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?” 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. 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?’ But if we say, ‘From man,’ we are afraid of the crowd, for they all hold that John was a prophet.” 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. Mt 21:23-27, ESV
After having stayed in Bethany the night of the Triumphal Entry, Jesus re-enters the Temple.
At this point, tensions between Jesus and the Jewish rulers have finally reached a boiling point. For three and a half years, Jesus has traveled around the countryside teaching the Jews that there is a deeper law that underscores even the Mosaic Covenant. He has been preaching that complete perfection of heart and mind is necessary if one wishes to "earn" their way to heaven. He has been teaching that only God and being His disciple will get one to heaven. His healings and wisdom--and the blessing of Jesus by the prophet John the Baptizer--has resulted in Jesus being heralded as a great prophet.
So we have this amazing prophet who teaches a radical approach to the Laws of Moses, and has vocally called the Pharisees and Jewish ruling class hypocrites for three and a half years. We know from John's Gospel that He recently raised Lazarus from the dead--a miracle on par with the greatest of the ancient prophets (and a miracle that many of them probably wrote off as more legend than fact). His fame had grown so high that this rabble-rousing prophet entered Jerusalem to throngs of cheering fans (see last week's study).
And what did He do, as the center of attention? With all eyes of Jerusalem on Him, Jesus entered the Holy Temple during the holiest of feast preparations and started knocking over tables and calling people out as greedy hypocrites. He made a big, big spectacle of everything.
That is what happened yesterday. And here He comes, showing up again.
I think at this point the Jewish leaders had just finally had enough of this upstart prophet. They finally decided to stop playing games and try to put Him in His place. So there, in the Temple--in front of His huge crowd of followers--they put it to Him: "By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?" They are certainly talking about Jesus' ministry in general, but are probably most ticked off and focused upon His clearing of the Temple the day before.
What the chief priests and elders are trying to do here is to trap Jesus in a very specific trap. At this point in His ministry, most people do not think that Jesus is claiming to be the Christ. Peter made that claim in Mt 16:16, and Jesus said that this was divinely revealed to Him--so clearly, this was not yet a widely-held belief! Some (such as the rich young man from a few weeks ago) see Him as a teacher; some see Him as a rabbi; some see Him as a healer; more and more are beginning to hail Him as the first true prophet of God in the last five centuries; and only a few souls (such as the two blind men from the last chapter) are beginning to see that He is the Son of David, the prophesied Messiah, the Savior and Anointed One.
And so here, the Jews are trying to get Jesus to claim outright that He is above them--that His authority is divinely given. This would not be a minor claim: if He claimed this, many would call Jesus a blasphemer. They would say that He was trying to usurp the position of the High Priest. They would say that He was trying to incite a rebellion. (We know they would say these things, because in a few days this is exactly what happens!) If Jesus claims that His authority is from above, then the chief priests will use that to arrest Him; if He claims that His authority comes from man, then they can say that His teachings are beneath the authority of the High Priest.
Here's the thing, though--if you are going to pick a debate partner, it's probably not advisable to pick the God Incarnate. He makes for an awfully good debater.
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. 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?’ But if we say, ‘From man,’ we are afraid of the crowd, for they all hold that John was a prophet.” 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.
Did Jesus just use the old schoolyard classic, "I'll tell you if you tell me first?" Yes, I believe He did.
Jesus says to them that He will be glad to answer their question, if they first answer His. And so He puts them in the position of answering their very own question...but about John the Baptist. John was of course an immensely popular prophet among all of the Jews (probably even more so since he was recently beheaded).
And so Jesus uses their own snare to entrap them: if they claim that John was a true prophet, then Jesus will ask why they refuse to accept John's anointing of Jesus; if they claim that John was not a true prophet, then they might invoke a riot among the peasant Jews.
Unable to think of a way out, they claimed not to know the answer. And so, Jesus says, He will not answer them.
The brilliance of the argument aside, Jesus also is subtly saying something to His followers: my authority comes from the same place as John's. As the leaders themselves noted above, "they [i.e., the crowd] all hold that John was a prophet." So Jesus manages in one statement to: (a) flip the question back onto the questioners; (b) tell the crowd that His authority is heavenly just as John's was; and (c) subtly remind the crowd that John claimed Jesus was the Greater Prophet who was to come after John.
That's a pretty effective debate!