1. Now it happened on one of those days, as He taught the people in the temple and preached the gospel, that the chief priests and the scribes, together with the elders, confronted Him
Now we move forward to one of those days between His arrival in Jerusalem and the Passover. Remember that the lamb or kid that was to be used for the Passover was to be chosen on the tenth of the month, but it was not to be killed until the fourteenth day of the same month. Thus there was this preparation time for the Passover when all was in waiting. Now, the Lord has been presented to all the people and shown to be without blemish, and so He has been chosen by God to be His sacrifice. Now, all must wait until the actual day of Passover arrives, and the Lord’s great sacrifice can be made. During one of these days of waiting, this event takes place.
When this happens, we read that the Lord was in the temple. We have said before, but it bears repeating, that the temple was not a single building. Men are ever likely to think of our churches when they think of a temple. There certainly was the main building around which the whole temple complex was situated, and in which the holy place and the holy of holies were. Yet the temple itself was actually a campus built on the temple mount, and many buildings were contained within it. It had many other, outdoor areas and courtyards as well. One such place was chosen by the Lord as His center of activity, and there He began His ministry of teaching and proclaiming to the people.
These places in the temple courts were really open to anyone who was an Israelite. This was the Lord’s house, but its courts were open to all who were descended from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and many different groups of Israelites with many different ideals would meet in this same temple. It was one campus, yet it was set up to be open to all. In fact, there was even a court where the Gentiles were allowed, and could come to worship the true God. It was probably from this court that the Lord drove out the money changers, since He referenced the fact that this was to be a house of prayer to all nations. Whether the Lord taught in this court or not, His message at this time was really intended only for Israelites.
The Lord is teaching the people in the temple. He was a great Teacher, and many were flocking to Him to hear His lessons. Yet He was not just teaching, but also was preaching. This word in Greek actually means “proclaiming,” but our translators wanted to get preaching and sermons into the Bible. What the Lord was doing was proclaiming the right message.
Now, He is confronted by three groups of men, described as the chief priests and scribes, together with the elders. There is no doubt but that they were opposed to the Lord and His message from the start. His casting out of the buyers and sellers in the temple, who were there with these men’s permission, cannot have pleased them either. So far they had let Him teach in the temple unmolested. Yet it seems these men finally worked up the courage to confront Him. They do it all together in a great crowd. It seems that none of them were bold enough to take Him on unless they were all together to give each other courage. They knew just how popular the Lord was with the common people. These religious leaders were willing to risk much, but what they feared most perhaps was the loss of their status as the revered and honored leaders of the nation of Israel.
2. And spoke to Him, saying, “Tell us, by what authority are You doing these things? Or who is he who gave You this authority?”
Perhaps this confrontation was ultimately about His actions in disrupting their dishonest temple market. Yet also these men had reserved the right to teach the people to themselves. The priests were supposed to be the teachers, yet at this time they had relegated that duty to the scribes, being content to spend their time performing the temple ritual. Yet nevertheless they felt that teaching was their exclusive right, and no one should be able to teach without their permission. Therefore they confront the Lord as He is teaching and ask about His authority. Who gave Him this authority, they ask? For if it was not one of them, they do not believe He has the right to teach. They feel He has stepped on their toes, and is disrupting their little kingdom. Few are so indignant as those who feel their little corner of power is being challenged.
This would have been a very good question if they had been asking it honestly. Then He could have told them Who gave Him this authority. If they would have believed Him, it would have been a very good thing for them. However, the only thing that would have satisfied them would have been if one of their own had given Him this authority. They knew this was not the case, so they were really intent on proving that He had no authority to do such things. This question just basically was asking “who do you think you are?” They didn’t really seek an answer, but only to criticize Him, and to throw His authority into question.
3. But He answered and said to them, “I also will ask you one thing, and answer Me:
The Lord Jesus responds, as He so often did, with a question of His own. If they can answer this question of His, then He will answer these questions of theirs.
The word for “thing” here is the Greek word logos or “word,” the same term used in John 1:1 for the Lord, that we have discussed means “expression.” The Lord was asking them to express themselves and their thoughts and opinions by their answer.
4. The baptism of John–was it from heaven or from men?”
The question the Lord asks regards the baptism or the identification of John. All in Israel were familiar with this baptism, and a great many people had participated in it. The common people whom He was teaching had all been baptized by John, but these chief priests, scribes, and elders had not been. This is revealed to us in Luke 7:29-30.
29. And when all the people heard Him, even the tax collectors justified God, having been baptized with the baptism of John. 30. But the Pharisees and lawyers rejected the will of God for themselves, not having been baptized by him.
The hearts of the people were prepared to hear the Lord when they were baptized by John. This was their identification with the submissive ones in Israel. Those who rejected John and his baptism were not submissive, and so did not listen to the Lord when He came. Of this number were these elders and chief priests and scribes.
By heaven the Lord did not mean the place called “heaven.” The Jews did not like to say the name of God. They felt that if they never said His name, they would never be guilty of taking it in vain. Therefore, they avoided saying His name when they could, or found some other word to substitute for it. Here, the Lord bows to their sensibilities, and uses the word “heaven” for “God.” This was one of the most common substitutes they used for God. This made sense. First of all, we know heaven as the place where God dwells. And secondly, the word itself means “that which is lifted up or exalted,” and God is the One Who is lifted up and exalted, a “Heaven” indeed. So what Christ meant by this question was, “Was the baptism of John from God or from men?”
5. And they reasoned among themselves, saying, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ He will say, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’
These men confer among themselves and reason as to how they should answer the Lord. They are here to oppose the Lord, and so are not interested in answering honestly, but just in answering in a way that will not allow Him to show them up. They do not believe that John’s baptism was from God, but they know that people do. If they answer, then, that his baptism was from heaven, the people will be satisfied, but then the Lord will ask them why, if it was from heaven, did they not believe him? And that question, of course, they could not answer. So they know they cannot answer Him this way.
6. “But if we say, ‘From men,’ all the people will stone us, for they are persuaded that John was a prophet.”
If they say his baptism was from men, then they can justify not believing him. Yet this answer will anger the people. These men know that the people all are persuaded that John was a prophet. In this they are correct, for that is what John was. Yet these chief priests, scribes, and elders do not believe this. But they know that the people are convinced that John was a prophet. If they say they do not believe that he was, they are afraid the people will be angered even to the point of stoning them for rejecting God’s prophet. This would be an extreme reaction on the part of the people, perhaps, but not totally out of line with what God commanded. His prophets were always to be listened to, and the consequences for not hearing a prophet were severe. Deuteronomy 18:18-19 speaks of the Prophet like Moses that the LORD would raise up. Of course, this Prophet is revealed in the New Testament as the Lord Jesus Christ. The LORD says of this Prophet,
18. I will raise up for them a Prophet like you from among their brethren, and will put My words in His mouth, and He shall speak to them all that I command Him. 19. And it shall be that whoever will not hear My words, which He speaks in My name, I will require it of him.
The LORD does not say here what requiring it of him might mean, but Peter in Acts 3:22-23 interprets this in a most severe way.
22. For Moses truly said to the fathers, “The LORD your God will raise up for you a Prophet like me from your brethren. Him you shall hear in all things, whatever He says to you. 23 And it shall be that every soul who will not hear that Prophet shall be utterly destroyed from among the people.”
So it was a very terrible thing to refuse to believe the prophets that the LORD sends. If the people chose to stone those who rejected a true prophet, they would not be entirely out of line with the Scripture. Now we must question whether or not the people really were bold enough to rise up and put their own religious leaders to death. Considering that Christ would not have supported them doing this, it seems unlikely that this would have happened. Yet these religious leaders were ultimately cowardly, and not willing to risk what MIGHT happen.
So in this way these men reason among themselves, and realize that the Lord Jesus has them in a trap. They either must admit their own hypocrisy or else do something that could arouse the wrath of the people. Thus they decide that their only recourse is to answer indecisively.
7. So they answered that they did not know where it was from.
The priests, scribes, and elders are forced to answer that they cannot say where John’s baptism was from. This let them off the hook, either from admitting their hypocrisy, or else from possibly angering the people.
Even today there is a certain level of apparent wisdom that is found in not taking a side. Those who claim to be “moderates” often put forth that theirs is the intellectually superior position, since they can see both sides of the argument. That is the claim these men choose to make. Yet in a case like this, such an answer in itself was hypocrisy. They needed to take a side on this, for this was a matter of truth and error, of obeying God or of rebelling. The truth was that they had taken a side. They just were not honest enough to admit it. This is often the way of the self-righteous ones who claim to be “moderate” when they should be bold to side with the truth.
8. And Jesus said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.”
The leaders have faced the Lord’s trap, and have taken the coward’s way out and refused to answer the question, as the Lord Jesus knew they would. Christ had told them that He would only answer their question about His authority if they answered His question about John’s authority. This they had refused to do. If they could not even judge decisively about John’s authority, how could they claim that they could judge competently about Christ’ authority, even if He told them where it was from? They showed by refusing to answer His question that they were in no real position to do so.
So the Lord answers them that, since they will not answer His question, He will not answer theirs, nor tell them by what authority He does the things He does. Not only does Christ escape their trap, He also ends up trapping them, and putting them in a bad light instead, showing up their incompetence! It is never wise to try to corner the Lord. He is far too wise to be caught in a trap of men’s devising.