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Sermon Message


"Questions for Questioners"

Matthew 21:23-32
Theme: When unbelief calls the authority of the Son of God into question, the best answer is a call to repentance.

(Delivered Sunday, April 13, 2008 at Bethany Bible Church. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references are taken from The Holy Bible, New King James Version; copyright 1982, Thomas Nelson, Inc.)

The section of Matthew's Gospel that we're studying from—chapters 21-23—is a very sobering one. It describes the confrontation Jesus had with the leaders of Israel only two days before He was betrayed into the hands of evil men and nailed to the cross.

And it becomes even more sobering when you think of what had happened just a few days prior to this confrontation. Having been clearly identified by God as His beloved Son (Matthew 3:16-17); and after having walked on this earth for three years—teaching the Jewish people about the kingdom, and authenticating His teaching by casting out demons, cleansing lepers, healing the sick and the blind and the lame, and even raising the dead—He had finally, triumphantly, entered into their temple in Jerusalem in fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy to present Himself as their long-awaited Messiah.

And it becomes even more sobering still as, when we come to our passage this morning, we see the nature of the hard-hearted unbelief that the Son of God met with from His own people—and that eventuated in His being nailed to a cross.

Matthew tells us;

Now when He came into the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people confronted Him as He was teaching, and said, “By what authority are You doing these things? And who gave You this authority?” (Matthew 21:23).

* * * * * * * * * *

People today have many questions about Jesus. I suspect that there isn't anyone about whom people ask more questions, or about whom people offer more opinions, than Jesus Christ. In spite of the ways people try to minimize Him, He nevertheless remains the most controversial figure in human history.

This was even true in His own days on earth. Do you remember when He was walking along with His disciples; and how He suddenly stopped and asked who men were saying that He, the Son of Man, was? People had been talking about Him, and the disciples had heard the things that were said. Peter answered that some folks were saying 'this' about Him, and that other folks were saying 'that'—just as they do today.

And do you remember what Jesus did? He turned to His disciples and said, "But who do you say that I am?" (Matthew 16:15). That's the great question; isn't it? It's all very interesting to talk about all the things that other people say about Jesus; but it gets very personal when Jesus turns to you and asks what you have to say about Him.

Peter responded to Jesus' question—"But who do you say that I am?"—with an answer that Jesus testified was revealed to him by the Father Himself: "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God" (vv. 16).

And we need to realize that—depending on what's going in people's hearts on beneath the surface—that answer is the most dangerous and most terrifying answer in the world to give. Because the moment someone gives that answer about Jesus, they are obligated to bow to Him as God in human flesh, and forsake their sins, yield their lives to Him as Savior and Lord.

* * * * * * * * * *

I've learned to see people's opinions and questions about Jesus a little bit like 'icebergs'. The part that I see—that is, that the questions that are asked, or the opinions that are offered—are just a tenth of the real matter. In reality, there remains nine-tenths of the matter, beneath the surface, that isn't being revealed.

And because that's so, I've also learned to recognize that the questions people sometimes ask about Jesus do not come from a sincere desire to know the truth about Him. Very often, the motive is to hold the truth about Him off as far from themselves as possible. When the truth about Him is proclaimed, He unavoidably puts every woman and man who hears the truth at the fork of a decision. Either they must eventually bow to the truth about Him—and to receive all that is implied by that truth; or they must do everything in their power to suppress that truth—and evade its implications for their lives.

I believe that explains the confrontation that we read about in this morning's passage. I believe that the story in our passage today illustrates to us that, depending on what's going on beneath the surface, someone's questions about Jesus can either be a sincere effort to remove the hindrance to belief unto salvation, or a hard-hearted effort to justify unbelief.

Those who questioned His authority in our passage this morning were not sincere. They didn't want to know the truth about Him. Their questions were intended to keep themselves separate from Him. Their questions were intended to justify their unwillingness to believe on Him.

And Jesus' response to these questioners at that time, teaches us this principle for our own day: Whenever unbelief calls the authority of the Son of God into question, the best answer is a call to repentance.

* * * * * * * * * *

First, let's look closer at . . .


Matthew tells us that—as Jesus taught in the temple; and as a large crowd had, no doubt, been gathered around to hear Him—the chief priests and the elders of the people confronted Him with two questions: “By what authority are You doing these things? And who gave You this authority?” They demanded to know first the nature, and then the source, of His authority.

And in and of themselves, those were not necessarily inappropriate questions for the chief priests and elders to ask. These religious leaders were, after all, charged with the responsibility of caring for the spiritual condition of their people, and for what happened in the temple.

But the problem was that the questions were not sincere. The evidence is very plainly there in the text (as we can see in verses 25-26) that they already knew the answer before they asked the questions! The truth had already been declared to them—clearly and unmistakably—through the ministry of John the Baptist.

* * * * * * * * * *

Think with me about John for a moment. He was, up to his time, the greatest man who ever lived. The testimony of Jesus Himself was this:

"Assuredly, I say to you, among those born of women there has not risen one greater than John the Baptist . . ." (Matthew 11:11).

John was the fulfillment of the promise that God made in the last book of the Old Testament; "Behold, I send My messenger, and he will prepare the way before Me" (Malachi 3:1; see also Matthew 10:11). He was the one that the Lord promised in the Book of Isaiah: "The voice of one crying in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way of the LORD . . .'" (Isaiah 40:3; see also Matthew 3:3).

He came into this world in the way of righteousness—set apart unto God from birth; and filled with the Holy Spirit even from the womb of his mother (Luke 1:15). And it was his God-appointed call to "turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God" (v. 16), and "to make ready a people prepared for the Lord" (v. 17).

By the time he reached adulthood, the people of Jerusalem—along with all Judea and the surrounding regions—were coming to John in the wilderness of the Jordan. They all heard his bold message; "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand" (Matthew 3:2); and many came to him to be baptized with water in repentance of their sins (vv. 6, 11).

His ministry was about as 'public' a ministry as a ministry could possibly be. Everyone knew about him, and everyone trembled at what he had to say. In fact, his message and his manner were so bold and earthshaking that the talk went around that he might even be the Messiah (John 1:19-20). But he made it clear that he himself was not the Messiah—that his ministry was to identify Someone else as the Messiah. He announced;

"I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fan is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clean out His threshing floor, and gather His wheat into the barn; but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire" (Matthew 3:11-12).

John was "a man sent from God", who "came for a witness, to bear witness of the Light, that all through him might believe" (John 1:6-7).

And just consider how this man John testified of Jesus! Matthew tells us;

Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan to be baptized by him. And John tried to prevent Him, saying, “I need to be baptized by You, and are You coming to me?” But Jesus answered and said to him, “Permit it to be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he allowed Him. When He had been baptized, Jesus came up immediately from the water; and behold, the heavens were opened to Him, and He saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting upon Him. And suddenly a voice came from heaven, saying, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased" (Matthew 3:13-17).

Dear brothers and sisters; if that event didn't really happen, and if John had said that it did, he would have been easily discredited to the world as a liar. There were too many eye-witnesses. But his very public testimony of Jesus was this:

The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is He of whom I said, ‘After me comes a Man who is preferred before me, for He was before me.’ I did not know Him; but that He should be revealed to Israel, therefore I came baptizing with water.” And John bore witness, saying, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and He remained upon Him. I did not know Him, but He who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘Upon whom you see the Spirit descending, and remaining on Him, this is He who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I have seen and testified that this is the Son of God.” (John 1:29-34).

* * * * * * * * * *

John's testimony of Jesus was outstandingly clear. It was very public; and it was immediately verifiable. No evangelist in human history was ever as clear in his preaching as John—for no one else could have ever pointed directly and personally to Jesus, in the sight of all, and with so much divine authority, and have declared, "Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!" What's more, John's message about Jesus could not in any way be called into doubt; because, for the three years that followed after John gave it, Jesus Himself verified it—publicly and powerfully—over and over again.

How very silly, then, for the chief priests and elders to confront Jesus and say, "By what authority are You doing these things? And who gave You this authority?" It wasn't a sincere question at all! They knew the answer! But they would not believe what they knew; and instead, they hoped to trap Jesus by His giving an answer to their question.

They were living illustrations of what it says in the Gospel written by the apostle John—words that may well have been spoken by Jesus concerning Himself;

“He who believes in Him is not condemned; but he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. And this is the condemnation, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For everyone practicing evil hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. But he who does the truth comes to the light, that his deeds may be clearly seen, that they have been done in God" (John 3:18-21).

* * * * * * * * * *

Well; those are the questions that were put to Jesus—questions that were very obviously motivated by a refusal to believe the truth.

And what's fascinating to me is that Jesus felt no necessary obligation to respect their demand for an answer. Rather, instead, He made His answer to them 'conditional'. Before He would answer their hostile questions, they had to answer His questions concerning what they already knew.

And if I may say so; we ought to study our Lord's example in this. It's profoundly instructive!

Look with me at . . .


Matthew tells us,

But Jesus answered and said to them, “I also will ask you one thing, which if you tell Me, I likewise will tell you by what authority I do these things . . ." (v. 24).

Whenever Jesus tells you something like that, you'd better brace yourself! You're about to be exposed! It wasn't that Jesus was seeking to detract them from their questions. Rather, it was to force them to answer the question themselves; because in the answer to His question, they would have the answers to their own.

First, Jesus asks them:

"The baptism of John—where was it from? From heaven or from men?” (v. 25a).

What a question! What a bind He put them in! They were hoping to embroil Him in controversy before all the people—forcing Him to claim authority to Himself, and then giving them the opportunity to trap Him in an accusation of blasphemy! But now, in front of all those same people, He put them in a knot that they couldn't even begin to untie themselves from without exposing the hardness of their own unbelieving hearts!

I suspect that they were dumbstruck. They hadn't seen this coming. And after standing with blank looks on their faces, I suspect that one of them stuck a finger up in the air and said, "Excuse us for just one minute"; and then they scurried away to form a huddle.

Matthew tells us;

And they reasoned 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 men,’ we fear the multitude, for all count John as a prophet.” So they answered Jesus and said, “We do not know.” And He said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things" (vv. 25b-27).

Do you know why Jesus said that He wouldn't answer their questions? It wasn't because they truly didn't know. It was because they were insincere—as evidenced by the fact that they clearly knew both the testimony of John the Baptist concerning Jesus, and the response of the people to the righteous character of John himself.

Here's a lesson to us as believers: When confronted with controversial questions about Jesus, take the time to discern the heart-attitude of the one doing the asking. Is it an attitude of sincere exploration concerning the truth about Jesus? Or are the questions simply an effort to find yet another excuse for unbelief? I believe we are obligated to patiently answer the former. But Jesus' example teaches us that we ought to expose the latter for what it is.

* * * * * * * * * *

Oh; and here's another lesson—this one for the hard-hearted unbeliever: Don't try to ask Jesus tricky questions! You'll be up to your neck before you know it!

I wonder if the chief priests and elders thought they could quietly sneak away before things got worse. But they couldn't. Jesus goes on now to ask them a question—one that exposes the condition of their hearts even more;

“But what do you think? A man had two sons, and he came to the first and said, ‘Son, go, work today in my vineyard.’ He answered and said, ‘I will not,’ but afterward he regretted it and went. Then he came to the second and said likewise. And he answered and said, ‘I go, sir,’ but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” (v. 28-31a).

I suspect that they would have really liked to have gotten out of answering that question altogether; but with everyone watching them, they couldn't.

They said to Him, “The first" (v. 31a).

This 'parable' is the first of three that the Lord puts before these religious leaders; and all taken together, they illustrate the hostility that they were showing toward God's offer to them of their long-awaited King; and of how the kingdom was justly being taken from them and given to others more worthy. And here, in this parable, Jesus was illustrating to them that the great need of their hearts was not 'answers' to their phony 'questions'. Their great need was for repentance.

One son spoke harshly to his father. When his father told him to go out and work in the field, he said, "I will not!" But later, Jesus said that he "regretted it and went". The word that is used is one that refers to a change of one's judgment concerning a past action. The first son realized that he was wrong in what he did; and coming to terms with the fact that he did wrong, he rose up and did what he should have done.

The other son didn't speak harshly with his father at all. In fact, he literally said, "I go, Lord!" He spoke to his father in an honorable way. But he didn't do what he was commanded to do. Doesn't that sound like what Jesus said on a different occasion—"But why do you call Me 'Lord, Lord,' and do not do the things which I say?" (Luke 6:46)?

Jesus is saying to the chief priests and elders that they are like that second son. They call His Father "Lord"; but when it comes to placing their trust in His Son, and yielding themselves to Him as they should, they don't obey Him. “This is the work of God," Jesus said elsewhere; "that you believe in Him whom He sent" (John 6:29)—a 'work' which they would not do.

* * * * * * * * * *

And this leads, finally, to Jesus saying something that must have shocked them to the core of their being . . .


Jesus said to them, “Assuredly, I say to you that tax collectors and harlots enter the kingdom of God before you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him; but tax collectors and harlots believed him; and when you saw it, you did not afterward relent and believe him" (vv. 31b-32).

"Tax-collectors"? "Harlots"? To these proud chief priests and elders, those kinds of people constituted the scum of the earth! Was Jesus actually saying that such people as that would come enter the kingdom before they would?

Yes! And it wasn't because the tax-collectors and harlots were more "worthy", or "holy" or "deserving". It was because they did what the first son in Jesus' parable did. Jesus even used the same word in the original language to describe what the tax-collectors and harlots did that He used to describe what the first son did: they "relented"; that is, they changed their judgment concerning the past actions they had taken, and began to turn from their sins in faith in the message of John the Baptist concerning Jesus.

In fact, that's quite literally what they did. Jesus was once teaching the people about the ministry of John the Baptist; and we're told,

And when all the people heard Him, even the tax collectors justified God, having been baptized with the baptism of John. But the Pharisees and lawyers rejected the will of God for themselves, not having been baptized by him (Luke 7:29-30).

* * * * * * * * * *

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ; let me suggest a lesson that we should learn from this. We should learn to recognize that some questions that people put forth about Jesus do not come from a desire to know the truth. Some people ask questions in order to avoid the truth.

We need to trust the Holy Spirit to give us the discernment to know the difference. When someone has questions because they truly want to remove the barriers to unbelief, we should patiently, lovingly and faithfully honor those questions to the best of our ability.

But when we discover that the questions are asked in a spirit of hard-hardheartedness, and are only intended to further justify unbelief and ridicule the faith, we must not gratify their questioning spirit. Our great obligation in that case is to—lovingly, but resolutely—put the questions back to them. We must make them face the truth they already know. We must put the finger on the hardness of their hearts, and urge them to relent of their unbelief.

And there's a lesson here also for those who have doubts and questions about the faith. Be honest. Make sure that your questions and struggles come from a sincere desire to know the truth about Jesus—and not from a desire to put off the decision to turn from your sin and place your trust in Him.

Because, when unbelief calls the Son of God into question, the best answer is a call to repentance.

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