Pastor Kyle McIver
Authority is tense and hotly debated subject. Much of our cultural conversation in fact, revolves around authority. Anytime we are discussing the government, we’re talking about authority - making and enforcing rules or holding elections are all about who is in charge, who decides how things will operate. In our country, we vote, and the winners are placed in positions of authority. Or consider some of the current hot topics: gun laws, marriage and sexuality, taxes, healthcare systems, credibility of the media - all of these things in some form or another come back to authority. Who gets to tell me what to do? Who can I trust? To whom, if anyone, am I accountable for my life and actions? Whether people like it or not, authority is something we all have to deal with. Yet more and more we are seeing a rebellion against authority - authority itself is increasingly perceived as a bad thing in the eyes of many.
How are we as Christians, then, supposed to think about authority? Is it good? Is it just a necessary evil? Who has authority, and why do they have it? These are crucial questions. This morning I want to give you a framework for thinking about authority. This framework is going to be derived from the Bible (along with observations from the world around us) and help us to see how the Bible itself is our ultimate authority, which is the main point of the sermon.
We’re going to tackle this together by asking and then answering three questions:
What is Authority?
I don’t know what comes to mind for you when I say “authority”, but I want us to look at a few examples together so we’re working from the same idea. Take the family. Does the family unit have authority? Absolutely. God says that the husband is the head of the wife, and that children are to obey their parents. That’s authority. Think about your workplace - there’s an org chart. Leaders who have other leaders who report to the CEO, who is then accountable to the board of directors. All of those levels of leadership come with increasing levels of authority expressed in responsibility and decision-making power. Or look at the church - churches have elders who are responsible for the oversight and care of the church's members.
Those three environments - family, work, and church - are where most of our lives take place. Those are three of the most fundamental realities we live within each day. And each is structured by authority. Now there’s two kinds of authority, and we need to define them. The first is derivative authority. Derivative authority means someone gave it to you - it’s not inherent to you, it’s been bestowed on you. That’s what human authority looks like. Husbands and father’s don’t possess authority by means of winning it from their wives and children. Rather, God gives it to them. The authority in the home and in the church is derived from God - he is the one who instituted these authority structures. Workplaces are similar - someone hired you or voted you in and entrusted you with a measure of authority within that company. So human authority is derivative - it’s given either by other people, or given by God, or in some cases both. You can look at our church as an example where its both - on the one hand, God gives pastors authority. And on the other hand Dan, Kyle and Mike are pastors because you the congregation voted to install us as pastors. Our authority was given both by God and the congregation.
So the first kind of authority is derivative authority. The second is ultimate authority. Who really owns authority? Who has the last word? Who is the final arbiter of right and wrong? Who will ultimately bring justice? As you can probably tell from the nature and seriousness of those questions, only God himself has ultimate authority. Now, I’m going to spend most of our time this morning on God’s authority, but I want to make a brief observation about derivative authority, the kind of authority that functions before our eyes in our homes, workplaces, and the church.
My observation is this: derivative authority is good. That may well seem a controversial statement today, but let’s think about it together. Is authority itself a bad thing? I want to persuade you that it is not. What’s bad is when authority goes awry. One way this happens is when authority is lacking. Think about the family. What happens in a home where children run wild and rebel against their parents? What happens when nobody takes responsibility for the protection of the home? If there is nobody there to provide for the physical, material, and spiritual needs of the family? Disorder and chaos are what happen. There’s the other side too - authority can be present in a home, workplace, or nation, but be a force for evil. This also departs from God’s design. Simply possessing a measure of authority does not give someone the right to be an abusive tyrant. On the contrary, God holds people responsible for their authority. God will call them to account for the way in which they loved, served, provided for, and protected those in their care.
Derivative authority is like any created thing in a fallen world: it is good, but we can turn aside and fall into the ditch if we aren’t careful. Derivative authority, the authority human beings possess, has two ditches. On one side those in authority, those given the responsibility to care for, protect, provide, and lead others, can shirk their responsibilities. When that happens, people under their care suffer. The other ditch is when people confuse derivative authority with ultimate authority, thinking they can dominate and control the people in their care to the point where they become abusive and dangerous. But when authority is present in a healthy way, people flourish. Families are healthy and cared for. The vulnerable are protected and provided for. The church is loved, led, and in order.
So derivative authority is good and life giving when applied according to God’s design, but dangerous when we fall into one of these two ditches. The solution to broken authority in a fallen world is not to get rid of authority altogether - it’s to rightly apply derivative authority in light of God’s ultimate authority. When that happens, authority is life-giving.Alright, that’s the end of my observation on derivative authority. On to ultimate authority.
What is ultimate authority?
I’m borrowing from theologian John Frame here for this definition: ultimate authority (which I’m just going to refer to as authority from here on out) is God’s lordship expressed toward his creation. God’s lordship expressed toward his creation. God has revealed himself to us as Lord. He made us, he owns us, and he has the right to tell us what to do. To tell us what is right, and what is wrong. To make demands of us and command us to live in a way that honors him. God is Lord of all, and he expresses that lordship toward his creation through authoritative revelation, which is what we have in the Bible.
So that’s the definition of ultimate authority: God’s lordship expressed toward his creation. And what’s important to note with this definition is that it makes very clear that ultimate authority belongs only to God. No human being or created thing shares in this ultimate authority. It belongs to God and is revealed to us through the Bible.
So that’s what authority is. Now let’s answer the question: why does authority exist?
Why Does Authority Exist?
Fundamentally, the answer to this question is simply this: God. God is. And because God is, therefore, he has authority. Let me explain what I mean here. I want to sketch this out by looking at some snapshots of how God has spoken and acted throughout history. As we see these snapshots in the Bible, we’ll draw from them to understand why authority exists.
First snapshot: In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth (Genesis 1:1). I mentioned creation already, but this is so foundational that we’re going to spend a little more time here. God made everything that we see, hear, taste, touch, and feel. He made all of it. In the beginning there was nothing. Then God speaks, or maybe it sounded more like singing if you’ve read C.S. Lewis’ The Magician’s Nephew - and when God speaks, things happen. The universe bursts into being. There was nothing but God, then there was everything that exists. Just because God spoke. So our takeaway here is to see God’s authoritative voice in creation. He speaks, things come into existence. That’s real power, real authority!
Second snapshot: Still in Genesis here: Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth (Genesis 1:28). And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (Genesis 2:16-17). These are the first things that God says to the human race, and they are loaded with meaning. Look at both statements - God is charging them. He is issuing commands. Why? Because God relates to his people as Lord. As his creatures, we don’t know why we are here until God tells us. Our lives, like the earth in the very beginning, are without form and void until God speaks. Once God speaks, Adam and Eve receive an identity. They hear the voice of their God and they understand why he’s placed them in this beautiful garden. So our takeaway here is that God’s authoritative voice is what gives identity, shape and structure to our lives.
Third snapshot: We’re going to pull from a variety of places on this one, so take a listen and we’ll hear the thread that runs through these events. In the book of Exodus, God saves his people out of slavery. And once he has saved them and brought them out of Egypt, he brings them to Mount Sinai, and he lays out the covenant relationship that defines how God and man relate to one another. God declares that he is Yahweh, he is the Lord, and then he gives the law. God has made for himself a people, and by his authoritative word he will now give shape and substance to that relationship between God and man in the giving of the law.
Look also at how God interacts with Samuel at the end of 1 Samuel 3: And the Lord appeared again at Shiloh, for the Lord revealed himself to Samuel at Shiloh by the word of the Lord (1 Samuel 3:21). The word of the Lord is equated with God both appearing and revealing himself to Samuel. Or consider the prophets, like Jeremiah, when we read that the word of the Lord came in the days of Josiah… (Jeremiah 1:2) - what we see here is that it is through his word that God makes himself known to his people, pronounces judgement, and comforts with promises of mercy and deliverance.
These few samplings from across the Old Testament highlight the centrality of God’s authoritative word in the covenant relationship between God and man. So when we step back and look at all of these snapshots together we see that God’s word authoritatively creates. Then it shapes, fills and defines our lives. And his word is then central in sustaining ongoing fellowship with him as our God.
So how does this help us answer the question of authority? Why does authority exist? And not only exist, but seem to be so central in the very fabric of our existence? The answer is that God is God and we are his creatures. God is the Lord, and when he communicates with his creatures, it is necessarily in an authoritative way. He doesn’t ask for our opinions or need anything from us. God is. God knows. God determines. God shapes. God gives life and breath and being. We were created and placed under God’s authority, and whether we like it or not, we can’t avoid that simple fact.
And so when God speaks, we listen. Well, maybe it’s more accurate to say that we should listen - because we don’t always listen to him, do we? This brings us to our last question: what does God’s authority mean for us?
What Does God’s Authoritative Word Mean For You?
Let’s go back to Genesis again. We saw that when God first spoke to humanity, he issued a charge and a command. The charge was to fill and subdue the earth. The command was to enjoy all that he had made, but not to eat from one single tree. And we all know what happened next. Did Adam and Eve heed God’s word? Did they submit themselves fully and gladly to all God had commanded them? No. They disregarded God’s word, thereby disobeying God himself and attempting to usurp his authority by becoming like him in the knowledge of good and evil. And what’s the result? What happens when they rebel against God’s authoritative word? Death. Ruin. Chaos. Darkness. Rebellion. In a word, sin. Rather than enjoying God’s fellowship, Adam and Eve are now hiding from God and attempting to cover their shame. They are suddenly passive and shifting responsibility away from themselves. In that moment when God’s word was rejected, the very fabric of our universe was altered. It was torn. God and man were separated. We alienated ourselves from God and positioned ourselves as his enemies.
Now let’s put ourselves in Adam and Eve’s position for a moment… what do you think they expected from God after their sin? They were guilty, and they knew it. God told them that they would die if they ate the fruit. So how will God exercise his authority in this situation? God seeks out Adam and Eve in the garden, and He speaks. This is how he relates to his people. And when God speaks in this moment after the fall, he sets the pattern for the rest of the Bible, for the rest of human history. God speaks... and mingles justice... with mercy. Justice in that he pronounces a curse on the man, the woman, and the serpent. Mercy in that he doesn’t leave them simply with curses for their rebellion, he doesn’t kill them on the spot for their treason. Surprisingly, in that moment, he makes a glorious promise. God says to serpent: I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel. Where there was to be death, God speaks of offspring! Where it appears that the serpent has won, God promises his defeat! In the immediate aftermath of their sin, Adam and Eve are sustained by God’s promise - his spoken word. And Adam believes God’s promise - we see the evidence of this in that he turns around and names his wife “Eve”, which means “the mother of all living”. Adam believed God’s promise that there would be offspring, and demonstrates his faith through calling his wife “the mother of all living” before they even have any children.
So what does this narrative in the opening chapters of Genesis have to do with us and with the authority of the Bible? Everything. This story sets the pattern for the rest of the Bible - it sets the pattern for the gospel story. And it provides the framework we need to rightly understand God’s authority. What we have here is creation, fall, and redemption. So we’re going to look at each of these elements in the story and see how God expresses his authority through his Word in each one, and what that means for us.
CREATION: Look at what happens when God speaks. God speaks and things exist. His word is the creative power over all that exists. He spoke the world into being. And what many of you are holding in your hands right now is God’s spoken word. Just as God spoke to give identity, structure, and purpose to Adam and Eve in the garden, so we must hear God’s voice in the Bible to understand who we are, how we are to live, and why we are here.
FALL: Sin entered the world when Adam and Eve disobeyed God’s word. Think about that - disobeying a command from God brought about all of the sin, evil, chaos, heartache, and devastation we live amidst. When God speaks, he speaks with authority. And when we disregard that authority and cast aside his Word, the results are catastrophic. God punishes sin. God pronounced curses upon the serpent, Adam, and Eve. God’s authority cannot be taken lightly.
This also means that we cannot rightly understand the world around us apart from God’s revelation. Only by hearing God’s voice in the Bible can we understand the world around us and its broken because of the devastating effects of sin. How else could we make sense of suffering? What other worldview can answer life’s most difficult questions? Without a sufficient answer to what is really wrong in the world, we can’t possibly offer adequate solutions that actually help hurting people. So it is God through His authoritative word, the Bible, that sheds light on our present circumstances in fallen world.
REDEMPTION: Lest any of us believe the lie that freedom and happiness comes by casting off authority and being autonomous, solely in control of our own choices and destiny, let’s look at what God, our ultimate authority, does with His authority. When the human race rebelled, God promised to send a Savior. When His people continually turned aside and went their own way like lost sheep, God sent them prophets. When sin needed to be dealt with God established through his word the priesthood and the sacrificial system, that there might be regular, tangible means of forgiveness. When God’s people were suffering under oppression and opposition, God through his word raised up judges and kings to deliver them. And in the fullness of time, when all other prophets, priests, and kings had failed, the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. Jesus, the living Word, became our prophet, priest and king.
Jesus, when he encounters a lame man with faith to be healed, declares that He, the Son of Man, has authority to forgive sins. Jesus tells his disciples that nobody takes his life from him, but that he lays it down of his own accord and has the authority to take it back up again. Jesus, when he was about to ascend to his Father’s right hand proclaims that he has all authority in heaven and on earth, and says therefore to go and make disciples - to spread the gospel and the good news of great joy that there is forgiveness of sins through faith in His name. And Jesus, who is called the Word of God in Revelation 19, will return with a sharp sword to strike down the nations, to rule them with a rod of iron, to tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty, and who will forever and finally defeat Satan and cast him into the pit of hell.
Jesus, the Word made flesh, has all authority. And he is the perfect model of what authority looks like. He uses his authority not to oppress, but to liberate. Not for his own advantage, but for the good of others. Not as a means of self-indulgence, but to spread joy to every corner of the earth.
So what shall we do? How do we respond to such authority as Jesus possesses, as is given to us in his authoritative word, the Bible? I’ve got four very quick application points, which is where we’re going to close.
All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Jesus, who is able to keep you from stumbling and present you blameless before his presence with great joy. To him belong all glory, majesty, and dominion.