By What Authority?

This morning we look at the first of several confrontations between Jesus and the religious leaders of the day. They appear to all have taken place while Jesus was teaching in the temple area during the week before His crucifixion.

Let’s imagine the setting. Jesus had gone into the temple and turned over the tables of the merchants who were making big profits for the temple leaders and announced that these people were profaning God’s house of worship. The religious leaders became angry and frightened. Every time they tried to “rein in” Jesus, they failed and looked inept in the process. The frustration was boiling over and these men were now eager to find some reason to arrest Jesus. The questions they asked were all are delivered with the sharp edge of accusation.

Over the next several weeks we will sit at the feet of Jesus and marvel at the way He handled the aggressive questioning of the religious elite. In each encounter Jesus will show Himself to be unique. He was a man who spoke with an authority that had a power that exceeded that of the most respected scholars. He spoke with the authority of the Son of God.

The Question to Jesus

One day as he was teaching the people in the temple courts and preaching the gospel, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, together with the elders, came up to him. “Tell us by what authority you are doing these things,” they said. “Who gave you this authority?”

There were three groups of people who came to Jesus. The chief priests were a group that included the current ruling high priest, former high priests and those who were of such a status that they were candidates for consideration to be named the next High Priest. They were the top religious leaders. They were given the responsibility of most of the Temple work and were mostly Sadducees. Second there were the teachers of the law or scribes. These were Pharisees. They were the religious experts; the Bible scholars. They would be called theologians today. The last group called the elders, were the most prominent members of the prominent families in Israel. Each of the groups had representatives who served as part of the Sanhedrin or the ruling body of the Jews.

Some of these men came to Jesus and asked: “What gives you the right to come in here (as one who is untrained in the finer points of theology) and create havoc in the temple and undermine our authority?”

In a sense these men resisted Jesus because they felt threatened. They didn’t like the fact that Jesus seemed to be usurping their position. Let’s be honest, one of the greatest hindrances to being able to hear the truth of God is our desire for self-preservation. We are comfortable in our sin.

  • We don’t want to accept what the Bible says about immorality because it would mean that we have to change our ways.
  • We don’t like the idea of repentance because it requires that we confess we were going in the wrong.
  • We don’t like the command to obey our parents because we don’t like what they are saying.
  • We don’t’ like the command to keep the Sabbath holy because we have other things we want to do on Sunday.
  • We don’t like the command to let go of bitterness because we have become quite comfortable nursing our grudges.

My point is that we should not quickly dismiss what these men are doing. They are trying to protect their turf, just like we do.

But there is a second thing to observe about their question: It is actually a good question! We should want to know the authority behind truth assertions. When we read a controversial story in the newspaper we want to know if the source is trustworthy. Was it a “highly placed government source” or was it some guy in a coffee shop who was giving his opinion? We are a society that is woefully gullible. If a politician, reporter, author. Talk-radio host or even a Pastor makes a statement and we tend to accept it as fact without examining the authority behind the statement.

This is especially true in the spiritual realm. People make wild statements about the meaning of life, the character of God, or the will of God and we tend to take it as true.

We are right to ask, “Where do you find this in the Bible?” In other words, we want to know the basis of their statements. Are they quoting God’s word or the word of men . . . it makes a difference. We need to ask this question of everyone, even our spiritual leaders.

Jewish teachers were very careful to cite their sources. Their teaching tended to sound like a research paper filled with the quotes of others. They believed the authority of their words was anchored to the people who they were quoting. I often quote people for the same reason, to appeal to an outside or respected authority.

Jesus didn’t teach like this. He said “You have heard that it was said . . . but I say to you.” Jesus spoke as one who had final authority. I’m sure that when these leaders asked Jesus this question they anticipated He would say, “I speak on my own authority” and they could ridicule Jesus as an out of touch crackpot.

The thing is, if they had genuinely wanted to understand the authority by which Jesus taught, He would have answered their question forthrightly. They weren’t interested in gaining understanding. They were making an accusation.

The Question to the Leaders

Jesus could have gotten angry or ignored the question. However, what He did instead was turn the question around (which was very common as a rabbinical method) to reveal their own hardheartedness.

He replied, “I will also ask you a question. Tell me, John’s baptism—was it from heaven, or from men?”

They discussed it among themselves and said, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will ask, ‘Why didn’t you believe him?’ But if we say, ‘From men,’ all the people will stone us, because they are persuaded that John was a prophet.”

So they answered, “We don’t know where it was from.”

As you may remember John the Baptist was also a boat-rocker. He was somewhat of an eccentric who preached in the desert and called people to repent. He told them that they were headed in the wrong direction and then he baptized them for the forgiveness of sins. More importantly, John pointed to Jesus as “the one who was to come”. In other words, John said Jesus was the one sent from God. He told his disciples that they should follow Jesus rather than him because “I baptize with water but he will baptize with the Holy Spirit”. John said he was not worthy to tie the sandals of Jesus.

John had his critics (many of these same guys) but the people loved him.  John was eventually beheaded largely because he spoke up against King Herod for taking his brother’s wife and marrying her.

The question about John was difficult for two reasons.

  1. They couldn’t say John did not speak with God’s authority (even though that is what they believed) because they knew they would be immediately dismissed by the people who were convinced John was sent from God. These men believed the people would stone them (probably for blasphemy).
  2. If they said John did speak with the authority of God they knew Jesus would counter with the statement “Why didn’t you believe Him?” If John spoke from God’s authority and John said Jesus was the One everyone had been waiting for . . . then they already had the answer to their question.

It was a lose/lose situation. Can you imagine the conversation in the huddle of these men? “Whose dumb idea was it to ask this question?” “What are we supposed to do now?” After much debate they decided the best and safest answer was to say, “We don’t know” (In our country this would be called “pleading the fifth”). They refused to answer on the grounds that it would incriminate them. Jesus responded

“Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.”


This is a great example of the wisdom of Jesus. But this is recorded for us in the Bible not simply to show us the skill with which Jesus handled his opponents; it was written to instruct us. So, the question is: What should we learn?

First, we must recognize the importance of the question.  Who Jesus is and by what authority does He speak is a vitally important question. Is the Bible an inspiring book or is it a book that was inspired by God? They are very important questions.

If Jesus was just a wise man with some great insights then it is up to us to discern those insights in the things that he taught. For example we may conclude that Jesus was wise in teaching us to love our neighbors as ourselves but he was off base when he talked about judgment and being the only way to God. In other words, if Jesus was just a wise teacher we end up being the ultimate authority to decide what should be obeyed and what should not be obeyed. We see this happening in the group called the Jesus Seminar today. They go through the Bible and declare what is true and what is false. They have set themselves up as the authority we should trust! That’s troubling.

On the other hand, if Jesus is God (as He claimed), then everything He declared has divine authority. We are no longer given “veto power” over the things that He teaches. What He is says is what is true. What he requires is that which we must do. Where He leads is where we are to follow.

Some tell us the Bible is merely a book containing the reflections of wise men who had great insights for their time. It is a noteworthy book, but not a divine book. If the Bible is just a popular religious text then we can take it or leave it. If, however, it is from God given to us through the agency of men, then it carries a binding authority.

Jesus said,

17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18 I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. (Mt. 5:17-18)

Paul said,

16 All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, 17 so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. (2 Tim 3:16-17)

Peter wrote,

19 And we have the word of the prophets made more certain, and you will do well to pay attention to it, as to a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. 20 Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation21 For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit. [2 Peter 1:19-21]

The Bible claims to be the “Word of the Lord”. The prophets began many prophecies with: “This is the Word of the Lord” or “the Lord said…” At times they recorded the actual words of God. At other times they recorded what was revealed to them by God. God certainly can communicate with His people.

Either the Bible is what it says it is: God’s revelation to His people; or the Bible is a book filled with lies and misrepresentations (since it asserts it is inspired).

The answer to these questions lay at the crux of every moral debate in our country. It all boils down to whether God’s Word is the standard or whether our opinions and editing of God’s Word is the standard. A weak view of Scripture is a moral slippery slope. If there is no timeless standard of truth, we are free to define truth by public opinion. Because each person will define truth in a way that indulges their desires, we will inevitably slide toward godless anarchy and unrestrained immorality.

It’s important to see that the problem with the leaders of the Jewish ruling council was not their mind . . . it was with their heart. It wasn’t that evidence was lacking. They simply refused to submit to the truth.

Take a fresh look at Scripture, what do we see?

  • We see sixty six books written over thousands of years that all proclaim the same message with unfathomable consistency.
  • We see bold prophecies fulfilled with precision
  • We see historical data that has been verified by archaeology
  • We see the nation of Israel has survived things that have destroyed other nations
  • We see a moral code that has been the basis for civilized society and the basis on which our own country was founded. When followed this code has brought blessing and stability.
  • We see a book that has stood firm in spite of thousands who have sought to discredit its words No other text has been more examined. No other text can stand under such scrutiny.
  • The Old Testament was embraced by Israel as God’s Word. The New Testament has been similarly embraced by the followers of Christ.

Take a fresh look at Jesus. What do we see?

  • We see a man who did what He taught others to do
  • A man who was passionate about the glory of God
  • A man who reached out to others with a unprecedented love
  • A man who taught with an authority unlike anyone who had ever lived . . . His word pierces our defenses and destroy our justifications. His words reveal us as we really are.
  • He was a man who believed the Bible was the living Word of God.
  • A man who gave Himself freely to be crucified.
  • A man who came back from the dead three days after a spear pierced his side and heart.
  • A man whom the critics have sought to discredit for centuries and have been unsuccessful.
  • A man who claimed to be God. He was either God or a lying crazy man.

The evidence points to Jesus as being the one uniquely sent by God. It points to the Bible being exactly what it says it is: The Word of God. The question is not about evidence, it is about your willingness to embrace and submit to that evidence.

There is a Second lesson. We see a practical lesson on how to handle antagonists. When people are sincerely looking for answers we, like Jesus, should work to help them find those answers. However, when they are merely looking for an argument, we learn from Jesus that we should not waste our time.

Proverbs 17:16 says, “It is senseless to pay tuition to educate a fool, since he has no heart for learning.” (NLT) You cannot talk to another person about what is right and wrong if they accept no standard of right and wrong. It is best to leave those people with their opinions even as we pray that God would open their eyes to the truth of His Word.

These are the people who in any discussion merely want to argue. These people don’t want to know the truth; they want to ridicule the truth so they can justify themselves. We should be gracious and loving to such people but we shouldn’t waste our time arguing.

Please understand. There is room for discussion and instruction. People who are committed to the authority of the Word of God sometimes disagree on their understanding and application of the truth of Scripture. We can and should discuss these things in our desire to rightly understand the Word of God. Looking for the truth and resisting the truth are two different things.

So here is the question: What about you? Do you have a heart for learning? Are you resisting the truth because you don’t like what it says or will you submit to the authority of the One who knows you better than you know yourself?

Let’s be honest. Most of us know exactly what God wants us to do and we know what behaviors are wrong. The problem is we don’t want to do these things.

How you respond to the authority of Christ will determine whether the truth will set you free or whether it will be a constant annoyance from which you will run for the rest of your life.

It is actually pretty simple: if we claim to be followers of Christ we will trust the Lord to lead our lives and submit to the truth of God’s Word; if we will not embrace Christ and submit to His Word we should not think He is going to be fooled into believing we have really put our trust in Him. We can protest that we don’t know. We may convince others. We may even convince ourselves. Proverbs says,

“Don’t excuse yourself by saying, “Look, we didn’t know.” For God understands all hearts, and he sees you. He who guards your soul knows you knew. He will repay all people as their actions deserve.”  (Pr. 24:12)

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