Jesus Christ came to inaugurate a new Kingdom entirely under his own authority. Inevitably this produced a clash: one does not simply claim authority as king where another is already enthroned. Jesus’ Kingdom was “not of this world,’ yet even so it got him crucified.
On the surface it sounds like a classic political power struggle. Take a closer look, though, and you’ll find that Jesus’ authority challenge was like no other. If you’ve never seen this, you’ve never understood Jesus Christ.
Authority Structures: Government, Economics, and Knowledge
Every culture in every age has its authorities in three broad areas:
- Government: Who sets and enforces the laws? Who controls the military?
- Economics: Who controls the resource? Who runs banking and commerce?
- Knowledge: Who can claim to know what, and how they can claim to know it?
Historians and political scientists tend to think that economics and government are what count, and understandably so. There have been frequent coups d’état, and revolutions against governmental authorities, typically involving military force. The twentieth century saw countries overturned by economic uprisings as well.
Jesus, the self-proclaimed King, practically ignored all that. He will return to rule in every sphere, for all of it is his, but in his earthly first-century ministry, he showed no signs of being interested in revolution of the usual kind.
He practically ignored government. Other than the famous “Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s” incident, he paid it virtually no attention until his trial, and hardly even then (see John 19:10-11).
As for economics, in Luke 4 he strongly endorsed the Old Testament prophetic message of justice, and in the Sermon on the Mount he urged his listeners to give freely (see also Matt. 10:8), and to trust God to provide. He urged his followers not to be ensnared by the pursuit of riches. But he did nothing to challenge, much less to usurp, the centers of economic power.
Is this starting to look different, now, from the classic story of rebellion and revolution?
It should be, for Jesus took a vastly different route. He claimed authority over knowledge and truth. It was the ruling knowledge class of the day who engineered his trial and conviction.
The way he did it was unlike anything else you or I have experienced. It was unlike anything his listeners at the time had ever heard before, too. They were astounded by it. When his Sermon on the Mount ended, “the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he was teaching them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes” (Matthew 7:28-29). And well they might have been.
You see, I used to think that meant he spoke boldly and confidently, but it doesn’t. It means he spoke as if he himself was the authority on what he was speaking about. The scribes quoted Scripture and tradition. Jesus just spoke. He cited no one as authority. He spoke as if he himself wielded all authority. Today we demonstrate the authority of our words by the number and diversity of sources in our footnotes. If Jesus’ sermon notes had carried footnotes, they would all have begun, “Jesus of Nazareth, ….”
Read the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5 through 7) for yourself once again and you’ll see it. Several times he said, “You have heard it said, …” and then went on, “but I say to you ….” Think of it: the Jews of the day had a long and robust scholarly tradition, not unlike our reliance on footnoted citations, though possibly more intense. Scribes quoted Scripture and one another. Students studied, disputed, and drew their conclusions from scholars and scribes who had gone ahead of them. The tradition continues to this day, embodied in the Talmud, the Midrash, and I’m sure much more of which I am unaware.
In the face of that, Jesus simply said, “but I say to you.” Who was his authority? Just himself. His basis for the truth of what he said was that he was saying it. The reason he knew it was true was because he knew it was true.
There are some things you and I know are true just because we know they’re true. I can tell you with perfect authority what I am thinking at a given moment. The reason I know truly what I’m thinking is simply because I know. Jesus treated his knowledge of God, ethics, and wisdom for life in exactly the same way. He spoke with the same assured voice of authority concerning the thoughts of God as you and I might speak concerning our own thoughts.
The crowd’s astonishment was understandable.
Jesus’ record on this was consistent. He quoted Scripture to interpret it and apply it, and to parry the Devil’s distortions. He never quoted it, however, to discuss whether it meant this or that. He just said what it meant. He never cited any other source as his authority, either. He hardly even mentioned any other sources, except by way of illustrating a point of his own, as in (perhaps) Matthew 16:2-3.
Claiming such complete authority over knowledge, he was bound to incite conflict with the established knowledge class of the day, the scribes and Pharisees. That’s exactly what happened. In John 5:18, these Jewish leaders began seeking to kill him. In John 8:13 they challenged his authority to speak, and in Luke 20:20, his authority to teach. How did he respond?
In John 5:30-37 he points to three sources validating his authority: John the Baptist, his own works, and the voice of the Father. In John 8:17-18, though, he narrows it down to just two: “In your Law it is written that the testimony of two people is true. I am the one who bears witness about myself, and the Father who sent me bears witness about me.” Or in other words, What I’m speaking to you is true just because I say it is–and God says so, too. In Luke 20:1-8 Jesus confidently assumed authority over who could challenge his authority.
Try to imagine anyone getting away with teaching that way today! I supposewe could picture some mystic claiming that his message was self-validating, or perhaps telling his disciples that by looking within themselves they would find the truth. Jesus did neither of those; rather, he said, “I have it on my own authority—and God the Father’s—that I’m right.”
That’s really quite jarring, isn’t it? Some people he angered with his way of teaching: the ones who thought they had the truth figured out without him. You would think everyone would have been upset with it. Many followed him eagerly, though. Why?
There’s only one answer that makes sense to me: he was the real thing. He was the real thing in practicing what he preached, especially love. He was there for them. He healed their diseases. (Some of them followed him for the spectacle of it.) Somehow, though, uniquely among all teachers, he was able to make himself the focus of all truth while making others the focus of his care and concern. (As an apologist focused on truth, I am deeply humbled—totally undone—by his example of self-sacrificial love.)
Besides that, his listeners must have seen something in him that made his claims credible. His miracles validated his teaching, to be sure, but there must have been more to it than that. The more aware among his listeners must have thought, “I never thought I’d ever hear anyone teach this way, speaking so simply on his own authority in our Scripture- and tradition-soaked world. And I really never could have imagined meeting a person who could try it without making himself a laughing-stock. But now I have. And I think he’s genuine. This Jesus has something extraordinary going for him.”
Jesus was indeed extraordinary.
This means different things today to believers than to unbelievers. For believers, it’s yet one more amazing thing about Jesus to reflect upon.He is truly high above all others, and he deserves all our worship. It’s an opportunity for each of us to ask ourselves yourself by what prayer, meditation, and intentional action we might learn to exercise our own authority, such as it is, in such a loving manner. (These are my own reactions, and my own questions to myself.)
I know that some atheists and skeptics will read this, too. You will ask whether it could be true that Jesus did this, and some of you will doubt it. Let me ask you to try another approach instead of asking that question, though. Let me ask you to consider approaching the story of Jesus as a good story. Read the New Testament, or at least the books of Luke and John near the beginning of the New Testament, by which you can get a good clear picture of the man Jesus was portrayed to be.
Don’t worry yet about whether it’s true. Just consider this. You and I each get one shot at life. We could make it up as we go along, or we could follow some great life example. Billions of people over thousands of years have considered Jesus’ life the one most worth emulating. You owe it to yourself to find out if his example is one that you would want to follow. You owe it to yourself to find out about this character Jesus. You might discover in him the same ring of reality that attracted the crowds in his day, and so many more of us since then.