Matthew: A Foreshadowing of Judgment, Part 4: By What Authority?

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on April 5, 1999

Matthew 21:23-27

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If you have your Bibles, I’d invite you to turn with me to Matthew chapter 21. The Lord Jesus has been in conflict with His enemies. They have continued to bring direct charges against His teaching and His actions. None of that has worked so far, and so in this passage they try a different tactic. Since they have been unable to confront him successfully in rebuking His teaching and His deeds, now they take an indirect approach. They question His authority to be teaching in the first place. And so this passage affords us a marvelous opportunity on this day of resurrection to reflect on the claims of the risen Christ.

The resurrection is a testimony to the authority of Christ and it is the authority of Christ precisely that these religious leaders of Israel are questioning. So let’s turn to Matthew 21 beginning in verse 23 and hear God’s Holy inspired and inerrant word.

Matthew 21:23-27

Our Father this is Your word, and we pray that You would press home this question, the claims of Jesus upon our hearts as we read and hear it this day. Whether we be believers or unbelievers coming into your presence, we ask that by the Spirit You would open our eyes that we may embrace the truth in all its glory. For we ask it in Jesus’ name, amen.

The resurrection of Christ, Paul tells us, was among other things, a witness to His authority. It was one way that God showed the authority of Christ by the raising of Him from the dead. And so on this day when our thoughts are very much on the resurrection it is appropriate that we devote ourselves to this great passage because here that very issue of the authority of Christ is being pressed home to us. The question “Who is Jesus, what is the source of His authority?” is a question of utmost importance to believers and unbelievers alike. And so I’d like to explore that with you very briefly today. I’d like you to see two or three things in this passage before us.

I. Our response to Jesus’ authority is a spiritual diagnostic.

First, beginning in verse 23, you will see an exchange between Christ and His accusers, His attackers, His detractors. And there we see them challenge Christ’s credentials. And as we see the leaders of Israel challenge Christ’s credentials, we learn something. And one of the things that we learn is that our response to Jesus’ authority is a spiritual diagnostic. Let me put it this way: your response to Jesus’ authority is a spiritual diagnostic. It is an indicator of where your heart is with God. Now hold that thought, and let’s look at this passage together for a moment. A question is put to Jesus by the chief priests and by the elders of the people. The other gospels tell us that the scribes were along as well. So all the representatives of the Sanhedrin, the leaders of the Lord’s people, are there, and they put a question to Jesus and this question is designed to embarrass Him. They want to thwart His ministry and shame Him by questioning His authority. Presumably they are getting at the point that He has never gone to any official formal rabbinic school. In other words, they’re saying, “Son, you’re not seminary trained. How dare You get up and lecture us on the Scriptures. How dare you get up and make the claims You’re making. You have never gone through our process of accreditation.” And so they are wanting to shame Him, expecting Him to admit, of course, that He has never done one of these things. Now they didn’t like what He was teaching. Get the point. They are after what He was teaching, but since they had been ineffective in confronting him about the subject matter of His teaching, they questioned His credentials to teach at all in the first place. But what they are getting at is what He is teaching. The other gospels make it clear that they are not just upset about what Jesus has done. They are upset about what He is teaching. Yes, we have expected them to confront Him ever since He cleansed the temple. Ever since He rode into Jerusalem on the foal of the donkey, we have been waiting for the leaders of Israel to come and rebuke Him for not rebuking the children when they cried out to Him and pronounced Him to be the son of David, the Messiah, coming to His people. We’ve been waiting for them to come and rebuke him for cleansing the temple. What authority did He have to do that? But what they are really after is His teaching. They don’t like what He is saying. They don’t like what He is claiming.

But I want you to see, friends, that the question that they are asking Him has already been plainly answered. It is vital for you to understand that. There is absolutely no question about the answer to this question. Jesus by His own words, His own teaching, by His claims, by His miracles, and by His life had made it abundantly clear where the source of His authority came from. Furthermore, God had witnessed to Jesus Himself. You remember, the Father spoke from heaven to accredit His ministry at the baptism of John. The Father spoke from heaven at His transfiguration. The Son was witnessed to by men, beginning with John the Baptist who said of Him, “Behold the Lamb of God who comes to take away the sin of the world.” And even His enemies, and even demons would confess that He was the Messiah, the Son of God. And furthermore, Scripture corroborated the claims that He was making. And so God and man and Scripture coalesced to testify to the authority of Jesus Christ. So the question that these leaders were asking was a question that had already been answered. And the reason they are asking this question is not because Jesus has not made a clear testimony to who He is. It is because their hearts are hard.

It is vital for us to understand this point. Because one’s rejection of the authority of the Lord Jesus Christ is not a sign that you just haven’t been given enough information. It’s a sign of a heart that’s in rebellion against God. Because the claims are clear. The testimony is clear. The evidence is absolutely clear as the nose on your face. But a heart that does not want to bow the knee does not want to embrace Jesus in His lordship. How you respond to Jesus Christ is an indicator of your spiritual condition. If we claim to be Christians, if we profess Him before the congregation, and yet reject His lordship, our profession of faith may rightly be called into question. We may may have heard friends say something like this, a professing Christian who says something like this: “I know that’s what the Bible says, but… ” And this is calling into question the lordship of Jesus Christ. And we’ve all been tempted to that from time to time. And it may be, “Well, I know the Bible says that, but you know, we know better now because we’re a lot smarter than they used to be. Now surely we can’t believe that ‘fill in the blank.’” Or maybe it’s because the Bible is speaking to a personal sin of yours, and you just don’t want to let go of that sin. “I know the Bible says that I’m not supposed to do that, but…” That is a challenge to the lordship of Jesus Christ. If our posture is to question the authority of the Scripture of the word of Christ over our lives, if our posture is to question that authority, then we are standing with the chief priests and the elders of the people today. If we are standing back and saying, “Who gave You the authority to tell me that, who are You?” If we are saying that, even when it conflicts with our dearest sins, then we are rejecting the authority of Christ. For the professing believer, the rejection of the authority of Christ is a blatant sin, a presumption. As Matthew Henry says, “To acknowledge that a doctrine is from God and yet not to receive and entertain it is the greatest absurdity in iniquity that a man can be charged with.” There are more ways to reject Jesus Christ than simply to stand up and say out loud, I reject the lordship of Christ.

There are not many people in evangelical churches brave enough to stand up in the middle of a service and say, “Oh, by the way, I don’t believe in the lordship of Jesus Christ.” There may be some who think it in their heart, but normally we don’t admit that out loud. Normally our struggle is with our deeds, bringing our lives in line with the lordship of Christ. And we’ve all experienced this in different ways. Perhaps our experience of struggle with lordship has been with our parents. When we want to do one thing, and our parents, for our own good, and in perfect order with their responsibility as parents, tell us not to do those things. We might take a 14-year old girl, and she has developed a very great interest in a young man who lives down the street or goes to school with her. This young man has a terrible reputation. He is known to be involved with drugs and alcohol and other illegal activities. He is known to be a disrespectful young man. He is known not to be a believer. And yet this young woman who is a professing Christian, she is intrigued by him. She is becoming emotionally wrapped up in him, and her mother and her father sit her down one day and say, “We forbid you to enter into a relationship with this young man. It will be destructive to you. You love the Lord Jesus Christ, and He’s going to drag you down with him.” And the young woman resists the authority of her parents because her heart has been drawn to this young man. What’s happening? She wouldn’t stand up and say, “Well, I reject the authority of my parents.” But in this particular issue, because her heart has been drawn to a particular activity, she is willing to challenge them. This is a struggle we all face from time to time with the lordship of Christ. When He begins to demand the rights of His lordship in areas of our lives that we don’t want to give our lordship up in, then we have a struggle. If Christ is not lord of your life, then you are lord of your life. And if you are lord of your life, then Christ is neither—Nor savior.

Now Jesus says those words. That may sound hard, but Jesus says those words in Matthew 7:21. “Not everyone who says to Me, Lord, Lord, enters the kingdom of heaven. But the one who does the will of My Father who is in heaven, He will enter.” And John heard that message loud and clear, because he says in I John 2:3, “By this we know that we have come to know Him, that we keep His commandments.” The practical expression of our acknowledgment of the lordship of Christ as Christians, is to bow the knee and accept His authority over our lives. And if we’re non-Christians today, I want you to understand that you can’t be indifferent to Jesus because Jesus won’t let you. Jesus makes it very clear from the beginning to the end of His public ministry that the only appropriate response to His claims is that we bow the knee and acknowledge him to be the Messiah, the Son of the living God. Now, you can’t be in between on that. You can’t be indifferent to that. You see a lot of people out there today who think that they can say, well, look, Jesus, that’s fine. If that’s good for you, that’s wonderful. You just go on and believe in him, and I’m just going to go on doing what I’m doing. But Jesus won’t let you do that. Jesus says there are two types of people in the world, those who embrace me and those who reject me, and those are the only two kind. His authority must be dealt with, and we must deal with it today as surely as the leaders of Israel’s people. And if we choose to reject His authority, whether we be professing believers or whether we be unbelievers, then we are standing with the chief priests and the scribes who crucified him. And I don’t know about you, but that’s not where I want to be standing.

II. Jesus Responds

Now there’s a second thing I’d like you to see in this passage. I’d like you to see it in verse 24 and the first half of verse 25. Here we see Jesus’ response to His accusers. Here we see that Jesus’ claims, His truth claims, are corroborated. What in the world do I mean by that. I mean this: Jesus does not simply say, “‘Believe Me,” because I said, ‘Believe Me.”” God in His goodness gives all sorts of testimony that who Jesus claims to be is, in fact, who Jesus is, and that what Jesus claims about Himself is true. God corroborates that. He testifies to that. He witnesses to that in numerous ways. And we see this even in Jesus’ response. Jesus responds to their question by asking a question. I want you to understand that Jesus is not simply using a brilliant rhetorical device in debate, although, we must admit, this is a brilliant rhetorical device in response, because He turns the question on His accusers and He puts them in the corner that they thought that He was going to be in himself. But Jesus is not simply sidestepping their question. He is not being tricky. He is not evading their question. Calvin puts it this way: “Christ is not by some tricky way dodging the question put to Him. He is giving a complete and consistent response.” It was impossible to acknowledge that John was a servant of God without acknowledging that Jesus himself was lord. When Jesus says, “You answer Me this, ‘was John’s baptism from God or from man? Did John make that thing up himself? Or was John commissioned and called by God Almighty?'” That’s the question Jesus turns. And you understand that if you answer that question right, you’ve got the answer to the question that they asked Him. So He’s not just being tricky. He’s saying, that if you answer this question, then you’ve got the answer to the question you just asked Me. If you answer rightly that John’s ministry was from God, and John said of Me, behold the Lamb of God who comes to be slain for the sins of the world. If John acknowledges Him to be the Son of God, then you’ve got your answer. Jesus’ answer points unambiguously to the authority of His person and His work. The witness of John shows that the work and the teaching of Jesus’ ministry is from God.

And isn’t it interesting that even in Jesus’ refusal to assert His own authority, and you might expect Jesus to say here, “My authority comes from Me because I am God,”even Jesus’ refusal to say that, but to defer to the witness of John is a sign of His self-consciousness and His self-understanding. He knows His calling is from God. He does not have to toot His own horn, if I can put it that way. Jesus is so confident that His calling is from God that just like David before Him. David had been anointed king by God, but nobody else in Israel knew it. David didn’t have to assert His rights as king. He could wait for God to give Israel into His arms. And so also Jesus could point to the testimony of John and say, ‘John can tell you the answer to your question. The witness of John’s ministry shows who I am,’ because Jesus knew who He was and what the Lord had called Him to.

And that teaches us something about our own vocations. If we are doing something that the Lord hasn’t called us to do, we’re going to lack assurance in it. But if the Lord has called us, then we can be confident though the world oppose us. Matthew Henry says, “It’s good for all who take upon themselves to act with authority, to put this question to themselves: ‘Who gave me this authority?’ For unless a man is clear in His own conscience concerning that, He cannot act with any comfort of hope or success. Those who run before their warrant run without blessing.” Jesus knew His commission, He knew His calling, and He was utterly confident in it. And so He could defer to the testimony of John.

Now, by phrasing His response as a question, Jesus had simultaneously answered His accusers and put them in conundrum. If they said, “Yes, John’s ministry was from God,” then Jesus, just as they said, was going to say to them, “Then why haven’t you accepted Me? Because John testified to Me.” If they say, “No it’s not from God,” the people were going to turn on them. And so they were in a pickle. Jesus’ argument for His authority looks to the witness that God had given to him in the ministry of John, in the Scriptures, and in the testimonies of the Lord Himself. And the lord asks these Pharisees to believe what He says and to believe His claims because they were true. Not simply because He had asserted them.

I want you to understand that Jesus’ authority is not arbitrary. The call of the gospel, when the minister stands before you and says, believe the gospel, is not this: well, believe the gospel because, you know, it would be so nice if this were true. The call of the gospel is: believe the gospel because it is true and God has attested it. See, there are so many people in the world who think that the reason that people don’t embrace the gospel is there’s somehow not enough evidence for it out there. That’s wrong. The truth of the gospel is attested by God in so many ways with such great weight that it’s beyond dispute. But men in their hearts don’t want to bow the knee. And so, Jesus in responding to His accusers shows that the claims that He has made about Himself are corroborated by God, by faithful men like John, and by the Scriptures.

III. The response of the leaders to Jesus.

Then we see in the second half of verses 25 through verse 27, the response of the leaders of Israel to Jesus’ answer. They connive together to respond to Jesus’ claims. And then frighteningly, terrifyingly, there is just utter silence from Jesus to their retort. They begin reasoning amongst themselves, and they begin trying to figure out how to get out of this mess that they’ve gotten themselves in. But their reasoning was not careful reflection on what Jesus had said. Their reason was not careful consideration of the claims of the Lord Jesus Christ. Their reasoning was rather scheming to figure out how to avoid answering the question. Jesus had put a question to them that they did not want to answer. And basically they considered amongst themselves how they could go about lying in response to that question. Instead of saying to Jesus, “Really I don’t want to answer that question,” or “We don’t want to answer that question,” they said, “We don’t know.” The chief priests were politicians. And the elders derived their authority as representatives of the people. And so they were being driven by popular discernment and perception. In other words, they were being led by polls. And the irony of this is these people who so wanted to assert their own authority are totally captive to popular opinion. So that they have no authority whatsoever in face of the question that Jesus Christ puts to them. Larry Richards says this: “Unwilling and unable to take a stand or exercise the authority they claim to have, these men replied, we don’t know. Because that was the politically correct thing to do.”

Now, by the way, there is a testimony to Jesus’ deity even in this incident. If you look for instance in verse 25, it says they were reasoning among themselves. Now, how would Jesus know what they were talking about if they were talking in their own huddle. This is not the first time that Matthew mentions something like this. It won’t be the last time. What Matthew is telling you here is that Jesus knew their thoughts. Have you ever wondered, “How did Matthew know what they were talking about over there?” Was it because they were talking too loud and he overheard the? No. It was because Jesus told His disciples, “By the way, brethren what they are talking about right now is how to get out of answering the question I just asked them.” Jesus knew their thoughts. It’s just another testimony to His deity from Matthew. And I want you to understand that their rejection of Jesus Christ is not because of a lack of evidence. They had seen His miracles, they had seen His teaching, they had seen His life, they had had the testimony of John and the testimony of Scripture and the testimony of God, and they still rejected it. Matthew Henry puts it this way: “Those who will not see shall not see.” It’s not that there wasn’t anything for them to see. It’s that they didn’t want to see it. It was an action of their wills. They did not want to see the truth. And so, because they did not want to see, they shall not see.

You see, Christ’s authority is established not only in His life and in His works, but in His resurrection. Paul tells us that. But just because Christ is raised from the dead doesn’t mean that everyone will embrace Him. Turn with me to Romans chapter 1. In Romans chapter 1 Paul makes it clear that the resurrection of Jesus Christ is a testimony to who Jesus is. Romans 1:4: “Christ Jesus who was declared the Son of God with power by the resurrection from the dead.” God testified that He was the Son of God with power by the resurrection of the dead. Now, does that mean that everyone who acknowledges His resurrection embraces Him. Everyone who’s seen His resurrection embraces Him. No, it doesn’t. Jesus Himself tells us that. Turn back with me to Luke 16. In the story of the rich man and Lazarus. You will remember that the rich man in hell calls out to father Abraham and says, “Go send someone to speak to my brothers so that they don’t end up in hell.” And father Abraham responds in Luke 16:29 with these words, “They have Moses and the prophets. Let them hear them.” In other words, they’ve got their Bibles. Let them read the Bible.

And it’s interesting that the response of the man in hell is, “No. But if someone will go to them from the dead, they will repent.” And then Jesus puts into the mouth of father Abraham these words in verse 31: “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone rises from the dead.” You see what Jesus is saying. If they won’t listen to the Scriptures, the word of God, attested by the apostles and prophets, they wouldn’t even believe if someone came back from the dead and told them. You see, the problem is not the evidence. The problem is our hearts. Our hearts are hardened to the truth. This rejection of Christ is based upon the hardness of hearts. As Brook Wescott, one of the great scholars of last century, said, “Taking all the evidence together it is not too much to say that there is no single historic incident better or more seriously supported than the resurrection of Christ.” And yet there are people who do not accept the claims of Christ. Why. Because they don’t have enough information? No. Because there’s not enough evidence? No. Because the claims aren’t clear? No. Because they don’t want to bow the knee. You see, when we come to Christ we don’t negotiate terms. It’s unconditional surrender. Come to the foot of that cross and He accepts only those who bow the knee and embrace him as Savior and Lord. He’s given all the testimony in the world in the glory of His gospel, in His person, in His work, and our only proper response is to bow the knee and embrace Him. May God enable us today as believers to practically manifest that He is our Lord.

And if we come this day unbelieving, may we embrace the cross. Surrender to Him and find the riches of eternal life. Let’s pray:

Lord Jesus keep us near the cross. Keep us, O Lord, under Your hand, joyfully reflecting Your lordship in our lives. Help us O Lord, this day if we come empty, to embrace Christ and find in Him the fullness. We ask it in Jesus’ name, amen

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