The reader may be wondering why I’ve felt the need to give just two verses an entire web page of their own. After all, aren’t they just a conclusion to the Sermon on the Mount that rounds off the section rather nicely and shouldn’t we rather dwell on what Jesus said?
Although this is quite true, these verses do have something relevant to teach us concerning not only the way authority was imparted amongst the Jews of the first century but how the present day Church has also fallen into the very same trap that the scribes and Pharisees fell into - of substituting the authority of God upon ministry for the authority that comes as a bestowal of a position by man.
Therefore, the verses - although at first glance not too important - are actually of prime importance in helping us understand the way we have, unfortunately, chosen a structure within our denominations which pulls against the will of God.
Before we consider the subject of authority in the life of Jesus and especially as it was evident upon His teaching, there are a few points worthy of note in this short, two verse, summary which brings to a conclusion the entire Sermon on the Mount.
Firstly, we need to notice the people’s attraction towards Jesus. We noted at the beginning of chapter 5 that the message was primarily directed at ‘His disciples’ (Mtw 5:1) who gathered round when He ascended up onto the mountain, presumably to remove Himself from the crowds which were flocking to Him.
Even though Jesus seems to begin with just the disciples gathering around Him to hear His words, the Sermon concludes by mentioning not the disciples but ‘the crowds’ which seem to have come to Him after He had initially started His discourse.
Moreover, as we go into Matthew chapter 8 (as a continuation from 7:29), we notice that, having attracted the multitudes to Him, they continued to follow down from the mountain, wanting to be around Him wherever He went (Mtw 8:1).
Though, on the whole, the crowds failed to fully perceive who He was and the need to follow Him with a relevant lifestyle rather than with just words and bodily presence, they did gather about Him because they recognised that His authority was from God, unlike so many of the other religious teachers that they must have heard through the years.
It is not wrong, therefore, to expect an anointed move of God to attract followers who, just as it was in Jesus’ day, fail to commit themselves to what God requires from them. Though there will be disciples of Jesus made who stick to Him like glue, there will also be a christianising of society for whatever personal reasons the people have.
But, nevertheless, an authoritative (rather that authoritarian) move of God will generally attract to itself people who are just ‘interested’.
Secondly, we note in Mtw 7:28 that the crowds which had gathered by the time Jesus had finished speaking
‘...were astonished at his teaching’
where the Greek word translated ‘astonished’ (Strongs Greek number 1605) means, according to Vines
‘to be exceedingly struck in the mind’
Perhaps the better translation for modern man would be, rather, either ‘ to be gobsmacked’ or ‘to have one’s mind blown’ for these two phrases seem to convey the overall force of meaning. This wasn’t just a few people saying ‘Well, didn’t Jesus manage to get some interesting facts from His exposition of the Law?’ but more in keeping with ‘Oh my goodness! Have you ever heard anything as radical as that?!’
The astonishment with which Jesus was received by the Jews - and just about everyone He met - is not limited to this one passage. In Mtw 13:54 where the same Greek word is employed, we read that, when He came to Nazareth where He’d been brought up
‘...He taught them in their synagogue, so that they were astonished...’
and, in the parallel passage which possibly reflects the same incident (Mark 6:2), we read that
‘...on the sabbath He began to teach in the synagogue; and many who heard Him were astonished...’
yet, because of their unbelief, He didn’t do very many miraculous works there (Mtw 13:58, Mark 6:5-6). Even when Jesus came to Jerusalem shortly before His crucifixion, the chief priests and scribes are fearful of Him, not because He comes with an array of personnel who are acting as bodyguards, but because (Mark 11:18)
‘...all the multitude was astonished at his teaching’
It was Jesus’ popularity that caused the religious leaders to want to remove Him because, unlike the reaction when they spoke to the people concerning the requirements of the Law, the people flocked to Him and held His teaching in great respect and with awe.
Finally, although the Greek word is not used in John 7:46, we get a good sense of the effect that Jesus was having on His listeners in the response of the officers who had been sent by the chief priests and Pharisees to arrest Him (John 7:32).
Having failed to do what they’d been instructed, not by the elusiveness of Christ but through their own choice, they report to their masters that their reason for failing to comply is because
‘...No man ever spoke like this man!’
But it was not just some abstract concept of ‘authority’ which each of these groups of people witnessed but, as Mtw 7:28-29 explains, they were astonished at His teaching because
‘...He taught them as One who had authority...’
We shall consider below the subject of authority and how that of Jesus and the scribes (also mentioned here) differed, but we need to note here that Jesus didn’t astonish people because He was skilful in formulating sentences which mesmerised His listeners but, very simply, because the people could recognise that the hand of God was upon Him.
They may not necessarily understand everything that He said (as they seem not to have done on a fair number of occasions) but they couldn’t mistake that God had given Him the authority to say the things which He did. It wasn’t so much what He said, then, but the way in which He said it - that is, with authority.
Thirdly, and finally, Matmor notes that the tense of the verb ‘to teach’ in Mtw 7:29
‘...puts some emphasis on the continuing nature of the activity’
As we noted above by quoting several places in the Gospels where the Greek word translated ‘astonished’ is used, the people who heard Jesus weren’t astonished just after this one discourse but, throughout His continued ministry, they found themselves amazed at the authority with which He taught them. And, further than this, the crowds’ astonishment, according to Mathen
‘...was not just a momentary experience but lasted for a while’
That is, it wasn’t something which they easily forgot - just as the most memorable natural experience that we have is not something which slips the memory or is too easily forgotten. The impression which Jesus made upon His hearers lasted.
Mtw 7:28-29 states that the crowds who had gathered and who had been listening to Jesus’ teaching
‘...were astonished...for He taught them as One who had authority, and not as their scribes’
where there is a direct comparison between the authority which they perceived Jesus had compared to the lack of personal authority that their own scribes, who expounded and explained the Law to them, could be seen to have.
This authority of the scribes (the Gospel of Matthew simply infers that Jesus had the right sort of authority whereas they had none - but the comparison is based on type rather than on a comparison of a position which reaps respect and honour), as we will see below, came not from the Scriptures which they tried to underpin with their exposition and neither as a direct impartation of authority from God Himself. Contrary to when Jesus spoke, one didn’t get the impression that they were moving under the anointing of God, even though the words which came from them must have been the ones which the people were expecting, generally, to hear.
The question as to why they didn’t have authority in the things they were now doing is simply answered by saying that they hadn’t been given any authority by God - rather, their authority was passed on to them from a long line of Jews through the ‘movement’ in which they now belonged and which would continue long after Jesus had ascended back into heaven.
Authority which is inherited from men and women is not an authority that can be recognised as being from God and much of the problem in churches today is that the authority of the leaders within the fellowship is that which has been passed on with the position that they have been appointed to, rather than God giving real authority to the leaders and raise them up to lead.
A Church denomination may perpetuate itself for many years and have much success but, unless each subsequent leader in each of its congregations gets their authority and commission directly from God the Father Himself, then people will fail to hear him speak, on the whole, with the authority of God.
But the scribes were not without some authoritative backing and justification, even though they lacked real authority. Matmor points out that
‘It was the scribal habit to appeal to authority, for it was an age in which originality was not highly prized...it was important to cite authorities if one wished to obtain a hearing. But Jesus ignored this scribal commonplace’
and Mathag speaks of the scribes
‘...who taught not with a sense of their own authority but in heavy dependence upon the traditions of earlier teachers and somewhat diffidently’
These points are difficult to prove, however, that they would only cite authorities which lay in the past in order for their teaching to be accepted in the present, even though the Mishnah leads us to conclude that this was probably the case because it cites differing rabbinic authorities that contradict, or contrast with, one another.
If we accept the truth of the statements, we can see just how similar our own christian structures have become when positions of leadership are bestowed upon those who have had close associations with the recognised leaders of the particular denominations in question. It’s not any wonder, therefore, that the chances of a believer being raised up by God from within a fellowship to the position of leadership is unlikely because of the need to be seen with the ‘higher’ leadership which runs and approves all things within the denomination.
Indeed, often more authority is placed upon the words of leaders and the denominational hierarchy than on the principles and truth contained within Scripture. While it’s true that statements of fundamental belief and of Church procedure are commonplace within denominations, they often make divisions within the body of Christ because they can never fully sum up what is fundamental and foundational to the Universal Church at each point in history.
These human assemblages can cut away believers from fellowship with others and can often contain side issues that divide rather than unite. This should be no surprise - for the words are the words of man - but it may come as a surprise that this sort of elevation of man’s words over and above those of Scripture was just the sort of thing that happened with the scribes of first century Judaism.
The Mishnah records in Sanhedrin 11:3 that
‘Greater stringency applies to [the observance of] the words of the Scribes than to [the observance of] the words of the [written] Law. If a man said “There is no obligation to wear phylacteries” so that he transgresses the words of the Law, he is not culpable; [but if he said] “There should be in them five partitions” so that he adds to the words of the Scribes, he is culpable’
The scribal interpretation thus became the ‘Law’ by which one should live.
For Jesus to teach something which was against the known scribal view, was to put Himself in a much more serious position before the religious authorities than if He had stood up and disagreed with the testimony of the Law. Scribal authority, then, was something which they had taken upon themselves so that their interpretations became binding upon the people to obey.
Jesus, because He didn’t forsake the Law (Mtw 5:17), showed Himself immediately not to be in contradiction to what had previously been revealed by God through Moses, but the scribes, who were striving after correct interpretations that would bring acceptance before God, not only failed to receive authority from God but failed to interpret the Law correctly.
Whenever a man’s words become more important than Scripture itself in the Church, then that man is going to find himself in a similar position to the scribes of the NT era. Nepotism amongst Church leaders is also a major problem for it perpetuates the leadership’s genealogical line at the expense of those within the fellowship who have the call of God upon their lives, along with the drawing in of outsiders who are approved by the central authority of the respective denomination who take on the ‘burden’ of the church when another leader is required.
All these things epitomise the practice of the scribes in first century Judaism.
Becoming a scribe was part and parcel of the continuation of the scribes’ importance for no one was admitted to their ranks who had not already learnt how they should react to and interpret the Law. They became more like clones of those who had gone before than men who were original in their understanding of Scripture and of how it applied to the Jewish people.
As I’ve previously noted above, scribal authority came because the scribe sat in a long line of scribes whose authority was merely passed on from one to another because of the position they’d made for themselves. Jeremias is worth quoting at length here because he describes the procedure followed which brought new scribes into the ranks of the older ones.
On page 242-3 he writes
‘They learned from their master in daily life as well as in the lecture room; their master’s actions, even his gestures...were closely watched, and they drew from them guidance on ritual questions...the pupils cherished [the decisions and teachings of the master] as a precious treasure and transmitted them by the chain of tradition’
and, on page 235-6
‘The student was in personal contact with his teacher and listened to his instruction. When he had learned to master all the traditional material and the halakic method, to the point of being competent to take personal decisions on questions of religious legislation and penal justice, he was a “non-ordained scholar”...It was only when he had attained the canonical age of ordination fixed...at forty by a post-Tannaitic reference...that he could by ordination...be received into the company of scribes as a member with full rights, an “ordained scholar”. Henceforth he was authorised to make his own decisions on matters of religious legislation and of ritual...to act as judge in criminal proceedings...and to pass judgment in civil cases as a member of the court or as an individual...’
The scribal ranks, therefore, were only ever increased by men who were not going to stray very far from the interpretations which the former generation had received. And their authority was only ever going to be that which had been passed on to them from those who had come before. There could never be a scribe who would have continued to have been accepted by his fellows, had he received a revelation of God as Jesus had and began to operate under an independent authority than that which the scribes did. Such a person would have been ostracised away from their fellowship, just as, in many places today throughout the world, christian believers find that they are unable to do anything within a Church group because, although they are quite sound in their beliefs, they will not have the inherited authority of the leadership position passed on to them and are often raised up by God Himself to run counter to it.
We saw at the beginning how the commentators suppose, with some justification, that the scribes cited authorities from the past in order that they might teach the multitudes. The contrast with the way Jesus taught is brought out by Matfran who notes that
‘In contrast with the careful quoting of authorities by the scribes, Jesus interpreted (and even went beyond) the law on the authority of His own direct perception of the will of God’
This is, perhaps, as far as one can go to centre Jesus’ authority within Himself but, even with this statement, one is led to think of Jesus operating from His own knowledge rather than from a revelation received from God the Father.
Other commentators go the whole way, however, and attribute Jesus’ authority in teaching not to something that had been given to Him by God but as His use of the resources of His own divinity.
Therefore Mathag (my italics) states that
‘Jesus is not one among other rabbinic teachers; His authority centers...in Himself...it is pre-eminently His own words that are authoritative’
while Mathen is more blatant when he comments (my italics) that
‘They were constantly borrowing from fallible sources, one scribe quoting another...He drew from Himself, being the Fountain of Living Waters’
Jesus was not operating from within Himself as God but relying upon the provision of God the Father and operating just as any man or woman could have done - by looking to the One who could and would supply all needs (John 5:19, 8:28).
What makes Jesus’ teaching different to the scribes is not that Jesus is God in human form but that His authority has been given to Him by God directly, whereas their authority had come through a long line of succession.
As far as we know, nothing miraculous ever took place before the water baptism and anointing of the Holy Spirit in Jesus’ life - even though there are a great many fictitious legends which have been associated with the ‘silent years’ - but, upon the anointing, Jesus was equipped to go out and operate in the power of the Spirit as the Father directed Him to.
Therefore, John 8:28 has Jesus saying
‘... I do nothing on my own authority but speak thus as the Father taught me’
‘...I have come down from heaven, not to do My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me’
and John 12:49
‘...I have not spoken on My own authority; the Father who sent Me has Himself given Me commandment what to say and what to speak’
showing in each case that Jesus did not walk the earth operating from out of His divinity and, therefore, independently of God the Father, but as a man - dependent upon the Father for not just sustenance in physical things but in His provision for both the words which He spoke to the masses and the works which He performed amongst them.
The point is an important one to make and be clear on - if Jesus was now operating from His divinity, He had ceased relying upon the provision of God and had cut away from dependency on the Father for all the things which He needed. It is quite true that Jesus operates with the authority of God in situations but that does not mean that it’s an authority that is independent of the authority given to Him by the Father. If it was, He would have become just like any other man who takes Himself outside the provision of God and begins to see himself as having inherent importance that people should recognise.
Jesus had authority to teach because He’d been given that authority - the scribes, who sought authority by citing the ancient rabbis and who received it as a hand-me-down, failed to operate in the same manner because they were attempting to acquire it from a source that could not possibly give it.
The scribes could never have accepted Jesus’ authority because it did not rely upon the self-propagation of their own. Because they regarded their authority as Divine, they necessarily condemned all other authority that was bestowed upon individuals independently of theirs, in much the same way as a denominationally appointed Church leader opposes an anointed teacher or prophet who may be raised up by God from within the fellowship.
The difference between scribal authority and that which comes from Christ is important to grasp. The former is merely handed down and ‘made’ from within the culture of man, whereas the latter comes about through an appointment that has God as its direct source.
The early Church relied upon recognising men and women who had the authority of God upon themselves rather than, as we do, appoint men and women to positions where we hope that the authority of the position will be shown through them.
Any denominational organisation which seeks to continue its authoritative structure in the scribal manner will soon find that the anointing of God, though assumed, has left - and God’s attempts at bringing Himself back into the fellowship will normally be opposed by the scribal-type leadership.
We have already seen, from a quotation of John 12:49, that Jesus claimed that the teaching which He brought to all Israel was what had been given Him directly from the Father and the astonishment of the people of Nazareth is evident for they perceived that Jesus had not sought to acquire authority from any scribal associations (Mtw 13:54-56).
The Jews’ astonishment in Jerusalem is also evident when they say to one another (John 7:15 - my addition to emphasise the point they’re making)
‘...How is it that this Man has learning, when He has never studied [under the scribes]?’
In another passage, the chief priests and elders came to Jesus and asked Him (Mtw 21:23)
‘...By what authority are You doing these things, and who gave You this authority?’
for even they recognised the authority that Jesus possessed and could not imagine how, outside of their authority structure, Jesus could be doing the things He was. After all, if you summate your own organisation as being the total of the privileged people, how can God choose to move outside of its limitations and influence?
This was the real wonder of the words of Christ for He neither had sat under the great rabbis and scribes of His day nor been ordained by them to interpret the Law to Israel. Aware of their astonishment, Jesus answers the crowds in the first of the two passages quoted (John 7:16)
‘...My teaching is not Mine, but His who sent Me’
Authority was upon Jesus’ words because the origin of His teaching was God Himself. These are the people who should be followed within the present day Church setting - not those who have attributed authority, who have received teaching from a theological seminary or Bible College, but those who, even though they may have been to either or both of the institutions mentioned, receive the words of God directly from Him and who have been given authority to teach God’s people.
Notice that, after the resurrection, all authority was given to Jesus (Mtw 28:18-19) rather than it being earned and, from that standpoint, He is able to impart His authority to believers so that they can carry out the Father’s will. A servant that is sent carries with him the authority of the master who sent him and can speak on his behalf when he is aware of what that master bids to be done in situations. Yet, even before this, Jesus gave authority to the twelve disciples so that they would have power over the enemy’s works and over the enemy himself (Mtw 10:1).
What Jesus received from the Father, He could impart to those both before and after the cross and the basis of this received authority is grace alone rather than by works. God is the only One who, in Himself, has absolute authority - all other authority (whether of angelic principalities or over man’s dominion) is that which is given by Him to whoever.
Therefore, impartation of authority from God is what is important within the Church, not authority based upon proximity.
There is a sense in which, because Christ has been placed in authority over all things (Eph 1:20-22) and because every man and woman who has handed their life back over to Christ has been raised with Christ to be seated in the same position of authority (Eph 2:4-6), that all things must necessarily be in subjection to the believer.
But being in the position of authority and using that authority are two different matters. The teacher cannot think to have the authority of God upon him when he speaks unless he is concerned to make sure that what he speaks comes from the very presence of God Himself - and neither can the prophet expect that his words will come to pass if he speaks out of the imaginations of his own mind and not from the mind of God.
Although authority is automatically a right of the christian, it does not follow that it is necessarily their experience (see also here part 2 section 3).
Summarising, Jesus spoke with authority because He had been given the authority by God the Father through a direct gift and not through any consequence of man made structures. Whether it be His words or deeds, the authority of God was evident upon Him in each and every matter because, not content with operating from His own authority, He chose to impart only that which He had received in dependency upon God.
The christian, because of a similar gift of God, should stand in an identical situation. As he or she seeks to listen to God speak and direct them concerning what needs to be done, they will find that the authority of God will be evident in their lives, recognisable by the people around them - even though, those who have an authority imparted by man may very well begin to oppose them.
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