By What Authority?
Luke has just given extensive coverage of the Triumphal Entry on Palm Sunday. (See sermon: “It’s My Party, and I’ll Cry if I Want To”) So why does Luke give only one verse to the cleansing of the Temple when Matthew and especially Mark give extensive coverage? And if the Temple Cleansing in John 2 is the same as the one in the other gospels, all of the other evangelists consider the importance of the cleansing of the Temple. We do know from the first chapter of Luke that he consulted other accounts of Jesus’ life, and most scholars consider one of these sources to be the Gospel of Mark.
We must understand that the writers of Holy Writ did not write of their own initiative but were moved by the Holy Spirit. And Luke talks about the Person and work of the Holy Spirit extensively in the gospel and Acts. So when we say why did Luke choose to summarize the cleansing, we would be better to ask, “Why did the Holy Spirit direct Luke in such matter? We do know the Spirit uses human personalities in the writing of Scripture. The Gospels then provide independent witnesses of the life of Jesus. So in them, we are given four portraits of Jesus. It takes more than a single picture to describe who Jesus is. So the gospels present Jesus from slightly different emphases to provide us a richer biography of Jesus.
In a sense, the gospels also fulfill the role of witness. The Law required that testimony be established by at least two or three witnesses. If multiple witnesses of an event were to give verbatim testimony, then any rational person would conclude that the testimony was invalid because it was rehearsed. Because the testimony is identical, then it really is one witness and not the two or three required. What is important about testimony is that the witnesses agree on the major details, while at the same time showing their independence by including different details. So with Matthew, Mark, and Luke, we see three similar portraits of Jesus with the expected personal details which makes for valid testimony. There is unity in the essentials, and diversity in minor details and emphases. John does vary quite a bit more that the other three, but presents much rich detail about Jesus. One could consider John to be the Paul Harvey of the gospels “The rest of the story”.
So if the other writers give more attention to the act of cleansing, what is Luke trying to emphasize here in the passage? We must look at the context here for the clue. Luke is the only gospel which tells about Jesus’ weeping over Jerusalem and its upcoming destruction because they refused to receive Him. So Jesus comes to the Temple as already having been rejected. Luke shows us that the cheering crowds on Palm Sunday were clueless to the mission of the Messiah. They waved the palm branches of political deliverance from Rome. The Pharisees give proof of this by asking Jesus to silence the crowds. When the crowd realizes that Jesus has a different agenda than theirs, they ask for Barabbas instead and shout for the crucifixion of Jesus.
After the brief account of the cleansing of the Temple, Luke mentions that Jesus taught daily in the Temple. In other words, Jesus was demonstrating the real purpose of the Temple. The people needed to be properly instructed in the ways of God. This is emphasized more than the sacrificial cultus there. The Pharisees had the same idea as Jesus in this matter. They were at odds with the Sadducees and even at one point had supported opposite sides in a way between the Selucids and Ptolemys. They saw the synagogue as the place to teach the Law to enlighten the common people. They like Jesus saw the priesthood as absolutely corrupt. They probably would not have minded much about the cleansing of the Temple. Of course, the Sadducees would be outraged and want Jesus’ head.
But what the Pharisees could not accept about Him was His teaching. Jesus had castigated the teaching of the Scribes and Pharisees from the beginning like John the Baptist had before Him. The common people who heard the Sermon on the Mount were amazed at Jesus’ authority. It was superior to that of the Scribes and Pharisees. So jealousy added to their indignation.
So we see an unusual partnership of enemies rise up about Jesus. The Sadducean priesthood came against Jesus for His visceral attack on the Temple, which was a direct challenge to their authority as priests. As the Scribes usually are associated with the Pharisees, they would have challenges the authority of Jesus to teach the common people. After all, Jesus had not been certified by them as a Rabbi. He was no seminary graduate. The common ground of getting rid of Jesus outweighed their great divisions.
So the Sadducean priests and the Pharisaic Scribes came together to challenge Jesus’ authority. They asked Him who gave Him the authority to cleanse the Temple and to teach the people there? This was the voice of outrage. They saw that Jesus was making divine claims about Himself and were hoping to trap Him into making the claim directly so that they might accuse Him of blasphemy and have Him arrested.
There would be a time for Jesus to make that claim before the Sanhedrin at His trial. This was not the time. It was determined by God that Jesus would die a few days later as the Passover Lamb, being crucified at the time of the morning sacrifice and dying at the time of the evening sacrifice on the day before Passover or on the Passover day itself. (It is hard to be certain of this from the Gospels.) The timing of Jesus’ death was entirely within the sovereignty of God and not of man. Neither the Scribes nor Sadducees would have chosen to destroy Jesus on the Passover, a holiday. This came to pass by the Divine hand at the Divine time. They would get their wish to kill Jesus, but not quite yet.
Jesus, knowing the timetable, did not answer the challenge of authority directly. Instead, also knowing that the Scribes and Sadducees feared the wrath of the people who held to every word Jesus spoke as well as holding to their belief that John the Baptists was a prophet, answers this challenge with one of His own. He asks them about the authority of John the Baptist. Did John receive his authority to baptize from God or from men? Was John a prophet because God said he was, an authority recognized by the very common people the Scribes and Pharisees considered to be ignorant and in need of their teaching and guidance? Or was John a self-proclaimed prophet who deceived the people?
The Scribes and Sadducees were afraid to answer the question directly. The Scripture say that this was because they feared the people. This implies that their refusal was not based upon some sort of equivocation on their part as though they were unsure of the answer. They certainly did not believe John. To confess that John was a prophet means that they would have to believe John’s message. And just what was John’s message? Was it not that he was preparing the way for Jesus the Messiah? Did not John identify Jesus of Nazareth as such? Was there not additional testimony of the voice from heaven and the descent of the Holy Spirit to affirm john’s testimony? Did not John call the people to repentance? Did not John testify that the Pharisees were a brood of vipers? If they believed John, would they not have repented?
They Scribes and Sadducees must have taken a timeout to deliberate how to answer Jesus. They anticipated how Jesus would respond if they affirmed the testimony of John the Baptist. They also anticipated what would happen if they denied that John was a prophet. They would at least lose face before the people who upheld the prophethood of John the Baptist. They may have even feared mob violence against them. The common people for the most part despised the Sadducees but respected the Pharisees. So the Sadducees probably feared mob violence and the Pharisees the loss of face before the people they claimed to guide. So they agreed to say that they could not tell. It was a most unsatisfactory answer. The Pharisees had to admit blindness on the matter, so how could they claim to be competent to teach about the things of God. But it was the safest answer.
Jesus answer to them was that He would not tell them, at least now. If they could not discern whether John the Baptist was a prophet, how could they possibly discern the person of Jesus? John the Baptist made no divine claims about himself. He was just a prophet whose testimony was about the Coming One. But Jesus had publicly made these claims about Himself. If they could not discern the authority of a mere man, John the Baptist, even though he was a prophet, how could they possibly be competent to judge the claims of Jesus?
So Jesus walks away. To put it in the Apostle John’s words, it was not His “hour”. Jesus goes on with His Father’s business.
The question of the authority of Jesus is still pertinent today. In addition to the testimony of John the Baptist, we have the testimony of the Old Testament about Him. We have the testimony of the Gospels? We have the testimony of the Apostles. We have the testimony of the rest of the New Testament. We have the testimony of the Holy Spirit in the believer. Finally, we have the testimony of the Church.
What is the authority of Jesus? Was Jesus some apocalyptic crackpot like Albert Schweitzer claimed? Or was Jesus a teacher who was ahead of His times and was crucified in the name of religious hatred? Is there a difference between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith? Or was Jesus who He claimed to be, the Son of God?
All of the answers but the last are claims that the source of Jesus’ authority was that of man. He may have been “inspired” in the lesser sense of the word like many inspiring people in human history like Buddha or Socrates. Some might say he was the greatest of those born among men. They might marvel at His teaching. But these claims fall short of the Jesus’ own claims about Himself.
If Jesus was just a man, then one can pick and choose what is authoritative about His teaching, whether little or much. But if Jesus is who He claims to be, then what folly is it to reject Him? After all, Jesus made a claim that He would judge all the earth at the Last Day. He claimed to have power over the final destiny, heaven or hell, of every individual. When the choice is to repent and believe the Gospel and be saved or reject it and be eternally condemned, how could one who believed in Jesus’ testimony and the church’s testimony about Him and reject the Gospel. This is proof of unbelief.
Like Jesus’ day, the churches of various stripes are full of unbelievers. Many of them are the leaders of these denominations who see themselves as the guides of the blind. They want to be seen as authorities, an authority they jealously guard. They have an insatiable lust for power and influence, the marks and curse of the fallen man. They sneer at what they perceive as ignorance of the church members who dare to believe Scripture as Divine Writ. They stand up to oppose the common people. As they fear losing their well-paid positions of influence, they are careful to nuance their unbelief in doublespeak. They use the classic words of the Church, but redefine them. When they use terms like “salvation”, they mean something entirely different than what the “common” believers do. They thus avoid trying to be pinned down one way or another on this vital decision.
God hides His message from the self-proclaimed “wise and prudent” and reveals it to babes. This seemed good in the sight of God. The common person who believes the Gospel is far wiser than these skeptics and agnostics. It is interesting that the Latin for the Greek “agnostic” is “ignoramus”. Yet while it is considered to be a badge of honor on their part to be agnostic, the truth is that God see them as ignoramuses.
I leave you with this question, “By what authority did Jesus do and teach?”