Serving the Frontline in Passive Spiritual Warfare (Matthew 21:23-27)
For the past several weeks we have been witnessing spiritual warfare in the temple of God. Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a sluggish donkey, not to say that he didn’t come to fight, but to say that he came to fight for things of eternally greater consequence than Roman oppression and national security. He came to fight for spiritual purity, human redemption, and the eternal salvation of souls.
Jesus’ weapons of choice have been prayer and Scripture. “My Father’s house shall be called a house of prayer!” Jesus said. And Matthew has been sure to show Jesus on numerous occasions as an exemplar of prayer that we might follow and be successful in our battle for eternal life.
Additionally, every critique of temple activity and every dagger of divine retribution has been driven by the sword of Scripture. “IT IS WRITTEN, MY HOUSE SHALL BE CALLED A HOUSE OF PRAYER!” and “HAVE YOU NEVER READ, ‘OUT OF THE MOUTH OF INFANTS AND NURSING BABIES YOU HAVE PREPARED PRAISE!”
The Word of God was so impressed upon the constitution of Jesus that with every attempt on his soul by the hosts of Satan, he would charge forward with the sword of Scripture, rendering their attacks futile.
You will recall the testing Jesus withstood in the wilderness whereby the full gamut of Satan’s militia was thrust upon him, and with every attempt Jesus said, “It is written!” So, there is a time in spiritual warfare to be on the offensive, plowing down barricades and silencing Satanic taunts.
However, there is another mechanism of spiritual warfare particularly effective when the reasoning powers of Scripture are ineffective—not because Scripture is ineffective but because many are so darkened in their understanding that even the light of the word of God is invisible to them.
Turn with me in your Bibles to Matthew 21:23-27, and let’s read it together:
23 And when he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came up to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” 24 Jesus answered them, “I also will ask you one question, and if you tell me the answer, then I also will tell you by what authority I do these things. 25 The baptism of John, from where did it come? From heaven or from man?” And they discussed it among themselves, saying, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ 26 But if we say, ‘From man,’ we are afraid of the crowd, for they all hold that John was a prophet.” 27 So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.
This morning, my aim is to impress upon you the great value in passive spiritual warfare. We will mine through three layers of insight gleaned from this passage, namely (1) the passive tactic of Jesus; (2) the empty snare of unbelievers; and (3) the unacceptability of ignorance.
Lastly, I’ll give a small set of criteria for when it might be best to try a more passive method of warfare.
The Passive Tactic of Jesus
I’m inclined to think that everything Jesus ever did has some kind of authority for the movements of his disciples. If Jesus did something in a certain way, it certainly wasn’t by accident; and therefore, it has bearing on my life in some way. This conversational maneuver is no exception.
After the chief priests and elders asked him, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” Jesus answered, “I also will ask you one question, and if you tell me the answer, then I also will tell you by what authority I do these things. The baptism of John, from where did it come? From heaven or from man?…(v. 27) they answered him, ‘We don’t know.’ And he said to them, ‘Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.’”
The bare elements of the passage simmer down to a question Jesus had no inclination to answer. Now in a little bit I’ll offer a reason for why Jesus did this, and I’ll provide a scenario or two where this kind of tactic is profitable; but for the moment, I simply want your attention set on the most high Jesus who purposely did not defend himself.
He could have said, “I do these things by an authority from heaven, and it was given to me by God.” That would have been a factually accurate answer. “All things were given to me by my Father,” Jesus said earlier. But rather than giving a statement like that, he said instead, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things?” I won’t tell you! I find this incredibly amusing.
If somebody challenges our faith, we are constantly on the defensive, ready to systematically prove that I’m not a fool, and my faith is valid, and that I do have good proof for it, and that I am credible and qualified. Now there’s a time—we saw it for the past couple weeks—where our warfare is very offensive, offering Scripture and overturning base activities of men; but clearly there’s a time to let the opponent’s questions go totally unanswered—to say, “I will not give you an answer.”
There are a number of reasons why we feel the compulsion to defend ourselves, namely pride, insecurity, and ignorance, to name a few. Pride—because we want everybody to know, “I am smart, so stop laughing;” Insecurity—because the prospect of being dismissed as a fool is harmful to our fragile ego; Ignorance—because sometimes we really don’t know what we are talking about.
You may have a perfectly acceptable and truthful response to an individual; yet we learn from Jesus that it is wonderfully appropriate at times to ignore the attempts made to slander your faith.
This generation worships the god of Logic. And by virtue of always seeking to appease the appetite for logic, we create a tension with the Biblical definition of faith—It is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. We fool ourselves if we think every aspect of our faith can be logically explained. The fact remains, we worship a God we’ve never seen; we follow a Jesus we’ve never witnessed perform a miracle; we esteem an ancient document as the supreme authority for every man. You may have good reason for your faith, but that does not mean you should always offer it; and it certainly doesn’t mean somebody else will find it logical. So, join Jesus in a confidence willing to leave it unexplained!
That’s the first layer of insight gleaned from the passage—sometimes it’s best to ignore your opponents—even if you have a great answer.
The Empty Snare of Unbelievers
Now, let’s look at the second layer of this message concerning the reason why I think Jesus ignored them.
First, notice two things: (1) The men asking the question are the same ones as he had previously encountered in the temple the day before. I know that because they said, “By what authority are you doing these things?” Doing what things (at this point in time, Jesus was merely teaching). They had in mind some things he had done, which were executed the day before: Verses 14-15 read, “14 And the blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he healed them. But when the chief priests and scribes saw the wonderful things that he did and the children crying out in the temple, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David!’ they were indignant.”
So, these are the men who saw Jesus perform miracles and became angry about it. (2) These men interrupted Jesus as he taught: “[They] came up to him as he was teaching, and said, ‘By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority!’”
What do you gather, then, about the tone of their question? It was faithless, indignant, rude, and insincere.
The tone in which they came to him was not that of a child, “Jesus, what kind of authority is this? Is it from heaven? Did you receive it from the Father? Please give me insight; I want to know God!” Rather, it was an insidiously poised blowdart of a question by which they hoped to extract from him a blasphemous statement as a legal indictment for his arrest. And Jesus knew this.
Later in his trial and crucifixion, the high priest will say to him, “I adjure you by the living God, tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God!” Jesus said to him, “You have said so”…Then the high priest tore his robes and said, ‘He has uttered blasphemy. What further witness do we need? You have now heard his blasphemy. What is your judgment?’ They answered, ‘He deserves death.’ Then they spat in his face and struck him.”
Now, the very statement these men sought from Jesus is the one that placed the final nail in his coffin. “What kind of authority is this? And who gave it to you?” It is the Christ’s authority, and God gave it to me! Had he uttered those words, they would have shouted, “blasphemy!” And this would have prematurely spurred his trial.
Now, an incredibly important truth is evident in that Jesus chose to ignore their question and thereby escape trial; and later Jesus chose to answer their question and thereby faced death: Jesus, the Christ, cannot be ensnared. He chooses when to engage, how to engage, and where to engage his opponents. He ignored them because he dictates the development of the battle.
If he is laughed at, it is by his own permission. If he is chained, it is by his choice. If he is pushed to the edge of a cliff, he passes through the people’s midst. If he is made a fool, it is by his design. If he wishes to make a fool of the people, he has precisely the know how to do it. If he is under the submission of Pilate, it is because he gave Pilate such authority. No snare can be set for Jesus.
In fact, the ones who set the snare are themselves ensnared. Later in this chapter, Jesus will quote Psalm 118: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone…” And Jesus says, “And the one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and when it falls on anyone, it will crush him.” So when the world thinks they’ve totally discredited Jesus and tossed him to the curb, they don’t know that such was God’s plan!
Here’s how this is spiritual warfare and how it should affect our faith: There will be a barrage of criticism fired at the faithful as the world becomes more secular. A host of ridicule, scorn, and laughter is promised by Jesus to meet the faithful. We will say things and do things that make unbelieving, impure individuals indignant; and they will try and say we have no authority to say such things; and they’ll say our authority is old, and outdated, and offensive, and hate speech, and threatening. And the devil will do all he can to deter us in our mission.
Do not let the clever ploys of Satan’s hosts distract you or silence you or make you timid. You ought to carry and boldness and confidence in Jesus that walks right into the line of fire unfazed. Your disposition before this fallen world should be unabashed, unashamed, audacious, and fearless. Jesus controls the outcome! Jesus controls when our faith is realized and how long we walk this planet.
So when the world pretends we are fools and grows indignant by our glorious disposition, be confident enough to totally ignore it. “I have no answer for you, world! I know I’m right!”
The Unacceptability of Ignorance
Now I said a moment ago that the world can only pretend we are fools; because the third layer of insight gleaned from the passage concerns the unacceptability of ignorance.
25 The baptism of John, from where did it come? From heaven or from man?” And they discussed it among themselves, saying, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ 26 But if we say, ‘From man,’ we are afraid of the crowd, for they all hold that John was a prophet.” 27 So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.”
If somebody is confronted by a truth from Jesus and claims ignorance, Jesus will give them no further insight. In other words, Jesus will allow them to remain ignorant. This is a judgment of sorts.
And the reason his judgment is just is because their ignorance is a lie. The baptism of John was a requirement of God for all of Israel—it was a baptism of repentance (Mark 1) in preparation for the Christ who demanded repentance!
And when the scribes and Pharisees made their way to the Jordan River, they had aim to be baptized until John said to them, “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance!” In other words, merely being baptized didn’t mean anything! The baptism only meant something if you repented from the heart.
So guess what? The scribes and Pharisees refused his baptism and rejected his preaching. They didn’t reject him because they had good reason to believe he was a false prophet; they rejected him because they didn’t want to repent!
In next week’s message, Jesus will say to the same men: “Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you. 32 For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him. And even when you saw it, you did not afterward change your minds and believe him.
Even when they saw it! So they knew it was true. They saw the truth. But they enjoyed the pleasures of sin more than truth. The truth of God is evident to everybody—even the most devout atheists. If the truth of God weren’t apparent, then somebody would have an excuse before God’s throne. Atheists would be able to say, “But I really didn’t believe you were real!” And God would say, “Well, in that case, you’re excused!”
What this exchange reveals is that when an unbeliever claims he doesn’t know, it really just means he doesn’t want to admit it. Why? Two reasons: He didn’t want to repent of his sins, and he has a fear of people. Those were the two things in conflict in the minds of the Pharisees. They knew John was from God—but they loved sin, so they refused to obey him. They feared the people—so they couldn’t openly speak of how they disobeyed him.
You may be certain that every attack made on your faith by unbelievers is produced by the love of sin and the fear of people. So go forward with unashamed faces, knowing you possess the truth of God unto salvation. Be not dismayed by flaming darts of the enemy. You will be protected in Christ. He will decide when your time has come.
Criteria for Passive Spiritual Warfare
Let me offer you three basic criteria you might keep in mind for when best to exercise passive spiritual warfare. In other words, when should you ignore slanderous attempts on your faith?
1. When Scripture has been offered in your defense and totally disregarded by the opponent, you may be best served to battle them passively—ignoring them from then forward.
Jesus entered the temple with a whip and quoted Isaiah 56:7—“My house shall be called a house of prayer.” The leaders of the temple totally ignored his judgment concerning their lack of prayer. Instead, they said, angrily, “Do you hear these kids praising you!?”
So Jesus said, “have you never read, ‘Out of the mouth of infants and nursing babies you have prepared praise.’”
Two attempts by Jesus to utilize Scripture were completely ignored and run over by the Scribes and chief priests and elders of the people. So if a person has no desire to hear what the Bible actually says, just ignore them.
2. When your opponent is angered by obviously wholesome statements or conduct, you might consider passive spiritual warfare.
Jesus performed miracles in the temple, and it made the Scribes and Pharisees indignant.
Just recently I posted something about the evils of abortion on FaceBook—something all of us should be engaged in—and somebody commented and tried to make it a political discussion, to which I brought it back to the moral base of the matter—Abortion is an atrocious act of immorality.
Clearly perturbed by my comment, the young man said, “I hope you realize that there is a difference between advocating for the killing of babies and believing that women should have the choice. I personally abhor abortion…I think it should be reserved for the most extreme of situations…rape, life of mother at risk, etc. And while I do believe third trimester abortions should be absolutely banned (because the fetus can survive outside the womb at that point), I also believe that women should have a choice (at least during the first trimester, as the fetus cannot survive outside of the womb). I don’t believe Christ called us to impose our version of morality on the world…specifically on non-believers…so I try to honor/live by my faith, but not judge people who do not practice the same faith as me.”
Oh, I had so many things to say back! But if the wholesome desire to preserve all life is rejected to say, “I hope you realize there is a difference between advocating for the killing of babies and believing that women should have that choice,” then I’m best served ignoring him. I made a statement very clearly based in Biblical morality, and it caused his defenses to flare up.
3. When your personal discussions are interrupted by unrelated interrogations, you should consider passive spiritual warfare.
Jesus was preaching and teaching to a captive audience. And instead of hearing what he had to say, the chief priests and elders said, “Who gave you the authority to do this!?”
Soon after Miranda and I moved to Cayman, I was invited to speak at a small lectureship in Antigua. My message was about Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith. After my message, there was a question/answer period, and one of the first questions fired off was, “Why are you wearing a polo instead of a button up shirt and tie?” It had NOTHING to do with the message.
And I was so inexperienced at the time that I just answered his question and for the next twenty minutes the whole audience was back and forth in a controversy about clothing.
What I should’ve done was said, “I’ll ask you a question, and if you answer it, then I’ll tell you why I’m wearing a polo. John the Baptist, the forerunner for Jesus, did he wear fine clothing or rags?”
I want to encourage you this morning to consider the approach of Jesus in utilizing passive spiritual warfare. Let your faith be undaunted by worldly criticisms. Be confident enough to ignore most attempts made to discredit you.
Teach those who have ears to hear; ignore those who only want to cause trouble. Be not dismayed by silly questions. Jesus controls your future.
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