Authority explored

What is authority and how does it really work? I know it is defined as “the right to rule” or “the legitimate use of power“, but what power and when? Can you exercise authority without exerting power? What is the opposite of authority? ie what are you doing when you use power illegitimately or misuse authority or pretend to have authority when you don’t actually have it? These are some of the questions I have in my head. I will launch out and see where I get to. I will start with a concrete natural example:

A policeman has authority. When he turns on his blue lights and stops your car he is using authority. He hasn’t exerted much physical power though except catching up with you and motioning for you to pull over. If authority is the right use of power then authority must involve some exertion of power. The policeman’s authority at this point relies mainly on your submission. However it is 99.9% effective in the UK. Something real is happening. The mechanism of physical presence and communication are in operation. You pull over because that’s what people do. You pull over because your moral sense of what is right motivates you. You pull over because you know he can exert more power to get you to comply. You pull over because you don’t want to get into any more trouble than you are already in. It’s as if over the years in this country a stone has been rolled up hill. Battles have been fought, laws passed, criminals chassed and imprisoned etc. Now, in many cases, simply giving it a little push will cause the stone to roll down hill releasing all that potential energy.

If the speeding person doesn’t stop then the power has to be ramped up. The policemen has to keep up with you and continue communicating with increasing emphasis. More police cars will arrive, then a helicopter. They will either run you out of petrol or puncture your tires. They will then surround you and order you out of the car. At this point you might comply or you might not, in which case they will physically pull you out of the car. You will then be handcuffed and if you won’t walk to the police car you will be physically carried. It’s all the application of enough power to get you to comply.

Now all the above would be the same (except the moral bit) even in a country  where the police were corrupt. However if someone is misusing authority God will eventually call them to account for it. A person using power illegitimately, for example wearing a police uniform and flagging you down even though they are not a policeman, or mugging you and forcing your handbag from you, does not have authority. They are a rebel. They have power but not authority. There is nothing legitimate about them or their actions.

Now what about Spiritual authority? When we say “In Jesus name be healed” what is going on? Well, in the bible demons recognize Jesus’ authority and they do what he says. They even ask him for permission to do stuff. There is something built into the culture of the unseen spiritual world that makes demons submit to Jesus’ name. Just turning up and issuing a command in Jesus name works in 99.9% of cases. However sometimes more power is needed. Jesus seems to say that comes by praying. Maybe that’s a bit like calling for backup! When Daniel prayed and fasted in the OT an angel was sent.

The issuing of a command must, in itself, involve an exertion of power. It’s not merely a voiced command awaiting further backup. I think the power of the Holy Spirit is exerted when we issue commands. We are clothed with power. Jesus walked in the power of the Spirit. It must also be connected with faith as Jesus says something like “if you say to a mountain move, and believe it will do so, it will move”.

The water flows when the source is lifted or the end of the tube is lowered.

I am thinking of it like a container of water with a tube coming out of the bottom of it. The default position has the end of the tube level with the top of the water so there is no flow. If you raise the container but keep the end of the tube in the same place water will start to flow out of it. The other way to get the water to flow is to lower the end of the tube. The rate of flow is determined by the relative height of the water level in the container above the end of the tube. Now think of faith. Faith can push up the source at the sending end or faith can pull down the tube at the receiving end. By that I mean the person praying could have faith, the sick person could have faith, or they could both have faith. You could touch Jesus with faith and power would flow out of him. Conversely Jesus could operate in faith and raise the dead where the dead person obviously could not exercise faith. The rate of flow of power is determined by the amount of faith present.

Since God’s power is unlimited the flow of power is limited only by faith. Two caveats spring to mind. The first is that God can stop the flow if he wants. The Holy Spirit is not going to empower something that God is not ok with. He can shut it off at the mains if he wants. The second is that often only a little power is needed to release a massive potential power. This potential power has been built up previously through God’s working in that situation.

Christians are like fire fighters holding a massive high pressure hose. Our job is to keep hold of the end and point it where we expect God to work. Actually, putting out a fire is a helpful picture as you can spray water onto flames and it may take a while for them to go out. As with someone running from the law God’s power can be resisted, but not for long. I was struck by a guy from the Bethel team who prayed with me for a lady to get well. We didn’t see anything but he said to her “It is impossible for us to pray and command you to be well and for nothing to happen”. I also remember the time I was getting disheartened about getting well myself. People kept praying for me and nothing seemed to be happening. Then God read my mind and someone brought a prophetic word to the effect that the prayers of the saints were being effective. I’ve held onto that. It is impossible for God’s power to be released and nothing to happen.

If there was no power released at the time of the first command then it’s hard to see what we have to do to see it exerted. If “be healed in Jesus name” doesn’t releases power for healing then why would power be released when we say it a second time? No. Power must be released on the first and subsequent times until, just like a jar lid suddenly pops of, or a fire is put out, a person is healed or delivered.

Finally, just a point on the legitimate use of power. I have heard some say (or I interpreted them as saying) that Satan gained the legitimate right to rule over us and the earth when Adam sinned. I do not think that is a good way of looking at it. The transaction that takes place on the cross is not between God and Satan but between God and God! Jesus pays our ransom to God. We are rescued from the kingdom of darkness but not by some legal transaction between two equal kingdoms. It’s not like one government negotiating with another for the rescue of hostages. It’s more akin to one government sending in a special forces team to destroy the hostage takers and rescue the hostages by force. Since the hostages were taken illegally their rescue is legal. Put it another way. You don’t buy back stolen goods, you seize them and imprison the thief. Satan is a rebel, a liar and a thief. He owns nothing legitimately. The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it! The Christians role is to seize what he has stolen and free the people he has imprisoned and oppressed. One day God will bring him to justice and throw him into the lake of fire mentioned in the book of Revelation.

I wonder if the view that Satan has some legitimate right to us or this world comes from a faulty interpretation of this passage:

“And the devil took [Jesus] up and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time, and said to him, “To you I will give all this authority and their glory, for it has been delivered to me, and I give it to whom I will.” (ESV) Luke 4:5-6

We have to remember that what the devil says is going to be a lie or a purposeful distortion of the truth intended to deceive us. Reading what he says I would say it’s a good bet that:

1) He has not been given authority to rule the kingdoms

2) He can not give it to whoever he chooses

He is either deceived or is deceiving.  He may be acting as the prince of this world, but he has no legitimate right to it. We should be very wary of getting doctrine from the devil! Adam and Eve did it in the garden of Eden and things didn’t go too well.

In the Matthew passage the devil seems to be acting out a sham of Matthew 28:18-19 where Jesus says:

“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (ESV) Matthew 28:18-19

The devil is not in charge of doing bad tings for Jesus. Jesus only does good things. Satan has no legitimate authority at all. The only thing lurking in the back of my mind is that no one can do anything without God’s sovereign permission. God gives Satan permission to hassle Job. Does that mean he uses his power legitimately when he takes Job’s possessions? Is God giving Satan authority to make Job ill? I think it’s important to separate God’s delegated authority with his permissive will. He gives us room to rebel but that does not make our rebellion legitimate. The bent cop is not acting with the governments authority but in rebellion to the government.

Well, I didn’t have any of this worked out when I started writing so as usual it’s my raw thoughts. I will continue to process these ideas. My main hunch is that power is released through faith. It’s not simply a command that may or may not have to be backed up by power later. There is immediately a release of power as soon as a person operates in faith. It may not need much power if power has been exerted previously in that context. For example after decades of law enforcement most people will comply very quickly. Their response has been shaped by previous power. In a similar way we work after the death and resurrection of Jesus. At the cross Jesus dealt a death blow to the forces of darkness. We do not therefore face an uphill struggle to see darkness overcome in Jesus name. I am also persuaded that Satan has no legitimate authority but is a thief, a liar and a rebel. I could go on about mankind’s original remit to rule, the extent to which that is still in effect and how Jesus has now given some increased authority but this blog is way too long already!

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What God is not

Our small group met last night for the first time after a long summer break. It was great to see everyone again and catch up a bit. We thanked God for all the answers to prayer from last term but we knew there were many more things that we were looking to him to do.

Before the meeting I felt God put the following verse from the Bible in my mind. “Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up” Luke 18:1. As I briefly skimmed through the whole passage before people arrived it was as if the whole thing suddenly came alive to me. Not that it was saying anything particularly new to me, but that the truth in this passage seemed to me at that time particularly wonderful and encouraging. Like the first sip of a favourite drink or the moment you step into a warm bath. I love it when God’s word affects me like that. Sometimes you have to work hard at it and mine the truth out but at others it seems to run out to meet me.

The story that Jesus tells is about a widow who was subject to some kind of terrible injustice. She goes to the judge and asks for help. The first thing that particularly caught my attention, as I read it, was when Jesus says “listen to what the unjust judge says.” Luke 18:6. That’s a command, so I did. Looking back on the text the judge says “even though I don’t fear God or care about men, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won’t eventually wear me out with her coming!” Luke 18:4.

So, this judge doesn’t fear God or care about men. Jesus introduces the stroy with this fact in verse 2. Then the judge actually says it himself in verse 4. Then Jesus asks us to listen to it again in verse 6. Its obviously really important! It tells me that this judge was a law unto himself. By rejecting God he had effectively set himself up as God. He wasn’t even a humanist caring about other people. He just lived for himself and what he wanted and was confident that he would get away with it. His reason for giving the widow justice was an entirely selfish one; to give himself a bit of peace and quiet. Yet he did give her justice in the end.

Now, Jesus is drawing a contrast here between the judge and God. He is saying they are, complete opposites. So what does that tell me about God? First, it tells me that God is passionate for his righteousness and justice. These are things that he cares about deeply. They come from, and in fact are, his very nature. He the just judge. He is righteous. He is jealous for justice and will give it. Second, it tells me that God cares about people. He loves them so much that he would give even that which is most dear to him for them. The bible says that God loved the world so much that he gave his only son.

I’ve just watched some of “the Miracle Maker” with my children and was impacted again by Jesus’ baptism where his father says “this is my son, my beloved son…my beloved son!”. And yet this was the son who he was going to give up to a tortuous death for our sins, the unrighteousness and the injustices committed by you and me. This is love. And even as I am writing this I realise that it is this beloved son who is asking me to meditate on the words of the unjust judge so that I might understand just a little bit more how good God is and how much he loves me.

God will not keep putting people off who cry out to him for justice, for his kingdom to come, for  his will to be done. He will respond, and quickly! It’s an amazing contrast that Jesus is drawing. I was thinking this afternoon that it was like contrasting a stone with a bird. The stone is hard and heavy and totally lacking in wings yet if you throw it hard enough it will fly for some distance. How much more will a bird fly as you release it out of your hands? That’s the scale of contrast Jesus is drawing. The difference between a stone and a bird. If a selfish, evil man can be made to give justice how much more a loving, self sacrificing, righteous God.

How I need to hear this right now and how kind of Jesus to highlight it for me. As I look at situations around the world and closer to home it might be understandable to deduce that God was like the unjust judge. “Why doesn’t he work in that situation? Why does it seem he is so slow to respond to this prayer or that request?” Answers given in the past can be quickly forgotten when faced with the massive challenge of the present. The people I have prayed for that are still ill. The injustice that continues around the world in the form of the child slave trade.

That’s why I find the closing few words in verse 8 of this passage so poignant. “When the son of man comes, will he find faith on Earth?”. Will he find people that persist in prayer through challenging circumstances, who believe God’s word over their current  circumstances, who have in their hearts a conviction that God won’t delay, but that he will respond, and quickly! It takes faith to let that truth drive my emotions, my thoughts and my actions.

I am so glad to be with a small group of friends who call on God together. We decided that we wanted to keep on pressing into Him for things this term, believing him for more wonderful answers and in fact I heard tonight that he has already responded to one of our prayers in the affirmative. Thank you Lord. That was quick!

O Lord God of vengeance

Driving back to our campsite yesterday I listened to a radio 4 program about child abuse. It was awful. I had to keep turning it off. I found myself being glad there was a God who would punish injustice, glad there was an eternal hell from which there was no escape or parole. But was I right to think like that?

The A-Team

Most human beings it seems, have an innate desire and appetite for justice. Children are quick to express it when they think they have been hard done by “it’s not fair” they cry when someone else has had a toy for longer than them. Many of our stories have injustice as a central theme. I remember watching the original A-team. Every week someone does something really bad to someone. Who will help? Who will right the wrongs, who will bring justice where there is none? The A-team of course! After playing hard to get, they respond to the cry for help, the bad guys get exploded out of their vehicles, punched about a bit, humiliated and hauled off to jail. Steven Segal was the master of this too with his much harder hitting films like “hard to kill” and “out for justice”. Dirty Harry films played to my sense of justice in the same way.

But back to the horrors of real life. I think there is some insight to be had in the raging of my emotions. Hell is not just a difficult doctrine that comes along with all the good “happy thought” ones. It’s not an embarrassment to be explained away or sanitised. It’s good and right. All God’s ways are wonderful. The psalmist exclaims “I love your law!” (Psalm 119:113), presumably the curses as well as blessings; They are right and proper and just. This morning I read Psalm 94 which starts “O Lord God of vengeance”. Who can delight in a God who is indifferent to evil; A God who never shows up like the A-team or Dirty Harry to dispense justice? We worship a God who is just and will not let the wicked go unpunished. The Proverbs, the book of Godly common sense, states it again and again (Prov 11:21, 16:5, 17:5, 19:5).

Jesus too spoke a lot about hell. I must not apologise for hell or make it something it is not. It is not just separation from God, that’s only one side of the coin. It is not just “you choose to go there”, “you reject God and so he lets you go your own way”. Those things are part of the story and helpful to an extent but Jesus did not just speak in those terms. As much as hell is a Godless place, the natural consequence of rejecting God,  hell is a place of active punishment.  Jesus tells a story about the kingdom of God that ends with this sobering line Luke 19:27  “‘But as for these enemies of mine, who did not want me to reign over them, bring them here and slaughter them before me.'” (ESV) Jesus talks of the possibility of being Mark 9:47b-48 “thrown into hell, ‘where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.'” (ESV)

My NIV says he is referring to Isaiah 66:24

“And they shall go out and look on the dead bodies of the men who have rebelled against me. For their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh.” (ESV)

Jesus says hell is worse than anything anyone can do to you in this life.

But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him! Luke 12:5    (ESV)

There is a foundation to justice. There will be a day when all accounts will have to be paid. Jesus is the one appointed to see justice done either on the hill of Calvary or in the lake of fire (Rev 20:14). And yet these thoughts bring two things to mind.

The first is my sin. I am a sinner too. I have done things that are wrong. By God’s grace they might seem relatively small compared to some but next to God’s perfect Holiness they are rotten and foul and would have been my doom. I do think there are degrees of punishment. The law reflected it and Jesus’ parables imply it. We will be judged “according to what [we] have done” Rev 20:12. The punishment of some will justly be more than others but that will be little consolation in an eternal hell under God’s wrath. By God’s great love and mercy he has seen fit to forgive me, placing my sin on his son and punishing him in my place. I find myself being humbled and deeply grateful. This first thought prepares my heart and mind for the second.

As I read Jesus words about hell I begin to feel compassion. I don’t want anyone to go there. It’s worse than anything in this life and will go on forever. You sometimes hear people say “go to hell”. That’s a very strong thing to say and I don’t think I want to say it to anyone.

My desire for justice will be satisfied. Every sin will be justly punished. If I demand that it not be removed from one person and placed on Christ my hope for forgiveness is gone. Upon him was placed the guilt of torture and rape and other things unspeakable, and to me at least mercifully unimaginable. How it is possible for such a transfer to take place I do not know but it is. If not my sin still sticks to me. If it is then any sin can be cast on Jesus. There is hope for the vilest offender. When my anger and sense of justice rises up in me at people who do what should not be done, I need to look at what Jesus has done for me and what Jesus says about hell until mercy wins in my soul. My emotions started with anger and a desire for justice and vengeance but I pray the Spirit of God keeps moving me to thanksgiving for my own salvation and intersession for the salvation of others.

In all this emotion and pain my thoughts and prayers need to be most of all with the victims. Thank you Jesus that your gospel can heal the deepest hurts and cover the most painful shame. Thank you that you came to release the oppressed and bind up the broken hearted. Please please please please do that in many lives today.