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?” 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. 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?’ But if we say, ‘From man,’ we are afraid of the crowd, for they all hold that John was a prophet.” 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 21:23-27)
Jesus either has all authority on heaven and earth (Matthew 28:18), or he has precisely none at all.
The Pharisees’ question to Jesus amounts to the same outcry our secular milieu raises against him today: What gives you the right, Jesus? Or, perhaps more saliently, What gives you Christians the right? That is because, simply put, whenever the authority of the Lord Jesus Christ is asserted, the rebellious human heart and all its fruits in society retort, “Says who?”
Jesus doesn’t respond with a recitation of his messianic credentials. (“See, now, I’m virgin-born, making me sinless. Also, I’m the Son of David, making me your rightful king. Gentlemen, come now.”) Instead, he turns the question back on them. He targets their inconsistencies.
Yet many today are at peace in their inconsistency. Most well-meaning American religionists will gladly “ask Jesus into their heart,” provided he keeps his distance from its throne and plays the part of a butler. Or court jester.
Jesus will not allow us to do this. We cannot appeal to his moral teachings when they happen to match the current conventional wisdom—such as, for example, on issues of racial reconciliation or refugees—without also being obliged to submit to his absolute authority over marriage, the womb, and our wallets. A partial Lord is no Lord.
Better to embrace the whole.
Or, to echo Augustine, if you pick and choose which of Jesus’ commands you like and dislike, it isn’t him you believe, but yourself.
Evangelicals ought to start asking the types of presuppositional questions Jesus used to ensnare his detractors. The baptism of John may be long forgotten, but the moral law of God is permanently etched on every unbelieving heart. You believe in equality and justice in the social sphere—on what basis? You believe theft, cold-blooded murder, rape, and out-and-out infidelity are, at the very least, unsavory things—says who?
Says God, of course. His authority over life and culture is absolute. This same God sent Christ to die for sinners and be raised and exalted, to rule over a kingdom of people who bow the knee to him and embrace his grace.
But if our hearers refuse to acknowledge that the moral ground on which they’re standing is in fact God’s turf, our response—like our Lord’s—is, “Neither will I tell you.”