27 And they came again to Jerusalem. And as he was walking in the temple, the chief priests and the scribes and the elders came to him, 28 and they said to him, “By what authority are you doing these things, or who gave you this authority to do them?” 29 Jesus said to them, “I will ask you one question; answer me, and I will tell you by what authority I do these things. 30 Was the baptism of John from heaven or from man? Answer me.” 31 And they discussed it with one another, saying, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ 32 But shall we say, ‘From man’?”—they were afraid of the people, for they all held that John really was a prophet. 33 So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And Jesus said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.” – Mark 11:27-33 ESV
For the disciples, it probably didn’t take long before the image of the withered fig tree was replaced with the thought of being able to wield power that could cast mountains into the sea. These men had a habit of hearing only what they wanted to hear when Jesus spoke. The true meanings behind most of His lessons tended to escape them. And this one had been no different. When they had heard Jesus say, “I tell you, you can pray for anything, and if you believe that you’ve received it, it will be yours” (Mark 11:24 NLT), they were probably thrilled. The very thought of having their every wish fulfilled, only by asking God, would have been a dream come true. And it’s fair to assume that the initial ideas that filled their heads were not what Jesus had in mind.
So, as they left the withered tree behind and continued their trip into the city of Jerusalem, the disciples were probably deep in thought about all the incredible implications behind what Jesus had just told them. But soon, they found themselves back in the temple courtyard, standing in the very place where Jesus had staged a one-man riot the day before. Less than 24-hours earlier, Jesus had ransacked the booths of the vendors selling overpriced sacrificial animals. He had overturned the tables of the moneychangers who were charging high fees to the thousands of foreign pilgrims who needed temple currency to purchase their sacrificial offerings. Driven by righteous indignation and motivated by zeal for the holiness of His Father’s house, Jesus had turned the carnival-like atmosphere of the temple courtyard into chaos and confusion.
Now, He had returned, and the first people to greet Him were “the chief priests and the scribes and the elders” (Mark 11:27 ESV). These were the representatives of the Sanhedrin, the high council of the Jews. This august body was comprised of some of the most wealthy and influential men in the city of Jerusalem. They also happened to be members of the primary religious sects within Judaism: The Sadducees, Pharisees, and Essenes. Some were experts in the Mosaic Law. And all were knowledgeable of the Hebrew Scriptures. They were powerful men who wielded great authority and saw Jesus as a threat to their way of life. And His little escapade the day before had been a public attack on the entire system of greed and graft for which they were responsible.
So, when they saw Jesus, they immediately confronted Him, demanding to know the reasons for His unacceptable and costly actions the day before.
“By what authority are you doing these things, or who gave you this authority to do them?” – Mark 11:28 ESV
By this time, the damage Jesus had done the previous afternoon had been repaired, and things had returned to normal. These men were probably there to protect their investments and to ensure that there would be no repeat performance of the previous day’s disruptive and costly episode.
Their question to Jesus revolved around authority. In essence, they were asking Jesus to explain why He thought He had the right to do what He did. And they seem to fear that He might try to do it again. The actions of Jesus had been a direct assault on their authority as the religious leaders of Israel. In their minds, Jesus had invaded their territory and begun a war on their way of life. And as the supreme rulers over the nation, they saw His actions as nothing less than insurrection. He was attacking their right to rule, and they wanted to know what possessed Him to do such a thing.
Jesus could have answered their question by declaring Himself to be the Son of God. He could have told them that He was the long-awaited Messiah of Israel. He was “the anointed one” (Hebrew – mashiyach). But He knew they would refuse to accept those answers. In their minds, they had already determined that Jesus had no authority. He was a loose cannon, operating on His own initiative and in direct opposition to their authority. And nothing Jesus could say would change their minds.
So, Jesus made them a proposition. He offered to answer their question, but only if they could answer one He had for them.
“Was the baptism of John from heaven or from man? Answer me.” – Mark 11:30 ESV
Jesus subtly changes the focus from Himself to John the Baptist. But notice that He kept the emphasis of His question on the topic of authority. By shifting their attention to John the Baptist, Jesus was forcing them to consider the true source of all authority.
John had burst onto the scene more than 33 years earlier. This strangely dressed man had suddenly shown up in the Judean wilderness, preaching a message that the Kingdom of Heaven was near and calling the people of Israel to repentance. And a large part of his ministry involved the baptism of all who were willing to repent and confess their sins.
People from Jerusalem and from all of Judea and all over the Jordan Valley went out to see and hear John. And when they confessed their sins, he baptized them in the Jordan River. – Matthew 3:5-6 NLT
John had attracted large crowds of people, who believed him to be a prophet of God. Even Herod Antipas, the Roman-appointed puppet-king of Israel, had understood John’s reputation among the people.
Herod wanted to kill John, but he was afraid of a riot, because all the people believed John was a prophet. – Matthew 14:5 NLT
Herod ultimately put John to death, but even this did nothing to diminish John’s standing among the people. So, when Jesus asked the religious leaders to state the source of John’s authority to baptize, He knew they would refuse to answer. No matter what they said, they would find themselves in a no-win situation. These men had no love affair with John. After all, while he had been alive, he had treated them with disrespect and disdain. At one point, he had publicly humiliated them, calling them a “brood of snakes” and exposing them as spiritual frauds.
“Who warned you to flee the coming wrath? Prove by the way you live that you have repented of your sins and turned to God. Don’t just say to each other, ‘We’re safe, for we are descendants of Abraham.’ That means nothing, for I tell you, God can create children of Abraham from these very stones. Even now the ax of God’s judgment is poised, ready to sever the roots of the trees. Yes, every tree that does not produce good fruit will be chopped down and thrown into the fire.” – Matthew 3:8-10 NLT
But if they gave the answer they wanted to give and said that John was operating on his own initiative, they faced the ire of the people. On the other hand, if they tried to placate the people by admitting that John’s authority was from heaven, it would reveal that their opposition to John had really been aimed at God.
After weighing all their options, the religious leaders decided that an admission of ignorance was the safest route to take. But when they failed to answer Jesus’ question, He refused to answer theirs. Their silence condemned them.
John had been a prophet sent by God. Everything he said and did was on behalf of God. His entire mission had been to herald the coming of the Messiah.
“I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as the prophet Isaiah said.” – John 1:23 ESV
And yet, the religious leaders of Israel had rejected his mission and message. When John had announced Jesus as “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29 ESV), the Pharisees, Sadducees, and scribes had refused to believe it. They attributed the miracles of Jesus to Satan. They condemned Him for His association with sinners. They accused Him of being a drunk. They spread rumors that He was illegitimate. They declared Him to be guilty of blasphemy for repeatedly claiming to be the Son of God. And this charge had led them to try and stone Him to death.
These men refused to accept Jesus because they could not bring themselves to believe that His power and authority were from God. While they were unable to explain how Jesus did all the things He did, they refused to even consider that He might actually be the Messiah. To do so would require that they relinquish their own authority, and their over-inflated egos wouldn’t allow them to do that.
Since they were unwilling to answer His question, Jesus responded, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things” (Mark 11:33 ESV). He owed them no explanation. He had provided them with ample evidence that He was who He claimed to be. His miracles had spoken for themselves. And yet, time and time again, these stubbornly self-righteous men had refused to recognize and acknowledge the God-given authority of Jesus. And one of the greatest assessments of the sheer stupidity of their spiritual blindness came from the lips of a man who had been the undeserving recipient of Jesus’ divine authority.
“He healed my eyes, and yet you don’t know where he comes from? We know that God doesn’t listen to sinners, but he is ready to hear those who worship him and do his will. Ever since the world began, no one has been able to open the eyes of someone born blind. If this man were not from God, he couldn’t have done it.” – John 9:30-33 NLT
Now, back to the lesson of the withered fig tree. When the disciples had witnessed the remarkable power of Jesus to condemn the tree to death, they had been amazed. And when He had told them, “you can say to this mountain, ‘May you be lifted up and thrown into the sea,’ and it will happen” (Mark 11:23 NLT), they had been thrilled. He was offering them access to the same kind of authority He had. All they had to do was ask, and anything was possible. But there had been a caveat. Jesus had told them to “have faith in God” (Mark 11:22 ESV). This was not about their authority; it was about God’s. All that John had accomplished had been by God’s authority and for God’s glory. The same was true of Jesus. And the same was to be true of His disciples. The availability of God’s authority would be so they might accomplish God’s will and display His glory. The scribes and Pharisees were in it for their own glory. And Jesus was trying to help His disciples understand that faith in God was the key to bringing God glory, rather than self.
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.