I WON’T BACK DOWN
Dr. Chuck DeVane, Pastor
Lake Hamilton Baptist Church
Hot Springs, Arkansas
February 17, 2019
1 One day, as Jesus was teaching the people in the temple and preaching the gospel, the chief priests and the scribes with the elders came up 2 and said to him, “Tell us by what authority you do these things, or who it is that gave you this authority.” 3 He answered them, “I also will ask you a question. Now tell me, 4 was the baptism of John from heaven or from man?” 5 And they discussed it with one another, saying, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say, Why did you not believe him?’ 6 But if we say, ‘From man,’ all the people will stone us to death, for they are convinced that John was a prophet.” 7 So they answered that they did not know where it came from. 8 And Jesus said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.”
— Luke 20:1-8, ESV
There are no songs in the Baptist Hymnal written by the late, great Tom Petty. We ought to consider including at least one in the next revision, however. It is a simple southern rock song built around three chords and these four words: “I won't back down.”
The inspiration for the song was a court battle between Petty and a record company over ownership of the songs he wrote. To oversimplify Petty’s case against his petty producers, he believed since he was the author of the songs, he ought to have authority over them. It proved to be a winning argument, one that has benefitted musicians ever since.
Authorship implies authority. If you made it, shouldn’t you have the right to decide what to do with it? Who made you? God, your parents, or are you a self-made man or woman? Who should decide what you do? God, your parents, your teachers, your boss, your government, or your own free will and independence?
These are crucial and complex questions. They are questions that descended upon Jesus during the final week of His public ministry. He had come to Jerusalem and grasped the authority of the Messiah, the King of Israel, by riding through the eastern gate on a donkey in fulfillment of Zechariah 9:9. That was Sunday.
On Monday the Lord cleansed the temple. Then, on Tuesday, Jesus began to teach and preach, with great authority, in preparation for the ultimate Passover. Those who perceived they had the authority wanted to know where He got the authority to contradict their authority. Jesus, when challenged by those authorities, bravely declared “I won’t back down.”
The Authority of the Chief Priests, Scribes, and Elders
While Rome ruled the world in Jesus’ day, Caesar often allowed local magistrates to have jurisdiction over the cares and affairs of everyday life, as long as there was peace and the tax money rolled in. In Israel, this authority was grasped by a religious ruling body knows as the Sanhedrin. It consisted mainly of the three kind of characters who approached Jesus during Holy Week. The “chief priests” were mostly Sadducees, the “scribes” were mostly Pharisees, and politically connected “elders,” many of whom were Herodians, rounded out the membership of about seventy men.
A big beef had been brewing between the boys and Jesus for three years. Now, they wanted to ridicule and discredit Him publicly, at the temple, in front of God and everybody. Perhaps they could shame Jesus into backing down and going back to Galilee. When that plan did not work, they plotted to kill Him, which would require Roman collusion since the Sanhedrin did not have the authority to impose the death penalty.
The men of power in the Sanhedrin had derived their authority from education, wealth, and popularity. Like the Pharisee Saul of Tarsus whom we meet after the Gospels, they had graduated from the finest schools. Like the rich young ruler, they had access to great wealth. Politically working your way into the Sanhedrin almost assuredly gave you power and money for the rest of life, and enabled you to run other people’s lives to boot.
Such a group could never control our country, could it? Did you know how many of our Supreme Court justices are graduates of just two schools, Harvard and Yale? Nine out of nine. Did you know how often someone named “Bush” or “Clinton” has been on the presidential ticket in our most recent elections? Eight out of the last ten. Did you know that the top 2% of Americans have over 50% of the wealth in our country? And these people call the shots, like the old Sanhedrin, because they have the right education, come from the right families, get into the right political offices, and corner the right markets.
Jesus did not have this kind of worldly authority. He had no formal education. He was from a poor family in Nazareth. He had no money or means of which to boast. So the Sanhedrin wondered out loud how Jesus dare come into Jerusalem and publicly teach the word of God and preach the gospel! But when confronted by their authority to question His own, Jesus did not back down.
The Authority of John the Baptist
Jesus answered their question with a question, a wise way to win an argument. People respected the Sanhedrin but did not love them. People loved Jesus, but the jury was still out on whether or not they respected Him as Lord. One figure who was universally loved and respected by the Jewish people at that time was a man named John Bar-Zechariah, also called John Ba-Harim (John of the Hills), best known as John the Baptist.
Everyone loved John the Baptist because John the Baptist was dead. Martyrdom often works in this mysterious way. Abraham Lincoln’s own cabinet members despised him until after he was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth, then they made him America’s patron saint. John F. Kennedy was viewed as a marginal president with little certainty of reelection until Lee Harvey Oswald (and others?) shot him down in Dallas and made him the king of Camelot.
More powerful than John the Baptist’s posthumous popularity, however, was his past tense preaching. He had preached the gospel, stressing repentance towards God and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. In fulfillment of the Old Covenant and in preparation for the New, John had pointed people to Jesus and identified Him as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” (ref. John 1:29).
John the Baptist never backed down. But where did John get his authority? Was it from God, or was he a self-made man? Was he telling the truth, or was he another power hungry political figure who got himself killed? Was his a heavenly, spiritual authority, or a worldly, temporary popularity? The answer to Jesus’ question about John is the same answer to the Sanhedrin’s question about Jesus.
The Authority of Jesus Christ
Jesus told them the source of His authority without telling them, leaving us with this tantalizing text in three Gospels. We’ve had two thousand years to study it and figure it out. If Jesus’ authority, like John’s, came from God, then everything John said about Jesus is true, and everything Jesus teaches and preaches is true, too. If Jesus’s authority, like John’s, was man-made or self-proclaimed, then the world is better off without Him (and doesn’t the world today seem bent on getting rid of Him).
I believe Jesus’ authority came from God because Jesus was, is, and always will be God. I believe He had the right to teach the word of God in the temple because He is the Word of God. I believe He had the right to preach the gospel to the world because He is the gospel for the world. Jesus is Lord, and He would not back down, not on Palm Sunday, not on the manic Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, not on Maundy Thursday, not on Good Friday, not on Silent Saturday, and not on Resurrection Sunday.
The chief priests and the scribes and the elders tried to stop Jesus by questioning His authority, but Jesus did not back down. They tried to stop Him with crucifixion, but Jesus did not back down. They try to stop Him still, with persecution or secularization or religion, but Jesus and His followers do not back down. Let us sing it together, “You can stand me up at the gates of Hell, but I won’t back down!”
I conclude with my original question. The dictionary defines authority as “the power or right to give orders, make decisions, and enforce obedience.” Where does this authority come from in your life, your family’s life, your church’s life, “From heaven (God) or from man?”
Let God be your final authority. He is our Author. He made us. He is the “author and finisher our faith” (ref. Hebrews 12:2). God made us. I pray Jesus has saved us. If so, we have His Spirit and His word. Let us follow Him, obey Him, and worship Him. And if someone should challenge the authority by which we live and worship, tell them, “I won’t back down.”
P.S. I gladly donate all royalties from this sermon to the Tom Petty Foundation.
Copyright © 2019 Lake Hamilton Baptist Church, All rights reserved.
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Dr. Charles F. "Chuck" DeVane, Jr., is the Pastor of Lake Hamilton Baptist Church in Hot Springs, Arkansas. His weekly sermon article, "The Gospel Truth," has been published in newspapers in Arkansas and Georgia. Dr. DeVane is a graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and has served in the pastorate for over 20 years. Contact Pastor Chuck at PastorChuck@lakehamiltonbaptistchurch.org