By Whose Authority?

A Sermon by the Rev. James P. Cooper

Olivet New Church, Toronto.  March 25, 2007

Now it happened on one of those days, as He taught the people in the temple and preached the gospel, that the chief priests and the scribes, together with the elders, confronted Him And spoke to Him, saying, "Tell us, by what authority are You doing these things? Or who is he who gave You this authority?" (LUK 20:1-2)

As we approach the Easter Season it is useful for us to reflect on some of the events that took place during the final week of the Lord's earthly ministry using the chronology provided in the gospel of Luke. It begins with the triumphal entry into Jerusalem that we now call "Palm Sunday." We’re told that as He approached the city He "wept over it." The Arcana tells us that:

Jerusalem, over which Jesus wept, or which He pitied and over which He grieved, was not only the city Jerusalem, but also the church; the last day of which, when there would no longer be any charity nor consequently any faith, is meant in the internal sense; and hence from pity and grief He wept (AC 5480).

The Lord was here in this time and place because it had come to this, that the Jewish Church had to come to an end and needed to be judged and removed so that a new church could take its place. It is our very nature that we grieve when one state comes to an end and we begin another – even when we leave something good for something better, as every homesick college student knows. And even when we leave hard times or difficult situations, there are still elements within them that we can look back upon with fondness. So too the Lord grieved for the Jewish Church at its end, and He pitied those who, in spiritual freedom, had chosen to follow the loves of self and the world. And yet He continued into the city to finish what had to be done for the sake of the eternal welfare of all people.

Once He entered Jerusalem, the first thing He did was go to the temple. One might have expected Him to go to the Palace – but He didn't. Instead of cleaning out the corrupt governors, He cleaned out the temple, showing yet again in yet another way, that His kingdom was not of this world.

Remember that the Jewish tradition of sacrificial worship had declined by steps until it was almost non-existent. With the division of the kingdom, the northern tribes had no access to the temple in Jerusalem. They either ignored the rituals altogether, or broke the commandments by sacrificing in other places. When the Jews were carried captive to Babylon, they were not permitted to make sacrifices at all, and it was there that they invented reading the scriptures and discussing them as a substitute for sacrifice. In the Lord's day, they retained the idea of scripture reading and discussion, but they had also restored sacrifice to some extent. For the convenience of Jews who had to travel some distance to make their sacrifices, and who might have currency issued by a variety of nations, there were convenient merchants within the temple itself so that visitors to Jerusalem could change their money (and pay a small fee, of course), and then purchase the appropriate animal for the ritual sacrifice. As you can imagine all this activity, the noise of the animals, the shouting and haggling over exchange rates, would have a profound effect on the sphere within the temple. It explains why the Lord called it a "den of thieves" instead of a house of prayer.

For the next several days He took over the temple. He recognized as a "rabbi" or teacher, and therefore allowed to conduct public lessons in places of worship. It wasn’t an official position like an ordained priest today. It seems it was more a matter of when people began to speak about scriptural issues, the speaker’s eloquence and reasoning marked him as a learned person and such a person would be given the honory title of "rabbi" and given deference in future discussions.

His actions in cleaning out the market stalls, and the ideas that He was teaching in the temple infuriated the chief priests and the scribes and the leaders of the people. No doubt the merchants had been paying rent for their space inside the temple, and the ideas challenged their authority over the common people. They were beside themselves with anger. They wanted to destroy Him, but they were afraid to because they could see with their own eyes that there were crowds of people who came to the temple every day to hear Him, and the people were "very attentive." (LUK 19:48)

Finally, the anger boiled over and the priests confronted Jesus:

Now it happened on one of those days, as He taught the people in the temple and preached the gospel, that the chief priests and the scribes, together with the elders, confronted Him And spoke to Him, saying, "Tell us, by what authority are You doing these things? Or who is he who gave You this authority?" (LUK 20:1-2)

We like to think of the Lord as a gentle shepherd, a heavenly Father who can answer any question. We may even be a little uncomfortable with this picture of a confrontational Jesus who, instead of answering their question in a kindly way, instead snapped back with one of His own.

Sometimes people ask questions when they don't really want to know the answer, rather they are trying to introduce a new subject, or create an opening to give their own answer to the question. And sometimes, like politicians in a debate, they just want to trip the other guy up. The Lord didn't answer their question because it wasn't really question but a statement, like when you find your child finger painting on the walls, and you ask "What are you doing?" What the child is doing is obvious. The real question the parent is asking is "How dare you challenge my authority by doing something I don't want you to do?" The leaders of the church were angry because He was questioning their authority, so the Lord, knowing this, asks them to address the question of authority by asking them a question about the authority of John the Baptist.

But He answered and said to them, "I will also ask you one thing, and answer Me: "The baptism of John – was it from heaven or from men?" (LUK 20:3-4)

Notice how their answer shows that the leaders of the church had no concern for the TRUTH.

And they reasoned among themselves, saying, "If we say, 'From heaven,' He will say, 'Why then did you not believe him?' But if we say, 'From men,' all the people will stone us, for they are persuaded that John was a prophet." So they answered that they did not know where it was from. (LUK 20:5-70)

Notice what the church leaders didn't say: They didn't ask each other what they believed. They didn't refer to scripture. Without any regard to the truth, they considered the political implications of the answers available to them. Since they didn't like the results of either possible answer, they refused to answer. Unable to solve the problem of Jesus’s teaching and leading through confrontation and argument, the leaders of the church resolved to move to the next level.

The Jews and Israelites had 2 kinds of capital punishment: stoning and hanging on wood. Stoning was used to punish those who sought to destroy truths relating to worship which were commanded by the Lord because a stone represents truth, or in the opposite sense falsity.

Hanging on Wood was used to punish one who sought to destroy the goodness of life because wood is a sign of good and in the opposite sense the evil belonging to evils desires.

When someone steals something, we say that he took our "goods." Remember that when the Lord was crucified, there were two thieves crucified at the same time, men being punished for taking away the goods of another.

Blasphemy is the contradiction of what is held to be true so stoning is the appropriate punishment. Since the scribes were about to contradict the belief in John's holiness, they were correctly afraid of being stoned. Several times the people threatened to stone Jesus for saying that He was God.

But what about stoning for adultery? Many of us think first of stoning as the prescribed punishment for adultery, and that does not seem to fit the system described. To our way of thinking, adultery seems to be a perversion of something good – the marriage, not a matter of falsity. The Arcana explains it this way:

If a damsel were married, and the tokens of virginity were not found in her, she was to be stoned, because she had wrought folly in Israel by playing the harlot in her father's house (DEU. xxii. 20, 21). This was because by "whoredom" was signified the falsification of truth, thus its destruction. If a man lay in a city with a damsel, a virgin betrothed to a man, they were both to be stoned (DEU. xxii. 23, 24), for the same reason, namely, because of whoredom, for spiritual whoredom is the falsification of truth. (AC 7456:7)

When they finally came to try destroy the Lord, they sought to crucify Him, which is the punishment of hanging on wood. This shows that it wasn't the truth of the doctrine that He taught that condemned Him. In fact, He actually agreed on most points with the Pharisees. The Pharisees believed in the Divine Origin of the books of Moses. The Pharisees believed in the importance of following the Mosaic law. The Pharisees, unlike the Saducees, also believed in a life after death.

If Jesus had only limited Himself to political activism, the Pharisees could easily have supported Him, even teamed up with Him to overthrow the Roman government – but He challenged their authority over the church and the people instead of working with them. And so He had to be destroyed.

It wasn’t the new doctrine that they hated, it was His challenge to their way of life. Remember the scene when Pilate tried to release Him to them? Pilate knew that Jesus had done nothing worthy of death. He knew that the church leaders were terribly frustrated and could not think of another way to make the problem go away.

Pilate, therefore, wishing to release Jesus, again called out to them. But they shouted, saying, "Crucify Him, crucify Him!" And he said to them the third time, "Why, what evil has He done? I have found no reason for death in Him. I will therefore chastise Him and let Him go." But they were insistent, demanding with loud voices that He be crucified. And the voices of these men and of the chief priests prevailed. (LUK 23:20-23)

This reveals the real issue for the Jews was not doctrinal differences. If it had been, they would have demanded that He be stoned. But they gave no reason to Pilate, just screamed their hatred of Him. The reason that drove their hatred was that He challenged their way of life. Jesus had not stolen their goods. Rather, He had made it obvious to them that they were without good, that in spite of their traditions, and their laws, and their teachings, they had failed to apply those teachings to their own lives. They had made the laws of Moses of "no effect." The wooden cross became a symbol of that nation's destructive evils.

So what is it in us that separates us from God, from the church, and from each other? The appearance is that it’s a difference of ideas, of doctrine. That’s certainly what appears on the surface. But remember what the Word teaches about the Ancient Church, that there was with that church a great variety of doctrine, a great variety of form and they were still unified into one church because there was an underlying recognition of the importance of charity. In the Easter story, it appears to be the Lord’s teachings that cause the anger, but in the last analysis they could not explain themselves, there was no argument over forms or teachings. It was the loves of self and the world overpowering everything else until it became pure hatred. When asked for a logical reason, all that hatred can reply is "crucify him."

That underlying love of self that expresses itself as hatred and contempt for others is what put the eternal salvation of the entire human race at risk. Hatred can only be conquered by love. That the Lord allowed Himself to be crucified was also a symbol of the power of His Divine Love for the salvation of the universal human race – it could overcome even this.

"And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life. For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved." (JOH 3:14-17)

Amen.


Lessons 

First Lesson: Luke 20:1-8

Now it happened on one of those days, as He taught the people in the temple and preached the gospel, that the chief priests and the scribes, together with the elders, confronted Him {2} and spoke to Him, saying, "Tell us, by what authority are You doing these things? Or who is he who gave You this authority?" {3} But He answered and said to them, "I also will ask you one thing, and answer Me: {4} "The baptism of John; was it from heaven or from men?" {5} And they reasoned among themselves, saying, "If we say, 'From heaven,' He will say, 'Why then did you not believe him?' {6} "But if we say, 'From men,' all the people will stone us, for they are persuaded that John was a prophet." {7} So they answered that they did not know where it was from. {8} And Jesus said to them, "Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things."

Second Lesson: AC 7456

[2] As regards the signification of "stoning," be it known that there were two death penalties among the Israelites and Jews, with whom the representative of a church had been instituted, of which the one was stoning, and the other was hanging upon wood. Stoning was for any one who desired to destroy the truths of worship that had been commanded, and hanging was for any one who desired to destroy the good of life. That those were stoned who desired to destroy the truths of worship, was because a "stone" signified truth, and in the opposite sense falsity; and that those were hanged upon wood who desired to destroy the good of life, was because "wood" signified good, and in the opposite sense the evil of cupidities.

[8] In Luke: [The chief priests, scribes, and elders] concluded among themselves that if they were to say that the baptism of John was from heaven, He would say, Why did ye not believe him? But if they said, From men, all the people would stone them (xx. 5, 6); where also "stoning" is predicated of what is contrary to truth.


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