1 One day, as Jesus was teaching the people in the temple and preaching the gospel, the chief priests and the scribes with the elders came up 2 and said to him, “Tell us by what authority you do these things, or who it is that gave you this authority.” 3 He answered them, “I also will ask you a question. Now tell me, 4 was the baptism of John from heaven or from man?” 5 And they discussed it with one another, saying, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say, ‘Why did you not believe him?’ 6 But if we say, ‘From man,’ all the people will stone us to death, for they are convinced that John was a prophet.” 7 So they answered that they did not know where it came from. 8 And Jesus said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.” – Luke 20:1-8 ESV
Not long after His unexpected and surprising display of righteous indignation in the temple, Jesus returned to the scene of the “crime” and began to teach. It was business as usual for Jesus as He entered the temple court and began to proclaim the gospel. But the chief priest, scribes, and elders had neither forgotten or forgiven Jesus for what they viewed as an unjustified and unauthorized display of authority. They were still fuming over the costly disruption Jesus had caused on their turf. This renegade Rabbi had entered the temple grounds, the domain of the Sanhedrin, the high court of Israel, and He had literally “cleaned house.”
Mark records that Jesus “entered the temple and began to drive out those who sold and those who bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons” (Mark 11:15 ESV). He accused the religious leaders of turning His Father’s house, a place of prayer, into a den of robbers. While the temple was primarily a place of sacrifice, it was to be characterized by prayer. This harks back to the dedication ceremony conducted by King Solomon on the day the temple was opened. In his dedicatory prayer, Solomon asked God to graciously hear and answer the prayers that the people of Israel directed toward the temple, God’s dwelling place.
“May you watch over this Temple day and night, this place where you have said you would put your name. May you always hear the prayers I make toward this place. May you hear the humble and earnest requests from me and your people Israel when we pray toward this place. Yes, hear us from heaven where you live, and when you hear, forgive.” – 2 Chronicles 6:20-21 NLT
But Jesus had entered the courtyard of the temple and found a carnival-like atmosphere where personal gain had taken precedence over piety. The religious leaders of Israel had turned the celebration of Passover into a moneymaking enterprise that lined their pockets and further inflated their out-of-control egos. Rather than serving as shepherds to the sheep of Israel, they acted as opportunists who fleeced the flock and fattened their wallets with the illicit gain.
According to Matthew’s gospel, Jesus demonstrated just how antithetical His ministry was to that of the Jewish religious leaders. Even after cleaning out the money-grubbing vendors, Jesus stayed behind. And Matthew reports that “the blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he healed them” (Matthew 21:14 ESV). The Lamb of God demonstrated concern for the sheep of God, while the so-called shepherds of Israel grew fat and happy by using and abusing those under their care.
But the disgruntled members of the Sanhedrin were furious with this upstart Rabbi from Nazareth and demanded to know by what authority He did the things He did. In their minds, He had no right to question their motives or criticize their behavior. They were the righteous ones. They held all the power and authority and answered to no one, especially an itinerant, unintelligent Rabbi from the god-forsaken region of Galilee. So, as Jesus taught in the temple courtyard, these men showed up and demanded that Jesus explain His actions from the day before.
“By what authority are you doing all these things? Who gave you the right?” – Luke 20:2 NLT
In their minds, Jesus was way out of bounds. He was out of His league and suffered from an unwarranted case of self-importance. While He claimed to be the Messiah and had even blasphemed by declaring to be the Son of God, they considered Him as little more than a lunatic who had serious delusions of grandeur. According to Mark’s gospel, the Sanhedrin had already made up their minds about what to do with Jesus.
When the leading priests and teachers of religious law heard what Jesus had done, they began planning how to kill him. But they were afraid of him because the people were so amazed at his teaching. – Mark 11:18 NLT
Jesus was a walking dead man because the Jewish religious leaders had already placed a price on His head. It was just a matter of time. And their demand that Jesus explain Himself was just one more attempt to get Him to further incriminate Himself. They were looking for additional evidence to take before the Roman authorities so they could demand His execution.
But Jesus saw through their little ploy and answered their question with a question.
“Let me ask you a question first,” he replied. “Did John’s authority to baptize come from heaven, or was it merely human?” – Luke 20:3-4 NLT
Jesus stayed on the topic at hand, but He deftly returned service by lobbing the ball back into their court. It was an easy question, but it didn’t come with an easy answer. Immediately, His interrogators were flustered and floundering around for an answer. They found themselves on the horn of a dilemma.
They talked it over among themselves. “If we say it was from heaven, he will ask why we didn’t believe John. But if we say it was merely human, the people will stone us because they are convinced John was a prophet.” – Luke 20:5-6 NLT
They knew full well the John to which Jesus had referred. It was the late John the Baptist, who had just recently been executed by Herod, the governor of Galilee. Until his death, John had been a popular and polarizing figure throughout Judea,. He and the religious leaders had enjoyed their fair share of confrontations. At one point, they showed up in the Judean wilderness demanding that John baptize them. But John saw that their motives were less than sincere and he boldly confronted them for their hypocrisy.
…when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming to watch him baptize, he denounced them. “You brood of snakes!” he exclaimed. “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 3:7-10 NLT
John knew they were unrepentant and only seeking baptism as proof that they were prime candidates for the coming kingdom of God which John had proclaimed. Since everyone else was flocking to the Jordan River to be baptized, they didn’t want to be left out. But unlike the common people, the religious leaders didn’t believe in John or his message. That’s why Jesus’ question caused them so much concern. If they denied that John’s message concerning the coming kingdom was not from God, they would face the ire of the people. But if they were to agree that John had been sent from God, then Jesus would want to know why they refused to believe his message. John had also claimed that Jesus was “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” ( John 1:29 ESV). So, by rejecting the message of John, they had also rejected his identification of Jesus as the Messiah of Israel.
Caught in a trap, these highly educated men decided to plead ignorance.
…they answered that they did not know where it came from. – Luke 20:7 ESV
And because they unwilling to declare their true disdain for John and his message, Jesus notified them that He had no intention of answering their question.
“Then I won’t tell you by what authority I do these things.” – Luke 20:8 NLT
Jesus already knew that they had rejected His claim to divinity. They refused to accept Him as the Son of God or the Messiah of Israel. So, anything He said was destined to fall on deaf ears. He had already confronted them about their predilection for falsehood and their propensity to believe lies rather than embrace truth.
“For you are the children of your father the devil, and you love to do the evil things he does. He was a murderer from the beginning. He has always hated the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, it is consistent with his character; for he is a liar and the father of lies. So when I tell the truth, you just naturally don’t believe me! Which of you can truthfully accuse me of sin? And since I am telling you the truth, why don’t you believe me? Anyone who belongs to God listens gladly to the words of God. But you don’t listen because you don’t belong to God.” – John 6:44-47 NLT
Jesus had cleaned out the temple based on His authority as the Son of God. Quoting from Isaiah 56:7, Jesus referred to the temple as “My house.” And this statement had not escaped the ears of the religious leaders. They knew that Jesus was claiming to be on an equal standing with God Almighty. He was declaring His divinity. And to them, that was nothing less than blasphemy. The whole point behind their original question was to get Jesus to reiterate that claim in front of the crowds. That way, they would have all the witnesses they needed to convict Jesus and demand His execution. But Jesus’ time of death was drawing close, it was not yet time. There was more for Him to do. And Jesus followed this tense encounter with His arch rivals with a simple parable, and its message would deal with the topic of authority.
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.