By what authority are you doing these things and who gave you that authority? Those are the questions on the table in this morning’s Gospel reading. Jesus is challenged by the temple authorities – the chief priests and the elders, the guardians of the religious institution and theological status quo. Who did Jesus think He is riding into Jerusalem like a messiah to the shouts of Hosanna? Who did Jesus think He is, turning over the tables of the money changers and chasing out the sacrifice sellers, calling the temple the house of His Father? Who did Jesus think He is, walking around the temple and teaching as though He owned the place?
By what authority are you doing these things? “Authority” has in its background permission. Permission granted by another who is greater to act. When someone is “authorized,” that person is permitted to do or say certain things. When I absolve sins, I say it is in the stead of Christ and by HIs authority. He permits this speaking to take place. He stands behind it. He wants it to be heard.
By what authority does Jesus do and say what He does and says? You already know the answer. By divine authority. De jure divino. God’s authority. Jesus is acting as the authorized representative of the Father, His Apostle, the One uniquely sent to be the world’s Savior. The Father has permitted it; He approves of it; He delights in it. “This is my beloved Son with whom I am well pleased,” the Father said at Jesus’ baptism.
One doesn’t go around claiming authority without some sign, some tangible evidence. How do you know that officer who pulls you over for speeding has the authority to do that? His badge and identification tell you. If you want, you can take down his number and check to see if he really has the authority he claims. If not, you can safely ignore him and the ticket he’s written is worthless.
How do you know that Jesus has the authority He claims? His works and His words. The signs and wonders He performed – healing the sick, raising the dead, casting out he demons, stilling the storm, multiplying the bread and the fish. These are the works of God. His works are the badges of Jesus’ authority. And His words too. In the Sermon on the Mount recorded in Matthew, the people marveled at the teaching of Jesus because He taught as One who had authority and not as their own teachers. Jesus stood up and dared to say, “You heard it said by the teachers of old, but I say to you.” He dared, as no other teacher of His day would ever dare, to teach without referring to His teachers, simply on His own authority, claiming that He was teaching the very words of His Father.
His works and His words were know. This is chapter 21 in Matthew. There has been a lot of Gospel water under the bridge. These are not the early days. This is holy week, the week Jesus enters Jerusalem to die. This is the 9th inning of His earthly ministry. The cards have all been laid out on the table since John came baptizing. That’s why Jesus refuses even to address the question, but instead poses a question of His own. There’s no point debating a question like this. The debate would have run this way: By whose authority are you doing this? God’s authority. How do we know you have God’s authority? By the miracles I do. We don’t believe them. Give us another sign. What sign would convince you? We don’t know. Show us one, and we’ll see if we believe you. Why would you believe another sign if you don’t believe when I even raised the dead? We don’t believe you; show us a sign.
You can’t debate unbelief. Unbelief begins with the assumption that there is no God, that Jesus is at best a great teacher and at worst a kook. Throw whatever evidence you want in the face of unbelief, and it will reject it every time. As Jesus said in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, “Neither will they believe even if one should rise from the dead.” Even a resurrection, which is about as big a sign as you can get, doesn’t impress unbelief.
Jesus goes around their unbelief by way of the backdoor. He wants to rescue them from their assumptions and free them from their notions about God. Feeding them more miracles won’t help. As Kierkegaard put it, “Faith that is born of miracles needs miracles to sustain it.” “Jew demand signs,” the apostle Paul noted in Corinth. What he gave them was the preaching of Christ crucified. Jesus poses a different sort of question. The baptism of John. Where did it come from? Did it come from heaven, from God? Or did it come from man? Was it something that John cooked up himself?
They huddled together, the chief priests and the elders of the people, to see how they would answer this sticky question. And it was a sticky question. If they said that John’s baptism was from heaven, that it came from God, they knew what the next question was going to be: Why didn’t you believe John and repent and be baptized? If they said it was from men, they knew the people would turn on them because everyone believed that John was a prophet sent with the authority of God.
Checkmate! Jesus has them cornered. It’s one way or the other. Either John’s baptism is from God or it is from men. There is no neutral ground here. The same can be said of Jesus Himself. Either He is from God, the Son of God in the flesh as He claimed to be and His works showed HIm to be, or He is “from men,” nothing more than a very clever teacher with a very big ego who was deceiving a lot of people with His tricks and His teaching. There is no neutral ground with Jesus. No sitting on the fence. (I like that image. Fence sitting is uniquely uncomfortable. It’s not a tenable place to rest.)
“We do not know,” they say. A politically correct answer. This is why politics and religion don’t mix. You wind up at the “don’t know” position. In Greek, the word for not knowing is agnostos, agnostic. It begs the question. “We don’t know if John’s baptism was from God or from men.” Yet they ignored John. They rejected his call to repentance. They refused his baptism. And they say they didn’t know? They weren’t sure? If someone says, “There’s a bomb planted in this building and it’s set to go off in ten minutes,” are you going to sit around and debate the probability of the message is true? Are you going to say, “Well, we can’t be absolutely certain that this report is authentic or accurate, so we’re going to sit here and do nothing and wait for further developments?” No, in all reasonable likelihood, you will evacuate the building as fast as you can and then summon the bomb squad to sniff out the alleged bomb. If it’s wrong, no big deal. If it’s right, you just saved your skin.
That’s what makes an agnostic position so untenable. “We don’t know. We can’t be sure there is a God, that Jesus is who He says He is, that Christianity’s claims are true. Therefore, we’ll just wait for further developments. See what happens. Wait for more data.” What if there is a bomb? What if Jesus is who He says He is? What if His death actually atones for the world’s sins? What if His life means life from the dead and eternal life with God? It would seem to me that a reasonable agnostic would exhaust every possibility, including entertaining the possibility that there is a God who created all things and there is a Son of God named Jesus who redeemed all things by His death in our flesh.
You see, that’s how stubborn unbelief is. It’s unreasonably stubborn. That’s why we confess that we cannot by our own reason or strength believe (trust) in Jesus Christ or come to Him. He must come to us. He must engage us. He must deal with us by His Spirit working through the water of Baptism and the Word. He must break down the walls that guard our unbelief. He must crack through the darkness of our agnosticism, our darkened lack of knowledge of God. We are so consumed by knowing good and evil, by our self-absorption, by our hearts and minds and beings turned inward, that we no longer naturally know God.
The fool says in his heart there is no God. Atheism is foolishness in the face of the evidence to the contrary. If you say there is no God, you will make yourself a god. You will seek the “divine” in yourself, in the natural world, in something. You will invent a religion in your own image and likeness that will confirm you in yourself. The one thing you won’t naturally do is “repent.” That is the most unnatural of activities – to come to a new mind. That must happen from outside of us, extra nos.
The question of authority from the religious authorities came out of unrepentance, a refusal to be turned in one’s tracks, to be turned inside out. The question came in holy week, at the temple, the place of sacrifice. In a few short days, Jesus would answer the authority question once and for all by His death and resurrection. That’s the sign He offers to the world – His death and resurrection. And by this unique event in our history, He shows that all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Him. The authority to save the world from death and decay. The authority to forgive the sins of humanity. The authority to bestow life. The authority to be your Savior.
Repent. Turn from your sins, your self, your self-conceived notions about who God is and how God should act. Trust Jesus, the crucified and risen One, and all your questions will find their answer.
In the name of Jesus, Amen