Jesus, Authority, and Knowledge
by Tom Gilson
Jesus Christ came to inaugurate a new Kingdom entirely under his own authority. Inevitably this produced a clash: one does not simply claim authority as king where another is already enthroned. Jesus’ Kingdom was “not of this world,’ yet even so it got him crucified.
In the surface it sounds like a classic political power struggle. Take a closer look, though, and you’ll find that Jesus’ authority challenge was like no other. If you’ve never seen this, you’ve never understood Jesus Christ.
Authority Structures: Government, Economics, and Knowledge
Every culture in every age has its authorities in three broad areas:
- Government: Who sets and enforces the laws? Who controls the military?
- Economics: Who controls the resource? Who runs banking and commerce?
- Knowledge: Who can claim to know what, and how they can claim to know it?
Historians and political scientists tend to think that economics and government are what count, and understandably so. There have been frequent coups d’état, and revolutions against governmental authorities, typically involving military force. The twentieth century saw countries overturned by economic uprisings as well.
Jesus, the self-proclaimed King, practically ignored all that. He will return to rule in every sphere, for all of it is his, but in his earthly first-century ministry, he showed no signs of being interested in revolution of the usual kind.
He practically ignored government. Other than the famous “Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s” incident, he paid it virtually no attention until his trial, and hardly even then (see John 19:10-11).
As for economics, in Luke 4 he strongly endorsed the Old Testament prophetic message of justice, and in the Sermon on the Mount he urged his listeners to give freely (see also Matt. 10:8), and to trust God to provide. He urged his followers not to be ensnared by the pursuit of riches. But he did nothing to challenge, much less to usurp, the centers of economic power.
Is this starting to look different, now, from the classic story of rebellion and revolution?
It should be, for Jesus took a vastly different route. He claimed authority over knowledge and truth. It was the ruling knowledge class of the day who engineered his trial and conviction.
The way he did it was unlike anything else you or I have experienced. It was unlike anything his listeners at the time had ever heard before, too. They were astounded by it. When his Sermon on the Mount ended, “the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he was teaching them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes” (Matthew 7:28-29). And well they might have been.
You see, I used to think that meant he spoke boldly and confidently, but it doesn’t. It means he spoke as if he himself was the authority on what he was speaking about. The scribes quoted Scripture and tradition. Jesus just spoke…
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