This morning we are starting a new series of sermons, entitled, The King and the Kingdom. We will, I trust, be learning from Luke's Gospel chapters 20 and 21. This is to carry on from where we left off this time last year. So this morning we are looking at verses 1-8 of chapter 20. And our title is "By What Authority?" My headings, as we go through this passage, are, first, Social Collapse; secondly, the Reality; thirdly, Preferring Lies; and, fourthly, Jesus' Wisdom.
So, first, Social Collapse.
Look again, if you will, at Luke 20 verses 1-2:
"One day, as Jesus was teaching the people in the temple and preaching the gospel, the chief priests and the scribes with the elders came up and said to him, 'Tell us by what authority you do these things, or who it is that gave you this authority.'"
Luke begins with, "One day". But when was that precisely? And what was the wider and narrower context to that questioning of Jesus? If you go back to Luke 3.1-3, you'll see this is taking place not long after …
"… the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar—when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene— during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas."
Palestine, politically, was under Roman control. In 63BC the Romans had occupied Jerusalem. In 37BC King Herod, a Jewish proselyte (famous for his rebuilding the Temple and killing the baby boys in the time of Jesus) started his rule, as a vassal of Rome. And in AD14, on the first Roman Emperor August's death, Tiberius Caesar (that Luke refers to) became Emperor. So he is Emperor in Rome during Christ's ministry.
In Palestine, however, during this period – in accordance with Herod's "will" - one son started to rule in Judea, but he had soon to be replaced by Pontius Pilate as governor. Two other sons of Herod, as tetrarchs (or lower grade "princes"), ruled other parts of Palestine - Antipas (Herod Antipas - famous for his immorality and for beheading John the Baptist) had Galilee in the North. Philip had the area North East of Galilee.
Then with regard to religious leaders, Annas, the High Priest, had been deposed by the Romans. They appointed Caiaphas, his son-in-law, in his place – presumably more plaint to Rome. But many Jews still treated Annas as high-priest. So much for politics and national leadership.
What about the economy? Things were not good. For Roman taxes were collected from people by agents who had to bid for the right to collect taxes. They then collected from the people the amount they paid to the Romans, plus something to live off. So these agents were tempted to collect much more than was reasonable. That is why Jewish tax-collectors were so hated and treated as Roman stooges. And soldiers in the army, similarly, were tempted to use their position to force money from civilians.
So, after the economy, what was the wider culture like in Palestine? Well, it was Jewish but overlaid with Hellenism or the Greek equivalent to our religiously pluralistic secularism. This culture of the "Gentiles" (the many non-Jews) was the result of the earlier conquests of the Greek, Alexander the Great.
Palestine had particularly been influenced by pro-Greek kings. One had even set up an altar to Zeus, and an idol of himself in the Jerusalem temple! He also allowed the introduction of a Greek-style gymnasium with men decadently competing naked and he allowed Greek style education which also could be decadent. The Maccabean revolt of orthodox Jews (that you read about in the Apocrypha) put an end to those excesses and reintroduced Jewish practices. But many liberal Jews and non-Jews kept Hellenism alive. So things, in terms of the wider context, were not good politically, economically or culturally in Palestine at this point in time.
But turn back to Luke 19 for the immediate context to Jesus' being questioned. Jesus has just ministered to one of these Tax Collectors – Zacchaeus - who was truly saved. Verse 8 says he wants to give away 50 percent of his fortune to the poor and …
"If I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold."
Then Jesus had taught the Parable of the Ten Minas. Then there was Christ's triumphal entry beginning this last week of his earthly life. But then chapter 19 verse 41 says this:
"As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it."
Why? Answer: for Jesus is about to predict the devastating and brutal sack of Jerusalem which happened in AD70. It was, then, the future emperor, Titus, sacked Jerusalem. And that was for real. Today, you can see the Titus' Arch in Rome with engravings that depict, among other things, the spoils taken from the Temple and the Jews in defeat.
So all that is included in the immediate context for "the chief priests and the scribes with the elders" and their question to Jesus in verse 2:
"Tell us by what authority you do these things, or who it is that gave you this authority."
But the final piece of this jigsaw that is the context for this question to Jesus, are the immediately preceding words (chapter 19.45-48):
"When Jesus entered the temple courts, he began to drive out those who were selling. 'It is written,' he said to them, '"My house will be a house of prayer"; but you have made it a den of robbers.' Every day he was teaching at the temple. But the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the leaders among the people were trying to kill him. Yet they could not find any way to do it, because all the people hung on his words."
So you've not only a corrupt Political Order and often a corrupt Economic Order, and, also, the pagan background of Hellenism, but spiritual leaders and people in the Jerusalem-elite (the elders) "trying to kill Jesus." That is social collapse, if ever?
But is that not a warning also for us, too, in the post-Christian, religiously-pluralistic, secular-West? Maybe! However, collapse or recovery relates to how people react to a vital fact and my second heading the Reality.
Look now at verses 3-4:
"He [Jesus] answered them, 'I also will ask you a question. Now tell me, was the baptism of John from heaven or from man?'"
That answer is the clue to everything. Will you turn back again to chapter 3, where Luke's dating was to introduce John the Baptist, and verse 2:
"… during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet:
A voice of one calling in the wilderness,
'Prepare the way for the Lord.'"
The Jews knew that John was saying he, John, was God's messenger announcing the coming of, yes, God himself – the Lord, God – "preparing the way for the Lord." And John made it clear that repentance was necessary but needed to be proved by good works – chapter 3 verse 8:
"Produce fruit in keeping with repentance."
And in 3 verse 10 you read:
"'What should we do then?' the crowd asked. John answered, 'Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.' Even tax collectors came to be baptized. 'Teacher,' they asked, 'what should we do?' 'Don't collect any more than you are required to,' he told them. Then some soldiers asked him, 'And what should we do?' He replied, 'Don't extort money and don't accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.'"
But when people thought he himself might be God's promised Messiah (meaning "the anointed" one - the ultimate saviour of the world), John said emphatically, "No!"
"John answered them all, 'I baptize you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.'"
John was the herald to announce the coming of God's promised one, who somehow was God as well. It was just as we remind ourselves every Christmas, John 1.6:
"There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him … The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him."
So, do you see what all this means? It means Jesus Christ is asked about his authority, by time-serving men who've never had any real authority even from the Romans. Jesus replies that if only they thought back to John's mission, they would get the answer. For John was saying that Jesus has universal authority for he is the Lord, - the Lord of Lords. For Jesus, as the pre-incarnate Lord, was the agent in the creation of this entire space-time universe and with all authority. This is so important to understand.
According to Matthew, it was among the final things that Jesus taught his disciples after his Resurrection and before his Ascension (Matthew 28.18ff):
"And Jesus came and said to them, 'All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.'"
Jesus had earlier said (Matthew 11.27):
"All things have been handed over to me by my Father."
And John reported the same thing (John 3.35):
"The Father loves the Son and has given all things into his hand."
And Paul prays in Ephesians 1, as we heard in our Epistle, that Christians in his day, and so in our day, understand, I quote (Ephesians 1.19-21) …
"… what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come."
Do you believe that? Remember Jesus, is 100% man, but 100% God (as we said in the Creed, "God from God"). It is a mystery – but in one sense our existence is a mystery. But as Paul, says in Romans 1.1&3 that the Good News or "the Gospel of God" is …
"… concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh [so fully human] and was declared to be the Son of God [fully God] in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord."
How Jesus was both fully man and fully God may be a mystery. But fact it is, because of his resurrection from the dead. And he has all authority. But also, being man, he understands what it is to live in a religiously pluralistic secular world not totally different from that Palestinian 1st century world.
And he wants us to understand he has all authority, and the power that authority implies for us to do two things: one, to evangelise (making baptized disciples); and, two, to teach those new Christians, Christian ethics and morality ("teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you"). And that may involve, of course, us and new Christians taking action when necessary. For Jesus has just taken action to stop people turning God's place for worship and for teaching into a bank.
Now, more briefly, we must move on to our third heading and Preferring Lies.
Look at verses 5-7 and this murderous group's answer to Jesus:
"And they discussed it with one another, saying, 'If we say, "From heaven", he will say, "Why did you not believe him?" But if we say, "From man", 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."
They were now trapped in a dilemma. They themselves had just tried to trap Jesus into making a direct statement that he was the Messiah. For this was likely to make Pontius Pilate, as the representative of the Emperor Tiberius, take action. Or, if Jesus had refused to answer the question, it was likely to discredit him with his supporters. But by answering with a counter question, Jesus has forced these hostile religious leaders into the dilemma of alienating the many supporters of John, by saying he was a fake. Or if they admitted he was a genuine prophet of God, that would have been to admit Jesus' divine authority that John was teaching.
However, by their murderous intentions, the majority must have thought John was a fake. But they were not concerned with the truth, but only with the outcome of what they said. So, as with so many in leadership today, in the Church and in the world (as we've seen in the Brexit debate), people will say anything, if they can get away with it, to remain in power.
So, verse 7 …
" … they [these Jewish officials] answered that they did not know where it [John's Baptism and all that went with it] came from."
That was a lie. But when lying comes from those in power, that seriously increases social collapse.
So that brings us, fourthly, to our final heading, Jesus' Wisdom.
Look at verse 8:
"And Jesus said to them, 'Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.'"
It is plainly true that some things are not worthy of contradiction. Yes, you should always be, as 1 Peter 3.15 says …
" … prepared to make a defence to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect."
But you have also to remember Proverbs 26.4-5:
"Answer not a fool according to his folly,
lest you be like him yourself.
Answer a fool according to his folly,
lest he be wise in his own eyes."
Yes, you mustn't judge the people you are discussing or arguing with, but you must make judgments. Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount immediately after condemning judgmentalism, in chapter 7 verse 6:
"Do not give dogs what is holy, and do not throw your pearls before pigs."
So when people are clearly not wanting to discuss, but to trap you, you should cease the conversation, as Jesus did here. Luke records in Acts 13 that Paul and Barnabas were in Antioch of Pisidia and having a successful time. But then Jews, "filled with jealousy" (verse 45ff) …
"… began to contradict what was spoken by Paul, reviling him."
However, verse 46 then says:
"Paul and Barnabas spoke out boldly, saying, 'It was necessary that the word of God be spoken first to you. Since you thrust it aside and judge yourselves unworthy of eternal life, behold, we are turning to the Gentiles.'"
As Ecclesiastes 3.7 says, there is …
"… a time to keep silence, and a time to speak."
So, in conclusion what do we learn from these few verses in Luke's Gospel?
Surely four things.
One, the fact that societies do collapse. Yes, some are suggesting that we need to face that threat in the Western World. Books have come out with titles like, The Death of Britain by John Redwood; and, more recently, The Strange Death of Europe by Douglas Murray.
But "death" doesn't have to be the last word. Yes, in Jesus' time, the rejection of his authority and the murderous opposition to him, ensured the utter and terrible devastation of Jerusalem by the Romans in AD70 as he predicted.
But, two, we need to remind ourselves that the Church grew, in spite of opposition and in spite of a hostile wider culture. That was when and where people faced the reality of Christ's supreme authority in public and private life, and in the material and spiritual worlds. So they then acted believing in that reality of Christ's authority, making disciples and obeying Jesus. And this new faith and lifestyle gradually changed the culture. Even the Emperor Constantine professed to be a Christian.
Then, three, remember there will be elites and opinion formers in the world and some in the church, who will oppose followers of Christ. And often such people use trickery and lies, as in Jesus' time.
So, four, pray for the wisdom of Jesus, who said to his disciples (Matthew 10.16):
"Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves."
And this morning we need to consider all that in the light of Holy Communion. For that reminds us through the wine, that there is forgiveness through Christ and his death for all our sins, including not always acting on these truths. But also we're reminded that by faith we need spiritually to feed on Christ, as the bread symbolizes - and not just on Sunday but Monday to Saturday as well.
So pray for the Holy Spirit to strengthen you to believe in, and act on, Jesus' supreme authority for disciple-making and obeying his commands.