Dr. Charles Franklin DeVane, Jr., Pastor
Lake Hamilton Baptist Church
Hot Springs, Arkansas
September 20, 2015
23 And when he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came up to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” 24 Jesus answered them, “I also will ask you one question, and if you tell me the answer, then I also will tell you by what authority I do these things. 25 The baptism of John, from where did it come? From heaven or from man?” And they discussed it among themselves, saying, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him? ’ 26 But if we say, ‘From man,’ we are afraid of the crowd, for they all hold that John was a prophet.” 27 So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.”
— Matthew 21:23-27, ESV
America could not have produced two people who were more alike and more different than Benjamin Franklin and Timothy Leary. Both were revolutionaries, both were intellectuals, both had substantial admirers and followers, and both stood for the principle of questioning authority. It was Franklin who famously said, “It is the first responsibility of every citizen to question authority,” while Leary put it more succinctly, “Think for yourself and question authority.”
Of course, Franklin questioned the authority of a British monarchy that excised taxation without representation. He was a patriot and a loyalist to the American colonies, leading them to a necessary independence and a responsible freedom. Leary, on the other hand, was a twentieth century radical who became a criminal and expatriate by advocating disobedience to democratic laws against drugs and the overthrow of religious mores regarding sexuality. Franklin was red, white, and blue, while Leary was sex, drugs, and rock and roll.
Both men wanted to be free. Both men questioned authority. One man did it one way, the other another way. The question today is, what is your way?
By this juncture of the Gospel story we all want to boo and hiss upon the arrival of “the chief priests and elders of the people” in this passage. But, they were actually at the right place at the right time doing the right thing. They were questioning authority.
Remember, Jesus had burst into Passover Week riding on a donkey, a clear claim to be the Messiah. Then, He had cleansed the temple by assaulting the money-changers and animal sellers who were acting on the authority of the Jewish priests. Finally, and this may have been the worst part, Jesus was teaching the Bible to the people in the Temple, and He had not even graduated from one of their Bible colleges or seminaries, let alone been ordained in any of their synagogues. Horror of horrors, or so thought the religious rulers.
But what if someone rode a donkey into the middle of one of our church services? What if he took our offering plates and threw them in the air? What if he explained the Scriptures in a way that seemed right, but unlike anything we had ever heard before? The elders of the church would have every right to ask the same question asked by Benjamin Franklin, Tim Leary, and the chief priests: “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?”
It’s alright to question authority. As a matter of fact, it is irresponsible not to. Question, yes, but do not rebel nor follow, reject nor accept, until you have weighed authority’s authority.
Weigh the Answer
Jesus, in His infinite wisdom, diffused this difficult situation by deflecting attention away from Himself and answering a question with a question. He pointed them to His predecessor, John the Baptist, and asked the authorities a question about authority. “The baptism of John” would have been a reference to the entirety of the man and his ministry, by which he prophetically called for repentance from sin and faith in the Savior. That Savior, that lamb of God, was Jesus of Nazareth, according to John.
Where did John get his authority to call certain attitudes and actions sin? Who made him judge? Where did John get his authority to call a poor, country preacher like Jesus the Messiah? Who made him a prophet? Where did John get his authority to call people away from the corruption of the religious rulers of the day and call them to follow the one who claimed to be the way, the truth, and the life? “From where did it come? From heaven or from man?”
“Heaven” was Mathew’s sensitive way of using the name and authority of God. The intention is as plain as the text. If John actually spoke with the authority of God, then Jesus is the authoritative God, in the flesh. If John was merely a self-proclaimed preacher and baptizer, then Jesus’ sacred person and work could be ignored, perhaps even prosecuted. Which is it?
Benjamin Franklin’s answer was that England had usurped America’s God-given rights, and he rebelled. Timothy Leary’s answer was that there is no God, and people ought to have the right to do whatever they please, and he rebelled. What did these Jewish religious rulers do? Did they submit to God and worship Jesus Christ, or did they reject the Lord and kill Him for what He had done?
You know the rest of the story. But in the space and time of this episode, the religious rulers did not answer Jesus’ question. Fair enough I suppose, for He did not answer theirs. But we have a question before us today, a very urgent one. Is Jesus Lord, or was here merely a liar or a lunatic?
Decide What To Do
Indecision is not a decision, but it was the decision made by the indecisive Jewish religious leaders on this occasion. They chose to stay politically correct, to straddle the fence, to play both sides of the isle. Indecision is the majority position of the world today. People largely do not follow and worship Jesus, but they do not overtly deny Him or denigrate Him. They hope Christ and His followers will just go away, keep to their little church buildings, and leave them alone.
A more noble decision on the part of the priests would have been to have Jesus arrested, right there on the spot, in front of God and everybody, for impersonating a prophet, priest, and king. I think it would have been wrong, but at least it would have been honest. They did not believe in Him, so they should have decided and acted accordingly. Let me tip my hat here to honest atheists and adherents of other religions. They may not be going to heaven, but at least they can live their short, unredeemed lives with earthly integrity and creature comforts.
The best decision, by far, is to acknowledge that the prophets of the Old Testament, John the Baptist, the Apostles of the New Testament, and most especially the Lord Jesus Christ, have been sent to us by God. Go ahead, question them, and weigh the evidence of Scripture, history, and experience. You will find them to be true, and then you will have a radical and costly decision to make. And it will change everything.
It will change the way look at church and state. It will change the way you look at parents, teachers, employers, and anyone who has any authority over you at all. It will change the way you look at God. And, it will change the way you look at yourself.
Human beings crave air, food and drink, and rebellion. If you are submerged in water for more than a half minute or so, then in order to live you must rebel against the water and fight to find air. If you haven’t had anything to eat or drink in a few days, then in order to live you must rebel against hunger and thirst and find something to fill your body. If you are in rebellion against God because of indecision, unbelief, and sin, then in order to live you must rebel against rebellion and submit your life to the authority of God, to the Lordship of Jesus Christ, to the truth of the Holy Bible, to the fellowship of Christ’s church.
If Jesus is the authoritative Son of God, then He has the right to command you to repent, believe in Him, and obey His word. He has the right to expect you to follow Him in the covenant community of the church, in baptism, communion, and all of the aspects of public and private worship. He has the authority to order you to be a disciple and to go out and make disciples. He takes command of the air you breathe, the food you eat, the places you go, the people you associate with, any and every aspect of your life. You are either a patriot to Jesus, or a rebel against God.
Imagine if the chief priests and elders of the people had decided to follow Jesus on this day. It would have changed everything. But instead they have gone down in history as the men most responsible for the murder of the Lord. Consider what indecision or unbelief will do in your life, and the lives of others you love and influence. Question authority, even God’s. Weigh the evidence. Make a decision. Follow the Lord Jesus Christ.