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?” – Matthew 21:23 (ESV)
Throughout the gospels, the Pharisees seem to be asking questions that—not through their own planning—reveal deep truths about the Kingdom of God. In fact, I wrote a devotional titled “Questioning Questions” back in July that examined the very nature of questioning Jesus (You can check that devotional out here – http://livehopedevos.blogspot.com/2017/07/questioning-questions.html). However, due to the way that the above verse has been translated into English over the past six-hundred years, I felt that this particular question deserved more scrutiny.
In the English tradition of scriptural interpretation, the above passage has almost always been translated so that the Pharisees question the “authority” of Christ. Of all the translations I checked during my research—a set of texts published between 1382 AD to 2017 AD—all but two translated Matthew 21:23 in this way. For instance, the 1526 William Tyndale New Testament translates the verse, “And when he was come into the teple the chefe prestes and the elders of the people came vnto him as he was teachinge and sayde: by what auctorite doest thou these thinges? and who gave the this power?”
But why does it matter that the Pharisees question Jesus’ “authority?”
The English word authority has a fascinating and complex history. As the Oxford English Dictionary shows, the word “authority” that we use today comes from the root concept of “author.” While we use the term author to primarily speak about someone who writes a written text, this has not always been the case for English speakers. Up until recently, the word author and author(ity)—I insert the parentheses so you can more clearly see the root—carried with it a meaning more closely related to maker. Thus, the one who had author(ity) is “he who authorizes or instigates,” “a creator or father.”
When past English translators of the scriptures chose to render this passage as the Pharisees questioning the author(ity) of Jesus—a translation practice still active today—they also reinforced a strong truth about Jesus, namely that He has author(ity) over our lives. In John 1, the Son is named “the word;” “all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made.” Jesus is the great author of the universe and everything in it. He is the conduit through which everything came into existence from nothing (ex nihilo). But past this gigantic truth, Christ is also the author who recreates our hearts anew. As Paul passionately emphasizes to the church in Corinth, “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (1 Corinthians 5:17).
Despite the fact that Christians have highlighted the author(ity) of Christ for years, we must ask ourselves if we actually believe this core truth of the gospel. Do we believe that Jesus can re-author our lives, that he can truly create us into something new, or are we content to wallow in our brokenness like a pig in filth? I think many times we are content with believing that Christ only has the power to redeem a portion of our brokenness. But we must recognize this falsehood for what it is: a lie from the pit of hell. The author of Hebrews exhorts us with the knowledge that “[Christ] is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for [us]” (7:25).
Believe today that you can be changed. Believe that Christ has total author(ity) over your life. Believe that you have an advocate who can “save [you] to the uttermost.” Believe and be made new.
 Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. “authority.”