The problem with dividing the Bible up into readings for Sunday mornings is that, from time-to-time, the reading for a given Sunday picks up in the middle of things. In this morning’s Gospel, we heard that the chief priests and the elders of the people came up to [Jesus] as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” (Matthew 21:23) What things are the chief priests and the elders of the people concerned about? What has Jesus been doing that has them so concerned? Some context would be helpful.
The conversation recorded in today’s Gospel happened during Holy Week. On the first day of this week, Jesus rode toward Jerusalem on a donkey to the praises of the Passover pilgrims. And when he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred up, saying, “Who is this?” 11And the crowds said, “This is the prophet Jesus, from Nazareth of Galilee.” (Matthew 21:10–11) Then, Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who sold and bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons. (Matthew 21:12) And the blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he healed them. (Matthew 21:14) After all that excitement on the first day of the week, the chief priests and the elders wanted a word with Jesus. So when Jesus returned to the temple and began to teach, they were waiting for Him.
Now we need to be careful what we say about these men at this point in the reading. After all, they are the chief priests and the elders … the men who were responsible for the day to day activity in the temple. It was their calling to make sure that things were done decently and in order. They were responsible for making sure that the activity on the temple grounds conformed to the Law of Moses. So, we cannot fault them for wanting to make sure that Jesus had the authority to do what He did. They were fulfilling their calling when they came up to [Jesus] as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” (Matthew 21:23) We can question their motives for asking Jesus about His authority, but, from an outward viewpoint, they are doing what the temple authorities are supposed to do.
Jesus responded to their question with a question of His own. “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. 25The baptism of John, from where did it come? From heaven or from man?” (Matthew 21:24–25) This was not an evasion. It was a traditional response. Many rabbis responded to questions with questions. In fact, Jesus did something quite clever. The answer to both questions is the same. John pointed to Jesus, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! (John 1:29) If John’s authority is from heaven, then Jesus’ authority is also from heaven.
Jesus’ question exposed the true nature of these men. They discussed it among themselves, saying, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ 26But if we say, ‘From man,’ we are afraid of the crowd, for they all hold that John was a prophet.” (Matthew 21:25–26) This discussion exposed the hearts of these men. They are not interested in the truth. They don’t care what the right answer is. Their main concern is their image in the eyes of the crowd. Instead of following the laws of Moses and honoring the truth, these temple authorities honor their own agenda. Their God is not the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but their own agenda is their God.
So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” (Matthew 21:27) In their stubborn unbelief, they refuse to admit that either John or Jesus received their authority from heaven. At the same time, their cowardice prevents them from confessing their unbelief before the crowds. They concluded that the appearance of the ignorant fool was better than admitting the truth.
When the chief priests and the elders refused to answer Jesus’ question, they gave up their right to an answer from Jesus. Even if Jesus gave them the correct answer, they would refuse to accept it. [Jesus] said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things. (Matthew 21:27)
The question that Jesus asked exposed the inner thoughts of the chief priests and the elders. It is still a good question to ask today. “The baptism of John, from where did it come? From heaven or from man?” (Matthew 21:25) This question is valid for much more than the Baptism of John. What about Jesus? Is He from heaven or merely human? What about the Bible? Is it from heaven or from man? What about Baptism … the Lord’s Supper … Absolution? We can ask this question about these things and more? What thoughts do these questions expose in you and me?
I have heard interviews with people who became members of the Lutheran church as teenagers or adults. Many of them said that there were several parts of the liturgy that made them uncomfortable at first.
One of those parts was the Absolution that came near the beginning of the service. By what authority does the pastor say, “I forgive you all your sin?” It would make sense if the pastor said, “I forgive the sins that you have committed against me.” But how can the pastor forgive all sin?
Then there is that bit in the second part of the service. The pastor gave a piece of generic looking unleavened bread to some of the members and said, “The Body of Christ … given for you.” Then he gave them a sip of some common table wine and said, “The Blood of Christ … shed for you.” By what authority does the pastor say that? It doesn’t look like body and blood. What is that all about?
In both cases, the answer is simple to say. I teach the answer in Catechism class. How do we know that these things are from heaven? Because Jesus promised!
Shortly before He ascended into heaven Jesus came and said to [the disciples], “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18–20) These words teach us that Jesus has all authority in heaven and earth. These words instruct the church to baptize and teach. These words promise the eternal, real presence of the Christ, and since the Christ is now both God and man, this is the eternal, real presence of both the divine and human nature of our Lord.
When Jesus appeared to the disciples on the evening of His resurrection, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.” (John 20:22–23) With these words, our Lord gave the authority to forgive sins to His church. He also gave the authority to withhold forgiveness from those who refuse to repent. Then He instituted the office of the holy ministry to publicly execute this promise on behalf of the church.
The holy Evangelists Matthew, Mark, Luke and St. Paul write: Our Lord Jesus Christ, on the night when He was betrayed, took bread, and when He had given thanks, He broke it and gave it to the disciples and said: “Take, eat; this is My body, which is given for you. This do in remembrance of Me.” In the same way also he took the cup after supper, and when He had given thanks, He gave it to them, saying, “Drink of it, all of you; this cup is the new testament in My blood, which is shed for you for the forgiveness of sins. This do, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.” Our Lord has given us His promise that whenever we celebrate this sacrament according to His command, He will somehow place His body in the bread, and His blood in the wine.
In the middle of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught, “Pray then like this: Our Father who art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name.” (Matthew 6:9, RSV) With these words, Jesus gives us the authority to pray. And He even gives us the authority to call God our Father.
We have complete certainty in these and all the other gifts that we have because Jesus promised, and Jesus keeps His promises. We know that Jesus keeps His promises because He kept the greatest promise. He said, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem. And the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death 19and deliver him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified, and he will be raised on the third day.” (Matthew 20:18–19) Jesus kept this promise and earned the forgiveness of sins for the entire world. He also demonstrated that not even the combined power of sin, death, and the devil can stop Him from keeping His promises.
Christ on the cross is the authority that stands behind every gift that Jesus has given to His church. Every word of Holy Scripture is reliable and certain. The forgiveness He speaks is authoritative; the sins he forgives are forgiven! The Sacraments he gives to his Church truly deliver forgiveness, life, and salvation. When the ministers faithfully preach God’s Word, the hearers hear Christ.
Christ is the ultimate authority. He is the kingdom of heaven incarnate. The authority of His promise guarantees eternal life to all who believe. Amen
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