The Authority of Jesus

Dr. Brian Allison

Who is Jesus Christ to you? A typical (and good) response by evangelical Christians is that Jesus is Saviour and Lord. But, considering Jesus as Lord, we may ask: What does Lordship entail? Lordship entails authority. There are many voices that speak into our lives with authority, demanding and expecting the responses of compliance and obedience. Jesus, for the Christian, is the ultimate authority, or at least He should be. So, in asking the question: Who is Jesus Christ to you?, we may rephrase the question: What is Jesus Christ saying to you? There are many people who say good things, but Jesus says needful things; there are many who say interesting things, but Jesus says truthful things. We need to spiritually hear Jesus. I believe that Jesus wants to speak to us spiritually. I believe that He wants to speak right into our lives, into our hearts, into our experience. I believe that He is speaking. We simply need to listen. With the authority of Jesus in view, let's consider Matthew 21:23-27:

And when He [Jesus] had come into the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to Him as He was teaching, and said, "By what authority are You doing these things, and who gave You this authority?" Jesus answered and said to them, "I will ask you one thing too [in the original – "I will ask you one word." Jesus was only intending on asking one word], which if you tell Me, I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. The baptism of John [that being the salient part of his ministry] was from what source, from heaven or from men?" And they began reasoning among themselves, saying, "If we say, 'From heaven,' He will say to us, 'Then why did you not believe him.' But if we say, 'From men,' we fear the multitude; for they all hold John to be a prophet." And answering Jesus, they said, "We do not know." He also said to them, "Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things."

The Gospel of Matthew emphasizes the authority of Jesus Christ. Jesus is greater than the prophet Jonah, greater than the wise man Solomon, greater than the temple, greater than the Sabbath (Mt. 12:6,8,41,42). Further, in this Gospel, Jesus is portrayed as the King of the Jews: "SAY TO THE DAUGHTER OF ZION, 'BEHOLD YOUR KING IS COMING TO YOU, GENTLE AND MOUNTED ON A DONKEY, EVEN ON A COLT, THE FOAL OF A BEAST OF BURDEN'" (Mt. 21:5). Moreover, from Matthew 21:23 to 22:5, we can identify five controversies with respect to Jesus' authority.

Now, the fundamental issue that defines one's relationship with Jesus Christ is that of authority. In truly acknowledging and accepting the authority of Jesus, you will be prepared to follow and serve Him; and in denying and rejecting that authority, you, in effect, extol and serve self. The authority of Jesus is critical to His true identity.

The setting of this controversy over authority

The temple in Jerusalem provides the physical and spiritual setting of this particular controversy between Jesus and the Sanhedrin deputation over the question of authority – "And when He had come into the temple." Most likely, the actual controversy occurred in the outer most courtyard of the temple, probably within the Herodian Portico. Now, the temple was the focal point of the ministry of Jesus. For example, we read, "And Jesus entered the temple and cast out all those who were buying and selling in the temple, and overturned the tables of the moneychangers and the seats of those who were selling doves" (Mt. 21:12); again, "And the blind and the lame came to Him in the temple, and He healed them" (Mt. 21:14). God's special abode is the specific sphere of Jesus' Messianic work. Again, when Jesus visited Jerusalem for the Passover at the age of twelve, His parents and the accompanying pilgrims set out to return to Galilee. Jesus remained in Jerusalem. Eventually, Jesus' parents discovered that He was not with them, and they returned to Jerusalem and hunted for Him for about three days. They finally found Him in the templeand asked Him, "'Son, why have You treated us this way? Behold, Your father and I have been anxiously looking for You.' And He said to them, 'Why is it that you are looking for Me? Did you not know that I had to be in my Father's house?'" (Lu. 2:48,49).

Jesus taught the truth with authority

While Jesus was in the temple, the Jewish religious leaders confronted Him – "The chief priests and the elders of the people came to Him as He was teaching." The religious establishment reacted to the ministry of Jesus. They reacted particularly against His teaching. They apparently wanted to set Him straight. Jesus had no official credentials. He had no recognized rabbinic status. He was teaching on the religious establishment's turf. What apparent gall! Yet, Jesus was propelled by truth, and thus He was constrained to teach.

It takes courage to teach the truth. It can become very risky, and even dangerous, when you become propelled by truth, for the truth may take you somewhere where you do not want to go, and make you deal with uncomfortable issues that you do not want to deal with. Though you may disagree with the teaching that Malcolm X espoused and articulated, he was, nonetheless, a man propelled and controlled by his understanding of truth; it took him to a place where he really did not want to go – ostracism, persecution, and death. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was also propelled and controlled by truth, and it took him to a place where, I am sure, he did not want to go – militant racism, bitter hatred, and assassination. This past week, nine human rights activists were murdered in Nigeria. They pursued truth, as they understood it, and it took them to a place where they really did not want to go – execution by a military regime.

When truth grips you and begins to control you, it may take you to a place that you do not want to go, as was true of Jesus. Jesus' life was one of teaching, being motivated by truth. As I try to understand the human heart of Jesus, I realize that He deeply wanted people to find the right path. Being Himself sold out to the truth, He wanted people to find God.

While Jesus was teaching the truth, the religious leaders challenged that teaching – "By what authority are You doing these things [i.e., cleansing the temple, healing in the temple, but especially teaching in the temple], and who gave you this authority?" This was a loaded question. If Jesus did not answer them, then His prestige and integrity, no doubt, would have been diminished in the eyes of the Jews (and being an advocate of the truth would not allow Him to keep quiet at this time); and if He were to answer that He was doing these things through divine authority, then He would have been charged with blasphemy.

These religious leaders were simply asking two interrelated, but similar, questions in order to make their concern clear. Their twofold question was well crafted. They were hoping to trap Jesus. To paraphrase the questions, they were asking, first, "Who are you answerable to? Who is backing you? On what basis do you do these things?"; and second, "Who commissioned you? Who actually invested you with authority? In order to appreciate the interrelatedness of the two questions, let me give an example. I have been licensed to solemnize marriages. If you were to ask me the question, "By what authority are you doing these things?" My response would be, "By the authority of the government of Ontario." If you were to further ask me, "Who gave you this authority." My response would be, "The office of the Registrar General."

Now these religious leaders did recognize that Jesus' teaching was characterized by authority. When Jesus taught, He always taught with authority. For example, when Jesus ended the Sermon on the Mount, "the result was that...the multitudes were amazed at His teaching; for He was teaching them as one having authority, and not as the scribes" (Mt. 7:28,29). Now the point is this, if Jesus was teaching with authority, then it was teaching which demanded the response of obedience and compliance, rather than judgement, scrutiny, or indifference. With teaching that is authoritative, the only acceptable response is that of submission. For example, a number of weeks ago, I was in the United States taking a few courses. I had the opportunity to sit under someone who had many years of experience in his field. This professor had tremendous insight and understanding. He spoke with authority, and hearing (supposed) truth spoken with authority, my only response could be that of acceptance. Such was the case with Jesus. Now, Jesus still teaches with authority today. What does that mean for your life? What are the implications of that fact for your life? When He speaks into your life by His Word, how do you respond?

Jesus' wise response to the challenge to authority

Jesus did not directly answer the questions of these religious leaders, but countered with a question – "And Jesus answered and said to them, 'I will ask you one thing too, which if you tell Me, I will also tell you by what authority I do these things? The baptism of John was from what source, from heaven or from men?" With this response, Jesus was not trying to dodge the issue or to elude His critics. Jesus, though meek and gentle, never yielded to social pressure to give an appeasing apology, either disguised or obvious. Again, He was controlled by truth. Jesus was simply engaging in the standard format or method of rabbinic debate, which these leaders would have readily accepted and appreciated. Rabbinic debate employed the method of question and counter-question as a means of extracting truth, by challenging and cornering your opponent with an unanswerable question.

Now, I also believe that Jesus countered with a question because He was trying to lead these religious leaders into belief in Him and confession of His name. It was in finding an answer to Jesus' question, that they would secure an answer to their own original question. What I have discovered as a teacher is that students learn better when they have to find the answer for themselves, rather than me or any other teacher telling them. When you have to research something out for yourself, when you have to expend energy and effort in discovering the truth, you are impacted by what you find. Accordingly, Jesus wisely frames a question, in response to their question, so that in the discovery of the answer, they would have also received the answer that they were seeking; and hopefully in the process, discover Jesus; but they 'blew it.' They blew it because of the hardness of their hearts.

These religious leaders failed to discover the truth, because they failed to be honest with themselves. The pitfall to real spiritual or personal growth is the failure to be honest with yourself. Real honesty demands that you may have to change. Real honesty means that you may have to make some significant modifications in your life; and often we do not like that; it is too threatening. Some may have the query, "If I were ever to admit the real situation, if I was ever ready to throw off this cloak of denial, do you know what that would mean? Do you know what that would cost me?" We are not prepared to lose; we are not prepared to give up; we are not prepared to have our lives thrown into upheaval. The problem is that we do not want to be disturbed and so we become content in the security of self-deception. We want to remain in our comfortable little bubble where we have no commitments, no demands placed on us, and life is reasonably easy. Yet, if you are controlled and led by the truth, then you will be willing to be uncomfortable and disturbed.

Failure to respond to Jesus' authority

These religious leaders seemed to be close to the truth, but fell short of it – "And they began reasoning among themselves, saying, 'If we say, "From heaven," He will say to us, "Then why did you not believe him?" But if we say, "From men," we fear the multitude; for they all hold John to be a prophet.'" Here was the golden opportunity to be finders of truth, to discover God. Jesus had set the stage for them. They just needed to respond with integrity. If they had accepted and acknowledged that the baptism of John had been commissioned by God, then they would have been finders of truth, and most likely would have discovered the real Jesus, because John pointed to Jesus; and the source of Jesus' ministry was the same as that of John. In denying or rejecting the truth, these religious leaders were sealing their own tragic fate, for each time the truth is (deliberately) denied or rejected, the subsequent securing of the truth becomes more difficult because we become more confirmed in our blindness, and thus truth becomes more elusive.

These leaders failed to discover the truth, and thus Jesus, for two reasons; two motivations governed them. The first motivation was pride (vs. 25b). They did not want to be exposed; they did not want to admit that they had been wrong about this Jesus. They did not want to be self-condemned. Their stumbling block was one of personal image and control. The second motivation was fear (vs. 26). They did not want to court the displeasure of people. They were people pleasers; they were men of expediency, rather than men of integrity, and that path always leads away from truth. These leaders were self-ambitious; they had desires for self-survival and for power, and those desires blinded them so that they failed to discover the real Jesus. What a tragedy!

You do not find Jesus through control or dominance or fleshly power. We find Jesus in the context of personal meekness and humility. We find Jesus 'in the stable,' not 'in the king's palace.' What is motivating your heart. What is driving you? – self-ambition? status? position? If these things are controlling you, you will not spiritually find Jesus. You may be a good Christian, you may even read your Bible and pray every day, but you will not find Jesus. Jesus reveals Himself in the context of contrition and humility, regardless of how faithful you are, or how determined you are to be a good Christian.

Responding rightly to Jesus' authority

The only proper response to Jesus' authority is the road of self-denial and submission – "And answering Jesus, they said, 'We do not know.'" I think that this was more a response of diplomacy, than of uncertainty. Do you respond with diplomacy so that you may continue to appear decent and good in the public eye, but really you are walking the line of compromise and betrayal. Do you have slick answers and clever strategies and ploys because you are concerned about appearance and image? When you use the tactic of diplomacy in order to keep up appearances, you really reveal that you are self-centred and fearful. Such was the case with these religious leaders. They were not honest ministers; but they were expedient manipulators. Are you in the Church for ministry – reaching out to others in need, denying yourself, picking up the cross to follow Jesus; or are you in the Church to manipulate – wanting people to meet your needs?

These leaders, through their own stubbornness, failed to find truth – "Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things." They refused to enter through the 'door', and as a result Jesus closed the 'door'. With their diplomatic (and thus wrong) response, they proved, one, that they did not have the right to know by what authority Jesus was doing these things; and, two, that they had forfeited the right to challenge Jesus for what He was doing.

Of course, we know that Jesus performed His ministry by the authority given by God; God had commissioned Him. Is Jesus speaking into your life with authority? Be honest. This is a defining aspect of what it means to be in relationship with Jesus – understanding that He speaks into our lives with authority, and that fact carries certain implications and consequences. On the Mount of Transfiguration, God spoke perhaps the most critical words in all of the New Testament. We read, "While he [Peter] was still speaking, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them; and behold, a voice out of the cloud, saying, 'This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to Him!'" (Mt. 17:5). Are you listening to Jesus? I am convinced that if you are a Christian, Jesus has said something to you this past week, and perhaps on more than one occasion. He still speaks with authority. He is Lord. Again, who is Jesus Christ to you?