On Recognizing Authority

A teacher walks into a noisy classroom, and suddenly all the students rush back to their seats and become silent. A policeman knocks on the door to interrupt a college party, and suddenly the music is turned off and the drinks are shuffled out of sight. A military officer walks into the barracks, and suddenly all the soldiers scramble to stand in attention.

In all three of these scenes, it is clear who holds the authority.  The children immediately recognized that the teacher had the ability to enforce rules. The college students immediately recognized the police officer’s uniform and badge, and knew he had the force of law to back him up. The soldiers knew better than to treat the military officer like a peer. When they saw authority, they recognized it, and they responded.

When Jesus finished teaching the sermon on the mount, Matthew tells us that the crowds were “astonished at his teaching, for he was teaching them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes” (Mt. 7:28-29). Immediately following the sermon, Matthew gives us several real-life examples of Jesus’s authority. Jesus had the authority to heal diseases (8:1-17), command a storm into submission (8:23-27), cast out demons (8:28-34), forgive sins (9:1-7), and overturn tradition (9:8-17).

Jesus’ authority was real, and yet it was different from that of a police officer or military officer. Jesus didn’t demand to be recognized as an authority because of his uniform, his badge, or his official position. He had none of those things. But Jesus had something none of the official positions of authority did not have. Jesus had real power over disease and even over the forces of nature.

This contrast between these two different types of authority makes Jesus’ interaction with the centurion in Matthew 8:5-13 all the more interesting.

When he had entered Capernaum, a centurion came forward to him, appealing to him, “Lord, my servant is lying paralyzed at home, suffering terribly.” And he said to him, “I will come and heal him.” But the centurion replied, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof, but only say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I too am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. And I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,” and he comes, and to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.” When Jesus heard this, he marveled and said to those who followed him, “Truly, I tell you, with no one in Israel have I found such faith… And to the centurion Jesus said, “Go, let it be done for you as you have believed.” And the servant was healed at that very moment.

In this scene, who had the authority? Yes, there was a high ranking military officer present, but this time, the centurion was powerless. Despite having an official position of authority, the centurion was helpless to ease the suffering of his paralyzed servant. But the centurion recognized in Jesus a different and real kind of authority. The centurion addressed Jesus as “Lord”, and confesses that was not even worthy to invite Jesus into his house.

The centurion recognized that Jesus had the same kind of authority over diseases as the centurion had over soldiers who were under him. Just as the centurion merely had to issue a command, so he recognized that all Jesus had to do was speak the words, and his servant could be healed. Jesus responded by praising the centurion for his faith.

In this context, we can see what is meant by the word “faith.” The word “faith” is used in all kinds of different ways today. Sometimes it is used to describe someone who has a general religious attitude towards life. Sometimes the word “faith” is used as an opposite of evidence, or perhaps the opposite of works. None of these uses of the word “faith” fit what we see in this text about the centurion.

“Faith” in this text is something much more specific. Faith was the recognition of the reality of Jesus’ authority.

What would it mean if we recognized that Jesus’ authority was real today? How would that impact the way we respond to the latest headlines? How would it impact the way we respond to threats of disease? If we recognize just how real Jesus’ authority is, and just how powerless earthly authorities are, how would that change the way approach life? What would it mean if we didn’t simply say “Jesus is Lord”, but if we really let the reality of His lordship determine our thinking?

“Faith” in Christianity mean recognizing that Jesus’ authority is real – far more real than the authority of those who wear uniforms, carry badges, or hold official positions. If Jesus holds all authority, why would we ever pledge our allegiance to any other authority? Why would we ever look to earthly authorities to solve problems that only Jesus has the power to solve?

Who has the authority to save people from death?
Who has the authority to heal diseases?
Who has the authority to protect people from forces of nature?
Who has the authority to provide us with our daily bread?
Who has the authority to define right and wrong?
Who has the authority to demand our loyalty?

All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.

Matthew 28:18-20