Matthew 21:23-27 Part 1

It is now Tuesday before Passover on Friday.  And this incident in the Temple continues through the end of the chapter, verse forty-six, and maybe even well into chapter twenty-two.  We’ll look at that time issue more closely when we get there.  But we have only these five verses to consider this morning, and again next Lord’s Day.

But here in verse twenty-three we are to understand that, sometime after the “drying up” of the fig tree, Jesus reenters the temple.  There are once again large numbers of people gathered around Him, and He is teaching them there.

The text says that the high priests of the temple and some elders of the people were there!  To give you some idea of what that might have been like, that’s like the college of cardinals coming down into St. Peter’s Cathedral to find out what you and I were saying to a crowd of tourists!  You or I would have been preaching Reformed Theology in opposition to Roman Catholicism – on their turf!  Their approach would be very intimidating; and it would require terrific concentration to continue to “blast” (for example) their heretical “maryolatry” with all of them standing there!

Mark’s Gospel says that the high priests and elders waited until there was a break in Jesus’ teaching; and then they approached Him.  So Jesus continued to speak while they were there, and, as it looks from the texts, He didn’t even acknowledge that they had arrived!  Which, of course, indicates that this was His turf and not theirs; and that they were the alien, imposter hypocrites!

Please remember from before that the “elders” of the people were those men of the Sanhedrin (the ruling judicial body of the Jews) who were Pharisees and Scribes and leaders of the tribes who had assumed the most authority and control over Israel’s society, and who had been selected and trained by others who had done the same thing.

And also please remember from before that the high priests had long since been political appointees rather than, as God prescribed, Aaronic and Levitical descendants.  And they were cronies of the most influential men of the Sanhedrin, who made appointments like this for their own purposes.

And we can assume that those purposes were similar to those of present-day “politicos” who either place people in high positions as a “pay-off” for support, or who “stack the political deck” in their favor by putting family members and trusted friends in high places.  The political philosophy is called “nepotism”, and the process is called “patronage”.

So, rather than, as God had prescribed in His Revelation, the worship of God in the temple being led by those in the Aaronic and Levitical priesthood (which family had been specifically set aside for that purpose), the temple worship was now being controlled by political appointees!  And the Word of God concerning how He wished to be worshiped, which had been prescribed by Him in great detail, had been perverted!  Jesus Christ the Great High Priest was foreshadowed by the Levitical priesthood!  How great a perversion is it, for Him to be foreshadowed by political appointees!

Now, since the Church in our day seems to delight in worship perversions, let’s just, once again, say a few things about that.  God, in places such as Deuteronomy twelve, says that His people shall worship Him in no other way except that which He has said.  Nothing shall be added to it and nothing shall be taken away from it.  He is Holy.  And His worship shall be in accordance with His specific instructions.  He has given His people the content and the methodology by which He is to be praised and glorified; and the method and content having been revealed, all else is forbidden!  In other words, nothing is to be added or removed from God’s revealed worship – not the content of that worship, nor the means by which that worship takes place!

Now this is called the “regulative principle” of worship.  Remember that term.  The “regulative principle” (regulative coming from “regnum” – to rule) means that the Scriptures themselves are the ultimate authority (ruling authority) in all matters of faith and practice.  And whatever is said in Scripture (in this case concerning worship) forbids what isn’t said!

In other words, God has specifically stated what is pleasing to Him in worship; and that, ipso facto, prohibits any additions or deletions from that worship!

But the Churches, for many reasons – many pragmatic – have participated in what the apostle Paul calls “will worship”.  In other words, men have willfully (according to their own desires) decided that the regulative principle isn’t the only “rule” in matters of worship – it is the “pragmatic principle” that also rules!

So men have decided for themselves that whatever God hasn’t strictly forbidden, and it works to grow the Church, then it’s acceptable!  Or for whatever other reasons there are that men decide for themselves what’s acceptable – it’s acceptable!

But, as someone once said, as fallen man is instinctively arminian, it is also true that fallen man is instinctively at odds with the regulative principle of Scripture!  It is by his own instincts that he perverts it!

I mentioned Deuteronomy chapter twelve earlier.  Let me just read one verse for you here so that we can be clear abut this “regulative principle”.  Verse thirty-two says:


“What thing soever I command you, observe to do it:  you shall not add thereto nor diminish from it.”


God says that whatever He commands (and this chapter twelve is specifically addressing worship), but whatever He commands, men are not to add to it.  In other words, nothing in addition is acceptable!  To put it the other way, everything else is unacceptable!

Does that sound as if, as men wish, instinctively, to say, “Well, what we’re doing isn’t forbidden!!! – and today’s generation has to be ‘appealed to’ in a way that the old, anachronistic Church can’t do!!!”  Is that what God said?

Now, let me put this to you:  continuing Reformed Presbyterianism, resting upon the Rock which is Christ, and rallying around the cry “sola Scriptura” (Scripture alone), is the only fortress and army in today’s generation defending the regulative principle!

Our forefathers, led by the Spirit of Christ, were so wise in their formulation of this foundational doctrine of the Church.  The clarity with which they dealt with it is unmistakable and undeniable to anyone who is reborn in Christ and wishes to submit in repentance to the will of God!

Listen to this portion of chapter twenty-one of the Westminster Confession of Faith:


“…the acceptable way of worshipping the true God is instituted by Himself, and so limited by His Own revealed will, that He may not be worshipped according to the imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation, or any other way not prescribed in the holy Scripture.”


The same thing is said in the Westminster Shorter Catechism, in the answer to question fifty-one, which deals with the second Commandment:


“The second Commandment forbiddeth the worshipping of God by images, or any other way not appointed in His Word.”


And the Larger Catechism is, naturally, more definitive.  Question number one hundred and nine concerns what is forbidden in the second Commandment.  Listen to the answer:


“The sins forbidden in the second Commandment are, all devising, counseling, commanding, using, and any wise approving, any religious worship not instituted by God Himself; tolerating a false religion; the making any representation of God, of all or of any of the three Persons, either inwardly in our mind, or outwardly in any kind of image or likeness of any creature whatsoever; all worshipping of it, or God in it or by it; the making of any representation of feigned deities, and all worship of them, or service belonging to them; all superstitious devices, corrupting the worship of God, adding to it, or taking from it, whether invented and taken up of ourselves, or received by tradition from others, though under the title of antiquity, custom, devotion, good intent, or any other pretence whatsoever; simony (magic, mysticism); sacrilege; all neglect, contempt, hindering, and opposing the worship and ordinances which God has appointed.”


And, lastly, the Westminster assembly put the regulative principle into practice by formulating a “Directory for Public Worship” in which they stated and explained the ordinances of worship which are prescribed and appointed by God.

But even with all of this, today’s Church, even in many Presbyterian Churches, the regulative principle is instinctively opposed.  As I said, fallen man by nature is at odds with it.  Just as fallen man is instinctively arminian, which means that he retains for himself the ability to deal with his own destiny, so fallen man retains for himself the ability to choose what is best in the public worship of God!

Let me give you a short list of examples, and then we can add to it later during the teaching hour if you wish.  Where in God’s Word is it prescribed that the people are to be entertained?  And I’m not speaking of the bands and dramatic skits and the movies and the puppets and the dancers!  But some Churches, for the purpose of attracting more people, will split public worship into two services – one which is “formal” (for the old and traditional), and one which is more “relaxed” (for the modern set).  And not only are the prescribed components of public worship augmented or diminished in order to gain attention and interest, but the content of what is said is adjusted!

One prominent Presbyterian minister preaches Reformed Theology in formal worship, but adjusts his message to arminianism in less formal settings and for evangelism!

Secondly, not only have many modern Churches abandoned God-appointed worship in favor of emotionally stimulating music and charismata (because the people come to that), but even in many conservative Presbyterian Churches the singing of Psalms is unheard of (having been long ago replaced by songs with repetitious themes in the first personal singular); proportional tithing has disappeared (sometimes even in favor of mystical pledges); pictures of deity are showing up; exegetical preaching is being replaced by stories and illustrations and examples; boards of trustees and pulpit committees are doing the work of God’s prescribed officers; children are being removed from worship; and gyms and playgrounds are being built so that young people can desecrate the Sabbath!  And the list goes on.  The regulative principle of Scripture is being abandoned – just as the Levitical priesthood was abandoned in God’s worship.

But in the text for this morning there are high priests of the temple and elders from the Jerusalem Sanhedrin listening to Jesus teach, and waiting to confront Him.  Hypocrite leaders and political appointees, ravening wolves who, by their leadership, example and teaching, have left the people in bondage to Rome, spiritually blind, economically destitute, and physically weak and sick.  And they’ve done it all in the spirit of self-glorification; and even at this point they still elevate themselves above the people as their judicial leaders!  They are alien blind – leading the blind!

Now the elders of Israel had known for some time that Messiahship was claimed for Jesus, and that it was said that He was here because God sent Him, in fulfillment of prophecy, to be the King of Israel.  (You remember that Herod sent out soldiers to kill male babies right after Jesus was born, because He was said to be a King!  So the leadership of Israel had known about Him for a long time.)

And when they approached Him, the questions they asked Him concerning His authority had to do with “these things”. (verse twenty-three)  And by “these things” they meant all that they had heard and seen concerning Jesus – His teaching, His miracles, His following by the crowds of people (which we now know as the remnant of God’s people), His cleansing of the lepers, His dealing with demons, His raising Lazarus from the dead; His entry into the city and the cleansing of the temple.  They had heard of Him a lot, and they had even sent delegations to confront Him, as we’ve seen on several occasions before.

But most of all they were concerned with His following!  I’ve tried to give the impression of the large numbers before, and it needs to be reiterated that this was no ordinary crowd, but an imposing and threatening number of people!  And if that great number was involved, then it was of great concern to the elders!

With Rome being the conqueror of the world (except for Germany), and the owner of Israel:  and factions within Israel wanting to rebel against the emperor, appeasement and balance were critical issues!  The continuance of the existence of Israel as a state, and the continuance of the system of politics and power on the line, everything was teetering on the balance!

Appeasement toward Rome; balance while dealing with those who wanted to submit and become a permanent Roman state; balance while dealing with those who wanted to rebel; dealing with other dissident groups and splinter groups….

But anything as serious as this very large group following Jesus could tip that precarious balance, causing Rome to become anxious enough (or fed up enough) to send in the legions!  That would throw everything into chaos and destroy the nation; which in turn could terminate the power and authority system now ruling Israel – the elders and their political appointees!

Rome had been threatening for some time to become more aggressive with Israel, and she had sent in governor after governor to provide civil rule to a little country which had given her more headaches than anyone else in the whole empire!  Rome had more important things to do than to put up with rebellion in this tiny country!

And the ruling sentiment in the Sanhedrin was cooperation and submission and incorporation into the Roman world.  But any challenge as large as this one to their authority structure could ruin everything.

So, as the text suggests, the elders of the people and the high priests of the temple sought to discredit the authority of this man Jesus before His followers!  The elders desperately needed to reduce the size of this crowd so that it could be controlled.  And if enough people saw Jesus successfully questioned, or if the elders could cause Him to submit to them as the legitimate rulers in the eyes of these people, then they could head off this most recent threat to their leadership.

But as we’ve already seen, Jesus had not acknowledged any authority over Him.  His coming into Jerusalem and into the temple was without any recognition of them at all!  This city was His Father’s city, and the temple was the place where He had chosen to manifest His glory.  And the temple represented the sacrifices which foreshadowed the world’s salvation!  The entire sacrificial system represented Jesus and it foreshadowed Him!

So the elders’ alien leadership was not authoritative for Him; and the political appointee-priests were illegitimate.  So Jesus didn’t acknowledge them.  He proceeded to do His Father’s will with what His Father owned!

But the elders of Israel looked upon Him as illegitimate, because He had not been trained, examined and appointed by them as a rabbi, or a pharisee, or a scribe, or a teacher, or an elder or a priest – or anything else!  He had not presented Himself to anyone for approval!

So with all these things in mind, the elders and high priests approach Jesus to question His authority.  And, again, as we’ve seen before, if Jesus submits to their questions, He ipso facto places Himself under their authority.  And if He does that, then His answers must conform to the system and teaching of the Sanhedrin!  They were the judges of right and wrong in Israel; and they chose who had the authority to teach and lead the people.

This large crowd of rabble and outcasts of Israel had to be made to see Jesus submitting.  Many of them were gathered here, and they were a formidable and foreboding group, from all over Galilee and Samaria; and from both sides of the Jordan; and from all the neighboring pagan areas.  And many of them had been followers of John and had been baptized by him.  And they were all convinced of Jesus’ Messiahship and the fact that this was their soon-to-be king!  Of course we know that this is the representation of the remnant of God spoken of by the prophets.

But if they all see Jesus submitting to the elders of the people, then their rabid attachment to Him would be shattered.  And maybe many of them would go back where they belonged and this latest crisis would be defused.

So the elders and priests began to question this Man who they were growing to hate – and to fear.  And they said, “By what authority do you do these things?  And who gave you this authority?”

We’ll examine the questions and the options that these men thought they were giving to Jesus next Lord’s Day.  As we’ve discussed before, it was another menacing “entrapment” (skandala) which Jesus easily avoids.

But the authority issue is still the uppermost issue in the Church today.  By what authority do we do these things?  Is the Lord Jesus Christ the Supreme Authority in the Church?  Or is it the pragmatic will-worship of men, as with the elders of Israel?  The Word of God, followed by the men of the Reformation, cries out, “sola Scrptura”.  It is Scripture alone that is the highest authority for faith and practice.  It is God’s Word written.  And we are not to add to it nor take from it.  It stands, as it is, as the “regulative principle” for life.