(A) Introduction. Read: Luke20v1to8

The chief priests and the teachers of the law together with the elders, came up to him. "Tell us by what authority you are doing these things," they said.

A person with authority expresses opinions, makes judgments or gives orders that are accepted and acted upon. So a magistrate has authority because after trying a case he or she makes a judgment that is accepted and acted upon. An art expert has authority because if his or her judgment of the authenticity of a painting is accepted it will be auctioned as the work of a great master - or not - as the case may be. An army sergeant has the authority afforded by his rank to give orders and see that they are carried out.

(B) Ways of acquiring authority.

The deputation from the Sanhedrin, the Jewish Council, wanted to know by what authority Jesus did the things he did. So they asked him: "Who gave you this authority?" v2.

I came remember my lecturer in Philosophy, Professor Peters, at the London Institute of Education describing three main types of authority:

(1) Traditional. It is derived from customs, rituals and habits. This is the authority exercised by the Queen of England. It was the kind of authority possessed by the chief priests. They were born to it.

(2) Rational-legal. It is given by society or organisations to those who apply laws and rules. This is the authority exercised by a football referee. The teachers of the law in the time of Jesus had this kind of authority.

(3) Charismatic. It is based on the personality, character and gifts of the individual. In many organisations there is someone who holds no official position who nonetheless is listened to and exerts considerable influence just because of the sort of person he or she is. The elders in the time of Jesus fell into this category. They acquired authority by becoming well thought of and respected in their community.

(C) Why was Jesus asked this question?

Jesus entered Jerusalem in triumph riding into the city like a king on the colt of a donkey. He healed in the temple. See Mt21v14. Children sang his praise in the temple: "Hosanna to the Son of David." Mt21v15. Jesus caused mayhem amongst the money changers and purveyers of doves. Finally: Every day he was teaching in the temple. Lk19v47.

Jesus was the main man - exercising authority on many different fronts. So the official delegation from the Sanhedrin consisting of representatives of the three main groups, high priests, lawyers and elders, came to question Jesus on his authority to say and do what he did. This appears a reasonable approach. The Sanhedrin followed the same policy with regard to John the Baptist. See John1v19to28. (See my exposition on John1v19to34)

There is no doubt that in the case of Jesus the Sanhedrin had an ulterior motive. He was more accessible than John the Baptist and had been questioned many times about his authority. See John7v14to19, John8v12to13 and John10v22to30. (See exposition on John10v22to42) The Jewish Council wanted Jesus to claim publicly that he was the Messiah so that they could apprehend him and interrogate him in private. The vast majority on the Council had made up their mind about Jesus. Luke records: Every day he was teaching at the temple. But the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the leaders among the people were trying to kill him. Lk19v47.

(D) The answer Jesus could have given.

Jesus could have said that he was:

(1) Born into authority as God's one and only Son. Jesus did assert his unique relationship with the Father on other occasions. He told the Jews: "But if I do judge, my decisions are right, because I am not alone. I stand with the Father, who sent me." Jn8v16.

(2) Appointed by the Father and the Spirit to reveal God's truth. He had affirmed earlier: The one who sent me is with me; he has not left me alone, for I always do what pleases him. Jn8v29. Jesus could have referred to his baptism when the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: "You are my Son, who I love; with you I am well pleased." Lk3v22.

(3) Entitled to exercise authority because of the man he was. He had earned it by his miracles, extraordinary teaching and exemplary life. Jesus did once say: "Even though you do not believe me, believe the miracles, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me, and I in the Father." John10v38.

But here near the end of his remarkable life on earth Jesus facing this formal delegation from the Sanhedrin abandons all his former arguments and, instead, asks a question about the baptism of John the Baptist. This at first glance seems both strange and unsatisfactory. For some time I just thought Jesus was being clever to get out of an awkward situation.

The reasons for Jesus' answer.

The reasons Jesus asked the Sanhedrin: "John's baptism - was it from heaven, or from men?" are:

(1) The prophet, John the Baptist, gave Jesus authority. It was traditional authority. Prophets were traditionally God's messengers and were authorised to act in God's name.

John said that he baptised on behalf of, and in preparation for, the Messiah: "But for the reason I came baptising with water was that he(Messiah) might be revealed to Israel." John1v31. So John acted in the tradition of the Old Testament. People were expected to wash before a special, holy experience. When God came down from Mt Sinai to the Israelites in a dense cloud the people had to wash their clothes. Before the ordination of Aaron and his sons Moses washed them with water. A priest could not enter the Tent of Meeting without washing his hands and feet. John called upon his countrymen to repent and be baptised to purify themselves in readiness for Christ's holy reign.

John was like the prophet Samuel who anointed David, God's choice, to be king of Israel. So Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the presence of his brothers, and from that day on the Spirit of the Lord came upon David in power. 1Sam16v1to13.

John announced Jesus as: "The Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!" John1v29. Then he baptised him and as Jesus left the water the Spirit came down from heaven as a dove and remained on him. Jn1v32.

It is clear that if John was a true prophet of God and his baptism was authorised in heaven he gave Jesus authority as the Lord's anointed. This makes Jesus' question pertinent. The Sanhedrin knew it. They realised that if they admitted John's authority was from heaven they would have to accept his proclamation of Jesus as the Christ.

(2) The second reason Jesus referred to John the Baptist was to demonstrate that the Sanhedrin was not fit to pass judgment on him. The Council hadn't reached a formal consensus on John even though he had been interrogated and gave straight forward answers to the questions he was asked. See John1v19to28. The Jewish politicians were sceptical of John's prophetic ministry. They were agnostic preferring to adopt a 'wait and see' attitude. There is even a grain of truth in their reply to Jesus: "We don't know where it(his authority) was from." v7. The members of the Council were in the main typical politicians and rejected truth in favour of what was expedient. Caiaphas epitomises the cynicism and self-serving of corrupt politicians through the ages when he said about Jesus: "You do not realise that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish. John11v50.

(3) A third reason for Jesus' question was that he had his own agenda .... he wasn't going to be arrested until he was ready. Jesus wanted to eat a 'Passover meal' with his disciples before his death. He planned to die on the very day the Passover lambs were slain. Paul rightly wrote to the Corinthians: For Christ our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. 1Cor5v7.

So Jesus does resort to delaying tactics and cleverly wrong foots the Sanhedrin delegation.

(F) The delegate's response.

The delegate's response to Jesus question about the baptism of John: "We don't know where it was from," revealed the wickedness of their hearts.

(1) The Jews had made up their minds about Jesus for a variety of reasons. They wanted him dead. This coloured their view of John the Baptist. They couldn't say that John was a true, God sent, prophet because then they would have to believe what he said about Jesus. The Jewish leaders hated Jesus far more than they ever hated John but they ended up rejecting John because of their bitter antagonism to Jesus.

(2) The Jewish politicians were unprincipled. They daren't say what they really believed because they were frightened about the reaction of ordinary people. "But if we say, 'From men,' all the people will stone us, because they are persuaded that John was a prophet."

The delegates were cowardly. They had no integrity. They acted expediently. What a lame response they gave to Jesus' question. How feeble they must have seemed to the general public. But their spite remained unabated. They hadn't finished yet. By hook or by crook they were going to get rid of Jesus - BUT ONLY AT SUCH TIME AS HE ALLOWED THEM. There is a sense that in the end Jesus used Judas. He went at Jesus' urging to precipate action by the authorities on the eve of Passover.

(G) Jesus' silence.

Jesus said, "Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things." v8.

Jesus refused to answer the delegate's question after showing that they were unqualified to assess him. The Jews were prejudiced, obsessed with their own power, envious of Jesus, unprincipled, lacking integrity, materialistic and spiritually blind. They were skilful manipulators and political chancers who did what served their purpose rather than what was right. Jesus had no time for them!

(H) Conclusion: lessons for us!

(1) Sometimes the church or individual members of the church need to make a stand against the Authorities. I was watching, 'Any Questions' recently on BBC TV. The panel were asked to give their view of the Christian couple who would not let a room in their b&b to two homosexual men. I can see now the po-faced Vince Cable of the Liberal Democrats saying coldly and priggishly, "It's against the law." This was the attitude, too, of Lord Mandelson when questioned on the subject on another occasion - "It's against the law." Well, as it happened, a judge decided it was not against the law! But surely men like Lord Mandelson and Vince Cable realise that many, many bad laws have been passed through the ages - laws that righteous men and women have to break.

In a sermon preached at North-Prospect United Church of Christ, Cambridge, Massachusetts Date on September 25th 2005 the Rev. Dudley C. Rose said:

In January 1933 Adolf Hitler was named chancellor of Germany. On April 7th of the same year, Hitler passed the Aryan Civil Service legislation that prohibited those of Jewish descent, irrespective of their current religious affiliation, from holding offices in the state or in the church. It was but the beginning of what would become perhaps the largest scale human tragedy in history. Even though from heavenís view the un-Christian-ness of it all was obvious, only a few in the Christian church thought there was a problem. Most of them rallied around the idea that the realm of God and the realm of the Third Reich were compatible. More than compatible, they were seen to be the same thing. The young theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer was one of the few who thought the idea was dead wrong. Bonhoeffer made a stand and twelve years later was put to death. Why? Because what he advocated was, 'against the law.'

I am not saying that the couple who owned the b&b were right in what they did. Christians should always remember that Jesus was the friend of publicans and sinners! However, someone like Mandelson should realise that human conduct is not necessarily wrong because it is against the law of the land. Bad politicians make bad laws!

(2) We need to remember the humility of Jesus. If anyone could have claimed authority for the way he was surely it was Jesus. But, instead, he refers to John - God's instrument for conferring authority.

It remains important to be appointed by the church or its leaders. This gives the appointee legitimacy and authority. There are too many instances amongst modern Protestants of dissidents taking it upon themselves to set up, 'their own church'. I heard recently of a group that organised a cell within their fellowship to engage in a special prayer ministry. After a while representatives of the group went to the elders to ask for their blessing. The elders considered they should have been approached by the people concerned before setting up the cell and so withheld their blessing. At the same time a young man felt he had been called to full-time service. He, too, went to the elders and asked what they were prepared to do about it. God hadn't convinced the church leaders that this was what the young man should do! So what happened? The members of the prayer cell and disgruntled young man left their church and set up another one.

(3) The church should be perceptive and quick to recognise people who deserve to be given authority. It is ungracious, unloving and short-sighted to hold a fellow Christian back out of envy, spite, malice, pride or fear. Sadly it happens!

(4) Those who still hate Jesus today will hate his servants. They can no more accept our testimony than the Jews could accept the testimony of John the Baptist. If worldly people once admit that Christians are not cranks, nutters, ignorant, wishful thinkers, hypocrites, brainwashed, and pathetic they would have to take notice of us. The world has little good to say about Christians because the world does not want to recognise who Jesus is.

(5) We should not care too much about the judgment of wicked men. Many who hate and oppose Jesus are themselves ignorant, prejudiced and envious.

(6) Sometimes the church is victorious and is able to silence its critics. However, we face no normal foe. As Paul put it when writing to the Ephesians: For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against ...... the powers of this dark world and against spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Eph6v12. So on each occasion the victory is ours the enemy will retreat to lick his wounds to plan in the malign spitefulness of his heart - a new attack. Christians must be prepared for it!

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