Texts: Deuteronomy 18:15-20; Psalm 111; I Corinthians 8:1-13; Mark 1:21-28
Who has authority – and what right do they have to that authority? are questions that ring out in our post-modern world. But before we think we are unique in asking these questions – a quick glance through the world of the Bible indicates for a long time human beings have struggled with these questions. Where does authority come from?
In Deuteronomy we run into the promise of a prophet like Moses who God will “raise up for you…from among your own people.” Two quick notes on the text. First context, Deut. 8:9-14 forbids Israel from making use of soothsayers, diviners, and sorcerers. Such people would not have authority in Israel. Second grammar, the Hebrew is ambiguous about number – and should best be seen as God promising to raise up a string of prophets – “a prophet class” – who would speak God’s word in their time and place and would be succeeded by another prophet who would speak God’s word. God would put in the mouths of human beings God’s word to the people and the people were to listen to that authority. The church believes that Jesus stands in this line of prophets – is the pre-eminent prophet in the line “like Moses.”
Psalm 111 points to the signs of God’s authority – “full of honour and majesty is God’s work” (vs. 3); “God has gained renown” (vs. 4); “the works of God’s hands are faithful and just” (vs. 7); as but a few examples. God’s “precepts are trustworthy” (vs. 7) and are to be “performed with faithfulness and uprightness” (vs. 8). God’s authority is to be obeyed – for the “fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” (vs. 10) In a world that asks where authority lies – Psalm 111 answers unequivocally – it resides with God.
Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians that authority can be oppressive and destructive unless it is tempered by love. Authority often arises from knowledge – and as Paul writes “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” (vs. 1) The authority of having the right knowledge can destroy community and belittle others. Authority that functions in this way cares little for the “weaker brother (or sister)” it cares more about being correct.
In Mark people note that Jesus taught with authority – unlike the other teachers of the law. It is hard to know exactly what is meant by that – but it certainly meant that hearers were moved by what they heard, hearing a power, a challenge, an authenticity to Jesus’ words. N.T. Wright suggests the authority of Jesus’ teaching could be seen in the fact that he did not quote other teachers, other rabbis – but rather spoke directly – unashamedly speaking for God. Jesus authority was life-giving for not only did his words give people hope and new vision – his authority was also over evil spirits – over the destructive powers of the forces of darkness. In healing the man who was possessed, Jesus used his authority to bring life and renewal to the brokenness of the man’s life. God’s authority is a robust life-bringing, hope-restoring authority rooted in transforming the broken and the hurting and the despairing.
This life-bringing, hope restoring authority comes from only one place, God as made known to us in Jesus Christ. There is no other place such authority comes from. Christians are invited to follow this authority and declare its power in the world. We can in confident humility declare we know where authority resides in our world.
One of the challenges with the Mark text is determining how to define “an evil spirit”:
“The accounts resemble descriptions of certain kinds of behavior labeled in modern medical language as particularly severe mental disorders. Though it is certainly true that the Gospel writers employ the descriptive language of their day for such conditions and that moderns may be uncomfortable with ideas of “demon possession,” we must not allow the medical question to overshadow the fact that the Gospel accounts show Jesus as bringing deliverance and health to such afflicted people as part of God’s manifestation of his rule. That Jesus is shown taking pity on such people and releasing them, rather than condemning them or superstitiously avoiding them, is significant as a role model of care for such troubled persons today.” – Larry Hurtado
On Corinthians text:
“Once one’s theology is properly in hand, it is especially tempting to use it as a club on others….This does not mean that knowledge is either irrelevant or unimportant, but it does mean that it cannot serve as the primary basis of Christian behaviour. In Christian ethics “knowledge” must always lead to love….In the Christian faith “knowledge” or “insight” is never an end in itself; it is only a means to w great end, the building up of others.” – Gordon Fee
- “Awesome” – Words by Brenton Prigge (available on line at www.newhymn.com)
- “Majesty” – Jack Hayford
- “A mighty fortress is our God” – Martin Luther
- “Holy Spirit, truth divine” – Samuel Longfellow
Peter Bush is Teaching Elder at Knox Presbyterian Church, Mitchell, Ontario. He is the author of Western Challenge (2000) and, with Christine O’Reilly, Where 20 or 30 Are Gathered (2006).