Have we ever given a wrong answer on a test only to blow it? Is God asking us the same question every day? Will we do what He wants? Perhaps we believe that we have given God the wrong answer? Is it too late? Have we blown it?
I want us to know the good news: there is still a short time to do what our heavenly Father wants.
We will explore Jesus’ confrontation with religious leaders over authority and the parable of the two sons in Matthew 21:23-32.
By What Authority
Both John the Baptist and Jesus Christ operated their ministries outside of the bounds of traditional religious authority. Jesus was accosted with the question, “By what authority are you doing these things?” (Matthew 21:23) Could we ask others the same question today? Do a degree, ordination, a large church building or fancy clothing automatically give authority from heaven? Authority to preach can be from heaven or men. Is Jesus handcuffed by denominational traditions? Does he operate also outside of traditional denominational authority structures? Jesus hates division. Jesus loves his Bride. Even though the Church sometimes sins terribly, church authority can be used for great good. How then can we discern between heavenly and human authority? Jesus’ methods were very often unorthodox, but never his teachings. Should we ask of any teaching, “Is this from heaven or of human origin?”
Who Gave You This Authority
After Jesus had turned over the tables of the money-changers in the temple and cursed a tree, the chief priests and elders wanted to know by what authority he did these things. The answer was a parable of two sons who had opposite answers for their father (Matthew 21:23). The “yes” son represents those pious people who, like the priests and elders, say yes to God but fail to do his will. The “no” son represents the rest of us, who though we may have initially said no to God, end up obeying him. So how does that apply to authority? Though some have once said yes to God and gained authority in the church, if they are disobedient children, their authority is null and void in heaven. This is also a Protestant argument against popes who misused their authority.
From Heaven or from Men
The Christian Church is a mixture of the human and the divine. Those are also the main two sources of authority in the Church. Human authority is clothed with an outward show of power and often creates structures which create a yoke of bondage. Jesus had no such approach to authority and so he was asked where he got his authority (Matthew 21:25). Human authority is also swayed by what people want more than what God wants. Human authority is enslaved by human politics rather than heavenly deeds. Jesus did not speak of John the Baptist’s personal authority but the authority of his baptism. Many religious leaders in Jesus’ day had abused their fellows with burdensome human authority. Jesus’ focus was not the authority of men which creates heavy burdens, but an act of freedom with authority from heaven.
If We Say From Heaven
Some churches claim to be the one true church. They may say that they have the right apostolic succession, mode of baptism, worship style, clothing, ordination or some other idea of mere human authority. Jesus addressed the idea of heavenly authority in Matthew 21:25. Why did he did speak of the authority involved in an act (John’s baptism), when we focus on the authority of human beings? Jesus spoke of the authority of an act that had the recognition of heaven. Why do we limit great acts to people officially recognized by human organizations? Jesus did not. He recognized an act as having the authority of heaven apart from recognized religious authority. Every church is a mixture of divine and human authority. We cooperate with human authority structures for the sake of unity, but we submit to heavenly authority.
We Don’t Know
Imagine a politician saying, “I am not an economist and cannot give a qualified answer.” Yet, politicians have strong opinions and profess to know what they are talking about on economics. Of course, they don’t, so why do we the public go along with the delusion? Is there something about the person who dares to be politically incorrect that is refreshing? Do we disagree with their ideas but find their courage invigorating? While tact is important, so also is honesty. Is that why the priests and elders were so frustrating to Jesus? Instead of giving an honest opinion either for or against John’s ministry or him as Messiah, they looked for an answer that would be politically correct (Matthew 21:27). Is political correctness often the cowards way out? Do we love Jesus because he dared to be politically incorrect?
Neither Will I Tell You
Politicians may avoid giving a straight answer to the media because they are evasive but other times reporters act like the Pharisees who repeatedly tried to trap Jesus. An example of Jesus’ masterful answers is found in Matthew 21:27. He was asked who gave him authority and his non-answer was superb. Jesus did the same thing that many brilliant politicians do. He answered a deceitful question with a skillful question, “The baptism of John, where was it from, heaven or men?” The Pharisees were stumped, because they did not want to give the obvious answer themselves. The source of Jesus’ authority was the same as John the Baptist’s, heaven. The implied reply to the Pharisees’ question was contained in Jesus’ question itself. Next time reporters criticize a politician who dodges questions, let us ask, are they evasive or wise?
The Prophet Who said No
We all know the story of Jonah, the prophet who said no. But, do we know the rest of the story? We saw in the news how despicable atrocities were committed against Christians in Iraq, but did we know that the two stories are connected? The group which beheaded many in the Middle East also persecuted Christians in the Assyrian Church of the East. That church has never joined with the Catholic or Orthodox Churches. It has always been an independent church since it was established by the Apostles Thomas, Bartholomew and Thaddeus. And their faith goes back further than that. Jonah was sent to the Assyrians, and unlike frequently rebellious Israel, they repented as a nation, a forerunner of their later conversion. Like the one son in the parable (Matthew 21:29), Jonah initially said no, but later obeyed.
Who did What his Father Wanted
Is some messy church politics caused by a failure to recognize whether or not heavenly authority is given to certain human beings? Jesus was questioned about his authority. What about the authority of certain preachers or denominations? Some people claim the authority of Holy Scripture. Others claim a superior tradition, a doctrinal position, apostolic succession, better education or certain religious experiences. How do we sort through the maze of claims to find out who is right? Perhaps we don’t have to. Most churches actually agree on the essential teachings of Jesus and all churches contain doctrinal error. Is it really that important whether or not churches agree on lesser issues? Only one authority really matters, that of Jesus. Perhaps we are all in the right place if we do what the Father wants (Matthew 21:31), to repent and believe.
Prostitutes are Ahead of You
If anyone could insult a religious person effectively it would be Jesus. He insulted the very religious in his day often. Why? In Matthew 21:31 he told a group of very devout believers in God that corrupt tax collectors and whores are entering heaven before them, not “will be” but “are”. In a certain sense, heaven is now. Imagine insulting church goers like this today. Would we be hated like famous Danish theologian Søren Kierkegaard who insulted the Danish National Church and Christians who followed the crowd rather than Jesus? What would Jesus say to us? Have we ignored the way of righteousness even though we have been shown it? Have we seen and yet not believed? Religion, looking after the less fortunate and keeping ourselves uncorrupted, is a good thing. But, without belief in Jesus, it is nothing.
The Way of Righteousness
Jesus was challenged about his authority (Matthew 21:32). Does church authority today reside in a “magisterium” or doctrinal committee? If the counsel of other Christian churches is disregarded how can that be anything other than incomplete authority? Why do Catholic councils ignore the Eastern Orthodox Church, Baptists ignore mainstream churches and Amish ignore everyone else in doctrinal matters? A popular Protestant idea is that we can each decide our own interpretation without consultation. Some even claim that they got their weird and heretical ideas directly from the Holy Spirit. Of course people who make such claims often contradict each other and the Bible. When we seek the counsel of church history, tradition, using reasoning and experience, we find contradictions, but also remarkable unity. We all agree that the way of righteousness is through faith in the authority of Jesus.
You Did Not Repent & Believe
When Jesus spoke of the two sons, one who said yes but did not and the other who said no but changed his mind, he was speaking of the nay-saying of the religious people of this time (Matthew 21:32). Their job was to point to the Messiah, but when he came along, they refused him. Who are the religious people of our time? Is it not we Christians who are a nation of priests? Like those religious people, do we likewise doubt Jesus’ authority when we are confronted with it? Do we gladly perform religious acts, bow our heads or raise our hands, but deny the power and authority of the head of the church? Do we prefer modern religious experiences or ancient traditions, a church founder’s opinions or following our own reasoning instead of the teachings of Jesus?
God asks us the same question every day. Will we do what our heavenly Father wants? If we have answered God wrongly, here's good news: there is still time to change our minds, but how long? If we have once said yes, but have not obeyed him, here's good news: there is still time, but how long? Will we do what our Father in heaven wants before it is too late?