What is authority? Or as some of the Postmoderns today ask: “Is there any authority?” Is authority the mere power to impose values on others by force? Is authority someone who is knowledgeable about a certain subject?
The question of authority is important here because the common people who heard the Sermon on the Mount were amazed at Jesus’ teaching because they perceived that His message had authority in it. There was something about the person and teaching of Jesus that was different than the teaching of the Scribes and Pharisees. What made Jesus’ teaching so authoritative?
The place to start here is with the Scribes and Pharisees. Much of the Sermon on the Mount directly and openly challenged their teaching and practice. The Pharisees considered themselves the authority for interpreting the Law and the Prophets. They certainly knew more of what Scripture said than the common people, even if they were blind to its meaning. As authorities, they imposed their authority on others. They held their interpretation of Scripture over the people. They administered discipline in the synagogues like a Sharia Law court does in Islam. The people were kept in fear of the Pharisees and Scribes, even if some of them respected them for their learning.
The Pharisees looked down on the common people because of their “ignorance” of the Law. These “people of the land” needed to be controlled and guided because they were incapable of running their own lives. In other words, their attitude is similar to the current attitude in Washington, D.C. who think that Americans cannot act responsibly and need to be regulated for their own good.
When we look at the teaching of the Scribes and Pharisees, we discover that they were far from unanimous in their opinions on the Law and Prophets, just like the Supreme Court of the US rarely renders an unanimous decision. The Pharisees were broken into two camps, the conservatives and the liberals. The conservatives took to a more literal view of Scripture, whereas the liberals interpreted the Scripture to say what they thought it should mean if Moses were alive in their day. They held to a living law that changed and developed over time. In this, they act like the liberals on the Supreme Court who see the Constitution as being an outdated document which needs to be modernized by their interpretation to be made relevant. Of course, by doing so, they break the spirit of the Constitution because the Constitution has the means of amendment built into it. The Constitution is a document of the people to be understood by plain people. It was not written for lawyers. Yet the politicians in Washington do not believe that the people should have any power but should be dependent on the handouts.
The Scribes were the lawyers of Jesus’ day. They wanted complete control over the interpretation of the Scripture. The internal divisions the Scribes and Pharisees were internal to them just like the differences between Republicans and Democrats in Washington. But the one thing they have in common is that they distrust the American people and think they need to be ruled over for their own good. When the Tea Party arose in protest, Republicans were even more opposed to them than even the Democrats and did everything they could to slander them. Even though some of them might have been worthy of censure, the group of politicians in Washington ought to consider their own scandals.
The common people of Jesus’ day held similar feelings about their leaders. No one wants to be treated like a perpetual child. They would hear the bickering among the followers of Hillel and Shammai over the correct interpretation of the Law. This bickering caused confusion among them which destroyed their faith in the Law and the Prophets just like many Americans today are despondent about America. The interpretation of Scripture by the Pharisees made Holy Writ a matter of multiple choice. This of course led to partisanship. It also led to the justification of a person’s conduct because one could always site a Rabinnic authority who would agree with their view. Therefore, even though Scripture was held up formally in high esteem as the authority, the Scribes and Pharisees had stripped it of all authority but their own. In other words, they abused the Word of God to suit their own schemes.
Jesus came as a shock to the Scribes and Pharisees. He did not go to their Rabbinic schools. He did not have a seminary degree or a license to preach. He did not go through the proper channels of ordination. This of course was a direct challenge to Judaism. Besides the divisions among the Rabbi’s, there was also a huge rift between the priestly ruling class, the Sadducees and the Pharisees. There were also many splinter groups like the Zealots, the Hellenists, and the Essenes. They all hated each other. But the challenge Jesus presented to them united them to get rid of Jesus, or so they thought.
This sermon which was preached early in the ministry of Jesus also challenged the Scribes and Pharisees directly. He said that those who would follow Him must have a righteousness greater than the righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees if they were going to enter the Kingdom. They were the ones who failed to uphold every jot and tittle of the Law and Prophets and taught men so. Jesus said that they would be the least in the Kingdom which I feel is an understatement. They would not be in the Kingdom at all. In fact, they would be in hell, unless they repented and believed on Him. They are the ones that Jesus castigated for making long eloquent prayers in public as a show as well as disfiguring their faces to show they were fasting. They bragged about their almsgiving. The Scribes and Pharisees serve as the negative example throughout the greatest sermon that has ever been preached.
The common people, on the other hand, were far wiser than their rabbinic teachers. They recognized something in Jesus that the Scribes and Pharisees were totally ignorant of. They perceived the “Thus saith the Lord quality to Jesus’ words. They recognized Him as a man of true authority. They were the babes to whom God was pleased to reveal Jesus. The “common people” are far more literal in their understanding of things. They are less prone to twist words in lawyeresque fashion.
Jesus did not present the people with multiple choices on the interpretation of Scripture or even His own words. Scripture means what God intends it to mean. God is unchangeable, and so is everything which God says. Unlike the Constitution which needs to be updated, but only by its own method, God’s word never needs updating. Jesus states that He came to fulfill everything that was already written in Scripture. He did not come to change a single jot and tittle of what had already been written. Everything He said in the sermon is perfectly consistent with what was already written. This is why Jesus answers the rich man in hell in the Gospel of Luke by saying Lazarus did not need to go to the man’s brothers to warn them. They already had the Law and the Prophets.
The church today is beset by the same plague today as existed in the Israel of Jesus’ day. We have all kinds of denominational authorities, each with their own opinions of Scripture. This causes endless confusion amongst the members of the church. Even the most liberal will quote Scripture as an authority when it is convenient to buttress their teaching. Conservatives really do the same thing for the most part. Everyone likes to prooftext. Scripture is formally upheld as an authority, but its real authority is held hostage to the opinions of men. Many ministers of the church have left their humble work as servants and strut around their titles. These Reverend Doctor Wonderfuls go about like proud peacocks.
It has been nearly 500 years since the Protestant Reformation. I am sure there will be some sort of grand celebration in the Protestant churches on October 31, 2017. But I fear that this will be a hollow celebration. The Protestant churches have become the very church they protested against. The church of Luther’s day held the common people in check through ignorance. They were told only what the priests and Poe wanted them to know. The Doctors of the Church and the Magisterium held absolute authority over all matters of interpretation. Unauthorized possession of the Scripture was punishable by death which included being burnt alive on a stake. The church of that day was little better than that of those ISIS terrorists in Iraq today.
The church is drowning in its own irrelevance. In fact, it is trying to find its relevance by aping the philosophies of this world in a desperate attempt to exist. But the more they do so, the more irrelevant and dead the church will become. There is no sword or barbeque pit the church can use to compel obedience to its teaching. If the church becomes the world, then it has lost its saltiness and deserves to die. There is no need for a church like that.
What the church needs to do is to go back to the principles of the Reformation itself. Reformers like Martin Luther held to the self-authoritative Word of God as the rule of faith and practice. Luther believed in the clarity (einklarung) of Scripture. This means that it was understandable for the most part and certainly in its necessary parts by the common man. The common man only needed to be able to be taught to read so that they could appropriate the blessings the Bible has. The Bible was translated into the common languages, and church services were conducted in native tongues and not the Latin that only the educated people knew. The minister’s job was to see that common men and women were given the tools they needed to be able to read and understand the Scripture. The minister was to be a servant in the process, not lord over the flock.
We can only look at the great advances made in the city of Geneva, which was transformed by Calvin’s plain exposition of the Word of God from a crime ridden city. Instead of selling orphans as slaves, they were adopted. Schools for common people were established. Hospitals were built. Geneva became a great city on a hill. The wonderful results spread throughout Northern Europe and eventually to the British colonies in America. Much of the experiment in American democracy has its seeds in the Reformation itself.
It is a great tragedy that the church has forgotten what happened. An ignorant church is in slavery to its leaders as much Americans who are ignorant of their own history and constitutional rights are in servitude to a bunch of Washington lawyers who will only tell the common people what they want them to know. Of course, as a pastor, I am far more concerned over the decrepit state of affairs in the church, whose borders far transcend those of America. It is time for the Church of God to rise up and be the church again.
To what the clergy calls the “laypeople” I make the following admonition. Learn to read and study the Bible and ask the Holy Spirit to guide you through the process. Do not take Reverend Doctor So and So’s opinion without doing as the Bereans in the book of Acts did who studied the Scripture to see if the Apostle Paul was preaching the truth to them. Even the authority of the Apostle Paul was subject to the Scripture. Any true leader of the flock of God will not be offended if you will take the time to examine the Scripture for yourself. Jesus himself says in John says that the Scripture testifies of Him. If one will search the Scripture, then they will see the truth that sets one truly free, whether one is a prince, a pauper, or even a slave in this life. Your freedom in Christ is based upon your knowing Jesus, both personally as well as in the Scripture.
Do not let anyone enslave you through the chains of ignorance of God’s Word. At least here in America, it is not yet illegal to own a Bible. No one will burn you at the stake for reading it. If you will not take the time to read and pray over the Word of God for yourself, then be willing to embrace your chains. Prayerfully seek godly and competent people to help guide you in the process. You should have a pastor who is himself subject to the authority of Scripture who will uphold it as the very Word of God. This is not to say that any pastor is perfect, not by a long shot.
The common people heard Jesus gladly because He spoke as one having authority. When your pastor speaks, do you feel the “Thus saith the Lord” authority. Or do you hear the authority of the Scribes and Pharisees. Some of the Pharisees were no doubt very wise and eloquent speakers. The power of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is not the greatest sermon ever preached because of its eloquence. It is certainly eloquent, but what makes it stand out is its authority.
We must believe that it is God Himself who has to awaken us to the understanding of Scripture. It is not the eloquence or wisdom of any preacher or teacher. The reason the common people understood what the educated Scribes and Pharisees could not has to reside in the secret counsel of God. This mystery of election is beyond our understanding, even though Scripture clearly teaches it. All I can say about it here is that if you are His, then the Holy Spirit will drive you to the Word of God and will bring you to sufficient understanding of it.
The Scripture says that you have been “bought with a price”. Do not allow yourself to become slaves to the opinions of others. Rather resolve to make yourself a servant to the authority of Scripture and God who breathed it.