The chief priests, scribes, and elders held power. The sect of the Sadducees controlled the Temple, which controlled Jerusalem. The Pharisees had won over the general populous with their religious conservatism. Of course, the Roman occupation held power over them all.
The Romans governed with a hands-off approach, so long as they received their tribute money, and there were no public disturbances. The Romans had built the Antonio Fortress on the northwest corner of the Temple Mount to ensure they could see anything brewing into a melee. The two fortress towers also served as a local Roman jail.
The Sadducees wanted to appease the Romans who supported the status quo power structure in Israel. The more secular Herodians were ok with the status quo, too. The Pharisees were very nationalistic and dreamed of Israel being a free, unoccupied nation. They, too, had an interest in the status quo, but wished the Romans would pack up and go home. The Essenes saw the whole system as corrupt and unlivable. They settled on the northwest shore of Salt Sea (Dead Sea) and lived in monastic community. The zealots were the terrorists of the day, and they would try to destabilize the system. They were antagonistic toward the status quo, and every group dependent on the status quo was against them.
When Jesus came along, He was observed by everyone. He had no interest in politics, at least the politics of this world. He exercised no strategy for change, except heart-change. He did teach, and He was critical of the hypocrisy of the religious/political leaders. The miracles He performed drew very large crowds. Like other traveling rabbis, He had a small following of devoted disciples. His opponents grew increasingly critical of His ministry, especially when it got very large and encroached upon the power and influence of the beneficiaries of the status quo.
Jesus’ miracles were undeniable, so those who were threatened by Him attacked in the area of practical religion. In the view of the Pharisees, Jesus was a notorious Sabbath breaker, and His interpretation of the Sabbath Law was unacceptable. Healing on the Sabbath was considered a criminal work by the legalists, but Jesus taught that it was good to do works of mercy on the Sabbath.
Subsequent generations recognize the prophets of previous generations, and they build them tombs and memorials, but why are not prophets welcome in their own country in their own generation? Jesus was in the Jerusalem Temple teaching when the religious authorities came to question His authority. A particular challenge of Jesus’ authority, by those in authority, followed His triumphal entry into Jerusalem and during His final Passover Week (Mt 21:23–27; Mk 11:27–33).
The Jewish authorities had questioned Jesus’ authority before, when He healed people in Jerusalem on the Sabbath (Jn 5, 9). He gave multiple witnesses to justify His identity and His good works (Jn 5:30–47). Nothing incensed the leaders more than when He declared the forgiveness of sins (Mt 9:2; Lk 7:48). This is because they knew that only God could forgive a person’s sins (Mk 2:7; Lk 5:21).
The implication was obvious: Jesus is God. Who has greater authority than God? The lesson for us is obvious: the religious leaders were questioning God, as to who gave God His authority. Lot’s presence was obvious in the gates of Sodom. Moses preached, but Pharaoh would not listen. The prophets preached, but Israel and Judah were not interested.
Instead of giving them a straight answer, which would have been the truth, but would have been fodder for their folly, Jesus challenged them to first judge John the Baptist (Mt 21:25). A “judge the Baptist” conference yielded a non-answer.
A true answer would have exposed them. To say John was sent from heaven, a prophet with a message, Jesus could question the leaders’ unwillingness to obey John. To say John was from man, another zealot, could incite hostility from the Passover festival crowd. It was safer for the inquisition team to plead ignorance. Jesus then refused to answer their question, regarding the source of His authority. They simply were not worthy judges, and it was not yet His time to be arrested.
People need the truth, but too many preaching pastors make poor prophets. Some pervert justification by making good works mandatory for righteousness. More, however, pervert sanctification by discarding the Law of God as a rule for life. Cheap grace abounds in the antinomian evangelical church. The homosexual pastor sports his new skull tattoo with the prophetic reassurance, “we are all under grace.”
Every generation needs a healthy portion of teaching on sin and the Law before grace means what it should mean to us. Cheap grace makes the church look like the sensually dressed women, who delight in being worshiped on Sunday morning, in the dimly lit sanctuary, where we sing of His sloppy wet kisses. This is foul.
For one to object to Temple activities garners the same response Jesus got from the liberal Sadducees. They had no problem letting the moneychangers into the Temple, but they did have a problem with Jesus’ teaching and healing there.
Prophets do not typically make good pastors. They hold and distribute too much truth for people, who like to sin under grace. Prophets make better traveling evangelists because they do preach sin, the Law, the cross of Christ, and the mercy of God. Pastors, to some degree, have to be people-pleasers, or they are eventually cast out of the synagogue. Prophets just move on after a brief visit.
Love is mandatory for Christians to deal with the multitude of sins we commit against one another (1 Pet 4:8); but the scourge of our day in the Western church is the “God-is-love-only-Gospel.” We must preach that God is love (1 Jn 4:8), and that He has demonstrated His love toward us (Rom 5:8), but toward us as ungodly sinners (Rom 5:6). The average hearer of the psychological version of “God loves you,” believes God loves her because she is loveable, or at least worth loving. The true Christian confession is that Jesus Christ did not come from the Father, with all authority in heaven and earth, to save the semi-lovable. Rather, He came to save a wretch like me.
Jerusalem, during the Lord’s visitation, was filled with totally depraved sinners. Jesus Christ had the authority on earth to forgive people of their sins (Mt 9:6; Mk 2:10; Lk 5:24). He was God incarnate (Jn 1:14; 8:58; 10:30), and He went to the Cross to pay the penalty for the sins of His people (Mt 1:21; 1 Pet 2:24). They were the ones who received Him, by the will of God (Jn 1:12–13). The elders of Israel, however, cast Him outside the camp (Heb 13:11, 13).
What is confounding is why the religious leaders were so threatened by Jesus? Whatever is not of faith is sin (Rom 14:23). Fear is sin, and the chief priests and elders were afraid (Mt 21:46). The loss of power, position, and money is a very powerful motivator, for those who currently possess it. Jesus clearly did not covet any of these things the religious leaders already possessed. So, what was their contention with Him?
Jesus told them the truth about themselves. They were sinful hypocrites, claiming to serve God. He simply called them out: with His authoritative preaching, “Woe unto you…”; His authoritative teaching, “You have heard it said…but I tell you…”; His authoritative declarations, “Your sins are forgiven…”; and His authoritative actions, “And the blind and the lame came to Him in the Temple, and He healed them (Mt 21:14).” The Word of God was cleaning out the house of God, and it was God doing the cleaning this time. Jesus exposed the evil done in the name of the Lord (Eph 5:11), in the house of the Lord (1 Pet 4:17).
In every century of church history, charlatans in sheep’s clothing have found their way into Christ’s church. Many have risen to power and brought heresy from within. The sheep are unaware because too many of them are goats, who permit the false teachers to thrive. Sometimes it is not even false teachers, but game show hosts and circus masters, who lead the church into everything other than the sanctifying means of grace. Prayer time is reduced; Scripture reading is reduced; Preaching is reduced; Lord’s Supper is reduced to a few times per year; Baptisms are set for off times; and this is so the concert, the carnival, the games, the comedy club pep talks, the Christian magic shows have their fair share of time.
Where is the authority in the church, today? It may or may not be in the church. If the authority is in the church, it comes from the prophetic pulpit. A called man of God, filled with the Spirit of God, preaching the Word of God is the authority in the church. Thus, the prophet must be willing to suffer for the sake of the Gospel. The Spirit must illumine the Scriptures (Lk 24:45; Jn 16:13), which means the Scriptures must be opened with accurate exegesis, orthodox theology, and proper application.
If born again believers are the Temple of God filled with the Spirit of God (1 Cor 3:16; 6:19; Eph 2:20–22), then we must submit ourselves to what God says to us (Ex 20:6; Dt 5:10; Jn 14:15, 21). Is what the preacher preaches true to Scripture? Is what the preacher preaches relevant to our circumstances? Can you not discern when God, not the preacher, is speaking to you through the preacher? You surely should be able to know it is God, if indeed the Spirit of Christ is in you. He is our authority. As the prophet Isaiah wrote, “For the Lord is our Judge. The Lord is our Lawgiver. The Lord is our King. He will save us (Is 33:22).”
Why could the religious leaders not hear God through Jesus Christ? Why did they rebel against His authority? It is because they were not born again of the Spirit (Jn 3:1–8; 1 Pet 1:3). How have you responded to preaching in your local church pulpit? How has your church responded to preaching? How has your church responded to the pastor who preached the truth? Is he even still there?
We are in grave danger of being the very villains we like to vilify during the Passion week. Until the church stops casting out the Word of God, which is simply ichabod, we will be guilty of killing Jesus again and again. By quenching the Spirit’s authority, we miss the Spirit’s guidance and teaching. We need prophetic authority restored to the pulpit, and this means we need a few prophets to step up and preach the Word, while it is out of season in America.
Spokane Valley, Washington
March 20, 2021