Authority. It’s one of those words we love and hate.
We love it in relation to others: “When the neighbors kept lighting fireworks past 11 p.m., thank goodness the authorities ordered them to stop.”
But we hate it in relation to ourselves: “When I turned my front yard into an alpaca farm, the authorities ordered me to stop.”
While some of the issues we have with authority are uniquely American—this is, after all, where the “Don’t Tread on Me” flag has waved since 1775—resisting authority is part of the human condition.
Adam and Eve rebelled against God’s authority. Jacob wrestled with God.
God called Jacob’s children a “rebellious” and “stiff-necked people” not once or twice, but repeatedly. In the NIV, the phrase is used 18 times in the Old Testament alone. Stephen reprised it in Acts: “You stiff-necked people!” he shouted. “You always resist the Holy Spirit” (7:51).
“It is hard for you to kick against the goads,” the Lord said to Paul on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:5, NKJV). Jesus chose this metaphor to illustrate for us the image of a hard-headed and, yes, stiff-necked beast resisting authority, defying its master and trying to go its own way.
Jesus reminded us that “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matthew 28:18). Paul added texture to this by noting that “all things in heaven and on earth” are under Christ (Ephesians 1:10).
Interestingly, we submit to many kinds of authority. Children, even grownup children, submit to their parents. Employees submit to their employers. Citizens submit to various levels of government.
We submit to these sources of authority at some level because each represents a kind of force that elicits a kind of fear about the consequences of disobedience. Defiant children can be punished: time-outs for toddlers, extra chores for kids, fewer privileges for teens, smaller inheritances (or none at all) for adult children. Insubordinate employees can be fired. Law-breaking citizens can be fined, deprived of property, imprisoned, even executed.
Living under Jesus’ authority is both similar and yet different than these. Yes, he can punish us by taking things away or allowing the world (or the enemy) to pile more burdens upon us. But he wants to bless us and to persuade us by example, rather than fear or force, that humbly submitting to the authority of Heaven is not only what the Father wants for us, it’s what’s best for us.
That’s easier said than done, of course. Indeed, living under Jesus’ authority is at once difficult and simple.
It’s simple, or at least should be, because Christ’s authority—his sovereignty and strength—is everywhere on display, if only we have eyes to see. What we often fail to recognize is that the heavens really do declare the glory and power of the Lord. And all the earth—his footstool—bows before him.
At the end of the book that bears his name, Job learned about God’s authority from God himself. “Out of the storm” God unleashed a torrent of questions for Job and us: Who laid the earth’s foundation? Who gives orders to the morning? Who is it that journeys to the springs of the sea? Who keeps watch over the gates of the shadow of death or the storehouses of snow? How is the lightning dispersed? Who knows the laws of the heavens? Who has dominion over the earth? Who cuts a channel for the thunderstorm? Who endows the heart with wisdom? Who gives understanding to the mind? Who can count the clouds?
This is a glimpse of the authority of Jesus. And in a sense, he answered these questions in the Gospels out of another storm.
“It is I,” Jesus declared as a windstorm buffeted the waves around his terrified apostles, who, like Job, represent all humanity.“It is I!” he shouts, amid the chaos and confusion of our lives. “It is I who laid the earth’s foundation, who lit the sun, who imagined and crafted the universe. It is I who gives orders to the morning, who opens and closes the gates of death, who sends lightning bolts on their way, who knows the majesty and mystery of life, who commands the wind and waves, who pardons the deniers and doubters, liars and lusters, gossips and gluttons.”
If we grasp even a fragment of these truths—if we catch just a glimpse of the Creator’s power—then living under Jesus’ authority is a no-brainer.
But that leads to the difficult side of Jesus’ authority. Our brains tell us a different story.
It’s difficult to submit to Jesus’ authority because independence is so celebrated in our culture—and deference to authority so denigrated. This is exacerbated by on-demand technologies offering us the world at our fingertips. Like never before, we are in control and in command of our own little kingdoms. Or at least it appears that way.
We don’t take well to answering to authority. Instead, we remain self-focused and selfish, desiring to go our own way rather than follow his way.
Sure, we may sing “God is in control” and “He reigns” on Sunday, but many of us return to the muck of “me-ism” on Monday. We are still a stiff-necked people, still kicking against the goads. And in choosing the harder, more difficult path—like the hard-headed beast that can’t see as far down the road as its master—we are making our lives harder.
Living under Jesus’ authority is about the very opposite; it’s about making our lives easier by letting him lead.
Living under Jesus’ authority means trusting that he will do what he promises to do, just as the Roman centurion, “a man under authority,” did when he turned to Jesus for help.
Living under Jesus’ authority means submitting to those who represent authority in our lives—our spouse, our pastor, our parents, our boss, our neighborhood association—just as Jesus did when he walked the earth he created.
Living under Jesus’ authority means learning to abide in him. Comparing us to branches attached to a vine, Jesus promised, “He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing” (John 15:5, NKJV). Abide is a word we don’t hear much nowadays. In fact, it’s the old King James that uses abide. To abide, the dictionary tells us, is “to bear patiently . . .to wait . . . to remain stable . . . to continue in a place.”
Taken together with Jesus’ vine and branch metaphor, it paints a beautiful picture of how to live and grow under Jesus’ authority: A healthy branch doesn’t try to be the vine. It doesn’t tap into other vines. It doesn’t resist what the vine offers. Instead, it accepts the life-giving nutrients provided by the vine. It grows where the vine leads it and abides under the Gardener’s care.
The Bible tells us that one day every knee will bow to Jesus; every person will recognize his authority (Romans 14:11).
Living under his authority means not waiting until then, but rather bowing our knee to him today—in big and small things—when we have a choice not to.
Alan Dowd writes at the crossroads of faith and public policy.