Luke 20:1-8 (NIV) One day as he was teaching the people in the temple courts and preaching the gospel, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, together with the elders, came up to him. “Tell us by what authority you are doing these things,” they said. “Who gave you this authority?”
He replied, “I will also ask you a question. Tell me, John’s baptism–was it from heaven, or from men?”
They discussed it among themselves and said, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will ask, ‘Why didn’t you believe him?’ But if we say, ‘From men,’ all the people will stone us, because they are persuaded that John was a prophet.”
So they answered, “We don’t know where it was from.”
Jesus said, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.”
The Jewish leaders had decided that a straight out confrontation with Jesus was the best approach. So they came to Jesus in the temple where He was teaching, surrounded by people as usual. Jesus had accepted praise as the Messiah (19:39-40), and He had cleared the temple of the livestock vendors and money changers (19:45-46), and they asked Him point blank where His authority to do these things came from.
The leaders wanted Jesus to say that His authority came from heaven, from God Himself. They were ready to gleefully shoot down that argument the second that it was raised, because they believed that they could show conclusively that they were the ones with legitimate scriptural authority to run the temple, and they could show from tradition that they were the legitimate arbiters of who was qualified to be the Messiah.
But Jesus turned the tables on them immediately with a simple challenge. He would answer their question if they answered His: Was John’s baptism authorized by heaven, or was it simply of human origin?
On its face, this was a simple question, with only two possible answers, and no false dichotomies. John’s baptism had to originate from one source or the other; there were no other alternatives.
But that simple question put the leaders in a terrible spot. They had confronted Jesus in front of the crowd so that they could shame and discredit Him in front of His followers. But now that same crowd could be turned entirely against them if they answered Jesus’ challenge poorly.
If they said that John’s baptism was authorized by God, as the crowd believed, then they would have to answer Jesus’ question as to why they themselves had rejected both John and his baptism. It was a good question for which they could give no satisfactory answer. If, on the other hand, they said that John’s baptism was merely a human invention, that John was a religious fanatic who believed that he was led by God but was actually not, then the crowd, who believed that John was a legitimate prophet, could easily turn on them.
The self-assurance with which they had strutted up to Jesus melted away in an instant. Instead of cornering Jesus, He had somehow locked them into a no-win situation. No matter how they answered, they were going to lose. So they simply declared, “We don’t know the source of John’s baptism.”
Jesus smiled a bit at their distress. And the crowd did too. The intense conversation of the leaders that led up to this decision, although whispered among themselves, had still been largely discernable to the people nearby. They all knew that this answer was simply a face-saving maneuver. But it also let Jesus completely off the hook. If they were unwilling to give a straight answer to Jesus’ question, then they were undeserving of the truth about the source of Jesus authority.
Father, when we are thinking about or talking about the things of the kingdom, we need to make sure that we keep ourselves out of the middle of the conversation. Our thoughts and feelings are not at all as important as Your truth as You have revealed it through Your Scriptures and through the person of Jesus. And any time we find ourselves hedging what Your word clearly says in order to protect our reputation or our pet theologies, that’s a sign that we are likely on the wrong track. Help us to always deal with our theology openly and honestly, even if it means that we might have to change what we believe to what Your truth actually is. Amen.