gets the power of the dragon and his throne and “great authority.” But Paul says in Acts 26:18 that his job is to turn people “from the authority of Satan to God.” Colossians 1:13 says that God has “rescued us from the authority/power of darkness, and has transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son.”

Paul compares God to the potter who has the authority (= sovereign right) to do with the clay whatever he chooses (Romans 9:21). Not everybody believes that. A lot of folks seem to think they can sit in judgment over God and dictate to God what is fair and not fair. Must God give us all equal breaks in life, equal goods, and/or equal talents? The truth is that God owes us nothing. God has the indisputable right to do as he chooses, within his own self-imposed laws.

So what authority has God given to us? John writes in John 1:12 that to as many as received Christ, to them he gave the authority (authorization?) to become children of God. (Notice that none of us were children of God before we received that authorization.) God has given authority to leaders like Peter (Matthew 16), Paul (2 Corinthians 10:8), and Titus (Titus 2:15 – the word used here is the less common epitagÄ“). And God appears to have given to a select few today the power to heal and/or to cast out evil spirits, although each such person must be judged by their fruits, as to whether their power comes from God or from another source.

But the only authority given to believers at large, both men and women, is based entirely on our faithfulness to God’s word in what we proclaim and practice. No one has been given a trump card to say, “I am right and you are wrong, because I have the authority to speak and act for God.” Our authority stands or falls entirely on our faithfulness to what God says, which listeners must judge for themselves. Authority cannot be claimed; it must be earned. And God gives us no signed certificates to prove to whom God has given authority.

But is it possible that the Bible originally had a “priesthood authority” that was edited out of God’s word after the first century AD by a church that had fallen away from the truth? Such a move is nearly impossible. It’s been tried before. In 140 AD, Marcion tried to remove everything Jewish from the New Testament. He kept a mutilated Gospel of Luke, and ten mutilated letters of Paul. Talk about taking out “plain and precious” parts! But Marcion failed. There were too many copies out there to change them all. And even Marcion’s chop-job did not get hidden, thanks to Tertullian, who gave us the details. The burden of proof is on those who would claim that such an important teaching was originally in God’s word, and that someone successfully removed it without a trace.

Where does anyone get priesthood authority to speak and act for God? We won’t find it in the canonical New Testament. We will only find it in the latter-day writings of someone whose character as a spokesman for God must be judged on its own merits. Any priesthood authority that someone claims is only as valid as the credibility of the person who claims to have given it to them. We examine that issue in my book The Historical Jesus and the Historical Joseph Smith.

What about the “keys of the kingdom of heaven” that Jesus gives to Peter in Matthew 16? Jesus tells Peter that whatever he binds (or forbids) on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever he looses (or permits) on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” The question is whether Peter is being given the authority of a Pope or divine spokesman. No, it is much more likely that Jesus is simply highlighting Peter’s office as an apostle with the power of attorney to make decisions based on Jesus’ teaching, wherever Jesus did not explicitly address an issue of faith or practice. Jesus never mentioned abortion or child molestation by name, but by the end of the 1st century, the early church had the authoritative answers on those issues.

But there is no evidence that Jesus intended that authority to bind and loose to extend beyond Peter’s lifetime, nor is there evidence that Jesus intended that authority to be passed on to anyone else. Indeed, when the early church confronted the biggest issue to which Jesus never spelled out his answer (namely, whether Gentiles had to be circumcised to follow Jesus), Peter does not decide the issue. It is decided by an all-Church council of apostles and elders. And the whole reason they had to hold this council is that in Galatians 2, Paul has to rebuke Peter for getting it wrong on this very issue.

Today, we ask a question: “What does this passage in the Bible mean?” Somebody says, “Here’s what Famous Author says.” We ask, “How does he know? Where did he get that?” They say, “He got it from Big-Shot Professor at Ivory Tower Seminary.” We ask, “But where did Big-Shot Professor get it?” Here we come to reckon with the questions of sources and authority on the really important issues in life.

Human say-so only goes so far. Anyone can make claims about God or about truth. Philosophers can speculate and use logic. Science can make its claims, but even science must often begin with starting points that it cannot prove, that have to be accepted on faith. And today, science has sadly been hijacked by political agendas that undermine its credibility.

Ultimately, there is much for which we have to rely on the revealed word of God for our authority. And yet, many voices through time have claimed to have that revealed authority. I find the Bible to be superior to them all. Now, the Bible is not silly putty that we can use to make it mean whatever we want, but we must exercise the utmost of caution when someone claims to have the authority to dictate exactly what the Bible means.

Today, at a time when we celebrate the birth of our nation, is a good time to be talking about authority and about human rights, all of which are wrapped up in this word. We were the first nation since God’s word was published who spelled it out that human rights come from God, not from human government. God may delegate authority to human government, as we find in Romans 13, where Paul says “there is no authority except under God, and those [authorities] that exist have been appointed by God.” But because God is the source of that authority, God can always take it away. Consequently, when we speak of human rights, if we claim that our rights come from government, government can take them away. But if human rights come from God, then only God can take them away.

The words “under God” in our Pledge of Allegiance were put there to answer this very issue. These words “under God” came from President Eisenhower, after he heard a sermon at a Presbyterian church in Denver, where the pastor pointed out that because Communism rejects the existence of God, their leaders answer to no one but themselves. Human rights are always in danger when our leaders do not think that they must answer to God. The words “under God” were added to our Pledge to make it clear that we must all answer to a higher Power.

Speaking of human rights, Proverbs 29:7 says, “A righteous person knows the rights of the poor.” Unfortunately, because God’s people knew those rights back then, God did not spell them out in writing for us. Don’t you wish we had that list? (And even if God did give us a list of those rights, would we be willing to accept what God said to people in the Late Bronze Age? Or would we dismiss what God said to them on the grounds that times have changed?)

While God did not spell out an explicit list of the rights that the writer of Proverbs 29:7 had in mind, I think we can identify some of those rights. Here are just a few:

Exodus 22:25, Leviticus 25:35-37, and Deuteronomy 23:19-20 all forbid charging interest to a fellow Israelite who is financially destitute. These verses do not forbid commercial loans. That’s why it was OK to charge interest to non-Israelites; such loans would always be commercial loans. What God forbids is charging interest on food or necessities, making profit off of a fellow Israelite’s poverty. In Deuteronomy 24:6, God makes it illegal to require anything vital for survival as collateral to be repossessed, particularly their means of production. In Moses’ day, a millstone was the best example. Today, a car might fit this definition.

In Deuteronomy 24:10-13, God protects the privacy of the poor by forbidding the creditor to enter a house to obtain collateral. God also makes it difficult to use the coat or bed in which one sleeps for collateral, by requiring the creditor to return the item every night (we find this also in Exodus 22:26-27). And only in Deuteronomy 24:17 is the widow’s garment explicitly forbidden as collateral under any circumstances. In Deuteronomy 24:14-15, we see that withholding wages is another forbidden means of violating the rights of the poor. Leviticus 19:13 also says: “The wages of a hired servant shall not remain with you all night until morning.” Deadbeat employers steal their employees’ labor this way. Deadbeat corporations steal the use of their suppliers’ money this way. Even an economic conservative theologian writes, “Work must be promptly paid, or it is theft and should be prosecuted as such.”

Deuteronomy 24:17, Exodus 22:21, and Leviticus 19:33 all remind us not to oppress the alien or the orphan, depriving them of justice. The meaning of the word “oppression” is best described as “coercion” or abuse of power. Israel’s experience in Egypt is cited in the Torah as a prime example of oppression. Many times the Law of Moses calls for equal justice for aliens. The question is whether these verses are applicable to today’s illegal aliens. That’s a subject I have written about in a post called “The Immigrant in Hebrew Law.”

Leaving part of the harvest for the poor is found in Deuteronomy 24:19-21, and also in Leviticus 19:9-10 and 23:22. God gives the poor a chance to harvest for themselves. This law required generosity on the part of the landowner, and offered productive work for those who were in need. The salvaging of unwanted food from supermarkets and restaurants to feed the poor, the salvaging of clothes and other goods by resale stores, and the salvaging of recyclables from trash, can all claim Biblical precedent in this law. But the heart of this law is the requirement that the producer of food must set aside part of their potential profit, so that those in need (who are willing to labor for it) can also earn their living.

Did the poor have other rights that have not been spelled out in the Hebrew Bible? We have no way of knowing for sure, and we must be careful about adding rights to this list without sufficient grounds in God’s word. But the commands we have identified here are enough for starters. They give us examples of God’s passion for justice expressed in specific actions.

When it comes to authority, it all comes from God, and there is no higher source for what God wants us to know and do than God’s written word, the Bible. But how true is the Bible? Is the Bible nothing but a book of inspiring fiction? Or is it based on events that really and truly happened? And how much does it matter whether events in the Bible really and truly happened? Can a book that is full of fiction serve as God’s authoritative word? We’ll talk about that next time on Biblical Words and World.