27 They arrived again in Jerusalem, and while Jesus was walking in the temple courts, the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders came to him. 28 “By what authority are you doing these things?” they asked. “And who gave you authority to do this?”
29 Jesus replied, “I will ask you one question. Answer me, and I will tell you by what authority I am doing these things. 30 John’s baptism—was it from heaven, or of human origin? Tell me!”
31 They discussed it among themselves and said, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will ask, ‘Then why didn’t you believe him?’ 32 But if we say, ‘Of human origin’ …” (They feared the people, for everyone held that John really was a prophet.)
33 So they answered Jesus, “We don’t know.”
Jesus said, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.”
(Mark 11:27-33 NIV)
In our previous times together, we looked at Mark’s account of Jesus cleansing the Temple of merchants and a blocking a shortcut across town. Jesus was reinstating the Temple for its intended purpose – to be a place to worship God.
The religious officials hated what Jesus was doing – they knew He was right, but they felt Jesus was usurping their authority. They stood by helpless, seething as they wanted to destroy Him, but knew that if they did, the Jewish masses would revolt (v. 18).
Today’s passage picks up on another day (possibly the next day) when Jesus is back in Jerusalem and walking around in the Temple, probably on one of the large shaded “porches” where teachers often taught their disciples.
The religious leaders from before (the chief priests and the scribes), joined by the synagogue elders, confronted Jesus. These three groups (chief priests, scribes, and elders) made up the Sanhedrin, the Jewish religious ruling council. These religious leaders wanted to know who gave Jesus the authority to do what He was doing (tossing out the merchants, re-routing traffic around the Temple, not through it, etc.).
These leaders were there to put Jesus on the spot. They were not amazed by His authority but threatened by it. By asking this question, they hoped to find grounds to arrest Jesus. If Jesus said He did these things on His own accord, they could arrest Him for being a vigilante and have Him thrown out of the Temple for good. If Jesus said He did these things on authority from God, then they would arrest Jesus on charges of heresy and have the proof they needed to kill Him.
In true rabbinical fashion, Jesus answers their question with a question. Likely with a twinkle in His eye, Jesus turns this into a contest. Jesus offers to answer the religious leaders’ question if they can satisfactorily answer His question. If they cannot answer Jesus’ question, then Jesus is off the hook for answering theirs.
In verse 30, Jesus asks a simple but brilliant question – who was John the Baptist, and under what authority did he perform his ministry?
In verses 31 – 32, Mark records the debate among the religious leaders. There were only two possible answers – either John the Baptist ministered under God’s authority, or under his own authority.
If the religious leaders answered that John ministered under God’s authority, then they would condemn themselves for rejecting both John’s ministry as well as John’s pointing to Jesus as Messiah. The religious leaders would then have to give Jesus His due as Messiah – which they were not willing to do. They had already written Jesus off as not being the Messiah.
If the religious leaders answered that John the Baptist ministered under his own authority, then they faced the revolt of the Jewish crowds. The crowds believed that John the Baptist was a prophet and that Jesus was likewise a prophet. Either response meant a loss of control and authority over the Jewish people.
The religious leaders’ pride and sin was exposed. Rather than repent, they feigned ignorance – they were forced into the least of the painful answers: “we don’t know”. To admit defeat in front of Jesus was humiliating at best and the thought of being beaten at their own game made them want to kill Jesus even more.
Jesus responded by refusing to answer their question because they were not able to answer His. Jesus was not being rude or snooty or even disrespectful – this was Jesus revealing the sin in their lives and the hardness of their hearts, exposing their true motivations – the desire for power and control. They may have been in charge of the religious duties in the Temple and in Jewish life and community, but their hearts were far from the God they pretended to serve.
So we must ask ourselves:
- Who is Jesus? Is he a fictional figure of history? Is he a real person, but just a nice man? Is He a crazy person, not in His right mind? Or is He who He said He is – the Son of God?
- If He is the Son of God, what difference does that make in my life? What is my relationship to Him?
If you’re not sure, that’s OK, but don’t let the question slip by unanswered. It’s the most important question of your entire life – more important than where to live, what to do for a living, what to study in school, even whether to marry or whom to marry.
If you’rea skeptic, that’s OK too. But don’t stay stuck in your questions – call out to God and seek Him with all your heart – He will hear you and reveal Himself to you.
God loves you and Jesus died for your sins and mine. He desires that each of us come to Him in faith, admitting that we cannot earn our way to heaven, only by trusting that His death on the cross paid the penalty for our sins once and for all.
Jesus now invites us all to come to Him by faith, to accept His free gift of forgiveness and eternal life, and a life of meaning and purpose while we live out our days this side of eternity.