“By What Authority?” — Jesus Answers the Question

In my last post on the “By what authority” question, we looked at the way the claims of Jesus to be the Messiah triggered the question (as usual, I recommend you read that as background on this post).  The religious leaders asked who authorised Him to behave as Messiah, to do things that only Messiah could rightly do.

Our Lord was not playing a tit-for-tat game — “If you won’t answer, I won’t answer, so there!”  He never refused to answer an appropriate question.  In this case, the question was appropriate — and He answered it, despite what we might think on a casual reading.

Matthew 21:23-27

23 And when he was come into the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came unto him as he was teaching, and said, By what authority doest thou these things? and who gave thee this authority?
24 And Jesus answered and said unto them, I also will ask you one thing, which if ye tell me, I in like wise will tell you by what authority I do these things.
25 The baptism of John, whence was it? from heaven, or of men? And they reasoned with themselves, saying, If we shall say, From heaven; he will say unto us, Why did ye not then believe him?
26 But if we shall say, Of men; we fear the people; for all hold John as a prophet.
27 And they answered Jesus, and said, We cannot tell. And he said unto them, Neither tell I you by what authority I do these things.

The Appropriateness of the Question

Matthew 23:2-3

2 Saying, The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat:
3 All therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do not ye after their works: for they say, and do not.

The very same day as their question, Jesus spoke these words of respect for their position.  They were teachers of the Law (that’s the idea of “sit in Moses’ seat”).   It was right and appropriate for them to question anyone who claimed to be the Messiah.  They should have investigated the authorisation of anyone who did what Jesus did.

For something this important, one could not be self-authorising, and as I mentioned in the last post, miracles alone were not enough.  Messiah would have to be authorised to do what He did.  There was no problem with their question, in principle.

The Question Should Have Been Unnecessary

Let’s just take a moment to look at what they knew about this Jesus:

  • He was heir to the throne through Joseph.
  • His mother was descended from David.
  • He was born in Bethlehem as prophesied.
  • 34 years before, an angel appeared to Zacharias in the temple, announcing the birth of John the Baptist.  This fact was well-known to all the priests, Zacharias would have reported what the angel said, and the identity of his son was no mystery.
  • Then, shepherds had “made known abroad” that angels told of Messiah (Greek Christos, Christ).  This would have been reported to the priests.
  • Simeon and Anna spoke to many in Jerusalem after His birth.
  • The wise men came to Jerusalem talking about the birth of a King.  All of these events surrounding His birth would have been noted by the chief priests.  It was their business to know what was going on religiously in Judea.
  • Twelve years later, a Youth appears in the temple, astonishing the teachers with His questions and answers.  They would have asked of His parents and birth.
  • Then, John’s ministry begins, pointing to the Lamb of God who is to follow Him.
  • A year later, Jesus appears.  He heals lepers, raises the dead, heals a man born blind, walks on the water, calms a storm, and fed thousands.

The question was appropriate, but they shouldn’t have had to ask it.  The evidence was overwhelming.  The angels, the wise men, the prophecies about His birth, the miracles, there were so many things that could not be ignored.

How Jesus Chose to Answer

Let’s go back to the thing that especially triggered their question — the temple cleansing.  We saw in the last post that this was a Messianic claim, based on the following passage.

Malachi 3:1-3

1 Behold, I will send my messenger, and he shall prepare the way before me: and the Lord, whom ye seek, shall suddenly come to his temple, even the messenger of the covenant, whom ye delight in: behold, he shall come, saith the LORD of hosts.
2 But who may abide the day of his coming? and who shall stand when he appeareth? for he is like a refiner’s fire, and like fullers’ soap:
3 And he shall sit as a refiner and purifier of silver: and he shall purify the sons of Levi, and purge them as gold and silver, that they may offer unto the LORD an offering in righteousness.

Jesus’ questioners must have had this text in view when they asked the question.  “Who gave you authority to come into our temple and do that?  Who made YOU the Messiah?”

He could have pointed to His birth and lineage, the wise men, or His miracles, but He answered them based on this key passage by referring to “my messenger” — John the Baptist.  Was John’s baptism from Heaven (of divine origin) or of human origin?

What John Said

Let’s look at what John said about the Lord Jesus Christ:

  • The kingdom of Heaven is at hand (Matthew 3:2)
  • The One coming me is much mightier than me (Matthew 3:11)
  • He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and with fire (Matthew 3:11)
  • I am inferior to Him (Matthew 3:14)
  • He will be the Judge (Luke 3:17)
  • He is the Lord whose way I am preparing, as prophesied by Isaiah (John 1:23)
  • He is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world (John 1:29)
  • He was before me though born later — thus pre-existent and eternal (John 1:30)
  • The reason I am baptising is so He can be manifest to Israel (John 1:31)
  • He has been endorsed by the Holy Spirit (John 1:32-33)
  • He is the Son of God (John 1:34)
  • He is the Messiah (John 3:28)

Note especially those last four.  Now, let’s go back and look at Jesus’ question again:

The baptism of John, whence was it? from heaven, or of men?

It is clear.  If John told the truth, he was the forerunner, the messenger of Malachi 3.  But more, he said Jesus was endorsed by the Spirit, is Messiah, and is the Son of God.  His baptism was intended to let all Israel know about this One who was coming.

Thus, Jesus turned their attention to John.  If John told the truth, John had authorised Jesus as the Messiah.  By turning their attention to John, He was answering their question.  Right?  Close, but not quite.

John Didn’t Authorise Jesus

Let’s look again at our Lord’s question.  He didn’t ask if John told the truth.  He asked about the baptism of John, and He asked its source.

Jesus was not pointing to John, He was pointing through John, to the source of John’s baptism, the source of his ministry, to the Father Himself.  If John’s baptism was from Heaven, and the purpose of the baptism was to manifest Christ to Israel, then it was not John, but the Father, who authorised Jesus to “do these things.”  Jesus did not rely on human testimony, even on as authoritative a witness as John.  (Note John 5:32-41 in this regard, especially verses 34 and 41.)

“Who authorised you?”  That was their question.  He answered by claiming the authority given by the One who authorised John.  John’s words had made that authority clear.

They saw it immediately.  If they said John’s baptism was from Heaven, then He would say, “Why don’t you believe Him?  Heaven testified of Me through him.  My authority is from Heaven.”  If they said it was of men, they feared the people (Luke’s account says the people would have stoned them).

Not Authority, but Belief

Jesus answered their question, but His answer revealed that they had asked the wrong question.  Their real problem, their real question, was not about authority at all — it was unbelief.  “For all hold John as a prophet” — but they did not believe.

That is our issue with authority, too.  No, we don’t always like having to do what God tells us to do.  Many people refuse to become Christians because they want to rule their own lives, they don’t want to give God authority.  Many Christians struggle with complete obedience for the same reason.  But it really isn’t a question of authority, but of belief.  If we really truly believe Who He is and all He has done, authority isn’t an issue — we would gladly obey.

Our problem is always unbelief.

Previous on this question:
“By What Authority?” — The Claims of Messiah

Series Summary with links to further articles: “Passion Tuesday” / Crucifixion Tuesday

About Jon Gleason

Pastor of Free Baptist Church of Glenrothes
This entry was posted in Rightly Dividing and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to “By What Authority?” — Jesus Answers the Question

  1. subitopiano says:

    Pastor Jon — these are the kinds of things so many of us would miss. Thank you for sharing your insights with us. 🙂 (Keep it up!!)

    • Jon Gleason says:

      We don’t know the Scriptures well enough. That’s why we miss these things. This is another one my Sunday School teacher missed when I was growing up — “Since they wouldn’t answer Jesus’ question, He didn’t have to answer theirs!” Well, no. 🙂 He answered it.

      Of course, part of our problem is understanding culture and times. Many books help with that. One that has been a blessing to me is “The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah” by Alfred Edersheim. Some of it is hard going, but a wealth of useful information by a man who knew the Jewish writings, history, and customs very, very well.

      But the best thing is read the Scriptures, over and over again. The Holy Spirit will open our eyes to connections between passages that we never saw before.

      I’ll probably continue on with the “Passion Tuesday” interactions. It’s something I’ve studied and preached on more than once.

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