“By What Authority?”
When I was a kid, and my parents told me “no”, and I asked “why?”, they'd sometimes say, “Because I said so.” I hated that. I vowed, that when I became a parent, I'd never tell my kids, “Because I said so.” Instead, I find myself saying something like, “Because I am your parent, and I have authority over you, and therefore I don't have to explain my reasons.” Which is, basically, just a longer way of saying, “Because I said so.”
Today we have another verbal sparring match between the woefully outmatched chief priests and elders and the Lord Jesus Christ. As they so often do, they challenge and question him, not to seek understanding but to try and get the best of him, to win points, to discredit him. But they never get the upper hand in this way. Jesus will not be out-foxed.
They once tried to trip him up with a question of taxes, and he cleverly answers with the quip, “Render to Caesar what is Caeser's”. They complain that his disciples don't follow their traditions and rules – ritual washing, working on the Sabbath. They even complain that Jesus was healing a man on the Sabbath. Ah, but the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.
Not only is he wiser and better prepared than they for such things – but he simply has the authority to teach. He didn't teach like they taught – referring to the wisdom of those rabbis who went before them. His teaching had an authority – and people knew it. Jesus says, “you've heard it said.... But I tell you....”. His authority supersedes their teaching. He has an authority that they don't.
The Jewish leaders didn't like what he was saying, and rather than challenge the content, they challenged his authority. We do this, quite often, too. “Who are you to judge me?” is the same sort of objection. Let's not talk about my sin, which I can't really defend. Instead, let's talk about whether you have the right to call out my sin. It's a not-so-subtle changing of the subject. They wouldn't have accepted his authority even if he gave them a straight answer - “Well, fellas, I'm the Son of God, after all!” They were, like all sinners, in rebellion.
We humans often have a problem with authority. And it's not just criminals who disrespect police and naughty students who make faces when the teacher turns her back to the class. We balk at any authority, almost automatically, by nature. If I say, “Don't touch this cookie” the first thing most people have the urge to do is just that. If I draw a line in the sand and say don't step over, guess what the sinner wants to do, almost compulsively? The law, expressed in authority, often draws out sin.
Authority is imposed upon us from outside, and we generally have nothing to say about it, and that doesn't always sit very well. You don't get to choose your parents. You might have a president or governor you voted against. You don't usually elect your boss at work. And so on. So too with Jesus. He's the authority on everything, whether people realize it or not, or want to admit it or not. And eventually they will – at the name of Jesus every knee will bow and every tongue confess...
All human authority, we learn in our study of the 4th commandment, is a gift from God, and devolves from God. The authorities in our lives, parents, teachers, government, even pastors – all exist to bring us some good. And all authority derives from above, from the ultimate authority, God himself. As Jesus told Pilate, “You would have no authority over me unless it was given you from above”.
And so any discussion of authority, for the Christian, will call us to examine our own sinful rebellion. And it ought to also point us to the blessings of authority that God gives, especially in Christ.
Jesus didn't answer their question, for they asked from rebellion. But we who are in Christ could ask the same question in faith, “By what authority do you do these things, Jesus?” And the answer may come several ways.
He is the authority because he is the author of creation.
He is the authority because all authority has been given to him.
He has the authority – but he uses that authority for us. Chiefly, to forgive sins.
You might not think of Jesus, the Son of God, when you think of Creation. We usually ascribe that work to God the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth. But John's Gospel has a Genesis account of its own – an, “in the beginning” - in which we see the Living Word that was with God and was God – that living word which eventually became flesh and dwelled among us. John tells us that “through him” (that is the Word) all things were made. That is to say, through the Son of God. So while it is proper to call the Father the creator – the one who speaks the words of creation, “let there be light” (etc.). We could rightly call God the Son the Agent of Creation. By whom all things were made.
Paul tells us Christ also sustains creation by his authority, that in him “all things hold together” (Col. 1:17). And in Hebrews it is likewise taught that God upholds all things by his powerful word (Heb. 1:3).
And so, like the Father, this gives him the authority over his creation. He's the author, after all, with an intimate hand in the creation of light and land and sun and moon and plant and animal and you and me. We belong to him because he made us, and he sustains us each day. We answer to him, Jesus, because he is, after all, God.
But he would not always use this divine authority, at least not fully. For a time, he set it aside, mostly. He humbled himself. He became submissive, obedient, to all the changes and chances of a life lived in human flesh. He would hunger and thirst, sweat and weep, grow weary but have no place to lay his head. He had to learn and grow. He submitted to his earthly parents, teachers and authorities. He was, Scripture teaches, like us in every way – yet without sin. And while in his public ministry he would show glimpses and flashes of divinity behind the fleshly veil of his human nature, - and the demons certainly recognized his authority – yet for the most part, he set that rightful authority aside, and became obedient, even unto death – even death on a cross.
For you, of course. And God raised him from the dead, also for you. Now his exaltation would begin. A risen Jesus would appear and disappear at will. He was recognized or not recognized as he so pleased. He would give many convincing proofs that he was alive, and finally after 40 days, ascend bodily into heaven, there to re-take his rightful throne, his due honor, his place at the right hand of God – from which he will return to judge the living and the dead.
He has ultimate authority by rights, as the Son of God. But more than that, because of his obedience unto death – all authority in heaven and on earth is given to him.
This is great, good news for you, Christian! You have an advocate, a true friend, a compassionate intercessor in Jesus – seated at God's right hand. You have a brother and a king with all the authority there ever was – and who's looking out for you. He doesn't receive all authority for his own sake, for his own pleasure or benefit. Like all things Jesus does, he does for you. He exercises his authority for the church in general, and for you in particular – a member of his body.
And so our very life is in his charge, and his care. Not a hair on our head isn't numbered. He works in all the events of our lives, even the sorrows, especially the sorrows, to bring about his good purposes. He promises nothing can separate you from the Father when you remain in his love. He promises you a place with the Father in the mansions of heaven. He'll show his authority, one day, over death itself when at the trumpet call of God and the shout of the archangel – he will command your grave to open and you will rise in your flesh, and stand upon the earth, and see him face to face. Only he has the authority to do it. Only in Jesus do we have such a promise.
But the best, the greatest, the most important aspect of Jesus' authority is perhaps this: that he has the authority to forgive sins. For all these other blessings of life, salvation, reconciliation and even faith itself – flow from the chief blessing of forgiveness.
He has that authority. He proved that when he healed the paralytic. First, he forgave the man's sins. But when the Jews balked, and said, “who can forgive sins but God alone?”, Jesus proved his authority. “Which is easier to say, 'your sins are forgiven'? Or 'get up and walk?'” But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority to forgive sins... and then he healed him.
He has also forgiven you. He won it at the cross, and he applies it at the font and altar, and in the absolution. He gives that blessed authority to his apostles, and to their successors, his pastors – the authority to forgive sins in his stead and by his command. And so it is today, that your sins are forgiven, in the name of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
By whose authority do you do these things, Jesus? By the authority that sent John the Baptist – by the authority from heaven – the authority that created all things by the word – the authority that promised salvation to a fallen creation – that worked out that salvation through patriarchs and prophets, and the rise and fall of nations, until in a little town of Bethlehem the Author condescended, the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. The author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him. All the authority to create, sustain, and forgive – and he exercises that authority. For you. Your sins are forgiven. Because he said so. In Jesus' Name, Amen.