Scripture: And when he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came up to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” Jesus answered them, “I also will ask you one question, and if you tell me the answer, then I also will tell you by what authority I do these things. The baptism of John, from where did it come? From heaven or from man?” And they discussed it among themselves, saying, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, Why then did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘From man,’ we are afraid of the crowd, for they all hold that John was a prophet.” So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things. Matthew 21:23-27 ESV
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Observation: Recapping yesterday’s Daily Focus (click here to read), after the intense altercation with the influential money-changers and religious leaders the day before, Jesus rises early and leads his disciples back to Jerusalem into the fray of spiritual warfare. Along the way, feeling hungry, he sees a green fig tree that has not yet borne fruit. So he curses it, and it whithers. The disciples marvel and ask how it happened. Jesus seizes the moment and reviews his earlier teaching on faith (Matthew 17:20, click here to read), employs the same hyperbole of being able to move mountains, and reminds them that they can only count on answered prayer if offered in faith.
Today’s reading tells of another altercation between Jesus and the chief priests and the elders (the governing body also known as the Sanhedrin), which likely occurred on Tuesday morning of Passion Week since it follows the story of the fig tree and Jesus’ faith lesson (appealing to Mark’s more detailed chronology). As he did on Monday, Jesus begins to teach, only to be interrupted by these religious leaders who confront him about his authority to teach the law. Similar to the religious leaders’ earlier passive-aggressive inquiry, they pose a question intended to incriminate Jesus. But he shrewdly navigates their trap with the promise to answer their question if they first answer his: Was John’s baptism ordained by God or man? After deliberating about the unfavorable consequences of either answer, they approach Jesus and tell him they do not know (i.e., by whose authority John received baptism). So per their agreement, Jesus ends their discussion on the matter.
Of note, this story finds its parallel in Mark 11:27-33, click here to read) and Luke 20:1-8, click here to read). Most scholars surmise that Mark wrote our first Gospel while Matthew and Luke borrowed from Mark. Thus, Matthew, for the most part, follows Mark’s account of this story. At the same time, Luke (a detailed-oriented physician who exhausted various resources to compose his Gospel) adds that Jesus preached the Gospel and that the authorities feared the crowd would stone them.
Takeaway: The Sanhedrin questioned Jesus regarding who granted him authority to teach the law because anyone who presents a new teaching must confirm their credentials under the tutelage of a recognized rabbinic scholar (similar to our modern education system where a Ph.D. candidate must have a faculty advisor). Of course, Jesus needs no verification of his authority because he is the Son of God, the Word, through whom all creation and the law find their origin (see John 1, click here to read). Thus, in response to the Sanhedrin’s question, Jesus could have answered by his or his Father’s authority since he and the Father are one (John 10:30, click here to read).
As for Jesus’ question to the Sanhedrin regarding John’s baptism, their correct response would be from God, but these politic Jewish leaders are more concerned about maintaining order and control than seeking the truth that would set them free. So Jesus will tell them three parables to expose these priestly aristocrats’ true hearts (to be covered in next week’s Daily Focus devotions).
Our takeaway? Our authority to proclaim the Gospel comes from the Father and Son, for they have gifted us with the Holy Spirit, who empowers and guides us in all truth (John 16:13, click here to read), writing God’s commands on our hearts (Jeremiah 31:33-34, click here to read). So while there is no need for a formal education to speak with godly authority, there is a critical need for humility and a teachable spirit. We are most at risk of enemy deception when we narrow our minds to a “me and Jesus” or a “me and the Holy Spirit” mentality where we rebuff two millennia of ecclesiastical wisdom or a timely word spoken through those whom the Holy Speaks brings across our path. And don’t be surprised if his human messenger is unimpressive or even offensive to our sensibilities because our Master was to many.
Prayer: Father God, we thank you for your Son, our source of authority, who, being one with you, proclaimed our glorious Gospel through the Holy Spirit and the church. So would you please help us to carry his message into the world with your and his godly authority, exhibiting confidence, humility, and a teachable spirit? Amen.
Rev. Gordon Green, M.Div., M.A. Counseling