Presented at Trinity Fellowship on 11/12/1995
Luke 20:1 And it came about on one of the days while he was teaching in the Temple and preaching the gospel, that the chief priests and the scribes with the elder confronted him, 2 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?” 3 And he answered and said to them, “I shall also ask you a question, and you tell me: 4 Was the baptism of John from heaven or from men?” 5 And they reasoned among themselves, saying, “If we say, ‘from heaven,’ he will say, ‘Why did you not believe him?’ 6 But if we say, ‘from men,’ all the people will stone us to death , for they are convinced that John was a prophet.” 7 And they answered that they did not know where it came from. 8 And Jesus said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.” 9 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. 10 And at the harvest time he sent a slave to the vine-growers in order that they might give him some of the produce of the vineyard; but the vine-growers beat him and sent him away empty-handed. 11 And he proceeded to send them another slave, and they beat him and treated him shamefully and sent him away empty-handed. 12 And he proceeded to send them a third, and this one they also wounded and cast out. 13 And the owner of the vineyard said, ‘What shall I do? I will send my beloved son. Perhaps they will respect him.’ 14 But when the vine-growers saw him, they reasoned with one another, saying, ‘This is the heir. Let us kill him that the inheritance may be ours.’ 15 And they threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. What therefore will the owner of the vineyard do to them? 16 He will come and destroy these vine-growers and will five the vineyard to others.” And when they heard it, they said, “May it never be!” 17 But he looked at them and said, “What then is this that is written, ‘The stone which the builders rejected, this became the chief corner stone?’ 18 Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces, but on whomever it falls, it will scatter him like dust.” 19 And 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.
In our study of the Triumphal Entry last week we saw Jesus revealed as a king facing a great crisis, a king who felt a great compassion, and a king filled with a great cause, the glory of his Father. That cause led him to cleanse the temple, and that act naturally led to the challenge to his authority we read of today. “By what authority are you doing these things?” So this week we will focus on the authority of the king. It is a topic of great relevance in our day, when we hear people saying, “No one has a right to tell me how to worship; no one has a right to tell me what to believe; no one has a right to tell me how to live.” Never has Western society been more like the Book of Judges, in which “Every man did what was right in his own eyes.” So we must ask: is there anyone who has the authority to tell us how to worship, what to believe, how to live? And we will find the answer in the passage before us today.
The situation we read about today flowed right out of the events which happened last week. Jesus had ridden into Jerusalem in fulfillment of prophecies that proclaimed him as the king, the son of David. Not only had he made such claims, he had acted on them, and started stepping, yea, stomping, on certain rather sensitive toes. He had just shut down a rather nice and profitable business the priests had been operating on the side in the temple. So it is not at all surprising that we find them saying, “Tell us by what authority you are doing these things, or who is the one who gave you this authority?” (vs. 2). Who told you that you could do that? Who died and left you king? For only the Messiah himself would have had the authority to go over the High Priest’s head to reform the temple worship, and they certainly did not want any Messiah who was going to mess up their little racket.
Jesus response to their question was to ask one of his own: What do you think about John’s baptism? From God or men? Jesus often found a question to be the best answer to a question. His response was not an evasion, but a surprisingly direct answer. For the Baptist had proclaimed him Messiah; John had already answered the question they were asking Jesus. John had called him the Lamb of God who taketh away the sins of the world. Jesus, who came after John, was before him, and John was not worthy to untie his sandals. So their question about Jesus’ authority had already been answered. What did they think of the prophet who had answered it? The response they give about John then entails their response to Jesus as well.
The exchange is wonderfully ironic. These men have come to challenge Jesus’ authority, but all they succeed in doing is discrediting their own authority as religious teachers of Israel. They know they are trapped. If they say John was from God, they have to admit that Jesus is the Messiah. But if they deny it, they will be in trouble with the people, who all hold John as a prophet. So they punt. They chicken out and say they do not know. Do not know? Are they not the official teachers of the Jewish religion? How can they not know whether the most popular preacher of their day save Jesus himself is legitimate or a fraud? Are they not responsible for having an informed opinion on such a topic? It’s their job! It is no wonder they show up in the parable as the vinedressers who get replaced.
There are some lessons for the contemporary church in this little exchange. Surely there is a basic competence in theology and a basic intellectual integrity required of its ministers, its teachers. Their job is to lead the people, to disciple them, to train and equip them to do the ministry of the church and to speak the gospel with intelligence and integrity into their world. Surely then our pastors are responsible to keep themselves informed as well as grounded in the Word. How else are they to shepherd the flock of God? They should have some idea whether the popular religious teachers of their own day are from God or from men. They should have some expertise in how to tell shepherds from hirelings and sheep from wolves, and they should say so with reference to the truth rather than to what will make them popular. When I was pastoring in Marietta, Georgia, we had a good Christian bookstore—one which actually sold books. The manager got to know me, so when I was in there he would often refer people who had questions about what the best book was on a particular topic to me. One such customer was asking me whether the Moonies were a legitimate Christian group or a cult. “Why haven’t you asked you pastor about this?” I asked. I got a look like, “When did you fall to earth from Pluto? That is the craziest idea I ever heard.” This person found it a crazy idea that his “preacher” should be expected to know any such thing. I find it a crazy idea that he should presume to stand in the pulpit when he does not. And yet “shepherds” like this are the rule, not the exception in our day. It is no wonder the sheep are being led astray into the false pastures of Health and Wealth and moral relativism and neopaganism, or worse cults still.
Christians, we need to return to the foundations, one of which is the primacy of truth. Jean Luc Picard said to a wavering Wesley Crusher that “A Starfleet officer’s first duty is to the truth—whether it be scientific truth or historical truth or personal truth. And if you are not prepared to perform that duty, you are not fit to wear that uniform.” Does this not apply even more to Christians in general and ministers of the Gospel in particular? Yet these priests had no concern for the truth, and therefore they had no answer to the Lord’s question. And what do you look for when you read the Bible or hear it expounded? A “blessing?” The confirmation of your preconceived notions? Or are you really open to what God is telling you? Jesus said, “If you abide in my word, then you are truly disciples of mine, and you shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free” (John 8:31-32). Let us be free indeed!
The challenge to Jesus’ authority had failed, and so that authority is affirmed and confirmed. But what do we mean when we say this? What kind of authority did Jesus have? There are at least three kinds of authority, and Jesus had them all.
The first is what we might call “functional authority.” I learned my Greek from Dr. Dale Heath at Taylor and my Hebrew from Dr. Gleason Archer at Trinity. These men were known as “authorities” on biblical languages. What does that mean? Dr. Heath did not order or command the genitive singular of logos to be logou. But he knew it so well that when he told you that such was the case, he spoke with authority. What he said on that topic had weight; it could be trusted. You need not be afraid to build on it. Now, Jesus had much more than this kind of authority, but he did not have less. He spoke with authority, not as the scribes. The scribes dickered and argued and quoted one another and found no end in wandering mazes lost; but Jesus said, “Thus saith the Lord.” This is what the people meant when they said that. In vs. 17, Jesus is the stone which the builders rejected but which has become the corner stone. His words are foundational. You can trust them; you can rest on them; you can build on them. He speaks with authority, not as the scribes.
Second is what we might call “delegated authority.” That is the kind of authority that Anna Sharp has as our church treasurer. Because she has been elected and duly appointed and authorized, she has the authority to write checks in the name of the church, and the bank will honor her signature and transfer the money. It will not honor yours, because that authority has not been delegated to you. Did Jesus have this kind of authority? Yes. In vs. 13 he is the son sent by the Father; therefore, all authority is given unto him in heaven and earth.
Finally we have what I will call “inherent authority.” This is authority by right of creation. The act of creation is what makes someone an author, and an author has author-ity. Even on a human level we recognize that if you make something, that act of creation gives you certain rights to determine how the thing you made will be used. If I write a book, only I have the authority to sign a contract for it to be published. If you pirate the book and publish it without my permission, it is wrong. Why? Because you did not make it! Creation creates rights. But our rights are only derivative, because we had to get our materials from God; we even got the minds we used to come up with the ideas from God. God has that right absolutely because he created the universe out of nothing. He does not owe anybody anything. This is the highest form of authority. And because Jesus was with the Father when the world was made, it belongs to him. In the parable, this is expressed by the fact that the owner “planted” the vineyard. That is what gives him a right to its fruit.
Because he is the Son of the Father who planted the vineyard, Jesus has all authority over everything, over every aspect of life. But two areas of authority are emphasized here. The first is that he has the authority to order the worship of God. He has the right to tell us how to worship. It is of course the case that this challenge to his authority flowed from his daring to reform temple worship without even bothering to consult the high priest or give him the time of day. That is what brings that issue to the forefront. It is precisely Jesus’ authority to do just that which is at issue here. When he says that God is a spirit and those who worship him must do so in spirit and in truth, we must listen, and realize that any other worship is no acceptable worship at all. When he says not to make his Father’s house a den of thieves, then we had best not do so. When he has his apostle say not to forsake the assembling of ourselves together, we had best not think it is OK to just watch a religious service on TV. These are not just nice things to do; they are the orders of the One who has the right to order them. The One who has the right to expect it and the authority to demand such things requires them of us.
The second area of Jesus’ authority is emphasized by the parable he told in response to the whole situation. He has the authority to receive the fruit of the vineyard. In the parable, the vineyard of course is the people of God. The fruit is the fruit of the Spirit from Galatians 5:22-23: love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, and self control, against which there is no law. These are no just nice goals for our personality. They are the fruit of the vineyard, and Jesus has a right to expect to find them when he visits it. It is his vineyard after all! If he finds hate for love, complaining for joy, anxiety for peace, impatience for longsuffering, selfishness for kindness, scheming for goodness, or an unfaithful, harsh, undisciplined spirit for self control, then how are we different from the wicked vinedressers of the parable? They cast out and killed the son of the owner, and we crucify the Son of Man afresh!
Have you thought about the fact that the Lord Jesus Christ has authority as king? This means the right to expect things from us. It specifically means the right to determine what is the true worship of God and what is not. It means the right to receive the fruit of the vineyard. That is part of what it means to call him “Lord.” He is not a hard taskmaster, but he has the authority and the right to receive our worship and to determine what that is, and the authority and the right to expect fruit from his vineyard. That means we have a responsibility to render it to him. Did I say responsibility? Yes. But let us rather call it the privilege. For what else can it be when he has given everything for us? Let us then worship him in spirit and in truth and yield ourselves to his Spirit, that he may find fruit in due season when he comes. Amen.
Here endeth the lesson.
Dr. Donald T. Williams