Whose Authority Do I Accept?

Gerhard Pfandl

Whose Authority Do I Accept?

When you visit Patmos and go up to the monastery, before you enter the chapel you will see on your left a fresco depicting 40 scantily clad men standing on a frozen lake. The story is told that during the reign of the eastern Emperor Licinius (A.D. 308–324), a company of 100 Roman soldiers camped at a little lake near the city of Sebastea (present-day Sivas in Turkey). Late on a cold winter’s night, a messenger from the emperor arrived with a special message for the captain. By the flickering light of the campfire, the captain read the following message: “It is commanded by the Emperor that when our messenger arrives, the bugle be sounded to call the men into line. Then shall an altar be built in the midst of the camp and each soldier as he passes by shall pour upon it a cupful of wine as an offering to his emperor. And it is decreed that all who refuse so to honor the Emperor shall be killed.”

When the messenger asked, “What answer shall I tell the Emperor?” The captain replied, “Say to the Emperor that Roman soldiers always obey!”

When the captain was alone, he wondered what he should do. Although he was not a Christian, he admired the Christians, for they were good soldiers, but the Emperor’s will must be obeyed. So the bugle sounded and, as the men answered the call, they were told of the Emperor’s command.

Quickly, an altar was built of crude stones. Each soldier with a cup of wine in his hand marched around the altar. The first three poured the wine upon the altar, but the fourth hesitated, turned away, and then poured the wine upon the ground. He was ordered to step aside. Out of 100 soldiers, only 60 honored the Emperor as their God.

Forty Christian soldiers remembered the first of the Ten Commandments, “‘You shall have no other gods before me,’” and decided to “‘obey God rather than men.’”1 They placed the authority of the Word of God over the authority of the Emperor. These 40 men were stripped of all their garments save one and were thrust out on the frozen lake to die.

As quietness settled over the camp, the soldiers heard their comrades singing out on the frozen lake. The captain had a fire built on the shore, hoping that the men would return to its warmth. But they did not come. The words of the song came over the air again and again, but they grew fainter and fainter. Then one dark form came creeping over the ice and dropped by the fire. Silently the soldiers came, picked him up, carried him to a tent, and wrapped him in blankets. One of the 40 had failed to stand firm, but one of the guards set to keep watch over the martyrs threw off his garments, confessed his faith in Christ, and joined the remaining 39. Thus the number of 40 remained complete.

When the next day dawned, the bodies of 40 Christian soldiers were found upon the ice. With their eyes fixed on Jesus, the Captain of their salvation, they had finished their course. When they had to choose between the authority of the Emperor and the authority of Jesus, they chose to follow Jesus.

For many decades now, Western civilization has been in an “authority crisis.” Parental authority, political authority, and ecclesiastical authority have all been questioned. Not only particular authorities, but the concept of authority itself has been challenged. So it is not surprising that the authority of Scripture is also under constant attack from without as well as from within the Christian Church.

George Barna, in his 1997 survey of religion in America, stated that “Our rejection of orthodox Christian beliefs, coupled with a relativistic culture, has led millions of adults to embrace a world view totally at odds with the faith they allegedly embrace. The irony is that most of the individuals who are caught up in their own contradictions are completely unaware of those conflicts.”2

I wish I could say that this does not apply to Seventh-day Adventist believers. However, while we may not be as heavily affected as some other churches, thanks to our overall commitment to Scripture and the Spirit of Prophecy, some Seventh-day Adventists are strongly influenced by what goes on in society at large.

All ultimate authority rests in God. As Creator and Sustainer of the universe, He has the absolute right over all created beings in heaven and on earth.

Modern science has made possible a deeper insight into God’s unfathomable greatness, power, and wisdom. Astronomy reveals astounding facts about the vast numbers not only of stars but of galaxies of stars. Scientific discoveries about the amazing structure of the atom compel us to stand in awe before the incomprehensible might and wisdom of God. Viewed in the greatness of God’s creation, our world is only an insignificant speck and all human beings, considered corporately or individually, are as particles of dust before the Almighty. Therefore, the Creator’s authority over us is absolute and final.

The Old Testament prophets claimed a delegated, secondary authority and introduced their messages with such phrases as: “‘Thus says the Lord’” (Isa. 37:21); “The word of the Lord . . . came to Jeremiah” (Jer. 14:1). Quite in contrast to them, and in a manner unlike that of anyone before or after him, Jesus spoke with a direct, unmistakably divine authority. “‘Assuredly, I say to you’” (Matt. 10:15) were typical words from His lips. Never did He say “Thus says the Lord” or “The message of God came to me.”

Jesus’ manner of speaking left no doubt that as Son of God He claimed to be one with God. His claim that His unique Sonship entitles Him to the throne of God, to absolute divine authority, is revealed by declarations such as “‘All things have been delivered to Me by My Father’” (11:27), and especially by the words in Matthew 28:18: “‘All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth.’”

In harmony with His unique claims to divine authority, Jesus demonstrated this authority in healing the sick, restoring sight to the blind, and raising the dead. He took Jairus’s daughter, who was already dead, by the hand and said: “‘Little girl, arise.’ Then her spirit returned, and she arose immediately” (Luke 8:55). He revealed His authority also over nature by changing water into wine (John 2:1–10), by stilling the storm (Mark 4:37–41), and by walking on water (Mark 6:48–51).

Jesus revealed His supreme authority also over the world of spirits. He overcame the power of Satan and his demons. Luke tells us: “Now in the synagogue there was a man who had a spirit of an unclean demon. And he cried out with a loud voice, saying, ‘Let us alone! What have we to do with You, Jesus of Nazareth? Did You come to destroy us? I know who You are—the Holy One of God!’ But Jesus rebuked him, saying, ‘Be quiet, and come out of him!’ And when the demon had thrown him in their midst, it came out of him and did not hurt him. Then they were all amazed and spoke among themselves, saying, ‘What a word this is! For with authority and power He commands the unclean spirits, and they come out’” (Luke 4:33–36).

Before His ascension into heaven, Jesus declared: “‘All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age’” (Matt. 28:18–20).

He has fulfilled this promise through more than 19 centuries, revealing His power and authority. In all these years, men and women of all races and of all ages and conditions have experienced, and still continue to experience, that Jesus is a living Savior who can help us in all circumstances of life.

When we have to choose between the authority of the state and the authority of Jesus, what will be our decision?



1. Ex. 20:3; Acts 5:29, NIV. Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture references in this column are quoted from the New King James Version of the Bible.
2. Barna Research Group, 1997, cited by William G. Johnsson, “Awash in a Sea of Relativism,” The Adventist Review 174:32 (August 1997): 5.