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Life of Christ (2007-2009)

The Nature of Authority

Matthew 21:23-32

Lesson audio

It is an article of faith among Americans today that authority must be resisted and rebelled against at all times; that it is inherently “not cool.” (“Good” and “bad” no longer being in common use.) So it is perplexing at times to see the emphasis placed on authority and its legitimacy in earlier times. Bear with us, then, modern Americans, as we attempt to explain it.

The Challenge

Mat 21:23-27 NIV Jesus entered the temple courts, and, while he was teaching, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him. "By what authority are you doing these things?" they asked. "And who gave you this authority?" (24) Jesus replied, "I will also ask you one question. If you answer me, I will tell you by what authority I am doing these things. (25) John's baptism--where did it come from? Was it from heaven, or from men?"

They discussed it among themselves and said, "If we say, 'From heaven,' he will ask, 'Then why didn't you believe him?' (26) But if we say, 'From men'--we are afraid of the people, for they all hold that John was a prophet." (27) So they answered Jesus, "We don't know."

Then he said, "Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.

At first glance the priests would seem to be on solid ground. The Old Testament is clear that the priests have complete authority over the Temple; even the king has no part in it.[1] It is interesting, therefore, that they do not present this argument to Christ. We shall see more of this, but for the moment we must consider the phenomenon of projection – where I attribute to you my own motives. To the pure, all things are pure. To the cynical, the other guy must be just as corrupt, right?

This is the weak point in the priests’ argument. They can’t imagine that Jesus’ motives are pure. Therefore they accuse him (for example) of being in league with the devil. Here they challenge his authority. Funny thing, isn’t it? The moneychangers and those who sold animals there had very little difficulty in recognizing his authority.

Why didn’t Christ answer directly?

It’s a straightforward question, why not answer it directly?

  • Those who ask for the truth must be fit to receive it. The corrupt mind is not. (Compare the use of parables in this[2]).
  • One who has hatred or contempt for the truth is not entitled to ask.[3]
  • Christ is Truth – and therefore must give the answer of an honest man to the corrupt mind.
  • Christ came to seek and save the lost – even the Pharisees.[4]
  • Most of all – Christ’s objective is not winning the debate but obliging the choice: for or against him. Those who are for, are saved.

Why John? It is simply this: John testified to who Jesus is. If you accept John’s testimony, you accept these things:

  • Christ is the Lamb of God.[5] As such, Christ has the responsibility of the Atonement; therefore he had the authority that being the Atonement brings – “no one comes to the Father except by me.”[6]
  • Christ is given the responsibility of winnowing out those who claim to be of God.[7] He therefore has the authority to do so.
  • There is also John’s personal testimony. He is a prophet in the Old Testament fashion – of the Law and the Prophets. If you accept John, you accept that Jesus is much, much greater than John.[8]

But suppose you reject John? It seems that this is the simple solution. John is just some nut case in the desert, right? How is this risky?

·         First, “everybody knew” that John was a prophet. Even the most amoral of regimes must have some support from the general population, and this bunch was already on thin ice.

·         Tyranny often bases itself on an assumed righteousness – and thus fears being found out.

·         Most of all, these are priests who have surrendered to the powers of this world. They fear Caesar more than God; there is no way to fit John into their system.

So they say, “we don’t know.” Sure they don’t.

Nature of authority

We must now consider the nature of authority. There are many schemes for analyzing this; we shall use a relatively simple one.

  • Authority has a moral dimension. Power may be rammed down your throat; but authority has to have at least an air of legitimacy about it.
  • Authority often depends upon expertise. Doctors write our prescriptions; elders must be knowledgeable in the Scriptures.
  • Commonly, authority is positional. You have a certain authority because you are a policeman. It’s not something within you. Salute the uniform, not the wearer.
Recognizing authority

How do we know real authority when we see it?

·         Sometimes by the power it has. It is often a correct conclusion that an authority is legitimate when we see the power it has.

·         Sometimes “by uniform” – the office, if you will. John the Baptist looked like a prophet (camel hair coat, eats locusts). He acted like one too. (Prophets always out there condemning sin.) He was also beheaded for it, which seems to be a common fate for prophets – and apostles.

·         Mostly, however, we recognize it by delegation – someone we know is an authority tells us that someone else is such, under his authority.

The chain of authority

In the kingdom of God, authority comes from responsibility. An elder has authority because he has God-given responsibility. Note that responsibility is a moral condition. We often describe responsibility with, “he’s supposed to do that.” Legitimate authority’s actions are subject to the test: does this help carry out the responsibilities given?

Such a moral aspect usually requires expert knowledge authority. Can the elder rule over the church if he is ignorant of the Scriptures? Likewise, can a husband rule over a family if he is ignorant of God’s commands on how to do so? We have classes to train husbands and fathers for just this reason.


This enables us to define tyranny: it is the abuse of authority.

  • Such abuse may be in the moral realm. A cop who pulls over the cute blonde and offers her a choice of ticket or sex is abusing his authority, no matter how pleasant the results.
  • It often comes from exceeding one’s authority for personal pleasure or gain. The fire truck should not go sirens blazing down to pick up the pizza.
  • Sometimes it’s just plain stupidity or ignorance. There are men who believe that there wives should be beaten to keep them in line – and that this is the teaching of the Scripture. (It isn’t.)

The Authority of Christ

Mat 21:28-32 NIV "What do you think? There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, 'Son, go and work today in the vineyard.' (29) " 'I will not,' he answered, but later he changed his mind and went. (30) "Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, 'I will, sir,' but he did not go. (31) "Which of the two did what his father wanted?"

"The first," they answered.

Jesus said to them, "I tell you the truth, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. (32) For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him.

We may begin with a review of the authority of Christ, which stems from this statement:

Mat 28:18 NIV Then Jesus came to them and said, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.

Permit me then to point out three areas of that authority in the Christian life:

  • It is authority over all things – including governments. If we no longer say, “In God We Trust,” we deny His authority over the government – and make the government’s authority supreme.
  • It is authority over the church. There is such a thing as heresy, and it should be fought. His teaching should prevail in his church.
  • It is authority over the Christian – you and me.
The parable

There is one basic question: with you, is it “say, say” or “Do, do?” God must be praised – but he also must be obeyed.

This seems so obvious that it should not be necessary even to state it. But it was necessary; indeed, it was necessary to point out further example:

  • The Pharisees didn’t accept Christ – but the sinners did. The worst of the sinners, those afflicted with sins socially unacceptable. Who’s saying and who’s doing?
  • And if the least and worst of sinners are doing this, why haven’t you taken notice?
Rejection of authority

I said this teaching is hard to understand today, and it is. We have been taught that, as Americans who are “self-actualized,” “the measure of all things” and “if it feels good, do it.” Authority is pictured as always corrupt, generally ignorant and tyrannical. We condemn abuse based on the old idea of authority; we excuse our rejection of it based on the new ideas. But as Christ said here, can we take a look at the results and draw the logical conclusions?

  • Society as a whole – is Western Civilization rising, or flushing?
  • The church – even the evangelical wing – is it weak or strong?
  • The believer – are we more or less tangled in the sins of the world, the flesh and the devil?

I submit that our rejection of authority simply substitutes our own feelings and ideas for true authority. Either Christ is Lord as well as Savior, or he is neither. As Joshua put it,

Jos 24:15 NIV But if serving the LORD seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your forefathers served beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD."

[1] 2nd Chronicles 26:16-21, the story of Uzziah burning incense in the temple.

[2] Matthew 13:13-15

[3] Psalm 50:16

[4] Luke 19:10

[5] John 1:29

[6] John 14:6

[7] Matthew 3:12

[8] John 1:27

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