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A Case of Authority

Matthew 21:23-46

Lesson audio

From the novelist’s point of view, the Pharisees are a necessary bunch. Jesus is little given to making cosmic philosophical statements. He much prefers the arts of dialog and parable. There is no complete theological textbook in the Bible; the closest we get to that is Romans. So we must examine the Scripture more carefully. A textbook will teach you the facts; Christ reaches to the heart.

The Nature of Authority

Mat 21:23-27 NASB When He entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to Him while He was teaching, and said, "By what authority are You doing these things, and who gave You this authority?" (24) Jesus said to them, "I will also ask you one thing, which if you tell Me, I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. (25) "The baptism of John was from what source, from heaven or from men?" And they began reasoning among themselves, saying, "If we say, 'From heaven,' He will say to us, 'Then why did you not believe him?' (26) "But if we say, 'From men,' we fear the people; for they all regard John as a prophet." (27) And answering Jesus, they said, "We do not know." He also said to them, "Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.

To the heart

There is a great shrewdness in how Christ handles this. He has no interest in giving them the textbook answer (which He will do for His disciples), but rather He knows that this is a matter of the heart. See His approach:

  • “The fornicator thinks no one is chaste.” He knows their hypocrisy – and therefore knows that they think He is like them. They just can’t figure out His “angle.” He will use this against them, giving them the opportunity to pronounce upon His parables. He will then use their own answer to convict them.
  • His question, therefore is aimed at their hearts. His intention is to convict them of sin. He is sufficiently confident of the truth of this that He will allow them to be the judges of the truth he exposes.
  • We might ask, why didn’t He just give them a direct answer? There are two possible explanations. One is that we do not tell little children the adult answers to their questions. They are not fit to receive the blunt truth. Another is this: their eyes are closed tight by the hatred they have. Christ’s intent is to skewer their pride, not harden it.
John the Baptist

John is dead, but his influence on that generation did not die with him. The people considered him a prophet, like those in the Old Testament. By bringing up his name, Christ contrasts the urbane, well dressed and rich appearance of the priests with the rough exterior of the prophet. It’s a subtlety He does not use aloud, but it’s there. Why is John so considered?

  • John was free of the love of money and the ego often associated with “public” religious work. You respect a preacher a lot more if you know he is not in it for the money.
  • His life and message were consistent. He looked and acted like a prophet from the Old Testament.
  • Most importantly – John’s credentials were shown in the hearts he convicted of sin. When the preacher convicts you of sin, it’s a good sign the man is who he appears to be.

Such a power is not within man, but comes from God.

One source – or many?

The Pharisees have a building block missing in their reasoning. They believe that there are multiple sources of authority – secular as well as sacred. But the truth is otherwise:

Mat 28:18 NASB And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, "All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth.

So all legitimate authority (as distinguished from power) comes from God, through Christ. This thought carries with it a radical idea: servant leadership. The Master who washed His disciples’ feet set the example for us. Authority, rightly used, is for the blessing of those under that authority. And now you know the difference between authority and tyranny.

Two Sons

Mat 21:28-32 NASB "But what do you think? A man had two sons, and he came to the first and said, 'Son, go work today in the vineyard.' (29) "And he answered, 'I will not'; but afterward he regretted it and went. (30) "The man came to the second and said the same thing; and he answered, 'I will, sir'; but he did not go. (31) "Which of the two did the will of his father?" They *said, "The first." Jesus *said to them, "Truly I say to you that the tax collectors and prostitutes will get into the kingdom of God before you. (32) "For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him; but the tax collectors and prostitutes did believe him; and you, seeing this, did not even feel remorse afterward so as to believe him.

If you ask your opponent to pass judgment upon your argument, it speaks of a high confidence in the righteousness of your cause. Remember Nathan’s little story to King David?[1] The stories are rather obvious, and so is the conclusion. We all know that delivering on Monday beats attending on Sunday. When introduced to someone, we often ask, “What do you do?” It is impolite to ask next, “What do you want people to think you do?”

Even the Pharisees get the point. My son is a lawyer, and his poor, simple father often asks what appears (to me, at least) a simple question of law. I read something in the paper, and I get curious. He gets verbose, making great use of “if”, “and” and “else”. But this case is too obvious for that. Indeed, Christ confirms their grasp of the obvious – and then points out the consequent facts.

Tax collectors and prostitutes

It’s a common dichotomy in the church: health club for saints, or hospital for sinners? I recall an incident when we first joined this congregation. We were invited to return to a class the next week; in declining I explained that my wife and I would be visiting a Christian from our previous congregation – in prison.

She was utterly shocked. No real Christian would ever go to prison (you might want to check that with St. Paul), and no real Christian would ever admit to being a friend with such. (She’s right; he was more than a friend. He also was a member of my Bible class there, which does not say very much for the teaching.) So we might examine ourselves on this.

It’s useful to ask: do our attitudes and words welcome the different, the low class, or do they hinder their coming? We have a young man in our congregation who has tattoos, body piercings and hair coloring. He’s a friend to some in our class; we welcome him. But if he came in by himself, knowing no one, would we welcome him then? The answer, I suspect, is that some would and others wouldn’t. We might well ask if that’s what we want.

Churches attract certain people. Any church our size certainly welcomes good Christians who have just moved into the area. But let’s not confuse that with evangelism. If we are to reach “the prostitutes and tax collectors” we need to open up, not tighten up.

I don’t get it

It is a complicating fact that, like the Pharisees in this passage, some people just don’t “get it.” What is conviction to you may be babble to me. The cause might be my hypocrisy – or the culture in which I was raised. Be bold – but be wise.

History and Future of Israel

Mat 21:33-46 NASB "Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who PLANTED A VINEYARD AND PUT A WALL AROUND IT AND DUG A WINE PRESS IN IT, AND BUILT A TOWER, and rented it out to vine-growers and went on a journey. (34) "When the harvest time approached, he sent his slaves to the vine-growers to receive his produce. (35) "The vine-growers took his slaves and beat one, and killed another, and stoned a third. (36) "Again he sent another group of slaves larger than the first; and they did the same thing to them. (37) "But afterward he sent his son to them, saying, 'They will respect my son.' (38) "But when the vine-growers saw the son, they said among themselves, 'This is the heir; come, let us kill him and seize his inheritance.' (39) "They took him, and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. (40) "Therefore when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those vine-growers?" (41) They *said to Him, "He will bring those wretches to a wretched end, and will rent out the vineyard to other vine-growers who will pay him the proceeds at the proper seasons." (42) Jesus *said to them, "Did you never read in the Scriptures, 'THE STONE WHICH THE BUILDERS REJECTED, THIS BECAME THE CHIEF CORNER stone; THIS CAME ABOUT FROM THE LORD, AND IT IS MARVELOUS IN OUR EYES'? (43) "Therefore I say to you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people, producing the fruit of it. (44) "And he who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; but on whomever it falls, it will scatter him like dust." (45) When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard His parables, they understood that He was speaking about them. (46) When they sought to seize Him, they feared the people, because they considered Him to be a prophet.

The Past

The parable is capable of being elaborated on at great length, with many different interpretations.[2] But here are three points I would have you see.

  • The Land – ancient Israel – belongs not to the people but to God. He allots the land to the tribes, but the land remains His; thus he can speak of the land being utterly defiled[3], for that land is holy to God. He is the Landlord.
  • The walled city so favored by God is the city of Jerusalem. Christ wept over that city, so one can see how precious it is to Him.
  • The Law and the Prophets are sent to that land to bring back what is rightfully the Landlord’s. The Law is ignored, the prophets abused or killed.

Thus the history of Israel in a nutshell. The parable would have been easy to interpret by those around.

The Future

(Note, please, this is prior to the Resurrection). The figure of the Son enters; the Jews are about to choose what to do with Him. There are only two options:

  • Accept Him as the “stone of stumbling” – the one who brings sin to light so that repentance might accept atonement.
  • Reject Him – and be utterly crushed. This is the option they chose. Free will is still with us.

The Jews would be familiar with the image of the Stone:

Dan 2:27-45 NASB Daniel answered before the king and said, "As for the mystery about which the king has inquired, neither wise men, conjurers, magicians nor diviners are able to declare it to the king. (28) "However, there is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries, and He has made known to King Nebuchadnezzar what will take place in the latter days. This was your dream and the visions in your mind while on your bed. (29) "As for you, O king, while on your bed your thoughts turned to what would take place in the future; and He who reveals mysteries has made known to you what will take place. (30) "But as for me, this mystery has not been revealed to me for any wisdom residing in me more than in any other living man, but for the purpose of making the interpretation known to the king, and that you may understand the thoughts of your mind. (31) "You, O king, were looking and behold, there was a single great statue; that statue, which was large and of extraordinary splendor, was standing in front of you, and its appearance was awesome. (32) "The head of that statue was made of fine gold, its breast and its arms of silver, its belly and its thighs of bronze, (33) its legs of iron, its feet partly of iron and partly of clay. (34) "You continued looking until a stone was cut out without hands, and it struck the statue on its feet of iron and clay and crushed them. (35) "Then the iron, the clay, the bronze, the silver and the gold were crushed all at the same time and became like chaff from the summer threshing floors; and the wind carried them away so that not a trace of them was found. But the stone that struck the statue became a great mountain and filled the whole earth. (36) "This was the dream; now we will tell its interpretation before the king. (37) "You, O king, are the king of kings, to whom the God of heaven has given the kingdom, the power, the strength and the glory; (38) and wherever the sons of men dwell, or the beasts of the field, or the birds of the sky, He has given them into your hand and has caused you to rule over them all. You are the head of gold. (39) "After you there will arise another kingdom inferior to you, then another third kingdom of bronze, which will rule over all the earth. (40) "Then there will be a fourth kingdom as strong as iron; inasmuch as iron crushes and shatters all things, so, like iron that breaks in pieces, it will crush and break all these in pieces. (41) "In that you saw the feet and toes, partly of potter's clay and partly of iron, it will be a divided kingdom; but it will have in it the toughness of iron, inasmuch as you saw the iron mixed with common clay. (42) "As the toes of the feet were partly of iron and partly of pottery, so some of the kingdom will be strong and part of it will be brittle. (43) "And in that you saw the iron mixed with common clay, they will combine with one another in the seed of men; but they will not adhere to one another, even as iron does not combine with pottery. (44) "In the days of those kings the God of heaven will set up a kingdom which will never be destroyed, and that kingdom will not be left for another people; it will crush and put an end to all these kingdoms, but it will itself endure forever. (45) "Inasmuch as you saw that a stone was cut out of the mountain without hands and that it crushed the iron, the bronze, the clay, the silver and the gold, the great God has made known to the king what will take place in the future; so the dream is true and its interpretation is trustworthy."

Did the stone fall on the Jews – were they scattered like dust? From the sack of Jerusalem in AD 70 through 1948 the Jews, retaining their identity, wandered the earth. Dispersed – like dust.

The Return

We may be brief about this, for too much on this subject risks being mired in competing interpretations. The return of the Jews seemed for a long time to be completely impossible. But it was not so; it just waited for the proper time.

  • It is specifically prophesied that the Jews would return to the Land.[4]
  • It is clear that the return will be centered on the city of Jerusalem, which God will bless.[5]
  • And – when Israel finally acknowledges and worships Christ, the end of time will come, and the dead will rise.[6]

We live in exciting times.

[1] 2 Samuel 12:1-25

[3] Leviticus 18:25, speaking of the prior inhabitants of the land.

[4] For example, Zechariah 1:14-17

[5] Joel 3:20-21

[6] Romans 11:5

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