The Authority of Jesus Challenged
27 Again they entered Jerusalem. As Jesus was walking through the Temple area, the leading priests, the teachers of religious law, and the elders came up to him. 28 They demanded, "By what authority are you doing all these things? Who gave you the right to do them?"
29 "I'll tell you by what authority I do these things if you answer one question," Jesus replied. 30 "Did John's authority to baptize come from heaven, or was it merely human? Answer me!"
31 They talked it over among themselves. "If we say it was from heaven, he will ask why we didn't believe John. 32 But do we dare say it was merely human?" For they were afraid of what the people would do, because everyone believed that John was a prophet. 33 So they finally replied, "We don't know."
And Jesus responded, "Then I won't tell you by what authority I do these things."
Jesus and his disciples are walking through the Temple when suddenly they are confronted by a contingent of religious leaders. They want to know by whose authority Jesus had cleansed the Temple. Jesus responds by asking them about the baptism of John the Baptist. They choose not to answer Jesus, and so he chooses not to answer them.
Priests ... teachers ... elders (Mark 11:27)
The men who confronted Jesus represented the Sanhedrin, the Jewish supreme court (NASB: "chief priests ... scribes ... elders").1182 As one source explains:
The chief priests constituted a group or order consisting of the present ruling high priest, those who had formerly occupied this high office, and other dignitaries from whose ranks the high priest was generally selected. The custody of the temple had been entrusted to these people, mostly Sadducees. It is not strange that the scribes, mostly Pharisees, are also mentioned, for these were the men who studied, interpreted, and taught the law. Their teaching was done in both temple and synagogue. The elders, too, were present. In ancient Israel an elder was the head of a tribe or of a tribal division. In fact, every city or town of any importance soon had its ruling elders. With the establishment of the Sanhedrin the more prominent local elders became members of this august body. We might call them the Sanhedrin's "lay members."1183
Rather than a simple fact-finding committee, "[t]his was an angry official group sent on an official mission to question Jesus regarding his actions."1184 They "began saying to Him, 'By what authority [exousia: "the right to control or govern over"1185] are You doing these things, or who gave You this authority [exousia] to do these things?'" (Mark 11:28, NASB). "The questions the religious leaders asked were perfectly valid questions to check for a false prophet or false teacher, but their sinister motives made it an evil test."1186 The religious leaders challenged Jesus' authority to do "these things" - that is, Jesus' right to cleanse, heal, and teach: to cleanse the temple, perform miraculous healings, and teach about God's kingdom (see Matthew 21:12-17, 23-27).1187 As usual, they were trying to trap Jesus, hoping he would "[say] something for which he could be arrested."1188 "[N]o matter what Jesus said in response to their question they were not going to believe it and would in the end use it against him."1189 As another source puts it: "The Sanhedrists were acquainted with the authority on which Jesus acted; they were not inquiring for information. Their one purpose was to deny him this authority, for to admit it was to accept Jesus as the Messiah sent of God, against which everything in them rebelled."1190
At this point Jesus' popularity prevented the religious delegation from arresting him outright. And so it is likely they were hoping Jesus would answer in such a way as to lose his popular support - and hence clear the way for his arrest.1191 "[T]he high priest and his ranking priestly associates possessed ultimate authority on the Temple Mount."1192 They were hoping that Jesus would either condemn himself by admitting that he had no legitimate authority to cleanse the temple, or that he would claim "a 'right' superseding that of the chief priests, a claim that would have made him politically vulnerable."1193 As one source puts it: "If Jesus were to answer that his authority came from God, which would be tantamount to saying he was the Messiah and the Son of God, [the religious leaders] would accuse him of blasphemy and bring him to trial (blasphemy carried the death penalty, Leviticus 24:10-23). If Jesus were to say that his authority was his own, they could dismiss him as a fanatic and could trust that the crowds would soon return to those with true authority (themselves)."1194
One question (Mark 11:29)
Jesus responded with a question of his own regarding the baptism of John. While it is true that "counter questions [were] a common Rabbinic debating technique,"1195 it is also true that "when Jesus employs this method he in every instance vanquishes his opponents, and this certainly was not true with respect to rabbis in general."1196 (Examples: Mark 2:8-10, 19-22, 25-28; 3:23-30; 8:12-13; 10:3-12; 11:29-33; 12:24-27.1197) We may also wish to note that "[Jesus'] counter question is the opposite of an evasion. Jesus merely returns the question of the Sanhedrists to them by substituting John the Baptist for himself. ... The correct answer to the question about John was the correct answer to the question about Jesus. All he would need to do was to hand it back to the Sanhedrists."1198 Jesus question "forced those seeking his death to reveal their unwillingness to believe him."1199
Jesus' counter question had to do with the source of John's authority as a prophet. Put simply, Jesus was asking: "Was John a true and lawful prophet of God, or an impostor?"1200 "A subtle irony is involved: these men ask of Jesus what they ought already to know from John."1201 Jesus' question created quite a quandary for the religious leaders. On the one hand, an endorsement of John's ministry would amount to a public proclamation that 1) Jesus was the Messiah,1202 and 2) they (the religious leaders) were a bunch of unrepentant snakes (see Matthew 3:7-10).1203 On the other hand, to deny the legitimacy of John's ministry would be to pit themselves against overwhelming public opinion that John was a prophet. "If the Sanhedrists would have denied the divine origin of John's baptism, this would have spread like wildfire, and no one could predict what the inflamed multitudes would do"1204 - including throwing a hard rock party (see LUKE 20:6). Not to mention the fact it would invite God's judgment against their refusal to listen to both John and Jesus.1205
In the end, it was the religious leaders' absolute refusal to believe that prevented them from recognizing the legitimate authority of both John and Jesus.1206 "By suspending judgment, these religious leaders showed that they really rejected John and Jesus as God's messengers. Throughout their history most leaders of Israel repeatedly rejected God's messengers, a point Jesus made in the following parable (Mark 12:1-12)."1207 Here we find a specific instance of a general principle: "Christ's opponents failed to see the truth because they hardened themselves against it. The reason why many people know so little about Jesus and about the joy of living the Christian life is that they refuse to submit themselves to his will."1208 As Jesus said elsewhere: "'My message is not my own; it comes from God who sent me. Anyone who wants to do the will of God will know whether my teaching is from God or is merely my own'" (John 7:16-17).1209
The Open Door
The story is told of a girl who turned her back on her widowed mother who had worked so hard to bring her up, and left home without telling her mother where she was going. Night after night the mother waited for the girl, but she did not come back.
In her perplexity and sorrow the mother went to her pastor to ask his help. He suggested that she have some pictures taken of herself and bring them to him, which she did. Then he asked her what message she wanted to send her lost girl. In tears the mother said, "All I want to tell her is 'Come back.'" "Write that on each picture," said the minister, and then he proceeded to send these pictures to places of amusement in other large towns which he felt the daughter was most likely to frequent. He requested that the picture be posted on the bulletin board where it could be easily seen.
One night, the daughter came to one of these places and was attracted by something familiar about the picture on the bulletin board. Little did she imagine that it could be her mother's picture. She came closer to it, and there it was - her own mother, looking much older than when she had left. The she saw what was written on it, "Come back," and knew it was addressed to her. She could not proceed with her plans for that night. With a heart burning with remorse, she went back to her room, packed her clothes, and took the first train home.
Arriving in the early hours of the morning, she was surprised to find the door of the little apartment open; in she went. There was her mother in tears, not sleeping, but sitting up, praying for her prodigal daughter. She threw her arms around her, and the first thing she asked when she could speak was, "Mother, why did you leave the door open?" "Oh, Louise, the door has never been closed since the day you left. I left it open all the time expecting your return. I didn't want you to find it shut when you came back."1210
To reject Jesus Christ is to reject God's love and to wander aimlessly in a world filled with many distractions but no real peace. To embrace Jesus Christ is to experience the patient, long-suffering love of God that is something like returning home after a long absence to find the front door unlocked in anticipation of our return.
These religious leaders [who confronted Jesus] were concerned about authority. They wanted to keep theirs, and they knew Jesus' teaching was challenging their power structure. Their actions illustrate the potential for spiritual blindness of those in power in the church. Although bishops, pastors, and deacons hold important positions, wrong motives can render them ineffective. These Pharisees had the power to renew Jewish faith, but they would neither change the religion nor let anyone else do it. They challenged Jesus' authority, but they had no real spiritual insight or power of their own. If you hold a position of leadership in the church, base that authority on a heart for God and a desire for service.
These religious leaders were afraid of the crowd's reaction. They had not loved the people or led them properly. All they wanted was to stay on top. Proverbs 29:25 says, 'The fear of others lays a snare' (NRSV). Christian leaders must not give in to public opinion and pressure. They must stay faithful to God whether people praise or condemn. Don't use people to gain support. Don't let circumstances or people's expectations sway you. Stand true to God, and you will have no need to fear the crowd.1211