Jesus is having yet another dispute with the Pharisees. He enters the temple courts. He begins to teach the people and then here comes the By What Authority Are You Doing This? crowd.
Now, let's stop there and moment and ponder the boys in their linen vestments. Jesus is on their turf, so to speak, and they want to know, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” (Matt. 21:23).
The Temple represents God's dwelling place on Earth. Let's see what their possible motivations are with this question:
1. We are guardians of God's House, here Rabbi Jesus. You come from a hayseed town in Galilee. Where were you trained? Who trained you? We have a reputation to protect and we can't just let anybody set up shop and start teaching.
2. We appreciate your zeal, but we are alarmed at how the people gravitate to you and away from us. WE have been appointed to do God's work. You?
3. You don't look like us or sound like us. You need to fall into line with how we do things around here if you want to teach here.
4. The Romans are always breathing down our necks. If you anger us, that's one thing. Anger them, and we all will pay dearly.
OK, so either the boys are sincerely guarding their turf; they are jealous; they want brand consistency or they're desperate to maintain the status quo. So, how does Jesus respond?
"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.” (Matt. 21:24-6)
Jesus' rather piercing question is to see what is in their hearts. He wants to expose their motivation in asking Him this question. The question on the surface seems well-intentioned. They seem to take their guardian role very seriously. But do they?
In other words, what is the foundation upon which they stand? They claim it's God's holy Word; is it?
The question takes on epic proportions because it points the debate right back to the Scriptures. The authority of the Messiah's forerunner points to the legitimacy of the One Who comes after. John took on the authority of baptism to prepare the hearts and minds of God's children for the greater One to come:
"In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, 'Repent, for the kingdom of
heaven is at hand.' For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when he said,
'The voice of one crying in the wilderness: "Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight.’”
Now John wore a garment of camel's hair and a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts
and wild honey. Then Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to
him, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins." (Matt. 3:1-6)
John is fulfilling Isaiah's prophecy. "Lord" means "Messiah" (the Anointed One of God) and John is announcing the imminent work of God. Thus, he is a prophet as well as a forerunner.
How the Pharisees answer Jesus' question is critical, and they know it. If John spoke the truth, the Pharisees will be held accountable by God for their unbelief. If John spoke falsely, the leaders, while wanting to expose this (and by extension, Jesus) will run the risk of angering the crowd. The crowd sees him as a prophet.
So, Jesus is demanding that they reevaluate their position in the light of the Scriptures. They have studied the Old Testament to the last detail. Does John fulfill the criteria of a prophet?
Instead of going directly to the Word, they decline to respond. They are not even willing to debate the matter. But, if they look to the Word (which they claim to stand on) they would see it being fulfilled right before their very eyes.
Earlier, Jesus rode into Jerusalem upon a donkey, thus fulfilling Isaiah's and Zechariah's messianic prophecies. In fact, the reports of His ministry show that messianic prophecies are being continuously fulfilled and the Pharisees know it.
Jesus is deliberately placing the Scriptures front and center. The criteria for the Messiah is clearly delineated; thus, any discussion as to Jesus' claim should be an exploration of the Word.
The Pharisees' response? Either we debate the Scriptures with this hayseed from Nazareth and risked looking stupid--he seems to really know his stuff--or we tick off the crowd, who seems to be at a fevered pitch of excitement and support for him.
Sadly, they take the worse tactic possible: "We do not know." (Matt. 21:27) The easy way out, to be sure, but the most telling: they are in the presence of Someone that they cannot understand. They equally choose not to pursue the truth in order to understand. They reject the very foundation they claim to represent: the Scriptures. In fact, Jesus says in another place to them, "You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; it is these that testify about Me; and you are unwilling to come to Me so that you may have life." (John 5:39-40)
Jesus, seeing their unwillingness to pursue the truth, responds, "Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things." (v. 27)
Sadly, no one has ever been won to the Kingdom through argument alone. If one is willing to pursue the truth to wherever it may lead, and be willing to risk having to leave behind one's preconceptions, the Scriptures should be the only arena of discussion.
Jesus' method was to always point back to the Word to validate His ministry.
Why do we think we can improve on His method?
Next up: the Parable of the Two Sons