Jesus in Authority: What It Means to Say “Jesus Is Lord”
When He entered Capernaum, a centurion came to Him, pleading with Him, “Lord, my servant is lying at home paralyzed, in terrible agony!”
“I will come and heal him,” He told him.
“Lord,” the centurion replied, “I am not worthy to have You come under my roof. But only say the word, and my servant will be cured. For I too am a man under authority, having soldiers under my command. I say this one, ‘Go!’ and he goes; and to another, ‘Come!’ and he comes; and to my slave, ‘Do this!’ and he does it.” (Matthew 8:5–9)
The second of Jesus’ post-Sermon encounters is this one, with a Roman centurion. Like the story of the leper, this encounter is rich in meaning.
The centurion’s approach is our starting point: “Lord,” he says in effect, “you have authority to heal.”
We’re later told that Jesus responds to this man’s “great faith” with amazement. In other words, the centurion saw something in Jesus that most people didn’t, at least not at this point in his ministry. And what he saw he was incredibly significant.
In a nutshell, what the centurion saw was Jesus’ authority.
In order to really know the Lord and relate to him properly, we need to see the same thing.
So let’s unpack.
Lordship and Authority: What’s Really Being Said Here
The centurion tips us off to his unique view of Jesus with his use of the word “Lord.”
The Greek is kurios, deriving from a root that means “supreme.” The Greeks used it to mean master or owner; to refer to God or gods; and as a title for the Roman emperor.
Catch that. Here we have a Roman centurion, an officer in the Roman army (which is occupying and governing Israel at this time) calling a Jewish man “Lord” — Master, Owner, Supreme One.
To be clear, this doesn’t mean that every time someone used the word “Kurios” they were identifying the person as God. But it does indicate serious honor to the one addressed and serious humility from the one addressing.
The centurion goes on to recognize Jesus’ authority, declaring that Jesus only has to say the word in order for his servant to be healed. “For I too am a man under authority, having soldiers under my command.”
What is authority?
Authority and Power Aren’t (Quite) the Same
We tend to conflate authority (Gr: exousia) with power (Gr: dunamis) and assume that having authority means having power. This isn’t entirely accurate. While the two are often connected, they’re not the same.
Put simply, authority is the right to act. It’s different from power, which is the ability to act.
To make the difference clear: I have power to come over and paint your house purple. But I don’t have the authority to do that, unless you give it to me.
You, on the other hand, have the authority to paint your house any color you like. This is because you own it; it’s yours. You have the right to do whatever you want with it. But you might not have power — if, for example, you’re disabled, or too broke to buy paint, or just flat out of time.
Generally speaking, though, the two go hand-in-hand. In fact it was Jesus’ exercise of supernatural power that caused many to recognize his authority — he had to be getting that power from somewhere, so either it came from the devil, or it came rightfully from God.
This leads us to the next point, which is …
Authority Comes from Above
Authority, or the right to act, comes from somewhere. The centurion had authority derived from his superiors in the military, and ultimately, from the Roman emperor. He recognized Jesus’ authority as being analogous to his own in that it too came from above.
Authorization must be rooted in something or someone beyond ourselves and above ourselves. While we can set up wrongful authority (rooting it in power, for example), if you trace rightful authority back far enough, it always takes us to our Creator.
(This, by the way, is why claims that “all men are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights” derive from the Bible, and also why they were [and are] so explosive. When we say such things, we claim that there are limits to human authority — that all individuals have their own rights, their own authority, which kings etc. are not authorized to override. That idea might sound self-evident to you, but it has been one of history’s most disruptive ideas.)
By calling Jesus “Lord” and acknowledging his authority, the centurion demonstrated that he understood Jesus wasn’t just some loose cannon acting on his own and teaching good ideas he’d dreamed up while meditating.
He had actual power and the right to do what he was doing, rights and power that came from God.
Authority Over What?
It really is incredible to think about the implications of Jesus’ authority in this situation. The centurion believed Jesus had authority:
- Over disease.
- Over the body and life of his servant (a non-Jewish man, from a conquering nation).
- Over time and space. (“You don’t need to come to my house; just say the word and he’ll be healed.”)
- Over any spiritual power that might lie behind the disease.*
*This may not be a natural connection in a Western mind, but in the ancient world, it was commonly assumed that disease was a physical manifestation of a spiritual affliction.
The centurion sees all of these things as “soldiers under Jesus’ command,” bound to come and go as this Jewish rabbi tells them to.
When Jesus says so, infection and corruption leave; cells regenerate; what was broken rearranges itself and becomes whole.
And incredibly, the centurion wasn’t wrong. Jesus did have this authority, and he demonstrated it by “saying the word” and healing the servant.
Faith Recognizes Who Jesus Is
Jesus praised the centurion’s faith, calling it great.
The iconic Christian “statement of faith,” given in the New Testament, is “Jesus is Lord.” Faith is not some mystical energy or strong, directed desire a la The Secret; it’s a recognition of who Jesus is. It’s seeing and believing in his authority — his right to act, his right to exercise ownership, his right to be worshiped and honored as Lord.
But for this reason, faith is also a two-edged sword.
We can’t recognize Jesus as Lord without recognizing ourselves as his servants. We can’t acknowledge him as Master if we’re not willing to understand that we are the ones mastered — that we were created and do not live unto ourselves; that Someone has the right of ownership over our lives.
Jesus is just and loving. He has very specific and particular ways of exercising his authority in our lives (among them, endowing us with “certain unalienable rights” and honoring them). He is not petty, cruel, arbitrary, or unjust.
But he is Lord.
If we want to see Jesus act in our world and in our lives, we must do what the centurion did and humble ourselves enough to recognize, honor, and call upon Jesus as Supreme.
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This is Part 102 in a series on the Gospel of Matthew, which you can access here. Unless otherwise marked, quotes are from the Holman Christian Standard Bible.