“And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” – Matthew 28:18, ESV
With these Post-resurrection and pre-Ascension words, Jesus sends out the Twelve to the whole World. They are to make disciples as they are going. How? By specific means which Jesus mandates: “baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” and “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” In this way, Jesus is going to (and continues to) build His Church upon the earth. God continues to call forth a people for Himself, with Jesus Christ as the Head. All of this disciple making – think of it as disciple creating – is possible because of that first statement of Jesus. He has all authority given to Him.
Authority is a tricky word. We can easily confuse authority with power. God certainly has both, but notice that Jesus doesn’t carry out His work on the basis of power; rather, He does all things because He has authority.
What’s the difference? The Board of Elders and the Pastors have begun studying how we are to be pastors and elders in Christ’s Church, and at the heart of it all is this right distinction and understanding of power and authority. Here’s what Dr. John Kleinig has to say about this distinction:
“Power is a limited ability or commodity. A person has power at the expense of someone else. I must disempower others in order to have it and keep it for myself. Those who lack authority use power…Operate with power and you are operating on Satan’s terms… Authority is an unlimited ability or commodity. You cannot exercise authority unless you are under authority. It is never taken. Authority is given to you by someone else. You can only receive it… When authorities speak people listen, even if they don’t agree.”
Perhaps the best illustration of this distinction is in how our political system works. Everyone has needs, wants, and goals. Everyone is vying so that their desires will be those which emerge victorious. So deals are cut, bargains are made, sometimes fierce warfare is waged so that Candidate A triumphs while Candidate B goes home. It’s a power game. There is only so much to be had, and there is always a game being played to grasp as much as you are able for yourself or your cause.
Christ and His Church work in complete contrast to this. Christ does not seize anything for Himself. Notice that even though He now has “all authority” it’s only because it has been given to Him. He receives it, and now He lavishly gives it away to His Church.
He also reveals to us now where we can find that authority. It’s found in the Name of God which is applied to each one of us when we are baptized. This is the same authority which He used initially to create the heavens and the earth. Remember how that went? “And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light. All it took was a word from God and things came into being. A new creation came about because God spoke it so. When you were baptized, the same thing happened. “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation.” (2 Cor. 5:17, ESV) “In Christ” means being part of His Body, being God’s child, being baptized. His Word speaking His Name onto you in Holy Baptism has created you anew. Christ does this, by authorizing His Church through her pastors to do so. He works through us.
So too with “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” With these words Christ is pointing us all to the Scriptures, where the very words of God are recorded for us. Christ’s word is “breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness…” (2 Timothy 3:16, ESV) God authorizes us to use His word to teach all the baptized what He has said through His prophets, apostles, and the Son Himself. It is not ours to pick and choose what we do with it, or whether certain parts of it apply to us or not. Instead He commands us to proclaim and teach it, both publicly in the Service and privately in our homes and daily lives, so that we and all those around us can hear it and heed the voice of the Lord.
One important reason for this authority talk is that it helps us to hear the Scriptures for what they are: the inspired words of God; and it helps us to recognize the voice of who is speaking to us through the voice of the pastor: it is Jesus Himself! Jesus says, “He who hears you hears me.” He is describing the reality of what is happening when His rightly called pastors speak. Jesus says to His pastors “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them…” (John 20:23, ESV) This is why Luther can write in his Small Catechism regarding Confession that “First…we confess our sins, and second…we receive absolution, that is forgiveness, from the pastor as from God Himself, not doubting, but firmly believing that by it our sins are forgiven before God in heaven.” This is why a called pastor can say “In the stead and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ” and then forgive our sins. It is reality because it has all the authority of Jesus Christ’s word and command behind it.
Another reason this authority talk is important is that it helps us to remember what we are to be about as Christ’s Church. We, as a community, can do many things: fellowship meals, social events, games, clubs and small groups focused around various interests. None of these is sinful, per se, and in fact can be very good and edifying for us as the Body of Christ. But the foundation of our being together is not any of these. Rather it is Christ and His Word and Sacraments. He has authorized us to bring these to a world that is devastated by sin. He has gifted us the ability and opportunity to carry the light of His medicine of forgiveness and immortality out into the darkness of this fallen world.
Let us always have in mind these things which Christ has authorized us to do. If some of those other things get in the way, let us prayerfully and humbly repent and return to the Lord. He is gracious and merciful, and has won for us and gives to us forgiveness and eternal life. What a gift we have, together sharing in, and bringing, Christ’s gifts to the world!