One Who Had Authority

ISAAC MCPHEE
MATTHEW 7:24-29
As the Sermon on the Mount closes at the end of Matthew 7, Jesus concludes His most well-known discourse with one of His more famous illustrations – the wise and foolish builders. One builds his house upon a rock, one upon the sand. One house stands firm, the other is destroyed.

Though we might find applications for this illustration in almost any endeavor we undertake (including the most literal application, in regard to choosing where we build our actual houses), what is Jesus actually referring to? What is this “rock” upon which we are called to build? Are we being given just a general principle for life (“whatever you choose to do or believe, make sure your foundations are solid…”), or is Jesus pointing toward something more specific?

In fact, Jesus is very explicitly speaking in very specific terms. Simply put, the “rock” upon which we are called to build is the Word of Jesus Christ. Jesus’ teachings on the Kingdom of Heaven – both here in the Sermon on the Mount and throughout Scripture – are firm and immovable ground, and the only ground upon which it is safe and prudent to build our lives, our faith, and our religion.

Consider just how bold this conclusion must have seemed. Jesus is speaking to a crowd of Jews; a crowd who believed that they alone already had just such a foundation in the Law and the prophets. That was what Israel had been called to build their nation and their lives upon, and only a wicked blasphemer would ever suggest that his own words were somehow greater than the words of Moses and the prophets. And yet, Jesus was saying that very thing.

This boldness is the basis for the crowd’s reaction to the sermon in verse 28: “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.”

This comparison between Jesus and the scribes of Israel is an important one. Throughout Matthew’s Gospel in particular, Jesus’ ministry is described in a way that emphasizes the clash between two competing kingdoms. Jesus has come announcing the Kingdom of Heaven, but He is announcing it in the midst of an existing kingdom (Israel), which had an existing king (Herod); and Jesus’ teachings consistently make clear that these two kingdoms cannot possibly coexist (cf. Matt. 21:43). We saw this as early as chapter 2, with Herod’s infanticide at the mere idea of a challenger to his throne, and we will see it again and again going forward.

Thus, it is remarkable that Jesus comes, not just offering a new interpretation or teaching on the existing Scriptures (as the scribes of Israel would have done), but offering a new Law that would add to and expand the existing Law. Though the Jewish scribes should have been able to teach with authority (as they taught from the authoritative Scriptures), Matthew’s Gospel insists that they had stubbornly refused to wield the authority granted to them. Israel, beginning with her teachers and religious leaders, had vacated the tremendous responsibilities granted to her by God (Israel was supposed to be the very salt and the light that Jesus described in His sermon).

But here was Jesus, who represented something entirely different. He came to wield the authority that Israel refused to wield; He came to teach as the scribes had refused to teach. And it is precisely this boldness that would cause those same religious leaders to turn on Him in the end.

This is all very important because the authority of Jesus will continue to be a prominent theme going forward in Matthew, and particularly in the three chapters that immediately follow this sermon, where Jesus heals the servant of a centurion, who specifically recognizes Jesus’ authority over illness (“for I too am a man under authority, with soldiers under me” – 8:9), then as Jesus declares His own authority over sin and forgiveness (“But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins…” – 9:6; cf. v.8), and finally as He delegates His authority over the demonic realm to His disciples (“And He called to Him His twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal every disease and every affliction” – 10:1).

So the works of Jesus in chapters 8 through 10 offer a demonstration of Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon on the Mount (chapters 5 through 7). First He teaches with authority, then He proves His authority. This connection between Jesus’ words and Jesus acts is actually very important to recognize in the book of Matthew, as it gives us a clue as to the larger structure of the Gospel.

In short, Matthew seems to have broken up his Gospel into five distinct sections, each consisting of a lengthy teaching by Jesus (such as the Sermon on the Mount) followed by a series of stories or narratives that support or help to illustrate the teaching.

Matthew uses several repeated words and phrases to help us recognize this structure – the most obvious of which is found here at the end of chapter 7: “And when Jesus finished these sayings…” This phrase marks the transition from Jesus’ teaching to narrative of Jesus’ ministry. We find similar phrases in 11:1 (after Jesus commissions His disciples), 13:53 (after a series of seven parables), 19:1 (after teaching His disciples), and 26:1 (after the prophetic “Olivet Discourse”), each of which is followed by a narrative of Jesus’ ministry.

So here, at the conclusion of the first great discourse of Matthew, we see how this theme of Jesus’ “authority” becomes tied to the narrative that follows. Matthew is very intentional in his organization of the book, not just to make it easier to read, but to heighten its impact. It is one thing for him to tell us that Jesus had authority, it is another thing entirely to show how that authority was realized in His ministry. He is showing how all of those seemingly insurmountable powers of darkness in the world – the powers of disease and sin and the demonic forces, all of which are symbolic of a world fallen into sin – are now coming under the authority of Jesus. All that went wrong in the garden is now being brought back under the command of God.

It is, in other words, extremely important.

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