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.
These things took place on the way from Bethany to Jerusalem on Tuesday and Wednesday of Passover week (compare Mark 11:12-14, 20), and when Jesus entered the city on what was to be his last full day of unhindered teaching he was approached by the chief priests and elders of the people who demanded of him: “By what authority are you doing these things? And who gave you this authority?” (v.23). Mark expands the list to say that Jesus was approached by “the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders” (Mark 11:27). These were the three groups that made up the Sanhedrin. So this was probably an official delegation, and what they were making clear, although their words were in the form of a question, is that they had not authorized either Jesus or his teaching. They were the authorities!
Jesus’ answer was in the form of another question. They had asked him about his authority; he would ask them about the authority of John the Baptist who had preceded him. “John’s baptism—where did it come from? Was it from heaven, or from men?” (v.25). This was a brilliant reply. For one thing, John’s ministry was like his own in several important ways. Neither John nor Jesus had studied in the rabbinic schools or been endorsed by the Jerusalem authorities. Both had been accepted by the people. Moreover, John had testified that Jesus was the Christ. Even more, Jesus was “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29) and “the Son of God” (v.34). To acknowledge that John’s ministry was from God was to admit the authority of Jesus, for the source of their authority was the same.
Jesus had caught these hypocrites on the horns of a dilemma, and they knew it. They reasoned, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will ask, ‘Then why didn’t you believe him?’ But if we say, ‘From men’—we are afraid of the people, for they all hold that John was a prophet” (v.26).
There was no way out of that one, so they took the coward’s escape, saying, “We don’t know.” And Jesus responded, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things” (v.27).
This was not an evasion on Jesus’ part. It was a brilliant exposure of their moral bankruptcy. They had been asking by what authority Jesus was doing what he did, asserting their ability to judge in his case. But they were forced to confess their inability to make a judgment in the case of John the Baptist and therefore in Jesus’ case as well. They knew their own minds, of course. They had refused both John and Jesus because both had criticized them, but they would not admit it. “They preferred to plead ignorance—and to look ridiculous. Their dishonesty
had been unmasked.”‘
1 Howard F. Vos, Matthew (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1979), p. 148