COLOSSIANS: A Study of Authority


1.  Authority and Will

The word "will" refers to the part of a person that is the seat of his deepest desires. It is a person's will that determines what he wants and does not want, with conviction and passion. More than all the features of a person's body, more than all of his physical and mental abilities, more than all of his acquired skills or lack thereof, more than all of his accomplishments and failures, a person's will defines who he is. It is a person's will that chooses the particular things he wants to think, say and do, marking him as a unique individual, distinct from everyone else.

A person may be subjugated, so that his will is contained and masked, but that situation does not change who he is. He is still the same person, with the same will. His will is still the author of his own, individual set of likes and dislikes, whether he is free and can express his will through what he says and does or whether he is suppressed and cannot.

God has a will. His will reveals who He is. As He expresses His will, He reveals His majesty and the beauty of His Holiness, for all that He wants to say and do is true, pure and right.

People also have wills. But this fact requires some explanation because we must account for sin. The day that Adam was created his will conformed perfectly to God's. Then he sinned, and according to God's command, he died, in his soul immediately and in his body eventually. Yet, Adam still had a will. He still had strong feelings and longings, but they no longer matched God's. In fact, his will could not match God's. That is, it was no longer possible for Adam's will to conform to God's. The reason was that he was spiritually dead. His will was under the control of the members of his sin-infected body rather than his soul, which was dead. That is the heritage of all people and the present situation of all unsaved people. Unsaved people can long for and pursue what their flesh desires but they cannot long for and pursue what God does and commands them to. On the other hand, saved people have been given a new life, Jesus' own life. So, saved people's wills, once again, and in a greater way than Adam's, reflect the image of their Creator and Savior.

With an understanding of a person's will, we are able to answer the question, "What is a person's authority?" First of all, a person's authority means that he has a right to express his will. We do not mean the right of moral purity before God's Law, but the right of privilege. In this sense, a person's authority is the highest expression of his sovereignty. It expresses his right of control that springs out of ownership. In God's case, authority means the right to do His will in and with His universe. If anyone is going to do what he wills, God is the one who will do it. It is God's particular privilege to do what He wants with what He has made (Col. 1:16). God does not need the creation to be sovereign. His authority is part of the essence of who God is. Before He created, there was only God, self-sufficient and wonderful in His sovereign majesty (Col. 1:17). However, He decided to reveal His supreme authority. He spoke and things were created. As sovereign Creator, He has the freedom to do what He wants with what He has made. He has the right to express His will and expect His creation to comply. He says go and people go (Col. 1:25). That is one thing that authority means.

Secondly, a person's authority means that he has the power to express his will. Authority and power are two different words in Greek and express related but not identical ideas. Among men, these two ideas do not always go together. If a man does not have the power to exercise the authority that has been given him, if he cannot carry out his rightful will, what good is his claim to authority? Sometimes we hear of kings and queens in exile. But if they have no power to rule in their land, what kind of sovereignty is that? In God's case, authority always means that He has power to do what He wills. His authority is revealed in His power. No one can stop Him from doing what He wants to do, nor can anyone do what He decides will not be done. The reason is that He has almighty power. He has the power to create (Col. 1:16), to judge His enemies (Col. 2:15), to reconcile sinners to Himself (Col. 1:20) and to keep and strengthen His people in an evil world (Col. 1:11, 3:15). All that is a display of His authority.

Thirdly, a person's authority means that he has control of the opportunity to express his will. What if a person had the right to exercise authority, that is, what if his credentials were proper, and what if he had the power to carry out his will, and yet what if the proper time never came to act? What if his authority was bottled up because circumstances were not convenient or the moment never came to exercise his will? What kind of authority is that? It is possible for a man to have privilege and power but lack the opportunity to do his will, for he does not have complete control over the world in which he lives. God, however, creates His own opportunities (Col.1:26,27, 4:3). God created both the universe and time as part of the arena in which He exercises His authority to do His will, although He had His way from all eternity as well. God does not need His Creation. He can just do things. Nevertheless, His wisdom and ability to arrange things in His universe and work out the sequence of events in time in order to accomplish His will, no matter who or what opposes Him, reveals His authority.

For completeness, we could say that angels, that is, spiritual beings, have wills, too. The holy angels are totally submissive to the will of God, while fallen angels, especially Satan, violently oppose the will of God. But the book of Colossians does not talk about angels. It focusses upon the real authority of God and the assumed authority of man.

The fundamental difference between God's and man's authority is that God alone has dominion over His Creation and all of its inhabitants. That is, God reveals Himself to be completely, autonomously and independently sovereign over all things and all people.

2.  Authority and Character

Besides the right, the power, and the opportunity, a person must have a desire to exercise his authority in order for him carry out his will. As it turns out, everyone who has authority does try to use it. The reason is that people have specific interests and goals that they want to achieve. They want to fulfill their desires. So, a person's attempt to exercise authority tells us a great deal about the person himself. That is, when a person exercises authority, we learn the desires of his heart. Therefore, the book of Colossians, in addition to an examination of God's authority in contrast to man's authority, is also an examination of the character of God who exercise His authority, as well as the character of people, who either submit to or rebel against Him.

God's and people's motives for wanting to do their will, their objectives for which they use their authority, are very different. People's best motives are infected by sin. There always are self-seeking desires and intentions at the foundation of all that people do. And many times, because the needs of other people are secondary to them, people exercise their authority in very abusive and destructive ways. To that, we can contrast God's motives for exercising His authority. His desire is also for personal glory, but the difference is that God is good, very, very good. God deserves the honor He demands. God cannot be glorified enough. The Bible is full of the revelation of God's glory in the exercise of His authority, and it is in Colossians too (Col. 1:18, 2:9,10, 3:17). Additionally, unlike people, God's motives are full of love, not only for His own glory, but also for what He has made. He creates, saves, and keeps His own, all out of the goodness of His heart. Only God uses His authority self-sacrificially for the blessing of others in great need (John 10:11,17,18). In fact, one of the greatest displays of His authority was his incarnation and death on the cross for His people's redemption (Col. 1:20-22, 2:11).

3.  Authority and Truth

Since God is the supreme authority, only what He says prevails and is the standard for evaluating the statements of all others who claim authority in the universe. It is not as though God bullies His way and so forcefully asserts His Word as truth and by His sheer power makes it stick. Rather, this is God's universe (Col. 1:16). He put it together and operates it according to His design and for His purpose. Other rival authorities make statements about what they think is "true" about the universe, but what they say may or may not hold up, no matter how much prestige and influence they have. The reason is if their statements are different than what God has said, then their statements are consequently inaccurate, "untrue," views of the real world, and their actions based upon their own imaginations will not be effective or enduring (Col. 2:23).

Even objective statements about the physical universe reveal God's authority and require peoples' obligatory response of submission to what He declares to be so. Mathematical concepts, principles that describe the structure and behavior of physical objects, as well as the innumerable realities of biology display the wonders of their Creator. The whole physical universe is really a statement of the glory of God and all men are obligated to honor God for it (Psalm 19:1,2). When people ignore, dispute or deny God authority, their thinking of physical truth is full of error and they risk personal harm. They reveal the rebellious opposition they have toward the Creator to whom they must give an account.

4.  Authority, Truth and Compliance

We begin to understand the connection between authority, truth and compliance when we recognize that statements called "true" do not just lie around awaiting discovery and objective examination, like an interesting rock or a pretty flower. Statements that are called true do not just hang in space to be admired as accurate descriptions of reality. Statements that are true always requires a proper reaction to their author. There is always a person's authority behind any statement of truth that demands and seeks to compel obedience. From that point of view, if a man can make his word count, if his word can actually make changes in people's lives, if all who hear conform to what he says, if he is able to fulfill his word in the lives of others, then he speaks with authority. What he says is truth, in the sense that his word sets the standard of behavior for all those who are subject to his authority. Perhaps the following illustration will help us understand the connection between authority, truth and compliance. If you travel on a road and approach a sign that says "Danger! Detour ahead!" you better turn around as the sign directs you. You better obey the statement on the sign or you will suffer the consequences of your disobedience. The reason you must obey is that the sign says what is true about the dangerous condition of the road ahead and what is true about how to avoid disaster. Furthermore, if a policeman catches you disobeying the sign, he could cite you and a judge could fine you.

As we have said, truth is not just a set of neutral propositions which men can discover through proper application of logic and empirical investigation of the physical universe. Truth is the description of God's character as well as an expression of His will (John 14:6, 17:17). So a person's reaction to truth is a measure of his heart's submission to God.

Colossians presents true spiritual statements which are not subject to our evaluation and criticism, but which demand our obedience. The warnings in Colossians are not suggestions. We must heed the counsel to avoid spiritual harm (Col. 2:8,18, 3:16). The promises in Colossians are not wishful stories. We must trust that the blessings are so, now and forever (Col. 1:21, 2:13, 3:24) and display that trust by means of our submission and compliance.

5.  Rival Authorities

The history of the world is the story of the clash of wills. One man's will opposes another's. For example, children's wills clash with their parents', especially as they grow older. Husband's wills clash with wives'. Workers' wills clash with their employers'. The wills of people with religious and political differences clash, many times with great violence. In addition to that, all men's wills oppose God's. For example, unsaved people rebel at God's Law and refuse to submit to His Gospel. That rebellion continues for all people throughout eternity, except for those people who are changed by God's grace. The clash of wills is a big part of the message of the Colossian letter, especially as it describes the conflict between God and rival authorities.

We have to clarify what we mean by the words "rival authorities." If we imply there are people who have sovereign control over part of the universe, ruling autonomously, independently from God, then there are no rival authorities. Even Satan must submit to God (Job. 2:6, Luke 4:8, 10:18, 22:31,32, Rev. 12:7-12, 20:3,10). Nevertheless, people do seek to remove God's rule and assume control of their own lives as well as the lives of others, either foolishly motivated by the illusion that they can be free from God's dominion or blindly driven by their own ego under the influence of Satan. Therefore, we can understand the words "rival authority" in a narrow sense to refer to a person's intention rather than to his pretended or illusionary independence. That is, people try to remove God's constraints upon themselves and seek to dominate the lives of others. In that sense they act as a rival to God's authority, even though they offer no effective competition, in as much as God does what He wants with the hearts and souls of men.

People are encouraged to imagine that they exercise a command over themselves by the fact that God delegates authority on earth in order to accomplish His purposes. For example, God raises up civil governments (Daniel 2:21, Romans 9:17, 13:1), even though most of them are antagonistic toward Him and His Word (Psalm 2:2,3, Acts 2:26-28). God also allows people to design and erect their own religions and peddle their doctrines to their neighbors. People, whom God allows some control in society, imagine that they achieved their position of authority by means of their own wisdom and power. Furthermore, they are sensitive to any threats to their position of authority and react with great jealousy and anger against anyone whom they perceive as a challenge to their control. In their self-deception they even fight against God, who gave them the privilege to rule in the first place (John 19:10,11). So it is these rebellious aggressive people, whether they exercise authority in a secular or religious context, to whom we refer by the phrase "rival authorities."

There were several different spiritual assaults upon the Colossian congregation, but they all really amounted to one thing, namely, rival authorities tried to supplant the headship of Christ and dominate the lives of the members of the Colossian church (Col. 2:8,18,19). So, a prominent message of Colossians is the conflict between the authority of Jesus and the rival authorities of men over people who claim to be Christians. To whose authority would the members of the Colossian church submit? The members of the Colossian church were assaulted by men who tried to assume authority but who were only full of empty words and pride (Col. 2:8,18). The members of the Colossian church were under spiritual attack by men who tried to subdue them by means of rituals and rules (Col. 2:16, 20-22), or tried to intimidate them by judgments and threats (Col. 2:16,18). In addition, the Colossians who professed to trust in Jesus as their Savior and Lord were subjected to the appeal of their own sinful flesh (Col. 3:5). Wonderfully, however, the message of Colossians is that Jesus Christ, who released them from the Law's claim upon them because of their sin (Col. 1:20,21, 2:14), unbound them from the power of spiritual wickedness (Col. 2:15), and to brought them into His Kingdom in the first place (Col. 1:13), also has the authority to keep them faithful amid any assaults (Col. 1:6, 2:6,7, 3:15).

Rival authorities have no answers and offer no help for the needs of men. Men's philosophies promote pride. God's truth produces fruit. Yet as God's truth goes out, human-based authorities press their claims and seek to influence others, especially in the church. It is this two-way pull on people that the book of Colossians discusses. Any yet, as the Bible so emphatically states, the truth is Jesus is the supreme authority in the universe, for the benefit of His people (Eph. 1:20-22).

6.  Jesus' Authority over Saved and Unsaved People

As we have seen, Jesus is the supreme authority in the universe, over all things and all people. He created the universe, sustains it and all of its inhabitants are accountable to Him. However, we must be careful to correctly understand His authority over the lives of people who are saved and over the lives of people who are not saved.

Normally when we say that Jesus is a person's Lord we mean that the person recognizes, acknowledges and even rejoices in Jesus' authority over Him. That is, those people who are saved have a heart that embraces and greatly desires the sovereign control of Jesus over them.

It is easy to see that Jesus is the Lord over all people who are saved. Jesus' authority can be seen in their fruitful words and actions from hour to hour and day to day. Jesus' authority can be seen in the spiritual blessings they enjoy that reveal His gracious care of their lives over the years. Jesus' authority also can be seen in the confidence and peace of their hearts, for with great joyful expectation and with loving adoration they approach the final destination Jesus has prepared for them, even though they will not see it until Jesus returns at the end of time.

However, it is not so easy to see that Jesus is the Lord over all people who are not saved. We can agree that He is their Lord based upon the fact that He is the supreme authority in the universe, but we may wonder at the fact that unbelievers clearly ignore and sometimes dishonor Jesus. Although unbelievers act and speak differently than believers, Jesus still is the greatest authority in their lives. For one thing, their rebellious life is a reflection of the fact that He "gives them up" to their own desires, as He sees fit (Rom. 1:24,26,28). For another thing, unbelievers reap all the bitter fruits of heartache, fear and hatred as a consequence of their rebellion, as He as planned (Gal. 6:7,8). For one more thing, Jesus controls the eventual outcome of their lives, as they head for eventual destruction of eternal damnation in Hell (Rev. 20:12-15).

Therefore, when we say that Jesus is not a person's Lord, we do not mean Jesus has no authority over him. Instead, we refer to a person's desires. We mean that an unsaved person does not want Jesus to be his Lord. Such a person denies, seeks to suppress and even hates Jesus' control over him. That is, those people who are not saved have a heart that seeks to remove the sovereign control of Jesus over them, even though it is only wishful thinking.

With that in mind, we can say that the Bible is God's word for all men and all men are accountable to what it says (John 12:48), but Colossians is particularly relevant to true born again believers. First of all, it is particularly relevant to them because only they trust the Bible. Only they trust the character of its Author. They know God cannot lie and are convinced that no where else will they find true answers to their questions.

Secondly, Colossians is particularly relevant to true born again believers because they have been given the mind to recognize the value of what they read in the Bible. So, only they really understand or care about the wisdom and counsel found in its pages about the spiritual truths of sin, judgement, grace, the cross, forgiveness and obedience. Only they are honest, willing to face the spiritual situation in their lives as it really is. Only they are discerning and wise, able to avoid the siren call of evil authorities, and cling faithfully to the Bible.

Thirdly, Colossians is particularly relevant to true born again believers because they have been given the power of the resurrected life to obey God from the heart and avoid the appeal and intimidation of evil authorities which try to divert him from God's will. Only they have the power to endure the persecution which attends their obedience and faithful witness. Only they gladly submit to God's purpose in all that happens in their lives.

Through principles and examples, Colossians describes the wonderful way in which Jesus, the supreme authority of the universe, is the wise and loving authority in the lives of His people. The supreme authority of Jesus Christ is wonderful news to a Christian because His Almighty, all-wise Lord has marshaled all His resources for his benefit. For that a Christian is full of thanks (Col. 1:12, 2:7, 3:15-17, 4:2). Jesus is King of the universe, whether men like it or not. How much better it is to have Him as a caring Lord than as an enemy!

7.  Personal Authority

Beyond the issue of whether Jesus is the supreme authority in the universe is the issue of whether Jesus is "the supreme authority in MY life." The book of Colossians, as all of the whole Bible, gets very personal, for it forces people to ask, "Whom do I trust? To whom do I listen? Who is in charge of my life, or more to the point whom do I want to be in charge?" Is the answer to these questions, "myself" or "God"? Colossians forces people to consider "who decides what I must like and pursue or dislike and avoid? Who tells me how and when to spend my own time, energy and resources?" Do they conclude, "I am proud to be the captain of my own life and soul"? Or are they content with God as their Lord and Master?

A person can get idea of how submissive he is to Jesus' authority when he answers the following questions, "Are you humble enough to acknowledge that God alone knows all that there is to know about this universe and its inhabitants (Job. 38-41, I Cor. 2:11), including His own intentions and plans for you (Jer. 10:23,24)? Are you humble enough to recognize that God has set limits to your understanding of the universe, that the Almighty Creator has decided there is a point beyond which you cannot learn things about the universe (Eccl. 8:16,17)? Are you contrite enough to agree that you are sinful and not inclined to learn or recognize anything that is true which conflicts with your own cherished perception of the universe (Rom. 1:18-23, II Peter 3:3-6)? Do you trust God who is in control of all knowledge dispenses it as He sees fit (Matt. 11:27)? Do you seek the grace and mercy of God who reveals Himself and His wisdom only to those whom He saves (I Cor. 2:14-16)? Do you presume to try to amend or improve upon what God says (Prov. 30:5,6, Rom. 11:33-36, Rev. 22:18,19)?"

COLOSSIANS: the Big Picture

The book of Colossians answers some important questions of those people who are submissive to the Lord Jesus Christ. To put it in a more personal way, "God has made you and knows you better than you know yourself. He knows what you are thinking and the questions of your heart. In love, He has answered your questions." We can organize the questions in the following way.

Colossians: The Big Questions of Life

I. Chapter 1: How Can I Know I Am Saved?

II. Chapter 2: How Do I Deal with Challenges to My Faith?

III. Chapter 3: How Do I Deal with My Personal Sin?

IV. Chapter 4: What Is God's Will for My Life?

With the same idea in mind, we can organize Colossians in a brief way as follows:

Colossians: A Christian on Display
I. Chapters 1 and 2: What a Christian Is and Is Not

II. Chapters 3 and 4: What a Christian Does and Does Not Do

Taking into account the theme of authority, we can organize Colossians in this alterative way:

Colossians: God's Authority

I. Chapter 1: God's Authority Displayed in Jesus Christ

II. Chapter 2: God's Authority Meets the Challenge of False Gospels

III. Chapter 3: God's Authority Revealed in Believers' Character

IV. Chapter 4: God's Authority Revealed in Believers' Service

Finally, we can think of the idea of truth and arrive at the following outline:

Colossians: God's Truth About His Universe

I. Chapter 1: God's Truth About Himself

II. Chapter 2: God's Truth About His Gospel of Salvation

III. Chapter 3: God's Truth About Christians

IV. Chapter 4: God's Truth Goes Out to the World

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