As One with Authority: The Mandate of Biblical Exposition
- Monday, November 11, 2013
Thus concludes the Sermon on the Mount. Matthew has just taken us through the Sermon and we have heard Jesus set forth a vision of life in the Kingdom of God that transcends our moral imagination and explodes our theological comforts. We thought we knew what God required of us. No murder and no adultery, for example. But Jesus now demands no anger and no lust. “You have heard it was said,” he begins, “but I say to you,” he concludes.
Jesus refused to act like an argumentative theologian or a speculative moralist. He rejected rabbinical reasoning and moral casuistry. He warns of hell and commands that we love our enemies. He warns us not to trust our bank accounts or retirement plans but to lay up treasures in heaven. He reminds us that we cannot add a day to our lives nor an inch to our height, but assures us that our heavenly Father will clothe us in more glory than the lilies of the field and care for us even more than he cares for the birds of the air.
He tells us to seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and promises that all these things will be added to us. We are instructed to judge a tree by its fruit, even as we shall be judged. We are to build our house upon a rock and not upon the sand, for the house on the rock stands while the house on the sand falls, “and great was the fall of it” (Matt 7:27).
Jesus has turned our world upside down. The ones we thought were blessed are now cursed, and the ones we saw as cursed are promised to be blessed. We hear Jesus warn that some who sure look like prophets are false, and we hear him say that his judgment will be definitive: “I never knew you” (Matt 7:23).
Then we hear from the crowd: “And when Jesus finished these sayings, the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he was teaching them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes” (Matt 7:28-29).
The radical nature of Jesus’ ministry and teaching is on full display here, and it is all established upon his own authority. When Jesus teaches, he does not cite human authorities, enter into irrelevant debates, or cushion his words. He speaks on his own authority. He will make that authority clear by healing the sick, casting our demons, staring down the religious authorities, and, most clearly, by forgiving sins. At the end of Matthew’s gospel, he will announce that all authority in heaven and on earth has been granted him, and he will send his disciples out into the world as ambassadors of the Gospel.
This is all about authority. There would be no Gospel but for the display of this authority. There would be no church, no salvation, no forgiveness of sins, no hope.
Matthew tells us that the crowds were astonished at his teaching—astonished. They had never seen or heard anything like this. Every teacher they had ever heard cited other teachers as authorities. Their teachers hemmed and hawed, proposed and retracted, pitted one interpretation against another, and left themselves room for qualification.
The crowds recognized that Jesus teaches with an authority that is unprecedented and singular. He was teaching “as one who had authority, and not as their scribes.”
The scribes were the licensed teachers of the law. They interpreted the law by investigating precedent and tradition. Their rulings were approximate and carefully hedged. Nothing was conclusive. Tradition was placed upon tradition; interpretation laid alongside interpretation.
Jesus has already told the crowd that their righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and the Pharisees. Now, the crowd sees that the scribes’ authority is also just not enough. Once they have heard Jesus, they will never again listen to one without authority—nor should they.
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