Markby Robert M. Solomon
The religious leaders saw how Jesus had cleaned up the temple of its ungodly commercial business. They also saw how the ″whole crowd was amazed at his teaching″ (v. 18). Jesus acted with real authority, and according to Matthew 21:23 (cf. Luke 20:1), He also taught in the temple and the people loved it. The religious leaders tried to undermine Jesus' authority by questioning it. ″By what authority are you doing these things . . . who gave you authority to do this?″ (v. 28). They were thinking ″horizontally″ instead of ″vertically″, looking to socially-derived authority instead of God's authority. They themselves drew authority from their pedigree (some were priests), rabbinic training, and recognition by religious authorities. So, who sent you? Where did you study theology? Who ordained you? These would have been the kinds of questions they had in mind. They knew that Jesus was a travelling preacher from simple, provincial Galilee. He did not seem to come from any established family or have formal theological training.
The religious leaders thought that by showing His poor curriculum vitae to the people they could get them to ignore this preacher from nowhere, and thus regain their authority. Jesus, of course, could have stated some amazing truths. He was the Son of God, sent by the Father (cf. John 8:12-19, 54-58). But He refused to answer their spurious questions. Instead He replied with a question. He asked them about John's baptism, whether it was from heaven or from men. ″Tell me!″ He challenged them before the crowd (vv. 29-30). In doing so, He imposed His authority over them. The tables had turned and now, in the presence of the Son of God, their authority was in question. All they could manage was, ″We don't know″ (v. 33).
It was not because they did not have an opinion. Actually, they did not think much of John the Baptist or anyone else outside of their special circle. They regarded themselves as exclusive spiritual leaders appointed by God, and were therefore unwilling to share their glory with others. They had discussed among themselves before answering Jesus. They knew that if they said that John's baptism was from heaven, then Jesus would question their disbelief of Him, for John had testified that Jesus was the Messiah. If they answered otherwise, the people would turn against them, for John had been very popular with the masses. So they gave a non-committal answer that aimed to save their skins. Their authority and concerns were only horizontal. Jesus therefore refused to answer them since they refused to answer His question (v. 33).
Consider how authority is derived in the church and how it is exercised. Why is authority derived from structures, skills, and popular acclaim potentially dangerous? How can true spiritual authority be recognised?
What can we learn from Jesus in handling troublemakers whose questions are not sincere or helpful to them or others?