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Greek Word Study - Authority

In keeping with the theme of politics and government in this issue, it seemed like a good idea to research the word “authority.” Used 108 times in the N.T., the Greek word for “authority” is exousia (ex ou SEE ah). When we unscrew the lid and look inside this word, we come across some interesting observations.

The word exousia originally came from a simple verb which meant “it is permitted; it is lawful; free action is allowed.” People knew the restraints of law and custom; they knew what they were allowed to do. In the ancient story of Tobit, for instance, Raguel told the son of Tobit, “I do not have authority to give my daughter to any man other than yourself” (Tobit 7:10). To have authority meant to have permission—to have freedom to act.

In considering the N.T. uses of “authority,” I was struck by the number of times the term is combined with the words “was given.” Unlike the English word “authority,” which automatically belongs to the “author,” the Greek word exousia is usually given by a higher power. Apostles, governors, chief priests, servants, centurions—all kinds of people are delegated the permission or authority to carry out their responsibilities. (Curiously, this word for authority is not found in connection with elders.)

Government officials are specifically stated to have received their permission to govern from God (Rom 13:1; John 19:10). Their “authority” is neither absolute nor permanent, since Jesus will one day take it back from them (1 Cor 15:24; Rev 17:12). And since they are permitted to exercise authority on such a temporary, delegated basis, one would think they would a have keen sense of their own limitation. With government, it is too rarely so! Instead, as Jesus observed, the “great men” of government often “use authority down on” their subjects (Mark 10:42).

But final authority is in the hands of Jesus (Matt 28:18). It is in obedience to him that we submit to delegated authority. It is in honor of him that we hold delegated authority responsible for doing his will.