Posted by: rogermitchell | January 26, 2011

Three contentions:(i) by what authority?

Further work I have been doing following on from Jesus’ demonstration in the temple helps underline the impact that he had on the political establishment of his day. This is based on three questions that various leadership groupings put to him in the days after the demonstration. The first of these asked by what authority he acted, the second was over the appropriateness of paying tax to the Roman occupiers and the third was about the practicality of believing in the resurrection. These three contentions offer new insight into the repositioned ecclesia and its relationship with the ‘powers that be.’ I will look further into each of these over the coming few posts.

(i) The authority question: This was raised, according to the three synoptic writers, by the main representatives of leadership; the disciples of the Pharisees and the Herodians (Mtt 22:16), and the chief priests, the scribes and the elders (Mk 11:27, Lk 20:1) and it asked “by what authority do you do these things?” Each gospel has Jesus answering with a further question: “was the baptism of John from heaven or from men?” The background story to this second question can be drawn from all three synoptic gospels which describe the crowds who came to be baptised by John; with both Matthew and Luke reporting his “you brood of vipers” speech, which Luke has directed to the multitudes, while Matthew specifies Pharisees and Sadducees.

Luke states that they all asked John what to do in order to repent with integrity, and reports John’s answer in terms of the redistribution of wealth, an end to corrupt economic practice and the restriction of military violence (Lk 3:10-14). So these three qualities are Jesus’ indicators of authority that has God’s backing. In the likely knowledge of this background context, the leaders’ are left in a quandary. They reason among themselves and decide, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say, ‘Why did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘From men,’ all the people will stone us to death, for they are convinced that John was a prophet.” So they answer that they do not know where John’s authority came from and Jesus replies, “nor will I tell you by what authority I do these things.”(Lk 20:5-8)

All three questions, the leaders’ to Jesus, his back to them, and theirs to each other, clearly present contending political agendas. Their initial question manifests a perception of power based on established rule, and their discussion among themselves shows their concern to hold on to their own delegated authority. Jesus’ question exposes the choice underlying the nature of authority, which was declared by John the Baptist not to be about the imposition of personal or corporate rule at all, but the kenotic sharing of life with the poor. It followed that if John’s authority was from God, then the divine will is this choice of kenotic love, and that this was the authority by which Jesus operated, and so should we.

My position is to disregard expressions of authority that are not marked by at least these characteristics, the redistribution of wealth, an end to corrupt economic practice and the restriction of military violence, and only to honour any other so-called leaders out of love towards them in the hope that they will change, which seems to be Jesus’ approach here. This means that I tend to disregard most of the western political leadership apart from choosing to love them in hope of change. But I don’t recognise their authority. I am aware that this contradicts the way that many people have explained Paul’s advice to submit to the governing authority. How to deal with this will be part of the story of the second contention, in the next post.



  1. I consider this to be real insight, but I would certainly like to know more about restriction of military violence. This point is a biggy.

    • Yes restricting military violence is a big point. I’m simply applying what John the baptist said to the soldiers who asked him what to do. He asked them to self limit their violent powers (Lk 3:14). Some translations, such as the KJV and the RV have the more total “do violence to no man.” Of course if you go a step further and ask the question of what Jesus himself taught directly, such as in the sermon on the plain, the statement is unequivocal: “But I say to you who hear, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. Whoever hits you on the cheek, offer him the other also; and whoever takes away your coat, do not withhold your shirt from him either” (Lk 6:27-29). This challenges the whole Christendom based western idea of a just war, let alone the war on terror, enforced regime change to protect oil supplies and so on.

  2. Roger:

    I’ve waited all my life for this kind of work into the gospels – so a big thank you.

    I was thinking the other day about my journey into and now out of the church. And I thought – well, maybe I’ve stopped believing and therefore I left the church. But then I thought – no I really do still believe in God, quite strongly, and I love Jesus even as he challenges me at every level. I realized that it was the church that left me behind. When I was a teen and first became a Christian, the church, this was back in the early 70’s, was still ringing with some of the social justice and civil rights movements of the 60’s but over time most of that language has been lost. Yes, people still do good works, do charity etc, but for the most part the church in North America embraced empire and the status quo even more strongly than it had. So all hope of a radical, political gospel agenda was essentially lost outside of a few lone voices. Meanwhile, as a community organizer in the city I, of course, became more radicalized and do, in fits and starts, try to live it out.

    So keep on. I love reading this stuff.
    p.s. re: military violence – this is the guy who said he could have called down angel armies to prevent his crucifixion and chose not to. Chose to die instead. That’s about as big a restriction of military violence as you can get. Given the opportunity and need Jesus said ‘no’ to that at the cost of his life!

  3. Ok, let me not beat around the bush, here are the salient points:

    Someone attacks your young children, where should we stand?
    Someone invades your country, where should we stand?
    We have a treaty with another country, and they are invaded where should we stand?
    Outright injustice takes place in France and it is within our power to help them, (not necessarily by physical force, however force all the same) where should we stand?

    We must love and pray for our enemies, however they may still be our enemies. It may break our heart to take action, but is there a point where we should?

    This is a very poignant point for me, for all of us really. Too much is going on, it affects too many lives in too real a way. Living in Democracies we need to have an opinion, it’s a painful thing to say but in part, the blood on the hands of a soldier fighting in Afghanistan is on all of our hands. Since we prop up the regimes that put them there, whether through taxes, public support or our silence. Is there not culpability in both action and inaction?

    So, in a world of fully automatic assault rifles, when if ever is military force appropriate. I’m turning up the volume on this one because the wording of your statement, “limitation of military violence”. You didn’t say at the time, the prohibition of military violence. I know that man fighting man is anti God, it’s totally against His plan for us from our inception within His heart. However, here it is, when/should we ever condone it?

  4. Yes, these are all the issues, as ever. There is lots to be said, some of which will come through the following two contentions in the next posts. So I will restrict myself to several quick points here. The first is to point out that it was Jesus who referred to John the Baptist and his kind of authority. Jesus himself went further. As Jesus said, the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than John, not in hierarchy of course, but in fulness. Revelation develops, Jesus brought more than John. But you rightly point out that John put limits on military violence, and this is what I quoted in the post. I think you have to start somewhere. So in terms of resisting someone who threatens your kids, disarming them is better than killing them. Given that the western world, Britain, the US, the EU etc is as far as I can see clearly not about redistributing wealth or bringing and end to corrupt economic practice [witness the Coalition governments cuts and the bankers bonuses for starters], then using military violence to promote, defend or bolster up our system and citizens at the expense of the lives of our soldiers, the Taliban and foreign civilians who just happen to be in the way is surely impossible to justify. The assumption is that there isn’t another way to live. Jesus is clearly saying that there is.

  5. Hey Rog,thank you once again for this.

    The questions Justin asks are of interest to me because they face us up with reality.What it interesting is that apart from his first example of protecting our family the others invoke the state.
    I have no problem with protecting my family from violence even if it take violence to achieve that.I don’t quote anything or anyone on that point because I believe its a basic human instinct to protect our loved ones.Sure we should try to do it with minimal use of force but do it we will.
    On the matters of state violence ,as put by the now past MP Willie Hamilton “we have more in common with the German working man than we do with those sending us to kill them”The states violence is almost always without exception for greed, power, land and glory and it should be resisted.It does not matter to me what state is perpetrating the violence because there goals will be the same. Why should the poorest young men of our nation go of to kill and be killed for the sake of some political or economic goal.Set by those who will never have to fire a shot in anger.This violence brutalises us as a people ,and should be resisted.Can anybody tell me the last time we were not as a state at war with someone?

  6. Taking on from what you guys have said, it seems to me that thinking about ruling must have a means of exerting its will, even though it is a loving, selfless and benevolent rule. Even Christ said “my kingdom is not from here, if it were my servants would be fighting”.

    If you have two antagonistic forces what can you do to create peace? Find common ground? Common ground between God and man is The New Covenant. If you transgress if or reject it, then they have rejected the common ground.

    If I consider the Millennial reign of Christ here, because currently His Kingdom is a spiritual one and the battles are spiritual, one day it will be a spiritual and physical one. He will become what we call a political power.

    Taking on from what Billy said, when was the last time you heard of a state with a righteous war? They get away with this because the people can be easily misled. But when the knowledge of God covers the Earth as the waters cover the seas, that should defuse a lot of that.

  7. I regret the need to reduce his Kingdom to being Spiritual.In fact his kingdom is more than that ,we are called to love one another serve one another feed the poor give our coat away visit those in prison and so on as well as praying an worshipping .These are not merely spiritual acts.
    I believe that separating his kingdom of and calling it spiritual is part of the problem we face.I cannot see where Christ ever told us it was spiritual alone.Was the world changed by the early church because it was spiritual?I think it was changed because the followers of Christ stayed in plague struck towns when everyone else fled.
    I agree with you that there is no such thing as righteous war but I think they get away with it because we don’t stand up to it enough and we are content as long it does not effect our own way of life to much.This of course includes the church

    • Thanks Billy,
      I see the spiritual as underpinning all what we call as physical. By dealing with the spiritual I believe we mean we are dealing with core motivations, therefore if I love my neighbour and live in obedience to the Spirit of God I am in an act of spiritual force. If I act radically for Christ I am using spiritual force. So for me I don’t see saying that Christ’s kingdom is a spiritual one is not at all a reduction. But a necessary foundation because the spirit knows no boundaries. Anyone anywhere choosing light over darkness is a victory.

      If all we do is jump up and down in church and that’s as far as it goes, our spirit’s aren’t enlightened, how can we claim to love God who we cannot see when we don’t show the love of man who we can?

      So for me, true spirituality is by definition practical and thoroughly permeating. Changing the spirit changes the nature, changing the behaviour.

      • Maybe if we see the spiritual and the physical as carrying the same characteristics the question of which is the most important doesn’t matter much. And this is what I am suggesting. God made man in his image. He is spiritual, we are physical. Part of being in God’s image was the freedom to give away our lives in love or to put ourselves first and dominate others. God then became a physical human being in Jesus [that’s what I believe anyway] in order to show us the choices he has made and what he is really like. What he is like and what we ought to be like are the same, whether revealed in spirit or in flesh, spiritual or material. And this is the problem I have with suggesting that on earth at the moment Jesus’ rulership looks the loving way, and in the future when Christ comes again, it looks the dominating way. If Jesus fully reveals the character of God to us, and I believe this to be the heart of the good news, then the authority of God is life laid down loving now, and in the age to come. Our exegesis of the book of Revelation must begin and end with the same Jesus and the same God. So no physical power battles in which God dominates people, only spiritual or physical battles, then and now, where God lays down his life in love for his enemies. Any other exegesis of the future appears to me to be a denial of the incarnation. So God is not on the side of domination through physical or spiritual violence. This also has important implications for how we understand the Old Testament too. But that better wait for another time.

  8. Justin you have given a very clear explanation of what I was trying to say.Thank you.

    Our spiritual connection with Christ should change our thinking and our behaviour .My frustration comes when we think that one is more important than the other,I see them as inseparable one and the same.This is the true revelation of the kingdom as Rog has said the spiritual became physical and gave us a live demonstration of what it looks like .Thats why I love Jesus

  9. Roger I find myself in a very odd quandary. Here it is;

    I LOVE reading your revelations, and I hold them to be revelations. I think just as Cheryl stated that this work is perhaps a millennia at least overdue. I don’t want to at all distract from your focus as I completely agree with it.

    But I don’t necessarily find the use of spiritual/physical force at odd’s with my view of God, it depends. I firmly believe that God closer resembles the picture that you have taken the time to draw. But you said also in an earlier post that God doesn’t always get His own way. This also hit me like revelation – its just so true.

    I never thought that the understanding of selflessness could be expanded. But you expanded with every new post.

    I think that God overcomes darkness with light, that’s the reason why we don’t always understand. I learnt this from you.

    The odd quandary is where I don’t necessarily completely agree (at the moment at least) to something at the same time I so believe with all my heart in the importance of your work, which requires the foci you have, it’s almost a distraction and I DON’T WANT THAT.

    For me the question stood, how does God (in the new age) clean up humanity without use of any force?

    Its just occurred to me (while writing), when we are ill, we want to be well, when we are dirty, we want to be clean. No matter who we are.

    That’s how, by light. It’s not changing anything, it’s restoration.

    Thanks everyone!

    Now for the next questions what did John the Baptist understand that I need to grab a hold of? (lol – It never stops trust me)

    Really looking forwards to your next posts Roger.

  10. OK, I’m really enthusiastic about your next post’s and am spending time re-reading your current one, because for a long time I have held the question “What did Elijah understand that I really need to grab a hold of” In a generation of backsliders Elijah broke through like NO OTHER – heaven was WIDE open. You have progressed the question “What did John the Baptist understand that I really need to grab a hold of”, and I have just realized, they are probably the same question!

  11. Justin: thanks so much for sharing your progress as you thought this all through. It is rather exciting to read it all. I realized as I thought about what gets done in the name of Jesus that often has nothing to do with Jesus’ witness, speech, and life (and death and life) is that we have such a difficult time really believing it. We have a hard time believing that kenotic pouring out, sacrifice, the appearance of weakness, loving our enemy etc will really work. It often appears not to. So we regress to human understandings and human means of dealing with problems. We need that divine spirit manifested in our human physicality to change us and the world. Now if we only believed that and acted upon it. Don’t worry, I’m challenging myself as much as anyone else.

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