We need to understand that Jesus didn’t welcome sinners simply because they were sinners – he welcomed them because they humbly recognized that they needed forgiveness, repented, and put all their hope in Him. They let him change their lives. They submitted to his authority.
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Download Matthew Part 75
Matthew #75. Matthew 21:23-27
I trust that you have noticed as we’ve gone through Matthew 21, that there are certain themes running throughout the chapter. One, is that Jesus is becoming very deliberately confrontational towards the religious leadership in Jerusalem. He is doing so in order to force them to make a choice about him, a choice which he knows will end in his own crucifixion. A second theme is that even though Jesus is doing this in order to fulfill his mission to die for the sins of the world, everything he says and does is righteous. In other words, he is not wrong to confront the religious leaders in the way that he does. I think it is appropriate to take this even a step further, and say that not only is it not wrong, it is good and righteous. The things that he says to them need to be said. They are part of his mission, not only in the sense of forcing the religious leaders to make a choice, but also in that his words are truth that needed to be spoken, and later written down by his apostles. What I mean is, if we did not need to hear the same words today, the Holy Spirit would not have inspired Matthew and the other apostles to remember them.
During this second day of Jesus’ ministry, Jesus was found teaching in the temple. It is as he is teaching that the chief priests and elders – that is, the religious leaders – confront him and ask the question of the day: “By what authority are you doing these things? Who gave you this authority?”
These are the people who feel a certain amount of ownership of their own religion, and religious observance. Jesus entered the temple, and let little children sing praises to him. He caused a riot, driving out the money changers and livestock merchants. The feeling of the religious leaders is that he has come into their place, and is acting as if he owns it. Why does he get to decide that the moneychangers shouldn’t be there? Where does he get off, teaching that the people of Israel were not fulfilling the purpose for which God created them?
One thing we should know is that already by this point in history the Jewish people had begun to develop the habit of teaching by quoting “authority.” Suppose, for instance a rabbi (which simply means “teacher) was discussing the Sabbath. The rabbi might say: “The great Rabbi Hillel used to say about the Sabbath that the chief purpose of it is rest for the soul.” The rabbi would then go on discussing Hillel’s ideas, and perhaps offering quotes from other rabbis with different ideas, and maybe finally adding his own thoughts. Rabbis most definitely did not say things like: “This is what I think about the Sabbath.” They always quoted others; that is, they taught in reference to other “authorities.”
This was not how Jesus taught at all. Earlier in Matthew, we have a great deal of Jesus’ teaching, and we see that sometimes Jesus would even go out of his way to show that he was not quoting authorities. For instance, in the sermon on the Mount, several times, he said “You have heard it said…, But I say to you…”
So the religious leaders in Jerusalem are offended by Jesus’ style of teaching, in which he seems to regard himself as the authority, and also by the way he seemed to treat the temple as if it was his own house. By confronting him while he is teaching, the religious leaders are trying to expose him in front of those he is teaching. They’re trying to remind the listeners that he is not quoting authorities.
Jesus turns the question back on them. He asks, “Where did John’s baptism come from? From heaven or from men?”
I think it is likely that many people knew that John the Baptist, before his death, had endorsed Jesus. It is unclear how many people knew that they were relatives, but many of Jesus’ disciples had started out by following John the Baptist. In a way, this is a big endorsement of the ministry of John the Baptist. Jesus is saying that John’s ministry came from the same source as his own.
This caused a big problem for the religious leaders. Many people have forgotten it now, but John the Baptist sparked a movement that lasted for more than a generation. At this point in time, John, and his ministry, were still a very big deal. John the Baptist represented a significant religious and cultural movement within Judaism.
So, the elitist leaders are afraid to say “John the Baptist was not legitimately sent by God,” because they know that will make a lot of people very angry, and they might lose their power over the people. But if they say, “John was from God,” then they would have to explain why they didn’t listen to what John said about repentance, and even more importantly, what John said about Jesus.
Like the politicians they really are, the religious leaders give an evasive answer: “We don’t know.” So Jesus responds in kind: “If you won’t answer about John’s teaching, then I won’t answer about mine.”
Has it ever occurred to you to wonder why Jesus didn’t just answer them directly? Why wouldn’t he just say: “My authority comes from God”? Before this, he was trying to lay low and finish training the disciples, and so sometimes he was evasive or enigmatic. But at this point, he knows he has less than a week to live. Why not just come out and say it? I can imagine that perhaps Jesus wanted to make sure he wasn’t arrested until after he had eaten the Passover with his disciples. Even so, directly saying “My authority comes from God” would probably not have made them arrest him much faster than they did. As it turned out, they arrested him in secret, since they were afraid of the support he had from the ordinary people. I doubt it would have happened any differently if he had answered them directly at this point. So why did he take this approach with them?
I can think of one possible reasons. First, he may have done this in order to expose their own internal dishonesty. Rather than just answering the question, he made them think. His question forced them to become aware of the choice they were making about him, and what was going on in their hearts. They couldn’t pretend they were defending the sacredness of their own religion, or the temple. They had to decide: “Are we going to accept Jesus as sent from God, or not? Does God’s authority even matter to us in this case?”
They understood that if they accepted his authority as from God, they would have to listen to him and obey him. His question made them face that, and decide.
In all of this section of Matthew – almost a quarter of the book – Jesus often sounds harsh and confrontational. As I have said, there is a practical purpose to this, in that it led to his crucifixion. But we need to realize that these words are still relevant today. When people were humble, repentant and desperate, we see Jesus being gracious, loving and compassionate. But when he encountered people who wanted to live their own lives, who rejected his authority, he made them face their true attitudes, often by speaking in ways that seem harsh to us. Jesus still presents people with a choice today: Will you accept his authority in your life, or will you hedge your bets, stall, or evade the question?
These days, we still have religious hypocrites who reject the real work of Jesus in their lives. What I see here in the Southeastern USA, is that a large number of people attend church and claim to be Christians, but in reality, they live their lives however they please. They often don’t wield religious power, but they claim, to one degree or another, that they are people of faith in Jesus. However, when they are confronted with something that Jesus says through the scripture, like: “Don’t get drunk,” or “Don’t gossip and slander,” or “Don’t have sex outside of marriage,” or “Don’t pursue money or wealth,” they are like the religious leaders Jesus confronts. Their internal attitudes are: “Nobody has the authority to tell me how to live my life,” or, “Is that part of the Bible really even relevant anymore?”
When I read these verses in Matthew, I am reminded of a similar attitude toward the authority of God and his word to his people.
1Now the serpent was the most cunning of all the wild animals that the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You can’t eat from any tree in the garden’? ”
2The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat the fruit from the trees in the garden. 3But about the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden, God said, ‘You must not eat it or touch it, or you will die.’ ”
4“No! You will not die,” the serpent said to the woman. 5“In fact, God knows that when you eat it your eyes will be opened and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” (Gen 3:1-5, HCSB)
From the beginning, Satan has been casting doubt on the authority and reliability of what God said. Like with Adam and Eve, like the religious leaders in Jesus’ day, he tempts us to listen and agree when the serpent whispers: “Did God really say that? Do you really have to pay attention to it? Actually, God is just trying to hold you back. You’ll be better off if you don’t pay attention.”
Some people read these parts of the gospels and think, “Jesus is taking down religious people. Go Jesus!” But the problem with these leaders is not that they are religious, but that they have rejected the authority of Jesus in their life. There are plenty of people in the workplace, in bars, at the gym, in our families, who are not religious, but who reject the authority of Jesus in their lives. They are just as proud and stubborn as the religious leaders during Jesus’ time.
We need to understand that Jesus didn’t welcome sinners simply because they were sinners – he welcomed them because they humbly recognized that they needed forgiveness, repented, and put all their hope in Him. They let him change their lives. They submitted to his authority. Unlike the religious leaders, they did not say: “Where do you get the authority to tell me how to live?” Instead, they said: “I need you, your love and forgiveness. Take my life and do whatever you want with it.”
Obviously, no one is perfect. Even those of us who generally are sincere about our faith often fail to live as Jesus wants us to. They key is what happens when Jesus confronts us about it through the scripture, or other believers who are sharing scriptures. Do we hedge, and say, “Do I really have to accept the authority of Jesus [through the Bible] in this matter?” Do we listen to the serpent? Or do we say, “I’m sorry Lord! Forgive me. You have the right to every part of my life.”
I don’t think we need to be afraid every minute that we might be rejecting the authority of Jesus. The religious leaders probably were not thinking consciously about what they were doing, but Jesus, by his question, drew their attention to it. He made sure that they understood the choice they were making. He will do the same for us – if we have a problem, He will make it clear.
Perhaps he is using this scripture passage, and this sermon, to make something clear to you right now. Is there some area of your life where you are tempted to reject the authority of Jesus? Is there some way in which you are saying, “Do I really have to pay attention to that part of the Bible?”
Before we close I want to remind us again that He is merciful and gracious, and loves to show compassion to those who humbly repent and receive him. With that in mind, let him speak to you about these things right now.