Matthew 21:23-27 (NIV) Jesus entered the temple courts, and, while he was teaching, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him. “By what authority are you doing these things?” they asked. “And who gave you this authority?”
Jesus replied, “I will also ask you one question. If you answer me, I will tell you by what authority I am doing these things. John’s baptism–where did it come from? Was it from heaven, or from men?”
They discussed it among themselves and said, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will ask, ‘Then why didn’t you believe him?’ But if we say, ‘From men’–we are afraid of the people, for they all hold that John was a prophet.”
So they answered Jesus, “We don’t know.
” Then he said, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.
The chief priests and elders had been seething all night over Jesus’ disruption of the market in the temple courts, as well as His shameless owning of the title Son of David (Messiah). Their intent that morning was to shut Jesus down by challenging His authority in front everyone who was listening to Him.
When they asked Him, “By what authority are You doing these things?” they fully expected Him to claim His own authority, which would open Him up to a charge of anarchy, which the Romans would prosecute with vigor. Or, if He dared to claim that He was acting under God’s authority, that would open Him to a charge of blasphemy, which carried the death sentence under Jewish law. In either case, they would win!
But instead of either of those, Jesus put them on the defensive by asking them to identify the source of John’s baptism, a question, by the way, that could only have the same two answers. (And the correct answer was the same in both instances.)
These leaders suddenly found the tables turned, and themselves in a very uncomfortable spot. They couldn’t say that John’s baptism had been instigated by God, because they had summarily rejected both John and his baptism. But they also couldn’t claim that John had done what he did on his own, because it would cause a riot among the people standing there, many of whom had been baptized by John, and all of whom believed John to be a legitimate prophet.
So they retreated into scholarly neutrality. They couldn’t say for sure; the jury was still out; maybe someday they would be able to figure it out. But that shift in momentum released Jesus from His obligation to answer their question. If they, the top religious leaders of the day, couldn’t figure out if John was acting on his own or on God’s orders, they had no ability to judge on whose authority Jesus was acting.
Father, I have always been impressed by Jesus’ cleverness in this situation, but now I see that there was a lot more going on here than mere cleverness. Jesus was challenging these men’s authority and credibility as the religious leaders of the day. And He did it in front of the whole crowd He was teaching! Of course, it only inflamed the passions of those leaders, but the point had been made, and the chief priest and elders were reduced to merely reacting. Thank You for helping me to see more clearly. Amen.