Prepared by Dr. John E. Marshall
Matt. 21:23b (Holman) . . .and said, “By what authority are You doing
these things? Who gave You this authority?”
In other words, “What right do you have to interfere with the legitimate religious channel (us) in this country? Where are your credentials? Who gave you the right to exercise control over us, and to intrude in our temple affairs?”
A modern example of what happened here would be a group of liberal city preachers confronting a Bible believing country preacher new in town. The leaders were trying to embarrass Jesus as being a hayseed, a hick, an outsider.
Authority is a big deal, especially to those who boast the right to wield it. Mary Queen of Scots scorned John Knox, asking who he thought he was that he could criticize her acts. At first she didn’t realize he was the emissary of a King with far more authority than the Queen had, but finally came around, saying, “I fear the prayers of John Knox more than all the assembled armies of Europe.”
The ecclesiastical authorities of Rome offered Luther the position of Cardinal if he would be quiet, but he had found a higher authority. Luther rightly believed his authority was from the Bible, where theirs never had been.
The religious leaders set a clever trap. Their craftiness shows the danger of intellect under the reign of evil. Educated sinful individuals have remarkable inventive powers to find new ways to do and present evil. They can attack good with seemingly peerless logic, seduce with articulate schemes, and twist truth creatively. Brainy evil can master camouflage, refusing to present itself as it actually is. Wily intellect has the ability to weave veils to conceal its true self.
The religious leaders’ question sounded reasonable; it certainly had a ring of fairness to it. On the surface it gave every appearance of being a legitimate question to have answered before being willing to commit themselves to someone. But the question’s intent was not curiosity; it was meant to trap Jesus.
Intellect is no panacea. The mind is always servant to the heart, for better or worse. No number of college degrees can change this. An evil mind always finds ways to ignore or explain away facts, as the religious leaders proved.
The worst wolves are ones in sheep’s clothing. Beware smooth talking, refined, well-educated enemies to the Bible. They do as much or more damage to people’s faith than out and out reprobates can do. Beware Mosquito Man, who moves gracefully, and hums a beautiful tenor, but it’s the blood he’s after.
Matt. 21:24-25a Jesus answered them, “I will also ask you one question,
and if you answer it for Me, then I will tell you by what
authority I do these things. Where did John’s baptism come
from? From heaven or from men?”
If asked a question, we are not obligated to answer it. At the same time, silence can be misconstrued. It can be interpreted as admitting guilt. We all have heard someone plead the Fifth Amendment, and assumed it proved guilt.
Silence can be also interpreted as consent, though unintended. Jesus here felt a need to reply, but if He claimed He acted on His or God’s authority, they could charge Him with blasphemy. Fortunately, He was smarter than they were.
Jesus used what is a masterful technique in debate or spirited dialogue. He offered a counter question, answering the question with a question.
Jesus was not cowardly dodging their interrogation. Answering His question would give the religious leaders the response they sought, because Jesus’ authority was based on John’s. The Baptist was the only prophetic authority Jesus had been given. It was John who said Jesus was the Son of God (JN 1:34), and the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world (JN 1:29).
Matt. 21:25b-26 They began to argue among themselves, “If we say,
‘From heaven,’ He will say to us, ‘Then why didn’t you believe
him?’ But if we say, ‘From men,’ we’re afraid of the crowd,
because everyone thought John was a prophet.”
If they said John’s baptism was of God, they would lose face, for they had rejected it (LK 7:30). For them to say they believed it was of God, when they had scorned it, would have made them look absurd and blatantly sinful.
If they said John’s baptism was of human authority, the crowd might attack them. The people loved John. He was their hero. The Baptist had stood up to wicked King Herod, and was in their eyes a martyr prophet.
The leaders feared the rabble. They were wise to fear people they had worked so hard to make fear them. Israel was enduring an odd standoff. The people feared excommunication by the leaders, who feared the people might stone them. Fear is not an environment in which groups can function at their best, whether it’s government, church, or family. My father-in-law was my dear friend. One of the life-changing things he told me was, my preschool children feared for me to come home because I was always in a bad mood.
Matt. 21:27a So they answered Jesus, “We don’t know.”
Huh? They’re the religious leaders; it’s their job to know. Their duty was to determine whether or not religious issues were valid. Their positions existed to protect the people. They had called the people ignorant; now they called themselves ignorant. They made themselves look shamefully silly.
Jesus outwitted them; He trapped them in their own trap. They out and out lied. The religious leaders could have said they didn’t want to answer the question. This would have at least been an honest response.
They should have said John’s authority was not of God, for this was what they believed. They were self-condemned. Though the sky falls, always tell the truth. Do not lie.
They had for sure announced what they felt about Jesus. They knew He had power—too many miracles to refute. They said it was Satanic. Bizarre reasoning; when did Satan care for the suffering and sick? Fools do rush in where angels fear to tread, even to the point of daring God Almighty.
Matt. 21:27b And He said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what
authority I do these things.”
Their lie nullified any need for Jesus to have to answer to them. Jesus rejected their authority to determine His authority. If they were unable to judge John’s authority, they were in no position to judge Jesus’ credentials.
From now on, the religious leaders waged all-out war against Jesus, but He did not quit talking to them. He was confrontational, but kept talking.
Keep speaking to your unbelieving friends about the Gospel, however hardened they become to it. Knowing when and how to say what to a cynical unbeliever can be agonizing. Sometimes we want to give up, but Jesus did not. He kept talking to the religious leaders, the men who would have Him crucified. He continued dialoguing with them. The vast majority of them rejected Him, but some, like Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, believed.
For some unbelievers, it’s useless to debate with them. For others, it works. Somedays it’s time to witness to the lost; other days we need to listen. Our desperate need is to cry out for miraculous anointing wisdom from God.
I feel safe in commending to us all the tactic Jesus used here. When in doubt as to what to say, ask questions. People love to talk about themselves and what they believe. Let their answers lead to where you want to go.
Never give up on anyone. It’s God’s verdict to decide when it’s hopeless. Our task is to keep being sensitive to opportunities to share with people the light of the world. Only God has the right to turn the lights off.