Jesus & Earthly Authority

Thank God! The 2012 U. S. elections are now well behind us. And the voters appear to have gone for … no change. They stuck with the people, the parties and the positions that they knew – in the White House, Congress and the statehouse.

Before, during and after now the 2012 U.S. presidential campaign, we’ve asked the questions:

How would Jesus of Nazareth respond if he were in our shoes?

How does he deal with earthly authority?

Even better, how would he (and should we) respond in a world where our leaders clearly have no sense as to where they are headed?

And how might this apply to a how a nearly majority disaffected and disaffected nation might deal with a continued mediocre Democratic Presidency and more Democratic Senate? Or how the again triumphant party might treat an ever-obstinate Republican majority in the House of Representatives? Or how you and I might deal with our elected officials – whether in WashingtonD.C., our state capitol, or home town?

Which brings us back to the WWJD question: What would Jesus do – or suggest? For possible answers, we turn to the subject of how Jesus actually interacted with earthly authority during his earthly sojourn some two millennia ago. Recorded interactions with authority occur on three levels: imperial authority (similar to our federal government), vassal kingdoms (similar to state and local authorities of today), and ecclesiastical authority (indicative of church congregations and denominations of today).  

What we will find is one common theme. For Jesus and for his follower(s) today, the most thoughtful and productive interactions occur when and where respect is mutually earned. And when there is no 2-way street paved with mutual respect available to be found, Jesus (and we) should not be above tactics ranging from willful disregard of earthly authority to direct public confrontation.

Childhood Encounters of Jesus

Let’s travel back in time to the birth of the Savior. The first interaction with a definite authority figure is probably one that Jesus might not personally remember but would have been undoubtedly recounted by his parents. We all know that the king of the land – Herod the Great – heard of the birth of a potential future rival via three wise men (or magi) traveling from the east. Herod asks these that he be apprised of this future ruler’s whereabouts. After finding Jesus, these three ‘wise men’ are warned via a dream to return home to Persia via another route.

Jerusalem palace remains, even today a continuing symbol of the Herod the Great's lasting legacy of wealth and bloodshed.

Jerusalem palace remains, even today a continuing symbol of the Herod the Great’s lasting legacy of wealth and bloodshed.

Becoming aware of the deception, Herod orders the death of all children age 2 and under in Bethlehem. Joseph, Mary and Jesus have already left after being warned by an angel in a dream to flee to Egypt. Only after Herod dies does Joseph take his young family back home – but not to Bethlehem. Being rightfully fearful of Herod’s son Archelaus, Joseph moves north to the village of Nazareth located within the kingdom of Herod’s other son – Antipas – viewed as a (somewhat) more benign ruler than his brother.

We are never told but this undoubtedly would have been a searing experience for Joseph and Mary – with the account retold on numerous occasions to Jesus and his siblings as he was growing up. This narrow escape shaped the family outlook toward Herodian authority for years to come.

Jesus has one other recorded childhood brush with authority – this time with Jewish religious leaders. This occurs in his 12th year in the course of a visit to Jerusalem for Passover festival. He upstages the teachers at the Jewish Temple with his questions as “all who heard him were amazed as to his understanding and answers.”

As to parental authority, well, he missed the caravan with his parents. When they find him still in Jerusalem, he scolds them – trumping Joseph’s authority in particular – when he replies to his parents question of “why have you treated us like this?” with the even more tart rhetorical question: “Did you not know that I must be in my (heavenly) Father’s house?”

However, Luke is quick to point out that, after this incident, he went back home to Nazareth with his parent and “was obedient to them.”


Herodian Sidebar: As the oldest surviving son of Herod the Great, Archelaus was given the portion of his father’s kingdom that consisted of Judea, Samaria, and Idumea. And he carried on in the worst tradition of his father. After 10 years, he was charged in Rome with mismanagement of his vassal kingdom and exiled to Gaul. From that time forward, Judea would be managed by a directly appointed Roman procurator.

As the second surviving son of Herod the Great, Antipas ruled as Tetrarch of Galilee and Perea from 4 BC to 39 AD – extending beyond the full course of Jesus’ growing up, ministry, death and resurrection. At the time of his father’s death in 4 BC, the city of Sepphoris (just 4 miles from Nazareth) revolted and was leveled. Antipas rebuilt Sepphoris which served as his capital through Jesus’ boyhood. About 20 AD, Antipas relocated his capital to Tiberias on the Sea of Galilee situated, about 10 miles from Capernaum which was the home of Peter and early base of Jesus’ ministry.

Antipas became notorious for marrying Herodias, the wife of his half-brother Philip. This was a union vigorously opposed by John the Baptist, for which the Baptist was beheaded.

Despite their pivotal importance as seats of secular government in Galilee, neither Sepphoris nor Tiberias receive any mention in the New Testament.


Virtually nothing else is known of Jesus childhood and early adulthood in Nazareth or the broader Galilee region.

Was Jesus father a country rube - an impoverished carpenter working with primitive tools?

Was Jesus father a country rube – an impoverished carpenter working with primitive tools?

The popular perception is that Nazareth was an isolated village, with Joseph as a carpenter working with rudimentary tools. This could have been the case if Jewish communities resettled the Galilean countryside like post-World War II isolated kibbutzim – avoiding contact with Herodian and Roman society.

An alternative view would be that Joseph availed himself of abundant work opportunities with the opulent rebuilding of Sepphoris – commuting by foot to work. Perhaps Jesus went along, perhaps as an apprentice once he reached the age of adulthood with Bar Mitzvah at age 13.

Or was Joseph a highly skilled craftsman capable of sophisticated joinery as with this fishing boat from the Sea of Galilee (dated to about the time of Jesus)?

Or was Joseph a highly skilled craftsman capable of sophisticated joinery as with this fishing boat from the Sea of Galilee (dated to about the time of Jesus)?

Similarly, there is evidence that Jesus had moved to Capernaum as his home at about the time of John the Baptist’s arrest by Antipas. (Matthew 4:13). We have no record as to whether Jesus had contact with the less-Jewish world of the new capital Tiberias either before or after his move to Capernaum.

In the absence of solid evidence, we can are left to conjecture on the important question of whether and under what circumstances Jesus brushed up against and his views of the secular governmental authorities of Sepphoris (in childhood) or Tiberias (early adulthood). Either place would have placed him in more direct contact with both Herodian and Roman authority.

Earthly Ministry

We know virtually nothing about Jesus’ life from age 12 to about 30 when he bursts on the Galilean scene as an itinerant preacher. But he can’t avoid brushes with both secular and ecclesiastical authorities for long.

The ruling behavior of Herod Antipas goes from benign to obsessed as he executes Jesus’ cousin John the Baptist. Antipas then hears rumors of another prophet, Jesus, and wants to see him. Even the Pharisees warn Jesus to “get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.”

Jesus response is nothing but pithy:

Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’ Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’

To Jesus, Antipas is nothing less than the proverbial fox in the chicken coop. And there is no way that the authorities are going to catch up with this successor to the Baptist until the time and place of Jesus’ choosing.

More regular and continuing are the run-ins of Jesus with the Jewish religious authorities of the Scribes, Pharisees, and Sadducees. A couple of examples illustrate the range of Jesus reactions to the spiritual authorities of his day.

At one extreme is the case when Jesus casts the demon out of a man who was blind and mute. The Pharisees reaction is condemnatory: “It is only by Beelzebul, the ruler of the demons, that this fellow casts out the demons.”

The retort from Jesus is even more scathing: “You brood of vipers! How can you speak good things, when you are evil?” 

But there are other times (a minority to be sure) when Jesus took the opportunity to engage in more mutually satisfying dialogue. The Sadducees, with not the best of motives, try to trip Jesus up with a question about multiple marriages and the resulting true wife in heaven (a concept about which they are dubious). No ad hominem here as Jesus pointedly but clearly explains that marriage is not recognized in heaven. In response, the scribes are forced to concede: “Teacher, you have spoken well.” And Luke concludes by noting that they “no longer dared to ask him another question.”

And there is the highly personal, almost intimate encounter recorded by John’s gospel of Jesus interview with a man named Nicodemus, a respected Jewish leader. This provides the opportunity for Jesus to expound on what is probably the most widely known Christian view of salvation of being “born again” or, more literally, “born from above.”

Numerous other encounters between Jesus and the religious leaders of his day are recounted by the New Testament Gospels. These range from the Pharisee for whom Jesus pointed out that the greater the sin, the greater the forgiveness … to Jesus driving the money changers out of the Temple at Jerusalem. In some cases, Jesus used the opportunity for constructive advice, more often it was for stern rebuke. In all cases, he acted because he cared.

Jesus also had at least one encounter with Roman imperial authority during the period of his earthly ministry – with a centurion of the Roman military – and in the otherwise Jewish village of Capernaum. A centurion appeals to Jesus to heal his paralyzed servant. Jesus readily consents but the centurion then deferentially suggests: “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; but only speak the word, and my servant will be healed. For I also am a man under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and the slave does it.”

Jesus not only picks up on this extraordinary display of Roman contrition but expresses his amazement to those around him, saying: “Truly I tell you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith.”

Face-off @ Trial

We now come to the final encounters of Jesus with all three sets of authorities that had been nipping at his heels for 33+/- years – the religious establishment, the local rulers and the Roman imperial authorities.

First up are the members of the high priest’s party who arrest Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. All four gospel recount portions of this not-so-pleasant interaction – with the most succinct account provided by Luke:

When day came (after the nighttime arrest of Jesus), the assembly of the elders of the people, both chief priests and scribes, gathered together, and they brought him to their council. They said, “If you are the Messiah, tell us.” He replied, “If I tell you, you will not believe; and if I question you, you will not answer. But from now on the Son of Man will be seated at the right hand of the power of God.”

All of them asked, “Are you, then, the Son of God?” He said to them, “You say that I am.” Then they said, “What further testimony do we need? We have heard it ourselves from his own lips!”

Jesus is condemned and struck by those assembled. However, the Jewish leaders realize that execution requires Roman approval and so send the accused to the Roman procurator, Pontius Pilate. The accusation is that this man is “…perverting our nation, forbidding us to pay taxes to the emperor, and saying that he himself is the Messiah, a king.”  

So Pilate asks succinctly asks: “Are you the king of the Jews?” Jesus’ answer is even more brief: “You say so.” Pilate can find no basis for the accusation.

Hearing that he is a Galilean, Pilate happily passes Jesus on to a hearing before Antipas, the Roman approved tetrarch of Galilee – who just happens to be in town for the Passover. Only Luke’s gospel records this next encounter, noting that: “When Herod saw Jesus, he was very glad, for he had been wanting to see him for a long time, because he had heard about him and was hoping to see him perform some sign.” However, Jesus does not give the “old fox” any satisfaction and refuses to answer all of Herod’s inquiries.

Finally, Antipas gives up with Luke’s gospel commenting that “Even Herod with his soldiers treated him with contempt and mocked him; then he put an elegant robe on him, and sent him back to Pilate.” Luke then makes one last observation of political significance, as: “That same day Herod and Pilate became friends with each other; before this they had been enemies.”

Back under imperial jurisdiction, Pilate tries one last ruse to get around sentencing what he sees as an innocent man – offering to release Jesus as a show of clemency at Passover. But the crowd now is whipped up to demand the release of the political agitator or bandit Barabbas instead.

As with Herod, Jesus this time offers no response to the now fearful questions of a trapped Roman procurator. In desperation, Pilate finally asks: “Do you refuse to speak to me? Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?”

At this, Jesus finally answers similar to his response early to the Jewish Sanhedrin. To the Roman procurator, Jesus now summarily responds: “You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above; therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin.”

Confronted with a prisoner he believes to be innocent (perhaps divine) and a crowd that is accusing Jesus of sedition against Pilate’s employer, the procurator relents. He washes his hands of the matter, effectively condemning the prisoner to death by crucifixion.

What are we to say with this final encounter between Jesus and earthly authority? From Jesus’ perspective, this is played out to achieve the result of execution that he had earlier self-prophesied. Jesus interacts with the authorities when it serves this purpose; at other times withdrawing into silence (and clearly contemptuous when confronting Herod Antipas).

For the three sets of authorities represented, Jesus trial and execution represents a marriage of convenience – despite the widely divergent interests of the high priest and Sanhedrin, Antipas and Pilate. New political bonds were forged that day between participants “thick as thieves” in what all recognized as conspicuous miscarriage of spiritual and secular justice. 

How Did Jesus Interact with Religious and Governmental Authority?

Four overall conclusions are suggested from this discussion:

  • Jesus interacted intensely with both ecclesiastical and secular authority throughout his life – from birth to death – and especially with the religious Jewish and vassal Herodian authorities.

    Secular and religious politics ... always a part of the picture

    Secular and religious politics … always a part of the picture

  • His attitudes toward authority ranged from empathy to aloofness to combative behavior – depending on the situation.
  • The most give and take was experienced with the Jewish leaders (a love / hate relationship) and the Roman authorities (surprisingly as relationships of mutual respect though with much less frequent interaction). With the Herodian leadership, Jesus remains most aloof and disdainful (perhaps not surprising given the Great’s attempt to murder Jesus at birth and his son’s successful execution of Jesus’ cousin John the Baptist).  
  • Finally, when Jesus does engage with the authority figures around him, it is always to point the human leaders around him to the real authority beyond the earthly realm – and to heavenly values that endure beyond those of any humanly created regime.

So, WWJD Today?

How would Jesus deal with the American president today? With congressional leaders, governors, state representatives and mayors? With rabbis, pastors and lay (or self-proclaimed) religious leaders?

Jerusalem ... one of but not the only place on the globe with displays of conspicuous religiosity - and a phenomenon shared across varied faiths

Jerusalem … one of but not the only place on the globe with displays of conspicuous religiosity – and a phenomenon shared across varied faiths

While the experiences of those who interacted with Jesus varied widely, there is one common theme. The most thoughtful and productive interactions have occurred when and where respect is mutually earned. In situations where secular or religious authorities honestly search for how to do their job better and where the Christ centered follower of the way has something useful to say.

And when there is not this 2-way street paved with mutual respect, Jesus (and we) should not be above tactics ranging from willful disregard to direct public confrontation. And in all cases, to point to those values that transcend the secular and ecclesiastical politics of the here and now.


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