By What Authority?

Matthew 21:23

Matthew recorded an occasion in which the religious leaders questioned Jesus about the things He was doing. After Jesus rode into Jerusalem receiving praise from the people (Matthew 21:1-11), drove the money changers and those selling animals out of the temple (Matthew 21:12-13), healed the blind and the lame who came to Him (Matthew 21:14-15), and then performing a miracle that caused a fig tree to wither (Matthew 21:18-19), the chief priests and elders confronted Him.

When He entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to Him while He was teaching, and said, ‘By what authority are You doing these things, and who gave You this authority?’” (Matthew 21:23).

This was actually a very good question. It is one that we need to ask ourselves and ask of others regarding the things that are done in service to God. Yet many are not at all interested in this question. They simply want to do what they have always done, what seems right to them, what their preacher says, or what their family has always done in religion. But it is important that we appeal to the proper source of authority.

Notice Jesus’ response to their question:

Jesus said to them, ‘I will also ask you one thing, which if you tell Me, I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. The baptism of John was from what source, from heaven or from men?’” (Matthew 21:24-25).

Jesus’ response shows the two possible sources of authority – from heaven or from men. In other words, everything we do in religion will be done either because it is the will of God or because it is the will of man. The will of man could include the will of ourselves, our family, our preacher, a denominational church, etc. But the Scriptures are clear: we must follow God and not man.

For am I now seeking the favor of men, or of God? Or am I still striving to please men? If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a bond-servant of Christ” (Galatians 1:10).

Jesus told His apostles, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth” (Matthew 28:18). Since He has been given “all authority,” that leaves none for us. His will is revealed in the Scriptures (1 Corinthians 2:10-16) as the Holy Spirit guided the apostles “into all the truth” (John 16:13). The words that they wrote – which have been preserved for us in the New Testament – were “the Lord’s commandment” (1 Corinthians 14:37; cf. 1 Thessalonians 4:2; 2 Peter 3:2). Therefore, we must find authority for the things that we do in the word of God. How do we do that?

Ways of Determining What is Authorized

There are four ways in which we can determine what has been authorized in God’s word – direct commands, express statements, approved examples, and necessary inferences. Let us notice briefly what each of these are:

  • Direct command – We are to carry out divine commands. Jesus told His apostles to make disciples and then teach them “to observe all that I commanded you” (Matthew 28:20). These include positive commands regarding what we must do and negative commands about what we must not do.
  • Express statement – Some will group express statements together with direct commands, but there is a difference. An express statement is a statement of fact. Jesus said, “For unless you believe that I am He, you will die in your sins” (John 8:24). Though this is not a command to believe in Him, Jesus’ statement certainly carries the same weight as a command. His point is very clear: we must believe in Him to be saved.
  • Approved example – We are to imitate the examples of the faithful. Paul said, “Be imitators of me, just I also am of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1; cf. Philippians 3:17). However, the fact that examples are to be “approved” is key. Not every example is one that should be followed. On one occasion, several were led to sin by following the bad example of Cephas/Peter (Galatians 2:11-13).
  • Necessary inference – Many will attack this as being nothing more than human opinion. However, we are not citing all inferences as a way to determine what God has authorized, only necessary inferences. In other words, we draw the unavoidable conclusion from what has been stated in the text. It means that God Himself has implied something in the passage without explicitly stating it. Peter used this to conclude that the gospel was open to the Gentiles. When he went to the household of Cornelius, he said, “I most certainly understand now that God is not one to show partiality, but in every nation the man who fears Him and does what is right is welcome to Him” (Acts 10:34-35). God did not explicitly say that to him, but it was the unavoidable conclusion based upon what God had revealed to him prior to this (Acts 10:1-33).

Though only one of these is enough to show that a particular practice is authorized (either by command, statement, example, or inference), there are a couple of examples in which we can see all four of these being used.

First consider the example of the Lord’s Supper:

  • Direct command – “For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus in the night in which He was betrayed took bread; and when He had given thanks, He broke it and said, ‘This is My body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of Me.’ In the same way He took the cup also after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in My blood; do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me’” (1 Corinthians 11:23-25). As Paul restated Jesus’ instructions about the observance of the Lord’s Supper, he emphasized the Lord’s command to “do this.
  • Express statement – “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes” (1 Corinthians 11:26). The apostle made a statement about the purpose of the Lord’s Supper. It is done in order to remember “the Lord’s death.
  • Approved example – “On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread…” (Acts 20:7). The example we find in the New Testament was that the church met on the first day of the week to observe the Lord’s Supper. This was the only day in which they practiced this.
  • Necessary inference – “Now on the first day of Unleavened Bread the disciples came to Jesus and asked, ‘Where do You want us to prepare for You to eat the Passover?’ […] While they were eating, Jesus took some bread, and after a blessing, He broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, ‘Take, eat; this is My body’” (Matthew 26:17, 26). Since Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper during the days of Unleavened Bread, we can necessarily infer that He used unleavened bread since the Jews were required to “remove leaven from [their] houses” in order to observe this feast (Exodus 12:15).

Next, consider the example of baptism:

  • Direct command – “Peter said to them, ‘Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit’” (Acts 2:38). Ananias told Paul, “Now why do you delay? Get up and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on His name’” (Acts 22:16). In these examples, a command was given for people to be baptized in the name of Christ in order to be forgiven of their sins.
  • Express statement – “He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved; but he who has disbelieved shall be condemned” (Mark 16:16). Jesus made the statement that in order to be saved, one must believe and be baptized.
  • Approved example – “But when they believed Philip preaching the good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were being baptized, men and women alike” (Acts 8:12). This is one of many examples in the book of Acts of people hearing the gospel, believing it, and being baptized.
  • Necessary inference – “As they went along the road they came to some water; and the eunuch said, ‘Look! Water! What prevents me from being baptized? And Philip said, ‘If you believe with all your heart, you may’” (Acts 8:36-37). We can necessarily infer that infant baptism is not what the Lord requires because the eunuch first had to believe before he could be baptized. Infants cannot believe; therefore, they are not candidates for baptism.

Each of these ways can be used to determine what the will of the Lord is and what is authorized in His word. Paul wrote, “Whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus” (Colossians 3:17). This means we must do all things by His authority. We cannot do anything we want and claim it is in His name; we must do what is authorized.

The ways we have considered of determining what is authorized are not unique to the Bible and are not an invention of religious men from previous generations. This is how all communication works. If you teach anyone, you will make your will known through commands (telling what to do), statements (stating facts), examples (showing what to do) and implications (from which necessary inferences or conclusions will be drawn).

Generic and Specific Authority

When we talk about Bible authority, it is also important that we understand the difference between generic authority and specific authority. Generic authority means God has given an instruction, but allows different options in carrying out that instruction. For example, Christians are instructed to assemble: “Not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the day drawing near” (Hebrews 10:25). However, the New Testament does not specify the type of location in which a local church is to assemble. Therefore, a congregation has different options – buying, building, or renting a building; meeting in a public place or in someone’s home; etc. – and may choose the one that is most expedient [more on this in a moment].

Specific authority simply means that God has specified a certain thing, method, time, etc., for carrying out His instructions. For example, Jesus commissioned His apostles to “preach the gospel to all creation” (Mark 16:15). If He had just said to “preach” to all creation, but did not specify “the gospel” as the message to proclaim, then they would have been at liberty to preach any message they chose to preach. But He specified “the gospel” so they were only authorized to preach that message. If they preached “a gospel contrary to” the message they were commissioned to preach, they would be “accursed” (Galatians 1:8-9).

Regarding “expedients,” it is important that we remember the rule set forth by Paul in his first letter to Corinth: “All things are lawful for me, but all things are not expedient” (1 Corinthians 10:23, KJV). A thing must first be lawful before it can be called expedient. For example, we are instructed to sing “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” (Ephesians 5:19). This authorizes us to sing, but does not authorize the use of musical instruments. Therefore, musical instruments are not expedients – they are an addition to the practice, not an aid in carrying out the practice.

Also, something is expedient because it is the most profitable option we have for carrying out the instructions that God has given us. Therefore, if something is specified – see point above – it cannot be called an expedient. For example, it would be incorrect to say that it is “expedient” for us to meet on the first day of the week to observe the Lord’s Supper, as if another day would be an equally lawful option. God’s word specifies the first day of the week (Acts 20:7) as the day when Christians meet to observe the Lord’s Supper. We do not meet on Sunday to partake because it is expedient, but because God specified that day for us to do it.

The Silence of the Scriptures

Does God’s silence authorize or prohibit? Some believe that a practice is wrong only if the Bible contains a specific prohibition against it. This reasoning is used to defend such practices as the use of instrumental music in worship and having the church fund recreational activities. To better understand what God’s silence means, consider the following passage:

For it is evident that our Lord was descended from Judah, a tribe with reference to which Moses spoke nothing concerning priests” (Hebrews 7:14).

In this context, the Hebrew writer made the point that the law of God had changed (Hebrews 7:12). This was necessary before Jesus could be a priest. He could not be a priest while the old law (the Law of Moses) was still in effect. Why not? It was because He was from the tribe of Judah. Descendants from Judah were prohibited from serving as priests simply because God said nothing about priests from Judah. When the Law of Moses specified the tribe of Levi as the tribe from which priests would descend (Numbers 18:21-23), all the other tribes were automatically excluded, even without a specific prohibition.

We should not defend a practice by saying, “God never said not to do it.” Instead, we need to find where in the Bible the practice is authorized. Notice in the previous passage (Hebrews 7:14) that even Jesus, the Son of God, could not have the rules bent so as to allow Him to be a priest under the old law. Let us not think so much of ourselves that we try to bend the rules and expect God to be pleased. Instead, let us do only those things which are authorized in His word.


There is one source of authority – Jesus Christ. His will is expressed in His word. There are two types of authority – generic and specific. There are four ways to determine what is and is not authorized – direct commands, express statements, approved examples, and necessary inferences.

We must do all things by the Lord’s authority: “Whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus” (Colossians 3:17). It is important to be reminded of these things so we can serve the Lord in the way that is pleasing to Him.

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  1. Bobby McPherson says

    Excellent summary about this very important topic. A good understanding of authority and a faith built on just what the Bible teaches would solve so much division in religion.

  2. Larry DeVore says

    Excellent article, Andy. Any deviation from God’s Word is caused by a refusal to respect and abide in Scriptural authority.