23 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?” 24 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. 25 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?’ 26 But if we say, ‘From man,’ we are afraid of the crowd, for they all hold that John was a prophet.” 27 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. (Matthew 21:23-27)
Jesus hadn’t exactly blended into the background since arriving in Jerusalem. After entering the city to a kingly welcome, he proceeded to chase the money-changers and vendors out of the temple before taking up a spot to teach and heal the people who came to him. Not surprisingly, the religious leaders of the day weren’t thrilled by this series of events, and in this passage they come to Jesus to question him yet again.
I’ve never believed in the old maxim that there is no such thing as a stupid question. Having spent most of my life in a classroom, either as a student or a teacher, I can positively state that there are indeed stupid questions. I’ve also found that the stupid questions are usually the ones that are not thought through all the way before being asked or the ones asked from ulterior motives. The chief priests and elders provide further proof of that here.
By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority? If this is an honest question (and I don’t think it is), then we seriously need to question the intelligence of the Jewish leaders. In John 10, Jesus is in Jerusalem, walking around the temple, when the following exchange takes place:
30 I and the Father are one.” 31 The Jews picked up stones again to stone him. 32 Jesus answered them, “I have shown you many good works from the Father; for which of them are you going to stone me?” 33 The Jews answered him, “It is not for a good work that we are going to stone you but for blasphemy, because you, being a man, make yourself God.”
A similar incident had taken place in Jerusalem in John 8, when Jesus had declared in verse 58, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am,” equating himself with the self-existent YHWH of the Old Testament. Jesus had already made it clear from whom his authority came. Jesus’ words and deeds had testified to his authority. The issue wasn’t that the religious leaders didn’t know; it was that they didn’t believe.
So why were the chief priests and elders asking him to reiterate what he had already said? They were trying to trap him; they had an ulterior motive. They wanted more ammunition with which to accuse him of blasphemy (which they eventually do later in the week).
Jesus, however, sidesteps their questioning, knowing that it is not yet time for him to be accused, and his question in response (The baptism of John, from where did it come? From heaven or from man?) turns the tables and traps the chief priests and elders. Their only options were to lie and say from heaven, thus essentially saying that Jesus’ authority was also from there (and leave themselves open to questioning about why they didn’t believe John) or to tell the truth and say from man and risk angering the crowd, who believed John to be a prophet. So they answer, “We do not know,” avoiding having to answer the question but also giving Jesus a reason not to answer theirs. Instead, Jesus launches into a series of parables that will indirectly answer their question by exposing their hearts and setting the stage for the rest of the Passion Week.
So what are we to make of all this? While this passage somewhat serves simply as a transition from the fig tree narrative to the parables Jesus will tell, I think we can learn from Jesus’ methods here:
1. We should teach with authority. While the chief priests and elders asking by what authority Jesus did “these things” probably means they were thinking of the Triumphal Entry and clearing of the temple as much as they were his teaching, the immediate context is still his teaching. We also read in Matthew 7:28-29 that “when Jesus finished these sayings, the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he was teaching them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes.” The danger of living in an increasingly postmodern culture is that we unintentionally start to buy into some of the false thinking and begin to teach without authority, as though our beliefs really are just one option of many, and we almost apologizing for asserting truth. On the other hand, we also need to be sure that we are not teaching out of our own authority, taking our own opinions, finding Scripture to back them up, and passing them off as truth. Rather, let us teach with the authority ordained upon us as a priesthood of believers (1 Pet. 2:9), empowered by the Holy Spirit and rightly handling the word of truth (2 Tim. 2:15).
2. We should discern between true seekers and those wanting to waste our time or trap us in our words and not allow the latter to distract us from our mission to the former. A few months ago, I mentioned an acquaintance who had become an atheist. When I first began to interact with him on the subject, he portrayed himself as more of a seeker, someone legitimately trying to understand how the Bible could be true. It didn’t take long, however, to realize that wasn’t the case, and it became clear that his questions were meant to engage me in an argument, find something he didn’t like in what I said, and accumulate more evidence for his disbelief. And that’s essentially what the chief priests and elders were doing to Jesus. Unfortunately, it took me another day or two to realize that what I needed to do was to end the discussion so I didn’t lose focus on ministering to those with open ears. Jesus realized that immediately. In his ministry, Jesus occasionally engaged the religious leaders, I think mostly for the benefit of the crowd, but he doesn’t here. He’s focused on his mission, which would culminate at the end of the week. He didn’t have time to engage in petty arguments and verbal entrapments. He wanted to put his focus back on the people coming to him for healing and teaching and on training the disciples for when he would be gone.
I think this is part of the reason why Paul instructed Titus,
“to insist on these things [the essentials of the gospel listed in the preceding verses], so that those who have believed in God may be careful to devote themselves to good works. These things are excellent and profitable for people. But avoid foolish controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels about the law, for they are unprofitable and worthless. As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him, knowing that such a person is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned” (Titus 3:8-11).
Our human nature wants to debate, to defend ourselves, even to defend the Lord (as if he needed our help). It’s tempting for us to engage those who have no interest in discovering truth and who just want to catch us saying something stupid or wrong. So Paul reminds Titus to focus on preaching the gospel and doing good works and forget about those who just want to argue because they are distractions from mission and community.
Things to Reflect on in Light of this Passage:
1. Do I approach Jesus and the Bible with honest questions or stupid ones that reflect ulterior motives or a refusal to meditate on his word?
2. Do I teach Scripture with authority or apologies? Can those with whom I speak tell that I actually believe what I say I do?
3. Is there anyone I need to stop “arguing” with so I can refocus on teaching the gospel and doing good works?