Since, as we have seen in many of these studies, the principle message of the New Testament concerns the revelation, the establishment, and an invitation to participative citizenship in the Kingdom of God, it should come as no surprise that the concept of “power” is a frequent subject of discussion. Also not surprisingly, even a cursory English survey of the uses of “power” reveals a wide variety of ideas, due in large part to the fact that this single English word has been used to represent four different Greek words which, despite some overlap, have quite distinct meanings.
Dunamis, the word most frequently used (117 times), is the only one that refers to miraculous deeds, by Jesus or his followers (22 times specifically, and many more by implication). Interestingly, that usage appears to be almost unique to Biblical writings. Classically, the word was used for a person’s ability to do a task, or to any natural capacity. Aristotle used it of the elementary forces, such as heat or cold; Galen, of the basic characteristics of substances, of medicines, or formulas; Plato of the “meaning” of a word; Archimedes of mathematical powers and roots; Heliodorus of magical substances or objects; and Herodotus of forces deployed for war. (Liddell/Scott) Not until the Septuagint (LXX) and New Testament writings is it applied to the activity of divine beings or miraculous works. Perhaps this is why it often appears in a phrase – “the power of God”, “the power of the Spirit”, “the power of the Lord”, “the power of Christ” (at least 43 times): to emphasize whose capability is in view.
Malevolent powers are also mentioned – Lk.10:19, Ac.8:10, Rom.8:38, I Thes.2:9) – as well as simple abilities of individuals – Mt.25:15, Ac.3:12, Ac.6:8, II Cor.8:3,4 – but the overwhelming majority of references are to a manifestation of the power of God, either directly (by Jesus), or through one or more of his people.
It is also interesting to note some of the words closely associated with dunamis:
– Jesus challenging his accusers that they know neither “the Scriptures nor the power of God” (Mt.22:29)
– Lk.5:17 “The power of the Lord was present to heal”
– Peter and John’s declaration that “our own power or holiness” was not the source of the healing (Ac.3:12)
– I Cor.2:4: “demonstrations of the Spirit and power”
– I Cor.4:20 “The kingdom of God is not in words but in power”
– Rom.1:4 Jesus “declared to be the Son of God with power by his resurrection”
– “The power of his resurrection” II Cor.13:4, Phil.3:10, and many others.
Exousia, the second most frequently used among the “power” words (103 times), is quite distinctly different. Without exception, it refers to delegated authority. It is often paired with dunamis. When Jesus commissioned his disciples for their mission (Mt.10:1, Mk.3:15 and 6:7, Lk.9:1), he gave them both dunamis and exousia – the ability necessary for their assignment, and the authority to use it. On the other hand, his reference to the power of the Holy Spirit to be conferred at Pentecost used only dunamis (Ac.1:8), as did the subsequent discussion with the temple hierarchy, who questioned their display of dunamis with, “Where did THAT come from?(4:7)”. Maybe they had given up on the “authority” question by that time. His opponents among the scribes and Pharisees had not challenged Jesus’ ability to act as he did: that was obvious. They questioned his right (authority – exousia) to do so (Mt.21:23-27, Mk.11:28-33, Lk.20:2-8).
Political power, natural or supernatural, is universally represented by exousia, in conformity with classical usage (Lk.23:27, many times in Eph. and Col.) L/S lists “office, magistracy, consulate,” and “to exercise authority over a political entity”, as well as the abuse of that authority; but also notes exousia as simply “permission to act”. The Roman centurion who approached Jesus on behalf of his child [servant] understood this (Mt.8:9), noting that his own authority was delegated, and he himself also assigned responsibilities to inferiors. The same idea appears in several parables (Mk.13:34, Lk.19:17), and in Paul’s accounts of his former assignment from the Jewish authorities (Ac.9:14, and 26:10, 12). In every case, exousia is assigned by a superior to a lesser person.
Jesus’ conversation with Pilate (Jn.19:10,11) is an interesting case in point. When Pilate boasted of his authority (exousia) either to crucify or set Jesus free, Jesus’ answer is often touted by deterministic “theologians” as “proof” that “God intended all this to happen”. However, the use of exousia in both Pilate’s question and Jesus’ answer may indicate simply that both men clearly understood the meaning of the word: authority can only be conferred by a higher authority, (whether divine or political is not specified), upon a petty politician! Pilate is much less “powerful” than he thinks he is! Jesus, in a sense, has called his bluff! And he knows it.
In Romans 13, Paul maintains that no legitimate authority (exousia) exists, except that which is properly regulated “under God”!
Ischus (9 times) and kratos (11 times) are somewhat harder to separate, as both, classically, referred primarily to bodily strength. Kratos was also used as an attribute of the power of the gods in Homer (which may highlight the difference in the perception of divinity between the classical civilizations and the Biblical community – which would be an interesting cultural study!). It also referred to political sovereignty in the LXX, and to the possession of territory in Herodotus. Pythagoras used it as a “name” for the number ten.
Ischus , also primarily referring to physical strength, tended more toward the idea of brute force (Aeschylus), and was used by Plato and Idumeus of a powerful kingdom, and militarily, of a main body of troops (neither of which violates the concept of “brute force”!)
The words are similarly difficult to distinguish in the New Testament, often appearing paired with dunamis or exousia, as if the writer is trying to be sure that all the bases are covered! In Eph.6:10, three of the words are included: “Be strengthened (dunamis) in the Lord, by the force (kratos) of his strength (ischus)” (traditionally, “Be strong in the Lord and in the power of his might”.) In Rev.5:12 and 7:2, ischus is paired with dunamis, and in Jude 26, kratos is paired with exousia.
Peter’s urging the brethren to “serve” (“minister”) with the strength (ischus) supplied by God would lead one to conclude that the “diakonia” (serving) in view is more practical than theoretical. A similar flavor comes through in the admonition (Mk.12:30, 33; Lk.10:27) that love for God is to consume one’s heart, “soul” (see W.S.#28), mind, and strength (ischus), all physical attributes.
Kratos in the NT often seems focused primarily on God/Jesus’ eventual triumph (I Pet.5:11, 4:11; Rv.1:6; Eph.1:19; Col.1:11, I Tim.6:16; Rv.5:13) which is already being realized as a consequence of his having (Heb.2:14) already “destroyed the one who had – PAST TENSE!! – the power (kratos) of death” and set his captives free!
All of these “power words” – and more – are piled together in Paul’s enthusiastic prayer recorded in Eph.1:17-23: that all of us, his people, may be supernaturally enlightened and enabled to know “…the exceeding greatness of his (Jesus’) power (dunamis) that is available for us …. the energy (energian) of God’s powerful (kratos) strength (ischus) was demonstrated definitively when he raised him from the dead, and seated him at his own right, in heaven, far above every ruler (arche) and authority (exousia) and power (dunamis) and title of nobility (kuriotetos)…!!!
To him be all honor and glory and praise!