Freedom, Power and Authority in the Great Commission, by Malcolm Yarnell
And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, "All authority has been given to me in heaven and on earth" (Matthew 28:19).
The Great Commission proper begins with a verse many often brush over, perhaps because they consider it uncouth. A subject that some modern Christians consider inappropriate for conversation is neither "sexuality" nor "selfishness," which no longer seem to cause our culture to blush, but "authority." But this aversion to speaking about power counters our Lord’s own attitude.
Western culture considers power to be somehow unseemly, inherently evil, taking Lord Acton’s dictum much too seriously—"Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." We have even turned an ungodly attitude—anti-authoritarianism—into an ideal worth pursuing, and the opposing mantra becomes "freedom" or "liberty." This is strange, for "freedom" may be synonymous with "power," as seen in the Greek word here, exousia, which may be translated as "freedom," "power," or "authority." Usually, by "freedom," we really mean uninhibited personal power, a truth that unmasks anti-authoritarianism to be nothing more than a deceptive personal power grab.
The Lord had a different attitude towards power, one we should hear and receive. Our Lord made a most audacious claim—"all authority has been given to me." He then compounded it by saying his authority was so total it included every power "in heaven and on earth." Is this indicative of a deluded megalomaniac, of which the world has seen too many examples? Or is the claim of Jesus that he rules the world and all spiritual reality, too, shockingly true? Scripture certainly believes so, as do true Christians.
The Creation of the Powers. The New Testament presents a theology of power that is nuanced and sobering. Every power in existence is created and instituted by God (Rom. 13:1). Even the power that proud Pontius Pilate wielded in the crucifixion of our Lord ultimately came from God—Rome may have been the instrument, but God assigned it to be this way (John 19:11). We thus learn that all created powers result from a gift, but the gift of authority may not be used in any way and for any purpose the created instrument pleases. While every power is given by God He desires it to be used for His glory and according to His commands. Indeed, every created being is held accountable for the use of its appointed authority.
The problem is that angels and men have used their granted powers for evil rather than good. This situation does not negate the sovereignty of God, but it shows an incredible complexity. Due to angelic and human rebellion, there exists a massive web of opposing and cooperating powers and authorities and freedoms. This web is so complex and turbulent that it sometimes appears to limited man that chaos has triumphed and that all claims to authority are arbitrary.
The Redemption of the Powers. Thus, when Jesus Christ came, the unique authority He displayed was considered unusual: His teaching was marked by power that others lacked (Mark 1:22). Luke tells us that Jesus was filled with the power of the Spirit (Luke 4:14), that He cast out demons with authority (4:36), that power went out from Him when he performed a miracle (8:46). Even after crucifixion, He was reputed to be a prophet mighty in word and deed (24:19). The "kingdom of God," which Jesus rules, is a motif too large to consider here, but we know that His kingdom is not of this world, that it has already come, and that it will triumph. The kingdom doctrines of Jesus are what finally turned the priestly, royal, and imperial authorities against Him (John 18:36; 19:11-21). The crucifixion was the apparent victory of the world and its ruler over the Messiah.
And yet, to the great confusion of the world, the "stumbling block" and "foolishness" of "Christ crucified" is actually "the power of God" at work (1 Cor. 1:18-23). This is the primary conflict between the way that true Christians think and the way that the world and false Christians think: Christian power is displayed in humility, the humility of a cross. The Jews and the Greeks of the biblical period, and the Secularists and the Muslims of modern times, and those "Christians" who slander and persecute others, cannot fathom the truth that God was rectifying all powers in the cross. The defeat of Jesus through an ignoble death is the victory of God over the power of sin.
The Consummation of the Powers. But the story does not end with the humiliation of the cross. On the other side of the cross is the resurrection, the juridical vindication of the crucified one (Acts 2:36). Indeed, Christians are called to take up their own humiliating crosses, because our hope is that we too will be finally vindicated (Phil. 2:1-11; 1 Peter 5:6). And beyond our present time, is the return of Jesus Christ in power to reign physically over all the earth and then bring final judgment (Rev. 19-20). After this, we are told by Paul that once Christ has subdued all the powers of creation, the Son in turn will deliver everything whole back to the Father (1 Cor. 15:24-28). At present, we are in a massive battle between the kingdom of darkness and the kingdom of light. But there is no need to worry: our Lord has all authority, and He will triumph.
"All" in this passage, by the way, means "all." Jesus Christ claimed all earthly and spiritual power for Himself. He may do and command anything and everything He wants. And He has decided to show mercy to the world by saving those who will believe in Him. Moreover, He has given specific instructions as to how to make His mercy known to all the world: He wants His disciples to be going, making disciples, baptizing, and teaching everything he has commanded to all people everywhere at all times. The universal nature of the Great Commission, of which you spoke in your last letter, is true.
However, in light of the universal nature of the authority of Christ, Christians should be very careful to follow His instructions exactly. In these days, when too many Christians are trying to separate the essential from the non-essential in Christianity, it should be said loudly and clearly: Every command of Christ is essential for true disciples of Christ to obey. There is no part of the Great Commission that is non-essential for a Christian church. If churches want to be defined as Great Commission churches, then they should follow Jesus Christ and treat His words as of final, specific, and utmost authority. Should they not?
PS I apologize for my extended delay in submitting a new letter to you and your readers, David. Unfortunately, after returning from shepherding the Oxford group, my car was hit by another that pushed me into the path of a truck. The car was totaled, and I suffered a concussion. First, catching up with the workload at the seminary, and then trying to work, read, and write with fatigue and nausea has put me behind. Thank you for your patience and prayers. I have learned experientially that I have so little power and that God has all power. I feel utterly helpless without Him.
Letter #1, Two Requirements for a Universal Fulfillment of the Great Commission, by Malcolm Yarnell Letter #7, Both the End and the Means are Established by the Lord, by Malcolm Yarnell Letter #8, A Matter of Emphasis?, by David Rogers Letter #9, Complete Obedience versus Hesitant Discipleship, by Malcolm Yarnell Letter #10, The Universal Scope of the Great Commission, by David Rogers Letter #11, Freedom, Power and Authority in the Great Commission, by Malcolm Yarnell Letter #12, Enduring Submission to the Great Commission, by Malcolm Yarnell Letter #13, Obeying the Commands of Jesus, by David Rogers Letter #14, John Gill on Romans 14 and 15:1-7, by David Rogers Letter #15, The Illustration of the Hypothetical "Common Loaf Denomination", by David Rogers Letter #16, A Condensed Response to Your Last Three Letters, by Malcolm Yarnell Letter #17, Further Discussion on Cooperation and Obedience, by David Rogers Letter #18 (Part I), Faith and Faithfulness: Truth, Love, and the Limits of Fellowship, by Malcolm Yarnell Letter #18 (Part II), Faith and Faithfulness: Truth, Love, and the Limits of Fellowship, by Malcolm Yarnell Letter #18 (Part III), Faith and Faithfulness: Truth, Love, and the Limits of Fellowship, by Malcolm Yarnell Letter #19, A Deep Division?, by David Rogers