We have seen that the Lord Jesus, while here on earth, showed His authority in teaching the Word of God, healing people, and forgiving sins. In each case, multitudes of people acknowledged His evident authority. However, this acknowledgment was not universal. I would like to consider three occasions when He was verbally confronted by those who considered that they had greater authority than He, and who tried to show it. We will consider them in chronological order.
The first challenge to His authority was in the spiritual sphere – Satan himself – in one of the temptations in the wilderness. Showing the Lord all the kingdoms of the world in a moment, the devil said, “All this power (exousia; authority) will I give Thee, and the glory of them: for that is delivered unto me; and to whomsoever I will I give it. If Thou therefore wilt worship me, all shall be Thine” (Luke 4:6,7). There is no doubt that Satan does exercise considerable power in the world’s kingdoms. The Lord called him “the prince of this world” (John 12:31; 14:30; 16:11) and Paul wrote of him as “the god of this world” (2Cor 4:4). However, in making this offer to the Lord, the adversary was claiming something that was not his – authority over it all; and in addition, the right to give it to whomever he chose. Surely this was an empty boast; the same one who had made false promises in the garden, at the beginning of Old Testament history, was now making equally false promises in the desert, at the beginning of the New.
That the devil would make such a dishonest offer to any person would be bad enough, but to make it to the One Who has authority over all things was the height of insolence. How did the Lord Jesus deal with it? Not, as we might have expected, by pointing out the inaccuracies in Satan’s claims, but by authoritative quotation from the Word of God: “Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and Him only shalt thou serve” (Luke 4:8; Deut 6:13). His quoting from the Scriptures, of which, of course He was the Author, was a statement of His authority; and showed Satan clearly that it is the Lord, and not Satan, who is to be worshiped; showed that it is He, and not the devil, Who wields the true and ultimate authority in the spiritual realm.
So much for a challenger in the spiritual sphere. We turn now to those in the religious and civil spheres – Jewish leaders, who were proud of their status, and resentful of the words and works of the Lord Jesus. The “chief priests” (religious leaders) and “elders of the people” (civil leaders) challenged Him thus: “By what authority doest Thou these things? and who gave Thee this authority?” (Matt 21:23). In Him they saw a challenge to their own authority, and were desirous to discredit Him, being sure that their authority was greater than any He might claim.
The subsequent discussion is most interesting (vv23-27). The Lord, in His infinite wisdom, did not give them a direct answer to their question, but turned it back on them, asking them their position on the source of John’s baptism. By doing so, not only did He expose their evil hearts, but He also laid bare their own lack of authority. They had to resort to a discussion among themselves, as to their strategy in the response they should give. This reply was not to be based on the merits of the case, but on what the comeback would be for them personally, either from the Lord or from the people. So they were reduced to a feeble, “We cannot tell.” How rich! Here were those who claimed to be the voice of authority to the people, but who based what they said, not on what was right, but on what would be least damaging for them. Their pathetic, “We cannot tell” demonstrated how paltry their authority was, in comparison with His.
We come, finally, to one with judicial authority, Pontius Pilate, and his challenge to the Lord: “Knowest Thou not that I have power (exousia; authority) to crucify Thee, and have power (exousia; authority) to release Thee?” (John 19:10). Pilate was the representative of the great Roman world power – Caesar’s representative in the region. In contrast, the Man standing in front of him had just been whipped (v1) and crowned with thorns (v2). Certainly He did not look powerful. Pilate did indeed have the authority to condemn or release a man, yet, in this case, he could not have been more wrong in his statement.
How simply, eloquently, and graciously the Lord replied to him: “Thou couldest have no power at all against Me, except it were given thee from above” (v11). Though Pilate would pass sentence on Him, it was only because of God’s purpose. No better commentary could be given on this than the prayer of the believers in Acts 4:27,28: “For of a truth against Thy holy child Jesus, Whom Thou hast anointed, both Herod, and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles, and the people of Israel, were gathered together, For to do whatsoever Thy hand and Thy counsel determined before to be done.” What an irony – Pilate, in condemning the Lord to be crucified, unwittingly demonstrated, not his own authority, but the authority of the One Whom he was condemning. Pilate was but an instrument, through whom God’s eternal counsel was being carried out.
So, yes, there were those who presumed to challenge the Lord’s authority. However, whether in the spiritual, religious, civil, judicial, or indeed any other area, such challenges were unable to stand. We, His people, gladly acknowledge His absolute, unchallenged authority.