By What Authority?
By Dr. Philip W. McLarty
By what authority do you speak and act and live out your life? Who authorizes you to make the decisions you make and to do the things you do?
That’s what I’d like for us to think about in the sermon this morning. Our text is the first verse of this passage from Colossians:
“Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus through the will of God,
and Timothy our brother,
to the saints and faithful brothers in Christ at Colossae:
Grace to you and peace from God our Father,
and the Lord Jesus Christ.”
We’ll unpack this in just a moment. First, here’s the background.
Colossae was a Roman city in Asia Minor, the area we know today as southwest Turkey. It lay about halfway between the churches of Galatia, where Paul traveled on his first missionary journey, and Ephesus, where he preached for three years. In other words, it stood right there in front of him, but, as far as we know, Paul never set foot in Colossae. The Colossians knew him only by reputation. They did not know him as former pastor and friend.
Also, the church at Colossae was mostly Gentile. Unlike the Galatians, their issue was not with keeping the Jewish law, but combating false teachings of the gospel.
Also, the leader of the church at Colossae was Epaphras, a former associate of Paul. Add to that the fact that Timothy was from the region and had spent time with the Colossians. All this figures in with how Paul establishes his authority with the Colossians. To begin, he says,
“Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus….”
He wants the Colossians to know up front that he speaks with the authority of an apostle. In his Letter to the Corinthians, he says,
“Then he appeared to James,
then to all the apostles,
and last of all, as to the child born at the wrong time,
he appeared to me also.
For I am the least of the apostles,
who is not worthy to be called an apostle,
…but by the grace of God I am what I am.”
(1 Corinthians 15:7-10)
Jesus appeared to Paul on the Damascus Road and called his name and commissioned him to proclaim the gospel of his grace and love. As far as Paul is concerned, he stands on par with Peter, James, John and the others. And so, he begins the letter, “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus…”, but he goes on to add, through the will of God …”
This is no small thing. If Paul speaks by the will of God, the Colossians had better listen. To speak by the will of God is to speak God’s Word, by God’s authority, for God’s sake. In his Letter to the Galatians, he says,
“But I make known to you, brothers,
concerning the Good News which was preached by me,
that it is not according to man.
For neither did I receive it from man,
nor was I taught it,
but it came to me through revelation of Jesus Christ.”
Paul also brings Timothy into the equation. He writes,
“Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus
through the will of God, and Timothy our brother…”
As we heard, the Colossians knew Timothy. He had lived and worked among them. They trusted him. If Paul was a friend of Timothy, he must be their friend, as well.
But remember, the church at Colossae was largely Gentile. In this way, Timothy proved to be a great asset, in that he was the child of a mixed marriage – his mother was Jewish, but his father was Greek. (Acts 16:1) While the Colossians would understandably have a problem relating to Paul with his impeccable Jewish credentials, Timothy was someone they could identify with.
Here’s the sum of it all: Before saying a word to the Colossians about what he’s heard of their problems, Paul goes to great pains to make it clear: He does not speak of his own authority, he speaks as an apostle by the will of God with Timothy at his side.
This leads to the question of the day: By what authority do you speak and act and live out your life?
It’s not an easy question to answer. Authority begins in the earliest days of childhood and shifts throughout the various ages and stages of our lives.
• As little children, we live under the authority of our parents. For infants and toddlers, parents are like gods – all-powerful, all-knowing, all-present. They can lift heavy objects, open locked doors and reach the top shelves. They always seem to know what to do in a moment of crisis.
• As we get older, parental authority broadens to include teachers, pastors, grandparents and other respected adults.
• As we go through the teenage years, we’re influenced by the authority of our peers: “But everybody else is doing it!” We want to be accepted and part of the in-crowd. So we adapt and conform to our peers – from the shows we watch, to the music we listen to, to the clothes we wear.
• Hopefully, adolescence doesn’t prove to be terminal. It’s a stage of life we grow out of. In time, we mature and become responsible adults, capable of making good decisions and choosing for ourselves who to look up, whose word and example to follow.
This is where it gets sticky, for there are a lot of conflicting voices in the world today vying for your attention. Who are you going to listen to? There are a lot of competing faiths and lifestyles. Which beliefs and values are you going to uphold?
By whose authority are you going to live? This was the question the Pharisees asked Jesus long ago. Here’s how Luke tells the story:
“…the priests and scribes came to him with the elders.
They asked him, ‘Tell us: by what authority do you do these things?
Or who is giving you this authority?'” (Luke 20:1-2)
It was a trap, and Jesus knew it, so he turned the question back on them and said,
“I also will ask you one question.
Tell me: the baptism of John,
was it from heaven, or from men?” (Luke 20:3)
They wouldn’t answer him, of course, because if they said, “Of heaven,” they’d have to explain why they didn’t believe him; if they said, “Of men,” they’d incite the anger of the people, who believed John the Baptist was a prophet. So they said, “We don’t know.” So, Jesus said,
“Neither will I tell you by what authority
I do these things.” (Luke 20:8)
If they had really wanted to know where Jesus got his authority and weren’t just looking for a way to bring charges against him, Jesus might well have told them, “From God.”
That was the truth: God was the source of his authority, pure and simple. This was what the elders in Capernaum first noticed about Jesus. Mark says,
“They were astonished at his teaching,
for he taught them as having authority,
and not as the scribes.” (Mark 1:22)
Because God was the source of his authority, Jesus was free:
• Free to restore the spirit of the Law of Moses. Six times in the Sermon on the Mount, he said, “You have heard that it was said … but I tell you …”, and then proceeded to apply the Law in a new way. (Matthew 5:21-48)
• Free to heal a man’s withered hand, even though it was on the Sabbath. (Mark 3:1-6)
• Free to drive out the demons of a deranged Gentile and bring him to perfect health and sanity. (Mark 5:1-20)
• Free to heal the daughter of a Syro-Phoenecian woman, again a Gentile. (Mark 7:24-30)
• Free to eat with tax collectors and sinners (Mark 2:15-16), to heal a leper (Mark 1:40-42), to show mercy to an unclean woman who reached out and touched the hem of his garment. (Mark 5:25-34)
Because Jesus recognized God as his only authority, he was free from the authority of everyone else, including not only the chief priests and their henchmen, but Pontius Pilate and the authority of Rome. Remember this scene? When brought to trial, Pilate said,
“Don’t you know that I have power to release you,
and have power to crucify you?”
“You would have no power at all against me,
unless it were given to you from above.” (John 19:11-12)
God alone was the source of Jesus’ authority, and the Good News is this: Jesus bestowed this authority on his disciples. He said,
“…whatever things you bind on earth
will have been bound in heaven,
and whatever things you release on earth
will have been released in heaven.”
And just before ascending into heaven, Jesus told his disciples,
“All authority has been given to me in heaven and on earth.
Go, 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 things that I commanded you.
Behold, I am with you always, even to the end of the age. Amen.”
By God’s grace, we have been given the authority to speak and act in the name of Jesus Christ. Hence, we have the freedom to live as children of God and share the Good News with others.
Here’s the rub: We don’t come close to exercising the authority we’ve been given.
We live more by the authority of conventional wisdom than the authority of God in Christ. We’re more likely to be driven by social etiquette and the mores of society than the teachings of Jesus; more concerned to be politically correct than to offend and upset the status quo; more apt to keep silent than to speak out against the evils and injustices of the day.
Somehow we’ve come to equate being a member of the church with being a disciple of Jesus Christ. We’ve come to think that all you have to do is get baptized and confirmed – or saved – go to Sunday School and church, pay your tithe and, perhaps, serve on a committee, and you’ll get a ticket to heaven. We’ve come to accept the practice of blending in, staying under the radar and going along with the crowd, without ever taking a stand or speaking out for Christ and his kingdom.
So, what does it mean to be a disciple and live by the authority of Jesus Christ?
It means to listen to what he said. Go back and read the gospels. Hear his words anew:
“Turn the other cheek.” (Matthew 5:39)
“Love your enemies
and pray for those who persecute you.” (Matthew 5:44)
“As you did it unto the least of these my brethren
you did it unto me.” (Matthew 25:40)
Hear his words anew and apply them to your own life experience. That’s the first step. And the second is to follow his example. Again, go back and read the gospels. Take note of how Jesus responded in different circumstances. Then, go and do likewise. Here’s but one example:
The Pharisees brought an adulterous woman to Jesus. She deserved to be stoned to death under the Law. They wanted to know what he thought they should do. He said, “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.” One by one, they slithered away. When they were gone, he told the woman, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way. From now on, sin no more.” (John 8:3-11)
To live by the authority of Jesus is to ask yourself in every situation you face, what would Jesus say? What would Jesus do? Then, to the best of your ability, do likewise.
Let’s wrap it up. As most of you know, I was ordained in the United Methodist Church. The presiding bishop at the time was McFerrin Stowe. I remember Bishop Stowe as a tall, lean man with angular features and ever-piercing blue eyes. When the moment of my ordination came and I knelt before him at the altar, Bishop Stowe looked down at me with those steely eyes and spoke with a big, booming voice, “Take thou authority to preach the Word and administer the Sacraments in the name of Jesus Christ.”
Well, that’s my parting word to you. To paraphrase: Take thou authority to share the Good News with others, serve the least, and bring the lost into this family of faith, in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.
“Neither do I condemn you. Go your way.
From now on, sin no more.”
Scripture quotations are from the World English Bible.
Copyright 2013 Philip McLarty. Used by permission.