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By What Authority?

Luke 20:1 -- 26

Lesson audio

The question of authority is one which transcends the technology of any given time. The authority of the Christ is shown here – by which he puts governments in their place.

Concept of Authority

On one of the days while He was teaching the people in the temple and preaching the gospel, the chief priests and the scribes with the elders confronted Him, and they spoke, saying to Him, "Tell us by what authority You are doing these things, or who is the one who gave You this authority?" Jesus answered and said to them, "I will also ask you a question, and you tell Me: "Was the baptism of John from heaven or from men?" They reasoned among themselves, saying, "If we say, 'From heaven,' He will say, 'Why did you not believe him?' "But if we say, 'From men,' all the people will stone us to death, for they are convinced that John was a prophet." So they answered that they did not know where it came from. And Jesus said to them, "Nor will I tell you by what authority I do these things."

(Luk 20:1-8 NASB)

While this shows the deep understanding that Christ has concerning our human nature, it also shows us one salient fact: people seek authority, either to do things for them, or to do things in them. The authority of the Roman (or Jewish) government is different from the authority of John the Baptist which is different from the authority of Christ.

The moral aspect of authority

Authority, if it is to succeed in its ends, needs power. It is impossible for an amoral power to stay in authority very long – because the people needed to sustain that power will not do so if they are convinced that the authority has no moral right to rule. In Nazi Germany the Fuehrer was obeyed willingly; the people saw him as the one who would save Germany from disgrace. In occupied France, authority grew only out of the barrel of a gun.

Often, such moral authority grows in power as people become convinced of its righteousness. Martin Luther King Sr. was a fine preacher in Atlanta; his son took his dream and turned it into reality by the force of moral authority. Force was often opposed to his dream, but in the end its moral righteousness prevailed. A parallel in the Bible would be found in many of the Old Testament prophets – except Jonah.

Expert authority

Some people exercise authority by virtue of their knowledge. We allow our doctors to prescribe that which would be dangerous in ignorant hands. You take the tax preparer’s word for any number of government regulations. Indeed, even a prophet fits in this category – for he had access to visions of what would be. Knowledge gives power – and authority.

Authority by position

When you see those flashing red lights in your rear view mirror, you pull over. The authority of the policeman comes from the position he has, not his own, personal authority. Those who are students of history know that kings were supposed to be born to such authority. Many times war broke out over which branch of the family inherited the divine right to be king.


Do you not see that Christ has all three types of authority?

  • It is a moral righteousness intrinsic to the author of righteousness, the only one fit to be the Lamb of God.
  • It is an expert righteousness, too. We ask the prophet or the stock broker to tell us the future; Christ holds the future.
  • It is a righteousness of position. Heir to the throne of David, seated on the throne of God, there is no higher position in mankind.

All authority is his.[1] As we shall see, there are consequences for those who reject that authority.

Fate of Rejection

And He began to tell the people this parable: "A man planted a vineyard and rented it out to vine-growers, and went on a journey for a long time. "At the harvest time he sent a slave to the vine-growers, so that they would give him some of the produce of the vineyard; but the vine-growers beat him and sent him away empty-handed. "And he proceeded to send another slave; and they beat him also and treated him shamefully and sent him away empty-handed. "And he proceeded to send a third; and this one also they wounded and cast out. "The owner of the vineyard said, 'What shall I do? I will send my beloved son; perhaps they will respect him.' "But when the vine-growers saw him, they reasoned with one another, saying, 'This is the heir; let us kill him so that the inheritance will be ours.' "So they threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. What, then, will the owner of the vineyard do to them? "He will come and destroy these vine-growers and will give the vineyard to others." When they heard it, they said, "May it never be!" But Jesus looked at them and said, "What then is this that is written: 'THE STONE WHICH THE BUILDERS REJECTED, THIS BECAME THE CHIEF CORNER stone'? "Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces; but on whomever it falls, it will scatter him like dust." The scribes and the chief priests tried to lay hands on Him that very hour, and they feared the people; for they understood that He spoke this parable against them.

(Luk 20:9-19 NASB)

The Stumbling Stone

The point of the parable was immediately obvious to the people as well as the Pharisees. But let us make it clear to modern eyes:

  • The stone is Christ. Those who stumble over it – those with the broken and contrite heart – are indeed broken, as well we know. Such are acceptable to the King of Kings.
  • Those who refuse – and we shall see that this means the Jews – find that the stone (Christ) falls on them, and scatters them.
  • About forty years later, this is exactly what happens to the Jews. The Gospel is spreading amidst the Gentiles; God shatters the Jewish nation and sends them into dispersion and exile, not to be returned until 1947.

Indeed, we have stumbled upon (pun intended) a great element of prophecy. A brief review is in order:

  • The stone is pictured in Daniel[2] as the smiting stone which will shatter the fourth empire (the Roman Empire ). The stone is shown to be a picture of Christ and his church.
  • It is shown in Isaiah[3] to be the stone of stumbling in a clearly Messianic passage.
  • Later in Isaiah[4] the stone is the chief cornerstone.

It’s laid out in prophecy; let us see the fulfillment.

Fate of the Jews

It is a simple fact: the Jews, so solidly part of the Roman Empire, are surrounded by Roman armies in AD 70. The city of Jerusalem is taken by force. The inhabitants flee for their lives, never to return. The Romans take particular care to sacrifice a pig on the altar of God, thus defiling the Temple. The Jews have been wanderers ever since then, only returning to Palestine in 1947. The date figures heavily in the interpretation of prophecy, but we will not attempt that here.

The interesting thing about it is that the Jews rejected Christ, and so began the time honored custom of contempt the world has for the Jews. It is well for Christians to remember that while God would often use a heathen nation to punish Israel, he then accused that nation of willingly assaulting the people of God – and He punished them too. The principle is not without its evidence today.

The Jews rejected Christ; but there is no evil permitted by God out of which He cannot bring a greater good. In this instance, they rejected the Gospel – which lead to the Gospel being preached around the world.

Church and State

We come now to the relationship of the Christian to authority –which in our time is categorized by the struggle between church and state. Christ in this passage gives us the simple rule of thumb to be used.

So they watched Him, and sent spies who pretended to be righteous, in order that they might catch Him in some statement, so that they could deliver Him to the rule and the authority of the governor. They questioned Him, saying, "Teacher, we know that You speak and teach correctly, and You are not partial to any, but teach the way of God in truth. "Is it lawful for us to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?" But He detected their trickery and said to them, "Show Me a denarius. Whose likeness and inscription does it have?" They said, "Caesar's." And He said to them, "Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's." And they were unable to catch Him in a saying in the presence of the people; and being amazed at His answer, they became silent.

(Luk 20:20-26 NASB)

Rendering unto Caesar

May we begin with the obvious? It is the duty of the Christian in most places and most times to uphold and obey the government.[5] Why?

  • First, because God has ordained such governments, even to the point of bringing a conqueror to the Jews and taking them into exile.[6]
  • As history has shown, the spread of the Gospel is most pronounced in time of peace. One reason that the 19th century saw such an explosion of missionary efforts is the Pax Britannica (and the Victorian Christians who upheld it).
  • Indeed, so important is good government that Paul tells us to pray for those in authority over us.[7]

But what about an evil government?

Evil in government

The principle for the Christian when faced with an evil regime is well known – and seldom followed. Revolutions are so much more fun.

  • We are to bear up when suffering for the right.[8] The suffering shows the strength of our faith to all who will see.
  • We are to serve God whether or not he rescues us by divine providence. Look again at the story of the Hebrew children and the fiery furnace – they didn’t know that God would rescue them – they were content to be martyrs for God.[9]
  • Indeed, we must recognize that suffering for the faith gives us the opportunity to present the Gospel to those who otherwise would not hear.

The principle is simple: do not overcome evil with evil, but overcome evil with good.

Christian life in a democracy

Paul never experienced a democracy as we understand it; nor Luke. So it is unlikely that they would have thought through the difficulties of a modern, American Christian. It is clear that there are some additional obligations for the democratic Christian. For some, there is the call to enter politics. Certainly there is the sense that Christians are to vote, for this upholds and honors the government.

The difficulty comes in this: there is such a thing as national guilt. Elijah was told that there was a remnant in Israel – but the remnant suffered the famine along with the rest of the population. We live in a society shaped in many ways by the common people in it. We therefore have a duty to change the government to reflect, as best as it can, the principles by which it will continue to stand, and standing, to rule in righteousness. At the very least we should suffer for the faith as the occasion demands; some of us will be called to bring the Gospel to a hostile nation.

Case in Point: America

It is with a naïve innocence that Americans assume that they are the answer to everyone else’s problems. Americans – particularly political conservatives – are prone to state that what we have, everyone should have. For example, our foray into Iraq has as one of its objectives the establishment of a liberal (old sense) democracy. In short English, we think we’ve found the answer – and we are unblushing in our attempt to convince the rest of the world. This seems to many in the world to be pure arrogance. It is not; it’s just that we think we have found the answer and we’d like to share it. Sometimes, at gun point.

But we should beware of the examples given us in Scripture. Our Founding Fathers were almost entirely devout Christians; they held it essential for this form of government that the people need be Christians. It is clear that this is no longer the case. We assume that democracy will spread over the world; parts of the world are very resistant to democracy – for they see the religion of the democracies. Others see inside that – and ask how democracy is good for them when the society it produces can be sodden with so much sin.

Will America collapse, like all the other empires before her? I cannot say; but I can tell you from the past that decay comes from within. If the world’s last superpower falls, it will be from within.

Will it fall? If example means anything, let America read the Old Testament and see how God treated those who were his people when they left him. The remnant remained; but the nation was punished. Some think this alarmist. But let me remind you of what has happened in my lifetime. When I grew up, divorce was preached as immoral, except for adultery. Since then the church (as a whole) no longer speaks about divorce. When the church said that adultery is wrong, no one listened then, either. So the church stopped talking about it. To the point that the congregation gasped when the preacher said, “Sex outside of marriage is wrong.” We condemned divorce; now we accept it. We condemned adultery; now we accept it. We condemn homosexuality; but it’s clear that this won’t last very long. The next step is pedophilia. Would you care to speculate about that debate?

[1] Matthew 28:18

[2] Daniel 2:34-35

[3] Isaiah 8:13-15

[4] Isaiah 28:16

[5] Romans 13:1-7

[6] Jeremiah 27:5-8

[7] 1 Timothy 2:1-3

[8] 1 Peter 2:19

[9] Daniel 3:17-18

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