By What Authority?

Following His “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem, Jesus went to the temple; there, He overturned the money changers’ tables and drove out those who were selling animals. When He returned the next day the chief priests and elders confronted Him about yesterday’s action. They asked, “By what authority are You doing these things, and who gave You this authority?” (Matthew 21:23).

The Question
“By what authority?” is a good question. All of us need to ask ourselves why we do what we do. Are we simply pleasing ourselves? Is societal or governmental approval all we care about? Are we concerned about pleasing God? If so, are we certain we are acting as He wills? Too many just assume that God is pleased with whatever pleases us.

Jesus’ Answer
“Jesus said to them, ‘I will also ask you one thing, which if you will tell Me, I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. The baptism of John was it from heaven or from men?’” (vv. 24-25a).

Jesus’ question identifies two sources of authority: God and man. Our permission to act is from one or the other. It is either divine or human. That raises the fundamental question: Whom are we trying to please?

The only way we can know we have God’s permission to act is by listening to His word. God spoke through His Son Jesus (Hebrews 1:1-2). Jesus revealed much of the Father’s will while He was on earth, then He sent the Holy Spirit to complete the task, guiding the apostles into “all truth” (John 16:12-15). The Spirit inspired the apostles and prophets as they preached (1 Corinthians 2:10-13) and wrote (Ephesians 3:3-5). When we read what they wrote—the New Testament— we can know God’s will for us. Divine authority is determined by what God said. It is a mistake to presume it on the basis of what He did not say.

Why did Jesus answer the chief priests’ question with a question? It was His way of getting to the real issue. The problem in this case was not determining by what authority Jesus acted; it was lack of respect for divine authority. The account continues, “And they began reasoning among themselves, saying, ‘If we say, “From heaven,” He will say to us, “Then why did not you not believe him?” But if we say, “From men,” we fear the people; for they all regard John as a prophet.’ And answering Jesus, they said, ‘We do not know’” (vv. 24b-27a).

The chief priests and elders were not honest. They only paid lip service to the principle of authority. For that reason, Jesus refused to answer their specific question (v. 27b). (He did go on to tell them two parables to help them see themselves.) Let’s each honestly ask, “What is my attitude toward divine authority?”

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