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Authority of Christ

Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

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AUTHORITY OF CHRIST.—The first recorded comment on the teaching of Jesus is that of Matthew 7:28 f. (|Mark 1:22, Luke 4:32): ‘They were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes.’ The scribes said nothing of themselves: they appealed in every utterance to tradition (παράδοσις); the message they delivered was not self-authenticating; it had not the moral weight of the speaker’s personality behind it; it was a deduction or application of some legal maxim connected with a respectable name. They claimed authority, of course, but men had no immediate and irresistible consciousness that the claim was just. With Jesus it was the opposite. He appealed to no tradition, sheltered Himself behind no venerable name, claimed no official status; but those who heard Him could not escape the consciousness that His word was with authority (Luke 4:32). He spoke a final truth, laid down an ultimate law.

In one respect, He continued, in so doing, the work and power of the prophets. There was a succession of prophets in Israel, but not a prophetic tradition. It was a mark of degeneration and of insincerity when self-styled prophets repeated each other, stealing God’s words every one from his neighbour (Jeremiah 23:30). The true prophet may have his mind nourished on earlier inspired utterances, but his own message must spring from an immediate prompting of God. It is only when his message is of this kind that his word is with power. No mind was ever more full than the mind of Jesus of all that God had spoken in the past, but no one was ever so spontaneous as He, so free from mere reminiscence, so completely determined in His utterance by the conditions to which it was addressed. It is necessary to keep both things in view in considering His authority as a teacher. Abstract formulae about the seat of authority in religion are not of much service in this connexion. It is, of course, always true to say that truth and the mind are made for each other, and that the mind recognizes the authority of truth because in truth it meets its counterpart, that which enables it to realize its proper being. It is always correct, also, to apply this in the region of morals and religion, and to say that the words of Jesus and the prophets are authoritative because our moral personality instinctively responds to them. We have no choice, as beings made for morality and religion, to do anything but bow before them. The difficulty is that the ‘mind,’ or ‘conscience,’ or ‘moral personality,’ on which our recognition of the truth and authority of Jesus’ teaching is here made dependent, is not a fixed quantity, and still less a ready-made faculty; it is rather a possibility or potentiality in our nature, which needs to he evoked into actual existence; and among the powers which are to evoke it and make it actual and valuable, by far the most important is that teaching of Jesus which it is in some sense allowed to judge. We may say in Coleridge’s phrase that we believe the teaching of Jesus, or acknowledge its (or His) authority, because it ‘finds’ us more deeply than anything else; but any Christian will admit that ‘find’ is an inadequate expression. The teaching of Jesus does not simply find, it evokes or creates the personality by which it is acknowledged. We are born again by the words of eternal life which come from His lips, and it is the new man so born to whom His word is known in all its power. There is a real analogy between this truth and the familiar phenomenon that a new poet or artist has to create the taste which is necessary for the appreciation of his work. Dismissing, therefore, the abstract and general consideration of the idea of authority in religion (see next art.), our course must be (1) to examine the actual exercise of authority by Jesus in the Gospels, referring especially to occasions on which His authority was challenged, or on which He gave hints as to the conditions on which alone it could be recognized; (2) by way of supplement we can consider the authority of the exalted Christ as it is asserted in the Epistles and exercised in the Church through the NT as a whole.

1. The exercise of authority by Jesus on earth.—(a) The simplest but most far-reaching form in which Jesus exercised authority was the practical one. He claimed other men, other moral personalities, for Himself and His work, and required their unconditional renunciation of all other ties and interests that they might become His disciples. He said, ‘Follow me,’ and they rose, and left all and followed Him (Matthew 4:18-22; Matthew 9:9). He made this kind of claim because He identified Himself with the gospel (Mark 8:35; Mark 10:29) or with the cause of God and His Kingdom in the world, and for this cause no sacrifice could be too great, no devotion too profound. ‘He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me. He that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. Whosoever he be of you that renounceth not all that he hath, he cannot be my disciple’ (Matthew 10:37, Luke 14:33). Nothing is less like Jesus than to do violence to anyone’s liberty, or to invade the sacredness of conscience and of personal responsibility; but the broad fact is unquestionable, that without coercing others Jesus dominated them, without breaking their wills He imposed His own will upon them, and became for them a supreme moral authority to which they submitted absolutely, and by which they were inspired. His authority was unconditionally acknowledged because men in His presence were conscious of His moral ascendency, of His own devotion to and identification with what they could not but feel to be the supreme good. We cannot explain this kind of moral or practical authority further than by saying that it is one with the authority which the right and the good exercise over all moral beings.

Not that Jesus was able in every case to carry His own will through in the wills of other men. Moral ascendency has to be exercised under moral conditions, and it is always possible, even for one who acknowledges its right, to fail to give it practical recognition by obedience. When Jesus said to the rich ruler, ‘Sell all that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come, follow me, (Mark 10:21), He failed to win the will of one who nevertheless was conscious that in refusing obedience he chose the worse part. ‘He went away sorrowful’—his sorrow implying that it was within the right on the part of Jesus to put him to this tremendous test. He acknowledges by his sorrow that he would have been a better man—in the sense of the gospel a perfect man—if he had allowed the authority of Jesus to have its perfect work in him. These are the facts of the case, and they are ignored by those who argue that it is no man’s business to part with all he has for the sake of the poor; that property is a trust which we have to administer, not to renounce; that the commandment to sell all cannot be generalized, and is therefore not moral; and that it is, in short, an instance of fanaticism in Jesus, due to His belief in the nearness of the Kingdom, and the literal worthlessness of everything in comparison with entering into it at His side. There is nothing here to generalize about. There is a single case of conscience which Jesus diagnoses, and for which He prescribes heroic treatment; but it is not in the patient to rise to such treatment. The high calling of God in Christ Jesus is too high for him; he counts himself unworthy of the eternal life (Acts 13:46). The authority of Jesus is in a sense acknowledged in this man; it is felt and owned though it is declined. Where the authority lay is clear enough. It lay in the Good Master Himself, in His own identification with the good cause, in His own renunciation of all things for the Kingdom of God’s sake; it lay in His power to reveal to this man the weak spot in his moral constitution, and in the inward witness of the man’s conscience (attested by his sorrow as he turned away) that the voice of Jesus was the voice of God, and that through obedience to it he would have entered into life. It lay in the whole relation of these two concrete personalities to each other, and it cannot be reduced to an abstract formula.

This holds true whenever we think of the moral or practical authority of Jesus. It is never legal: that is, we can never take the letter in which it is expressed and regard it as a statute, incapable of interpretation or modification, and binding in its literal meaning for all persons, all times, all social conditions. This is plain in regard to such a command of Jesus as the one given to the rich ruler: no one will say that this is to be obeyed to the letter by all who would enter into the Kingdom of God. But it is equally true of precepts which are addressed to a far wider circle, and which are sometimes supposed (like this one) to rest in a peculiar sense on the authority of Jesus. Take, e.g., the case of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5:21-48. From beginning to end this may be read as an assertion of the moral authority of Jesus, an authority which is conscious of transcending the highest yet known in Israel. ‘It was said to them of old time … but I say unto you.’ On what do the words of Jesus throughout this passage depend for their actual weight with men? They depend on the consciousness of men that through these words the principle of morality, for which our nature has an abiding affinity, is finding expression. But just because we are conscious of this principle and of the affinity of our nature for it, we are free with regard to any particular expression of it; the particular words in which it is embodied even by Jesus do not possess the authority of a statute to which we can only conform, but about which we must not think. When Jesus says, ‘Whoso shall smite thee on the right cheek, turn to him also the other; to him that would go to law with thee and take thy coat, leave also thy cloak’: it is not to keep us from thinking about moral problems by giving us a rule to be blindly obeyed, it is rather to stimulate thought and deliver us from rules. His precepts are legal in form, but He came to abolish legalism, and therefore they were never meant to be literally read. When they are literally read, conscience simply refuses to take them in. They are casuistic in form, but anti-casuistic in intention, and their authority lies in the intention, not in the form. What the precepts of non-resistance and non-retaliation mean is that under no circumstances, under no provocation, must the disciple of Jesus allow his conduct to be determined by any other motive than that of love. He must be prepared to go all lengths with love, and no matter how love is tried, he must never renounce it for an inferior principle, still less for an instinctive natural passion, such as the desire for revenge. Put thus, the moral authority of Jesus is unquestionable, and it asserts itself over us the more, the more we feel that He embodied in His own life and conduct the principle which He proclaims. But there is nothing in this which binds us to take in the letter what Jesus says about oaths, or non-resistance, or revenge; and still less is there anything to support the idea that His words on these subjects are part of a fanatical renunciation of the world in the region of honour as well as of property,—a literal surrender, in view of the imminence of the Kingdom, of all that makes life on earth worth having. It is not uncommon now for those who regard the Kingdom of God as purely transcendent and eschatological to match this paradoxical doctrine with an ethical system equally paradoxical, a system made up purely of renunciation and negation, and to fasten it also upon Jesus; but it is hardly necessary to refute either the one paradox or the other. What commands conscience in the most startling words of Jesus is the truth and love which dictate them, but to recognize the truth and love is to recognize that no form of words is binding of itself. It is the supreme task of the moral being to discover what in his own situation truth and love require; and there is no short cut to the discovery of this, even in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus is our authority, but His words are not our statutes: we are not under law, even the law of His words, but under grace—that is, under the inspiration of His personality; and though His words are one of the ways in which His moral ascendency is established over us, they are only one. There is an authority in Him to which no words, not even His own, can ever be equal.

The final form which this practical or moral authority of Jesus assumes in the NT is the recognition of Him as Judge of all. Probably in the generation before that in which He lived the Jews had come to regard the Messiah as God’s vicegerent in the great judgment which ushered in the world to come; but what we find in the NT in this connexion is not the formal transference of a piece of Messianic dogmatic to Jesus; it is the moral recognition of the moral supremacy of Jesus, and of His right to pronounce finally on the moral worth of men and things. Experiences like that which inspired Luke 5:8 (‘Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord’), John 4:29 (‘Come see a man which told me all things that ever I did’), John 21:17 (‘Thou knowest all things, thou knowest that I love thee’), are the basis on which the soul recognizes Christ as Judge. The claim to be Judge appears also in His own teaching (Matthew 7:22 f., Luke 13:25 ff., Matthew 25:31 ff.); and if the form of the words in the first of these passages has been modified in tradition in order to bring out their bearing for those for whom the Evangelist wrote, no one doubts that their substance goes back to Jesus. It is He who contemplates the vain pleas which men will address to Him ‘in that day’—men who with religious profession and service to the Church have nevertheless been morally unsound. The standard of judgment is variously represented: it is ‘the will of my Father which is in heaven’ (Matthew 7:21) or ‘these sayings of mine’ (Matthew 7:24) or it is what we might call in a word ‘humanity’ (Matthew 25:35; Matthew 25:42): and in its way each of these is a synonym for the moral authority of Jesus. As far as we are sensitive to their demands we are sensitive to His moral claim. Into the representations of Jesus as Judge outside of the Gospels it is not necessary to enter.

(b) The authority of Jesus comes before us in another aspect when we think of Him not as commanding but as teaching, not as Legislator or Judge, but as Revealer. In the first case, authority means His title to obedience; in this case, it may be said to mean His title to belief.

Perhaps of all theological questions the nature and limits of this last authority are those which have excited the keenest discussion in recent times. On the one hand, there are those who, fixing their minds on the Divinity of Jesus, regard it as essentially un-Christian to question His utterances at any point. Whatever Jesus believed, or seemed to believe, on any subject is by that very fact raised above question. The mind has simply to receive it on His authority. Thus when He refers to Jonah (Matthew 12:38 ff., Luke 11:29 ff.), the literal historicity of the Book of Jonah is guaranteed; when He ascribes the 110th Psalm to David (Matthew 22:41 ff. and ||), critical discussion of the authorship is foreclosed; when He recognizes possession by unclean spirits (Mark 1:23 ff. and often), possession is no longer a theory to explain certain facts, and therefore open to revision; it is itself a fact: it gives us a glimpse into the constitution of the spiritual universe which we are not at liberty to question. On the other hand, there are those who, while they declare their faith in the Incarnation, argue that it belongs to the very truth of the Incarnation that Jesus should not merely be man, but man of a particular time and environment; not man in the abstract, but man defined (and therefore in some sense limited) by the conditions which constitute reality. He had not simply intelligence, but intelligence which had been moulded by a certain education, and could only reveal itself through a certain language; and both of these are conditions which (while essential to historical reality) nevertheless involve limitation. Hence with regard to the class of subjects just referred to, those who are here in question feel quite at liberty to form their own opinions on relevant grounds. They do not, as they think, set aside the authority of Jesus in doing so: their idea rather is that in these regions Jesus never claimed to have or to exercise any authority. Thus in the first two instances adduced above, He simply takes the OT as it stands, and He appeals to it to confirm a spiritual truth which He is teaching on its own merits. In Matthew 12:38 ff. He is reproaching an impenitent people, and He refers to the Book of Jonah for a great example of repentance, and that on the part of a heathen race; the men of Nineveh who repented will condemn His unrepentant contemporaries in the day of judgment. In Matthew 22:41 ff. He is teaching that the essential thing in Messiahship is not a relation to David, but a relation to God; and He refers to the 110th Psalm, and to David as its author, as unintelligible except on this hypothesis. In both cases (it is argued) the truths which rest on the authority of Jesus are independent of the OT appeal which is associated with them. That repentance is an essential condition of entering into the Kingdom of God, and that there is no responsibility so heavy as that of those who will not repent even when Jesus calls, are truths which are not affected though the Book of Jonah is read as an allegory or a poem; that the fundamental thing in the person of Jesus is not His relation to David (which He shared with others) but His relation to God (which belonged to Him alone), is a truth which is not affected though the 110th Psalm is ascribed to the Maccabaean period. In other words, the authority of Jesus as a revealer of God and of the laws of His Kingdom is not touched, though we suppose Him to share on such matters as are here in question the views which were current among His contemporaries. It is not denying His Divinity to say this; it is rather denying His humanity if we say the opposite. Parallel considerations apply to the belief in possession which Jesus undoubtedly shared with His fellow-countrymen, and in fact with His contemporaries generally. Possession was the current theory of certain morbid conditions of human nature, physical, mental, and probably in some cases also moral; but the one thing of consequence in the Gospel is not that Jesus held this or any other theory about these morbid conditions, but that in Him the power of God was present to heal them. Our theory of them may be different, but that only means that we belong to a different age; it does not touch the truth that from these terrible and mysterious woes Jesus was mighty to save. It does not matter that His notions of medicine and psychology were different from ours; He did not come to reveal medicine or pyschology—to ‘reveal’ such things is a contradiction in terms; He came to reveal the Father, and His authority has its centre there.

There is, no doubt, great, possibility of error in arguing from such abstract ideas as ‘Divinity’ and ‘humanity,’ especially when they are in some way opposed to one another in our minds: however we may define them, we must remember that they were in no sense opposed or inconsistent in Christ. He was at once and consistently all that we mean by Divine and all that we mean by human, but we cannot learn what that was by looking up ‘divine’ and ‘human’ in the dictionary, or in a book of dogmatic theology. We must look at Jesus Himself as He is presented to us in the Gospels. And further, we must consider that there is a vast region of things in which there neither is nor can be any such thing as authority—the region, namely, which is covered by science. Now questions of the kind to which reference has just been made all belong to the domain of science. The nature of the Book of Jonah, the date and authorship of the 110th Psalm, the explanation of the morbid phenomena which the ancients ascribed to evil spirits inhabiting the bodies of men: these are questions for literary, for historical, for medical science. It is a misleading way of speaking about them, and needlessly hurts some Christian feelings, to say that the authority of Jesus was limited, and did not extend to such matters. The truth rather is that such matters belong to a region where there is no such thing as authority, or where the only authority is that of facts, which those in quest of knowledge must apprehend and interpret for themselves. It is a negation of the very idea of science to suppose that any constituent of it could be revealed, or could rest upon authority, even the authority of Jesus. Hence in regard to all such subjects the question of Jesus’ authority ought never to be raised: it is not only misleading, but unreal. On the other hand, when we come to the authority which Jesus actually claims as a revealer of God, and of the things of His Kingdom, we find that it is not only real but absolute—an authority to which the soul renders unreserved acknowledgment.

This is brought out most clearly in Matthew 11:27. Here Jesus speaks in explicit terms of His function as Revealer, and we see at once the absoluteness of His authority, and its sphere. ‘All things have been delivered unto me by my Father, and no one knoweth the Son save the Father, neither doth any know the Father save the Son, and he to whomsoever the Son willeth to reveal him.’ Whatever else these words express, they express Jesus’ sense of absolute competence in His vocation: He had everything given to Him which belonged to the work He had to do, and He was conscious of being equal to His task. If we try to interpret ‘all things’ by reference to the context, then whether we look before or after we must say that the ‘all things’ in view are those involved in the revelation of God: in the work of revelation, and especially in the revelation of Himself as Father, God has no organ but Christ, and in Christ He has an adequate organ. The passage anticipates John 14:6 ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father but by me.’ It is in a word like this—I am the truth—that we find the key to the problems which have been raised about the authority of Jesus as a Teacher or Revealer. The truth which we accept on His authority is the truth which we recognize in Him. It is not announced by Him from a world into which we cannot enter: it is present here, in Him, in the world in which we live. It is not declared on authority to which we blindly surrender; it is exhibited in a Person and a Life which pass before us and win our hearts. To put it otherwise, the truth which we owe to Jesus, and for which He is our authority, is not information; it is not a contribution to science, physical or historical—for this we are cast by God on our own resources; it is the truth which is identical with His own being and life in the world, which is embodied or incarnate in Him. It is the truth which is involved in His own relation to God and man, and in His perfect consciousness of that relation: it is the truth of His own personality, not any casual scientific fact. He does not claim to know everything, and it would be difficult to reconcile such a claim with true manhood; but He does claim full knowledge of the Father, and not His words only, but His whole being and life are the justification of His claim.* [Note: Loisy (L’Évangile et L’Église, 45 f., Autour d’un petit Livre, 130 f.) has attacked Matthew 11:27 on the ground that the unique Divine Sonship which it ascribes to Jesus is of a sort which it was not historically possible for Him to conceive or assert. Jesus, he holds, could only have used ‘Son of God’ in the Messianic official sense of Psalms 2:7; here, therefore, where the meaning is clearly more than official, it cannot be the voice of a Jewish Messiah which is heard, but the voice of the Christian consciousness in a Gentile environment: the larger Church has universalized the Jewish conception, elevated the official Son—the Messianic King—into a Son by nature, and put its own faith and its own experience of Jesus into Jesus’ own lips. Perhaps it is enough to say in refutation of this, that the words here in question, as found both in Mt. and Lk., in all probability belong to Weiss’s ‘apostolic source,’ the oldest record of words of Jesus; and that the same unique relation of ‘the Father’ and ‘the Son’ is implied in Mark 13:32, the genuineness of which no one doubts. Schmiedel (Encyc. Bibl. ii. 2527), without disputing the words in Matthew 11:27, tries by recurring to the Western text to reduce them to the ‘official’ Messianic meaning which Loisy could recognize as possibly historical. Harnack, on the other hand, treats them as authentic, and indeed as the most important and characteristic words of Jesus on record for determining His thought regarding Himself (Das Wesen des Christentums, p. 81).]

The authority of Christ as a Teacher and Revealer has been called in question mainly in connexion with His words about the future. There is no doubt that these present great difficulty to those who believe in Him. They seem to say quite unmistakably that certain things will happen, and happen within a comparatively short time, which (if we are to read literally) have not happened yet. ‘Ye shall not have gone through the cities of Israel till the Son of man be come’ (Matthew 10:23); ‘Verily I say unto you, there be some of them that stand here which shall in no wise taste of death till they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom’ (Matthew 16:28; cf. Matthew 24:29-35, Mark 13:30 f., Luke 21:27 f.). The coming of the Son of man in His kingdom was conceived quite definitely by the Apostolic Church as a supernatural visible coming on the clouds of heaven, and it is a strong measure to assume that in cherishing this hope, by which the NT is inspired from beginning to end, the early Church was completely misapprehending the Master. He must have said something—when we consider the intensity of the Apostolic hope, surely we may say He must have said much—to create and sustain an expectation so keen. But there are considerations we must keep in mind if we would do justice to all the facts. (1) The final triumph of His cause, which was the cause of God and His kingdom, was not for Jesus an item in a list of dogmas, but a living personal faith and hope; in this sense it has the authority of His personality behind it. It was as sure to Him as His own being that the cause for which He stood in the world would triumph; and it is as sure for everyone who believes in Him. (2) He Himself, with all this assurance of faith, explicitly declares His ignorance of the day and hour at which the final triumph comes. He longed for it intensely; He felt that it was urgent that it should come; and urgency, when expressed in terms of time, means imminence; but the disclaimer of knowledge remains. The one thing certain is that He spoke of the time as uncertain, as sometimes sooner than men would expect, and sometimes later: the moral attitude required being always that of watching (Bruce, Kingdom of God, p. 278 ff.; Wendt, Teaching of Jesus, i. p. 127). (3) When Jesus bodied forth this hope of the future triumph of His cause, and of His own glorious coming, He did it in language borrowed mainly from the OT apocalypse, the Book of Daniel. It would be hard to say that the Apostles completely misunderstood Him when He did so, but it is hard for anyone in using such language to say what is literal in it and what has to be spiritualized. No one in reading Daniel 7 takes the four great beasts, and the sea out of which they rise, literally; why, then, must we be compelled to take the human form and the clouds of heaven, literally? The Book of Acts (Acts 2:16-21) sees in the experience of the Church at Pentecost the fulfilment of a prophecy in Joel (Joel 2:30) which speaks of ‘blood and fire and vapour of smoke, of the sun turning into darkness and the moon into blood,’ though no such phenomena actually accompanied the gift of the Spirit. May not modern Christians, and even the early believers, have taken poetic expressions of the living hope of Jesus more prosaically than He meant them? (4) We must allow for the possibility that in the reports of Jesus’ words which we possess, the reporters may sometimes have allowed the hopes kindled in their own hearts by Jesus to give a turn or a colour, quite involuntarily, to what they tell us. They might not be able to distinguish precisely between the hopes they owed to Him and the very words in which He had declared His own assurance of victory. And finally (5), we must remember that in a spiritual sense the prophecies of Jesus have been fulfilled. He came again in power. He came in the resurrection, and He came at Pentecost. He filled Jerusalem with His presence in the early days of the Church as He had never done while He lived on earth; from the very hour when they condemned Him (Matthew 26:64) it was possible for His judges to be conscious of His exaltation and of His coming in power. It may be that in all prophecy, even in the prophecy of Jesus, there is the element which we can call illusive, without having to call it delusive. To be intelligible, it must speak the language of the age, but it is going to be fulfilled in another age, the realities and experiences of which transcend the conceptions and the speech of the present. Even if this be so, it does not shake our faith in Jesus and His authority. The truth which is incarnate in His person is the truth of the final—and who will not sometimes say the speedy?—triumph of His cause. We may misconceive the mode of it, even when we try to guide ourselves by His words; but the important thing is not the mode but the fact, and of that we are as sure as we are sure of Him.

(c) Besides the authority which He exercised in establishing His ascendency over men, and that which we recognize in Him as the Truth, we may distinguish (though it is but part of His revelation of the Father) the gracious authority exercised by Christ in forgiving sins. That He did forgive sins is not to be doubted. The narrative in Mark 2:1-12 makes this clear. Jesus no more declared that the paralytic’s sins were forgiven than He declared that he was not lame: the meaning of the whole incident is that His word conferred with equal power the gift of pardon and the gift of bodily strength. The one miracle of redemption—‘who forgiveth all thine iniquities, who healeth all thy diseases’—reaches through the whole of human nature, and Jesus has authority to perform it all. It is in this sense that we must interpret passages like Luke 7:47 ff; Luke 23:43 as well as Mark 2:17, Luke 15, and ultimately Matthew 18:18 and John 20:23. There is not anything to be said of this authority but that it must vindicate itself. No one can believe that Jesus has authority to forgive sins except the man who through Jesus has had the experience of forgiveness. The Divine love that dwelt in Jesus, that received sinners and ate with them, that spent itself to seek and save the lost, that saw what was of God in men and touched it: that Divine love made forgiveness not only credible to sinners, but real. It entered into their hearts with God’s own authority, and in penitent faith and love the burden passed from their consciences and they were born again. When He was challenged by the scribes, Jesus appealed to the physical miracle, which was indisputable, in support of the spiritual one, which lay beyond the reach of sense; but it was only the scribes, not the forgiven man, who needed this seal of His authority to pardon. Those whom He forgave had the witness in themselves, and ultimately there can be no other. The authority which Jesus exercised in this gracious sense He extended to His disciples alike during their brief mission while He was on earth (Mark 3:15; Mark 6:7-13), and in view of their wider calling when He was exalted (Matthew 18:18, John 20:23).

Some light is thrown upon the authority of Jesus if we consider the occasions on which it was challenged, and the way in which Jesus met them.

(α) It was tacitly challenged wherever men were ‘offended’ in Him. To be offended (σκανδαλίζεσθαι) is to stumble at His claims, to find something in Him which one cannot get over and which is incompatible with absolute surrender to Him; it is to deny His right to impose upon men the consequences (persecution, poverty, even death) which may be involved in accepting His authority (see Matthew 11:6; Matthew 13:21; Matthew 13:28 ff., Matthew 15:12; Matthew 24:10; Matthew 26:31; the other Gospels here add nothing to Mt.). Sometimes Jesus met this tacit challenge by pointing to the general character of His work as vindicating His claims. This is what He does in the case of John the Baptist (Matthew 11:2-6). Whether we read this passage—‘the blind receive their sight, the lame walk,’ etc.—in the physical or the spiritual sense, the works in question are the signs that God’s Anointed has come, and it can only mean loss and ruin to men if they fail to see and to acknowledge Him as what He is. Sometimes, again, Jesus encountered those who were ‘offended’ in Him with a severity amounting to scorn. When the Pharisees ‘stumbled’ because His word about things that do and do not defile cut straight across their traditional prejudices, He did nothing to conciliate them. ‘Every plant that my heavenly Father hath not planted shall be rooted up. Let them alone. They are blind guides of blind men. And if the blind man leads the blind, both shall fall into the ditch’ (Matthew 15:13 f.). In reality the ‘offence’ in this case meant that sham holiness would not acknowledge true; and in this situation it can only be war à l’outrance. As a rule, however, Jesus only speaks of men being offended, or offended in Him, by way of warning; and He assumes that to the solemn tones of His warning conscience will respond. His authority is inherent in Himself and His actions, and cannot with a good conscience be repudiated by any one who sees what He is. This is the tone of Matthew 13:21; Matthew 24:10; Matthew 26:31.

(β) It is a more explicit challenge of His authority when Jesus is asked to show a sign, or a sign from heaven (Matthew 12:38 f., Matthew 16:1 f., Luke 23:8, John 6:30). This was the recurrence of the temptation of the pinnacle, and Jesus consistently rejected it. He never consented (not even in the case of the paralytic of Mark 2:1-9, see above) to present the physical as evidence for the spiritual. The proof of the authority with which He spoke did not lie outside of His word, in something which could be attached to it, but in the word itself; if it was not self-attesting, nothing else could attest it. This is put with peculiar force in the Fourth Gospel. It is true that an evidential value is recognized in the miracles, but it is only by an afterthought, or as a second best: ‘though ye believe not me, believe the works’ (John 10:38); ‘believe that I am in the Father and the Father in me; or else, believe for the very works’ sake’ (John 14:11). The main line of thought is that which deprecates faith based on signs and wonders (John 4:48). When the multitudes ask, ‘What sign doest thou then? our fathers did eat the manna in the wilderness,’ the answer of Jesus virtually is, ‘I am the bread of life.… He that eateth me shall live by me … the words that I speak unto you are spirit and are life’ (John 6:30 ff.). In other words, the authority of Jesus does not depend upon any external credentials; it is involved in what He is, and must be immediately apprehended and responded to by the soul. What enables men to recognize Jesus as what He is, and so to acknowledge His authority, is, according to the representation of the central chapters in John (chs. 6–10), a need in their nature or state which He can supply. If we wish to be sure that He is the Christ, the King in the Kingdom of God, the way to certainty is not to prove that He was born at Bethlehem of the seed of David (John 7:42), nor that He came into the world mysteriously (John 7:27), nor that He has done many miracles (John 7:31): it is to see in Him the living bread (ch. 6), the living water (ch. 4 and John 7:37), the light of the world (chs. 8 and 9), the Good Shepherd (ch. 10), the Giver of Life (chs. 5 and 11). These are ideas or experiences which are relative to universal human needs, and therefore they are universally intelligible; every one who knows what it is to be hungry, thirsty, forlorn, in the dark, dead, knows how to appreciate Jesus; and apart from these experiences no cleverness in applying prophetic or other theological signs to Him is of any value. All this is strictly relevant, for it is through experiences in which we become debtors to Jesus for meat and drink, for light and life, that we become conscious of what His authority means.

(γ) Once, at least, the authority of Jesus was challenged in a quasi-legal fashion. When He drove the traders from the Temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to Him, saying, ‘By what authority doest thou these things, and who gave thee this authority?’ (Matthew 21:23 ff., Mark 11:27 ff., Luke 20:1 ff.). Formally, by His counter question about the Baptist, Jesus only silences His adversaries; but more than this is meant. If, He suggests, they had been true to the earlier messenger of God, they would have had no difficulty about His claims. If they had repented at John’s summons, and been right with God, then to their simple and humble hearts Jesus’ action would have vindicated itself; as it is, to their insincere souls He has no advance to make. The ambassador of an earthly king has credentials external to his person and his message, but not the ambassador in whom God Himself visits His people. His actions like His words speak for themselves. Throughout the Fourth Gospel it is an affinity of spirit with Jesus on which the recognition of His authority depends. It is those who are of God (John 8:47), of the truth (John 18:37), those who are His sheep (John 10:4 f., 26), who hear His voice: those who are not of God, especially the insincere, who seek honour from one another (John 5:44), are inevitably offended in Him.

2. Thus far we have considered the authority of Christ as it was exercised, acknowledged, or declined during His life on earth. But the NT exhibits much more than this. It is not merely as historical, but as exalted, that Christ exercises authority—in the Church. In all its aspects the authority which we have studied in the Gospels reappears in the Epistles. It is perpetuated in the Christian society in an effective, if somewhat undefinable way.

What strikes one first in the NT literature, apart from the Gospels, is the almost complete absence of literal appeal to Jesus. The Apostles, whatever be the explanation, do not, except on rare occasions, quote the Lord. It is true that when they do so, His word is regarded as decisive in a sense in which even the word of an apostle is not (cf. 1 Corinthians 7:10 with 1 Corinthians 7:12; 1 Corinthians 7:25; 1 Corinthians 7:40). It is true also that passages like Romans 12, 13, and much in the Epistle of James, could only have been written (in all probability) by men who not only had the Spirit of Christ, but whose minds were full of echoes of His words. Nevertheless the fact remains that Jesus is hardly appealed to formally as an authority in the NT writings. There could be no more striking proof of the fact that Christianity was apprehended from the first as a free and spiritual religion to which everything statutory was alien. Not even the word of Jesus had legal character for it. What Jesus sought and found in His disciples was a spiritual remembrance of Himself. His words were preserved not in a phonograph, or in a stenographic report, but in the impression they made, in the insight they gave, in the thoughts and experiences they produced in the lives of living men. They were perpetuated not merely by being put on record, but still more by being preached. Now to preach is not only to report, but to apply; and the application of the word of Christ to new circumstances inevitably and unconsciously brings with it a certain or rather an uncertain amount of interpretation, of bringing out the point, of emphasis on this or that which at the moment demands it. What we wish to know is whether the men whose ministry perpetuated the word of Christ, and perpetuated it in this free and spiritual fashion, had the qualifications demanded by their task. Could Christ so fit them for their ministry that they should be under no legal constraint, and yet should never be unfaithful to His meaning, or misrepresent Him or His work? In other words, could He in any sense transmit His authority to His witnesses, so that it should be felt in them as in Him?

The answer of the NT is in the affirmative, and it is not too much to say that the NT as a whole is the proof that this answer is right. ‘We have the mind of Christ,’ says St. Paul (1 Corinthians 2:16), and again (in 2 Corinthians 13:3), ‘Ye seek a proof of Christ speaking in me’—a proof which he is quite ready to give. He was conscious that in the discharge of his Apostolic ministry he was not alone: Christ was in him pleading His own cause. Of course the authority of Christ in this case cannot be other than we have already seen it to be in the earthly life of Christ. Its range is the same, and its recognition is conditioned in the same way. The Apostle is no more bound literally to reproduce Jesus than Jesus is bound literally to reproduce Himself. He is no more bound than Jesus is to prove the truth of his message by credentials external to it. He no more hesitates than Jesus does to trace the rejection of his message, the refusal to call Jesus Lord, to a want of moral affinity with Jesus which is the final definition of sin. ‘If our gospel is veiled, it is veiled in them that are perishing, in whom the god of this world hath blinded the minds of the unbelieving’ (2 Corinthians 4:3 f.). It is not possible to say beforehand, on the basis of any doctrine of inspiration, whether there are elements in the Apostolic writings, and if so what, which have no authority for us. Nothing in them has legal or statutory authority, and spiritual authority must be trusted to win for itself the recognition which is its due. There is something to be said for the distinction that while the testimony of the Apostles to Jesus—a testimony resting on their experience of what He was and of what He had done for them—is perennially authoritative, the theology of the Apostles—a theology conditioned by the intellectual environment in which they lived and to which they had to vindicate their message—has only a transient importance. The difficulty is just to draw the distinction between testimony and theology; as a matter of fact, the two things interpenetrate in the NT, and there is a point at which the distinction disappears. To insist upon it as if it were absolute is really to introduce again into Christianity (under the form of the Apostolic testimony) that legal or statutory or dogmatic element from which Jesus set all religion free. It is better to read the Apostles as men through whose minds Christ pleads His own cause in the Spirit. The minds may be more or less adequate instruments for His service; they may be more adequate in some relations, and less so in others; but they are indivisible, and it is not helpful in the long run to introduce into them the schism of testimony and theology. We must let them tell upon us in their integrity, and acknowledge their authority whenever it proves irresistible. (More detailed consideration of this point will be found in the article on Preaching Christ).

The part of the NT which raises in the acutest form the question of the authority of Christ—or perhaps we should say here of His Apostle—is the Fourth Gospel. It is practically agreed among scholars that the style of the discourses in that Gospel is due to the author, not to the speakers. Every one speaks in the same style—John the Baptist, Jesus, the Evangelist himself. The words of an actor in the history (Jesus, for example, in the first part of ch. 3, and the Baptist in the latter part) pass over insensibly into words of the historian. The first person plural is used by Jesus (e.g. John 3:11; John 9:4) where it is tempting to say that it is the Christian consciousness which is expressed, the common mind of the Church which owes its being to Him. Further, Jesus says things about Himself in the Fourth Gospel to which there is no parallel in the other three. He speaks plainly of His pre-existence, of the glory which He had with the Father before the world was, of an eternal being which was His before Abraham was born; He makes Himself the content and the subject of His teaching—‘I am the bread of life, the light of the world, the resurrection and the life’; He identifies Himself in a mysterious way with the redeeming purpose and power of God—‘I and the Father are one,’ ‘He that hath seen me hath seen the Father.’ It may be difficult for the historian, on purely historical grounds, to prove that Jesus uttered all the words thus ascribed to Him, and if the difficulty presses, the authority of the words may seem to disappear. But is this really so? May not the Fourth Gospel itself be the fulfilment of one of the words in question—‘I have many things to say unto you, but ye cannot bear them now. But when he is come, the Spirit of truth, he shall guide you into all the truth: for he shall not speak from himself, but whatsoever things he shall hear, these shall he speak … He shall take of mine, and shall announce it to you’ (John 16:12 f.). These words would not be satisfied by a merely literal reproduction of what Jesus had uttered: they imply that with the gift of the Spirit will come a profounder insight into all that He had meant, and ability to render a more adequate testimony to the truth embodied in Him. Twice in the Gospel (John 2:22, John 12:16) the writer tells us expressly that after Jesus was glorified the disciples remembered incidents in His career and saw a meaning in them unnoticed at the time; and this principle may well reach further. When Jesus fed the multitudes, He did not, so far as the Synoptics record, say anything to explain His act; all they were conscious of was that He had compassion on their hunger. But the Spirit-taught Apostle, long afterwards, saw what He meant, and felt that if they had only had ears to hear as the bread passed from hand to hand, they would have caught the voice of Jesus—‘I am the bread of life.’ So when He opened the eyes of the blind, what He meant was, ‘I am the light of the world’; and when He raised the dead, ‘I am the resurrection and the life.’ If John did not hear Him say so at the moment, he heard Him afterwards, and the authority of the words need not be less though we have to think of them as spoken, not by the historical Christ in Galilee or Judaea, but by the exalted Christ through His Spirit in the soul of the beloved disciple. They would be in this case a sublime illustration of what St. Paul calls ‘Christ speaking in me.’ The peculiarity that they are put into the lips of Jesus Himself, in connexion with definite scenes and incidents in His earthly life, was possibly quite intelligible to those who first read the Gospel; they knew that it was a spiritual Gospel, and that it was never intended to be taken as a literal record of Jesus’ discourses, but as an inspired interpretation of all that He was and did. Read in this light, it has its authority in itself, as the other NT books have, and as Jesus Himself had when He spoke with men face to face; and it is an authority, as experience proves, not less potent than that which is claimed and wielded by Christ in any other of His witnesses. If we compare it with the other Gospels, which have in a higher degree the character of literal transcripts of word and deed, we may even say that it is a fulfilment of the words found in the lips of Jesus in John 14:12 ‘He that believeth on me, the works that I do shall he also do: and greater works than these shall he do; because I go to the Father.’ Faith in Jesus has never achieved anything surpassing the witness—the true witness—of this Gospel to the Son of God. The final and supremely authoritative testimony to Jesus is no doubt that which is given in His being and in His work in the world; but so dull of eye and slow of heart were the disciples, that had He put all the import of this into words they could not have taken it in. What He could not say on earth, however, He was able to say by His Spirit from heaven; and when that one of the disciples who was able to hear puts what he has heard into the Master’s lips, he is only giving Him His own. The authority of the word of Jesus here, as everywhere in the NT, lies in itself, and in the fact which it interprets. It is an authority which has never failed to win recognition, and it may be said of it with emphasis, ‘Every one that is of the truth heareth this voice.’

Literature.—H. P. Liddon, Bampton Lectures, 166 ff.; C. Gore, Bampton Lectures, ch. vii.; A. B. Bruce, Training of the Twelve, 536 ff., Apologetics, 492 ff.; J. Denney, Studies in Theology, ii., iii.; A. Sabatier, Religions of Authority and Religion of the Spirit, 292 ff.; H. H. Henson, Value of the Bible, 250 ff.; M. Fuller, In Terra Pax, 124 ff.

James Denney.

Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Authority of Christ'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/​dictionaries/​eng/​hdn/​a/authority-of-christ.html. 1906-1918.
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