We’re going to continue our series in Luke’s gospel and we’ll take as our text the first 8 verses of chapter 20. And it’s a passage full of questions. The question asked by the religious leaders in verse 2 is probably the most important question we can ask of Jesus. ‘By what authority are you doing what you’re doing?’
If Jesus is just an ordinary man, then he is assuming a role that isn’t his. But if he is who he says he is, it demands we respond in a certain way which is why the question of our passage is so important. It is the uncomfortable truth of who Jesus is which the religious leaders are tiptoeing around the borders of, frightened to get too close to because if they get too close, it’ll expose something in them. It’ll call them to admit things they don’t want to. It’ll call them to put their faith in Jesus. Although we may have had a negative experience with authority, Jesus’ authority is ultimately a good thing because he is good. Jesus’ authority is marked by goodness, righteousness, grace, mercy, kindness, and love.
We’ll go through these 8 verses with three headings: 1. By What Authority? 2. By This Authority, and 3. Rejecting Authority
1. By What Authority?
The religious leaders want to take Jesus down so they try to get him to admit something blasphemous, something over which they could have him killed. Their questioning is a common tactic used by the Pharisees; if they can get Jesus to make any claim of being God, they can have him killed. They often try to trick him. They’ve tried to take him down before and it hasn’t worked, they’ve tried to catch him out before and it hasn’t worked.
The question is not simply ‘Who gave you authority?’ but ‘Who gave you authority to do these things?’ But what things are meant by the religious leaders? Well, we could look legitimately at all of Jesus’ life.
Luke 9:21-22, 9:43-45, 18:31-34
In raising others from the dead, he surely has authority over death. In healing sickness, he surely has authority over diseases. In casting out demons, he surely holds authority over darkness. In setting the standards for the Sabbath, he surely has authority to command as God himself.
To come away with all of this, in the words of Narnia author CS Lewis, means Jesus is either mad, bad, or God.
He either genuinely believes he is God but his beliefs aren’t lining up with logic.
Or he is bad. He knows he isn’t God but he is a conman trying to sell people a false message.
Or the third option, he is actually God.
And so there is, in the question of the religious leaders, a genuine finger pointing; ‘You are doing things only God can, who gave you the authority to forgive sins, to be lord of the sabbath? Yet there is an uneasiness. ‘But he healed the sick, ‘he raised the dead, who is this guy?’
2. By This Authority
Jesus answers with a question: was John’s baptism from God or from man? On the surface, it looks like Jesus is giving a politician’s answer and dodging the question but he isn’t. He isn’t dodging the question or delaying having to answer with another question. He is answering the question by getting them to answer. So he asks a question in response which is the answer.
Jesus doesn’t say, ‘I have authority because x, y, and z.’ and so answer the question directly because that wouldn’t personally challenge them, it would simply reinforce their hatred of him. Rather, Jesus asks them a question which will lead them to the direction Jesus wants them to get to. Which will force them to answer and to admit the truth.
In fact, Jesus’ answer is a brilliant turning of the tables. The religious leaders think they have the upper hand ‘By what authority are you doing this?’ they ask, demanding an answer. Jesus in response challenges them.
What is behind Jesus’ answer? Jesus’ answer says that John’s ministry was one of ‘preparing the way for the Lord’ and if it was a genuine ministry ‘from heaven’, as they put it, then John really was preparing the way for the Lord, he therefore really is the Lord. If He is Lord, then that is all the authority he needs.
Jesus’ clear understanding, the clear understanding of the gospel writers, the clear understanding of John the Baptist himself, and indeed the crowds surrounding Jesus and his interrogators here in Luke 20, are all unanimously of the view that John the Baptist’s baptism, as it is written here, was from heaven, it was a God-given role to prepare the way for the Lord.
Therefore, Jesus in his response is asking a question which only merits one answer, from Heaven, and it’s interesting in our passage, Luke chapter 20, how the religious leaders do respond.
3. Rejecting Authority
Then the religious leaders come together in a huddle to discuss how they ought to respond. They are in a bind because they want to answer ‘from earth’ to maintain their pursuit of Jesus’ death, yet if they do that they fear the crowds will stone them because the crowds are certain John’s baptism was from heaven.
If they answer ‘from heaven’ however, they find themselves in the unfortunate position of backing themselves into a corner. If they admit John’s baptism is from heaven and his ministry, genuine, then why would they be denying the authority of Jesus? Why wouldn’t they respond with faith?
But, that’s what the chief priests, elders, and teachers of the law are aware of. That’s why they are in this tough position. Everything is screaming for them to answer ‘from heaven’ to repent and believe the gospel and they know it. Yet they can’t bring themselves to it, why is that?
Romans 1:19-23 is somewhere I think we can find our answer. The Apostle Paul who wrote the Letter to the Romans says that the evidence for God is clear, it is plain to see, it is not ambiguous, it is obvious in its truth. Yet, Paul says, humanity’s inclination is to suppress the truth about God, to deny the proofs they are shown. And in the case of the religious leaders and Jesus, I think it is clear they’re suppressing the truth about Him.
They also know that they can’t admit Jesus is who he says he is because of another thing that Paul says in Romans 1:20 that God has made his existence clear so that we wouldn’t have an excuse for not turning to him. And that is the pickle that the religious leaders find themselves in. It’s plain who Jesus is and they know it, they don’t want to acknowledge it, yet they recognise the only possible way that they can respond is to admit who Jesus is. And in them admitting who Jesus is, they would find themselves in a situation where Jesus would ask ‘Well, why didn’t you believe John’s teaching about me?’ and they wouldn’t have an excuse to give as to why they didn’t believe.
I think they’re suppressing the truth because it is the clear understanding across the board that John the Baptist’s ministry was from God, yet they can’t admit that as admitting that would mean that they ought to believe John’s teaching on Jesus. They can’t give the answer they want to give, they can’t give the answer they know they should, and so they plead ignorance and in pleading ignorance reject the authority of Jesus.
Does it say they believe Jesus to be who he says he is? No. But if he is a nobody, why are they even concerned? If he is not God then what’s the bother?
You maybe, like the Pharisees, have a strong sense of right and wrong. You maybe, like the Pharisees, think yourself to be a good person and that your entry way into heaven is a given because you aren’t a wrong’un, you’re a pretty decent person. Yet, being so sure of yourself isn’t an excuse to ignore Jesus and who he is. Incidentally, it’s often said that Christians are small minded, yet there isn’t anything quite as small minded as being so sure of yourself that you’re closed off to the possibility of Jesus being who he said he is and so you silence him to maintain being right.
The Pharisees knew the consequences of saying John’s baptism was from heaven, so they didn’t say a thing. They knew that if they acknowledged that John’s baptism was from heaven, they wouldn’t have a leg to stand on because Jesus would say to them, Well, why don’t you believe in me then?’ And they wouldn’t have an answer because they are without excuse.
Romans 1 speaks about every single one of us, before we are Christians, as knowing the truth about God but suppressing it. How is life sustained? Why do we feel emotions like love, anger, joy, compassion? Why is it that we have such a strong sense of right and wrong? Why are landscapes so beautiful and picturesque? Might it be that we know there must be something more than this life? Don’t all these things point to a creator?
There is the Lord Jesus Christ who enacted all these miracles, who forgave sins, who taught with authority. Who said throughout his life that he was to be crucified, that he was to die, that he was to rise from the grave. It is this Jesus who said he would rise again and three days after his death walked out of the grave.
I would plead with you this morning, if you’re not a believer, if you don’t love Jesus yet, do not suppress the truth about Him but believe in Him and follow Him. And when you find Him, the issue is no longer ‘Who’s this guy to tell me what to do?’ but ‘Who am I that you are mindful of me? A human, yet you care for me?’ (See Psalm 8:4)
And if you are a Christian this morning, if you do love Jesus, let us remember who is Lord, let’s remember who is King, let’s remember who is God, let’s remember that our life is not our own, but belongs to Jesus because he saved us by his grace. It is he who calls us to live for him and the response we are called to is obedience and faith. Jesus calls us to live for him with our whole lives, being mindful of him when we make decisions, being mindful of him when we are alone and nobody else is looking.
King Jesus has all the authority of heaven and earth and therefore calls us to live for him, not to earn his acceptance but as a response of thanksgiving to him for his kindness to us in creating and sustaining the world, in dying on the cross for our sins, in rising again, for our salvation. So in your job, in your friendships, in your marriage, in your social life, in your leisure time, give it to God, use it for his glory, not your own.