Who’s in charge? (Matthew 21:23-27)

Jesus’ authority is at the heart of the gospel.

If Jesus intended to confront Jerusalem’s leaders by overturning the temple, he succeeded. Priests claimed to be God’s representatives. Elders claimed authority over the people. They pushed back against God’s Anointed:

Matthew 21 (my translation, compare NIV)
23 Since he’d entered the temple complex and was teaching, the chief priests and elders of the people asked, “By what kind of authority are you doing these things? Who gave you this authority?”

In Israel, God’s authority was present in three main roles:

a) the Davidic king representing God’s reign, supported by the elders;

b) the Aaronic priests representing God’s presence, supported by the Levites;

c) the dissident prophets representing God’s voice, supported by the Torah.

Tension between these powers was often tragic. Their first king killed priests (1 Samuel 22:18). A priest killed the monarch and established a temple force (2 Kings 11:15). Even after the kingdom fell, bloodshed continued through the Hasmonean household (Josephus, Antiquities 14.33) and the Roman occupation (Luke 13:1).

With no forces to support them, a prophet’s position was woeful. Jesus denounced the Jerusalem authorities as, “descendants of those who murdered the prophets. … O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the killer of the prophets …” (Matthew 23:30, 37).

Of course, all these roles (prophet, priest, and king) are ultimately fulfilled in the one who is the fullness of heaven’s authority on earth (word-in-flesh, God-with-us, messiah-Lord). Jesus could have chosen any of these roles to describe his authority. He chose the least safe one — identifying with a prophet already killed for speaking out as God’s voice:

21 24 In reply Jesus said to them, “And I’ll ask you one thing: tell me, and I’ll tell you by what kind of authority I do these things. 25 John the Baptizer: where was his from? From heaven, or from people?”

Given the precariousness of his position, Jesus’ answer is evasive for those who could lock him up and hand him over to their enemies. At the same time, his answer is insightful for the crowds. The power of these rulers rests on the fear of people, not fear of God’s authority. He has them admitting they wouldn’t recognize God’s voice if they heard it:

21 25 They discussed it among themselves saying, “If we say ‘From heaven’ he’ll ask us, ‘Then why didn’t you believe him?’ 26 But if we say, ‘From people’ — we fear the crowd’s reaction, for they hold John to be a prophet.’” 27 They answered Jesus, “We don’t know.”
28 So he himself said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what kind of authority I do these things.”

Jesus’ disciples recognize his regal authority comes from God (16:16-17). The crowds recognize the son of David coming in the name of Israel’s God (21:9, 15). Jerusalem’s authorities will kill him for his claim to be the anointed Son of the heavenly ruler (26:63-66), but they cannot block the authority divinely decreed for him — all authority in heaven and on earth (28:18).

So what?

The gospel is primarily the message of Jesus’ authority. He is our reigning king, God’s anointed, leading the earth into peace under God’s authority.

That’s the gospel the church needs to recover in the twenty-first century. It will not do to substitute a message about a personal saviour providing me benefits. That consumerist approach has no power to change the world.

This good news expects us to respond with faith toward him: trusting God’s anointed (Christ) to save humanity, giving allegiance to him as our global leader (our Lord). The good news calls for repentance: turning from self-determination to life under his governance.

The gospel is the announcement of his kingship, the good news of the world restored to life as his kingdom. Earth can be what heaven intended only in his authority. Heaven has given us no other name for the saving of humanity.

Update 2022-04-07: Original translation added (instead of NIV).

Author: Allen Browne

Seeking to understand Jesus in the terms he chose to describe himself: son of man (his identity), and kingdom of God (his mission). Riverview Church, Perth, Western Australia

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