By What Authority?

Religious authority is a fascinating area of confusion. I recall being on a trip in Israel with a group of ministers from various denominations.  It was one of those ‘orientation’ trips to explore possibilities of future tours, something I might consider at some juncture.  

Two of the leaders wanted to conduct a ‘sacramental’ service at a holy site near the Sea of Galilee. In their ‘tradition,’ their plan was totally reasonable and within permissible boundaries.  As they came out of the change rooms, attired in their religious garb, they were confronted by the ‘religious order’ whose task it was to maintain decorum on the site.  An argument ensued and the entire service was forced to relocate elsewhere.  When it comes to ‘religion,’ authorities often conflict.

After Jesus cleared the temple during his visit after Palm Sunday, he was called to account by the religious authorities of the day–the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the Jewish elders.  They confronted him in a religious building, namely the temple, and pressed him for an answer to their probing question.  They did this publicly, flexing as it were their religious muscles before the crowds gathering for Passover. Other incidents could be ignored, the activity of Jesus could not!

“By what authority are you doing these things?” they asked. “And who gave you authority to do this?” No one can just show up at a religious site and disrupt the ‘flow’ of religious (and irreligious) activity, can they? Basically they were asking him – “Who do you think you are?”

Jesus clearly knew who He was and who they were.  He was the Son of God.  He had been sent by His Father with authority.  Within a few weeks, He would declare to His followers – “ALL AUTHORITY has been given unto me in heaven and on earth.” When He had cleared the temple, He cited Scripture with the words, “My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations. But you have made it a ‘den of robbers.’

Jesus did not yield for a moment to this pressure from religious leaders. Instead, he countered with a question that set them back on their heels. “I will ask you one question. Answer me, and I will tell you by what authority I am doing these things.  John’s baptism–was it from heaven or from men? Tell me!”

The ensuing discussion among the religiously ‘righteous’ leaders exposed their hearts.  They were ambiguous and refused to speak openly about their convictions.  Mark records, perhaps from some who overheard the discussion, their ambivalence.  Their conclusion, “We don’t know.”

The truth was – they did know, but had refused to submit to the message of warning of the one who had come to point them to the Christ. He had urged all to “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” Now John’s voice had been silenced and they were face to face with the greatest object of John’s preaching, namely Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God, the One sent from the Father, the rightful Occupier of the temple.

This Day in Christian History

June 27, 1736 – “As a member of the Holy Club, future English revivalist George Whitefield preaches his first sermon, at the age of twenty-one. He would go on to preach thousands more sermons and became a force in colonial America’s “Great Awakening.”


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