I remember working for the YMCA afterschool program during two of my years at seminary. I was part of a staff that supervised children until their parents got off work and picked the kids up. Inevitably, once a month or so, a kid would look me in the eye after I told them to do something and say, “You can’t tell me what to do. You are not my parent!”
If you’ve ever worked in a situation with kids, you’ve probably been told the same thing. It’s a question of authority. The kid is basically saying, “You don’t have authority over me. You don’t have the authority to tell me what to do.”
My response was pretty simple. I’d look that kid straight in the eye and say, “Yep, you are right. I am not your parent, but your parents paid me a lot of money to look after you and make sure you are safe. Therefore, you will listen to me, and if you don’t like it, we will go and call your parents right now.” That response always did the trick. Never even had to pick up the phone.
Jesus didn’t necessarily have that luxury. When His authority was questioned, He had to resort to quite a different method, but it was a method that worked.
Jesus and His disciples returned to the temple the day after Jesus upset the apple cart by turning over the tables of the money changers and those selling sacrificial animals. Remember, in the last two weeks, I explained how the chief priests had sought to tap into the lucrative market for selling such animals. They had allowed merchants to set up in the only available space in the temple–the courtyard of the Gentiles thereby excluding the Gentiles from worshiping the one, true God. Jesus exposed them for their blatant disregard of the commandments of God, their greed, and their desire to have the safety, security, and freedom that money can buy. Jesus showed how the deepest desire of their hearts was not to introduce people to the God of Israel, but the god of wealth and riches. But in exposing this, Jesus had crossed several man-made boundaries.
You see, when it came to activities done within the Temple, everything was cleared or sanctioned by the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders. This group collectively was called the Sanhedrin. Craig Evans says this about them in his biblical commentary, “The Sanhedrin had a broader legislative and judicial jurisdiction but the high priest and his ranking priestly associates possessed ultimate authority on the Temple Mount, an authority to which in many respects even the Romans deferred.” Think about that for a second. The Sanhedrin exercised such control over the temple grounds that even the Roman occupying forces generally left them alone. That’s quite a bit of power. That’s a lot of power, actually.
And the Sanhedrin exercised that power to the extent that they could literally take another person’s life for violating the temple rules. Remember a couple of weeks ago, I spoke about a sign that was hung on the wall separating the Gentiles area of worship from the Jewish areas of worship. That sign was printed in Greek, Aramaic, and Latin, and it read, “No foreigner may enter within the railing and enclosure that surround the Temple. Anyone apprehended shall have himself to blame for his consequent death.” Nowhere that I know of in our nation is such a thing practiced. I mean, I’ve known of situations in churches where people got really upset for moving a baptismal font or scandalized because someone suggested changing the color scheme or what have you, but I know of no church where someone was put to death for stepping on a particular rule. The Sanhedrin could do exactly that!!
And Jesus didn’t exactly consult with the Sanhedrin when He entered into the temple and upset the marketplace. Jesus didn’t consult with the Sanhedrin when He walked around the temple and taught people in the temple. Jesus wasn’t following the proper procedures. He hadn’t gotten permission. So, a contingent from the Sanhdrin confronted Him. “By what authority are you doing these things? By whose authority are you doing these things?”
At this point, you might wonder why the Sanhedrin was even asking these questions. I mean, if they wielded so much power, why didn’t they just arrest Jesus and get it over with. Remember, this was the festival of the Passover. The city of Jerusalem was crowded with pilgrims there to celebrate. Jesus had endeared Himself to that crowd by his actions, so the Sanhedrin was afraid of the crowd. They were afraid that if they did arrest Jesus, a riot would ensue. If a riot ensued, then the Romans, who usually stayed out of temple business, would make it their business and perhaps remove them from power. Fear is a tremendous motivator, and it causes you to be cautious. The Sanhedrin was being very cautious hoping to trap Jesus with this question. Again, we turn to Craig Evans for some insight here. Evans says, “Either Jesus admitted his conduct was unauthorized, which would have made him publically vulnerable, or he claimed a right superseding that of the ruling priests, a claim that would have made him politically vulnerable. In either case, his conduct would then have provided a basis for a more formal proceeding against him, without fear of the crowd.”
Jesus, of course, sees through the trap. He knows the game. But Jesus is a rabbi. He is a teacher. Everyone knows that, so in true rabbinic fashion, Jesus sets up a counterquestion. “I will ask you one question; answer me, and I will tell you by what authority I do these things. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin? Answer me.” Jesus actually assumes a position of power when He asks this question. The question itself is bad enough, but when Jesus says, “Answer me!!” it really comes across as borderline disrespectful. It’s almost as though Jesus holds the Sanhedrin in contempt. But there is a method to Jesus’ madness. There is a reason behind what He says, and we will see that momentarily.
The representatives from the Sanhedrin begin arguing amongst themselves. This is a very interesting comment that Mark includes. I mean, think about this for just a second. How would Mark know the inner discussions and inner arguments of this group of people? They would not have argued this aloud because it would have been quite embarrassing. How did Mark know what was said? I want you to understand that Jesus did gain a following amongst those who had been on the Sanhedrin. Mark tells us at the end of his Gospel that a respected member of the council, Joseph of Arimathea took the body of Jesus after the crucifixion and put it in his tomb. Mark reports that Joseph of Arimathea was a secret follower of Jesus. In all likelihood, we have the testimony of Joseph or another like him about these deliberations. That’s kind of a side note, but I think a rather neat one.
These deliberations are important though. They show us what the Sanhedrin is really concerned about. We will actually deal with what they deliberate backwards because the former needs a little bit more attention than the latter. The Sanhedrin does not want to say that John the Baptist was not from God because everyone believed John was a prophet. The entire crowd would have stoned this group in a heart beat if they would have denied John’s calling. Fear kept them from going down that route.
Which only left them one other alternative. They would have had to admit that John’s teaching was indeed from divine origin. They don’t want to do that because they know Jesus will respond, “Well, then why didn’t you believe him?” This is where we must take a little bit of time because we need to understand what John the Baptist was proclaiming. John the Baptist was not just proclaiming, “Turn your life around. Get right with God.” That’s only part of what John was about. Let’s turn back several chapters in the book of Mark and hear once again the proclamation of John the Baptist:
From Mark chapter 1: 4John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7He proclaimed, ‘The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.’
John’s proclamation centered on Jesus as the promised Messiah. John’s proclamation pointed to Jesus!!! If the Sanhedrin admitted that John’s ministry came from God, then they must admit that Jesus is from God as well!! They must admit that Jesus is the Messiah!! They must admit that Jesus’ authority supersedes their authority and that everything Jesus did in the Temple was by divine right!!!
And there was no way on God’s, green earth they were going to do that. There was no way they were going to admit that this Jesus who had just exposed them for the frauds they were, was indeed from God. Their pride was too full. Their self-righteousness was too great. They were not going to allow this upstart to dethrone them from their positions of power and prestige and wealth. They were not going to admit that Jesus had more authority than they did.
And so they copped out. They took the easy way out. They came back with the answer that is not an answer. “We don’t know.” That is a load of B.S. They knew. They just didn’t want to admit. And they would rather face a bit of public embarrassment than submit themselves to Jesus. Evans once again puts it this way:
Ostensibly there to protect the temple as God’s house from arbitrary acts of unauthorized persons and to take action against such persons, these representatives of the Sanhedrin and the ranking priests show their true colors. Rather than defend the temple, they protect themselves. In doing so they betray their own selfish concerns and their inability to respond to and for God, who confronts them in the persons of John and Jesus. Their answer demonstrates their unbelief. At the very least, their admission “we do not know” if taken at face value is an embarrassing surrender of the field. If their admission is not taken at face value but is recognized for the dodge that it is, then it is an embarrassing public display of cowardice.
So Jesus responds appropriately to such cowardice, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.” You know, I heard several comments about what Jesus says here, and most of them leave me with a deep sense of dissatisfaction. Several folks spoke about how Jesus washes His hands of the Sanhedrin. They talked about how Jesus reached the limits of His desire to bring them over to faith. I’m not sure these folks are correct. I think this comment is simply Jesus not giving the Sanhedrin what they desire–He’s not going to fall into their trap this easily and give them an out. I believe that Jesus still desires to bring the members of the Sanhedrin to faith. I believe that Jesus still desires to bring these folks into a relationship with Himself. I believe that Jesus wants to help them submit to His authority–the same authority He wants you and I to submit to as well.
You see, we all submit to some sort of authority. Whether we like it or not, we all answer to something greater than we are. Oh, we like to think that we are free–that no one or nothing tells us what to do or how to do it. We like to think that we make our own way that we have nothing putting limits on what we can achieve. We like to think that we are our own bosses. But it is nothing more than a delusion. We are enslaved to authority, and many times we don’t even recognize it.
You might think me daft, but let’s think this through for a moment or two, shall we.
If you believe you have complete freedom and submit to no authority, walk away from your job tomorrow. Just quit. Take some time to enjoy life. How many of you would actually do that? Probably very few. Why? Because you have bills to pay. You need the income. You might get your house taken away. Or your car. Or your future. You might be able to do okay for a while, but things would change very fast after that. You know you cant just quit. You are under the authority of the money you make to keep the lifestyle you have. You are submitting to the authority of your lifestyle.
If you believe you have complete freedom and submit to no authority in your life, refuse to pay your taxes this April. You are submitting to the authority of the federal government.
If you believe you have complete freedom and submit to no authority in your life, go slap the other political candidate that is running for office and tell him or her they have no business doing what they are doing. You are submitting to the laws of this land.
If you believe you have complete freedom and submit to no authority, throw your cell phone away. Need I say more about that one?
If you believe you have complete freedom and submit to no authority, go stand up in downtown Houston and announce that you are either for or against gay marriage. Not going to? Afraid you will get confronted by one side or the other? You are submitting to the authority of societal pressures.
Need I go on? Need I continue to lay out how we submit to authority all over the place? Need I tell you that you are not free? The only question that we must answer as we go through life is which authority we will end up submitting to. The only question that we must answer is which authority we will give our ultimate allegiance to.
And Jesus wants that authority. Jesus wanted that authority from the chief priests, the scribes and the elders. Jesus wants that authority from us. But like those chief priests, scribes and elders, we believe we have too much at stake. We believe we are better off not fully submitting to Jesus. We believe we are freer as we are now that we would be with all those rules and regulations Jesus will impose upon us. And so we pridefully make up all kinds of excuses. We decide to reserve judgement. We put ourselves in embarrassing situations because we think submitting to Jesus is the worst thing we could possibly do.
But here is one thing that Jesus will do for you that no other authority will. Here is one thing Jesus will freely take upon Himself when every other authority will reject you. You see, of all the authorities that are out there, Jesus will die for you even if you hate Him. Jesus will die for you even if you reject Him. Jesus will take your place and face your punishment without a smidgen of regret. In fact, that’s exactly what He did for you on the cross nearly 2000 years ago. Every other authority will turn its back on you, punish you, or leave you high and dry because those authorities demand absolute allegiance from you. They demand you honor them at great cost to you. But if you reject Jesus’ authority, He will continue to love you and wait patiently for the day you turn to Him. He does this because He wants you to freely choose Him; to freely take upon yourself His burden; to freely submit to His authority without regret. And to earn that, He doesn’t make empty promises. He says, “I have already done for you everything. I have already died for you. I have already been raised for you. I have already redeemed you. I have already loved you, and that love will never fail. I have paid a great price for you, and when you submit to me, all the other authorities in your life will have no hold over you. Sure, you will live in this world. You will need money and a home and food and clothing and a cell phone and law and order and government, but these things will no longer rule your heart. I will. And you will find that under me, you have freedom, and peace and security and safety because you know my great love.”
For love is central to Jesus’ authority–a deep and abiding love that is poured out for you and for me. This is why the Gospel in a nutshell is summed up by John 3:16-17. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world, but to save it.” May your heart be moved to submit to Jesus’ authority, for in it you will find freedom. Amen.