by Michael Burns
The Authority of Jesus Questioned
1 One day as Jesus was teaching the people in the temple courts and proclaiming
the good news, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, together with the
elders, came up to him. 2 "Tell us by what authority you are doing these
things," they said. "Who gave you this authority?"
3 He replied, "I will also ask you a question. Tell me, 4 John's baptismówas it from heaven, or of human origin?"
5 They discussed it among themselves and said, "If we say, 'From heaven,' he will ask, 'Why didn't you believe him?' 6 But if we say, 'Of human origin,' all the people will stone us, because they are persuaded that John was a prophet."
7 So they answered, "We don't know where it was from."
8 Jesus said, "Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things."
A few years ago I had asked one of my sons to clean his room and told him that he needed to get it done by the end of the day. I trusted that he would take care of it and didnít go to check until the next morning. When I got up there I discovered that he had not cleaned his room at all. When I asked why he hadnít done what I said, he responded by saying that he decided it was a better idea to wait a day or two. So what do you think my next question was? Itís almost a universal truth. In fact, Iím pretty sure you could go try it out almost anywhere and find it to be true. The fact is, if you begin to take actions that challenge already established routines, orders, or bastions of authority, the first question that will be asked in nearly every situation is ďwho do you think you are?Ē In other words, by what authority are you taking these actions? In general, this question signals two things. The first is that the action you have taken is an indicator that you think you have some sort of authority to act in the manner that you have. The second thing is that, by asking that question, someone is generally indicating that they are not convinced that you have the authority that you are taking. In fact, the question would be rather moot and not be asked at all if your authority were already agreed upon or recognized, so the very act of asking what authority you have or who you think you are is a loud statement about the skepticism that exists over your perceived grab at authority.
Itís easy to look at Jesusí actions, especially those he took in the Temple in the previous passage and pass over the importance of them. From our vantage point, complete with a lack of appreciation for the deep cultural, social, and spiritual aspects of the Temple in Jewish life, we can reduce Jesusí actions in the Temple to a mere angry protest over a little crass commercialization. The Jewish religious leaders understood Jesusí actions, however, to be far more significant and worrisome than that. This was a man who had Messianic claims and fervor swirling all around him and now he was taking action that screamed loud and clear that he believed himself to have the authority to step in and act out a parable of judgment and authority over the Temple. To be as popular as he seemed to have the potential of being combined with this perceived assault on their power was rightly discerned by the religious leaders as a dangerous threat to their position and authority. So the obvious question is exactly, in essence, the one that they demand Jesus answer. Who did he think he was?
On the heels of his acted out parable of authority and judgment, Jesus had the nerve, in the eyes of the chief priests and other teachers of the law, to show back up to the Temple. But he didnít just show up and walk around. He was boldly teaching the people and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God and the fact that he was revealing the presence of the Father to those who wanted to join the family of the Messiah. He was, in effect, teaching people that everything that they got from the Temple could now be experienced by going to Jesus. He was the new Temple and the old one was under his authority and judgment. So the questions on the minds of the religious leaders was seemingly a fair question. ďBy what authority are you doing these things?Ē The second question was really the more important one and got to the heart of the matter. Who, they wanted to know, gave him the authority that he was putting on display for all to see? He was not a priest and had no legitimate authority in their eyes to engage in any action in the Temple of such a nature. They were in charge and in control of the goings on in the Temple, not this man.
The questions asked of Jesus were really a trap. This was, in some senses not unusual in the Jewish culture. It was a very common rabbinical style to argue or have debates by asking questions. You would ask your opponent a question and they would respond in kind, if they were able, with another more difficult question. In the end, the conversation was ďwonĒ by the one who could ask the last question. This is why Jesus so often responded to questions with a question of his own and why we never see anyone top Jesus with a question that he could not answer back to with a question of his own. But make no mistake, this was not an innocent question. If Jesus indicated somehow that God was the source of his authority, then he would be giving them all the ammunition that they needed to charge him with blasphemy.
Jesus responded carefully with a brilliant question that turned the tables on the whole situation but we must remember that this was not an example of Jesus dodging the question. In his culture, he was doing a very acceptable thing of responding to their tricky question with an even better question. If they wanted to know on whose authority he was acting then he would ask them a question about John and his baptism.
Itís easy for us to look at this and wonder what John has to do with this at all. We havenít heard about John the Baptist in a long time and it seems completely out of left field to ask a question about him now. So why did Jesus ask them about the origins of Johnís baptism? Because it not only put them in a difficult situation to answer, it cut right to the heart of the source of Jesusí authority. If they honestly answered the question they would have their answer. Did Johnís baptism have human or heavenly origins? In other words, from where did the authority of Johnís baptism come. These leaders would have been well aware of the fact that Jesus was baptized by John, an act that seemed to serve as an anointing of sorts of the Messianic figure that had been sent by God and confirmed as Godís unique Son by the voice of the mighty God himself. The authority that he had was the royal and heavenly authority of the Messiah, a fact that was confirmed when the Spirit of God descended upon him like a dove and marked him out definitively as the promised Messiah.
So if that all happened at Johnís baptism, then the question of the authority of Johnís baptism becomes central. Was John a true prophet sent from God or not? Since an important biblical aspect of his ministry was to prepare the way for the Messiah, then the key question of his reliability and status from God could not be more important. If John was a true prophet of YHWH then Jesus really was the Messiah and had every right to exercise authority over the Temple. If John was not a true prophet, then Jesus was acting blasphemously and could be dealt with accordingly.
From a very straightforward standpoint, the chief priests and teachers of the law lost this discussion. Jesus had asked a question that they either could not or would not answer. But Luke has allowed us to see into the conversation and know exactly why they couldnít answer. They were not really primarily concerned with the things of God. They were concerned with public opinion. Jesusí question had put them in their own difficult situation and they didnít have a good way to answer. But we should note the difference between the two situations. The trap that they were trying to lay for Jesus in inducing him to say that he believed his authority came directly from God was a trap of their making, and yet Jesus was not afraid to make the answer available to those who would simply recognize that John had been sent as a true prophet of God. The trap for the chief priests, however, was self made. They were in the difficult situation solely because they were so concerned with how their answer would play to the crowds. If they were more concerned with what God thought than with what the crowds thought, they would not have been in that position.
But because they did care so much about their positions of authority, they felt that they were in a no-win situation. They were faced with either admitting that John was from heaven and that they were in the wrong for not accepting him (which would have also meant that Jesus had every right to do what he did in the Temple) or with being consistent with their position that Jesus had no legitimate authority which meant that John was not from God, a position that they worried would have so enraged the crowds that they would have turned violently on the chief priests themselves. So they decided to pass. The showed that truly defending God and his Temple took a backseat to their own positions, respect, and authority and they refused to give an answer, simply saying that they just didnít know.
Luke has already shown us that one of Jesusí charges against the nation of Israel as a whole was that they were ignorant as to coming visitation of the very one that they claimed to be their God (Lk. 19:44). Now, the religious leaders of Israel incriminate themselves on that very charge. Had God come to them through the prophetic ministry of John and was the arrival of Jesus in Jerusalem and his display of authority in the Temple the very coming of God himself? They did not know. And that was the problem. They were in complete ignorance when it came to the coming of Godís kingdom. If they wouldnít answer that, then there was no reason for answering their initial question. The answer was obvious but their intentional ignorance would keep them blind to the truth.
It is up to us then, to ensure that we are always sensitive to the authority of
Jesus in our own lives and donít fall into the trap of feigning ignorance to the
ways that he exercises his authority in our own communities, families and lives.
Sermons and Bible Commentaries for the Hoodosh Eatho Sunday
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