Whose Authority?

“Says who?” “Ask why!” Some skepticism of authority can be helpful, but beware of questioning God’s authority, as Jesus points out in Matthew 21:23–32.

Submit to Christ’s authority. The chief priests and elders questioned Jesus’ authority. They seem to be focused on authority, particularly on anything happening or being taught without their say so. Certainly there are those today who not only question, but even object to any authority structure in the home or in the church. But beware of reacting against an erroneous view by simply emphasizing the opposite. Remember what Jesus said about authority in Matthew 20:24–28. The setting is the temple courts, where Jesus is busy teaching. The leaders of Israel interrupt with a demand that Jesus explain his authority for “doing these things.” “These things” may include the triumphal entry, the cleansing of the temple, the healings there, and the praise of the children, as well as his present teaching activity. The question arises in a culture that had a strong tradition of citing authorities. They think that the question puts Jesus in a box. If he tries to cite human authority, they are the current authorities in the temple. If he claims divine authority, they can charge him with blasphemy. Jesus challenges their question with one of his own: John’s baptism, was it from heaven, or from men? The priests and elders discuss the implications of either answer. To admit that John’s baptism had a heavenly origin, would invite the challenge: why didn’t you believe him? And the obvious alternative, that was merely human in origin, would be politically unacceptable, given the people’s respect for the martyred prophet. Thus they simply responded lamely, “We don’t know.” But Jesus does have authority. His teaching was different, Matthew 7:28,29. He spoke with the authority of his Father, not citing rabbis who might happen to agree with what he was saying. His authority is not only that of the God-man, but there is a specific messianic authority that belonged to Jesus. He exercised it while on earth, but it became most fully his upon his powerful resurrection. Thus he could claim that all authority in heaven and earth had been given to him, Matthew 28:18.

Believe the authority which comes from heaven. The question of the chief priests reflects a spirit of unbelief. Modern man asks the same kind of question, putting himself on the throne, and demanding that God give an answer that meets his specifications. In a more subtle way the same attitude may even infect Christians as they expect God to do things their way. Notice that Jesus really does not dodge the question. Although he avoids giving a direct answer, the reference to John the Baptist has clear implications. John had come, quoting the Old Testament Scriptures, to prepare the way for the coming Messiah. He was the Lord’s messenger of the covenant, calling God’s people to repentance. Although the chief priests do not give Jesus a public answer, they have no excuse for not knowing that John’s baptism was from heaven. If the forerunner spoke with divine authority, the authority of his Lord is clear. Jesus is the self-attesting Lord. There is none greater than he to certify that he is the Lord.

Repent and believe. God requires more than external obedience. Jesus tells a parable that deals with obedience. In the Middle Eastern culture, for a son to refuse his father’s request is highly unusual. Yet this son later reverses his decision, and goes to work in the vineyard. The other son speaks politely to his father, but ultimately does no work in the vineyard. The chief priests and elders lived lives of external obedience. They prided themselves on being God’s people. But they failed to obey. They rejected both John the Baptist and Jesus, the Messiah. In fact, they were plotting the death of Jesus. Jesus is not excusing the insolence of the second son. But he is pointing out that God requires more than lip service. “Faith does not consist solely in a person’s giving his assent to true doctrine, but… it embraces something greater and loftier, that the hearer, renouncing himself, devotes his life wholly to God.” (John Calvin, Commentary on the Gospels)

Jesus brings his point home to his original hearers—and to us. Enter the kingdom of God as a repentant sinner. The reference to John the Baptist connects this little parable with his speaking of John as he responds to the question. The preaching of John and that of Jesus both emphasized repentance. “Our Lord’s idea of repentance is as profound and comprehensive as his conception of righteousness…. Repentance is not limited to any single faculty of the mind: it engages the entire man, intellect, will and affections. Nor is it confined to the moral sphere of life in the narrower sense: it covers man’s entire religious as well as his moral relation to God. Repentance in the conception of Jesus is wide enough to include faith, Matt. 11:20–21. Here as elsewhere, what strikes us most is the God-centered character of our Lord’s teaching on the subject. The state from which a repentance must take place is condemned, because it is radically wrong with reference to God.” (Geerhardus Vos, The Kingdom of God and the Church, p. 92) The leaders of Israel considered themselves the righteous sons of God, but they rejected John’s message (and baptism) of repentance. The despised sinners, tax collectors and prostitutes, on the other hand, although they had lived in clear disobedience to God, repented and believed in John’s message of the coming Messiah. They, rather than the self-righteous leaders, were entering the kingdom of God. Repentance and faith are crucial to your entering the kingdom. How do you acknowledge the authority of Christ? Not just by a verbal profession, but by turning from sin and trusting in him. As you respond to his command to repent and believe, you are entering the kingdom of God! And that repentant, trusting heart keeps pointing you to the Savior. “It [the certainty of faith] is not obtained by looking at ourselves but by looking away from ourselves to Christ. It is grounded in the promises of God, not in changing experiences or imperfect good works.” (Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 4, p. 131)

Yes, there are some self-proclaimed authorities that should be questioned. But when the self-authenticating Son of Man calls you to repent and believe, don’t question or doubt. Respond to his authority with a life of trust and service.

About jwm

I serve as pastor of Trinity Presbyterian Church, Newberg, Oregon.
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