The three-year Lectionary that many Catholics and Protestants hear in public worship gives us a great variety of Holy Scripture.
Yet, it doesn’t tell the whole story.
My series Forbidden Bible Verses — ones the Lectionary editors and their clergy omit — examines the passages we do not hear in church. These missing verses are also Essential Bible Verses, ones we should study with care and attention. Often, we find that they carry difficult messages and warnings.
The Authority of Jesus Challenged
23 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?” 24 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. 25 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?’ 26 But if we say, ‘From man,’ we are afraid of the crowd, for they all hold that John was a prophet.” 27 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.”
We are in the events of Holy Week, which recall Jesus’s final Passover on earth.
After Jesus entered Jerusalem — the Triumphal Entry — He cleansed the temple then healed the blind and the lame. He went to Bethany that night and the following day, hungry and finding that a leafy fig tree had no fruit, He cursed it, a portent for the destruction of the temple and a judgement on the Jewish people.
Because it was Passover week, the temple was teeming with faithful Jews. The temple was not just a place of worship but a vast complex of a courtyard and courts, each of which served a particular purpose. Some courts, like the Court of Women, were for every Jew. The rest had increasingly more restricted access up to the Holy of Holies, where only a few designated priests were permitted.
John MacArthur says:
That temple had a tremendous courtyard…huge courtyard. And surrounding it were these high walls and pillars. And in among those pillars were porches and colonnades and porticos and people would mill all about, especially at Passover, the place would be filled with people and especially having been cleansed. That would invite even more people. And then when Jesus came who had cleansed it, no doubt it was just teeming with people.
Jesus spent His final days teaching at the temple, as He did on this particular day (verse 23).
Matthew Henry points out:
Now that Christ taught in the temple, that scripture was fulfilled (Isaiah 2:3), Let us go up to the house of the Lord, and he will teach us his ways. The priests of old often taught there the good knowledge of the Lord but they never had such a teacher as this.
Luke 20:1 tells us He:
was teaching the people in the temple and preaching the gospel
when the Jewish religious authorities approached Him asking him by whose ‘authority’ He ‘was doing these things’ (Matthew 21:23). They implied that He did not receive any authority — permission and power — via ordination from the Sanhedrin.
Jesus responded in rabbinical style, asking them a question (verse 24). By whose authority did John the Baptist baptise (verse 25)? Man’s authority or God’s?
He was confronting a big group of men. The temple had all sorts of priests and elders, many of whom were charged with specific functions, even down to overseeing the bakery for the showbread and the salt used in various ceremonies. MacArthur tells us:
Now, you’ve got to understand who this gang is. This is a big group. First of all, Matthew says the chief priests and the elders, and those are very general terms to engulf a whole group of people. The chief priests would include all the priests. That would mean the high priests, perhaps Caiaphas and Annas who was behind the scenes. That would include the captain of the temple who was second in command, he was in charge of all the worship, he was able to arrest people who did violate the temple rules, as we find in Acts 5 when he arrested the Apostles. The captain of the temple was an office from which the high priest was elected. If the high priest was ill on the Day of Atonement or couldn’t serve, then the captain of the temple was elevated to that role. So it was like being vice-president.
And then under him came the priests of the weekly course of which there were twenty-four of those who offered sacrifice and carried out ceremony. And then there were the priests of the daily course and there were 156 of those. And then there were ordinary…what was called overseer priests who had charge of the keys and the doors and the gates and little areas of administrative responsibility. And then there were the treasurer types who cared for the money, collected the money. And history tells us that these last two categories of overseers and treasurers could be divided into all kinds of people …
And then you probably had other priests. And then you had the non-priests, the rabbis and the scribes. And there’s a large group of guys involved in wanting to bring Jesus’ ministry to a fast stop.
Returning to Jesus’s question about John the Baptist, the hierarchy confronting Him knew they were in a difficult position. The Jewish faithful — the people — knew that John the Baptist was a prophet. Many went to receive his baptism in advance of the Messiah. Gentiles, including some Romans, also received it. Therefore, if the chief priests and elders answered that John had heavenly authority, Jesus would ask (verse 25):
Why then did you not believe him?
Neither could they say that John’s authority came from man, because the faithful recognised him as a prophet. Just as the people feared these men, so they, in turn, feared them (verse 26). They did not want a mob uprising that would threaten their power structure.
These men knew the truth. For their own worldly purposes, however, they refused to acknowledge it. MacArthur explains (emphases mine):
These guys were trained at ignoring facts. They had trained themselves at that. It didn’t matter what the evidence was, they could ignore it. It didn’t matter what Jesus said, it didn’t matter what He did, didn’t matter how powerful His miracles were, how utterly inexplicable they were on a human basis, how utterly unanswerable was His teaching, they still refused to believe. You remember in John 5, He heals the man at the pool of Bethsaida and He’s all finished healing the guy and it says, “Therefore did the Jews persecute Jesus and sought to slay Him.” They wanted Him dead instead of saying He has the power of God, He can heal, He must be the Messiah John spoke of, they wanted Him dead.
John chapter 9, they met a blind man, Jesus made the blind man see. And they said to him, “Well, who is He and where is He from?” And the blind man says, “It’s a strange thing that you don’t know who He is or where He came from and He made me see.” When unbelief investigates the truth, it comes up with the wrong answer, see, because it’s already predisposed to ignore the facts. Typical of people who come to look at the gospel message and look at the virtue of Jesus Christ already having convinced themselves that their way is right and the way of God is wrong and no matter how much evidence you give them, they’ll still reject because that’s their predisposition.
To save their own earthly prestige, they told Jesus that they did not know the source of John the Baptist’s authority (verse 27). Henry tells us:
they knew that John’s baptism was of God. Note, There are many who are more afraid of the shame of lying than of the sin, and therefore scruple not to speak that which they know to be false concerning their own thoughts and apprehensions, their affections and intentions, or their remembering or forgetting of things, because in those things they know nobody can disprove them.
Jesus ended the confrontation by saying that He would not reveal by whose authority He did what He was doing. When He said that, He was rejecting them completely. His condemnations continue through Matthew 23 and in a few subsequent verses. MacArthur says:
Now it was their duty to be the acute observers of religious matters. It was their duty to know. And they ignored all the evidence because they would not be put in a position where they would admit Jesus Christ to be the Messiah. Oh, the hardness of their hearts.
And so He says, verse 27, “Neither tell I you by what authority I do these things.” I’m not answering your question either. “Why cast pearls before swine?” They rejected the light so He turned it off, I have nothing more to say to you, nothing more. And He didn’t, He really didn’t. He said to them in 23:33, “You serpents, you generation of snakes, how can you escape the damnation of hell?” In verse 38 He says, “Behold, your house is left unto you desolate…desolate.” I mean, it was over, He turned off the lights. And when He was confronted before Caiaphas in Matthew 26:63 it says, “And Jesus held His peace.” Never said a word. He had nothing to say. And when He was accused by the chief priests and elders, Matthew 27:12, “He answered nothing.” Nothing.
O, what a fearful moment. They had so long rejected that He rejected them. Genesis 6:3, God said, “My Spirit will not always strive with man.” In Hosea 4:17 God said, “Ephraim is joined to idols, let him alone.” In Isaiah 63:10 God says, “This people has so long rebelled against Me and vexed My Holy Spirit that I have now determined to fight against them.” That’s where they are, fearful thing.
Unbelievers, deniers and mockers would do well to take note. They still have time to repent with a contrite heart.
Next week’s verses continue the same theme.
Next time: Matthew 21:44-46