Authority, power and rights in the New Testament, part 2

In part 1 of this series I looked at the various occurrences of words for “authority” in the New Testament, primarily exousia and exestin. I only began to consider their significance for wider biblical teaching. In this post I am continuing that process.

As I noted, exestin is commonly used in the gospels and in Acts of an activity which is permitted, by religious or secular law. This also seems to be the sense in which the noun derived from this verb, exousia, is sometimes used in those books. For example, Saul of Tarsus was given exousia, permission or the right, to arrest Jewish believers in Jesus (Acts 9:14, 26:10,12). And the opponents of Jesus asked him who gave him the exousia, permission or the right, to do what he was doing (Matthew 21:23; Mark 11:28; Luke 20:2).

This use of exousia and exestin leads naturally into the usage, mainly in 1 Corinthians, concerning the rights of Christians. Paul appears to be teaching that God has given to those in Christ permission, or the right, to do anything they want – but that doesn’t mean that they should do what is unhelpful. To put it another way, we are no longer bound by a whole lot of “Thou shalt not” laws, but we are expected to behave in ways which build up others and glorify God. Understood in this way this exousia is at the heart of Paul’s gospel message.

This kind of exousia is hierarchical in a sense, in that it derives ultimately from God and is mediated through the people and institutions called authorities, exousia in the plural. But it is not a hierarchy of command on the military model, but the opposite – a hierarchy of giving up the right to command by granting permission and rights.

In the New Testament we also see another kind of exousia, authority, that of people who are recognised as having authority in themselves. This is what, according to John Richardson, John Goldingay calls Authority B, distinct from Authority A which is conferred by a hierarchy. This Authority B is what the crowds in Galilee saw in Jesus (Matthew 7:29; Mark 1:22; Luke 4:32). But these are the only clear cases in the New Testament of exousia being used of this kind of authority, and related words are never used in this sense. Whereas there clearly is a sense in which some believers are recognised as charismatically empowered to teach and lead, the exousia word group is never used of this. Whenever exousia is attributed to believers, it is given to them by the Lord and so of the hierarchical type.

Indeed most commonly when exousia is attributed to Jesus it is something he has inherently or as the gift of God the Father. This is the basis of his authority to forgive sins (Matthew 9:6,8; Mark 2:10; Luke 5:24), to drive out evil spirits (Mark 1:27; Luke 4:36), to judge (John 5:27), and to die and rise again (John 10:18). It is not humans, or evil forces, who gave him the authority referred to in the famous Great Commission passage: “All authority [exousia] in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matthew 28:18, TNIV; cf. John 17:2).

But here we must avoid any misunderstanding by noting that this Christian authority is never over other people. It is interesting to analyse the phrases used with exousia which might mean this. Most frequently exousia is specified by an infinitive of an activity, suggesting a basically dynamic concept, permission or right to do something, not the static concept of authority over something or someone. But in some cases a prepositional phrase is used, and there is a wide variation:

With genitive alone:

  • Matthew 10:1 and Mark 6:7: Jesus’ disciples are given exousia “of” evil spirits.
  • John 17:2: Jesus has exousia “of” all flesh.
  • Romans 9:21: the potter has exousia “of” the clay.
  • 1 Corinthians 7:4: a husband and a wife exousiazo “of” one another’s bodies.

With epi + genitive:

  • 1 Corinthians 11:10: a woman has exousia “on” or over her head.
  • Revelation 2:26: believers receive exousia “on” the nations.
  • Revelation 11:6: the two witnesses have exousia “on” the waters.
  • Revelation 14:18: an angel has exousia “on” the fire.

With epi + accusative:

  • Luke 9:1: Jesus’ disciples have exousia “on” evil spirits.
  • Revelation 6:8: death has exousia “on” a quarter of the earth.
  • Revelation 13:7: the beast receives exousia “on” everyone.
  • Revelation 22:14: the blessed have exousia “on” the tree of life.

With peri + genitive:

  • 1 Corinthians 7:37: a man has exousia “about” his desire.

With epano + genitive:

  • Luke 19:17: the faithful servant is given exousia “over” ten cities.

Similarly a variety of prepositions are used with exousia:

en + dative:

  • Acts 5:4: Ananias’ property was “in” his exousia.

hupo + accusative

  • Matthew 8:9 and Luke 7:8: the officer is “under” exousia, secular authority.

ek + genitive:

  • Luke 23:7: Jesus is “from” Herod’s exousia (perhaps here meaning the territory Herod ruled).

Finally we have the only place in the whole New Testament (with the possible exception of Revelation 2:26, a clear allusion to Psalm 2:8 – a careful read of 2 Corinthians 10:8 and 13:10 will show that these are not exceptions) where it is said that any one human has exousia over any other one:

kata + genitive:

  • John 19:11: Jesus recognises that Pilate has secular exousia “against” him.

So what of the authority given to believers in Jesus? This post is already too long, so I will go on to that in the next part.

Continued and concluded in part 3.

7 thoughts on “Authority, power and rights in the New Testament, part 2

  1. It sounds like exousia understood as a “dynamic concept, permission or right to do something“, is not too different from it understood as a “static concept of authority over something or someone“. A very slight difference.

  2. On the contrary, Kevin, there is potentially a huge difference here. This is the distinction between authority given for a particular activity, sometimes temporarily, and authority given as a permanent position of superiority “over” another. In terms of Christology, it is the distinction between the recognised temporary submission of the Son during his life on earth and the heretical, potentially Arian concept of the permanent and ontological subordination of the Son. And in terms of gender relationships this is at the very heart of the disagreement between complementarians and egalitarians.

  3. Peter, so it seems the issue comes down to humility and the willingness to submit oneself under the authority (exousia) of someone else (which could be arbitrarily a man or a woman)?

  4. Pingback: Authority, power and rights in the New Testament, part 3 - Gentle Wisdom

  5. Pingback: Authority, power and rights in the New Testament, part 1 - Gentle Wisdom

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