Summary: Understanding authority has eternal consequences.

The Crisis of Authority: An Exposition of Matthew 21:23-32

The word “authority” has many applications. A person who is an expert in a particular subject area is called an “authority.” Another word for government at various levels is “authorities.” Others are authorities in religion. Others are “moral authorities” who act out a sense of violations of their moral views. One could see Jesus acting in such a matter when in the preceding passage, he drives the merchants and moneychangers out of the Temple. He acted out of a sense of moral outrage. This is true as far as it goes, but we shall see that there is more to the authority of Jesus than being a religious leader a moral philosopher or being a social justice warrior.

The cleansing of the Temple followed by Jesus’ teaching on the Temple grounds outraged the priests and the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem. The Priests considered themselves to be the gatekeepers of the Temple. They claimed this authority from the Torah itself. So when Jesus cleansed the Temple, they felt that He had scorned them. It is also true that the Priests had a nice racket going. They were not particularly religious themselves, but it paid well. They had become a sort of Deep State in Israel. The other religious leaders also profited from the Temple cult. This was the time of Passover. A lot of money was to be made.

The priests understood that their authority was not recognized by many in Israel. The Essenes were outraged that during the previous short-lived independence when they were ruled by Jewish kings that the King had arrogated the right to be High Priest as well, something which was forbidden by the Torah. The Pharisees also were outraged by the corruption of Judaism by the Sadducees and priests in Jerusalem. They exercised their authority in the villages and the synagogues. There was also a challenge to the priest’s authority by the Roman government who ruled over the area. They had to be sure not to offend them. The authority of the Priests was in crisis. What Jesus had done in cleansing the Temple would have been wildly popular among various factions of the Jews. The Sadducees needed to confront the authority of Jesus.

So the priests and leaders of Israel came to Him and asked who had given Jesus the authority to cleanse the Temple and then to teach the people. Did Jesus have a PhD in theology. Had He been approved by and accrediting agency to cleanse the Temple and to teach. They considered Jesus to be no more than a country bumpkin. Perhaps they were trying to intimidate Jesus to shut Him up. If they could not do this, they needed to separate Jesus from the people who considered Jesus to be a prophet.

Jesus was far too smart than to be trapped. He answered the question with a question. “If you can tell me who gave the authority to John the Baptist to baptize, I will tell you who gave me the authority. Little did they know or appreciate that they were talking to the Son of God, the Lord of the Covenant, the same covenant which the Sadducees had claimed their authority from. This led to another crisis. They believed that John the Baptist was even more a country bumkin than Jesus. John the Baptist was wildly popular, and many of the people resented the establishment in Jerusalem which was in league with Herod who had had him executed. They could not answer that John’s authority came from men because they feared a revolt from the people. This shows how hollow the authority of the priestly caste was. Just a few days later, it would be boldly demonstrated when upon Jesus’ death, the curtain protecting the Holy of Holies was torn in two. When the Temple was rebuilt under Zerubbabel after the exile, there was no Ark of the Covenant to put in the Holy of Holies. It was an empty and dark room. The Ark which represented the presence of the LORD was not there. All the splendor of the renovations that Herod the Great had made to this temple could not conceal how hollow the reality was. The Sadducees really had no legitimate authority at all. They were subject to both Rome and the Jewish People.

They could not answer that John was a prophet either. They had publicly disavowed him. To say that God had given John the authority to baptize, someone who called them vipers, would only proven just how right Jesus was to cleanse the Temple. To affirm the baptism of John as coming from God would have made them have to confess that they had not believed him, which means that they did not believe the God who had sent them either. Rather than dealing with the crisis by repenting, they decided that it was better to give no answer at all.

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