In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Ask the wrong question, get the wrong answer. Or, at least, get a different answer than the one for which you were looking. Ask Jesus the wrong question, and you’re likely to get another question in return; either that, or you’ll get the answer to the question you should have asked. So the chief priests and the elders of the people come to ask Jesus a question. They ask Jesus a lot of questions, but they are rarely, if ever, genuine questions. They are questions to trap Him, trip Him up, to make Him incriminate Himself, or lose favor with the civil authorities or the people. It’s the same with this question: “By what authority are You doing these things? And who gave You this authority?” They do not really want to know the answer, as if they really thought He has the authority to do the things He is doing. And what things is He doing? He rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, allowing the crowds to praise Him and say things like “Save us now!” and “Blessed is He who comes in the Name of Yahweh!” He drives out from the temple buyers and sellers, and overturns the tables of the money-changers. He says, “My House shall be a house of prayer; but you have made it into a hideout for thieves.” He teaches in the temple and He lets the children say “Hosanna to the Son of David!” He heals people. He walks around like He owns the place. But where does He get off doing things like that? They certainly didn’t give Him the authority to teach or do these things in the temple. This is simply one more attack. So Jesus doesn’t answer the question, not directly.
He says, “Okay, I’ll ask you a question. If you answer it, then I will tell you by what authority I do these things. John’s baptism, was it from heaven or from man?” Where did John get the authority to baptize? From God or from people? You see that the answer to that question is actually the answer to their question to Jesus. John’s authority to baptize comes from the same place as Jesus’ authority to do what He does. But they will concede nothing, and their whole conversation shows that they are going to answer based simply on a political calculation, on how they will look when they answer the question. “If we say, from heaven, He will say, why didn’t you believe him?” Because they didn’t believe John. They refused to repent; they refused to be baptized by him, confessing their sins; they refused to let his preaching prepare them to welcome their Messiah. They didn’t believe John, so they don’t believe Jesus. “But,” they say, “if we say, from people, then we are afraid of the crowd, because they hold John to be a prophet.” Which is interesting, because at the very end of this chapter they are afraid to arrest Jesus because they fear the crowds, because they hold Jesus to be a prophet.
Jesus and John are tied together throughout the Gospel. What does John come preaching? “Repent, because the Reign of Heaven is coming near to you.” It’s almost here, so confess your sins. And when John is arrested, and Jesus withdraws out to Galilee, what does Jesus preach? The same words: “Repent, because the Reign of Heaven has come near to you.” John is arrested and put to death; Jesus is arrested and put to death. What happens to John happens to Jesus, and however people receive John’s preaching is how they receive Jesus’ preaching. When they listen to John pointing people toward Jesus, do they listen and follow Jesus, or not?
So, finally, the leaders of the people simply have to say, “We don’t know.” Which is more true than they understand. They don’t know where John’s authority came from, because they refuse to believe it came from God; therefore, they don’t know where Jesus’ authority comes from either. Really, this is the main question running throughout the Gospel of Matthew: Who is Jesus? Where does He come from? Whose authority does He have? Remember that Jesus asks the disciples: “Who do you say that I am?” Peter’s confession is true, even if he doesn’t know what it means. But the leaders don’t know what He means, so they do not confess the truth. Matthew’s Gospel is answering the question of Jesus’ authority throughout. He teaches as one who has the actual authority of God’s Word, unlike any of their teachers (7:29). He teaches as if He actually has the authority to say what God’s Word is and means. He has the authority to heal and cast out unclean spirits (8:6), which He also gives to His apostles (10:1). He has the authority to forgive sins (9:6). As He says, so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority to forgive sins…He says the paralyzed man, get up and walk, and he does. And the people rejoice that God has given this authority to men (9:8). How do I know that this is one of the, if not the, main question of the Gospel of Matthew? Because in the last verses of the Gospel, Jesus says to His apostles after His resurrection, on the mountain in Galilee, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Me.” All authority. The eternal Son has all the authority of God, but also in His flesh He has been given all authority, and as the resurrected, ascended, and glorified Lord, He exercises all that authority.
But the comforting thing is not that He has all authority. The bare fact of Jesus having all authority in heaven and on earth is simply to acknowledge that He is God and we are not. It is not comforting, in itself, to say that Jesus is in control, that He is in charge, that He is Lord. Sure, every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that He is Lord, but it doesn’t say that they will all do it willingly. If Jesus simply has all authority in heaven and earth, then we are left where Adam and Eve were: driven out of the Garden, cut off from Paradise and the Tree of Life forever. Jesus’ authority is only comforting if it is the authority that He exercises for you: for your salvation, for your forgiveness, for your peace, for your life, for your healing, for your resurrection from the dead. Those are the things that Jesus does, and He does them out of His authority; but they are also all for you. Only because He is your Lord, is this an authority in which you can rejoice. Because He is your Lord, because you are under His authority, then you can rejoice that He has given this authority to a Man, and through that Man, even among us men and for our salvation. You can rest in that authority; you can take refuge in that authority. Because that authority means that, finally, all His Words must be true. His authority is absolute and total: even over your sin and death, because He took them for His own. There is nothing in heaven or earth that can separate you from His authority. He has given this authority to His Church for your good and for mine: here is His authority to baptize and teach so that disciples are made. Here is His authority to forgive sins. Here is His authority to deliver His Body and Blood to sinners. But the Church does not have all authority in heaven and on earth; only Jesus does. The Church’s authority is limited to those places where Jesus has promised to give what belongs to Him. The Church can’t do whatever she wants. She can only exercise the authority of the pulpit and the font and the altar, because she has those promises from her Lord. Within those limits is your and my comfort, because it means that whatever else people may choose to do, where those words of Jesus are used and delivered, you can be sure that Jesus’ own authority is behind it. Without a word from the Lord, the Church has no authority whatsoever. But where there is a Word, rejoice! Rest in that Word. Take refuge from yourself and from the world and from the devil. This Lord cannot fail you, in heaven or on earth, until the day when we see all things subjected to Him, including the last enemy, death.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
– Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 9/27/14