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By What Authority?

“And when he was come into the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came unto him as he was teaching, and said, By what authority doest thou these things? And who gave thee this authority? (Matt. 21:23).

The religious leaders had been listening to Jesus, but they did not like what He had to say. However, rather than engage Christ on the content of His message, the chief priests and the elders shifted the discussion from the real issue to question the Lord’s authority because they had their own personal agenda. Specifically, the religious leaders were concerned about losing their popularity and religious authority over the people. So the chief priests and elders of the people asked Jesus about His authority.

In a different context, the question raised by the religious leaders would not have been a bad question, and for this reason. The religious leaders felt a certain obligation to guard the spiritual life of the people. Moreover, those who teach must be able to present a clear basis for why they say what they do. Finally, there is always an ultimate source of authority. What is it?

Some people believe the ultimate source of authority resides in their own will. Louis the XIV was the French king who said “I am the state”, meaning, “What I say is official state policy and must be abided by.” Louis believed in the concept of the divine right of the king, which meant he could rule France as an absolute dictator.

Adolf Hitler rose to absolute power in Nazi Germany by convincing people that his will should be supreme and the ultimate source of authority. Reichswehr soldiers had to swear the Hitler oath. “I swear by God this sacred oath that to the Leader of the German empire and people, Adolf Hitler, supreme commander of the armed forces, I shall render unconditional obedience and that as a brave soldier I shall at all times be prepared to give my life for this oath.” Civil servants took a similar oath. “I swear: I will be faithful and obedient to the leader of the German empire and people, Adolf Hitler, to observe the law, and to conscientiously fulfil my official duties, so help me God!” For a little while, it was. Hitler spoke, and his will was carried out. But the time came when a greater authority in the form of the Allies of World War II, founded on military might, refused to recognize Hitler’s authority, and destroyed him and the Nazi regime.

Richard Nixon also believed authority rested in a person. In an interview with talk show host David Frost, on April 6, 1977, Richard Nixon said: “If the President does it, that means it’s not illegal’’. The country, and the Constitution, disagreed, which is why Mr. Nixon had been forced to resign the office of the presidency of the United States. No, ultimate authority does not reside in a person’s own will.

Some believe the ultimate source of authority is derived from an accomplishment in life. It is not uncommon to meet individuals who are very successful in their chosen profession. Unfortunately, some come to believe that all others should show them deference because of their own personal achievement and skills. There are people who live life with a sense of entitlement.

But again, ultimate authority does not reside in a person’s position in life.

Some believe the office a person holds gives them the right to rule, and to make sure all others conform to their way of thinking. Unless there is conformity to the message and uniformity in thought, a person is subject to being charged with undermining authority, and showing disrespect.

An authoritarian spirit is found in the secular world, and it is found in the spiritual world as well. In the work of the ministry some individuals become very jealous of their position of authority and enjoy exercising an authoritarian spirit, such as the chief priests and elders of the people of Israel during the days of Jesus. Their message to Jesus was very simple. He must either conform to established religious dogma, or be cast out of the synagogue.  No other option existed. As religious rulers of Israel, the chief priests and elders desired that Jesus not teach anything contrary to what they believed or said was true. They tolerated no dissent.

It is not surprising to read in the gospels that when Jesus taught something contrary to what the chief priests and elders believed, they became angry with Him.  In contrast, the common people were not angry with Jesus, but appreciated what He had to say. Christ astonished the people, “For he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes” (Matt. 7:29). The people loved to hear the Lord teach for they perceived He taught them the truth as He opened the Scriptures to their understanding. What Jesus had to say made a lot of sense.

The popularity of Christ grew to the point that the day arrived when some of the religious leaders had enough. With veiled hostility they challenged the Lord of glory. Based on their assumption that since they were the ones in authority, since they were the anointed and appointed ones, they should be the only voice of authority the people listened to. So they asked for His credentials. “By what authority doest thou these things? And who gave thee this authority?” (Matt. 21:23).

Of course, the real purpose for this inquiry by the chief priests and elders was not to gather information, but to try to find a way to silence Christ. What the religious leaders really wanted was for Jesus to hush. They wanted Him to go away. The religious leaders did not care about the Lord’s credentials. They did not care for Him. What they cared about was their own authority.

Because Jesus knew the real problem the chief priests and elders had with Him, Jesus did not immediately answer their initial inquiry. Instead, Jesus said, “I also will ask you one thing, which if ye tell me, I in likewise will tell you by what authority I do these things. The baptism of John, whence was it? From heaven, or of men?” (Matt. 21:24, 25a).

A question was answered with a question. The religious leaders were once more without a good response, and they knew it.  “And they reasoned with themselves, saying, If we shall say, from heaven; he will say unto us, Why did ye not then believe him? But if we shall say, Of men; we fear the people; for all hold John as a prophet. And they answered Jesus, and said, We cannot tell” (Matt. 21:25b-27). And Jesus said unto them, “Neither tell I you by what authority I do these things.”

Had Jesus answered the question the religious leaders posed, He might have said, “My authority is rooted in truth.” And then Jesus would have continued to say, as He did on another occasion, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life” (John 14:6).

A lesson is to be learned. When something is communicated let a legitimate question be asked, “Has the truth been spoken?” Nothing else really matters. If truth has been communicated, embrace it, and tell others to do the same. Only if truth is not being taught should any movement be made to silence the messenger (Titus 1:11). Biblical authority resides in truth. Spiritual authority does not reside in uniformity of message, in conformity to a person’s will, or because of a position a person holds. Spiritual authority is rooted in truth.

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