Authority and Power: Exercised and Ascribed

It was a key theme throughout Jesus’ earthly ministry, especially in the final weeks leading up to His crucifixion and death.

It has been a key theme in Jesus’ heavenly ministry, as High Priest, especially in the closing work of Divine judgment.

The theme is Authority, God’s and ours!

What gives Jesus the right to do what he does and say what he says? What gives us the right to do what we do and what we say?

The gospels set out to clarify and establish Jesus’ authority in heaven and earth. In the process they contrast it with the authority of others less worthy of our respect and worship. The same is true for the gospel of the book of Revelation, where a longterm contrast is showcased between Jesus, His church, and his prophets and the counterfeit rulers at war with this authority.

Each gospel takes a different twist on this theme. Matthew represents Jesus as the baby King born humble but still the Ruler of the Jews. He details Jesus’ new constitution for the poor and blessed (Matthew 5-7) and details the coronation as a suffering king who laid down his life under “the written charge against him: this is Jesus, the king of the Jews.” Each gospel takes up different aspects of his active authority. Luke focuses on his authority over unclean spirits and his power of medical and physical reality as the True Adam. Mark shows him as the Chief Servant, the Ox working for human needs. John shows him as one with final authority over spiritual and judicial decisions as the True Judge.

An event covered in Matthew, Mark and Luke sets home the importance of this theme of authority:

“They arrived again in Jerusalem, and while Jesus was walking in the temple courts, the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders came to him. “By what authority are you doing these things?” they asked. “And who gave you authority to do this?”

Jesus replied, “I will ask you one question. Answer me, and I will tell you by what authority I am doing these things. John’s baptism—was it from heaven, or of human origin? Tell me!”

They discussed it among themselves and said, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will ask, ‘Then why didn’t you believe him?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin’ …” (They feared the people, for everyone held that John really was a prophet.)

So they answered Jesus, “We don’t know.”

Jesus said, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.” (Mark 11:27-33)

Unpacking the story helps us see the authority Jesus was trying to foster.

The context couldn’t have been more fitting: it happened in the temple, with many of the top religious leaders in Jerusalem.

Jerusalem was “the place!!” For some, it is still the place. It has had a lot of ascribed authority. Even today, Judiasm, Christianity and Islam camp out as a sort of “claim” to spiritual authority. But only days after this encounter, Jesus will be crucified OUTSIDE its gates, dissociating his authority forever from a power hungry destination like Jerusalem or Mecca or Rome. His life can’t be forced into such tight and temporal authority.

The presence of the priests and the keepers of the law as the formal religious authority, also creates a nice contextual contrast to what Jesus is about to reveal about His authority. Their authority was based on the telling people what to do. That was probably the most common view of authority. In reality, it is part of he authority needed by all leaders: parents, magistrates, police, and God. But it an authority that turns sour quickly. It has to be supplemented by more. Some supplement it like these religious leaders: the scramble and scrape over the little authority they had left after losing so much to more “powerfuls”–the Herods, Pilots and Ceasers. Jesus will soon show a new way to supplement this authority of telling others.

The contrasts of authority becomes even more profound as this took place in THE temple, the perceived place of divine interaction with humans, a place of established, excercised and ascribed authority. God has meet patriarchs and prophets many places, but for thousands of years the temple was that place. While ministering here, John the Baptist’s father receives the authoritative vision announcing his son as the forerunner of Christ. The temple holds sway as a place of authority and it should, but only because of God’s presence and the FREEDOM to worship in that presence. Take away either of those two elements–God and freedom, and authority, especially religious authority, because tyranny. In a few days after this dialogue about authority, Jesus exercises his authority by cleansing the temple of the the money changers and then later, His father will go even further, and in ripping the curtain, forever remove a temple as barrier or block that can impede or even manage our direct access to God.

These contextual contrasts are what makes the way Jesus handled this event so profound.

He answered their question with a question. There are different types of questions–some we use to trap people (like these leaders), some we use to create dialogue and discussion (like Jesus), and some because we have absolutely no idea and need help.

What better place to manage and maybe change the common view of authority than with a question.

Jesus wanted reciprocity. They share what they know. He shares what he knows. Everyone grows. They stopped sharing. He needed to end the conversation. Yes. He wanted reciprocity because authority, to be fully realized is not just something done to a person but something those under it seek. Followers have a lot of control over aspects of authority–by obedience, by ascribing to the other a role as leader.

That is what the people did with John. He had no formal authority, but he spoke truth and the people accepted that. Accepting authority is the main battle in the great controversy. It is the battle for allegiance, it is the battle for respect, it is the battle for followers who will worship him “in spirit and in truth.”

In this convoluted discussion, I believe Jesus is distancing himself and his methods from the typical views of power and leadership as place, position, or even temple. He is positioning himself as one needing responsiveness, first and foremost, a responsiveness from us that makes Him our chosen authority in our lives.

Below is the breakdown of this new authority:

Power (traditional authority) Authority (Jesus style)


Usually by war, coup, intrigue, parental status, might, law Creator, Redeemer, but also based on our ascribing him authority in our life
Derived By appointment, compliance or Kiss ups, Pretense He claimed to be from God and have the authority to speak for God.
Exercised Lording it Over Others Serving the needs of others
Ascribed Mouthed and Faked Support Deep Love, Respect and Worship from the heart
Shared Cronyism, Cultural, Governmental God wanted the Church to have and build on this same authority

One can decide to lead or take hold of authority based on one’s personality, how one is born even with a natural inclination to lead. One can be selected by another leader to lead on their behalf. But ultimately, the leaders that get the deeps following are one’s where the follower decides they have seen enough evidence to follow and see enough love in the leader to trust that leader.

Jesus wanted them to ascribe to John authority as a leader, because then it would have made it easier for them to accept what John said about Jesus, and ultimately easier for these rulers to lay down their pride and follow Jesus, the real authority in town, not because of power but because of love.

What authority does Jesus have to tell anybody anything, especially to command them? Yes, he is creator. He does have that right. Yes. the Father of all granted him all authority in earth and heaven? But the hardest authority to “win” is allegiance of love, to have someone ascribe to you the authority due you and WANT to follow you.

Welcome to a different kingdom. And what was true of Jesus is true of God.

Willing and heart-felt and mindful loving obedience to God is the ultimate coronation of His authority. Anything else is too fickle and limited. That is worship. Isaiah 43 frames it well:

“You are my witnesses,” declares the Lord,
“and my servant whom I have chosen,
so that you may know and believe me
and understand that I am he.
Before me no god was formed,
nor will there be one after me.
11 I, even I, am the Lord,
and apart from me there is no savior.
12 I have revealed and saved and proclaimed—
I, and not some foreign god among you.
You are my witnesses,” declares the Lord, “that I am God.
13     Yes, and from ancient days I am he.
No one can deliver out of my hand.
When I act, who can reverse it?”

Sadly, many resist Jesus and they are also resisting other legitimate forms of authority: parents, the State (Romans 13), natural law. They resist excercised authority even as that authority, if managed well, can get them to ascribing authority that can give them a good life.

What Pilate and many other leaders missed is that Jesus offered a better authority where the followers accept the leadership and by so doing embrace a better experience of authority. Jesus was looking for that then, and in this judgment hour, he is looking for it now.

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