Series: Authority Redeemed
We all know authority is often abused, but was it always this way? There is actually a proper claim and use of authority, and it begins with God.
Citylight Center City | January 30, 2022 from Citylight Church on Vimeo.
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We’re beginning a new series of sermons this morning on the topic of authority, and we’re doing so for a few reasons: First, we try to keep the same preaching schedule as Citylight Manayunk and Delco so that we can help one another preach better sermons, and Manayunk wanted to take a break from our series through the Gospel of John to cast some vision for their future as they look toward buying a building. Second, because as we look ahead to our future at Center City, we aren’t looking forward to a building purchase (though by all means, we’d take one if the Lord dropped it in our lap!), but we are looking forward to “particularizing,” which means becoming a separate local church from Citylight Manayunk and Delco, a separate legal entity with our own assets and governance. We are aiming to do this by July 1, 2022, so it’s coming up, though it’s been a long time in the making. This was always our goal when we planted a church: Not to just be part of another church, but plant a new particular church. What will change when that happens? In most of your day-to-day experience, not much. But what will change is the authority structure: No longer will elders from Citylight Manayunk and Delco have authority over Citylight Center City, though we plan to still maintain a network-type relationship. So how will authority work once we’re a particular church?
As with any question we ask about what we do as a church, we want to get that answer from the Bible. So in this series, we’re going to try to present that answer from the Bible, but in order to do so, we’re going to zoom out a bit from the question of church authority, to start at the very beginning of the Bible, and trace the storyline of the Bible from the authority that was originally there at the creation, eventually to the authority that is now there in the church. Nonetheless, because the question of authority comes up all over our lives and our world also has so much to say about it, I will try to address some broader questions as I go. Today, as we go back to the beginning, we’re going to see that Authority begins with God. God has absolute authority, God has given humanity authority, and it was very good.
God has absolute authority
Before our passage, Genesis 1:1 begins with the words, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” It doesn’t record for us the creation of God. At the beginning of the Bible, God just is. Then Genesis 1 goes on to record God’s creation of all things. When we hit our passage, we read that God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness,” and immediately the question is, “who is the ‘us’?” Genesis 1 has only mentioned one God, so why would He refer to Himself as “us”? Various theories have been proposed, but the most likely is that it refers to God’s own fullness. The Hebrew word for God, Elohim, is a plural word, though it always takes a singular verb. God is singular, but within Him there is a kind of fullness best expressed as plurality.
And in the New Testament, we get the fuller revelation of this plurality: Though God is one, there are three persons in God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, the Father eternally begetting the Son, who is also called the Word of God, the Spirit eternally proceeding from the Father and the Son. And in that light, when we look back on Genesis 1, things get clearer: In verse 2, we read that the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the water. In verse 3, we read of God speaking. So In Genesis 1, God’s Spirit and God’s Word are present with God the Father, and in verse 26 it is they who are addressed when God said, “Let us make man in our image.” So the answer to our question, “Who is the us?” of verse 26 is, “The us is God.” So verse 27: God created man in His own image. At this point, then, we can see why God has absolute authority: God made all things, including you and me. There are two types of things that exist: God, and everything else. God is uncreated; He simply is. Everything else was made by Him. Therefore, there is nothing outside of God that has any proper claim of authority over God. Rather, God has a proper claim of authority over everything else, because God made everything else. His authority is therefore absolute.
And we see Him operating with absolute authority in every verse of the passage. In the act of creation itself of verses 26-27, He consults no one and needs permission from no one. He simply decides to do it, and it happens. In verse 28, He takes it upon Himself to bless the humans He made; He needs no permission to do so, and He does not wait to be blessed by them. He then issues a command to them, to be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and so forth. There is no negotiation. God doesn’t create the first humans and say, “Now what I’m really concerned about is not telling you what to do. Why don’t we start with what you want in life, and I’ll make it my work to help you get there?” In verses 29-30, He authorizes humans to eat of every plant, including the fruit of the trees, and in verse 30, He authorizes the animals to eat plants. He does not assume that there are some things that humans have their own authority over, that He must now respect, as though the humans are somehow entitled to the plants for food. No; God must give them to them. And when He does, it is so, verse 30. Again, no need for another to authorize God’s actions, no one with veto power. He says it, and it is so. Then verse 31, God saw all that He has made, and behold, it was very good. God didn’t go to the humans or to anyone else and say, “Hey, check out my creation. What do you think?” He looks at it, He evaluates it to be very good, and so it was.
Now, absolute authority tends to rub us the wrong way, especially as modern people, for two primary reasons, and the Bible speaks to each of them in different ways. One of the reasons absolute authority rubs us the wrong way is because we know absolute authority can be used to hurt us. The other reason absolute authority rubs us the wrong way is because it constrains us. We’re going to talk about each of these in the coming weeks, but for now let’s see what this passage might teach us about them. For the first, the fear that absolutely authority can be used to hurt us, look at what God does with His absolute authority. First, He creates life, rather than taking it. He makes, rather than destroying. Once He makes, what’s the first thing He does in verse 28? He uses His authority to bless the humans He made. He has the absolute authority to decide whether to give us the fruit of the trees and the plants of the field that He made, and guess what He does? He gives it!
God’s default setting toward all that He has made, if we can put it that way, is to bless, not to hurt. He has absolute authority, and He is good. So while absolute authority in the hands of a sinful human is always scary, we do not need to be afraid of God’s absolute authority. What of the second reason I mentioned that absolute authority tends to rub us the wrong way? Doesn’t it constrain us? It does. The fact is, we are given a commission in verse 28, a purpose statement for our lives, that we are not free to negotiate. This is what we must give our lives to, and nothing else. And the rest of the Bible, with its commands and prohibitions, fills in for us how we are to carry out this commission. So yes, God’s absolute authority does constrain us, but not oppressively so. He still gives us agency; we have the ability to disobey. So it’s not coercive. He also doesn’t command us to act against the way He made us, or beyond what He provided. He blessed them so that they could be fruitful and multiply. In the verses that follow, He provides them with the food they’ll need. He made them in His image, so that they had the ability to rule over the animals. His commands to us fit His design of us; they are not burdensome. He commands us to be who we were made to be, to do what we were made to do, and that kind of constraint is good for us.
Think about it: If you want to develop truly healthy eating, what must you do? You must constrain yourself. You must learn to say no to the foods your body was not created to run on, and to say yes to those it was created to run on. If you want to get enough sleep, what do you have to do? You must constrain yourself. You must say no to that extra hour of TV or social media or work or whatever it is in your case. The unconstrained life is not the good life; it’s the wasted life. The key in life is not casting of all constraints; it’s choosing the right ones, the ones that if you abide by them, will lead to more abundant life in the end. Who better to give you those than the one who made you, the one who knows who He made you to be, the one who knows how you were designed to function? God has absolute authority, and it does constrain us, but it constrains us for our good. Absolute authority can be used to hurt us, but God’s default is to use it to bless us.
So how are you responding to God’s absolute authority? Are there areas of your life you’re trying to quarantine for yourself? Do you find yourself avoiding a close study of His commands in Scripture for fear that they may hurt you or constrain you? Have you ever considered that the things you’re currently doing may be the things hurting and constraining you from being who God made you to be? Like sometimes I wish in my study of Scripture I didn’t have to come across commands so often about giving to the poor. In my sin, I just want to keep my money, spend it on my family, and forget the poor around me. But God won’t let me. Do you find yourself twisting Scripture to fit what you already want to do or not do? Here’s what you’ve got to face: God isn’t going to change. His commands aren’t going to change. He is, and what He commands, is. And praise God that’s the case! Because He is good, and His commands are good. Why keep resisting Him? Submit to His authority. Joyfully submit to His authority. Where you find in you a resistance to do so, fight that, instead of fighting Him.
Authority begins with God because God has absolute authority, but then we do see that God gave humanity genuine authority.
God gave humanity authority
Before we can understand the authority God gave humanity, we must understand what humanity is, and the simple answer of verses 26 and 27 is that humanity is the image of God. That’s a simple answer, but it’s not as simple to discern what it means to be the image of God. God is invisible, after all, so how can one be His image? The words “image” and “likeness” in verse 26 appear elsewhere in the Old Testament to refer to a visible representation of something, and frequently they refer to images of gods. Now here’s what’s fascinating about that: The images of other gods were statues, statues that cannot see, hear, move, think, act, etc. They’re lifeless. But when God makes an image of Himself, what does He make? Living, breathing, moving, seeing, hearing, humans. Why? Because unlike the other gods, this God is alive! He exists! He sees all things, hears all things, moves all things, thinks, plans, wills, creates. So part of the image of God is certain capacities with which humanity was endowed, to see, hear, reproduce, think rationally or abstractly, plan, purpose, and create with intentionality. However, as we have already seen, God’s abilities are ordered by His goodness. And so also, humanity was created with an original goodness, a true knowledge, righteousness, and holiness.
Now that we have a sense of what humanity is, we can see why God authorized humanity the way He did in verse 28. First He blesses them, pronouncing His favor upon them, as we talked about already, and then He gives them this command: Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the ground. It’s worth noting here in verse 28 that this is the first time in the creation account that God is said to speak to something He made. Because they are His images, He has a personal relationship with them. Sometimes Christians will ask others if they have a personal relationship with God, but the fact is every human has a personal relationship with God; the key question is whether it is a reconciled relationship or not. And then the content of the command He speaks to them is to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth, which yes, means they were to have kids, and spread out until the image of God fills the earth. And then as we do that, we are to “subdue” and “have dominion” over the rest of the things God made. Humanity is given authority to rule over the earth.
Our authority, however, is not absolute. We are not given authority over God, for example. And for that reason, we are not free to do whatever we want with our authority. Remember that in verse 29, God still must authorize us to eat from the plants and the fruit of the trees. We tend to assume today that every individual is free to do whatever they want unless forbidden by some authority they choose to acknowledge. That would be the absolute authority of the individual, who is only under the authority of those they choose to authorize, and who can therefore do whatever they want as long as it does not infringe on the absolute authority of another individual. That’s the basic idea of classical liberalism, which views our “state of nature” as autonomous individuality, but that’s not the state of nature we’re given in Genesis 1. The state of nature here is not man alone, but man created by God, in relationship with God, and therefore under God’s ultimate authority. We have the authority to do only what He authorizes us to do.
All of this becomes even clearer in Genesis 2, which gives us more of a play-by-play of how God made humanity male and female in His image and gave them authority. As Jonathan Leeman puts it, in Genesis 1:28 we get our job description; in Genesis 2, the first man shows up for his first day of work. So in Genesis 2:15-17, after God created the first man and before He made the first woman, we read, “The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it. And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” So on his first day on the job of subduing and ruling over the whole earth, man’s first task was to work and keep a garden. In later passages of the Bible, this is the work that priests were assigned to do: They were to work in the temple, the place of God’s special dwelling, and keep it, meaning protect it, from anything unclean. So also Adam was to work the ground of this original temple, so that it brings forth more life, and protect it from anything unclean. He was, then, the first priest, who was also given authority to rule, as we’ve already seen, as the first king.
And in these verses from chapter 2 we also find God giving more clarity on what trees Adam was authorized to eat from. The answer is, basically all of them, except one. So we only have the authority to do what God authorizes us to do, but it turns out He authorizes us to do a lot. That said, He also confronts Adam with the limit of His authority by forbidding Him to eat from one tree, and promising that if He eats of it, He will die. While God’s default toward us is to bless us and give us life, we see here that in His absolute authority, He has ordained that if we disobey His command, He will curse us and take our lives. And since He gave this command to the man without the woman present, He is also authorizing the man to teach this command to his wife. He would have to do that to work and keep the garden, which he was authorized to do. In this sense, we can say that Adam was also a prophet, and that even within the original humanity, God envisioned a leadership structure between humans. So Adam was the first prophet, priest, and king, and as the first man, he reveals that the authority we have as humanity is to serve as God’s prophet, priest, and king on earth: To declare His Word, serve Him in the world He’s made, protect it from the unclean, rule over it, and then to reproduce so the whole earth is filled with God’s image. For the first man, that then authorized him to do particular things under that broader umbrella: Marry and have sex with the first woman, eat the fruit of all the trees of the garden but one, work and keep the garden, pass along the command, commission his descendants to fill the earth, and so forth.
But the story doesn’t last long in this phase. In Genesis 3, we find that something unclean does enter the garden: A serpent, who speaks to the woman with the man present, and tempts her to eat from the tree of which God commanded them not to eat. Instead of speaking God’s word as His prophet, the man stands by silent, watching it happen, and the woman listens to the serpent and eats. Instead of exercising their authority as priests to remove the unclean serpent from the garden, they allow it in. Instead of exercising their kingly authority and ruling over this animal of the field that God made, they were ruled by it. They failed to exercise the authority God had given them as prophet, priest, and king, and in so doing, they simultaneously exercised too much authority. They exercised the authority to decide for themselves whether to eat from the tree of which God had forbidden them, instead of submitting to God’s authority.
And those are the two basic ways we fail to exercise the authority God has given us, to which we will return throughout the series: Passively considered, we fail to speak God’s Word in the face of lies, we fail to spread His Word in the world, we fail to protect God’s temple from the unclean, and we are ruled by things God made instead of ruling over them. So we remain silent on God’s Word when we sense others might not like it, we tolerate sin in our own lives and in our churches, and we get addicted to food, phones, money, and other things God made, instead of using them to serve Him and others. More actively, we abuse our authority when we claim God has spoken on things He has not, forbid what He has authorized, require what He has not, exclude those He’s welcomed, and assert an unauthorized or excessive rule over one another, which the Bible calls oppression. We’ll unpack these more in the coming weeks, but for now consider: How are you using the authority God has given you? Are you speaking His Word, or remaining silent? Are you blessing those under your authority, or oppressing them? Are you using the gifts God has given you, or are they using you?
It’s because of this entrance of sin into the world that the words of verse 31 must be in the past tense: And God saw all that He has made, and behold it was very good.
It was very good
While our exercise of authority today cannot generally be called very good, it is nonetheless important for us to recognize that it was very good. One of the “big questions” in life that everyone must face at some point is, “What’s wrong with the world?” Most everyone senses something is, but what is it? And how you answer that will then directly influence what you see as the solution. One of the answers that is once again very influential in the West today is that what’s wrong with the world is the idea of a God with absolute authority. That was the French Revolution’s answer, and many classical liberals today still go that route, so that the solution sounds something like this: We need to cast off antiquated notions of a God with absolute authority who reveals His will to us in the Bible and instead pursue objective, observable facts using science and reason, then allow people to speak freely so that through reasonable debate, the ideas that correspond to reality win. Then we can use those ideas to structure society in the best way.
That kind of classical liberalism is often criticized today by proponents of various appropriately titled “critical theories.” You can’t paint them all with one brush, but they all tend to be skeptical of claims to neutrality or objectivity. They recognized that many classical liberals used language like “objective facts” to further their power interests and reinforce existing structural inequalities. So for example, they tend to favor more restrictions on free speech than classical liberals, because they see someone with power speaking freely to those with less as not an open exchange of ideas, but that person with power using their speech to further justify and increase their power. So critical theories, when used as theories of everything, tend to say what’s wrong with the world is the unequal distribution of power. If the Bible ascribes absolute authority to God, classical liberals ascribed it to science and reason, and critical theorists criticize the idea that absolute authority exists at all. So you can see how for both many classical liberals and critical theorists, the idea of a God with absolute authority is at least a big part of what’s wrong with the world.
And we can see some truth in the problem each is trying to solve. Both are noticing that people in positions of authority, including those with positions of authority in the church, have abused that authority. But why? What’s wrong with the world? Would we have any of the problems these folks are seeking to address if we submitted to God’s authority, and then used the authority He’s given us in the way He’s given us to use it? We wouldn’t. And so at a time when people submitted to God’s authority and used the authority He’d given us the way He gave us to use it, it was very good. What’s wrong with the world is not the idea of a God with absolute authority; what’s wrong with the world is our rebellion against God’s absolute authority, which then leads us to either abdicate or abuse the authority He’s given to us. And because God is good, He’s made a way to deal with our rebellion and restore our proper authority.
Before any human was made in the image of God, there was an image of God within God, the Son, eternally begotten of the Father. And because the Father’s heart toward His creation was always to bless, even when we rebelled against Him, He loved us and sent His Son to become man and restore His image in man. He came as the true prophet, preaching the good news of the kingdom of God, the restoration of God’s reign. He came as the true priest, who was tempted in every way as Adam was, and yet kept Himself free from impurity, so that on the cross He could offer Himself as the sacrifice for our sins. He suffered the curse of death for our sins so that we might receive the blessing of eternal life for His obedience. And at His resurrection, God blessed Him and exalted Him to the position of ultimate authority at His right hand. From there He sends His Spirit to work a new creation in us, enabling us to submit to Him as our prophet, priest, and king, renewing us in the image of God according to true knowledge, righteousness, and holiness, and building us together with all who likewise submit to Him into a new temple called the church, the place on earth where Jesus’ ultimate authority is made visible. One day He will come again for the final separation of the clean from the unclean, and it will not only be very good, but perfect, forever, not because God’s absolute authority will be diminished, but because all who are there at that time will happily submit to it.
That’s where history is heading. God has not given up on His very good creation. He is determined to rule again, and He has made a way for His enemies to become His subjects and be restored to their proper authority under His. Come to Him through His Son, and He will forgive you your sins, give you the gift of eternal life, renew His image in you, and restore you to His proper position of authority. We can trust that His authority is good because we’ve seen it now in the face of Jesus Christ, the one who bled and died for His enemies and prayed for their forgiveness even while we nailed Him to the cross. And it’s only once you’ve come to know His loving, gracious, and kind authority that it’s safe for you to be restored to a position of authority. He’s not what’s wrong with the world; I am. We are. But He can love us, and He can change us. Submit to His absolute authority and exercise the authority He has given you. It is very good.