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JESUS’ AUTHORITY QUESTIONED

Matthew 21:23-21:27
Key Verse: 21:25a

In the previous passage Jesus’ power was questioned by his disciples. The question was a desirable question. Jesus told them that if they had faith in God and did not doubt, they would do impossible things like moving mountains. In today’s passage, Jesus’ authority was questioned by religious leaders. It was not raised out of a good motive. They were neither comfortable nor happy with Jesus’ authority. Their question was not worthy of the answer. However, Jesus spoke to them to enlighten their hearts and help them somehow. In this study we can think about how one can have true authority. And we can also think about the blessedness of speaking from inner conviction.

First, “where did it come from?...from heaven or from men?” (23-25b). Look at verse 23. “Jesus entered the temple courts, and, while he was teaching…” It was the last week of Jesus’ life on earth. In the previous day Jesus cleared the temple courts and healed the blind and the lame at the temple. This morning he was hungry with nothing to eat. However, he entered the temple courts and taught. In Matthew’s gospel Jesus’ teaching ministry is beautiful along with his healing ministry. Jesus taught in many places, mountains, roads, synagogues, houses, seashore, etc. Now he was teaching in the temple. Just one day before, the temple was like a den of robbers with its original purpose robbed and with market-business only. But now after Jesus’ clearing work, Bible study was going on. Jesus was teaching, even knowing he would be killed in a few days. It was because this was his divine duty from the Father in heaven. Carrying out this duty was more urgent than anything else. Even his impending death could not prevent him from doing so. His teaching in the temple at this situation was truly beautiful.

What happened at this gracious time? Look at verse 23 again. “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?’” Why did they raise such a question? Probably it was because Jesus was teaching in the temple without their permission. In fact the chief priests and the elders of the people were very unhappy with all Jesus did at the temple, his clearing, healing and teaching. They must have felt that their authority was challenged. They were very sensitive to authority issue. In their understanding Jesus did not obtain any certificate or authorization from Jerusalem authorities to work at the temple, while they had. To them these human authorities were critical.

What did Jesus say to them? Look at verses 24,25. “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. John’s baptism—where did it come from? Was it from heaven, or from men?’” Instead of trying to defend his authority directly, Jesus asked them about John’s baptism so that they might have an objective view. It was also because John’s authority was once shaking the nation and all people recognized it. And Jesus asked about John’s baptism because Jesus’ authority and that of John were from the same source. In saying this Jesus was really wise. Most importantly the question was a piercing one to them. The religious leaders were thinking only in on the two dimensional level, valuing human authority. But Jesus was helping them to think in three dimensions, mentioning, “heaven.” To Jesus what mattered was whether from heaven or from men. John had no human credential at all. He lived in the desert until he appeared publicly to Israel (Lk 1:80). Then at God’s time he appeared in the desert and preached the message of repentance to prepare people’s hearts for the Lord. Many people went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River. This was the vivid demonstration of the authority he had. His authority was the power of the Spirit in him. It was not human authority at all. God worked in and through him when he had a clear calling from God and carried out his mission as the forerunner of the Messiah before God. His authority was obviously from heaven.

Jesus’ messianic work cannot be compared to John’s work of baptism. It is far superior. John once testified to Jesus, saying to the religious leaders, “I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me will come one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not fit to carry…” (Mt 3:11). If John’s baptism from heaven, how much more Jesus’ work? When Jesus taught the Sermon on the Mount, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law (Mt 7:28,29). His authority was over all diseases and he healed various kinds of sick people. At his command demons came out of people without any resistance. His authority was even over nature. The tempests and turbulent waves of the sea obeyed him. Further Jesus demonstrated his authority to forgive man’s sins which only God could do. Jesus’ authority was unique and matchless. Later on after his resurrection, Jesus said to his disciples, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Mt 28:18).

So when the chief priests and the elders of the people asked Jesus who had such authority, “By what authority are you doing these things? And who gave you this authority,” it was a blind question and also a great humiliation to Jesus. But Jesus bore with them and spoke to them on their level to help them by any means. It could not be denied that when they had become the chief priests and the elders of people, God wanted them to have a sense of calling from God and discharge God’s will for them helping his people and nation. But they only relied on human authority and did the work God wanted them to do. The Spirit of God could not be in them, and they could not have true power and authority. They only became opponents to Jesus who had been doing the work of God so faithfully.

Throughout history “who gave you this authority” has been an issue, especially when the work of God was done powerfully. In the Old Testament, there was a prophet named Amos. He was from the Southern Judah but preached the message of repentance in the Northern Israel according to God’s calling. Then some people of authorities there got mad and said something along the lines of, “Don’t work here. Get a job in your territory and earn bread there.” At this Amos said, “I was neither a prophet nor a prophet’s son, but I was a shepherd, and I also took care of sycamore-fig trees. But the LORD took me from tending the flock and said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel” (Amos 7:12-15). Amos could not give in to them because of God’s calling and God’s power and authority was evident in his work.

After Jesus’ ascension, his disciples were doing the gospel work in Jerusalem and the Holy Spirit worked mightily through them. Then Jerusalem authorities were astonished. Noticing that they were unschooled and ordinary men, they threatened to silence them, commanding them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John replied, “Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God’s sight to obey you rather than God. For we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard” (Ac 4:19,20) When they obeyed God, they were courageous in the power of the Spirit and nothing could stop them.

When St. Paul was questioned for his apostleship, he said unambiguously in his letter, “Pau, an apostle—sent not from men nor by man, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father…” (Gal 1:1). And he was more than sure that God set him apart from birth and called him by his grace (Gal 1:15). He fought against the enemies of the cross and Jesus’ resurrection power worked through him. Wherever he went, there was a powerful gospel work. God used himl so preciously for world evangelization.

John Wesley (1703-1791), when persecution arose from the church of English with various kinds of slanders, regarded himself as commissioned of God to warn men to flee from the wrath to come. Unwilling that ungodly men should perish in their sins and unable to reach them from the pulpits of the Church, he began field-preaching. He was led to approve of lay preaching. When Wesley held to God’s commission given to him and never yielded to the opposition and always found a way out in God, God used him so powerfully until Methodist was established and it has come thus far.

Here we learn that true authority comes through one’s sense of God’s calling and obedience to him. Thank God for calling us as Bible teachers and servants of God’s word in this generation. May we have a personal sense of calling from God and personal obedience to him son that we can have a true power and authority to serve God’s will in our generation.

“Where did it come from?...from heaven or from men?”, is the fundament question to answer many human problems. It is good to raise this question from time to time. There is an episode of Isaac Newton (1642-1727) who found the law of universal gravitation. He asked an artisan to make a model of the solar system in which each planet moves accurately. One day one of Newton’s friends, an atheistic scientist, visited him and saw the model of the solar system. The friend began to operate the system by turning the crank. Then each planet in the model rotated and orbited the course at the same rate, each with a different speed. He was amazed at his fascinated model and asked Newton who made it. Newton answered, “Nobody. What you see just happened. Things got together and it was formed by itself.” The friend got mad, thinking that Newton treated him like a fool. He retorted heatedly, “Of course somebody made it, and he is a genius, and I would like to know who he is.” Newton then spoke to his friend in polite yet firm way, “This thing is but a puny imitation of a much grander system whose laws you know, and I am not able to convince you that this mere toy is without a designer and maker; yet you profess to believe that the great original from which the design is taken has come into being without either designer or maker! Now tell me by what sort of reasoning do you reach such an incongruous conclusion?” The friend became silent just nodding. At the question, “where did it come from?” people can find the source or origin through right reasoning.

In Genesis Abraham’s servant was commissioned to find a wife of his master Abraham’s son. When he got to the place, he prayed and finally met the very kind of woman he prayed for. Abraham’s servant went to her family and explained how God led him to meet her. Then he urged the family members to send her with him to marry his master’s son. What parents on earth can accept such an urge? But when they were convinced that it was from the LORD, their answer was, “…take her and go, and let her become the wife of your master’s son, as the LORD has directed” (Ge 24:50-51). And when the girl was asked, “Will you go with this man?” she said, “I will go,” being convinced that it was from the Lord. The bottom line of our decision is whether it is from God, from heaven. “Where did it come from?...from heaven or from men?”, to this question we need to be able to make a clear answer at each critical time in our lives. When we are assured that it is from heaven, courage and strength to do a certain thing comes from the Lord God in heaven.

Second, “we don’t know” (25b-27). How did the chief priests and the elders of the people respond to Jesus’ question, “John’s baptism—where did it come from? Was it from heaven, or from men?” Look at verses 25b-27. “They discussed it among themselves and said, ‘If we say, “From heaven,” he will ask, ‘Then why didn’t you believe him?’ But if we say, “From men”—we are afraid of the people for they all hold that John was a prophet.’” What kind of discussion was it? They did not discuss to seek God’s will. They were religious leaders but they discussed it among themselves without God. Their main discussion topic was not about what was right and wrong or what was true and false, but how people would respond to their saying. It showed that they did not have their clear purpose and their own direction. They could not say, “from heaven,” because they did not want to believe it. And they could not say, “from men,” because they were afraid of people and sensitive to their public opinion. So they answered Jesus, “We don’t know.” They suppressed their inner conviction, cheating their conscience and answered expediently and deceptively. In history such kind of people made things confused and complex. However, how easy it is to be like them.

Romans 14:22b says, “Blessed is the man who does not condemn himself by what he approves.” One who can speak according his inner conviction and approval though being misunderstood and humiliated is a blessed and happy man. God wants us to be such blessed people.

In this passage Jesus’ authority was questioned. But Jesus spoke an illuminating question, “Where did it come from?...from heaven or from men?” May God help us to be assured of who we are and what we are doing so that we can be used by God in this generation.

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