Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Throughout Advent, I’ve led the liturgy in royal purple, which matches the royally-adorned table. We’ve been singing hymns to salute the King’s arrival. “Joy to the world, the Lord has come. Let earth receive her king.” “Lift up your heads, ye mighty gates! Behold, the king of glory waits!” “Hark! The herald angels sing, Glory to the newborn King.” “Come and behold Him, born the King of angels.” 

Both John the Baptist and Jesus make kingship the centerpiece of their preaching: Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand. God inaugurates his reign through Jesus and exerts his authority over the world. Through his Son, the Father lays claim to his creation. Jesus declares to Satan, to demons, to every Caesar and Stalin, every tycoon or tyrant who pretends to own and run the world: “This world is not yours. It is mine. And I have come to save it.” That is the gospel of Christmas.

Many—especially us Americans—have difficulty seeing this announcement as good news. Isn’t the kingdom law rather than gospel? Part of the problem is that we’ve been catechized to regard all forms of authority as oppressive. Our world has lost the distinction between authority and authoritarian and blurred the difference between use and abuse. Fathers rule their homes—patriarchal tyranny! Parents correct or spank their kids—child abuse! Pastors discipline unruly members—pastoral exploitation! Want severe punishments for murderers and rapists? You’re a Nazi or a Fascist. 

As Ryszard Legutko has observed, this recoil from authority is deeply embedded in the mythology of modern democracy. Freedom and authority, we’re told, are enemies, and history is the conflict between them. If freedom is going to triumph, it has to eliminate every vestige of authority. It’s not enough to free slaves and extend the franchise. Liberalism endlessly hunts fresh monsters to destroy. Children must be liberated from parents, and we must break the shackles that trap us in our own bodies. Authority, however benign, infringes upon our God-given right to do whatever the hell we like.

Even those who defend authority often assume it is no more than the right to tell others what to do. Authority is knocking heads and taking names. Christianity erupted into such a world. Greek and Roman gods favored the strong and the great. Heroes strove for mastery and supremacy. A Roman man had a right to do whatever he liked with those who were under his hand; he had life-and-death power over his children and could use his slaves—girls or boys—to fulfill his sexual whims. 

Christianity dismantled all that. The coming of the kingdom didn’t exchange one brute dictator for another, all-powerful brute. Jesus revolutionizes authority. He asserts his claim on the world by humbling himself. He doesn’t enter the world as an oiled ancient warrior, but as a helpless baby. The King isn’t born in a splendid palace but in a manger, as the son of a carpenter or mason. In his adulthood, he humbles himself further, even to death on a cross. As Tom Holland demonstrates in Dominion, the message of God on a cross permanently altered what we think authority is and what it’s for.

In the Prologue to his Gospel, John speaks of the advent of the kingdom as the Word shining as light in the darkness. Because the Word brings light, he brings life; his light is life-giving. By shining, he makes other things shine: He “illumines every man,” turning everything he touches into a light source. John explicitly mentions authority, but it comes into the Prologue in an unexpected way: As many as receive him, to them he gives authority (exousia) to become children of God. As the life-giving light of the world, the Word exercises authority by conferring authority. God created Adam as his son, his image, and called him to grow in God-likeness. When God’s kingdom comes, he gives those who receive him the authority of sons, heirs, co-rulers. Through his gift of filial authority, the Father’s Word enables us to reach our created destiny. The Word’s authority authorizes.

John uses the image of heavenly light. Solomon speaks of heavenly water: “The king comes down like rain on the mown grass, like showers that water the earth” (Psa. 72). In one of the loveliest poems in Scripture, David employs a similar image: The king who rules justly in the fear of God is like “the light of the morning when the sun rises, a morning without clouds, when the tender grass springs out of the earth, through sunshine after rain.” If that’s what a king is, his coming is the best of good news.

Christianity doesn’t eliminate authority. Jesus himself gives commands, and warns of terrible consequences for those who disobey. But he reveals that true authority doesn’t beat people down, but raises them up. Ruling isn’t lording over others, but serving them. For the Son of Man didn’t come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many. This is the Christmas gospel, the good news of the kingdom: Through Jesus and his Spirit, all authorities are called to mimic the heavenly king, who is sunlight and rain. The kingdom is good news because the King exerts authority by giving authority, by giving himself.

Peter J. Leithart is president of the Theopolis Institute, and organizing pastor of Immanuel Reformed Church in Birmingham, Alabama.

Image by Rzuwig via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter Web Exclusive Articles

Related Articles