By What Authority?

There are some people who have an amazing ability to walk into any situation and immediately take charge.  There was a Stephen Spielberg movie that came out 20 years ago — Catch Me If You Can – which was about a guy like that.  It was based on the real-life story of Frank Abagnale, Jr.  Abagnale had one of those charismatic personalities that enabled him to charm his way into virtually any situation.  As a result, he became one of the most famous con men in all of history, posing as a doctor, a lawyer, and a pilot, among other things. 

            He had an extraordinary gift of being able to walk into any situation and take charge, and he used that gift to live a life of adventure and deception.  Other people have used that same sort of gift to lead people astray into religious lies.  I think about cult leaders like Jim Jones, David Koresh and Marshall Applewhite, founder of the Heaven’s Gate suicide cult. 

            These guys had an incredible ability to charm people. They were able to persuade people to do things and believe things that under normal circumstances would seem irrational.  And whether you want to call people like that sociopaths, con men, or whatever, this world is filled with them. 

            And that’s pretty much how the Jewish leaders of the first century viewed Jesus.  They believed that he was a deceiver, a con man, a self-proclaimed messiah who was leading people astray.  And they were determined to get this con man off the streets.

            And so, the greatest conflict in the gospels – other than Jesus’ struggle against Satan himself – was the constant battle that went on between Jesus and the Jewish leaders.  As I said last week, from the very beginning of Mark’s gospel, the religious leaders were his adversaries.  And almost from the beginning, those men started plotting to kill Jesus.

            Jesus didn’t help matters by some of the things that he said to them.  Jesus wasn’t critical of all the religious leaders of his day, but he was critical of the religious leaders as a group.  He accused them of the “unforgivable sin” in chapter 3.  He rebuked them for ignoring God’s commands in chapter 7.  He told them that they were “hard-hearted” in chapter 10.

            And the cleansing of the temple (that we talked about last week) was the last straw.  It was Jesus’ way of saying, “You guys think you’re the leaders of God’s people, but you have no right to be here!”  It was a slap in the face.  And so, once again, the scribes and the Pharisees decided that they were going to kill Jesus.

            Our next section in Mark tells about the final conflict between the religious leaders and Jesus.  In this section, there are four different groups of men who bring four questions to Jesus.  The chief priests, teachers, and elders bring a question about authority.  The Pharisees and the Herodians bring a question about taxes.  The Sadducees brought a question about the resurrection.  And then there was a teacher of the law who raised a question about the greatest commandment.

            Consider for just a moment why we ask questions. Sometimes we simply want to know the answer. Other times, maybe we’re trying to impress someone by asking a good question.  We can ask questions to try to get closer to someone, to understand them better.  And sometimes, we ask questions to make people uncomfortable or to make fun of the person responding to our questions. Questions are powerful because they make a request or a demand of someone else that a statement doesn’t.

            This morning, I want to focus on the first of those four questions because I think it raises the most basic issue at stake between Jesus and the Jewish leaders – it’s a question about authority. 

            Have you ever walked through a building, maybe a store or a hotel, and you see a sign that says, “Caution – Restricted Area – Authorized Personnel Only”.  Which raises an interesting question.  First of all, who is authorized to go into that area?  And, secondly, who authorizes them?  But I guarantee that if you go behind one of those doors, and somebody catches you, one of the first questions they’re going to ask is, “What right do you have to be here?  Where is your authority?”

            Or I’m sure you’ve seen these spots on the Interstate highways, those crossover dirt roads between the two sides.  It’s where the police often sit when they’re running radar.  And these dirt roads almost always have a sign that says, “Authorized vehicles only”.  There are many times I’ve needed to turn around and I’ve been tempted to use those dirt roads, but I’m always scared off by the sign.  As much as I want to use that road, I don’t have the authority.

            There’s a story told about Christian Herter, governor of Massachusetts, when he was running for a second term in office.  One day, after a busy morning talking to voters (and having no time for lunch) he arrived at a church barbecue for dinner.  It was late afternoon and Herter was famished.  As he moved down the serving line, he held out his plate to the woman serving chicken.  She put one piece of chicken on his plate and turned to the next person in line.

            Governor Herter said, “Excuse me, do you mind if I have another piece of chicken?” 

            The lady said, “Sorry, but I’m only supposed to give one piece of chicken to each person.” 

            The governor said, “But I’m starved.”

            She said, “Sorry, only one per person.”

            Governor Herter was normally a rather modest man, but he decided that this might be the time to throw a little weight around.   He said, “Do you know who I am?  I am the governor of this state.” 

            The lady said, “Do you know who I am?  I’m the lady in charge of the chicken. Move along.”

            It’s all a question of authority.  She basically said, “I have the authority to decide who gets how much chicken, and I plan to use that authority.”  And that’s what at the heart of this conflict between Jesus and the Jewish leaders.  Who has the authority to speak in God’s name?  Who has the authority to act on behalf of God?  Do the Jewish leaders have that authority or does Jesus have it?  We pick up in Mark chapter 11, verse 27.

            “And they [Jesus and his disciples] came again to Jerusalem.  And as he was walking in the temple, the chief priests and the scribes and the elders came to him, and they said to him, ‘By what authority are you doing these things, or who gave you this authority to do them?’” (Mark 11:27-28) 

            When they said “these things”, they may have meant everything Jesus had been teaching and doing for several years, but they especially had in mind what Jesus had just done in the temple the day before, when he cleaned house.  Basically, they’re saying, “Who do you think you are?  Do you think you can just walk into the temple courts and start turning over tables and chasing people out?  Who do you think you are?  What gives you the right to act like that?  We’re the ones in charge of the temple.  So, who gave you the authority?”

            And it’s a reasonable question.  If someone were to walk into our worship service one Sunday morning and start overturning chairs and chasing people out, I dare say that there would be quite a few of us who would want to know, “Who do you think you are?  What do you think gives you the right to do what you’re doing?”

            The members of the Sanhedrin, the ruling council of the Jews, knew all about authority.  You see, prior to the first century, if you wanted to be a rabbi, you would be ordained by a leading rabbi whom you respected and you would serve under him in a sort apprenticeship.  But, over time, the Jewish Sanhedrin took over the responsibility for ordaining rabbis.  And so, when a man was ordained, the Sanhedrin declared him to be a rabbi and he was given authority from them to teach, to express his wisdom, and to make decisions and render verdicts in religious and civil matters.

            Well, the Jewish leaders knew that Jesus’ authority didn’t come from them.  He was not an “ordained” rabbi.  And so, they want to know, “Who gave you the authority to say what you’ve been saying?  Who gave you the authority to do what you’ve been doing?”

            And by asking this question, they hoped to put Jesus in a no-win situation.  Because if they didn’t give him the authority to be a rabbi (and they knew that they hadn’t), then there were really only two other possibilities.  One possibility is that nobody gave Jesus the authority to do what he did, so he was acting on his own authority and his behavior in the temple was an act of rebellion, the actions of a madman.  And if that was the case, then they had every right to arrest him.

            The only other possibility was that Jesus could claim that he was acting on the authority of God.   In fact, I think the Jewish leaders were hoping that’s what Jesus would say, as he had said many times before, that he worked under the direct authority of God.  Because that would give them yet another opportunity to charge Jesus with blasphemy, on the grounds that God would never give any man the authority to create such a disturbance in the courts of his own house.

            So, they wanted to know.  By what authority did Jesus — an untrained, unrecognized, self-appointed rabbi — presume to take upon himself the task of casting the merchants and moneychangers out of the temple?  And no matter what he said, they had him.

            Except for one small problem — Jesus didn’t answer their question.  Not directly anyway.  Now he wasn’t being evasive.  He certainly had no reason to be evasive, since he had given the answer to their question many times before.  But Jesus knew they didn’t really want an answer.  And even if he told them the truth, they wouldn’t believe him.   So, in verse 29:

            “But Jesus said to them, ‘I will ask you one question; answer me, and I will tell you by what authority I do these things.  Was the baptism of John from heaven or from man? Answer me.’”  (Mark 11:29-30)

            It’s a simple enough question.  I always liked multiple choice questions in school because you always had at least a one in four chance of getting it right, and if the teacher was being especially generous, you had a one in three chance.  But Jesus makes this question really easy.  There’s only two possible answers.

            When John the Baptist came preaching and he told people that they needed to be baptized, where did he get his authority?  A.  From God.  Or B. From men.  Even if you guess, you’ve got a 50-50 chance of getting it right.

            Why would Jesus ask them this question?  The reason is that John the Baptist and Jesus were very closely connected.  John the Baptist came preparing the way of the Messiah.  He was the forerunner of God’s Son.  He said of Jesus, “Behold, the Lamb of God who comes to take away the sin of the world.” 

            If John the Baptist was truly speaking for God, then Jesus really was the Son of God.  If, on the other hand, John the Baptist was making up stuff as he went, then Jesus was just as much of a fraud as he was.

            So, Jesus says to the Jewish leaders, “Tell me what you think about John.”  If they accepted John’s authority, they had to also accept Jesus’ authority.  But Jesus knew they weren’t willing to accept either one.  Verse 31 —

            “And they discussed it with one another, saying, ‘If we say, “From heaven,” he will say, “Why then did you not believe him?”  But shall we say, “From man”? — they were afraid of the people, for they all held that John really was a prophet.  So they answered Jesus, ‘We do not know.’  And Jesus said to them, ‘Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.’” (Mark 11:31-33).

            I want you to pay careful attention to the response of the Jewish leaders to Jesus’ question.  Jesus asked them, “Where did John’s authority come from?”  But notice that, as they reasoned among themselves, they didn’t ask themselves, “What is the correct answer to that question?”.  Instead, like the politicians they were, they debated what answer to give based on how their answer would make them look to the rest of the Jews.

            I want you to listen to me carefully.  When the leaders of God’s people make decisions based not on, “What is the right thing to do?” or “What would God be pleased with?” but rather on the basis of, “What will people think about us if we do this or we do that?” then they will always come up with the wrong answer.

            Let me say that again, because I think it is so very important.  And I believe it is a tremendous problem in churches across our brotherhood.  When church leaders are faced with a question of whether they should do something or not, far too many will ask themselves the question, “What will people think if we do this?”, “What will people think if we do that?”  instead of asking the question, “What is the right thing to do?  What is the thing that God would have us to do?  And, if the opinion of other people is guiding us more than God’s opinion, then we will always come up with the wrong answer.

            So, when Jesus asks the question, “Where did John’s authority come from?”, the leaders didn’t discuss what the correct answer should be.  All they wanted to talk about was, “What will people think about us if we give this answer or that answer?”

            If we say, “John’s authority came from God”, then Jesus is going to ask us, “Then why didn’t you believe him?”  Because the Pharisees had refused to be baptized by John.  He called them a brood of vipers.  If you believe that John’s authority was from God, then why didn’t you listen to him? 

            But if they said what they really thought, that John’s authority came from no one other than himself, then they’d run the risk of causing a riot, because virtually all of the rest of Jews strongly disagreed with them.

            So, they took the path of non-commitment. They pretended to be ignorant, and said they didn’t know.  Now, of course what they really meant was, “We don’t want to tell you what we really think, because that would make us look bad.”

            And Jesus saw through their answer, and he said, “Then I won’t tell you where I get my authority.” If they rejected John’s ministry, they’ve already rejected Jesus. It’s like a row of dominoes.  And so, Jesus went on to tell one of the most devastating parables of his entire ministry.  Picking up in Mark chapter 12, verse 1:

            “And he began to speak to them in parables. ‘A man planted a vineyard and put a fence around it and dug a pit for the winepress and built a tower, and leased it to tenants and went into another country.  When the season came, he sent a servant to the tenants to get from them some of the fruit of the vineyard.  And they took him and beat him and sent him away empty-handed. 

            “Again he sent to them another servant, and they struck him on the head and treated him shamefully.  And he sent another, and him they killed.  And so with many others: some they beat, and some they killed.  He had still one other, a beloved son.  Finally he sent him to them, saying, “They will respect my son.” 

            But those tenants said to one another, “This is the heir. Come, let us kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.”  And they took him and killed him and threw him out of the vineyard.  What will the owner of the vineyard do?  He will come and destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others.  Have you not read this Scripture:

“‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone;
this was the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes’?”

            “And they were seeking to arrest him but feared the people, for they perceived that he had told the parable against them.  So they left him and went away.” (Mark 12:1-12)

            Unlike some of Jesus’ other parables, this parable is not hard to understand at all.  In fact, it was painfully clear to the Jewish leaders.  The owner represents God, the vineyard is Israel, the tenants are the Jewish leaders of the day, the servants are the prophets of the Old Testament, and the son is Jesus Christ.  The point of the parable is that the Jewish leaders had rejected and killed God’s own prophets, and before long they will kill his own Son.

            The parable itself is easy to understand.  What I think is difficult to understand is how anybody could act like these tenants, beating up and killing the servants and the son of the owner. And as I’ve thought about it, I realize that what leads the tenants in this parable to act the way that they do is because they mistakenly believe that the vineyard is theirs, or at least it should be theirs.  Now, they were just tenants; they were renters.  But they felt like they were entitled to the vineyard.

            As you well know, we live in a society that encourages an entitlement attitude.  If you don’t believe me, let me suggest that you try an interesting experiment.  Pick someone that you see often and give them five dollars.  Their face will light up, they’ll thank you, hug you.  Wait a week and give them another five dollars.  Once again, they’ll be grateful.  Then continue to do that week after week after week.  “Here’s five dollars, here’s five dollars, here’s five dollars.”

            Pretty soon, there won’t be many “thank you’s”.  And after you’ve done it every week for about a year or so, then stop it.  The person may not say anything to you right away, but he will begin to wonder why you are being so unkind to him, why you don’t love him any more.  And he may even grow to resent you and hate you.  Why?  Because when we receive something long enough, we eventually feel entitled to it.

            And that’s what was going on with the Jewish leaders.  They had been a part of God’s kingdom for so long that they felt like it was theirs.  They deserved it.  And when prophets came along who challenged them and said, “these aren’t your people, they’re God’s people”, the leaders resented them, hated them, and sometimes even killed them.  And when Jesus came along and said “this isn’t your house – it’s God’s house”, the religious leaders were furious because they thought that they owned the temple and they had ultimate authority for what happened there. 

            Now, I’m not too worried that this church is going to get to the point that it starts stoning the preacher – if you ever think things are headed that way, please at least give me a little bit of a head start! — and so there may be a tendency for us to say there’s really not anything in this parable that applies to us, but I think there is.

            You see, when we’ve been a part of God’s kingdom for quite a while, and maybe even been a leader in God’s kingdom, we can begin to get the attitude that this is “our” church.  But when we start to say, “This is our church. This is our property. These are our facilities,” we’ve made the same mistake the religious leaders in Jesus’ day made.  And if we ever reach that point, then we will begin to attack anyone who threatens to do things in a way that we don’t like. 

            Now, as obvious as it may seem, we constantly need the reminder that this is not my church, it’s not your church.  It’s God’s church.  And we must always remain open to listening to God, listening to his servants, and most especially listening to his Son.

            And what the Pharisees asked Jesus is a question that we all need to ask about everything we do.  What truly is the source of our authority?   Why do we do what we do?  Why do we teach what we teach?   Is it because of tradition — this is the way it’s always been done?  Is it because this is what somebody else told us, and it was a preacher so I know it must be right?  Is it because it’s what we heard from our parents since the time we were little kids?  Is it because deep down in our heart we just feel it’s what God wants? 

            Or is our authority truly founded in the Word of God, where God tells us what to believe and how to live?  Not everyone is willing to accept that standard of authority, but it is the only authority that truly matters.

            And know this – if you acknowledge the authority of Jesus Christ, then you have no choice but to submit to him.  I think that’s why the Jewish leaders were so reluctant to acknowledge the authority of Jesus.  If they did that, then that meant that they would have to listen to him and obey him, and that was one thing that their pride would not allow them to do.

            And there are a lot of people today who refuse to acknowledge the authority of Jesus for the exact same reason.   They like doing the things that they want to do in the way they want to do them, and when we acknowledge that Jesus has all authority over us, then we have to be willing to surrender ourselves to him.


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