What comes to your mind when you think of “authority”? Is that positive or negative word? That probably depends on your circumstances in life. But, whatever your immediate thoughts are, we all, almost always, have a hard time with dealing with authority—especially when it comes to submitting to it. I think this is true for a number of reasons. First, we don’t naturally follow those in authority, that is something we have to learn. In a perfect world, my one year old would sleep in past 5:30 in the morning because I told him to, and when I told my three year old to do something, he would say, “Yes, Father; I love obeying you,” not, “‘Cause why!?” We have to learn to obey authority. Secondly, we live in a culture that prizes and cherishes independence, innovation, and rebels. Thirdly, we have seen many people abuse authority. From presidents, to politicians, to police officers, to preachers, to parents. Perhaps we ought to be suspicious of people who try to use authority. Maybe power really does corrupt, and anyone with power we should be skeptical of. But where does that leave us, here, today?
We have gathered together today to worship the One who says, “All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me,” Matt 28:18. And we believe this Jesus has revealed His Word definitively in this book, so it bears authority. Our church’s statement of faith regarding the Bible says, “that it has supreme authority in all matters of faith and conduct.” And we believe that some (not all) authority structures are not inherently wrong, but have actually been put in place by God for our good. It is good for a parent to have authority over their children, it is good for a government to have authority over its subjects—can that authority be abused? Oh, yes. Terribly abused. But there’s a baby in that bathwater that needs saving. But, brothers and sisters, do you feel how weird we sound? Think of how a non-Christian hears all of that: you Christians believe that there is an authoritative God to whom we all must answer to, an authoritative book to govern what you believe and do, and authority structures in the home, church, and society that we must obey? What century do you think this is? Should we also start using gramophones and horse-drawn carriages as well?
Friend, maybe you’re a skeptic here today; maybe you are suspicious of me right now since I am standing behind a pulpit with a Bible in front me. Maybe you are a Christian who has always wrestled with the idea that God has total authority over your life. My hope today is that by looking at the remarkable life of Jesus Christ, we will see the unique way that He uses His authority to summon us to an obedient, submissive life that is far, far better than anything else we could achieve on our own.
The Authority of Jesus’ Call
Right out of the gate of Jesus’ announcement of the arrival of the kingdom of God (1:14-15) we see Jesus begin His ministry in a somewhat underwhelming, unexpected manner. Jesus does not march into Pilate’s palace, kick him off his chair, and proclaim that Rome no longer has any claim to Israel. That isn’t the kind of “kingdom” that Jesus is establishing. It is a kingdom that arrives by Jesus roping in four unheard of fishermen to be His disciples. Jesus did not go out and find the most famous, educated rabbis, or the civil leaders with most pathways to power—he grabbed four blue-collar workers. Jesus’ kingdom comes in surprising ways. However, our attention is immediately grabbed by the peculiar authority of this apparent stranger to command men to follow Him.
Jesus observes Simon and Andrew casting their nets and simply says, “Follow me, and I will make you become fishers of men,” (1:17). And, without any further explanation, Simon and Andrew drop their nets and follow Jesus (1:18). The same thing happens with James and John, the sons of Zebedee (who are apparently co-workers with Simon and Andrew, cf. Luke 5:10), but even more dramatically we are told that they don’t just leave behind their fishing tackle, but they leave behind, “their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired servants and followed him,” (1:20). To walk away from a profession is one thing, but to leave behind your father so that it looks like the only ones staying to help are the paid staff is another thing entirely. The fact that he is left “in the boat” makes it appear that James and John leave their father in the middle of their job. If someone did that today it would be seen as rude—after all, if you leave in the middle of work, someone else has to now work harder. But for a Jewish son to do that in the first century would have been profoundly shameful. Abandon your father, embarrass him publicly—for what? To follow after some stranger who seems to have come out of nowhere, all on the promise that they will become “fishers of men”? That seems odd.
In Jeremiah 16:14-16 we find the background for this term and, it should be no surprise, that we find associated with it the theme of return from exile and the new exodus. When the new exodus arrives, Yahweh will send out fishermen to bring back His people from exile. Perhaps Simon, Andrew, James, and John picked up on that allusion, but we don’t really know. Rather, the emphasis of the story seems to be that there was a special, irresistible authority that Jesus exuded that simply had to be obeyed. The rest of the chapter certainly demonstrates that this is exactly the kind of authority Jesus possesses. And here, Jesus uses this authority to call men to follow Him, even at the cost of their livelihood and family ties. But, of course, Jesus regularly defines discipleship as being a life that is willing to forsake anything and everything for following Him: “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.” – Matt 10:37, cf. Luke 14:26
Is that not the most megalomaniacal statement anyone could make? Could you imagine what you would do if I said something like that? Unless you love ME more than your own family, you aren’t worthy of me. You would all assume that I was either insane, or was the most narcissistic human being who ever lived. But, of course, if Jesus is who He claims to be then it is not only permissible for Him to speak like that, but it would be wrong if He didn’t. If Jesus is the Son of God, then anything other than absolute devotion to Him would be sinful—if Jesus didn’t require primacy over familial ties then He would be lying. The greatest commandment of the Bible is to love the Lord with all your heart, soul, mind and strength (Mark 10:28-30); in other words, to love God most. The four disciples here give us a dramatic picture of what this looks like—they choose Jesus over other commitments.
Friends, would your response to Jesus mirror these disciples here? Does Jesus’ call on your life have more weight than your call to your work? To your family? Of course, the path of following Jesus isn’t the path of a hermit; we are not called out of the world in the sense that we must sever all ties with family and jobs. But, and this is key, at any point where our allegiance to Jesus runs contrary to the expectations of our jobs or even our family, we choose Jesus. What will you do when the only way to advance in your company is to use sneaky, underhanded ways? What if your work or your kid’s soccer schedule requires you to consistently miss worship on the Lord’s Day? What will you do when you show up at the family reunion and everyone expects you to participate in raunchy jokes and drunkenness? Jesus is using His authority here, and in your life, not to just rap peoples’ knuckles, “Don’t do that!” Paul explains this thinking when addressing stealing, “Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need,” Eph 4:28. He isn’t just saying, “don’t steal!” but instead to make your life about blessing other people—not robbing them. Jesus is using His authority to call people to something better. He is summoning the disciples to take part in the new exodus He is working—He isn’t just out to just stop them from fishing. And Jesus isn’t just out to stop you from getting too wrapped up in your kids’ soccer career—He is calling you to something better; to live for His Kingdom and His Righteousness, not your own, not your career, not your family.
The Authority of Jesus’ Teaching
“And they went into Capernaum, and immediately on the Sabbath he entered the synagogue and was teaching. And they were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one who had authority, and not as the scribes,” Mark 1:21-22.
Synagogues were public houses that functioned as a kind of community center for Jews, but on the Sabbath they became places where readings from the Torah, teaching, and prayers would take place. Unlike churches, there was not a designated “preacher” who would get up every week to expound the Torah, but the teaching responsibilities would rotate around to whomever was most competent in the Scriptures, usually being the Scribes of the village. Scribes were a mixture of Bible scholars, teachers, and lawyers. They would often teach at the synagogue on the Sabbath but would also deal with any legal disputes or disagreements in the Jewish community. It is ironic that we are told that Jesus’ teaching is one with authority, “not as the scribes,” since the Scribes possessed a great deal of authority. They were the local Bible experts who had spent their life being trained by other rabbis, studying the Torah and traditions, copying them down, and memorizing most of them. They even possessed authority outside of the synagogue and were seen as authority-figures in the wider community in most situations. They weren’t seen as bumbling doofuses or mousey pushovers, unable to put a sentence together. They were who you talked to when you needed to know what the Bible meant. However, compared to Jesus, they appear to have no weight whatsoever.
What made Jesus’ teaching so authoritative? Jesus’ confidence in His teaching doesn’t come from Him attending the right Ivy League school or memorizing all of the halakhic traditions, but from the fact of who He is: the Son of God, and these Scriptures are His Scriptures. Maybe an analogy from the Old Testament will help: when Moses came down off of Mount Sinai and began teaching the nation of Israel the Law, no one challenged his interpretation. He had received the Law directly from the hand of God, and as the mediator between God and the people, Moses is the divinely appointed teacher for the people of Israel. Imagine if someone shouted out to Moses, “Are you sure we aren’t allowed to make a carved image of God? How do we know that is what God really said? How do we know you aren’t misinterpreting that? Maybe we should consult a commentary or two to get another opinion.” Moses would say, “There is no second opinion, because I was the one who was there; God gave the command directly to me; I saw the finger of God write the very words on the tablets!” Moses could speak with authority because of his direct experience with the giving of the Law. And friends, Jesus is like Moses in the kind of authority He wields. It reminds me of that place in The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe where the White Witch arrogantly questions if Aslan has forgotten the Deep Magic, the ancient laws of Narnia, to which Aslan snaps, “Do not cite the Deep Magic to me, Witch. I was there when it was written.” But, of course, Jesus is actually better than Moses; He wasn’t just present, watching the Law of God be written—He was the One writing it. This is His Law. The Author can speak with a completely different level of authority than the commentators can (cf. Matt 7:28-29).
The Power of Jesus’ Teaching
But Jesus’ teaching isn’t merely a captivating display of knowledge, it also a display of power. As Jesus is teaching a demon possessed man, who apparently was sitting in the congregation, suddenly cries out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God,” (Mark 1:24). The discerning eye of the demonic forces recognize the unique authority of Jesus in His teaching better than anyone else in the room, and it is utter agony to them. “But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying out with a loud voice, came out of him. And they were all amazed, so that they questioned among themselves, saying, “What is this? A new teaching with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him,” Mark 1:25-27. We will examine Jesus’ authority over demonic forces next week, but the crowds here seem to tie Jesus’ teaching with the exorcism of this man.
I think by this the crowds notice: simply by speaking, Jesus can affect change. Jesus approaches four fishermen and causes them to abandon their work and father simply by speaking to them; He reads the Old Testament and can simply speak its interpretation to the listeners and there is a stunned acknowledgment of His authority; He can look at the demon possessed man and simply say, “Be silent, come out of him!” and the demon is expelled. Exorcisms, though rare, were known to the people of this time. But exorcisms always involved a complicated, drawn out ritual, that sometimes used props, sacrifices, special incantations, and the calling upon a higher name or authority by which to perform the exorcism (cf. Acts 19:11-20). And even then, the outcome of the exorcism was usually uncertain. Nothing like this is the case with Jesus’ exorcisms. He simply speaks. No physical action, no incantations, no higher power called upon—just an authoritative command. Jesus’ Word has power. This is why it appears that the crowds connect Jesus’ “new teaching with authority” with the His power over demons. Jesus’ teaching, His commands, are so powerful that even the kingdom of Satan must obey them. That’s power. Throughout the gospels we see the power of Jesus’ commands: He speaks a word to the leper, and heals him (Mark 1:31); He speaks a word and forgives people’s sins (Mark 2:5); He speaks a word to the stormy seas, and they obey Him (4:39-41); He speaks a word to a dead Lazarus (who has no ability to hear!), and the words raise Lazarus from the dead (John 11:43-44). And in John’s gospel we are told that Jesus is the Word of God, made flesh (John 1:1-4, 14).
God’s Word is powerful and effective. But, it isn’t just powerful and effective in general; the Bible as a whole teaches us that God’s Word creates God’s people. From Genesis one, where we see God’s Word literally create everything; to Genesis 12, where we see God’s promise to Abraham create the beginning of God’s people; to Exodus 19-20, where we see God’s Word create the people of Israel; to Ezekiel 37, where God gives Ezekiel a vision about the great resurrection life that would come about by God’s Word; to Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh (see Dever, 9 Marks of a Healthy Church, 46). You notice Jesus’ priority He gives to preaching the Word later in the story? We get these several accounts of Him healing people, casting out demons, and his fame is spreading all throughout the region. But when Jesus retreats to pray, Peter approaches Him and says, “Everyone is looking for you.” And he said to them, “Let us go on to the next towns, that I may preach there also, for that is why I came out,” Mark 1:37b-38. Why is everyone looking for Jesus? Because He is healing them! And, presumably, there are more people who need to be healed! But Jesus responds that it is more important for Him to preach God’s Word than continue to work miracles of healing. When Jesus heals someone, as wonderful as that may be, they will still ultimately one day die. But if He speaks God’s Word to them, He can give them eternal life—God’s Word gives life (cf. John 6:68).
Now, of course, it isn’t as if every time we open up the Bible and read God’s Word that people are magically transformed. The disciples were with Jesus for three years, hearing God’s Word directly from God in the flesh, and they still were filled with unbelief. Sometimes, the seed of God’s Word takes time to grow. And sometimes, God’s Word actually drives people away; it was God’s Word that hardened Pharaoh’s heart (cf. 2 Cor 2:15-17). Nevertheless, Paul simply says, “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ,” Romans 10:17. How is faith created? Through hearing God’s Word.
Friends, do you understand why we want to make the centerpiece of our Sunday worship always revolve around the Word? This is why we open with a call to worship from God’s Word, we read God’s Word, we pray God’s Word, we sing songs that come from God’s Word, we practice the ordinances as a display of God’s Word, and we spend the lion share of our time every Sunday morning sitting and listening to God’s Word. God’s Word creates faith. From Genesis to Jesus, God’s Word creates God’s people. Parents who are anxious to see your children come to know the Lord, what are you doing to help hide Gods’ Word in their heart? Of course this will look different as your children grow up, but one thing my wife does for our young children is to keep a CD always in her car that is just passages of Scripture set to music, and review a memory verse with our three year old every morning before he gets his gummy vitamin for the day. We read through a children’s Bible every night with him, ask him questions about the story, and then pray through the story with him. If you have older children, why not carve out some time during dinner tonight to open up your Bible, read a few verses, and talk about it—maybe discuss the very text the sermon was on today. As parents, we know that ultimately our children’s salvation is up to the Lord and His sovereign work, but we are responsible for piling up as much kindling as we can around our child’s heart so that someday, if the Lord descends upon our child and gives life, there will be a warm fire.
Jesus’ Words bear authority, but it is an authority that leads to life. There are so many men running across the headlines of the news who have used their authority to suck the life out of other people. Jefferey Epstein, Harvey Weinstein, even our president, Donald Trump, have spoken about using their power, wealth, and authority to sexually exploit women. Friends, think about this: Jesus possess more power and authority than all of those men, combined. He possesses all authority! And what does He do with this titanic power? He can just speak words and people obey Him—what would a Harvey Weinstein do with that kind of power? It is horrifying to think of. Friends, be honest: what would you do with that power? Maybe you wouldn’t be a predator to the degree of Weinstein—but would you be able to wield that kind of authority and power and not exploit others somehow?
Friends, take comfort: Jesus is not like us. He takes His cosmic power, His supreme authority and…becomes a servant. He heals others, teaches them the truth, sets them free from demonic oppression. He washes his disciples’ feet, including the one who would betray Him. He lets Himself be taken to the Cross. The religious authorities mock Jesus while He is on the cross, asking Him to show His power, if He is in fact the Son of God, by coming down off the cross to save Himself. But Jesus is demonstrating His power and authority as the Son of God by staying, and suffering in our place so that He could bring us back to God. Jesus uses all of His authority and power for the good of others—He is so different than we are.
In war, there are two different kind of commanders. There is the commander who commands his troops to advance on the enemy, while he stays back in safety. And there is the commander who commands his troops to advance, but leads the charge and thrusts himself forward into the enemy’s swords, blazing the way for the troops to follow behind. Both commanders are exercising authority—which one will the troops follow more heartily? Jesus is the commander who charges forward, not only as a good example for us to follow, but to utterly neutralize the enemy at the cost of His own life and now calls us to follow Him.