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Matthew 21:23-32

The Freedom of Divine Authority

Sermon Notes + Quotes

As you know, we study through books of the Bible here at the Village Chapel. We have extra copies. If you would like one to follow along, raise your hand up real high. I see a few over on this side, and just keep your hand up high. There’s also a QR code up there on the screen, and a network here in the building if you prefer to use your digital device.

Our passage for study today is part of our study, “The King and His Kingdom,” a study of the Gospel of Matthew, first book in the New Testament and one of the eyewitness accounts of the life and teachings of Jesus. Matthew, formerly known as Levi the tax collector, he himself, a scourge in his society because he was Jewish yet he was serving the Roman government. He was extracting money from his own people, the Jewish people, and giving it to the Roman government.  If he could extract $10 instead of $5, just using our terminology, he got to keep the balance. So, he was incentivized to literally extort from his own people. It’s good to know that as we go through this study and remember who he used to be, and then who he became and how all of that happened.

Our passage today has to do with divine authority. The word authority is going to show up four times in just these few verses; we’re just doing a handful of verses today, so that’s good. Get comfy in the sun there, those of you that are sitting in the sun. And if you’re watching online, find yourself a nice window to be by, and you can also bask in the sunlight while we study this. But four times in this short passage, one word shows up and it’s a word you guys love so much.  It’s the word authority.

Now, let’s be honest, how many of you have ever bristled at the idea of having to answer to an authority higher than yourself? Raise your hand, be honest, you rebels of the sixties and seventies! All right. Yeah. Okay. But second question follows right on the heels of that: how many of you are really glad there’s some people you know that have to answer to an authority other than themselves? Raise your hand. Everybody’s hand should be up right now. That’s right. You’re sitting next to them, aren’t you? Yes, I know. That’s really good.

What does this word authority mean? I think that’s helpful for us to ask. Is it about being bossy? Is it about just telling people what to do? I remember one time we came home, Kim and I were driving up, our next-door neighbors were out working in the yard and we pull up and it was clear there was some tension in the air there with that couple.  So, the wife comes over and I said, “Hey, how’s it going? Looks like you guys look quiet over there with what you’re doing.” They were working in the yard, like I said. We were in our car right at the curbside and she came over and goes, “Well, this is what happens with when Ms. Bossy Pants meets, Mr. Know-it-all.” And I said, “Well, that never happens in our house.” And I’m sure it never happens in any of your houses either!

Authority is one of those things we have a natural aversion to, don’t we? Is it possible though, to live in a world where you are, every one of us are, our own final word? Is that even possible? Is it societally possible to do that? Good question. Worth asking, worth thinking about. Let’s see what we can learn from Jesus in Matthew Chapter 21. I hope you’ll turn there with me. Let me pray for us as we get started with the text:

Lord, thank you for your word, living and active, timeless in its truth, unique in its source, broad in its reach, transforming in its power. Bring to us, Lord, that which we cannot go get ourselves. Help us to see what we cannot see. Help us to learn what we do not know. And then Lord, help us become what we can’t even make ourselves. I pray this in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Remember, Luke 21 began with a triumphal entry, as we call it. And then last week, pastor Tommy led us in this amazing passage all the way up to verse 22. We had the story of the barren fig tree that Jesus cursed—a fig tree because it had foliage but no fruit, and it really represented what was going on in the ground with the religious realm right there. A lot of foliage, a lot of pretense, a lot of posing, but no real fruit.

That’s a timeless truth, folks. I mean, churches—including the one I go to and with me in it, myself—sometimes we’re all foliage and no fruit. Sometimes you are too.  A good challenge for us, to be stirred by that message and ask the question, “Where’s the fruit?” And is it just a group of people that get together and congratulate ourselves on our new tie and our new outfits and the way that we look, the way we sing.  Is that what we do?  Is that the purpose, the reason for us being here? Or is there something God wants to do to stir up inside of us, a transformed life that looks more and more and more like Jesus, which we just sang about. So, with all of that in mind, Jesus goes through and tries to illustrate with his fig tree to the people on the ground in his time when he walked the earth that there is a spiritual vitality in life that’s supposed to bear fruit, and they weren’t doing it.

He was holding up the mirror so they could see that. And rolling right out of that verse 23 starts: “When he had come into the temple,” so now he’s in the temple. This is the last week before the crucifixion. He’s in the temple, the center of religious life. To do stuff like this in the temple is not insignificant; it’s important to note where he is. His words would carry a lot of weight. His actions would be very well noticed, easily noticed. And so, he’s in the temple and, “the chief priest and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching.” So, there he is teaching, assuming the role of teacher just literally.

Some of us have been over there (we’re going over there in March). You can stand in the ruins of the temple, and you can imagine that somebody literally just would stand up and start talking. And he would do that.  And in his case, hundreds, thousands sometimes, of people would gather around him because they knew something about him, and they had noticed and recognized something about him. So, he was teaching, and the religious leaders come up.

Verse 23: “By what authority are you doing these things? And who gave you this authority?” Now it does say, “Doing these things,” as opposed to, “Saying these things.” What is he doing? Well, he just cleansed the temple a day ago. He literally went through, and he saw that they had turned what would’ve been a house of prayer into this den of thieves and robbers that were taking advantage of the poor, and he literally turned over the tables. Coins were rolling everywhere. Doves were flapping everywhere. Goats and sheep were making all kinds of noise and running, and people were running as well. Who is this maniac that’s literally come into the sacred place of the temple and started turning over tables?

It’s this guy. It’s Jesus. And you understand that they’re asking the question, ‘Hey, by what authority are you doing? Who told you to come into the temple and turn the tables over?’ I understand the question. But I think there’s more behind it all, and Jesus exposes what’s behind it.

His answer to them is this: “I will ask you one thing too, which if you tell me, I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. The baptism of John …” It’s interesting, he turns the subject to a different person. “The baptism of John, was that from what source, from heaven or from men?” And this is interesting. So here, the religious leaders using this Greek term exousia. There’s two different words that we read often in the New Testament, dunamis and exousia. Exousia is more like authority, that is magisterial right and authority. Whereas dunamis is power. And Jesus had both. And we’ve seen it over and over again. And now we’re really, really seeing it and it’s bothering these religious people. And so, they come and they want to know, “By what authority are you doing this? And who gave you this authority?” Presuming it had to have been given to him. And they want to know scope and source. ‘What is the authority that you think you have? Who are you to do this?’ This is the way we might say it in our own day and time. And his answer is, ‘You’ve asked me a question. I’m going to ask you a question. you answer me, and I’ll answer you.’

And so, he asks them about John the Baptist. They would have been very concerned about this question. As you’ll see, they literally huddle up. Verse 25 says, “They began reasoning among themselves saying if we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Then why did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘From men,’ we fear the multitude, for they all hold John to be a prophet.” 

I can see this happening. He asks them boldly and publicly.  There’s a hush over the crowd. He’s teaching, he’s preaching. And then they storm in with their question and the crowd goes quiet because what’s he going to say? This is the chief priests. And there were two of them, Annas and Caiaphas, father-in-law and son-in-law, one appointed by the Romans, one appointed by the Jews. Those two and other elders or religious leaders are there, and it really is a mounting tension between Jesus and these religious leaders. So, the crowd would’ve gone silent when they posed their question. Now they’re intrigued because the crowds saw John the Baptist, whom Jesus brings up, as a prophet of God. The religious leaders knew it. Jesus knew it. And how clever of Jesus to bring up John the Baptist in this moment of great tension and say, “Was John the Baptists’ authority divine or of men?” Now Jesus is framing the entire conversation, isn’t he?

They’re pointing the finger at him, ‘By what authority do you do this? Who gave you this authority?’ Jesus is saying, ‘There’s this thing called divine authority. Do you believe in it? Would you recognize it if it were right in front of you?’ Because it was.

And then here’s what these guys do. When that question is asked, it’s even more quiet. And they go over here like a bunch of Keystone Kops, get in a huddle, ‘He’s got us. I think he’s got us again. One more time, he’s busted us.’ And then they come back, and this is so funny.

Verse 27: “And they answered Jesus and they said, ‘We do not know.'” So once again, the expediency of agnosticism. Once again, the cowardice of agnosticism. Now I’m agnostic about some things. We’re all probably at some point able to look at some subject matter and say, “Yeah, I don’t think we know about that. I don’t think we know everything about that.” But on this one right here, thousands of people are going to the Jordan to be baptized by John the Baptist. Thousands of people agree that he’s a prophet, and the common people get it. They see it. It’s divine authority. It’s God speaking through his prophet. And who doesn’t get it? The religious leaders. And why don’t they get it? It’s right here in verse 27: “We do not know.”

There is a stubbornness to their agnosticism, to their claim to not know. Is it warranted? I suggest it is not warranted in this particular case. And then Jesus, of course, goes, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.” He’s essentially saying, ‘Folks, if John the Baptist stumps you, then I’m way above your pay grade on this. You haven’t even got a chance to understand this, okay?’ And the reason I know that is because John the Baptist worked, he performed zero miracles. Jesus has already shown that he has authority over disease, disasters like storms, demons that nobody else seemed to have any power over, and even death itself. He’s raised three people from the dead, one of them is standing right there, Lazarus: “It’s me, formally dead. Hello, my name is Formerly Dead. I’m actually a member of the Grateful Dead.”  That’s amazing, all standing right there, and these guys can’t see it. “We don’t know.”

Maybe you’re here today and you take that stance of agnostic. “I don’t know. If God would just speak to me.” Well, I got 66 books here where He did. “If God would just show Himself to me.” Well, I think that would actually cause you to disintegrate but let me point you to a universe full, not just a mountain of evidence, but a universe full of evidence for the existence of God.

We are currently spinning around on this globe at the speed of 1037 miles per hour. Hold on. Accident or design that we don’t just go flying off? Your nose. (“Quit picking on my nose!”) Your nose has so many olfactory nerve endings in it that you can distinguish thousands of smells as those olfactory nerve endings send a signal up to your brain and your brain says, “Oh, Mrs. Fields’ chocolate chips, my grandmother’s perfume, my brother’s gym socks, whatever,” on and on. Your eyeball can see literally millions of colors, most of us. That’s the way it was designed. Accident or design? If design, that designer has much greater authority than I could ever have, than you could ever have. And it also means this world’s order, this world’s beauty, was intentional. And I can rest in that. I can rest in that.

All right, so Jesus now says, he rolls right into a little-known parable, a lot of you may have read this, but I love this, he says to these religious leaders, “But what do you think?” Hey, did you just notice? He asked them another question. He’s giving them another chance. How kind of Jesus. They have murder on their minds, we already know that from reading the rest of Matthew. They are seeking to discredit Jesus, and yet he gives them one more opportunity, ‘Hey guys, what do you think?’

Then he gives them a story, a parable, because evidently they need a story to help understand. It’s just like today, a lot of people will elevate the method, the pedagogical method, teaching through story. I think it’s great. And Jesus was great at it. He says, “A man had two sons. He came to the first and he said, ‘Son, go to work today in the vineyard.’ He answered and said, ‘I will, sir,’ and he did not go. He came to the second and said the same thing, but he answered and said, ‘I will not,’ yet he afterward regretted it and went. Which of the two did the will of his father?”

Now I understand that some of your English translations reverse those two. It’s really okay. Guess what? They’re both still there, aren’t they? It’s just in a different order. Your choice is still one of two. So, your Bible isn’t contradicting itself. Just some of the later manuscript copies reversed it. And isn’t it awesome that the Bible translators and those who copied manuscripts and all that, saw fit to actually tell us the truth? Oh, that that would happen in our day and time, about when things have been altered or changed or whatever. And these guys are good at doing that. And so, they say, ‘Hey, no problem.’ If the first one is the second one, or the second one is the first, it’s still two sons and it’s still one saying, ‘I will,’ and then he doesn’t and the other one is saying, ‘I will not.’ And then later he changed his mind and did what his father wanted to.

Jesus says to the religious leaders, “Which one did the will of the father?” Verse 31, look at this, “They said, ‘The latter.’ Jesus said to them, “Truly, I say to you that the tax gatherers and the harlots,” (Matthew’s ears perk up right here. He just loves to hear that, thinking ‘Oh, that’s me.”)  “the tax collectors and the harlots,” (or “the prostitutes,” some of your translations will say) “will get into the kingdom of heaven before you.” And he is talking to the religious leaders and the chief priests who were standing right there. Oh my goodness. “John came to you,” (this is John the Baptist) “in the way of righteousness,” (in the way he lived it out before you) “and you did not believe him. But the tax gathers and the harlots, they did believe him. And you, seeing this, did not even feel remorse afterwards so as to believe him.” Your disposition of heart, the volitional aspect of your faith, that is where your will is involved, you set your will against belief. It wasn’t that you needed one more piece of evidence, it’s that no evidence would do.

And that’s the way some people are in our day and time as well, right now. One more piece of evidence. How much more evidence will it take? Just one more piece seems to be the recurring answer from some folks. Okay. Bono has a new book out and some of you are familiar with it. It’s called Surrender. I haven’t read all of it, but I’ve skimmed some of it and watched a bunch of interviews with him. It’s interesting, I don’t agree with him on everything, of course, but he doesn’t agree with me on everything either. So that’s fine. He said:

“The ‘elephant in the room’ is a phrase I enjoy, having at different times been either elephant or room. We can lose ourselves in situations or conversations and miss the obvious. We’re looking for someone to save us or a solution to a problem, and they’re right in front of us, hiding in plain sight.”

–Bono, Surrender:  40 Songs, One Story

And there’s Jesus, standing there, and these religious leaders standing there, and they are trying to discredit him. They don’t want to have any part in believing or trusting him at all. They are dead set on making sure he gets dead. They have murder on their minds and they’re seeking ways to get rid of him. They’re asking about the scope and the source of his authority in a public venue—that would have been significant. The readers, as we are, are aware of how they want to do this, and that’s helpful for us. They were supposed to be the spiritual and moral leaders of their time, but they had murder on their minds. And the one they wanted to murder was Jesus, the son of David.

He used the term “son of man” to refer to himself most often. Both are terms that would have been used to describe someone who was God’s Messiah. So, there’s two things here really about divine authority that I’d like to just point out.

Jesus’ divine authority was evident in his words. This won’t be on the screen but I’m just going to throw this out here really quickly. His words and his works both go together to display, illustrate, and affirm his authority. There’s a part of me, like I say, that can understand their question as leaders. They want to know what’s going on. But here’s what we’ve already read. At the end of the Sermon on the Mount, we were told that,

“When Jesus had finished speaking these words (the Sermon on the Mount), the multitudes were amazed at his teaching;” (And here’s the reason:) “for He was teaching them as one having authority,” (And then it says,) “and not as their scribes.”

Matthew 7:28-29

As if to say their scribes don’t teach with any authority. The idea is that Jesus has intrinsic authority. It’s from within him. The scribes have derivative authority. They were pretty good at quoting Hallel and Akiva and Gamaliel, their rabbis, but not so good at sticking to the Word of God. For them that would’ve been the Old Testament, but they’d already added to the Old Testament 600 plus applications to God’s laws and trying to elevate their own traditions to the level of God’s Word.

“By what authority [Jesus] are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” Sounds so contemporary. “Who are you to tell me what to do?” is our mantra. These things, as I say, had to include his cleansing the temple, but I also think it had to include the blind receiving their sight, the lame, walking, those who couldn’t hear, being able to hear, Jesus standing up as the protector of the poor in the face of the abuse of these so-called religious leaders who were taking advantage of them in terms of their financially taxing them when they came to the temple to offer sacrifice.

So, in just a few days, this would be said:

“Now at the feast of the Governor, he was accustomed to release for the people any one prisoner whom they wanted. And at that time they were holding a notorious prisoner called Barabbas…”

(Interesting that his name means son of the Father, Barabbas. And here, the real son of the Father, Jesus, will end up taking the place of this false son of the Father on a cross, because Jesus will take Barabbas’ place as the people demand Barabbas to be released.)

“…So, when the people gathered, Pilate said to them, ‘Whom do you want me to release to you, Barabbas or Jesus who’s called the Christ?’ And Pilate knew it was because of envy that they had handed Jesus over.”

Matthew 27:15-18

(See, even the enemies of Jesus are here recorded as telling us the motive for the other enemies of Jesus, the religious leaders.)

When you get that kind of confirmation from one of your enemies who happens to also be on the other side, that’s pretty profound. As James R. Edwards has said,

“The characteristic of Jesus that left the most lasting impression on his followers and caused the greatest offense to his opponents was his exousia, his authority, his sovereign freedom and magisterial authority.”

–James R. Edwards

He literally can do virtually anything that can be done. He has the power, but he also has the authority to do that. The magisterial right. He is, as we learned in John Chapter 1 a few weeks ago, “the Word who was in the beginning,” he “was with God and he was God.” And “through him, all things came into being.” You see, he’s God’s Word incarnate, and therefore intrinsically has this kind of authority that none of the religious leaders and no other person on the planet has ever had before or since then.

So, we have, at least in this passage, four things that I think might be of interest to you, if I could just amplify them.

1. Recognizing Divine Authority. The recognition of divine authority begins without Jesus exposing their unwillingness to recognize divine authority. Would they humble themselves to recognize his divine authority if it was the elephant in the room as it was in the person of John the Baptist? And so, he puts John the Baptist up and still they say, “We don’t know” (expediency of agnosticism). And here in this passage we find again an opportunity for them to recognize Jesus’ divine authority, but they’re unwilling.

Ever since the Garden of Eden, humanity has lusted for power, for autonomy. And you might think I need another cup of coffee to think this through, but our lust for power, to have the final word, is what gets us in so much trouble. And it really is what’s wrong with this world. It’s why we can’t play well together in the sandbox.

I want what I want and I want it now and I have a right to it. And some people say, “Well, it’s okay if you stay in your own sandbox.” No, it’s not. Because what happens is, I grow darker and darker and darker and I become more and more and more self-destructive, and so do you, and so do people you know. And it’s a lot easier to see in people you know than it is to see in the mirror. But trust me, it’s in the mirror. And we’d do really well, I think, to wake up to our need for divine authority. See, Paul Tripp says, and I’ll put in another quote by him up here in a second, but this one I thought was important too,

“You simply cannot be in the center of your world and be your own highest authority, and not be a moral danger to yourself. It just doesn’t work.”

–Paul Tripp

See, that’s why we have to lock our doors. I loved it yesterday at the wedding, usually there’s a ring bearer or whatever. They had the ring brigade, and it was five little guys with the dark sunglasses and all sort of thing. They each had an earpiece, and they carried the ring down through the aisle, protecting the ring. They were marching on down like this. It was so cool to watch it happen. Yeah, we need security.

We need protection. Why? Because we can’t be trusted, that’s why. And you’re going, “Well, thanks for inviting me to church today. I was really glad to be here.” Listen, if we don’t get the right diagnosis, we’ll never get to the cure. And if all we do is come to church and tell everybody how sweet they are, how lovely they are, how well they look, how great they look and how nice they are as southerners, we’re never going to grow in Christ. We’re never going to go out and really affect changes. We’ll never be a city on a hill, a light that can’t be hidden, this model example of God’s redeemed community that they out there so desperately need to see because the solutions that they keep looking for are not taking them anywhere at all. It’s just circular, round and round and down and down. And we’ve got to be living out the gospel in word and deed, so people can see the kind of impact Jesus can have in our lives, in our relationships. We’re faced with it every day.

“Everything God has made is designed to confront us with God’s existence and nature and, in so doing, confront our delusions of autonomy and self-sufficiency. Every morning when we get up, we bump into God and come face-to-face with his existence.”

–Paul David Tripp, Do You Believe?

Remember that tomorrow morning, will you? And it’s not because you’re looking in the mirror, you’re thinking, “There’s God.” No, that’s the problem!  I look in the mirror and I go, “Okay, God, you got a good sense of humor. God, you overflow with grace. God, thank you for loving me. God, I’d love to walk with you today and I’d love to sense your presence in my life today.” Is that you? Let’s make it us on a daily basis. We need to recognize divine authority.

2. Repudiating Divine Authority. Here, I think in this story too, we see repudiating divine authority in verses 28 to 32. Repudiate means to rebuff, to adjure, to renounce, deliberately refuse to accept, to proactively abstain from acknowledging something. And as I say, in their expediency of agnosticism, this is what they do effectively. They simply deny the existence of divine authority. ‘No, no such thing. We don’t know. I don’t know anything about that. What do you mean? I don’t know.’ And I’ll just jump quick to the quote here because I got to keep going:

“All wicked men, though they pretend to be desirous of learning, shut the gate of truth if they feel it to be opposed to their wicked desires.”

John Calvin

He’s right. And their wicked desires were to do away with Jesus, to discredit him and do away with him and maintain their own sense of control and power and authority and their traditions and all that. So here comes Jesus, and it just unfortunately exposes them as they reply with this, “We don’t know.” It exposes their cowardice, intellectually. It exposes their hypocrisy, spiritually and morally, and exposes also that they’re liars because they did know, but they said, “We don’t know.” They just got caught in the argument. They got bested by Jesus. How often have we learned to rationalize by becoming irrational? Did you catch that? How often have we learned to rationalize our sinfulness, our self-centeredness, by becoming irrational, as they did in this case?

3. Resisting Divine Authority. My next point would emphasize that not only did they attempt to deny divine authority’s existence, repudiating it, but they also attempted to deny divine authority when Jesus showed it to them in the story. They become the one son who says, “Yes,” and then never goes to the vineyard. See, this all ties together. Yes, foliage, going to the vineyard and working is fruit, but they’re not going to do that. They’re just yes, wear the religious clothes and go to the building with the steeple on it, but live like I’m my own authority all week long and like Jesus doesn’t matter all week long, and like the mission he has for me in this world doesn’t matter. Personal resistance to divine authority is what is really on display here.

I don’t know how many of you were around in 1982.  There was an album that I listened to so many times called “American Fool” by a guy named John Cougar Mellencamp. Anybody remember this album? Four of you. Okay, good. That’s always nice. I always feel alone whenever I do my cultural references. He had a song on there that began with this hook-laden, snarling guitar riff. And then I would say he sang, but he literally shouted, “I fight authority, authority always… wins!”  Yeah, two of you. Thank you. That’s good. “I fight authority and authority always wins.” And that’s the whole song. I mean that’s a theme of the whole song, is that I keep banging my head up against authority and … Okay, it’s an expression of cultural whatever, from rock ‘n roll and all that sort of thing.

But from a philosophical standpoint, we actually, believe it or not, you might deny this, but as we showed earlier on with the question, how many of you don’t like authority? Most of us raised our hands. How many of you like authority in someone else’s life? Almost all of you raised your hands. And the reason is because we actually want to live in a world where justice is important and significant. And it means something more than just my preference or your preference. So, we have to have a higher authority than the self if we’re going to have that. And that’s exactly what we have as creatures who’ve been created by a God who loves.  That’s the good news, He loves us too. See, that’s the good news. So, expressing the frustration of every defiant self, whoever asserted their existence, Mellencamp would say, “I fight authority, but authority always wins.” There’s an ultimate authority, that’s true. And the good news is it’s the God of the Bible who will have the last word in all of reality.

And that’s our claim when we study the Bible, when we point to a real God who is really there.  As Emil Brunner said,

“Sin is the desire for the autonomy of man; therefore, in the last resort, it is the denial of God and self-deification.; it is getting rid of the Lord God, and the proclamation of self-sovereignty.”

–Emil Brunner, Dogmatics

Think about that in our day and time. ‘Look for the God within you’ is the subtle voice, the subtle suggestion. And the Bible says, “There’s no God within you. You aren’t divine. You reflect the divine, but you don’t have the divine yourself.” That’s the Bible’s difference. And so, sin is “the getting rid of the Lord God and it’s the proclamation of self-sovereignty.”

Finally, recognizing divine authority, repudiating divine authority, resisting it personally. These guys were doing that. They were saying yes like foliage but no when it came to fruit. And then I have to end on a good gospel note, don’t you think?  It would be nice to do that.

4. Resting in Divine Authority. Here’s the idea of resting in divine authority and it’s on display in this passage in a most unusual way. When Jesus brings up two groups of people, the tax collectors and the harlots, last on anybody’s list to enter the kingdom of God, in their time, and yet representing really all of us who’ve come to a place of being confronted with our sin and understand the gravity of our sin, the nature of our sin, the offense that it is to God, our need for redemption, which in this world in which we live right now, I mean we’re way past arguing about whether or not there’s such a thing as truth. Now it’s ‘Build your own reality!’ out there. And I don’t know about you, but I know people whose lives are self-destructing because they think they can do that.

This passage to me was a great reminder all week long that, ‘o to rest in the reality that God has created me, o to rest under his divine authority knowing that the burden’s not on me to come up with the answer to the question, who I am.’ The burden’s not on me to, somehow or another, define reality. No, that’s a burden too great for any one of us to bear. We can rest in divine authority because we’ve come to the place of understanding just like the tax collections and harlots. When I come to Jesus, I’ve got nothing. I’ve got no claim. I’ve got no merits, I’ve got nothing. I have been living in rebellion. I have been living as a God unto myself and when I come to Him I have to come with empty hands, not holding up my resume, not trying to balance out the scales, simply to the Lord and the God of grace.  I come to Him and I lift up my empty hands and receive His grace and His mercy.

Todd Billings has a great book on union with Christ. He says,

“Since we’re not created to be autonomous, self-made people but were created to be in communion with God, when the Spirit leads us back into communion with God in Christ, we do not lose our true selves. We regain them.”

–J. Todd Billings, Union with Christ

I love those last three words: “We regain them.” You’ve been wondering who you are. You’ve been wondering, “What does it mean to be a human person?” You’ve been wondering, “Is there really any meaning or purpose to my life, any telos at all to existence, any sense of purpose?” And screaming from the pages of the Bible come, “Yes! The God who made you wants to reflect His image through you into this world, and it begins with Him setting His great love on you and receiving you as His son and daughter, if you’ll simply turn to Him in repentance and faith, resting in divine authority.”

Repenting sinners is who we are, represented here by the tax collectors and the prostitutes and harlots. They know they’re unworthy. Nobody had to tell them that; they knew that. They’re free, though, because they rested in divine authority and the self no longer rules them. They’re self-renouncers, self-deniers, and they are not trying to embark on a self-salvation project. They know religious rule-following won’t save them. They need God’s free gift of grace and once they receive it, they begin to walk in the freedom of divine authority. In contrast to that kind of freedom, Jesus in verse 32 says this: ‘But you seeing this (tax collectors, seeing John the Baptist, seeing the harlots come in, you seeing all of this, there it is right there) “did not even feel remorse afterward so as to believe him.”

So that’s what it gets down to this morning for each and every one of us. Even on a daily basis, it gets down to that. When your feet hit the floor tomorrow morning, begin with him in mind. Ah, I’ve told you before, my mom does the Lord’s Prayer and Psalm 23 every single morning. I’ve tried to start doing that as well. It’s a great way to start the day, reminding yourselves that you belong to Him, that He is yours. Jesus was patient. He was kind with these folks, even though they were after him. There would be more and one much more obvious event yet to come in which they would have an opportunity to see that he had divine authority—an empty tomb.  The resurrection of Jesus, as the Apostle Paul describes it in 1 Corinthians 15:6, “was an event that was credited by 500 eyewitnesses,” who saw Jesus, the risen Jesus, after he had risen from the dead. Will we notice the elephant in the room? There’s Jesus. He’s standing right there.

You’re hearing about him. I’m hearing about him. And after his resurrection, now that we know all of that, wow, isn’t that brilliant? Later at the end of Matthew, he will say to his disciples:

“And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, ‘All authority (all exousia) has been given to me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore, make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you, even to the end of the age.’”

Matthew 28:18-20

See, there’s a connection between belief and behavior. Is that connection being made in our lives? Is that connection made in your life as an individual believer, as part of a church like this? What a great promise that is. I can rest in that.

Since God the Father has given all authority in heaven and earth to Jesus, then Jesus will have the final word on everything, everywhere, for all of time and eternity. Guess who gets the last final word? It’s Jesus. I’m so glad it’s not Jim, I’m so glad, frankly, it’s not you. I mean y’all are awesome, but I don’t want you to have the last word. You might wake up cranky one morning, and Jesus never does.

“In the kingdom of God, the one thing that qualifies you is knowing that you don’t qualify, and the one thing that disqualifies you is thinking that you do.”

–Dane Ortlund, Surprised By Jesus

And that’s what we have as an example at the end of this little passage here. Let’s pray.

Lord, thank you for loving us. You don’t to. We don’t have a claim on you. You don’t owe it to us. Thank you for loving us, though. That must mean it comes from your heart, not from our performance. That must mean it’s who you are, to be loving to tax collectors, sinners, prostitutes who’ve turned their back on you like we all have done in some way or another, trying to set ourselves up as God, trying to control everything and have the last word ourselves. We repent from that right now. We fall before you, lift up the empty hands of faith and pray, “God, may your grace wash us in you.” May it be proven to be greater than all our sin as we turn to Jesus in whose name we pray. Amen. Amen.

(Edited for Reading)

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