"All power in heaven and on earth has been
given to me"
Throughout His earthly life, when speaking either to His disciples or to the leaders of the world and the crowds of people, Christ usually described Himself as "the Son of Man". At other times, He would feel the need to be known as "the Son of the Father". We see from the sacred text of the New Testament that the phrase "Son of God" was much more a confession of others regarding His person, as for example Peter's "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God" (Mat. 16:16), or even the confession of the demons, about whom the Apostle James characteristically wrote that "they believe and tremble" (James 2:19).
Within this New Testament framework, the passage that we inserted beneath the title of this article is unlike anything else that Christ ever spoke. It therefore sounds not only provocative, but almost untrustworthy.
We could say that such a passage seems to present Christ "boasting" like a secular leader, as a bearer not simply of one particular "authority", but of "all authority", even "in heaven and on earth".
The words "has been given to me" make the "self-assertion" sound more moderate, as it transfers the source of power to another person, even if not directly named. Yet, absolute and unrestricted authority "in heaven and on earth", even if it is given, is no doubt an unprecedented stumbling block. And the stumbling block becomes even greater when one considers that it is made by Him who became man in order to teach "utter humility" to the "disobedience" and "apostasy" of Adam.
Before rushing to make any hasty judgements, however, which can dangerously lead us to the point of blasphemy against the "only sinless One", we should remember that the mystery of the human person does not allow us to make final "value judgements". These, as we know, belong solely to the Creator of all. We have the right to make value judgements about inanimate objects or natural situations, but not about persons, and especially not the theandric person of Christ.
In general, the "person" deserves reverence and awe from the outset, since we accept that this is the "image of God". And when the person is God incarnate Himself, then the awe and reverence are obligatory to an absolute measure. It is precisely here that the words "the mystery is honoured in silence" of St Gregory the Theologian are applicable.
Still, we cannot bypass the above words of Christ or leave them totally without comment. That would be like not hearing them, or as if they were not spoken for us also. Given that humankind has suffered much, is suffering and will no doubt continue to suffer to the end of time at the hands of worldly "rulers", it is our duty to see what Christ means when He spoke of "authority". Especially with His own "all authority in heaven and on earth".
Let us recall firstly that, when the Lord was examined by Pilate about the type of authority He represented, He categorically stated the radical difference between His kingdom and the "powers" of this world, even though the latter should also be considered as being given "from above" (cf. John 19:11).
The answer given to Pilate, that "my kingdom is not of this world" (John 18:36), has the same power as the reply of God to Moses, when he asked to learn His name. That which the Septuagint has translated as "I am the one who is" (Ex. 3:14) is, as we know, expressed in a totally apophatic way in the original text: "I am who I am". And just as God is "above all names", "infinite" and "incomprehensible", in the same way His kingdom can have nothing in common with the standards of this world. The Lord had of course taught this radical difference in infinite ways to the Apostles. Indeed, He did so with practical examples, which sometimes scandalised those who tried to "judge" Him or "measure" His behaviour towards others by using the logic and standards of the world, or even of the Mosaic Law itself. The teaching of the God-Man was, however, always in relation to works: "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those who are great exercise authority over them" (Mat. 20:25).
Following all of the above, we certainly have enough tools to assist us in the interpretation of the absolute "authority" of Christ "in heaven and on earth".
As we shall see, the phrase "has been given to me", the significance of which no one would suspect initially, is literally the "key" to our whole endeavour.
Firstly, we should remember that Christ spoke about His authority with such clarity and fullness only immediately after His Resurrection. His entire earthly life prior to that was a period of "self-emptying" and "suffering" until the "utter humility". This point, however, is very sensitive and dangerous, and deserves our special attention. The distinction made by Protestants between the "Jesus of history" and the "Jesus of faith" is not applicable for the Orthodox. Given that God incarnate never ceased to be "perfect God" and "perfect man", the divine glory is never absent from His theandric person. Even when undergoing all suffering through extreme "condescension" towards His creation in order to "redeem those who are under the law" (Gal. 4:5), the "Lord of Glory" never ceases to be hidden, undiminished even under the worst form of dishonour. This is what is sung in Church through the well-known Akathist hymn: "while totally below, the indescribable Word was not absent from above". Furthermore, the characteristic "revealing" outwardly of the divine glory of Christ during the Transfiguration on Mt. Tabor (Mat. 17:2-9) occurred, as we know, before the Burial and Resurrection. Again, the hymnography of the Church, being thoroughly consistent theologically, explains that this occurred purely for the sake of His disciples: "so that, in witnessing your wonders, they would not shy away from your suffering" (cf. Great Vespers of the feast of the Transfiguration).
The Apostle Paul makes a direct correlation between the Passion and the Resurrection, and between the obedience unto death and the absolute authority in heaven and on earth. However, the power, the glory and the "authority" are not additions that are subsequently or externally made. They are always hidden in the essence of the Son, who is pre-eternally born "from the essence of the Father", since He is co-eternal and consubstantial with the Father and the Spirit. This is why the power, which is described as "authority" (exousia in Greek), always belongs to the Son who is born of the "essence" (ousia) of the Father. This is completely different to the human person and the world which come, not "from the essence", but "from the will" of God, in other words "by grace", which is why we are not children having the essence of the Father, but "children by adoption".
Following immediately on from what we have already said, the natural and crucial question arises: Given that the Son of God, who is "of one essence with the Father", does not receive "authority" from "without", how is it that He Himself states that it "has been given to me"? From whom and how was it given?
Here we must do a basic analysis. We must, in other words, discern certain fundamental truths, which lie hidden in the mystery of the Holy Trinity. The first and prime truth is that the Trinitarian God is One, and not "polytheistic". The Father is the only "source" of power and life. There is, however, another equally significant truth, and this concerns the meaning of "person" specifically. The notion of person, which Christianity alone revealed in all its fullness, uniqueness and sacredness, has as its unique starting point and source the power and life of the Father. Yet this very power is continually and pre-eternally communicated in a "cycle", i.e. it "circulates" through the other two Persons of the Holy Trinity (the Son is "begotten" and the Spirit "proceeds").
Yet Christianity teaches that, while God is One and indivisible according to His essence, in terms of communion and fullness of life He is three distinct Persons.
In so doing, it states unreservedly that in each Person of the Holy Trinity there is the fullness of God, and not simply an aspect or portion of the divinity.
Thus in the inner life of the Holy Trinity, the distinction between the Persons is intellectual. In other words, there is no difference or distinction according to essence. The three Persons are "co-eternal", since the Son is pre-eternally begotten, and the Spirit pre-eternally proceeds.
However, with the creation of the world, as well as during the subsequent phases of the divine economy - which is in fact also the history of the world - the life of the Holy Trinity does not remain hidden, but is made "outwardly" apparent. We now have as a consequence - in addition to His pre-eternal birth - the birth of the Son in time. In the same way, in addition to the pre-eternal procession of the Spirit, we also have its procession in time.
God does not cease to be "unchanging", "timeless" and "above time", yet the factor of time creates for the human mind a "logical" priority of the Father in relation to the Son and the Spirit. This priority exists at any rate, as we have already mentioned, from the fact that there is one source of the divinity, namely the Father.
The incarnation of the Son moreover creates a new prospect for the dynamic development of the meaning of person which, through "kenosis" or self-emptying, makes the truth of love, as the fullness of life and glory, even clearer.
Within this "logic" of the dramatic development of the mystery of person, the Son, being the "firstborn of all creation" (Col. 1:15), shows how the human journey in history reveals, through "synergy", the ultimate triumph of the glory of God. Here, the logic of "whoever desires to save his life will lose it" (Mat. 16:25) applies. It is also the logic of the "narrow gate" and the "difficult road" (Mat. 7:13). It is precisely the same logic, which culminates uniquely in the Person of Christ the God-Man. He, "who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a servant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even death on the cross" (Phil. 2:6).
The words "has been given to me", which we said from the outset are the "key" to understanding the "authority" of Christ "in heaven and on earth", directly refer to two fundamental soteriological truths. Firstly, to the importance of the incarnation, as a necessary condition for the deification of the "human". Secondly, to the importance of kenosis and sacrifice, which are the only authentic means of growing, in God, from being "in God's image" into a person "in His likeness".
It therefore becomes evident that we can overcome "monophysitic" ontology of the fallen world only with these two main presuppositions. We are thereby made free within the perspective of living as taught by God, which is not the result of blind "essence" and "nature", but of dynamic personal "choice". This is highlighted by the epigrammatic saying of St Gregory Palamas that "being does not come from essence, but essence comes from being".
Thus, the meaning of "authority", which belongs in the first place only to the power of the single divine essence, becomes both gift and grace to the person who is deified "in the obedience of faith" (Rom. 16:26). Such an example of "glorification" was given by God the incarnate Word Himself who, from the standpoint of His unprecedented "self-emptying", could confess that characteristic phrase: "My Father is greater than I" (John 14:28). He expressed the very same kenosis when confessing "ignorance" of times or seasons "which the Father has put in His own authority" (Acts 1:7).
If, however, all of these "signs" from the earthly life of Christ constitute the heart of the whole plan of divine economy, one could justifiably ask what direct relationship this could possibly have with the everyday person's journey towards perfection, given the reality of the original fall.
That which is truly "novum " or "new" in the New Testament is centred upon this very point, just as the Christology and anthropology of St Paul has passed it down to us.
If all researchers of secular science commence from the presupposition that the human species came as a final stage of creation - as the Book of Genesis describes - Paul does not hesitate to overturn this order. In the name of his own Christology, Paul states that the human person "pre-exists" before the world.
T his previously unheard of teaching of St Paul, that the human person essentially does not "follow" but rather "precedes" the rest of the created world, is presented more fully mainly in two of his epistles, namely Colossians and Ephesians.
In both these epistles, the notion of the "mystery" of the Church as the body of Christ is developed, according to which the members potentially "coexist" with the pre-eternal head, who is Christ "the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation" (Col. 1:15).
In the epistle to the Ephesians, however, the Apostle presents the mystical and immediate relationship between Christology and Anthropology more extensively. When seen under the prism of Ecclesiology, this relationship can be seen in its true dimension only when it explicitly includes Cosmology in its entirety as well. Thus, the 12 verses of the first chapter of the epistle express the mystical "panorama" of divine providence and compassion, while repeatedly underlining both the reason and the purpose of the mentioned mystical relationship. And the reason given, in highly doxological tones of gratitude to God the Father, is "the mystery of His will, according to His good pleasure" (1:9), while the purpose is "to gather in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven and which are on earth" (1:10-11).
In underlining the cause and purpose of the incarnation of God the Word, the Apostle Paul makes clear the deep and special relationship of the entire creation with the second Person of the Holy Trinity. St. Maximos the Confessor would later call this relationship - given that it is with the Logos - "Iogoi" of being, "spread" throughout creation, in accordance with the words of St John the Evangelist concerning the Logos (particularly the prologue of his Gospel in verses 1-8). The well-known theory of the "spermatic word" used by the apologists of the early Church also has the same relationship with the incarnate Word as its inspiration and source.
We could also say, without being far from the truth, that the "authority", which is mystically communicated "from the Father - through the Son - in the Holy Spirit", is the "endowment" of the Creator not only to the "intelligible" beings (angels and human beings) from the "foundation of the world", but also to all other creatures. This is why the inanimate "natural laws" of the universe - operating with indestructible power and regularity - constitute a moving, although "impersonal", form of "authority", expressing in their own way the "divine will", rather than blind chance.
The "person" (the angels and human beings) primarily embodies the notion of authority, among all creation. Only the "person", with its "reference" and "relatability" to God the Creator (as provider and governor) acts "conscientiously", in contrast to the so-called blind forces of the elements of nature, the "expediency" of which we cannot always evaluate on the basis of the "here and now".
We can therefore see once again that the Apostle Paul, in listing the orders of angelic powers, emphasises in particular the names of "dominions", "principalities" and "powers" (Col. 1:16). This is why God is called the "Lord of Hosts", particularly in the Old Testament.
As far as the human person is concerned, the Apostle Paul develops in his epistles both the reality and the limits of so-called "free will", on the basis of which all human actions and thoughts are evaluated and judged. The Apostle Paul even reaches the point of "legitimising" also every form of legal secular power for the Christian, precisely because he considers it to be a faint, even if very distant, expression of the divine will in history. And of course, the Apostle Paul is not alone in stating "let every soul be subject to the governing authorities" (Rom. 13:1). This viewpoint often scandalised the "activists" among the Christians through the ages, or the followers of so-called "liberation theology" in our times. In the same spirit, Christ Himself also said those characteristic words to Pilate, when threatening him, as an instrument of authority: "you could have no power at all against me unless it had been given you from above." (John 19:11).
Yet, the unwavering words of the Apostles always remain a safeguard against the "idolisation" of the power of the State: "we must obey God rather than men" (Acts 5:29).
It becomes clear from all the above that the human person approaches the source of authentic authority to the extent that he or she advances from being "the image of God" and becomes "the likeness" as well.
Given that the Only-Begotten Son and Word of God is "of the essence" of the Father, the Christian theocracy lived out in Byzantium had authority exercised both by the King (the Emperor) and the Bishop (the Patriarch), as imitators of Christ. This explains why the explanatory declaration "by the mercy of God" was necessary and substantial for the exercise of worldly and spiritual authority. In other words, if these two peak institutions (King-Bishop) constitute in Christian spirituality two parallel forms of expression of authority, and to the highest degree in this world. This does not mean in the least that the invisible God "transfers" His authority even temporarily, being "all-seeing", to any of His logical creatures. On the contrary, the higher the office through which one exercises authority among the people of God, the greater the responsibility. This is why the word of Scripture calls even the political ruler "God's minister" (Rom. 13:4). This is the deeper reason for which the "mercy" of God is continually needed, but also for which it should be invoked.
Having seen in previous issues the course which the power of "authority" takes, commencing from God (its transcendent source), through the Incarnation of God the Word, and finally to the images of God in the world, namely the rational creatures (angels and humans), we can now turn to how the human person "manages" all forms of authority in this world. We shall not speak here of the angels. They are in direct and continual dependence upon the commands of God, since they are simply "instruments" or, as they are described in theology, "liturgical spirits sent to minister".
Let us remember first of all that all gifts of God have been given gradually to people, in order that they may absorb them slowly (precisely as doses of medicine are given!). In the same way, "authority", which is not only honour but also responsibility, is not given instantaneously or in the highest degree to the individual or collective body, nor is it given to all with equal measure. Rather, it climaxes in one person, as well as in the various office-bearers.
Even in the area of grace par excellence, namely the Church, the "authority" - which is here of course of a spiritual nature - has been given to various orders and to varying degrees. The works of St Dionysios the Areopagite are well-known from the first centuries of Christianity, as they draw a clear parallel between the heavenly Bodiless Powers ("Heavenly Hierarchy") and the orders and offices within the Church ("Earthly Hierarchy").
The terms that various languages use for different kinds of authority (religious, political, judicial etc.) and for every level may differ, as they do for every official.
However the term office-bearer is common in all languages, and all hierarchies. The word bearer clearly testifies to the fact that the individual or group, which represents and implements this or that authority, is not the source of power and authority. The "bearer" is one who "bears" or "wears" authority, like a uniform. Thus arose the various uniforms of the different instruments of authority and order. By being a "vessel" and "instrument" who embodies authority and exercises it for all, it becomes apparent that there is another power, above the bearer, in the name of which he or she acts, and to which an account must be given.
Even in the self-proclaimed atheistic "Democracies" and "Republics" of the world, especially in the 20th century, the notion of the anonymous "People", no matter how vague it may be, was always used - even if hypocritically - as a "point of reference" and "orientation", regardless of whether truly spiritual people spoke ironically and with indignation about this hypocrisy (for this reason the late N.G. Pentzikis played on related words in an unforgettable way).
In accordance with what has already been said, there is absolutely no worldly power that has the right to "appropriate" authority for itself, as if it derived from itself. There is not a more contradictory or vain term than the Greek word "Autocrat", as if it were ever possible for one to "control one's self' (which is literally what the word means), ie. to be the source and the absolute sovereign of one's own self! The Latin term "imperator", on the contrary, is incomparably more modest, and more accurately reflects reality, as it signifies the supreme "commander".
Following the general term "bearer", which is applied to an individual or collective office-bearer, there is also the term "ruler". The etymology of the Greek word for ruler (tagos) highlights a deep spiritual message, which shows the nature and essence of authority, and at the same time the responsibility of the one who exercises this.
Tagos clearly comes from the significant word taxis, which means "order", "orderliness", "discipline", "harmony" and "solidarity" between the various classes and social groups. Such is the power hidden in the word taxis, that even the most unrefined Dictators call their arbitrary decisions "syn-tactical actions". This is why the ruler or rulers who ignore or circumvent the sacredness and transcendent authority of every meaning of taxis (spiritual, moral, logical, legal, social etc.) are by definition profane perjurers. They are themselves a stark contradiction in terms, or in other words an audacious and shameless falsification of their very name. And of course, humankind should not have waited for Machiavelli to describe and exemplify in his work "The Prince" the underhandedness and impiety of "rulers" everywhere and in every age, which is a double impiety of course. On the one hand towards the divine and transcendent source of authority and, on the other, towards the people who elect and trust them.