(Editor note: The following thoughts are from my spiritual brother and good friend. They are born of mutual conversation and Ben’s own unique perspective on living beyond empty religion and discovering the raw transformative power of Jesus’ upside-down kingdom. -JF)
When reading the New Testament, it strikes me how often Jesus was asked the same question by religious leaders: “Where do you get your authority?” I’ve learned that in an ancient Jewish context, this question was about the source of his teaching. When a Rabbi taught in those days, they usually repeated the teachings of their Rabbi, their Rabbi’s Rabbi and so on. They gave credit the teacher by beginning their their message with “In the name of Rabbi (so and so)…” It was rare that a Rabbi came along with original interpretations of Scripture spoken without reference to another Rabbi. Jesus was such a Teacher. When He taught, he spoke in a fresh voice, in his own name, and told his disciples to speak with the same reference.
The question “where do you get your authority?” translated in today’s language is similar to the question, “what are your credentials?” It’s interesting to note that this question came only to Jesus from the mouths of the religiously credentialled. It never came from a ‘layman’. It’s also interesting to note that this question is not actually about the message. It’s not a query to clarify truth or meaning. The question is about the messenger. Considering the question itself and from whom it came (the same men who began plotting to kill him a few chapters later) it becomes clear that the question has malice behind it. It’s an attempt to bully and discredit the messenger. It’s a shot by the institutionally-backed to taint the legitimacy and influence of an outside teacher – a person without any apparent allegiance or benefit to the religious system. Are you getting a wiff of how little has changed in over 2000 years?
On one occasion when Jesus was again antagonized about source of his authority, he replied with a question. “Tell me, was the baptism of John from heaven or from man?” As was often the case, His question revealed the motive behind their words. It exposed the fact that regardless of the content of the teaching, they rejected any teacher who gained influence apart from their religious network. Although the people believed John the Baptist was a prophet sent from God, the religious leaders disapproved and attacked his unaffiliated ministry. They treated Christ the same way. He went to John rather than to them for his baptismal initiation – and in doing so, marked his ministry from the start with their disapproval. Rather than making allegiance with them and their system, he did so with their nemesis: a God-authorized outsider.
In a conversation with a friend recently, I realized that my hesitation to share my own thoughts on spiritual topics stems from the same question that all those who are uncredentialed face – Where do I get my authority? After all, I haven’t been to seminary and have never taken a single religious class. Comfortingly though, throughout the New Testament I find men and women equally unschooled. It seems that Jesus has a fondness for the unlearned. I see that the earliest followers of Christ faced the exact same objection from the official authorities. And I see a religiously credentialed man like Paul, after encountering Christ, eagerly laying his old status down.
So what does this say about man’s typical view of spiritual credentials compared to God’s perspective? Perhaps heaven’s view is different than how we commonly see them, in ancient times and today. From a human point of view, credentials from a religious institution should imply authority on the things of God. But from God’s view, as with most things, the common human view is turned on its head.
My readings on this topic and personal wrestling with it inspired the following thoughts.
Becoming a full-blown citizen in the kingdom of God is about moving beyond and transcending your tribal identity. When it comes to your true value and status in the kingdom realm, there are no logos, brands, credentials, titles, denominations, ethnic or institutional affiliations that are needed or even relevant. No amount of fame or net worth matters there either. Perfect theology isn’t even a credit. (I’m sure I’ve lost many already.) In the strange, upside down, inside out, kingdom of God all of our status symbols are suddenly obsolete and expired of all usefulness.
As Paul said, he was born of the tribe of Benjamin, exceeded his peers in his studies of the Torah and zeal for God. He was a Pharisee of Pharisees. A religious man of religious men. An intellectual of intellectuals. But after meeting Christ, he suddenly considered all of his religious credentials, which he had based his entire self-worth upon and spent his whole life amassing, as a pile of manure. Why the dramatic shift? His old way of seeing spiritual authority was completely wrecked.
The kingdom of God requires a radical makeover of how we’ve been taught to see human value and spiritual credentials. It gives us a brand new way of measuring and realizing true identity and worth. The old way of gaining, proving and perceiving status becomes useless. According to Paul, knowing the living Christ and him crucified is all that matters in the kingdom of God. Only that will bestow identity and value to a person. Only that experiential knowledge will give real authority. Knowing Him vaporizes any other badge we’ve used in the past to prove our worth.
For those of us with unimpressive resumes and lacking status in the world, this comes as very welcome news. It equals the playing field before God. But to those of us like Paul, who have spent our lives getting good with God through man’s methods of earning spiritual credentials, this can be very unwelcome and disheartening news. For us, also like the rich young man who Jesus told to sell all his belongings and follow him, it is very hard to let go of the status symbols that we think give us a leg to stand on before God and people. (I’ve seen that even poverty can be a status symbol among the self-pious, which Christ won’t be shy to ask a person to surrender.) To let go of these credentials, even only in our hearts, can be a very painful process.
But Christ calls us to undergo a radical makeover of our understanding of our worth and identity. He asks us to let go of our old way of seeing, of our old egoic life of credentials, and to accept a new way to evaluate ourselves and others – a true identity measured by just one credential: Christ. He asks us to invest our entire identity in Him.
The good news of the God’s kingdom credential system is this. From the point of meeting Christ onward, we like Paul can can say, “I no longer live, but Christ lives through me.” Christ offers us an exchange. For our credentials and status, for our life, he offers His own. Any half-blind investor can see that Paul’s evaluation of his old resume was perfectly accurate. It’s total crap! Do you find this offensive? God describes it another way – “Your righteousness is as filthy rags.” Any way you look at it, left to our own credentials, our situation is quite unsanitary. Thank goodness for the status exchange offer. If we like Paul, dare accept it, Christ offers a guarantee. We are assured to discover the benefits of his Divine credentials and status, in this life and the next.