23 And when he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came up to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” 24 Jesus answered them, “I also will ask you one question, and if you tell me the answer, then I also will tell you by what authority I do these things.25 The baptism of John, from where did it come? From heaven or from man?” And they discussed it among themselves, saying, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ 26 But if we say, ‘From man,’ we are afraid of the crowd, for they all hold that John was a prophet.” 27 So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things. Matt. 21:24-27
It’s the stuff of sleepovers and camp-outs. Along with a scary story or perhaps a campfire song, you just might play a game called “Truth or Consequences.” As I know it, everyone in the circle gets a chance to be the leader. The leader asks a question which everyone else in the group must answer. If you refuse to answer, your punishment is the daring consequence which the leader invents. The truth to tell might be: what’s the name of the first boy or girl you ever kissed. The consequence might be to eat a bug. Some people are really hard core with embarrassing questions and tough consequences; others are more light-hearted about the game. It’s a game for getting to know each other’s secrets – and for seeing what people are willing to do to keep them secret.
In our Gospel lesson, we heard about the chief priests and the religious leaders of the Jewish people confronting Jesus as He was teaching in the temple. It seems they thought they were playing truth or consequences themselves. They were asking Jesus about the truth, but thinly veiled under that they were threatening Him with consequences. They, after all, were in control of the temple. What right did Jesus have to enter their space and do all the things He was doing – casting out the money changers, healing, teaching in their courts without asking any permission? He had waltzed into the temple as if He owned the place, as if He were God or something.
Of course, that’s exactly what we say and know to be true. Jesus is the Son of God, our Savior and our Lord. We know this answer for ourselves. He had the authority to be teaching in the temple and all the rest. The question for us is what authority does Jesus have in our lives? Do we do more than say that “Jesus is Lord” – do we believe it? What are the consequences of this truth in our lives?
The chief priests and religious leaders had their own answer to the question of the lordship of Jesus. Even before asking Him the question, they had already made up their minds. To them, He was an imposter, a trouble-maker, a nobody from the country who just happened to have the charm to win over the ignorant crowds. They ask for his credentials as a way to play truth AND consequences with him: Whatever He says He thinks to be truth, they’ll hand out consequences to Him. If He says that He is sent from God, they’ll charge Him with blasphemy; if He says He’s there on His own authority, they’ll remind him that they are the ones in charge of the temple. If He were to say that He acts on His own authority as God in the flesh, it might be that the crowds themselves would turn on Jesus and stone Him for what would have counted as heresy among them.
In other contexts, Jesus answers this question clearly. Often in the Gospel of John, we hear Jesus explaining that He was sent by the Father, He speaks the Father’s words, He does the Father’s works. He indicates His divinity as He tells His disciples that He and the Father are one and that “before Abraham was, I AM.” But here He just answers their question with another question of His own, promising them that if they answer He will answer as well. In point of fact, if they can answer His question, they will have also answered their own. “The Baptism of John – was it from heaven or from men?” What was John’s authority? Divine or human? The question about Jesus could be answered with an answer about John.
Still, that was a loaded question. Just like their question to Jesus, their answer to Jesus’ question to them would have serious consequences. And they figure this out pretty quickly. John had a blessed ministry in Palestine. Thousands upon thousands went out to hear Him preach. The Bible even uses a bit of rhetorical exaggeration to make the point about the impact, as it says that “all the country of Judea and all Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins” (Mk 1:5). Hearts were touched; lives were changed. People heard his call to repent of their sins and prepare for the coming Savior. They received baptism to indicate that they were renouncing their past and beginning new lives in faith toward God and in stricter obedience to His will. After centuries of silence when no prophetic word spoken in the name of God, this voice of one crying in the wilderness had arisen and he was declaring that the very next one to appear on the scene would be the Savior: and that’s when Jesus appeared. Those who heard and believed John and accepted his authority would recognize and submit to the authority of Jesus whom he proclaimed. The logic was elementary.
But Jesus’ question reveals the true colors of the religious leaders. They’re not interested in truth after all. They’re playing politics. They want this rival preacher from Galilee out of the way, but preferably at no cost their own power, prestige and reputation. They had already heard and rejected John and his message for themselves. They didn’t figure they needed any repentance. They counted themselves God’s people, the leaders of God’s people, and above reproach. In their own hearts, they had become their own authority and they didn’t have ears for anyone else to tell them otherwise. But in this, their authority becomes a sham. They claim to be leaders of God’s people, representatives of God, but they fear to tell their own judgment of John lest they lose the respect of the crowds. Those who truly have God’s authority – people like John the Baptist and Jesus – they speak the truth no matter the consequences. But those who depend on human judgment and approval for their authority must ever pander to the people, calculate the risks of any statement, and keep up their image at all costs.
What about us? To have Jesus in your life is to live with Someone who has divine authority. To truly know Christ as Lord is to recognize this authority and to submit to Him. One reason we come to accept the authority of Jesus is indeed because He came as John had said, indeed, as all the prophets of God had said. All the Old Testament was pointing forward to Him and He came and fulfilled what they had predicted. If the Bible is true, He is true. The authority of Jesus and the authority of the Bible are one and the same. It is all His Word. If He is true, it is true.
Here, I think, is where we meet our own test, our own version of truth or consequences in the face of the Lord’s authority. What do we do with the Bible, particularly when we come across Scripture passages we find hard to accept or challenging to believe? Will we accept the miracles as they are told? Who wins when it seems that the Bible and science are at odds? The Bible teaches a morality which our society does not accept, especially on the topic of life issues, marriage and sexuality. Where does the final authority lie? There are many denominations today which qualify the authority of the Bible on all kinds of topics. I thank God that we belong to a church body which confesses every word of the Bible to be true without qualification. That’s as it should be. But what do each of us do, personally, with the authority of the Lord and the authority of His Word in our lives? Do we let Him have the final word or do we waffle between doubts. Do we let others decide for us what’s true or false, right or wrong? Do we cut short our obedience even when we know what Jesus says and what He wants from us?
In this, we are not that different than the chief priests of Jesus’ day. There will be social consequences for living all-out as a follower of Jesus. Those who live out the truth of His lordship will taste those consequences. Or, we may not be pandering to the crowds but we may be catering to ourselves. What, after all, would be the consequences if we completely acknowledged the reality of Jesus’ lordship in our lives? Our self-serving would have to give way to serving Him. Our defenses and excuses would all collapse. We would be exposed and vulnerable before the One whose word is final and whose power is absolute. We would no longer be our own but only His, completely and fully His.
But what could be better than this? Jesus tells us in John 10:18 what He does with His authority: He goes to the cross to be our Savior. “No one takes my life from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father.” He is a man on a mission from God; He is God on a mission for man. He is both and He has all authority and all the authority He needs to get His job done.
When we hear the message of John that we should repent of our sins, this comes into our lives with divine authority to turn us from our sins. When we hear the message of Jesus that we should believe the good news, this too comes with full authority. With His authoritative good news, He forgives our sins and our sins are truly forgiven. He promises eternal life, and we truly receive it by His power. We have the One in our lives who truly has divine authority to deal decisively with the devil, with our sins and with death. These are the consequences of His authority for us: on the authority of Jesus, we are truly saved by our mighty Lord. And as a consequence of His authority, we can end our games of personal politics and people-pleasing, stop the manipulation and the show. We can lay down our own pretense at trying to be king of our own lives. We know the truth which He authoritatively declares. We can live in this truth, free from fear because we are safe under our Lord’s care. He’s the one, the only one, whose judgment matters and He’s the only one we seek to please. He’s the one we believe; He’s the one we follow; and it is His Word, all of His Word, which will guide us along that way.