Luke 20:1-8 “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?’ 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.’ Jesus said, ‘Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.’”
The Lord Jesus Christ has just cleaned up the Temple by driving out the money changers and those hucksters who sold animals at heavily inflated prices. Then he doesn’t beat it quick, scuttling off to hide from the temple guard. He stands his ground. This is his own Father’s home, and he teaches the crowds for hours, day after day, right up until the Thursday evening, the night of his arrest, and the people are hanging on to his words. It was during some break in his teaching – maybe as he was arriving or leaving – that a delegation of the chief priests, and the elders, and the teachers of the law all approached him. Were they going to arrest him? No. This delegation had come to ask him a question; “‘Tell us by what authority you are doing these things,’ they said. ‘Who gave you this authority?’” Their caution in not arresting him was due to his very public popularity. Christ was hugely popular for doing what he had just done, for driving out the crooks and embezzlers who had taken over the temple courts with their rip-offs and money laundering. His teaching was also popular because he was preaching the gospel, the good news, to the multitudes. People wanted to hear how they might get rest, and take a yoke upon themselves that was easy and a burden that was light. “Don’t stop preaching to us!” the crowds were saying, and so the chief priests and elders were backing off from confrontation and arrest, certainly not in such a public place. They would get him at night in a garden when he just had three others with him.
The caution these officials displayed was due to their meetings behind locked doors to plan his arrest and the charges they would bring against him and then kill him. They had been planning this for weeks. They were now looking for a betrayer from his own ranks, and they were bribing witnesses to lie about his words. So the reason they’d come to Jesus this Tuesday before the crucifixion was to get fresh evidence to use against him. They wanted him to incriminate himself with his answer to their question. If he said to them that he had cleaned out the Temple by the authority of his Father in heaven, then they would get him on the charge that he was making himself equal with God, that he was definitely a blasphemer. If he’d said, “Well, on my own authority,” then they would arrest him on some public order offence. What authority did he have to act as he’d acted?
There already was a rigid authority structure in place in the Temple. It was a pyramid; there at the bottom were the temple security guards and ancillary staff, and then above them the Levites, above them the priests, and then another layer of the chief priests, and finally at the top, Caiaphas, the High Priest himself. They all knew their rights and their duties. They had the Temple in their pockets and they were making a fine profit to boot. Then this carpenter’s son from Nazareth turned up out of the blue. He gate-crashed the Temple even for the second time in three years and again had driven out the salesmen with a whip and overturned the tables of the money-changers and had pushed over the benches of those who sold animals. Who did he think he was to be acting in that way? And so they came to him and inquired, “‘Tell us by what authority you are doing these things,’ they said. ‘Who gave you this authority?’”
THE IMPORTANCE OF THIS QUESTION.
These Jewish leaders had put their finger on a most important subject, and if I understand the modern religious situation at all then this whole question of authority is one of the central issues confronting us and it demands our careful study.
i] Because of the lack of authority in the professing churches. There is no doubt that things are as they are in the Christian church in Wales today – and throughout Europe (because we in Wales are simply a microcosm of the U.K. and the Netherlands and Scandinavia and Germany and Switzerland and other former Protestant countries on the continent) because the religious authority in all those places has disappeared. The pulpits of this town even fifty to sixty years ago were quite influential. Let a Principal of the University dare to act out of line morally and there were ministers who would take him to task at the university court and he might lose his position, and in one notorious case that happened to one Principal. That’s not how it is today. Those very buildings where those ministers spoke have been closed and demolished, and we are faced by masses of the people outside the Church utterly indifferent to what any preacher says. Things are like this, I suggest, because the Church has in one way or another lost its authority. As a result, the people have ceased to listen or to pay any attention to its message. The search for what has been lost characterizes many of the Church’s activities at this time, and all sections of the Church, including the evangelical section. They are trying to produce a spurious, artificial substitute. But this question of authority is important . . .
ii] Because numerically successful sections of the professing Church owe their growth to claiming ‘authority’. For example, without doubt the cause of the power of the Roman Catholic Church lies in this, that she projects an image of authority; and people are ready to believe that she has it. This is true not merely of poor, illiterate folk, but also of prime ministers, novelists, media people and members of the royal family, people who have known more of the problems of fame, wealth and family tensions and have failed to find peace. Perhaps they once had a nominal connection with the Church of England, and became weary of that denomination being utterly divided on moral and theological questions. So they jumped ship saying, “We see in Rome a church that claims authority. It has popes who claim to speak infallibly and bind the consciences of its members to believe their words. I cannot understand all she says; I can’t agree with everything; some things seem incredible, but you must admit that she speaks with the authority of the centuries. Here is this long tradition. Who am I to stand against it?” And so they capitulate; they long for those notes of certainty, and are prepared to believe what is claimed by Rome.
Again, the success of the charismatic movement, speaking generally, is to be attributed to the same cause. Both men and women will get to their feet in a meeting and will say, “Thus saith the Lord” and speak to the congregation. They claim that their messages come from the throne of the universe and are endorsed by the Holy Spirit himself. There appears to be certainty and assurance – notes of authority. The same thing is true of many cults. People stand at your front door and they speak with conviction. Their numerical success is to be attributed to that note of certainty.
iii] The note of authority is important because of contemporary opposition to confessions of faith and doctrinal bases. That truth itself can be known is questioned “Can you define truth?” men ask. “Can it be stated in a number of propositions? We don’t think so.” Fifty years ago Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones spoke at a students’ conference in Canada and his three talks have come out as a book entitled Authority. Half a century ago there was opposition to confessions of faith as being hopeless attempts to define the indefinable. The Doctor mentions a certain author who dismissed any suggestion that you could state truth in the form of a creed. The writer claimed that the true situation was something like this – he told this story . . .
“A man has been told that if only he climbed to the top of a certain mountain he would obtain a magnificent view, that stretching before him would be a wonderful and marvelous panorama. Very well, the man is anxious to see this. He begins to climb. He goes on and on. The sun sheds its clear rays upon him. He goes on in the blazing heat, and in spite of it. Eventually the ascent becomes so steep that he has to get down on his hands and knees. As he scales certain crags he has to hold on to tufts of grass. But it is going to be worth it in the end. On and on he struggles, with hands and knees bleeding, but the quest keeps him going, and at last, he arrives at the summit, and there, before him is this glorious panorama.
“Now what does he do about this great scene? Does he try to reduce that view, as it were, to propositions and to state it in theorems? Impossible! The thing is too magnificent. He just stands with his eyes and mouth wide open, lost in stupendous wonder and amazement. He cannot go down the mountain and there write out all he’s seen and felt. You can’t define something like that. It’s quite impossible. Just as you cannot analyse the aroma of a rose, so you can’t reduce this great and glorious sight to a number of statements and propositions. In other words, it is something which can only be experienced, something you can feel. You might dance to it. You might sing to it. But you cannot state it in propositions. You cannot define it. You cannot reduce it to the form of a creed” (D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Authority, IVP, 1958, p.9).
That is what the followers of the Lord Jesus Christ had been hearing for a century or more, the idea that every approach is right, no one may claim the monopoly. There are many ways of getting to this summit, and we must welcome all insights and beliefs. We mustn’t say that a man doesn’t have the truth because he’s not climbed up the way that we’ve come. These are matters which, because of the very nature of truth itself, can never be defined. We can’t confidently speak of something being ‘right’ or ‘wrong.’ Things change from one situation to another. So fifty years ago there was deep opposition to confessions of faith.
But attitudes have moved on and now we are living in the post-modernist age. It claims not only that truth cannot be defined, but that truth is unattainable, because it is indefinable. No one has the authority to declare that one view is right and another view is wrong. There are no longer absolutes. The result of this common fallacy is that virtually every student at the University in our town feels that there is no such thing of which you can say, “That is truth,” or “That is an objective authority.” That does not exist. So a man’s search for such realities is fruitless and has disappeared because it’s believed that it is simply an arrogance for anyone to claim, “I have the truth.” What a difference from John Bunyan’s description of the Christian setting out from the City of Destruction on a pilgrimage crying, “Truth! Truth!” He is going to find the truth at all costs and his great journey begins. There is yet another reason why it is important:
iv] There is the yearning in the lives of Christian people that we might see a great awakening and a turning to the living God. That is evident, but any study of church history, and particularly any reading of the great periods of revival demonstrates – above everything else – just the plain fact that the Christian church during all such periods of vitality and conviction has spoken with authority. The great characteristic of all revivals was the air of power and courage that possessed the main preachers involved. They seemed to enter a new dimension of certainty. There was something extra and irresistible about their ministries as they declared the mighty works of God. Again it is important because . . .
v] This subject of authority is one great theme of the Bible itself. This particular incident of our Lord being confronted by religious leaders asking him by what authority he is acting and speaking as he does is recorded for us in all three synoptic gospels. The frequent response of men and women after hearing Jesus’ teaching was not so much the content of what he had actually preached to them, mind-blowing, revolutionary and wonderfully encouraging as it was, but rather the man Jesus himself, and the authority he displayed as he spoke so cogently and lucidly on these various subjects. They were amazed at the authority with which he addressed them. “Where did he obtain such authority?” they often asked one another. They knew his family and the biographical details of his life, but that gave them no answers to their question.
THE SOURCES OF CHRIST’S AUTHORITY.
i] There was the authority he possessed as one promised and predicted in the Scriptures. God prepared his people for the coming of the Messiah. Adam and Eve heard that one was coming who would bruise the serpent’s head. Abraham was told that one of his seed would bless all the nations of the earth. David was told that one of his line would be reign over the world. Isaiah prophesied that one who was virgin born would come and his name would be Wonderful Counsellor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace. He would be wounded for our transgressions; the Lord would lay on him the iniquity of us all. Jesus came to possess this authority, given to him by these men, inspired by the Holy Spirit who prepared the people through their prophecies for his coming. There were those in the land, even coming daily to the Temple in Jerusalem, waiting for him to appear there. What authority was vested in him by these prophecies before he actually appeared on the public stage.
ii] There was the authority given to him at his birth. When he comes into the world gospel writer Matthew immediately quotes the Old Testament words, “they shall call his name Immanuel, which is, being interpreted, God with us.” He applies that to the Bethlehem stable-born child of Mary. Of this same little boy the angel tells his mother, “He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God shall give to him the throne of his father David.” A little later the angel states that he “shall be called holy, the Son of God,” and the shepherds in the fields are told, “there is born to you this day in the city of David a Saviour which is Christ the Lord.” How much more explicitly could the authority of this child be announced than by such titles as these, Son of the Highest, King who will reign for ever, the Lord, the Saviour? I was reading in the Times on Friday extracts from a book written by a rock singer called Tim Burgess, the front man of a group called the Charlatans. He confessed, “I did coke pretty much every day for ten years,” and then he knew he was destroying himself. He was bloated and sluggish with the physique of a barrel, his friends were killing themselves in fast cars and through alcohol and by drug overdoses. He wrote two little sentences; “a change has to come. Everyone needs a saviour.” That is truth. I wish he had said that he had found our merciful Saviour who is Christ the Lord, the one who gives us the rest of his forgiveness.
iii] There was the authority that God himself gave him in a voice from heaven, announcing at the baptism of Jesus, “You are my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased,” and then again at Jesus’ transfiguration at the closing of his ministry God repeats his delight in his Son with those same words, adding, “Listen to him!” Those two sentences clothed Jesus Christ with supreme divine authority coming from the Creator of the cosmos.
iv] There was the authority of his mighty works. When Jesus spoke the winds and waves and fig-trees and water in vast water pots and loaves and fishes all obeyed him. When Jesus willed it those who had been born blind saw, the deaf heard again, the lame could walk again, the leper was cleansed and those with mental problems were restored to their right minds. There were no exceptions; none too far gone to be healed. When Jesus willed it those possessed with evil spirits were delivered from demonic power. When he came into contact with the dead, in Jairus’ home, or in Nain, or in Bethany then he raised the dead, one man called Lazarus was resurrected after he had lain in his sepulchre for three days. None could resist his authority. When he said to the soldiers come to arrest him, “I am he” then they fell on their faces before him. A crowd of angry men tried to throw him off a cliff but he walked through the midst of them all and somehow they couldn’t touch him. His actions were the confirmation of his mighty claims to be the resurrection and the life, to be the way and the truth and the life, to be the bread of heaven that can satisfy the hunger of the world, to be absolutely equal with God – “I and my Father are one.”
v] There was the authority of his teaching. All the Old Testament prophets spoke conscious of the fact that they had derived their words from Jehovah; “Thus saith the Lord” they said. They prefaced all their preaching with that phrase. They knew that they were unoriginal men; they were merely channels by which God brought his message to bear on his holy nation. The Lord Jesus never said, “Thus saith the Lord.” He said, “Verily, verily I say unto you.” He spoke in his own name, and he set up his great “I . . .” over against all the traditions of their fathers, and on his own authority he spoke on the subject of marriage, divorce, our first parents, Noah’s flood, Jonah being swallowed by a whale, oaths, ceremonial washings and what truly defiles a man. He corrected leaders in the Sanhedrin and Roman Governors and the chief priests. He claimed that one day he would announce to each person his eternal destiny. What authority he displayed in his teaching. He told us all that if we would be wise we should build our lives on a solid foundation that could survive any storms and floods we would meet, and that foundation is his own teaching. “Build your life on that and you will be safe,” he said.
So here was the Lord Jesus Christ, this man of extraordinary authority, and yet on this occasion religious leaders came to him and they asked him the source of his authority. They couldn’t deny that he possessed it. “Who has given it to you?” was their question. They utterly rejected the obvious conclusion that Jesus was filled with the authority of God, but they were probably just as unimpressed by those people who said that it was by the authority of Beelzebub, the devil, that Jesus acted as he did, because he was constantly casting out demons and releasing many people from satanic power. Where could his authority come from?
THE GREAT DILEMMA JESUS GAVE TO THEM.
What a wonderful reply came from our Lord! “He replied, ‘I will also ask you a question. Tell me, John’s baptism – was it from heaven, or from men?’” (v.3). They had tried to forget about the murdered prophet John, but Jesus hadn’t. In our folly we can forget about men of God who have spoken with the blessing of heaven on their ministries, but the Lord hasn’t forgotten them. We might have given John the Baptist a very minor role, but Luke doesn’t, and this was because Jesus hasn’t. Remember that John had said he was unworthy to undo the laces on Jesus’ sandals, or to wash Jesus’ feet. Then Christ must be a colossus, and John too must be great to have recognized this before anyone else, before a single miracle had been done. John said that Jesus held the fan of judgment in his hand and what storms could he cause to roar around us, blowing all our cosmetic coverings away and revealing what we’re really like. John declared that the Spirit of God had come upon Jesus – without measure. John said that Jesus was a prophet, but more than speaking to us he would be baptizing the nations with the Holy Spirit and with fire.
This ministry of John the Baptist is the only other ministry foretold in the Old Testament besides Christ. Not Peter. Not John. Not the apostle Paul, only John the Baptist is prophesied as the messenger who’d go preparing the way for the Lord, making the rough places plain, and exalting every valley. So the nation wase without excuse when Jesus appeared and began to preach. Messianic expectation had never been so high in the land, certainly not for 400 years as when the prophet John began to preach crying out to them, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. He must increase but I must decrease”
Why did Jesus ask this question as to whether John’s baptism was from God or men? Was it a trick question to catch them out and make them look foolish in the eyes of the people? No! It was because of the authority John displayed that drew thousands of people to a desert and caused many of them to be converted from their wickedness, and it was the same authority that Jesus had when he overthrew the tables of the money lenders and lashed the crooks in his Father’s house and drove them out. The authority came from precisely the same place. Jesus’ authority over the Temple was his own royal authority which came upon him at the descent of the Spirit with the voice of his Father at his baptism. John and Jesus both received their authority from Jehovah God, and if John were a prophet then Jesus to whom he pointed, was indeed the true Messiah, and he exercised that authority in cleaning up the Temple. God’s voice sounding from heaven three years earlier at the start of his public ministry confirmed his right to do this.
If, of course, the facts were different, that John was deluded, a liar, a dangerous dreamer leading people astray, then Jesus too could be just as devilish in his words and his appeal here to John. Jesus certainly stands in solidarity with John; he will allow nothing by way of the words of John, or the spirit of John to be disparaged or to be thought of as being sub-Jesus. There is not the thinnest membrane you can choose to separate Jesus from John. They are one in their stance and one in their message.
What do we see here? I will tell you. The big picture is this: the old order is passing away, quietly and without many noticing; away go the prophets and priests and kings of Israel. Away are going the judges and the Levites and the Nazirites. Away are going the badger skins and the shittim wood, the sacrifices and the offerings and the feasts in Jerusalem. Away are going the tribes, and the cities of refuge, and the seventh day Sabbath and the Jubilee years. Away goes the Temple and the holy vessels and the holy curtains and the holy vestments and the holy city and the holy land. The old system is going away to be replaced by the new. Jesus has come. All the nations of the earth are soon going to be blessed. No longer at Jerusalem will men gather to worship but in Spirit and in truth they will come in Jesus’ name and worship God all this round world over in a million places. Let Caesar shiver! The Lord of the Temple who made that building and all who entered its courts shake was soon going to turn the world upside down. These religious leaders gathering with their question, standing before the man from Nazareth, represent all the power of Israel, the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders, they are all in a group before him. They once made the loudest noise in the city, while this man who has quietly risen up and up and up through two or three years of preaching in the countryside and villages of Galilee, after thirty anonymous years in Nazareth, is going to bury the lot of them! He asks them this simple question, “Tell me, John’s baptism – was it from heaven, or from men?” Tick the box. It is one or the other. It is the simplest question. Please eliminate one of the following two options. He is challenging them as we are all being challenged to say whether the Lord Jesus Christ was sent to this world from God as the Son of God, or whether he was a self-appointed, deluded fanatic.
THE WRETCHED COWARDICE OF THE LEADERS OF ISRAEL.
We are told, “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” (vv.5-7). So they discussed Jesus’ question, but they didn’t say, “What is the truth? Let’s be faithful to the truth at all costs. Was John a prophet who came from God? Was his preaching and his God-fearing lifestyle and the effect it had in changing the lives of dissolute and sinful men, turning them to become worshippers of God, all pointing to this? Was his martyrdom, killed at the orders of that fox Herod, a further proof that he was fearless in his declaration of the word of God, and should we not all be like him, and declare the truth whatever the cost might be?” Wasn’t that what they should have said, and also what we should say? Let us follow God and serve God and speak up for God whatever the world may say. Seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness. That is our priority. That is non-negotiable.
But they did not say that. They were men who faced two ways. They followed God but they also wanted to keep in with the world. They were caught on the horns of this dilemma. If they said, “There was a man sent from God whose name was John. We believe that,” then the crowd who had gathered around to hear their interrogation of Jesus would say, “But you never followed him. You were utterly indifferent to him. You were cynical about his life and ministry and converts. You were always saying, ‘The Jury’s out!’ If he did preach the word of God and baptize because God commissioned him then why weren’t you baptized? Why didn’t you accept his message?” These religious leaders knew that that is what the crowd would say if they acknowledged John to be a true prophet. They would be dubbed a bunch of hypocrites.
However, if they said they thought John was just a man who made up these claims to be a prophet speaking on behalf of God and his baptism was just a human invention then the people whose lives had been transformed by him, and loved his courage to denounce Herod’s womanizing and his bravery to suffer death for his words, would become very angry, and denounce them. “Call yourselves religious, and you can’t even recognize that God has raised up a prophet in our day?” They would start looking for stones to throw at them in their rage. So they said, “We don’t know.” Of course they knew, and of course you know. You know that God is from your conscience, and from the glory and order of his creation. He shows himself all around you. Here is the uninventable Jesus Christ the Son of God, and you know that he is God, and yet you are clamping down on this truth in your determination to serve yourself and do what you like with your life, and not what God requires of you. You are just like these men, you are afraid of the reaction of people to your becoming religious and their jibes and criticisms. So you limp along between two opinions, not quite religious and not quite following the world. You are neither cold nor hot. You are lukewarm. You will not take your stand. You will not nail your colours up. You are like the people of Elijah’s day caught between the popular god Baal, and the Lord, and you are wavering between those two opinions sometimes trusting the Lord other times trusting other gods. How long will this go on? You cannot serve two masters. You can only give your life to do what one master tells you to do and he says, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ. Go to him and he will give you rest.” That is where you begin and then he will give you energy and strength to love the Lord your God with all your heart, and love your neighbour as yourself. But until you believe in your heart and confess with your mouth that Jesus Christ is Lord then there will be no progress, and no growth in understanding, and no blessing in your life. Don’t expect God to speak to you on Sundays. Don’t expect his words of comfort and blessing. You must first acknowledge him to be God. You must bow down before him. And until you do that he won’t tell you any more than he has already told you. Do what you know now. Gather together every little bit of faith you have and direct it to Jesus Christ alone, and that is the door to more knowledge and more truth and a life of walking with God.
15th April 2012 GEOFF THOMAS