WHAT IS YOUR AUTHORITY? Matthew 21:23-32

Notes for a sermon on Sunday September 29, 2002
by Robert Brow  (www.brow.on.ca)

In every area of life people want to know your authority for doing certain things and going certain places. You may need identification to enter a building, a driving license, a passport. On many jobs you can't be a plumber or electrician without papers. There are licenses to practice medicine. And each denomination has some kind of ordination to recognize who has a right to conduct services.

Among Jews there was the authority for priests to function by hereditary right. And rabbis attained recognition by being the disciple of a well-known teacher. Paul claimed that "I am a Jew, born in Tarsus in Cilicia, but brought up in this city at the feet of Gamaliel" (Acts 22:3). He also claimed his rights as a Roman citizen by birth (Acts 22:25-28).

What bothered the Jewish religious establishment in Jerusalem was that Jesus was preaching and teaching and making disciples without any authority to do so. "The chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, 'By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?" (Matthew 21:23).

Jesus' authority was that he was the eternal Son of God, and his Father had appointed him to be the Messiah King of kings and Lord of lords. But he did not flaunt this authority. He called himself Son of Man to indicate that he was an ordinary human. Paul said that "though he was in the form of God, he emptied himself taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness, and being found in human form, he humbled himself" (Philippians 2:6-8). He did not want people to believe in what he said because he had a special authority, but because it was good news and obviously the truth.

So instead of giving the proof of his divine authority, he asked the learned theologians a question. "Did the baptism of John come from heaven (have authority from God) or was it of human origin?" John the Baptist was the son of the priest Zechariah (Luke 1:5, 8), and he could have taken his place by right of birth in the temple priesthood. He did not do that but he functioned as a prophet announcing the coming of the Messiah among the Jewish people.

The problem for the religious leaders was that if they accepted that John the Baptist had his authority from God, Jesus would ask them why they rejected his message. But if they claimed that John the Baptist just got his authority by the human recognition of ordinary men and women, the people would be furious and turn on them. So they felt they had to say "We do not know." And Jesus was able to reply "Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things" (Matthew 21:24-27).

The Gospels tell us that throughout his ministry "the large crowd was hearing him with delight" (Mark12:37). Though he had no theological credentials from the religious authorities, Jesus' words had the authority of truth. And he followed this up with the parable of the two sons. Their father asked them to go and work in the vineyard. One refused, but then changed his mind and went and did the work. The other son said to his father with great respect "I go, sir" but he did not do the work. Jesus then made the point that the "tax collecting mafia and prostitutes" at first sight had no time for religion, but when the Messiah began preaching the good news they "were going into the Kingdom of God" ahead of the Sadducees and Pharisees who had claimed to be religious but did not believe him (Matthew 21:28-32).

So how does this apply to us in our day? I am sure Jesus is not suggesting that theological study and ministerial ordination is useless. For fifty years I have tried to study the Word of God using every means that was open to me. But the authority of a preacher is not the paper credentials that he or she has framed on the study wall. There is nothing more arrogant than saying "You ignorant people must believe my theology because I have the degrees to prove I am right." What will be effective and ring true to ordinary people is the same authority that Jesus had. That is why it is always good to read and explain exactly what Jesus said in the Gospels.

Paul, the learned rabbi, wrote "I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words of wisdom. I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus the Messiah, the one who was crucified.." But then he added that it was not just reciting the words of the Gospels that was effective. "My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God" (1 Corinthians 2:1-5). It is the words and parables and life and death of Jesus that are the heart of the Word of God, but they only become effective when the Holy Spirit applies them personally to the hearers.

As you listen to preaching, first ask yourself whether this is what Jesus had in mind. Then you can ask the Holy Spirit to work it into your heart so that the fruit and power of the Spirit change your life from the inside. And the first evidence that this is happening is God's kind of love beginning to transform you in unexpected ways.

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