1 And it came to pass, on one of the days, as he was teaching the people in the temple, and preaching the gospel, there came upon him the chief priests and the scribes with the elders; 2 and they spake, saying unto him, Tell us: By what authority doest thou these things? or who is he that gave thee this authority? 3 And he answered and said unto them I also will ask you a question; and tell me: 4 The baptism of John, was it from heaven, or from men? 5 And they reasoned with themselves, saying, if we shall say, From heaven; he will say, Why did ye not believe him? 6 But if we shall say, From men; all the people will stone us: for they are persuaded that John was a prophet.7 And they answered, that they knew not whence it was
.8 And Jesus said unto them, Neither tell I you by what authority I do these things.
After his triumphal entry into the city, Jesus continued to be the popular idol of the multitudes that thronged Jerusalem at the passover season. It was this popularity which delayed the designs of the rulers, as they had determined to put Jesus to death. They must first discredit him with the people. With this in view they sent a deputation from their chief court, the sanhedrin, to entrap Jesus in his talk or to bring him into conflict with the Jewish or Roman rulers. They challenged him to state by what authority he was receiving such honors as the Messiah, or driving the traders from the Temple, or performing his miracles. Their question was framed with subtle skill, |By what authority doest thou these things? or who is he that gave thee this authority?| They placed Jesus in a dilemma; if he should claim that authority had been delegated to him, then he might be accused of disloyalty and of schism, in supplanting the recognized |authorities| of the Jewish state; if he should claim inherent divine authority, as identified with God, he might be condemned for blasphemy.
Jesus silenced his enemies with a question which involved them in a counter dilemma: |The baptism of John, was it from heaven, or from men?| They could not say |from heaven,| for they had rejected John; they dared not say |from men,| for they feared the people by whom John was regarded as a prophet. So they tried to escape by cowardly replying that they did not know. Agnosticism is usually cowardly and deserving of little respect.
But Jesus did more than silence them; he answered them. His question was no irrelevant riddle by which he met a difficulty and delayed the necessity of a reply. He definitely implied that the authority of John was divine and that his own authority was the same; but as they were afraid to deny the divine authority of John they were also powerless to deny that of Jesus; and further he implied that if they had accepted the message of John, they would be prepared to accept Jesus. It is true that if we are afraid to accept the logical conclusions of our doubts and denials, we never can hope to discover truth.
Jesus further rebuked and exposed his enemies. When they said that they did not know, Jesus knew, and they knew, and the crowds knew, that they were not honest; the Lord had laid bare their hypocrisy; he had made it perfectly evident that the real question at issue was not authority but obedience. The enemies of Jesus pretended that they wanted to know more of his credentials; they really wanted to discredit and entrap him. The modern enemies of our Lord declare that they want more proofs, more evidence; what they really lack is love for God and submission to his will. Those who do not repent when John preaches, will not believe when Jesus offers to save. The world needs to-day, not more proof of divine authority, but more obedience to the divine will.
Jesus absolutely discredited his enemies in the sight of the people. They were the constituted authorities in all matters civil and religious, and yet they were made to confess publicly that they were not competent to judge a clear, familiar, important case relating to religious authority. They really abdicated their position. They, therefore, were disqualified to pass an opinion on the exactly parallel case of the authority of Jesus. Jesus had defeated them with their own weapon. No wonder that subsequently, when on trial before such judges, he refused to answer them a word. He had shown their incompetence, their insincerity, their unbelief. Honest doubters are deserving of sympathy; but professed seekers after truth, who are unwilling to accept the consequences of belief, should expect to receive no further light. An increasing knowledge of divine realities is conditioned upon humble submission of the heart and the will to what already has been revealed.