A mid-week devotional from Central Presbyterian Church helping us to help prepare our hearts for the day ahead. If you would like to receive these in your inbox, please let us know. Find the complete archive here.
Wednesday, May 19, 2021
And they came again to Jerusalem. And as he was walking in the temple, the chief priests and the scribes and the elders came to him, 28 and they said to him, “By what authority are you doing these things, or who gave you this authority to do them?” 29 Jesus said to them, “I will ask you one question; answer me, and I will tell you by what authority I do these things. 30 Was the baptism of John from heaven or from man? Answer me.” 31 And they discussed it with one another, saying, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ 32 But shall we say, ‘From man’?”—they were afraid of the people, for they all held that John really was a prophet. 33 So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And Jesus said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.”
One of the more enjoyable parts of my “job” is getting to participate in the preschool car line. At morning drop-off, Jeff, Randy, Alex, and I typically hold open the front door outside the entrance and welcome the children as their teachers escort them back to their classrooms. In the afternoon, we help direct traffic and ensure a safe and streamlined pickup process. Although Randolph Ave is not too crowded, because of some construction down the street and the propensity of a few of our neighbors to perhaps drive a little over the speed limit, lately I have been playing the role of traffic guard with the hopes of alleviating congestion and any sort of unfortunate accidents. I have quickly discovered that a single man standing in the street holding up his hand yields a disproportionate amount of power compared to the multi-ton vehicles whizzing around him on either side. When the hand goes up, even the largest trucks come to a stop. When the hand goes down, traffic continues as normal. I briefly considered getting myself a here-I-am-yellow vest, but as a person that struggles at times with issues of control, I am honestly a bit afraid that the power of the vest might go straight to my hand.
In his letter to Bishop Creighton addressing historical atrocities committed at the bequest of monarchs and popes, Lord Acton famously wrote, “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” In first century Judea, the chief priests, scribes, and elders held all of the religious power. They were the spiritual elite, the best of the best, morally superior in every way. Their role was to lead the nation of Israel in righteousness and holiness, to protect the purity of the temple, and ensure the proper worship of the Lord. They not only enforced the rules as they understood them, but walked as living examples of how to keep them as well.
Jesus often spoke of the great responsibility of those God had placed in positions of authority over His people. While the religious leaders of Jesus’ day undeniably looked the part with their meticulous tithing, obnoxiously verbose prayers, and fastidious personal purity, the truth is that they were far more concerned with style than substance. They loved to preach the right positions on every hot button political and theological issue, yet they were guilty of forgetting the things that truly mattered. Although they claimed to teach and defend the authority of Scripture, in reality they neglected what Jesus called “the weightier matters of the law.”
Now, we might ask ourselves, what could be more important than an individual’s publicly professed views on life, faith, and politics? In a word: love. The apostle Paul writes in Galatians 5:14, echoing the teaching of Jesus, “For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” Many people, probably including the pharisees, bristle at the command to love others, as if love necessitates theological and moral compromise. But of course to love does not at all mean the unconditional celebration of that which we know to be wrong or even making sure that everyone around us is only happy all the time. Is it not more loving in the moment to scream at the disobedient toddler who runs out into the middle of the busy street at preschool drop-off (this has, fortunately, only happened once) than it is to pleasantly praise his superior coordination? Love takes many forms, but at its core love is always concerned with the overall well being of others.
The religious leaders failed to love God AND others, and it showed in their attitudes towards each. Because they allegedly knew the Scriptures better, and loved God more, than anyone else, they should have been the very first to recognize that both John the Baptist and Jesus were sent by God to usher in His kingdom. Their arrivals had been anticipated for centuries, foretold through the words of the prophets, yet in each case the religious rulers were skeptical of their methods and denied their authority.
How did they miss it? In this last week of Jesus’ life, as the religious leaders once again encountered Jesus in Jerusalem, the questions at the forefront of their mind revealed the motives of their collective hearts. They loved their positions of control and authority more than anything or anyone else, and they would do anything to ensure that the current power structure remained intact.
In Jesus, the religious leaders saw a radical rabbi who, just like John the Baptist, was gaining fame and a large following at an alarming rate. Unlike the rest of society, Jesus defied their open threats by making a public appearance at the temple, permitting the masses to bow down and honor Him as their Savior, and even dared to hit them in their pockets by flipping over tables and driving out the temple-sanctioned usurious vendors like skittish sheep.
Hoping to seize on the opportunity to make an example out of Jesus, they began their accusations. Where did this authority come from? Who gave You the right to act in such a way? Don’t You know who we are? Who exactly did You think You are? And Jesus answered their questions with one of His own…What about John? What did you think of his baptism? How did you treat him?
At the mention of John, the religious leaders found themselves backed into a corner of their own making. When John had called the nation to repentance, announcing the imminent arrival of the kingdom of God and promising the forgiveness of sins at the Jordan River, the skeptical Pharisees followed the crowds out to the wilderness and observed with leery eyes from a safe distance. When John was thrown in prison for calling out King Herod for flagrantly living in unrepentant sin, they did not petition for his release or defend his theologically proper position, and they rejoiced the day it was discovered that John would never be a threat again. So to declare that John was right was to admit that they were wrong, and to claim that John was wrong was to risk the ire of the people. So the religious leaders did what religious leaders are all too often prone to do: they attempted to take the position of not taking a position.
Of course Jesus saw right through their cowardice just as He had through their arrogance. Until they were prepared to answer for their actions, He would refuse to explain His own.
Prayer for Today:
Lord Jesus, we confess that we are all too often not unlike the religious leaders. Rather than loving You and those whom You have placed in our lives, we are often consumed with issues of appearance, power, and control. Too often we look great on the outside while being a complete wreck on the inside. We ask that You would shine Your light into our brokenness and do Your supernatural work of healing in our sinful hearts. Give us a desire for Your word, a love for Your people, and an unshakeable devotion to You. We pray in Your powerful name, Amen