Matthew 21: 23-17 (ESV) : The Authority of Jesus Challenged
In the chapters of Matthew read for last week, Jesus directs much of his teaching towards the Pharisees, the elders and priests of the synagogue. Their flaws are many, the greatest of which is refusing to see Jesus for who he actually is and thereby forfeiting their salvation. Why they respond in anger and unbelief rather than joy and exultation upon the arrival of their Messiah and the witnessing of his miracles and teaching can be traced to a number of motives, but one important one surfaces in chapter 21 when they question the authority of Jesus (vs 23).
The Jewish leaders seem fixated on issues of authority and fear hides thinly veiled behind their façades of power. Sometimes we forget that these biblical “villains” are also under the control of the Roman Empire and hold precarious positions of limited control. Jesus may have turned the question they asked him on them: by what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority? They would likely have answered that theirs was a God-given authority. In reality, however, they look to humans for their legitimacy: namely the Romans rulers and the common Jews. The fact that they shirk a response to Jesus’ actual question about where John’s authority had come from, due to fear of the crowds, reveals just how fragile their own authority is. The Jewish leaders have exchanged their fear of God for the fear of man.
It’s easy to judge and also to excuse their misplaced fear, but how often are we guilty of this same mistake? How often do we worry more about how others think of us than how our God thinks of us? How often do we prevaricate on a pointed question regarding our faith because we’re caught up in thinking about what the most strategic, crowd-appeasing, position-protecting, culturally appropriate response should be?
Jesus is always culturally relevant, but never culturally conformist. He teaches with stories the people can easily relate to; he uses object lessons; and even in his response to the Jewish leaders in this passage we see his attention to the cultural moment. Yet, he never upholds the status quo or seeks to challenge it in a trendy, acceptably radical manner. His authority is undeniable and his confidence authentic because Jesus perfectly fears God; his words are not his own but the Father’s; his power is not his own but the Father’s. He has no fear of man and can speak the truth boldly because he knows the truth firsthand from time spent with God and has a holy love and respect for Him that directs his every thought, word, and action.
Whatever our specific social contexts, the “fear of man” will weaken or even destroy our testimony if we allow it to eclipse our righteous fear of God. In the implicit and explicit expression of my faith, I want to always be more concerned with my Father’s estimation of me than my peers’, my family’s, my friends’, my supervisors’, my society’s. Holy Spirit, show me when and how I am allowing the expectations of others to suppress the truth of Christ in my life.
Let us each examine our own thoughts, words, and fraught silences and ask Jesus to imbue us with the only truly legitimate authority: the power that finds its source in God!