The Unique Authority of Jesus
Mel Lawrenz is Minister at Large for Elmbrook Church and director of The Brook Network.
Jesus often pointed to the authority of the Father in heaven, he also claimed to be, in his own person, the foundation of faith. Prophets said: “you should believe in God,” or “you should believe in this truth.” Jesus added: “you should believe in me.”
The Sea of Galilee is an eleven-mile long, heart-shaped lake–fresh and wild and deliciously blue. In the fishing villages around that lake Jesus gathered followers from all walks of life. And he gave his most memorable speech one day on the northeastern slopes running up from the lake. We know it as the Sermon on the Mount. Quite a crowd had gathered on that particular day. Rumors of miracles and healings were naturally attracting dozens, and then hundreds, and eventually thousands of people. At first they were just Galileans, but then people from Jerusalem in the south, Syria in the north, and even people from beyond the Jordan River in the east were mingled in the crowds.
So the slope of the rolling hills became an outdoor amphitheater. People strained to hear what he was saying, those on the fringes having to have his words repeated by those sitting closer. All these centuries later the words of the Sermon on the Mount still have the ring of truth to them, a compelling and captivating allure. The words arrest our attention. They turn our minds upside down. They stick like burrs, but they also soothe like salve.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”
“You are the salt of the earth.”
“Love your enemies.”
“When you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.”
“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven.”
“You cannot serve both God and Money.”
“Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?”
“Do not judge, or you too will be judged.”
“Enter through the narrow gate.”
To say that such words have been memorable and influential would be a great understatement. The teaching of Jesus has shaped history, and given definition to civilization. In the final section of Matthew’s rendering of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus teaches about his own teaching:
“Everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.” (Matt. 7:24-27)
This is a bold claim. To some, an audacious claim.
Matthew has this concluding editorial remark: “When Jesus finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law.” (Matt. 7:28-29)
It is not that Jesus appealed to traditional authority. The traditionalists were his enemies. The “teachers of the law” taught differently because all they did was regurgitate tradition (and, particularly, a tradition that they had fabricated to elevate their class and protect their prerogatives). It is not that Jesus was wielding legal authority. He held no credentials and his extraordinary influence would increasingly put him in the category of outlaw. So was it charismatic authority that Jesus possessed? Were the crowds mesmerized by his eye and his voice? Not really. None of the gospels say anything about the style of Jesus’ speech or his personal bearing. It was apparently what he said that grabbed people, not how he said it. One has to believe that as his extraordinary words came out of his mouth, their meaning struck everyone as so beyond-the-ordinary, so unexpected, and so conspicuously true–that they landed like arrows that sank deep, without wounding. Or at least, they wounded those parts that deserve wounding. People were amazed at his teachings because they were a fireworks of insight that lit up the landscape of their lives. His teachings made them remember: we want to believe. And even when they went away mystified or ruffled, they knew they wouldn’t be able to forget his words. It became increasingly obvious why the voice of the Father from heaven at the baptism of Jesus said: “This is my son. Listen to him.”