MATTHEW 21:23-27
Pp Mark 11:27-33, Luke 20:1-8

By what authority?
Question and answer

The time framework for this passage isn’t the easiest of things to determine. We’ve already noticed that chronological statements don’t exist in Matthew’s Gospel and that the previous two incidents of the cleansing of the Temple and the fig tree are rolled together by the author to keep them thematically separate from each other and which has the effect of making the reader assume that the former occurred on the day of the Triumphal entry and the latter, the day after.

The real chronology is that they took place on the Monday and Tuesday of the week after the Triumphal entry of the Sunday.

It’s not surprising that, when Matthew introduces the passage, he speaks simply (Mtw 21:23) that it occurred

‘...when He entered the temple...’

without linking it to the previous two incidents. Luke is equally vague in his time statement and speaks simply of the event taking place ‘one day’ (Luke 20:1), a phrase which follows on from the comment (Luke 19:47) that Jesus

‘...was teaching daily in the Temple’

Mark’s statement seems to be the one which can be more reliable for a strict chronology at this point and his last passage has placed Jesus journeying from Bethany early on Tuesday morning (Mark 11:20) to discover the withered fig tree by the roadside which Jesus had cursed the morning before. Immediately after this incident and the teaching which follows, Mark 11:27 records that

‘...they came again to Jerusalem’

which makes one interpret the demand to know the authority which Jesus had as occurring on the morning of the Tuesday. This seems the most logical place to put it as well for, after the cleansing of the Temple, the religious leaders seem to have regrouped and discussed amongst themselves what they should do before approaching Him. Indeed, the grouping together of (Mtw 21:23)

‘...the chief priests and the elders of the people...’

where Mark 11:27 and Luke 20:1 has

‘...the chief priests and the scribes and [Luke has ‘with’] the elders...’

seem to be what constituted the official Sanhedrin, the supreme Jewish court of Law in the entire land (we will look at the origin of such a court and say a few words about its function and structure when we come to Mtw 23:1-4) and, instead of bringing Jesus to their court to try Him when they had no solid evidence, they approach Him directly to try and achieve their objective of destroying Him by finding something in His teaching which can be judged.

It’s difficult to be certain what proportions of the religious parties made up the council but in Acts 23:6 we see a note that, at that time, it was comprised of both Sadducees and Pharisees and the three descriptions seen above (in Mark 11:27 and Luke 20:1) refer, in order, to the Sadducees, the recorders of the decisions of the Sanhedrin who would have been both Sadducean and Pharisaical (but who probably had less jurisdiction in the court’s affairs than the other two divisions) and the elders who would again have been a mixture of both religious parties.

Jeremias defines this last group, the elders of the people, as being

‘...the heads of the most influential lay families’

and it’s probably not without significance that just two verses before the statement of the three groups of people present, Luke 19:47 seems to list them but, this time, instead of using the phrase ‘the elders of the people’ speaks of ‘the principal men of the people’.

We can be fairly certain, therefore, that from the moment that Jesus allowed the crowds to begin to proclaim Him as their Messiah and, even more certain, from the time He began to oppose the collection of revenue with which the family of the High Priest lined their pockets, there was little that they could be expected to do but to oppose Him and seek to remove Him forever from their midst.

That the grouping of the Sanhedrin came to Jesus shows us that, firstly, they couldn’t have had anything substantial with which they could bring Jesus before them officially at that time and, secondly, that they were on the attack to gather anything from Him that would substantiate a trial at which the verdict of ‘guilty’ would be a foregone conclusion.

One final note. It’s probably correct to say that the entire passage which runs from Mtw 21:23-22:14 represents one complete discourse which was initially inspired by the question asked by the ruling Sanhedrin. From Mtw 22:15 onwards, there’s a return to contrived questions which are being asked Him that they might stumble Him in His teaching and which seem to have been a continuation or a reaction to His response in telling both the parables and quoting relevant Scripture to summarise His own position before them.

Indeed, the entire passage which runs from Mtw 21:18 to the end of chapter 25 should be taken as occurring on the one day, Tuesday, seeing as Mtw 26:1-2 (my italics - see also Mark 14:1) records that

‘When Jesus had finished all these sayings, He said to his disciples “You know that after two days the Passover is coming...”’

and that this would necessarily mean that His statement would have occurred during the late afternoon of Tuesday if Thursday is in mind or Wednesday if Friday is in mind. Unfortunately, ‘after two days’ is possible of more than one meaning and the most we can say is that everything that’s recorded before the beginning of Matthew chapter 26 would have had to have occurred before Thursday began if a literal interpretation is accepted of the opening two verses. Luke 19:47 records that Jesus was

‘...teaching daily in the Temple’

so it’s quite possible that the record we have was the selected contents of His pronouncements in the Court of the Gentiles strung over a few days rather than just the one. There are no time statements, however, which would indicate with any certainty what was said on individual days.

By what authority?
Mtw 21:23

I have previously dealt with one aspect of the authority structures which existed amongst the religious leaders in first century Israel on a previous web page and shown there that they relied upon delegated authority from one generation to another in order for them to be able to maintain their position.

This meant that authority directly from God for them to be able to function with His anointing was wholly lacking and their position became one which was instituted rather than bestowed on them from above. I also noted that it’s a sad state of affairs within our own fellowships just how much bleed over there is between this type of practice which sees denominational leaders appoint a man as head over a congregation because they know he’s one of their own rather than for the people to whom the leader will be responsible to recognise the authority and anointing so that they can accept them as being God’s chosen.

That such a set up has ‘worked’ for a great many years is nothing short of a testimony to God’s amazing mercy as He deals with His followers but the way of the Gospel is that anointing for leadership isn’t received by a human appointment to a position but by a direct anointing of God upon one’s life and that this should be recognised by the people to whom he’s appointed to minister.

This has all been dealt with on that previous web page and is the best exposition of the second part of the leaders’ question to Jesus when they ask Him

‘...who gave You this authority [to do these things]?’

where there may even be an intended inference that such an authority was received directly from Beelzebul himself (Mtw 9:34, 12:24) though this need not be the case.

As this event seems to have taken place on the day following the driving out of the money changers and sacrifice sellers from the Temple (Mtw 21:12-13), the healing of the blind and lame (Mtw 21:14) and the time of teaching of those who were coming to Him (Mark 11:18), it may be that all these things were in mind in the Sanhedrin’s two questions but, equally so, it’s unlikely that Jesus had stopped both healing and teaching in the Temple after the events of that previous Monday (Luke 19:47, 20:1).

The approach of the Sanhedrin seems to have been a deliberate attempt at undermining His position in the eyes of the people and probably came about after they’d met following the events of the Monday to discuss the matter - they certainly appear to have already met prior to Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem (John 11:45-53) and to have decided that He needed putting to death when they could next find opportunity.

What they begin doing here, then, is only an outworking of what they’d previously concluded was their only course of action. Jesus, because He didn’t have their authority couldn’t be accepted as their own - and even less so when, by what He was doing, He was undermining their own position and authority. Mathag is correct when he notes that

‘The questions are hardly asked for the sake of information...’

because they were at a loss to know where such recognisable and obvious authority came from, but they are, rather

‘ attempt to gain more ammunition to be used against Jesus when the time was right’

We should take full notice of this and be warned in case we think that established authority is always willing to be overturned by the authority of God. The anointing of God upon a person’s life is such that it can draw fire from those in positions of succeeded authority to the point that the latter will attempt to remove the former - it doesn’t occur in the Gospels that Jesus ever attempted to usurp their authority by a physical display of power but, rather, He simply moved in the authority that had been bestowed on Him from God the Father.

The established religious authority no doubt justified their actions by claiming divine authority in the things they were doing - Caiaphas certainly did (John 11:49-50) - and it’s interesting to note that Jesus, when challenged, doesn’t attempt to justify Himself before them but allows them to decide for themselves - something which they’d already done but with the wrong conclusion.

But their opposition was primarily directed against Jesus because His authority was different to and was undermining their own.

We haven’t yet dealt with the first of the two questions which the religious leaders asked Him and it’s to this that we must now turn for they open by asking

‘By what authority are You doing these things...?’

As it’s both the Sadducees and Pharisees that are present in the group which approached Him (see above) it would be wrong to see in their question simply a reference to Rabbinic and, therefore, Pharisaic ideas of authority even though this is what is often done (and which I’ll deal with below). I noted on a previous web page that the beliefs of the Sadducees have come to us not in records which were compiled by the scribes which belonged to that religious party but generally in the writings of those who opposed them and it’s sometimes difficult to be entirely fair as to the actions which this group of people took. Our understanding of what they felt was the correct authority to teach is therefore limited in scope.

However, as Edersheim points out, it’s as the Sanhedrin that they approach Jesus and it’s as the Sanhedrin in which we should primarily try to understand their question, for it was easily apparent that Jesus wasn’t functioning in the authority of the most supreme of all the Jewish courts. Edersheim notes that the correct way for this ordination to have taken place was for the prospective candidates to sit before the council in three rows and that, when a new member was required, for one of these who sat on the front row to be selected (Sanhedrin 4:4). He continues that

‘ the oldest record, reaching up, no doubt, to the time of Christ, the presence of at least three ordained persons was required for ordination (Sanhedrin 1:3)...The person to be ordained had to deliver a discourse; hymns and poems were recited; the title “Rabbi” was formally bestowed on the candidate, and authority given him to teach and to act as Judge (to bind and loose, to declare guilty or free)’

Jesus’ authority usurped their own for He neither operated in accordance with the rules and regulations which they’d been both laying and handing down and neither had He been given the right of the council to judge and rule Israel. It was fairly obvious, therefore, that if He lacked ordination and the bestowal of human authority, that the people should come to the necessary conclusion that He was operating outside of their respected leadership and, therefore, opposing the nation’s and, therefore, God’s true leadership. I’ve shown above that their authority came not from God but as inherited from and bestowed upon by mankind but they believed that God had given them the authority to rule and, therefore, all who opposed them were opposing none other than God Himself.

So Jesus didn’t have the authority of the Sanhedrin to teach - and neither did He have the backing of the Rabbinic authorities by which what He was doing could be justified. In this case, He neither had authority bestowed upon Him from the Sanhedrin or was functioning with their authority and approval, something which covers both aspects of their question.

When one approaches the Mishnah and scans through its pages, one is immediately struck by the attention given to record the statements of Rabbis who give their opinion on matters which are varied in their range. In my previous notes, I quoted Matmor as saying that

‘It was the scribal habit to appeal to authority, for it was an age in which originality was not highly was important to cite authorities if one wished to obtain a hearing. But Jesus ignored this scribal commonplace’

and, even though it’s difficult to prove that this was their mode of teaching when they spoke face to face with the common population, their work - embodied in the Mishnah - does bear witness to its truth. Rabbinic authority for teaching what God required of a man was centred primarily in the citing of older authorities which gave the decision made, absolute and final jurisdiction - not so Jesus, however, who spoke with no justification except that what He said had been received directly from God Himself and so was worthy of full and unrestricted acceptance.

Edersheim includes a lengthy note at this point but it’s worthy of careful reading as he summarises the Rabbinic position of authoritative teaching well. He writes that

‘...there was no principle more firmly established by universal consent than that authoritative teaching required previous authorisation. Indeed, this logically followed from the principle of Rabbinism. All teaching must be authoritative, since it was traditional - approved by authority, and handed down from teacher to disciple. The highest honour of a scholar was that he was like a well-plastered cistern from which not a drop had leaked of what had been poured into it. The ultimate appeal in cases of discussion was always to some great authority, whether an individual Teacher or a Decree by the Sanhedrin. In this manner had the great Hillel first vindicated his claim to be the Teacher of his time and to decide the disputes then pending. And, to decide differently from authority, was either the mark of ignorant assumption or the outcome of daring rebellion, in either case to be visited with “the ban”. And this was at least one aspect of the controversy as between the chief authorities and Jesus. No one would have thought of interfering with a mere Haggadist - a popular expositor, preacher, or teller of legends. But authoritatively to teach, required other warrant...’

and this was exactly what Jesus lacked. Markcole perhaps misses the point of the advance of the official Sanhedrin for he writes that

‘As He continued to teach the crowds in the Temple, the authorities came, angrily demanding to know “in whose name” the Galilean Rabbi taught; whose disciple was He, or what official commission had He to show?’

and which makes it sound as if there was some elevated purpose which would have been accepted had Jesus responded with a declaration that His authority came from God Himself. But there seems no reason to accept this as being the case for, inherent within their question there appears to have been deliberate trickery that was designed to compel Jesus to confess that He didn’t have Rabbinic authority and, if not, that His words didn’t have the authority of themselves who ‘sat on Moses’ seat’ (Mtw 23:2).

Their approach was not just to glean evidence for any court case which they were already planning but also, as Edersheim writes

‘ arrogate to themselves the appearance of strict legality, and so to turn popular feeling against Him’

Both of their questions, however, shouldn’t be thought of as being something which has been lost into the dim and distant past and that such questioning would never see the light of day within the Church of our own generation, for we often ask for the right ‘credentials’ from a prospective minister before we will ever consider that they might be ‘called’ to serve the Body in our area.

We ask whether they’ve been to Bible College and whether they’re true to our statement of fundamental truths, whether they’ve learnt from the best teachers and which theological cemetery they’ve attended. And all this rather than taking time to look heavenward and trying to perceive what spiritual authority has been bestowed upon that person by God Himself.

When the apostle Paul sat back and contemplated his life before he came to acknowledge Jesus, he wrote (Phil 3:4-7) that, if anyone had confidence in trusting in earthly qualifications and human standing, then he had - indeed, that of all other men, he probably had the greatest reason to boast for he’d been

‘...circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law a Pharisee, as to zeal a persecutor of the Church, as to righteousness under the law blameless’

And yet even he could state with certainty that

‘...whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ’

After all, it’s God’s commission upon a life that counts for something, not man’s - and it’s precisely on the basis of the latter of these considerations in which the Sanhedrin approach Jesus in order that they might both gain evidence against Him and discredit Him in the sight of the people.

Question and answer
Mtw 21:24-27

In the previous section, we saw that the main problem which was inherent in the Sanhedrin’s question was that they regarded the sufficiency of man’s authority and the authority which was granted by men through the inheritance of a position as being of prime importance in determining the legitimacy of the person concerned.

It was this that had prompted them to approach Jesus to try and cause Him to lose the respect of the multitudes who were clamouring after Him. Of course, their whole reason for coming to Him with their question wasn’t that they might find some justification for what He’d been doing and so to be able to accept it, but to pose a question which they considered would seriously undermine His position.

It would have been justifiable, therefore, had we read of Jesus simply refusing to speak to them or to declare openly that the authority they respected didn’t have the anointing of God upon it but His counter question (Mtw 21:24-25) actually gives them an opportunity to think through the issues at stake if they’d wanted to do that and to think about their own motives in coming to Him. In the end, the discussion they have amongst themselves (Mtw 21:25-26) shows that their desire is solely to find the right answer which won’t undermine their own authoritative position (though, as we shall see, their answer does just that!) rather than for them to arrive at decisive and absolute truth.

Jesus’ question, then, was based upon a consideration of the source of John the Baptist’s authority. Jesus had already publicly declared that John was the fulfilment of OT prophetic Scripture (Mtw 11:9-14) but the religious leaders had rejected His authority in contrast to the ordinary men and women who saw in the Baptist no threat to their own livelihood. Luke 7:29-30 records this twofold reaction by stating that

‘...all the people and the tax collectors justified God, having been baptized with the baptism of John; but the Pharisees and the lawyers rejected the purpose of God for themselves, not having been baptized by him’

for it was a natural consequence that, by rejecting the messenger of the good things which were to come, they would naturally have to reject the One who’d been prophesied and announced by him (John 1:24-34). And this rejection came not by an honest consideration of the anointing of God which was upon the Baptist but simply because he represented a challenge to the leadership of Israel and to the way they ran the religious affairs of the nation (Mtw 3:7-10).

A man who moves outside the authority structures which have been instituted in order to safeguard divine authority is always going to be a threat to the established way of doing things (whether he be moving under the anointing of God or not) but the leaders’ eyes were naturally blind to any new move of God simply because it meant losing their own unique position within the nation and over the people.

When John the Baptist came, therefore, his good news represented bad news for them but, among the downtrodden, the men and women who were considered to be nothing by the people who were reputed to be something, the message was eagerly embraced because it levelled the playing field of acceptance before God to one of mercy and forgiveness and relied on no good trait having to be found within themselves.

Jesus’ question, therefore, strikes at the very heart of their authority structures and brings them back in a few short words to the root of their problem of being unable to accept the anointing of God upon both Himself and the Baptist. It amounts not to an attempt to silence the opposition but an opportunity that they might come to their senses and realise the stupidity of their ways. And, if they truly answer the question, they would have in their reply the correct answer to their original question.

By giving them but the two possibilities for answering His question - ‘from Heaven’ or ‘from men’ - He includes their own way of obtaining authority in the latter phrase and hints at the insufficiency of such an answer. This should have led them to realise that authority by succession was insufficient.

Matcar calls Jesus’ counter question (Mathag cites two Talmudic references)

‘...a common enough procedure in Rabbinic debate’

but it’s doubtful whether such a question to gather information from another before an answer is given to the original question was used very frequently. Indeed, the Mishnah may use the proposal of a question to cause one to consider an issue, but it rarely uses one so that an answer would be what would make one face up to the internal workings of one’s own heart and call into question a way of conduct which was opposed to God.

It, therefore, is the more likely to have been a unique response in a unique situation.

The response of the Sanhedrin was to realise immediately that they’d been cornered! For them, the issue wasn’t one which was going to cause them to face up to the authority in which they operated over the people but simply a problem which needed to be resolved that they might get a reply from Jesus that could be used against Him.

Therefore, they were concerned only with the implications of their answer, not with the truth. They saw Jesus’ question as a trap and not as a means of salvation. No other OT prophet had ever had Rabbinic authorisation which they claimed as being of prime importance but had had an anointing which came directly from God - likewise John the Baptist.

It was impossible for them to confess that God bestows authority upon whoever He chooses regardless of status simply because they would have been sanctioning both Jesus’ teaching and His deeds and, if John the Baptist needed no Rabbinic commendation before he could speak with the authority of God, then neither did Jesus.

It also shows that their concept of what happened in the OT would have been fundamentally flawed seeing as they were unable to recognise authority unless it had been imparted to another by organisations such as themselves. Jesus’ accusation shortly (Mtw 23:29-32) that they’re the sons of the murderers of the OT prophets isn’t an unsubstantiated gripe against words which He’d decided were worthy of more than one meaning - they’re a sincere and honest reflection that any man or woman who stood up in the midst of the nation and who hadn’t been approved by themselves would never be accepted by them.

Their contemplation of the phrase ‘from men’ (Mtw 21:26) is noteworthy simply because it probably doesn’t mean solely what we normally take it as - that is, we tend to think that the phrase means that they were wondering whether they should confess that John the Baptist’s ministry was ‘man invented’ but, seeing as this is a discussion about authority, it is more likely to mean ‘man appointed’ - therefore, this option means not primarily whether John was the originator of his own message but whether he’d received it from another group or individual and which he was then faithfully passing on.

They could honestly say that this hadn’t been the case because they knew it hadn’t been so (and, even more than this, they feared the multitudes who believed that what John had had been received directly from Heaven - Mtw 21:26) but it left them only one option of accepting it as being given him by God.

But it also chipped away at their own standing before God because their authority was most definitely ‘from men’ - that is, handed down from those who had gone before rather than having been received as a direct anointing and commission from God. By rejecting such an option they also, inadvertently, were rejecting their own authoritative position.

A confession which announced that John’s ministry was ‘from Heaven’ was also out of the question - not just because it justified acceptance of Jesus but because it elevated people like the Baptist and Jesus over and above their own jurisdiction and gave approval for whatever ministry which thus sprang from them. In short, it likewise annulled the importance of their own position.

Therefore, their answer that they didn’t know is not solely a reasonable reply based upon the considerations listed in the Gospel records but it also points towards an understanding that to answer Jesus’ question accurately would be tantamount to undermining their own position as having religious authority over the people. Even so, their statement that they didn’t know is just as self-condemnatory for it confesses that, though they’re the spiritual guides of the nation, yet they still had the inability to perceive where John’s authority had come from. Matcar is surely right when he comments that

‘...the Sanhedrin not only had the right but the duty to check the credentials of those who claimed to be spokesmen for God’

and, because they were publicly announcing their uncertainty, they were also, necessarily, proclaiming their inability to function properly as God appointed leadership.

Jesus must have despaired at hearing their answer - not because it gave no justification for His own ministry and that of John the Baptist but because it represented the refusal of a golden opportunity for the leaders to have been able to repent of their ways and to turn to Him for healing, mercy and forgiveness. Instead of using the situation as one in which they could discover and experience the acceptance of God, they once more rejected what so many others who they despised had accepted - as Jesus will now go on to show in the first of the parables (Mtw 21:28-32) which He proceeds to tell concerning their position before God (Mtw 21:28-14).

His statement in Mtw 21:32 will be a public pronouncement that the religious leaders had rejected John the Baptist’s ministry and that, even when they saw the effect it was having on the nation, had refused to turn and acknowledge it as being ‘from Heaven’. What they had planned as an answer to safeguard their own position is actually turned back on their own heads and the answer which they would have preferred to have given in honesty is revealed by Jesus for all those present to hear.