By What Authority? Part 1

This was the question the religious leaders asked Jesus — Matthew 22:23-32.

After Jesus had entered the temple and was teaching there, the high priests and the elders of the people came to him, saying, ‘By what authority do you do these things? And who gave you this authority?’  In reply Jesus said to them, I will ask you one question too. If you answer it for me, I will tell you by what authority I do these things.  Where did the baptism of John come from—from heaven or from human beings?’  So they reasoned among themselves, saying, If we should say, ‘From heaven, he will say to us, Then why didn’t you believe him?  And if we say, From human beings, we fear the crowd, because all the people hold that John was a prophet’.  So in answer they said to Jesus, We don’t know.  Then he said to them, ‘I will not tell you, then, by what authority I do these things.’

 ‘What do you think? A man had two sons.  And going to the first, he said, Child, go today and work in my vineyard. In response he said, I don’t want to; but later he reconsidered and went.  Then going to the other son, he said the same thing. But this one answered, I will, Lord, but he did not go.  Who of these two did the will of the father?  And they said to him, The first one. Jesus said to them, I tell you truly, that the tax collectors and prostitutes enter the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him.  But the tax collectors and prostitutes believed him. And when you saw this, you did not then reconsider and believe him.’

This incident happened in the week before Jesus died on a cross and rose again. The day before this incident, He had entered Jerusalem in triumph, riding on a donkey. Images of the promised king flowed into the minds of the people. Great crowds had followed him, and children kept calling out,

Salvation! Happy is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Ps. 118

Jesus then entered the temple, and threw out those who were there simply to make money. People were either selling animals for the sacrifices required by the law (probably at an inflated price), or they were getting a good exchange rate on the money that would be used to buy the animals.  This was the week leading up to one of the great feasts of the religious year, the Passover.  It was a time when the people remembered that long ago God had rescued them from slavery in Egypt. God had spared their first born children because young lambs had been killed in their place.  Israel was to remember that God promised forgiveness of sins through the death of a substitute.  It was the language of the Passover that the prophet John the Baptist had used when he first pointed Jesus out. He had said,

Look, the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. John 1:29

So, the religious leaders came to Jesus.  They were not happy with him. Jesus had a habit of pointing people to the Scriptures in a way that made these leaders look foolish.

For example, when they tried to correct Jesus’ disciples because they did not wash in the approved way, Jesus didn’t seem to care. He spoke instead about the evil condition of the human heart, mind and will.  He told them that man-made traditions were unable to fix our sin problem, and he accused them of paying far more attention to their traditions than to the word that God had given them.

Side note: A tradition is a belief people have, or a thing people do, because it is handed down from the past. Christmas is celebrated in different ways in different countries because of different traditions. Some traditions are good. Paul says the Lord’s supper is a tradition that we have received from the Lord Jesus. Some other traditions are or can become very bad, especially if they are made more important than the things God tells us to believe or do in his Word.

On another occasion, when Jesus was teaching people about what is allowed on the weekly day of rest, he reminded the Pharisees that God had said, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice’, and gave them scriptural examples from the life of David and the work of the priests to show that the oppressive rules of the Pharisees were twisted (Matthew 12). Again, Jesus corrected the ugly views on divorce that these leaders had, and explained a passage in Deuteronomy by referring to the first chapter of Genesis (Matthew 19).

Often the Lord Jesus corrected these sorts of errors by asking, Have you never read this in the Scripture? The Pharisees certainly would have read the Bible, but Jesus’ question was not just about reading, it was about changing people’s thinking. What effect did God intend his word to have.  What should we believe in the light of His word, and what should we do in response? These are the things Jesus wanted the leaders to think about. We should think about them too.

Finally, just the day before, when they had asked Jesus to silence the children who were calling out loudly that Jesus was the Son of David, Jesus asked if they had ever read that ‘From the mouths of nursing babies God had ordained praise.’ Who did Jesus think he was? Who did the people think he was? It was time, these leaders thought, to take matters firmly in hand.

Jesus had entered the temple, and as his custom was, he started teaching people the Scriptures.  As he started to teach, the high priests and elders came with their question. It seems to me that they had been waiting and watching for him.  As soon as they saw him, they gathered together and went for Him:

By what authority do you do these things, and who gave you that authority?

It was a good question to ask.

Continue in Part 2

By What Authority? — Part 2

Matthew 22:23-32, continued from Part 1

‘Authority’ is the right to do or be something.  A policeman has the right to give a speeding motorist a ticket. Teachers in some jurisdictions require registration or they have no right to be in a classroom. Usually, this authority comes to a person from someone else, sometimes from the government, sometimes from parents, sometimes from an employer.  The Bible tells us that all authority comes from God, and we find out about it through his word.

Jesus clearly spoke with authority.  He was continually amazing people with the things he said.  Jesus certainly acted with authority when he threw the money changers out of the temple, declaring with Isaiah and Jeremiah that the temple was to be a house of prayer, not a robbers’ den.  These leaders, however, had a twisted view of authority.  They were very concerned to maintain their own authority.

They had intellectual authority.  They had been taught, they were the learned ones.  They were the teachers.

They had moral authority.  They were not ‘sinners’ like the people Jesus hung around with.  You remember the blind man that Jesus healed, how he was cross-examined by the religious leaders?  They said that they knew Jesus was a sinner (because he healed people on the Sabbath), but when the healed man reminded them of some uncomfortable facts, they said to him, ‘You were wholly born in sin, and do you teach us!’ John 9:34.

As Jesus himself had said, these leaders, … sat in Moses’ chair. But Jesus had also said, ‘Do as they say, but not as they do.’

This last point is important.  These leaders had real authority, but they abused it.  Their authority came from the word of God.  If they taught that word, they were to be listened to.  Sadly, they were teaching the traditions of men, and by these traditions they set God’s word to one side and ignored it. And this, I think, was the point of their question.  Jesus was not in their favour.  He had not gone to their schools, he was not sent by them, he did not teach what they taught. He was not acting under their authority.  Who gave him the right to teach and to command in the ways he did?

Jesus could have given them an answer straight away—he had silenced them often enough in the past—but he chose to let them work it out.  I suspect these leaders already knew the answer Jesus could give, and they were hoping to use his answer as an accusation. After all, they had been planning to kill him for some time. But Jesus turned their plot against themselves:

You tell me about the baptism of John, he said, is it from heaven or from men.

Stating the question in a slightly different way,

Had God sent John as a prophet, as one who spoke God’s authoritative word, or was he sent by people like you, by mere men with a merely human message?  Was his message vital truth from our Creator and Judge, or was it one message among many others which people may listen to, then accept or reject without fear? Did John have real authority, or really none at all?

These leaders weren’t slow.  They knew the options and their consequences immediately.

If we were to say, ‘From heaven,’ He will say, ‘Why then didn’t you believe him?’

In other words, ‘Why don’t you summit to the Word of God.  You are supposed to lead the people in the things of God.’  If John’s message was from heaven, they of all people ought to have believed it, obeyed it, and urged people to do the same.  When John preached repentance, the leaders ought to have been the first to admit their guilt before God.  They ought to have been most welcoming of the Lord Jesus.

You see, John message did not come in a vacuum. Many of these men would have been young at the time when King Herod was visited by the wise men after Jesus was born.  Their own teachers were most likely the men who told the king of the prophecy regarding the Christ’s birth in Bethlehem. When John began to teach that the Christ was near, it ought to have rung true to them immediately.  Surely the high priests would have heard the amazing story of the birth of John the Baptist, the son of a priest?  This is probably why these leaders had sent to John originally and asked him if he were the Christ.  But John had pointed to Jesus and testified that God from heaven had spoken of Jesus saying, This one is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased.

Concluded in Part 3

By What Authority? — Part 3

Matthew 22:23-32 continued from Part 2

‘If we were to say from heaven,’ He will say, ‘Why then didn’t you believe him?’

There are a number of related reasons why these leaders would not confess Christ as Lord, and all of them reveal the weakness of our sinful condition:

Pride: like the rich young ruler, they had probably convinced themselves that they had nothing to repent of.  They believed they had always kept the commandments.  They stood in the traditions of the fathers.  Pride still keeps people from trusting Christ today.  Jesus, as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, is a great offence to our pride.

Fear: if Jesus was the Christ, he would diminish their authority, they would have to give place to him. John the Baptist had been eager to give all honour to Jesus, but the religious leaders were not. Jesus actual told a parable with this theme a little later on. Submitting to Christ means we give up control of our life and follow him in the way he tells us to in the Bible. Without the mighty grace of God, no one will do this.

Atheism: they really did not want to believe in God.  The apostle Paul, a former Pharisee, wrote that those without Christ are ‘without hope and without God in the world.’  The phrase, ‘without God’ comes from the Greek word, Atheist.  Not to trust Christ is to be a practical atheist.  It does not matter how pious or sincere people may be in whatever religion they might choose to follow, if a person is without Christ, that person is an atheist—separated from God by their sin and under his judgment.

In short, the Leaders were at war with Jesus, and so is everyone else until the Spirit of God draws a person irresistibly to the Cross of Christ, to Jesus who alone can rescue us.

The other option was just as uncomfortable for them:

And if we say, From human beings, we fear the crowd, for all of them hold that John was a prophet.

Why would they fear the people? Jerusalem at the time of the Passover, at least during the Roman occupation, was a volatile place.  It could easily erupt into a riot, precisely for reasons of religious belief.  Both the Roman governors and the high priests were sensitive to this fact.  When the plot to kill Jesus was formed, originally they had planned not to kill him during the feast, partly because they wished to avoid a riot.

What did the people believe?  That John was a prophet.   The people believed that John the Baptist was a man with a message from God.  They believed that he was not speaking on his own authority. In fact, John was unmistakably a prophet, because God’s word is unmistakably God’s words.  Even in the Old Testament, at a time when people were most angry with God and most determined to resist His will, they knew that God had spoken to them. The case of Jeremiah is a clear example of this. When Jeremiah told the people of the wrong they were doing, it wasn’t rocket science to see he was right.  When the judgment he had warned them about came just as he had said, it was clear as day that God had spoken by him.  Then, after all this, when the people who were left after the Babylonian attack asked Jeremiah what they should do, God spoke to them clearly by his prophet, the one they knew to be a prophet, but they then did everything they could to resist what God had said. And this resulted in further pain and suffering for them.  So, even though many of the people of Jesus day did not act upon John’s message about Jesus, all the people had correctly identified John the Baptist as a prophet. They had all gone out to be baptised by him.

So, it would have been suicidal for the leaders to say that John was not a prophet. Not only would they have been considered fools, they could have been torn to pieces.

So the religious leaders took what many people today think is the safe way out.  They said: ‘We don’t know.’

They played dumb, thinking this was a safe move. It was not. God had spoken by John and they knew it.  John had pointed to Jesus in the clearest terms, declaring him to be the Christ, the saviour of the world, the hope of Israel. The only right conclusion was that Jesus is who John said his is. These leaders knew it and were hardening their hearts against the word of God spoken by John; they were cutting themselves off from the salvation revealed in all the Scriptures. They were sinning against truth; they were sinning against light.

The Lord Jesus did not leave them to be comfortable in their rebellion.  After they had already understood the answer to Jesus’ question, he told them a story of a father who had two sons.

The first son represents those whom the religious leaders considered to be trash. Tax collectors, prostitutes.  These people had heard the word of God and at first refused it. They were sinners.  But when they heard of God’s mercy in Christ from John the Baptist or from Jesus himself (eg., in the word) they repented, changed their minds, trusted Jesus and were accepted by the Father.  ‘This is the will of God,’ Jesus said, ‘that you trust him whom the father has sent.’

The second son represents those who say, ‘I’m going to do things the right way’, yet keep on resisting the Lord Jesus Christ.  Some people refuse to confess their sin and ignore their desperate need for Jesus to rescue them.  With all their piety, some people refuse the way of righteousness by refusing Jesus as Lord and Saviour. Some people are determined to hold onto their own authority, their own ideas of what is right, their own intellectual pretensions, instead of submitting to the word of God.

The big question for us is, How are we responding to the Word of God?

  • Do we acknowledge the authority of Jesus Christ?
  • Do we receive him as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, as the one who has taken away my guilt—guilt that I have no way of removing myself?
  • Do we follow him as Lord, according to his word?

The good news is that if we will come to Jesus in repentance and faith, He will never send us away.