1635) By What Authority? (a)

The Pharisees Question Jesus, James Tissot  (1836-1902)


Matthew 21:23-27:  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?”  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 of human origin?”  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, ‘Of human origin’—we are afraid of the people, for they all hold that John was a prophet.”  So they answered Jesus, “We don’t know.”  Then he said, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.


     In a few weeks deer hunting season will begin.  Imagine an old veteran hunter, sitting up in his deer stand, on his own property that he has hunted on for years.  A game warden comes up to him and says, “Sir, you have to come down from that stand.  You cannot be hunting here.”  “What do you mean?” says the man in the stand, “Today is the opener, this is my land, and I have a license— why can’t I hunt?”  “Because,” says the game warden, “I am the game warden, and I say you cannot hunt here.”  “I can see you are a game warden,” says the man in the stand, “but by what authority do you say I cannot hunt here?  You cannot make the laws, you can only enforce the laws made by others, and there is no law that says I cannot hunt here today.”  By what authority?, the man asked.  It is an important question.

     I heard on the news that Friday was National Coffee Day.  I like coffee.  Every once in a while the news will report some study that says drinking coffee is bad for you.  As much as I like coffee, I would stop drinking it if I thought it was going to kill me.  But I don’t believe it is bad for me.  I don’t believe the studies that say coffee is bad, because other studies say coffee won’t hurt me one bit, and still other studies even say it is good for me.  In fact, I don’t believe the goal of many such studies is to arrive at useful truth anyway, but to arrive at whatever conclusion has the best chance of getting enough publicity to get a sponsor and money for the next study.  So when I hear coffee is bad for me and ask the important question ‘by what authority?’, I am not satisfied with the answer, and so I disregard it.

     When I hear someone on television or in a conversation talking about their religious views and what they think God is like, or their beliefs about heaven and hell, or decisions they have made about what is right and what is wrong, I want to know “By what authority?”  I want to know what they are basing their beliefs on.  At the same time, I want to make sure that I am basing my beliefs on something solid, and not just whatever sounds good to me.  God is who God is, and it doesn’t matter what views about God are in my little head, or yours, or Oprah Winfrey’s, or John Travolta’s, or whatever other celebrity is telling us what they think about God.  I want to know ‘by what authority.’

     That is the question in this little conversation in Matthew 21 (above).  The phrase ‘by what authority’ appears three times in the five verses, as the chief priests and elders of the people question the authority of Jesus.  It is a reasonable question, considering the context.  Earlier in that same chapter Jesus cleared the temple of the money changers; tipping over tables and benches and kicking people out.  When Luke tells the story, he quotes Jesus as saying the people had turned what should be “a house of prayer into a den of thieves,” indicating what kind of buying and selling was going on there, so Jesus had a reason to be upset.  But even so, if someone came in our church fellowship hall during coffee time and started tipping over tables and chairs, we also might ask by what authority he was doing that.  If, like Jesus, the authority was from God, I would say ‘okay’ and get out of the way.  But the chief priests and elders were not yet convinced that Jesus was from God.

     And Jesus does not yet answer them directly, but engages in a little game of cat and mouse.  They are trying to trap Jesus, and Jesus asks them a question that, if answered, will trap them.  So the religious leaders drop the subject, and Jesus goes on to tell another parable.

     Later on that very week the question of authority would be answered in a most dramatic way by both sides in this little exchange.  The chief priests and elders would assert their authority over Jesus by having him arrested and killed.  And then Jesus rose from the dead, demonstrating once and for all time by what authority he did everything he did.  The resurrection was the game changer, and that gave authority and credibility to everything Jesus said, before and after.  (continued…)