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'When he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came up to him as he was teaching and said, 'By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority"?
This took place on Tuesday of Holy Week. Two days earlier Jesus had ridden into Jerusalem on a donkey to the exuberant cheers of the crowds to celebrate the 'Feast of Unleavened Bread', which culminated in the celebration of the Passover.
Hundreds of thousands of pious Jews from all over the world would come to Jerusalem on this holy week. They would bring their foreign currency that would need to be changed. And they would need to purchase animals for the Temple offerings and a lamb for the Passover meal. There were lots of moneychangers and merchants throughout Jerusalem for these pilgrims to deal with.
But the chief priests who were in charge of administering the affairs of the Temple, had found a way to capture some of the revenue generated during the busy holiday season for the Temple. They turned one whole section of the Temple into a market for merchants and moneychangers who gave a cut of their proceeds to the Temple. It was the Court of the Gentiles, which as you can imagine, made it very difficult for any Gentiles who came to worship the God of Israel to do so.
On Monday of Holy Week, Jesus went to the Temple and drove out the merchants and overturned the tables of the moneychangers, while preaching on Isaiah 56, 'It is written, 'My house shall be called a house of prayer, but you have made it a den of thieves." (Mat.21:13) It was like shutting down the Mall the week before Christmas.
On Tuesday, 'When he entered the temple [again,] the chief priests and the elders of the people came up to him as he was teaching [they interrupted Him right in the middle of a class. They are so angry] 'By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority"? 'What gives you the right to come in here and rearrange the furniture'? 'Who gave you the permission to overrule us'?
After all, they were the DULY APPOINTED, AUTHORIZED administrators of the Temple. Who knows that they weren't fair-minded and open to suggestions and there might have been a 'suggestion box' located somewhere or other in the Temple.
Jesus never requested their permission to do what He did. He had clearly usurped their AUTHORITY. And so they demanded an answer from Him, 'By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority'?
So Jesus does what He did so many times when religious leaders challenged His actions and questioned His teaching. He answered their question with a question.
It does strike me that more here than a stalling technique to give Jesus a little time to collect Himself and think of a response. There is something of an answer in to their question in the very fact that Jesus turns the tables on these religious AUTHORITIES. He is subtly demonstrating that His AUTHORITY is greater than theirs. He is not the one who must answer their questions. They are the ones who must answer His questions.
I'm reminded of an essay by C.S. Lewis' titled, 'God in the Dock.' Lewis describes a courtroom scene where the judge is on the bench and the accused in 'in the dock,' which we would call the 'stand.'
Lewis writes, 'The ancient man approached God as the accused person approaches his judge. But for the modern man the roles are reversed. He is the judge: God is in the dock. He is a kind judge; if God should have a reasonable defense for being the god who permits war, poverty and disease, he is read to listen to it. The trial may even end in God's acquittal. But the important thing is that Man is on the Bench and God is in the Dock.' (God in the Dock. Eerdmans Pub. Co. 1970. p.244)
Simply by putting the chief priests and elders on the witness stand and questioning them, Jesus is answering their question about His authority.
'I also will ask you one question, and if you tell me the answer, then I also will tell you by what authority I do these things. The baptism of John, from where did it come? From heaven or from man'?
Jesus links the basis of His authority to the basis of John the Baptist's authority. Come to grips with John's authority and you come to grips with Jesus' authority. If John's authority to say and do the things he did was from man, then it should not be honored as though it was from God, it was just one man's crazy idea. But if John was authorized by God to say and do the things he did, then the things John said and did should be honored and obeyed as from God Himself.
And the chief priests and the elders of the people get it. They understand the question perfectly. They know the question that Jesus is asking them to answer. But after analyzing the political ramifications of an honest answer, they slithered out of it saying, 'we don't know.' And Jesus replies, 'neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.'
And the question regarding Jesus' authority is left right there, just hanging in mid-air, unanswered, unsolved.
But for whom is it unanswered and unresolved? Not the crowds. We already know that the crowds believed that John the Baptist was a prophet and prophets received their authority to speak and act from God by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. We'll read to the end of this encounter next Sunday, and there we'll learn that the crowds also believed that Jesus was a prophet and that His authority to do the things He did was from God. And we also know that the chief priests and elders of the people do not believe that either John or Jesus was a prophet. They believed that He had no authority to do the things He was doing?
So, who's left? Who is there who must still answer this question? It's us. What do you say? Where does Jesus' authority come from, from man or from God?
Where does Jesus get the authority to make the demands that He makes on you? 'Take up your cross and follow me.' 'Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven.' 'Do not be anxious about your life, but seek first the Kingdom of God.' 'Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.' 'Unless you turn and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.' If this is of man and you happen to disagree or find His demands inconvenient, no big deal. But if this is from God and you happen to disagree or find His demands inconvenient, very big deal.
And by what authority, heaven or man, does Jesus make the promises that He makes to you. 'Take heart my son, your sins are forgiven.' 'Come to me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.' 'Come you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.' 'Take and eat, this is my body. Take and drink, this is my blood, for the forgiveness of sins.' If this is of man, then you have no reason to find any comfort or have any peace from these words because these are not promises that a man can keep. But if this of God, then you have every reason to find great comfort and peace from these words, because these are promises that God can keep and in fact, already has.
So, there it is. Jesus has cut right to the heart of the issue put before us this morning. 'Who do you say that I am'? 'By what authority do I do these things and who gave me this authority'?
The chief priests and elders of the people said, 'we do not know.' What say you?
Before you answer, there is one more response to this question that we have not yet heard but that needs to be heard. Jesus answers His own question clearly and without any ambiguity for all who have ears to hear. 'But that you may know that the Son of Man has AUTHORITY on earth to forgive sins"'Rise, pick up your bed and go home." (Mat. 9:6). "When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am he, and that I do nothing on my own AUTHORITY, but I speak just as the Father taught me.' (John 8:28) 'No one takes my life from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have AUTHORITY to lay it down, and I have AUTHORITY to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father." (John 10:18) 'For I have not spoken on my own AUTHORITY, but the Father who sent me has himself given me a commandment'what to say and what to speak.' (John 12:49) 'Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own AUTHORITY, but the Father who dwells in me does his works.' (John 14:10).
And then, His final word in answer to the question put to Him on Tuesday before Good Friday, 'All AUTHORITY in heaven and on earth has been given to Me.' (Mat.28:18) His authority comes from God the Father with Whom He is one. He has the authority of God because He is fully God.
He has all authority in heaven to cast the devil and all his evil angels out of heaven, and the authority to make you who are evil, holy and bring you into heaven. He has the authority to appeal to the Father in heaven on your behalf and the authority to say, 'depart from me, I never knew you.' He has the authority to declare that you are sinful and unclean, and the authority to declare that you are forgiven all of your sins.
He has all authority on earth to rule the world according to His purpose, raising up one nation and putting another nation down. He has the authority to bring calamity to one part of the earth and peace to another. He has the authority to say 'yes' to our prayers and the authority to say 'no.' He has the authority to heal one and not heal another. He has the authority to number the days of your life and He has the authority to raise you up from your grave and give you eternal life.
'All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Me.' (Mat.28:18) And we reply, 'Lord, have mercy upon us.'