This 7 part series is looking at authority in Christian ethics.
My first post reviewed power, authority, and the disdain for both and the how ethics needs authority to makes its claims.
Second, I used select passages in Matthew to show he presented Jesus’ power and authority in contrast to and superior to Roman political power and distorted Jewish spiritual power.
In this 3rd post, I use Matthew 3, to add another layer to Jesus’ authority: how it is both self-authored but also derived and shared. I suggest you read these passages first to form your own ideas before I try to convince you of mine.
I come to this passage through a particular window: Matthew 21:23-27, where the Jewish leaders “ask” Jesus about His authority.
“Jesus entered the temple courts, and, while he was teaching, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him. “By what authority are you doing these things?” they asked. “And who gave you this authority?”
Jesus replied, “I will also ask you one question. If you answer me, I will tell you by what authority I am doing these things. John’s baptism—where did it come from? Was it from heaven, or of human origin?”
They discussed it among themselves and said, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will ask, ‘Then why didn’t you believe him?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin’—we are afraid of the people, for they all hold that John was a prophet.”
So they answered Jesus, “We don’t know.”
Then he said, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.”
Why did Jesus use John as the reference point for such a serious discussion of Jesus’ authority? Why did he leave their question up another response from them? The short answer: because the ultimate question of authority is always left up to the individual.
The long answer follows:
At this point in his ministry, Jesus had a lot of evidence he could have referenced to underscore his power and authority. He had the stories of his miraculous birth, he had direct fulfillment of scriptures he could have listed off (as he later would do to the truth seekers on the way to Emmaus), he had hundreds of lectures and irrefutable teachings he could list. He could have added appeals to his genuine love of the people or reminded them about voice from heaven that spoke at his baptism and later on the mountain (God said Jesus was His Son, shouldn’t that have settled it?).
If all that evidence was too ethereal, the pragmatists could have used the thousands of healings and amazing success with diseases like palsy, leprosy, blindness, deafness, and even death, to validate Jesus power and authority. And then they could have added evidence about his power over storms and miraculously feeding just to cap off the witnesses to his power.
However, much of that would have had to come as a witness from others. Which may be the sore spot for these leaders.
The deluge of evidence about Jesus’ authority wasn’t getting to these leaders. They were blind to it.
Jesus’ appealed to John’s authority shows us where this blindness started.
Which takes us to Matthew 3, where John is presented as the forerunner of Christ, preparing people. His job is to get them ready for Jesus. He is calling people to repentance and “initiating” and “authenticating” into THE “prepared” group by requiring them to be baptised.
Matthew reports and seems to agree with the people’s view: John’s ministry was received as a fulfillment of prophecy and “authored” from God.
People flocked to him in droves, responded to him, and listened to his “command” for water baptism?
Did John make up that requirement?
No, not really. Washing, and at times, full body washing, was practiced in several temple related cleansing acts, especially during Yom Kippur. Even Naaman’s washing seven times shows the association of water with cleansing, renewal and change. Full immersion baptism was instituted for converts to Judiasm (see Tevilah and Jewish full water cleansing).
John just gave it a new urgency, a special authority.
He did not have a lot of proof text to justify this “new” emphasis on baptism, but the people saw in it, enough tradition combined with the reliability of John’s teaching to accredit it to God.
They responded. They believe. For them, John had authority. Because they did, they were ready to receive Jesus.
The Pharisees had trouble with John’s power and authority.
They were attracted to it, but not subject or submitted to it. That is evident when John challenged them: “who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?… bear fruits of repentance….the ax is coming.” They could have let the evidence convict them. There resistence would make it easier for them to resist Jesus’ authority when he did even greater things than John the Baptist.
Where the Pharisee’s were unwilling to conceded John’s work was from God those who did, received the prophet’s blessings (of trust and obedience) and prepared themselves for the Next authority that would follow.
This acceptance of authority is crucial:
“But I tell you, Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but have done to him everything they wished. In the same way the Son of Man is going to suffer at their hands.” (Matthew 17:12). The disciples get the link: “Then the disciples understood that He had spoken to them about John the Baptist.” (13). Notice how even in this dialogue, Jesus didn’t directly tell them John was the fulfillment of the prophecy. They had to close the loop. Belief is here called for. Closing the circle on authority requires evidence and belief. The Jewish leaders refused to accept the evidence because they didn’t want to have to believe John’s authority, and as such were unprepared to accept Jesus’.
The Jewish leaders could have responded to the evidence of John’s authority. It all added up: John’s dad and his temple encounter, the oddity of John’s life, the parallel between John and what old-testament prophets did, the fulfillment of prophecy in John’s life, and the prima facia evidence of the powerful impact of his ministry.
By the time Jesus comes along, we have all the authority that John had: the life stories with magi, stars, shepphards and angry Herod, the connection to prophecy, more amazing teaching, but even more….the more powerful healing and forgiveness of sins and John’s own testimony that Jesus was the Lamb of God that would take away the sins of the world.
Which leads me to the essential passage in Matthew 3 about authority.
Jesus ask’s John to for baptism.
Why would Jesus ask John for baptism? Why would the greater seek to be blessed by the lesser? Was Jesus, like the Pharisees, just getting in on John’s bandwagon of religious success?
John, the most powerful and leading religious authority at the time, quickly, naturally, instantly demurs to the greater authority, Jesus, with a simple observation– “You should baptize me.”
John demurs because he should. Jesus insists because he knows something better is a play.
This is needed to fulfill righteousness.
What righteousness, or better yet, whose?
Wiersbe gives three reasons for Jesus to be baptized. “First, His baptism gave approval to John’s ministry. Second He identified Himself with publicans and sinners, the very people He came to save. But mainly, His baptism pictured His future baptism on the cross” (Be Loyal, p. 24.”
I see three additional reasons: Jesus did this as an example for the followers who would follow. For two thousand years this tradition would initiate billions into “the Way.” Many, like Anabaptists, Baptists, and Adventists would be persecuted by both pagans and apostate Christian churches for their full-immersion practice. These would find great courage in what Jesus did.
Second, Jesus not only gave approval to John’s ministry, but his accepted John’s authority. The other religious leaders did not come to the point of submission. Jesus was already in that position. That position of mutual submission would charactize “his righteousness.” Jesus was saying YES to both John and God’s authority.
Third, the response of the Trinity. What unfolds as Jesus comes out of the water is a sort of transfiguration: The Spirit as a dove and the Father as a voice confirm what others have already accepted: this is the Son of God.
I don’t know how the Holy Spirit and God add up in your list of authoritative beings, but in most theology, they are at the top. What they say, goes. But notice, they speak last in this seen.
And when Jesus is later locked in debate about his authority, it is not to the Dove and Voice that he appeals but to John’s Baptism: was it from man or God?
Welcome to the authority in the kingdom of God works: it is mutual, other seeking, deferential, and ascribes to the other the authority due it. God was letting others express their authoritative view of the situation before he entered the space.
I see in Christ, in the trinity, in all that is happening here, a new and emerging understanding of authority, a deepening of what it means to establish legitimacy.
Fulfilling righteous is all about authority but it is driven by a mutuality of responsiveness. You have to get into the dance. No one will force you, in God’s kingdom, to believe.
This will become even more evident as we move to Matthew 4, where a showdown with Satan shows their contrasting uses of authority.