Authority in Ethics 4: Satan’s Power, Jesus’ Incarnation

We are in the middle of a 7 part series on power and authority in Christian Adventist Ethics.

I first introduced power as the ability to influence and move people or things and authority as legitimate power. I argued authority is central in ethics. Ethics must appeal to authoritative reference points to suggest moral actions and present its moral justifications.

I then discussed Matthew’s presentation of Jesus’ power and authority. Jesus lead by focusing on human need and clarifying the Fathers care for others. This was in contrast to the abusive power manifest by Roman, Greek, and Jewish leaders who lorded it over others.

In post 3, I used Matthew 21 and Mathew 3 to suggest Jesus constructed His authority from both human and divine experiences and evidence.

The Jewish leaders questioned where Jesus got his authority. Jesus asked them where they thought John the Baptist got his authority. The Jewish leaders refused to answer because they felt trapped between two answers. If they said John got authority from God, they would then show their hypocrisy as they claimed to follow God but didn’t follow John who had his authority from God. Yet that didn’t want to say his authority was only from the people, as the people had followed John precisely because they felt John was from God.

Ouch. They were stuck. They were trapped by their own failed view of authority.

The best answer was both. John was called from God, and by following, the people gave him authority over their lives.

The dialogue Jesus tried to create, this godly interchange hinted at the response he had hoped the leaders would embrace. Ultimate lasting authority is established by mutual agreement. Because these leaders has refused to submit to John and the voice from God he was sharing, they could not enter the authority of the Father. Followers enter and establish authority in a crucial way in the New order of authority Jesus was trying to establish.

The Jewish leaders could not embrace this new authority because mutuality would have destroyed their monopoly of control. They would have to follow and not just lead.

Had the leaders freely accepted John or even accepted the people’s response to John as they struggled through the humiliation and submission process, they would have have shown a willingness to be lead by others and entered into a new a better way of authority. This trinitarian mutuality alone sustains an authority fundamental to the survival of the world and universe.

Authority—in Christian perspective and community—is ultimately guided by choice which is informed by knowledge which is received or rejected by a listener. We can say no deep within our minds. We have a choice of receiving the authority of another or rejecting it.

Authority received by choice is superior to authority that must be forced or even coerced by persuasion or deception.

Authority with a mutuality lands different into the heart. As such, it requires an act of the person, a sort of cognitive relinquishing that is an act of following and submitting that is nurtured in us by a choice and a receptivity.

The delicate task of getting into our hearts this type of submission to authority is the greatest mystery of God’s great work of redemption.

John’s authority was received by many people. As such, they were ready to receive Jesus’ authority. And that was good, because Jesus’ approach was even quieter, subtler, and even more self-effacing and self-denying than John’s.  This contrasted to other leaders in Jesus’ day who established their authority by demanding it, conscripting it, deceiving and manipulating to get it or fomenting a lot of fear mongering.

I believe most of the leaders of Jesus’ day and many in our day would find this approach to fostering authority too tedious, built on too difficult a platform to create and ultimately too fragile of a foundation for running a home, community, nation or universe.

It is fragile in the sense that those who are given the opportunity to enter this authority can reject the still soft voice, the simple reason, the delicate formulation of truth. And to continue to reject the invitation makes it harder for God to help people through the submission process.

But praise God, he does not give up and in His Son he has created the winsome appeal to this new authority.

I believe this mutuality of authority is captured best in the incarnation of Jesus.

In this post, I use Matthew 4 to deepen look at the incarnational nature of Christian authority by focusing on Jesus’ response to Satan in the desert temptations recorded in Matthew 4. While Satan often worked through pawns—Herod, Jewish leaders, Roman authorities, Judas —at times Satan worked directly. This is one such place. The contrast between the two superpowers–Satan and Jesus–are marked but subtle.

Jesus has been “led” into the dessert by the Holy Spirit (Matthew 4:1). This transaction alone reminds us of the mutuality that framed Jesus’ authority.  He is going into the wilderness on his own choice but in response to invitation and community and leadership. He is following even as he is leading. He is following the Spirit, who will be evidently also subject to Jesus’ authority as evident elsewhere in the New Testament.

Jesus was NOT kidnapped nor forced into the dessert but lead, invited and winsomely compelled by the Spirit’s community. I belabor the point as it sets up the scene very well. The 40 days of fasting and prayer, the deep self-denial and later deprivation, appear to many as a sort of solitary confinement. This was not completely accurate. It was first and foremost a retreat and communion with God. Jesus’ divine nature had extensive  experiences throughout eternity with such intense communion. Now, in his human form, he comes to this event. The deep communion, a community exchange, means for Jesus this is about interdependency not independence.

For millennium, I fear this episode has been distorted to justify remoteness instead of interdependence.  Calls to monasteries or more recently calls to “get of the grid” or escape cities as a claim to participant in more righteous living can exalt self-sufficiency to a detriment. I think this mindset has fostered a bizainterdependency. They have erroneously twisted this into self-denial over communion.

Notwithstanding, it is true, this experience leads to great self-denial. But this self-denial is one of communion. Herein lies the beauty of this passage to understanding authority. It is the denial of self, within community, that establishes an authority based on mutuality.

As such, Jesus, as a man within this intense devotion and communion, not only finds spiritual power, but as a man, physically exhaustion. He becomes emaciated within the dynamic of communion.

Satan sees his opportunity. As an angel disguised in health and light he shows up when Jesus is most physically exhausted.

Depravity is contrasted to strength in a remarkably clear way between the two. The contrast will spill over into understanding authority.

“The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.” Or in the NASB “If You are the Son of God, command that these stones become bread.”

While food might appear to be the “natural” focus of the conversation and temptation, in reality the main issue is Jesus’ identity and authority.

Doubt frames the conversation from the start. “IF” is the word that indicates the more dominant players dismissal of the other persons right of identity. The deep challenge is made to Jesus’ fundamental authority: that which arises from his identity.

But if that seems like the bullet to avoid, in reality, it is the second “shot” from Satan’s mouth that is the most troubling to me. It is in the word TELL. TELL these stones. As the NASB captures it: COMMAND.

Telling and commanding are the most common phrases most associate with authority. People are in authority when they can tell and command and then things happen. It is how we have come to expect authority to get demonstrated, especially if a God is involved.

Yes, we have reason to think this. God spoke and the world’s were created. God’s Word rallies angels. It makes things happen. It is natural to associate the ability to command with authority. Jesus is God and has the creative power to create bread from rocks.

If he just did that, it would settle Jesus’ authority once and for all.

Or would it.

Jesus answered and said, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God.’”

Jesus does two things that are counter intuitive in his discussion and debate with Satan. When asked to assert his divinity, Jesus now identifies with his humanity.

“Man shall not…..”

“I am human,” is how Jesus responds to the question of his divinity. That doesn’t help his defense, or does it?

In grabbing his identity as a man and not asserting it as the Son of God moves the conversation of authority to a different place.

Then he does the second important shift, by moving the TELLING to a frame of listening.

Humans must depend on every word that proceeds from God’s mouth. But this is not from a God who is always telling but a God in conversation. We are listening, Jesus is listening, because he is responsive.

He asserts a human dependency on God in both his reference to being human and his “waiting on every word.”

When tempted to usurp a divine prerogative—to speak as he did at creation to bring forth life-giving forms—he instead invokes human dependence.

Herein lies the mystery of a godliness that views authority from a frame of dependence, communion, dialogue, and deep mutuality. The invitation to mutuality is different then the invitation to command and tell.

Satan can’t enter that authority. Satan has twisted truth because he himself has become twisted. His own thinking has got the best of him. He doesn’t really understand God and Jesus, and their authority over and with others.

But Satan recognizes enough to see Jesus has made an appeal to dependency.

So then, he pushes to the other extreme, sacrilegiously grabs some scripture from his mind invites Jesus to deep interdepency—throw yourself over this cleft—a free fall of dependence—and let God catch you.

This is a distortion number two about authority. It is always a mutuality that invites the other to use their brain. Humans must live by dependence on God and must respond to His word, but not deny the reason and reasonableness God has given them. They have authority to in the mutual relationship with God.

Jesus said to him, “On the other hand, it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’” (NASB)

On the other hand is marker of dialogue, of discussion, of even debate that suggest a richer judgment of reality from mutuality.

Satan is pushing always to extremes because he himself has no longer an ability to anchor in the mutuality of God’s authority. He can no longer appreciate the dynamic authority crafted in divine-human relationships, which allows each a voice, but finds in submission a wonder of ascribed authority.

He has lost dialogue with God, dialogue that Jesus is fresh off the the last 40 days of experiencing. Dialogue that submits to authority of the other even as one’s own authority is preserved.

“Again, the devil took Him to a very high mountain and *showed Him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory;  and he said to Him, “All these things I will give You, if You fall down and worship me.”  Then Jesus said to him, “Go, Satan! For it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and serve Him only.’” Then the devil left Him; and behold, angels came and began to minister to Him.”

Satan can’t break the bond between Jesus and God because the bond is one of mutuality, interdependency, and delighted submission.

Satan can neither understand that approach to “worship” nor conjole it out of others.  It is mixed with affection and allegiance, the type that only comes from authority established by mutuality.

Satan can force, carry people up to mountains, try to sweeten offers of great fame and fortune, but he won’t or can’t take the way to the heart.

Herein lies the authority of Christianity.

In the next three posts, I will try to showcase how and why that mutuality approach to authority is so essential in understanding Adventist ethics.


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