This second post in our 7 part series on Authority in Ethics uses Matthew’s gospel to discuss Jesus’ authority, the main authority in Christian ethics.
The last post discussed power (ability to influence something or someone) and authority (legitimate power) and widespread suspicion about both. I see ethics as the task of weaving a threaded argument for or against something by connecting aspects of a situation (case, policy or decision) to an authority. That authority can be a command from an acknowledged authority, a principle, a prior practice, a tradition or community more, or a religious or Biblical reference. Attempts can also be made to weave it from the values inherent in the situation or to a future outcome. That process is a moral justification.
Christian ethics weaves its moral claims from, with and to Christ. That is why Christian ethics is needed in Christian schools. While we respect and learn from philosophical ethics, even situational ethics, and there are many legitimate reference points of power and authority we all share with others, the ultimate authority for a Christian is Christ.
Matthew’s gospel focuses on Jesus’ power and authority, as the true king, worthy of being followed, a choice Matthew had made. Matthew in a single moment abandoned his tax booth one day to follow Jesus as the Christ. The Jews had already hated Matthew for tax collecting and now he would surely have had to endure the wrath and punishment of Rome for leaving his post. Matthew’s gospel, is both a witness and a personal testimony about why Christ was worth the choice.
Matthew, the other gospels and the whole New Testament, is an attempt to juxtapose the authority of Jesus with the Jewish religious leaders, the abusive Roman authorities and the foolish wisdom of Greek mythology. It is at times a subtle contrast and at other times boldly obvious.
I will highlight only a few passages in Matthew although there are several dozen that directly showcase Jesus’ power and authority. I encourage you to spend several hours reading through Matthew looking all the issues related to power and authority in Matthew.
Wiersbe, in his commentary on Matthew, Be Loyal, notes that Matthew was probably the most used book of the early church as the early church wrestled with how to keep believing in Jesus’ authority in the face of Roman, Greek, and Jewish power.
The first authority we see is in Jesus lineage (1:1-17). Establishing patriarchal authority in Jesus lineage to Abraham through to David and to Joseph, his non-biological father, was important for that time period and for the later prophecies the gospels invoke to establish Jesus’ authority. While distant from modern thinking about authority, it would have been a necessary, although not sufficient, point of authority.
Matthews wisemen at Jesus’ birth (2:1-12) take this to a new level. It shows Jesus, from birth, is recognized by educated individuals from other nations as The King. The fact they followed an astronomical sign in the heaves was added confirmation of Jesus’ unique authority.
Fast forwarding to Matthew 8, the centurion’s encounter with Jesus to come and heal his servant speaks to Jesus authority. When Jesus agrees to come to heal the servant personally, the Centurion seems shocked in two ways: “Lord, I am not worthy that You should come under my roof. But only speak a word, and my servant will be healed.” (8:8).
The story shares an understanding of authority and expressed through the centurion: “For I also am a man UNDER authority, having soldiers under me. And I say to this one, ‘go,’ and he goes; and to another, ‘come,’ and he comes; and to my servant, ‘do this,’ and he does it.” (8:9).
Jesus profusely praises this act of faith as greater than any other in Israel, and uses it as a time to reprimand “the sons of the kingdom” that will be left in “darkness.”
Faith in and unworthiness and humility are blended into an expression of authority. This is a Roman accustomed to authority as getting one’s way because one has a right and this expresses a subtle difference. Authority is connected to position, but based on meeting the needs of someone. In this case, the Centurion is trying to meet the needs of a servant. He has probably tried but could not. He is desperate. He finds someone with more expertise and more authority. He goes personally to request of a Jewish peasant-rabbi help. It is a request not a command. Jesus is impressed that a pagan centurion used to warfare and killing and violence has a deeper understanding of God’s authority than anyone else.
I am sure the disciples had pulled back with the Centurion had come to Jesus, out of spite, out of fear, out of distrust. But Jesus elevates the Centurion as a great example of faith. This is a man that could have cut Jesus in pieces—he had that power and authority to do so, but instead comes in the same authority Jesus comes—out of request to fill a need.
Later, we get a contrast to this view of authority when the Jewish leaders “came to test Jesus, demanding that he show them a miraculous sign from heaven to prove his authority” (Matthew 16:1, NLT). This is similar to Matthew 4’s record of Satan’s faithless “IF” temptation of Jesus to show his authority by COMMANDING the rocks to be bread. The Jewish leaders, with their strong command approach to authority, is in stark contrast to the Centurion trust and faith and believing understanding of authority. There is a difference in the command both are referring to. One is out of faith and trust, the other is out of doubt, faithlessness, and force.
The contrast would have hit the first century question with confusion. The Pagan Centurion had a better understanding of Christ’s fundamental authority than the Jewish leaders.
Jesus rebukes the leaders and says the only sign they will get is the miracle of his death: a mind shattering challenge to all views of kingly authority. Why would a king die for others when they are born to kill others? It would only make sense if He had a different type of authority, one in which you die for the other because it meets a deep need. He had to heal us and his authority in the cross is the authority the Centurion understood but the Jewish leaders missed.
Then he fast forwards to the judgment scene where he pictures people who will condemn these religious leaders in the judgment “for indeed a greater than Solomon is here.” (v 42).
This passage speaks to the need for acceptance as the basis of authority. While the people of Ninevah and the Queen of the South were willing to change their views of power and authority, the Jewish people were resisting Jesus’ authority.
There are dozens of stories in Matthew that can show this “new King” and his vast power but his new type of authority. Two more points to close this blog:
Transferred authority: Jesus is ready to share authority: “I tell you the truth, whatever you forbid on earth will be forbidden in heaven, and whatever you permit on earth will be permitted in heaven. I also tell you this: if two of you agree here on earth concerning anything you ask, my Father in heaven will do it for you” (Matthew 18:18, 19). Earthly kings have a hard time transferring authority to others. King Jesus speaks of a father who is more eager to share authority than to grasp it.
But this is contrasted with the fact that some authority is not shared:
“Don’t let anyone call you ‘Rabbi,’ for you have only one teacher, and all of you are equal as brothers and sisters. 9 And don’t address anyone here on earth as ‘Father,’ for only God in heaven is your spiritual Father. 10 And don’t let anyone call you ‘Teacher,’ for you have only one teacher, the Messiah. 11 The greatest among you must be a servant. 12 But those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Matthew 23: 8-12).
This last statement reminds us of the Centurion (humble and servant are key words here). This constant use of deference with power is evident in Matthew’s presentation of Jesus. It also shows us the servant attitude that should characterize our view of Christ’s authority. Jesus does away with the teacher “lording it over” authority over students, and since he was the greatest teacher, his example is ours in teacher student relations.
Finally, a centurion—the daily representation to Jews of what power and authority looks like—shows up again at the cross. After Jesus final show of his authority—to meet human need—the centurion bows down at the cross, acknowledging “truly this was the Son of God” (Mt 27 :54) as a statement of deep worship. That phrase was reserved for Caesar only, and by acknowledging it the Centurion was shifting his allegiance from the Roman power to Christ. Those entrenched in power—like the centurions and Matthew, attracted to taxes and to that power, have seen something better in Christ. That is Christ’s authority.
In this short review of only 10% of the passages in Matthew about Jesus’ authority we see a new understanding of the authority Christ can bring to us and to doing a Christian ethic. Oddly, Jesus’ authority is over other authority not because he trumps other authority (as Donald Trump would have us think authority is), but because of the faith of the hearers in the humility and service attitude that pervades that authority.
Gone is the authoritarianism that often dominates fundamentalist understanding of God’s authority. The ultimate authority in the life, death, resurrection and on-going ministry of Christ, is anchored in the greater sacrificing for the least, the desire to serve needs, and the desire to lay down your life for even your enemies.
No wonder Matthew had no regrets leaving his tax office, and the Centurion had no regrets confessing something that probably later got him killed. This was the Son of God—he had the enduring authority that commanded a deeper allegiance precisely because it wasn’t commanded.
At the time the stories recorded in Matthew occurred, Rome was the dominant political and economic power (although weakened by its excesses), the Greek mindset was the dominant mental power in culture, arts and mystical ideas, and Jewish religious leaders were trying to carve out their own power center between these two “pagan” influences by creating a “I-am-better-than-you” aloofness with a power center based on spiritual minutia, rules and practices.
Jesus’ life was a fresh invitation to power over sickness, estrangement, confusion, and abuse. It was a new day, a new kingdom, a new way to life.
When Matthew was written, the other dominant powers were still vying for control but a small group, Jesus’ disciples, full of people like former tax—collectors, former Centurions, and religious zealots—had experienced Jesus as a new and better type of authority. There was no going back. Matthew was written to help these followers, who under great torment and torture were persecuted deeply for their faithfulness to a new authority.
In the next post, I return to Matthew 3 and 4, where a showdown of authority can help us see a new side of how Christ can guide Christian ethics.