By What Authority: From Heaven or from Man?

"The Pharisees' Question" by James Tissott
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The text for today is our Gospel lesson, Matthew 21:23-27.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
Let’s set the context first: The Lord Jesus, with Palm Sunday praises still echoing in His ears, has entered the temple and toppled the tables of the moneychangers, driving out the droves of buyers and sellers. After lodging overnight in Bethany, He returns to Jerusalem, curses a fruitless fig tree, and begins teaching again in the temple. It’s no wonder that the leaders of the Jews come and challenge Jesus: “By what authority are you doing these things?”
Jesus either has an ironic sense of timing or He doesn’t have a clue. With all the pilgrims in town for Passover, this would normally be a busy and profitable week for the moneychangers and the merchants. Disrupting business at the temple would be something akin to shutting down a Walmart Supercenter on the Friday after Thanksgiving. If the chief priests were counting on getting their cut of the profits, it is no wonder they are so upset.
But something matters even more to these men than money: power and prestige. They see Jesus’ actions and words as a challenge to their authority. Who does this man from Galilee think He is? Why are the people coming to hear this heretic teach? He proclaims that the door of God’s kingdom is open to all who repent and believe in Him. He tells them to beware of the teaching of the Pharisees and their man-made traditions.
So the fact that the temple leadership should come and question Jesus about the source of the authority for His words and deeds surprises no one. In fact, one could say that they are only doing their duty. As the leaders of the church they have the responsibility for what happens in the temple and what is being taught. If only they really cared to hear the truth!
The truth be told—they’ve already made up their minds about this Jesus. “By the prince of demons He is driving out demons,” they say (Mark 3:22). He violates our traditions (Mark 7:5). He violates the Sabbath. They have already decided that Jesus needs to die so that they can save their nation (not to mention their own positions of power). They are not looking for the truth, but are actually seeking an answer whereby they can either ridicule Him before the people or accuse Him of blasphemy—the very charge they later bring against Him.
The question of authority is the same one they had earlier put to John the Baptist (see John 1:19-27). The chief priests and elders of the people regard themselves as the authorities. The point of their question to John and the point of their question to Jesus is the same: “We did not authorize you to do what you are doing; so just who do you think you are anyway?”
John responded to their accusatory question by subordinating himself to Jesus: “I baptize with water… but among you stands one you do not know. He is the one who comes after me, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie” (John 1:26-27). So it is utterly appropriate that when they ask Jesus by what authority He is doing these things, He responds with a question about the authority of John’s baptism. Who gave John the authority to baptize in the Jordan? Was this something that God authorized John to do, or did the Jerusalem leadership give him this right? By what authority—from heaven or from man?
Those questioning Jesus find themselves in a dilemma. They are trapped by the choice that Jesus puts before them. If John was really God’s prophet as the people took him to be, then they should have accepted him. But if they deny that John was from God, then that means they authorized his baptizing and teaching (or at least allowed it to continue). Caught in their own trap, the temple leadership pleads ignorance. They don’t know where John got this authority—a rather embarrassing admission, but still more palatable than the alternatives.
By Jesus is not just playing a game of “gotcha” with the Jewish leaders; He is not insecure about His own authority. Jesus’ question is really a call to repentance, an eleventh-hour invitation for them to come into His kingdom. Unfortunately, the chief priests, teachers of the law, and elders condemn themselves. They refuse to accept the truth of God’s Word, which Jesus has proclaimed in His preaching and attested by His miracles, and which they themselves have vowed to teach and proclaim. How sad! Christ gives them the opportunity to repent, but they want none of it. They reject the Savior because they value their positions of authority more highly than their salvation.
From God’s Word, properly understood by faith we know that Jesus’ authority comes from God. Jesus demonstrates this authority again and again during His earthly ministry (Luke 5:24-25). The crowds recognize His authority (Luke 4:32). This authority is affirmed by the heavenly Father at His baptism and at the transfiguration (Luke 9:35). Even if Jesus had identified the source of His authority, His questioners still would not have believed Him (Luke 22:67).
From now on, the conflict between Jesus and the official religious establishment will intensify. There will be more verbal matches between Jesus and His interrogators. Finally, there will be an arrest, a trial, and the cross. How true were the words of Jesus: “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes” (Luke 19:42).
In rejecting Jesus, the Jewish leaders are rejecting the Authority from heaven. Their thinking is shown to be from men, not God. Jesus is above them because He is from above—the Man from heaven. Sadly, they did not recognize this, and Jesus had already told them why: “You do not have His Word abiding in you, for you do not believe the one whom He has sent. You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about Me, yet you refuse to come to Me that you may have life” (John 5:38-40).
Those who do not recognize Christ’s authority—here and now—will ultimately recognize that authority to their shame. On the Last Day every knee will bow, in heaven and on earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. Those who, by God’s grace, recognize Christ’s authority as their Lord and Savior will do so with joy.
“By what authority are you doing these things?” From heaven or from man? This question put to Jesus is still a frequent question in the Church, isn’t it? Who is “in charge” in the church? Is it the pastor, or is it the voters’ assembly or church council, or some other outside body that provides organizational oversight? Questions of authority, power, and rights can cripple congregations, turning pastor and people against each other. And, in the end it is the Church and the Gospel of Christ that suffers most.
The leaders’ interrogation of Jesus demonstrates their prideful hearts. But we must also be constantly on guard. Pride is a dangerous sin, to which we are all susceptible. Therefore the psalmist teaches us to pray, “Prove me, O Lord, and try me; test my heart and my mind” (Psalm 26:2). Thus we learn from this Gospel to beware lest our hearts become prideful and we concentrate on establishing or maintaining our own authority instead of Christ’s. We must constantly be on guard against the assaults of the devil and our flesh in questions of authority. Each appeals to our prideful hearts.
Martin Luther writes: “The subtle poison of ambition is just under the surface. This sin has often tripped even those who have grasped God’s Word purely. From this sin all heresies have arisen… Against this secret villain we must pray God daily to suppress our self-esteem.” Thus we also learn from this text that what we need is not self-esteem, but humility before Christ, who tries our hearts and knows how full they are of ambition, pride, and selfishness. He is the only authority in the Church. It is His Church! And we dare not forget it!     
Questions of authority in the Church can turn one into a critic instead of a pupil. In C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters, an apprentice devil has the task of luring a new churchgoer to hell. Attending church, his devil mentor reassures him, is not necessarily a blow for the hellish cause. In fact, the apprentice might turn his victim’s church attendance to their advantage. The trick is to get him involved in church politics. When this happens, the worshiper begins to make himself a judge, rather than a student. He assumes for himself the authority to criticize rather than learn. Then you’ve got him speaking the words of the chief priests: “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?”
But this questioning of authority is not just a matter of power struggles and clashes of personality. It also affects our understanding of the authority of God’s Word and His Sacraments. A case in point: Is Baptism by heavenly authority or simply from man? Some would say Baptism is an act of man. The purpose of Baptism is to show the world that you have made a decision to follow Jesus Christ. That is why they refuse baptism to infants and young children.
But Baptism is not simply a human activity; rather, it goes to the heart of the proclamation of Jesus as the Messiah. This was certainly true of John’s baptism. That’s why Jesus brings it up in His response to the Jewish leaders. John preached repentance and baptized. John proclaimed Jesus to be the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. So if John’s baptism was from heaven, his words must be authoritative too, right? Therefore, it follows that Jesus must be the Christ.
John’s baptism was a means of grace. Like the Sacrament of Baptism instituted by Jesus, John’s baptism worked regeneration and repudiated the works-righteousness of the Pharisees. It functioned much like the Old Testament sacrifices in that it offered the forgiveness of sins for Christ’s sake, although preceding in time the actual crucifixion of the Messiah. Thus the baptism of John was not merely “from man,” but “from heaven!”
What about our Baptism—and other means of grace? Are they by heavenly authority or only from man? The question can and must be asked regarding all the important issues in the Church today. What about Jesus? Is He merely a man, or is He also from heaven (that is, true God)? What about the Sacraments? Are they from heaven or from man? What about the Bible? Is it from heaven (inspired by God) or from man (ethical teachings, myths)? Or how about the Absolution? Is it from heaven (Christ’s forgiveness) or from man (the well wishes of that fellow sinner standing before you)?
All these questions can only be answered through the eyes of faith. Our trust in their blessings is dependent on the authority of the one who gave them—Jesus Christ, through His living, life-giving Word. As I already mentioned, Christ demonstrated His authority with His teaching and miracles. But He would demonstrate His ultimate authority over sin, death, and the devil by dying on the cross and rising again.
 Christ’s resurrection is authoritative proof that His Word is true. He is our Lord and Savior. He is the Authority of heaven and earth. Therefore, the means of grace He instituted are also authoritative. His Word, every word of Holy Scripture, is reliable and certain. The forgiveness He spokes was authoritative; the sins He forgave are all forgiven! The Sacraments He gave His Church truly deliver forgiveness, life, and salvation.

And Jesus’ authority is still at work today in the Office of the Holy Ministry. When Jesus’ pastors preach His Word, the hearers hear Him. In Holy Baptism, Absolution, and the Lord’s Supper, Jesus’ pastors forgive sins by His authority. By God’s grace, you and I rejoice in the authority of Jesus, for in it we hear His Word and are absolved. In that Word we will live, in that Word we will die, and in that Word we will live forever. In that Word, you are forgiven of all of your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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