Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

161. By What Authority? Matt. 21:23-32; Mark 11 :27-33; Luke 20:1-8.

Next morning—Wednesday—Jesus was back in the temple again. Mark says he was walking in the temple; Luke describes him "teaching the people and preaching the gospel." How can we reconcile these details.? Was he taking a "breather" between teaching spells? or teaching a small handful as they walked?— when an official deputation from the Sanhedrin came aggressively upon him (s.w. Acts 4:1; 6:12; 17:5; 22:20): "chief priests and scribes with elders." The two parties—Sadducees and Pharisees—were now once again glad to make a concerted attack on Jesus.

These rulers were still fuming about the highhanded action of yesterday. Surely on the strength of it they could throw Jesus into prison. But the Galileans now in the city were so much on his side that action against him would mean riot unless Jesus were first shown openly to be lawless and deserving of punishment. Overnight they had gone into committee about it (Lk.19 :47), and this was the course they had decided on.

Aggressive question

So, in the presence of the people, they formally and repeatedly demanded an explanation: 'Where is your authority for behaving like this?' Did he have either civil or ecclesiastical sanction for his high-handed actions? How could he behave thus in the temple of God without explicit warrant from God. Then, by what right?

These evil men sought to catch Jesus on the horns of a dilemma. If he asserted a royal right for his actions they could immediately hand him over to Pilate. If he disclaimed royal privilege, he would find himself discredited among his nationalistic followers.

Immediately Jesus saw what they were at. The charges which were actually to be made at his trial were already crystallizing out-blasphemy, for assuming divine right; and insurrection, for taking the law into his own hands.

Aggressive answer

His answer was another question—not at all an evasion, although at first it smacks of that: "I will ask you one question, and answer me, and I will tell you by what authority I do these things. The baptism of John, was it from heaven, or of men? answer me." This question told them immediately that he saw through their tactics; in itself it would suffice to discomfit them. Yet by and by Jesus was confounding them with another (Mt.22 :41-45). His urgent challenge: "Answer me!" presents a Jesus who knew he had no need to be defensive. So, here was no red herring, but a counter-question strictly relevant to their enquiry.

Whenever some new prophet or teacher arose among the people, it was the solemn duty of the religious leaders to investigate his claims and message, and then to make a pronouncement pro or con for the benefit of the nation. Two tests were to be applied. First, if he claims to be a prophet do his prognostications come true (Dt.18 :10-22)? In the Old Testament nearly all the prophets begin with a short-term prophecy the truth of which would be verified by events within a year or two; e.g. Am. l:1,2; Is. 2 :10-22; Jer. 1 :1-14; Ez. 4; Mic. 1:1-4; Mal. l :l-5; 1 Kgs.13 :3. Second, does he teach sound wholesome doctrine (Dt.13 :1-5)?

Actually, the rulers had made careful investigation of John's qualification as a prophet (Jn. 1:19-28), but had not dared to accredit him as a man of God. His brusque censure of themselves had left them no option. Yet his prophecy of the coming of One greater than himself had been proved true. But how could the rulers agree that it was true without conceding also the divine authority of Jesus? (Lk.3 :4,16,17). And John's call to repentance and baptism - a baptism, which pointed forward to "the Lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world"—was the very essence of God's Truth but repugnant to these proud men. They had "rejected the counsel of John against themselves, being not baptized of him" (Lk.7 :30). So the challenge of Jesus implied the taut rejoinder: 'You made no public pronouncement concerning John, as you should have done; then, if I provide my own unmistakable credentials, will you do any better this time? Will you declare my divine mission to the nation? Of course you won't!'

In particular, if the validity of John's teaching was conceded, then did they not recall the sign of Messiah which John had bidden them look for?: "Upon whom thou shalt see the Spirit descending, and abiding on him, the same is he ..." (Jn. 1 :33). It was obvious to the entire nation that all through the ministry of Jesus marvellous works of Holy Spirit power had flowed from him. That very week they had had further witness of this.

Also, what about Malachi's word fulfilled in John?: "Behold, I send my messenger, and he shall prepare the way before me: and the Lord, whom ye seek (note the strong irony here), shall suddenly come to his temple . . . and he shall purify the sons of Lev!" (3 :1,3). Jesus had done precisely that, the day before. Moreover John's public witness to "the Lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world" had established the right of Jesus to drive both offerers and offerings out of the temple court. So nothing but wilful blindness prevented these men from recognizing the unbroken chain of witness—God, Malachi, John, Jesus.


Not daring to provide an unprepared answer, these men of high intellect moved off to go into conference about it. They knew themselves forced into a bad position. To admit the divine mission of John was to concede heaven's authority to all that he had said about Jesus. "Then let us say, From men . . .," but immediately they shied away from such a declaration, for it could only be made at the expense of their own popularity and even of their own lives: "All the people will stone us to death (for blasphemy; Lev.24 :14), for they are unbudgably convinced (Gk. perfect tense) that John was a prophet." Not truth but self-interest was their dominating concern. In this they were unanimous (Lk.).

So they played for safety with the lame answer which was a palpable lie: "We do not bow." (The true answer was: "We know, but dare not say"). Thus they openly declared their lack of qualification to make assessment of the claims of Jesus. Nevertheless only two days later they reckoned themselves competent to judge and condemn him!

Jesus shrugged off their challenge: "Neither do I tell you by what authority I do these things." But if they stayed to listen to the rest of his teaching that morning, they soon had their answer (Mk. 12:6).

Reproachful parable

The embarrassment of these adversaries was not eased by a short parable which supplied the Lord's own answer to the question they had evaded.

A man came to each of his two sons and bade them work in his vineyard. The first said bluntly: "I don't want to," but then he had second thoughts and went to the task. The other promptly agreed—but did nothing. His sprightly and polite affirmative—literally: "I sir!'—was framed apparently to express both respect for his father and by his own willingness an implied censure of his brother's surly attitude.

"Whether of them twain did the will of his father?" There was no side-stepping this question. They gave him the obvious answer, and in the ineluctable interpretation found themselves condemned.

The man is God. The two sons are like the two sons in the parable of the prodigal. The first represents the publicans and sinners with their strong disinclination to godliness, who nevertheless heeded the Baptist's call to repentance. The other typifies the Pharisees and scribes whose outward piety masked stubborn refusal to do the work which God really wanted from them, namely,/b;//i in the message of John and of his successor, Jesus. The emphatic repetition of the word "believe" (Mt.21 :32) is very eloquent. "The publicans and harlots are going into the kingdom of God before you" does not mean that Pharisees also will go into the kingdom but with inferior status. Rather, the idea is: "These sinners are now going before you" in the sense that "they are showing you the way."

"The baptism of John—from heaven, or of men?" receives its answer here, for since the man in the parable is God, His call to the two sons must have been made through John. Who else?

There is an obvious wider reference of this parable to Jews and Gentiles, for this was a theme never long out of the mind of Jesus at this time. From the very first Israel had proclaimed its own devotion to the God of Abraham: "All that the Lord hath said will we do, and be obedient" (Ex.24 :7). But alas, "this people draw near me with their mouth, and with their lips do honour me, but have removed their heart far from me" (ls.29: 13). Within a few short years all the religiosity of Israel was to be shamed and censured by the faith and sincerity of a growing ecclesia of Gentile belivers.

Notes: Lk.20 :1-8

On one of those days. Possibly a Hebraism for the outstanding day in that week of witness; in that case Thursday, not Wednesday.

Preach the gospel. What gospel? — after his cleansing of the temple, the end of animal sacrifices for the forgiveness of sins?
These things. Riding in triumph into Jerusalem? failing to silence the crowd acclaiming him as king? cleansing the temple? bringing the blind and the lame into the temple? forbidding sacrifices?
One thing. The Hebraism again, (v.1)? — one decisive question. Or did he mean: I shall not need to ask another!?
Neither tell I you . . . There is here the implication: John told you the truth about himself and about me, and yet you say you don't know! Then if I tell you plainly, will the outcome be any different, any better?

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