Skip to site content

By What Authority?

Sermon delivered by David Hughes, pastor of First Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, N.C., on Feb. 1, 2009.

Mark 1: 21-28

If you have a mother, or are a mother, chances are good that you have heard or used the following phrases many times:

Make sure you wear clean underwear; you never know when you’ll be in an accident.

I’m not your maid, or your cook.

If your friends jumped off a cliff, would you jump too?

Just wait till you have kids of your own.

As long as you live under this roof, you’ll live by our rules.

Don’t talk with your mouth full.

But the best known line of all mothers is: Because I’m your mother, that’s why!

Every one of these lines is designed to express the authority of a mother over her child. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t. Children instinctively want to know, By what authority are you asking me to do my homework or take out the garbage?

We live in a world terribly confused about the issue of authority. We find ourselves wondering in our world of constant spin and hype if anybody out there really knows what they are talking about, and if anybody speaks the real, gospel truth any more.

Today we see two contradictory impulses at work when it comes to authority. On the one hand, many people are so starved for truth and leadership that they will flock around any anybody who possesses a sense of authority. I’ve learned because our worship service is on television that if you appear on the tube, people listen more carefully because they assume you actually have something important to say. (If they only knew!)

On the other hand, in our 21st century post-modern world, many people have given up on absolute truth.

Last summer I read a novel written by David Baldacci entitled, the Whole Truth. It’s about a defense contractor who manufactures wars, or the perception of wars, around the world so he can sell weapons to countries around the world. The book begins with the following quote from an anonymous government official: Why waste time discovering the truth when you can so easily create it?

Truth is whatever you make it. Reality is whatever you want it to be. And whenever anybody rises to speak about any issue, the immediate response is, By what authority do you say that? By what authority do you say that marriage is right and living together is wrong? If you quote the Bible, I’ll quote the Koran, or Oprah, or Rush Limbaugh. I’ll accept your version of the truth if you’ll accept mine.

Ours is a world terribly confused and conflicted about authority, which makes what I’m about to say very good news. The good news of the gospel is this ”we are not left to our own devices when it comes to truth. We have an absolutely trustworthy source of authority when it comes to living life the way it is supposed to be lived. And his name is Jesus.

Now, I understand that there may be some who do not automatically accept the authority and truthfulness of scripture. But for the sake of argument, I want to start with what the gospel of Mark says about the authority of Jesus because of all the biographers of Jesus, Mark stands most amazed by the awesome authority of this man.

As Mark begins, John the Baptist occupies center stage. But that position of prominence doesn’t last long. In no time, John is stepping aside for Jesus, saying, After me will come one more powerful than I, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop and untie (Mark 1:7). Later, when that same John the Baptist baptizes Jesus, a voice from heaven says, You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well-pleased (Mark 1:11).

With that divine endorsement, Jesus heads into the desert where he wins a hard-fought show-down with the Devil, who tries unsuccessfully to tempt Jesus to abort his mission. Then Jesus emerges from the desert, and invites four fishermen to drop their nets and everything else and follow him so they can fish for other new disciples the rest of their lives. Peter, Andrew, James, and John hear an authoritative offer they cannot refuse, and they say Yes! to this outlandish invitation.

In today’s scripture passage, Jesus takes his newly recruited disciples with him to Capernaum. When the Sabbath arrives, Jesus goes to his local synagogue, and volunteers to be the lay-preacher that day. What’s interesting is that Mark doesn’t say a word about the conduct of Jesus’ teaching. What Mark does say is this: The people were amazed at Jesus’ teaching, because he taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law.

Normally, when teachers of the law teach in the synagogue, they quote from scripture or other teachers to substantiate their points. Not Jesus. He teaches with profundity and power, and he never references another authority. He doesn’t need to. He is the new authority now. He is the one everybody else will quote from now on.

And the people are amazed.

Once, the noted architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, was asked to testify in court. After being duly sworn in, Wright was questioned about the field of his expertise.

A second attorney began his questioning by asking Wright who he thought was the best architect in the world.

Without hesitating, Wright answered, I am.

Later, a friend asked him if it didn’t take a lot of nerve to so refer to himself as the best in the world.

With the same confidence, Wright answered, Of course not, I was under oath.

That’s the kind of confidence that fills Jesus teaching that day in the synagogue. It isn’t arrogance, rooted in inflated pride. It is authority, rooted in the Spirit of God.

And the people are amazed.

As if to underscore his authority, Jesus confronts a collection of demons that possesses a man in the synagogue that day. Interestingly enough, the demons from hell know precisely who Jesus is, unlike the scribes and Pharisees. What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are ”the Holy One of God!

Be quiet! says Jesus. Come out of him.

And after shrieking and shouting in protest, the horde of evil spirits comes out.

Notice what Mark says next: The people were all so amazed that they asked each other, What is this? A new teaching ”and with authority! He gives orders to evil spirits and they obey him.

Just for fun sometime, take a concordance and see how often the word amaze appears in Mark. It comes up again and again. And every time it does, it’s because people are amazed at the authority of Jesus. Amazed at his ability to make a lame man walk, and a deaf man hear. Amazed at his audacity to forgive people their sins ”I mean after all, only God can do that. Amazed at his ability to walk on water and calm the angry seas. Amazed at his ability to raise a dead little girl to new life.

People hear Jesus teach with authority. And see him act with authority. And they are amazed.

Those of you who aren’t sure that the gospel of Mark holds water ”let me ask you this. What’s more amazing: that Mark makes all these incredible claims about Jesus 2,000 years ago, or that I and hundreds of thousands of other preachers around the world are still making them today? Had Jesus just talked the talk, that would have been one thing. But he also walked the walk, and that’s quite another. He actually practiced everything he preached, and who else do you know who’s done that?

The truth is, though, both the talk and the walk would have been blown to bits if Jesus hadn’t survived death 2,000 years ago. If Jesus had died — and stayed dead — his authority would have died with him. But death could not hold him down, the tomb could not hold him in. No other religion makes the claim that its founder is still alive. And today the church of Jesus Christ thrives around the world, despite amazing odds. Either that’s an incredible fluke of nature, or Jesus is exactly who the demons say he is ”the Holy One of God, our authority for life.

Sometimes we forget that in his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, You’ve heard it said ¦ but now I say. Sometimes we forget that when Jesus issues the Great Commission, his first words are these: All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations ¦.If you are looking for the man who has authority, look no further. It’s Jesus.

By the way, just because you recognize the authority of Jesus doesn’t mean you’ve done anything significant. A lot of people were amazed by Jesus, but they still didn’t follow him. Others, like the demons, confessed Jesus to be the Christ, but they still rebelled. Some heard about him, and flocked around him hoping he would heal them. Others saw what he could do, and actually asked him to leave, because they feared his power.

Some, like the residents of Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth, were deeply offended by his authoritative teaching. Where did this man get these things? ¦Isn’t this the carpenter? Isn’t this Mary’s son and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas, and Simon? Aren’t his sisters here with us? And they took offense at him (Mark 6:2-3).

You can recognize the authority of Jesus and never accept it. That’s why I want to emphasize that there is one and only one appropriate response to the authoritative word of Jesus ”commitment to follow it for the rest of your lives, just like Peter, Andrew, James, and John. Stake your life on his word, and obey him the rest of your days.

Don’t take my word for it. I’m just another preacher who has no ultimate authority. But listen to Jesus, the one who teaches with authority: Not everyone who says to me Lord, Lord (i.e., who recognizes my authority) will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven (which, incidentally, is my will to) Matthew 7:21.

And here’s something else Jesus says: if we are committed to his authority, we will communicate his word to a world desperate to hear an authoritative word that will clear our confusion about life once and for all. Jesus’ word was all-powerful 2,000 years ago. Guess what. It’s just as powerful today as it ever was. And you and I are called to proclaim it to a world desperate to hear it.

And as we do, what will matter most is not our credentials or position. What will matter most is the authenticity and vitality of our faith.

Senator Bill Bradley, once a Democratic candidate for President, was attending a political dinner in Washington one night when a waiter came around with the butter. I’d like two pats of butter, if you please, said Bradley.

Sorry sir, the waiter responded, it’s one per customer.

Well, said Bradley, I guess you don’t know who I am. I’m a senior member of the United States Senate. Before that, I was an all-star basketball player with the New York Knicks. And before that, I was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford.

The waiter was not impressed. I guess you don’t know who I am, he retorted.

No I don’t, said Bradley. Who are you?

The waiter drew himself up to his full 5 feet 5 inches, and said proudly, I’m the guy with the butter.

Today, authority hinges around internal spirit, not external credentials. I’m the senior pastor of a large church with a television ministry. What does that mean about my effectiveness in communicating the gospel? Absolutely nothing, if I don’t authentically reflect the Spirit of God in my words and life. That same Spirit is what gave Jesus his authority. Nothing else really matters, for you or for me.

And the argument which may mean the most in this cynical world of ours when it comes to confirming the authority of Jesus is a changed life. You can talk all you want to about Jesus. But if your life is still a wreck, your words won’t travel far. On the other hand, if yours is a changed life, you too will speak as one with authority.

An Army man had been a heavy drinker for 35 years. He had the temperament of a drill sergeant long after he became a colonel. Then he met Christ, and his whole life changed.

He was speaking once before a group of physicians. He told them of his personality change: how he was temperate now instead of intemperate; considerate instead of severe; concerned for others instead of self-serving. A psychiatrist, who believed that personalities are so firmly set early in life that no one can change, protested to the colonel that at his age such a radical transformation was impossible.

Well, replied the colonel, at least I am under new management. I now answer to another authority ”the highest and truest there is.

I wonder, this morning, what authority you answer to if any. If you like your life just the way it is, stay put. But if you are ready to live life to the fullest, consider reporting to another authority ”the highest and truest there is.

His name is Jesus. And he won’t just amaze you. He’ll change you ”forever!