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Responding to Authority

October 1, 2023 |Responding to Authority|Matthew 21:23-32

JD Cutler

For the sermon audio, click here

As we continue to journey through the book of Matthew, we come to the beginning of Jesus’ final week of earthly ministry before the cross.

We left off last week with Jesus in the area of Judea. Immediately after the parable of the laborers in the vineyard we looked at last week, Matthew says that as Jesus was going up to Jerusalem he took the twelve aside, and on the way he told them for the third time he was going to be delivered over, condemned to death, mocked, flogged, and crucified, and be raised on the third day.

Chapter 21 of Matthew brings us to the edge of Jerusalem.

Jesus sends two disciples ahead of him to secure a donkey.

And so begins what is commonly called the Triumphal entry.

Jesus rides into Jerusalem sitting on a donkey and the people spread their cloaks on the road and spread palm branches on the road and great crowds surround him shouting ‘Hosanna to the Son of David, Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest’

What a picture!

It seems like the people are ready to accept Jesus as the Messiah, the anointed one, their king.

And then the scene quickly changes. Jesus enters the temple and we find an altogether different image of Jesus. One of the least popular and least talked about images of our Lord.

He starts overturning tables and driving out merchants, flipping over chairs and driving out anyone who would buy or sell there.

Having cleansed the temple, he begins receiving the blind and the lame, healing them of their afflictions to which the children once again shout “Hosanna to the Son of David!”

After a brief encounter with the chief priests and scribes, he leaves and goes out of the city and stays in Bethany.

What a first day in the city!

This is the backdrop for our text this morning.

Jesus comes back to the temple the next day and begins teaching in it.

It is here where we will pick up this morning in Matthew 21 at verse 23 looking at the issue of authority, specifically, how we should respond to authority.

This morning we are going to look at three questions to evaluate your response to authority as we examine this story in Matthew.

The first question is…

How are you at recognizing authorities in your life?

Matthew 21:23-27 (ESV) 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.

Matthew specifically names the chief priests and the elders of the people in the group that approaches Jesus. Mark and Luke also mention the scribes as being present. These three groups form the highest authority for the Jewish people, the court of the Sanhedrin. This is most likely an official delegate from the Sanhedrin sent to confront Jesus for his actions over the last couple of days.

Let’s look at the two questions the religious leaders ask Jesus, which are related but different.

By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?

The first deals with the quality of his authority- what is his claim to authority? Why does he think he can do the things he has been doing?

The second deals with the source of his authority- where did it come from? Who authorized him?

As it stands at this moment, this group of Jewish religious leaders do not recognize that Jesus possessed any authority and they want to know why he is acting like he has some.

In their minds, the things he has been doing, accepting worship in the Triumphal entry, cleansing the temple by driving out those selling and buying in the temple, by turning over the tables of the money changers, by setting up a healing ministry in the midst of the temple for the blind and the lame, and accepting the cries of the children when they cried out ‘Hosanna to the Son of David’, these things required an authority that they did not believe he had.

It’s also important to note, that they weren’t genuinely interested in whether or not he had authority, or if he was right to be doing these things, rather this seems like a way to trap him.

If he says that his authority came from men, they would remind the people that they were the authority and they had given him none. If he claimed that his authority was from God, they would accuse him of blasphemy. They feel like they have backed him into a corner, which of course is never how these encounters go for them, is it?

Jesus responds with a question for them. Jesus is not avoiding the question, rather he is employing a common rabbinical technique where a question is answered with a question that gets to the core issue behind the question. If they answer his question, they will have the answer to their question. Right?

John testified of Jesus, so if his ministry was from heaven, they would understand where Jesus’ authority came from. If they dismissed John’s ministry as from men, they would have their answer concerning Jesus’ authority.

The real question Jesus is asking is, can you recognize authority when you see it?

John had come on the scene calling the Jewish people to repent and prepare for the Messiah. Those that did, were baptized by John. So when Jesus says, John’s baptism, was it from heaven or from man, he is not just talking about the act of baptism, but the totality of John’s ministry. Did they recognize the authority John had or not? Should they have listened to him or not?

What about you, how are you at recognizing authority in your life?

We know that everyone has varying authorities operating in their lives all the time.

Right students? You have parents, teachers, principles, coaches

Right adults? Employers, police officers, the IRS, higher ranking officers

Are you ever tempted to ask similar questions as these religious leaders when you come up against authorities in your life?

Who gave you this right? Why do you think you can criticize me? Why do you think you can bother me? Who made you the boss?

The religious leaders felt like they were the authorities in the lives of the Jewish people and they refused to recognize the authority of Jesus or John before him. The questions they now ask Jesus they first asked John. The Gospel writer John records the Pharisees as sending delegates to John the Baptist to ask him why he was doing what he was doing. Essentially, what authority he was operating under.

This was the problem Jesus was highlighting with his question.

Unless they recognized the authority in front of them they could not respond to it in any meaningful way. Why couldn’t they recognize the authority in front of them?

Because doing so would mean they had to respond to it. Doesn’t their huddle up conversation say as much?

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.”

They are in quite the dilemma. If they acknowledge that John’s ministry, which by the way, had all the evidence as something that had come from heaven, this like multitudes of people turning from sin in repentance and turning to God, of people walking away from sinful lifestyles, of taking care of other people around them, from tax collectors, to soldiers, to prostitutes, then they understand the implications. He will say, why then did we not recognize his authority and believe him when he rebuked us and called us to repentance?

If they deny all the evidence to the contrary and say that John didn’t have any real authority, then they risk the crowds rising up against them, because the general consensus is that John was a prophet. Either way their own authority is on the line.

If they say John’s ministry was from heaven then they put their own authority against that of God’s.

If they say John’s ministry was from earth then they put themselves above John and put themselves against the crowd and lose credibility and thus authority in the eyes of the people.

So they simply say, we do not know. Which leads Jesus to say, well if you cannot figure that out then you certainly aren’t ready for the conversation about where my authority comes from. (My paraphrase)

What is keeping you from recognizing the authorities God has placed in your life?

Pride, stubbornness?

Regardless, we must understand, refusing to recognize authority doesn’t release you from it, it simply means you will fail to respond to it correctly. If it is a genuine authority, its authority is not derived from your recognition. John’s ministry did not have less authority because the religious leaders failed to recognize it, neither did Jesus’.

This is where Jesus goes next. Jesus presses beyond their inability to recognize authority and gives a parable about how we respond to authorities in our lives. This brings us to our second question.

What is your response to authorities in your life?

Matthew 21:28-31a (ESV) 28 “What do you think? A man had two sons. And he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ 29 And he answered, ‘I will not,’ but afterward he changed his mind and went. 30 And he went to the other son and said the same. And he answered, ‘I go, sir,’ but did not go. 31 Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.”

Jesus uses a universally recognizable authority to make his point.

A man had two sons...

In every culture that I know of, a father has authority over his sons, but especially in a primarily patriarchal society like the first century Jews, a father’s authority was a foundational authority.

By using this example, Jesus sets aside the issue of recognizing authority and gets to the issue of responding to it.

In Jesus’ parable a man goes to his first son and says, son, go and work in the vineyard today.

For what we know, this was a reasonable request from an appropriate authority. How does he respond?

I will not. The idea is ‘I don’t want to’. Parents, have you ever gotten that kind of response from your kids?

The son dismisses his father’s command.

Let’s leave the first son for a minute and look at the second.

The Father goes to his other son and says the same, go and work in the vineyard today. How does he respond? I go, sir. The text literally reads, ‘my Lord!’

Absolutely, you are the authority, you are the boss.

Which one recognized the authority of the father? The second of course. But Jesus doesn’t just tell us what they said, he tells us what they did.

The first son after saying, I don’t feel like it, or I don’t want to, afterward changed his mind and went.

Literally repented, and went. Despite his initial rebellion, he changes his mind and therefore his course and he goes into the vineyard to work.

The second son after saying, ‘Absolutely sir, right away!’ doesn’t go. We aren’t told why. If something more important came up, if he knew from the start he wasn’t going to obey and just wanted the father to think he was, but whatever the reason, he didn't go.

Jesus asks the question, which one did the will of the father? They of course, rightly say, the first. The one who actually did what the father asked, not the one who merely said he would.

Now we won’t spend much time here, because we understand this, right? Actions speak louder than words . Obedience is seen in performance not promises. Words do not count, deeds do.

When we ask our kids to do something, when we ask our employees to do something, we expect them to actually do it, not just say they will.

Jesus pointed out the disconnect between what the Pharisees said they would do and what they actually did earlier in Matthew. We referenced this story on Wednesday night in our Bible story.

Matthew 15:3-9 (ESV) “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? 4 For God commanded, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’ 5 But you say, ‘If anyone tells his father or his mother, “What you would have gained from me is given to God,” 6 he need not honor his father.’ So for the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God. 7 You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said:

8 “‘This people honors me with their lips,

but their heart is far from me;

9 in vain do they worship me,

teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’”

Jesus, quoting Isaiah, says the problem is when we honor God with our lips, but our heart, or our actions, say that we are far from him.

Here in this parable Jesus gives us a great example of what that looks like with the second son. Quick to say yes, Lord. Quick to affirm the authority but unmoved by it.

Let’s make this uncomfortably personal for a minute.

This is a huge problem in the church today. We have churches full of people who confess Jesus as Lord but don’t live like he is. People who say Lord, Lord, but continue to live their lives unsubmitted to him.

There is no evidence that they have responded to his authority in their lives.

Some of you may say, Pastor that sounds like a works based gospel.

Don’t I just have to confess and believe?

What does the Bible say?

Romans 10:9 (ESV) 9 because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.

Let me ask you a question, using our parable.

Which one believed that the Father had authority? The first. Why? Because it moved him to action.

Yes, we are absolutely 100% saved by faith alone, but not a faith that is alone.

Genuine faith produces obedience. If you really believe (the word there being faith) if you are really convinced that God raised him from the dead, signifying that he is Lord over all, King of Kings and Lord of Lords, you will act like it.

Which is what Jesus turns to next in his application, which in turn brings us to our last question.

How will you respond to the authorities in your life?

Matthew 21:31a-32 (ESV) Jesus said to them, “Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you. 32 For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him. And even when you saw it, you did not afterward change your minds and believe him.

Jesus explains the parable, the second son is representative of Israel’s religious leaders, those who say they believe God is the authority but ignore his call through John to repent and ignore his Messiah, even now. The first son is representative of those in Israel that had rebelled against God’s law, summarized by two categories of what we would call the worst sinners.

Tax collectors- those who betrayed their people and collaborated with the Roman oppressors to get rich and prostitutes, those that committed sexual sin and probably participated in pagan worship. Two categories of people the Jews considered to be the lowest of the low.

And yet, Jesus says, they will go into the kingdom of God before the religious leaders who are challenging his authority.

Why? Because at the preaching of John they repented, turned from their sinful lifestyles and gave up their sin. Although they started out in rebellion, through repentance they became obedient.

The religious leaders said they followed God, but their actions showed otherwise.

Jesus says, worse, even when they saw the tax collectors and prostitutes believing in John, repenting of their sins, and being baptized, they did not repent and believe him.

They refused his authority and they refused to acknowledge the godly fruit his ministry was producing.

They are doubly condemned. But not hopeless.

Jesus doesn’t say, they go into the kingdom and you cannot. He says before you.

He leaves the door open to them. This is one of the two lessons in the parable. First, anyone can come to Jesus through repentance and faith.

The lowest of society, the greatest sinners and even the resistant religious leaders, if they will repent of their stubbornness and pride and believe in him.

The second is, it is never enough to make promises to God, or to claim to believe, or to recite a creed. What counts is actual devotion: love of God, worship, and loving service to others.

The issue before us is not what has happened in your past.

The issue is how you respond to the authority of Jesus today.

Ask yourself, does my life show an actual obedience to Christ and his word or merely lip service?

If it is merely lip service, please understand, according to Jesus, you have not done the will of the Father. You may act the part, but you, like the religious leaders, are standing on the outside functionally failing to acknowledge and respond to the one who carries the full authority of the Father.


Friends, let’s walk back through our questions this morning.

How are you at recognizing authorities in your life?

Jesus Christ says that all authority has been given to him. His call is to die to yourself and follow him. To repent of trusting in yourself and place your hope and trust in his finished work on the cross. He displayed his authority when he was raised from the dead and ascended into heaven.

He is the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, whether you recognize it or not.

What is your response to authorities in your life?

What does your life reflect concerning what you believe about Jesus’ authority? Is your life consistent with your confession? Are you the first son who although formerly rebellious have repented and obeyed, or are you the second son who although says the right thing, his actions show otherwise.

How will you respond to the authorities in your life?

Finally, if you know that you are the second, if you know that your recognition of Jesus’ authority as Lord of your life has been promises and confessions over performance and actions, understand that the door is still open. Many have entered into the kingdom of heaven ahead of you, but there is still time for you. You can respond today, this moment, turning from your rebellion, your sin, and turning to the savior.

Let us pray.

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