Matthew 21, Part 4
Last week, we saw Jesus cursing the fig tree. For practical purposes, Jesus removed something that was not performing as expected and removed it from taking up space. He did so, not as a warning or as a threat, but as a teaching moment for the disciples to know the power and authority He and even His followers possess. Today, we will look at this authority being challenged by the “religious leaders” of the day.
All throughout Matthew, Jesus was ministering primarily in Galilee, but when he predicted his death for the third and last time He shifted the ministry to Jerusalem. The chief priests and elders had tolerated Jesus when He was 75-80 miles away, but now He is in the center of Jerusalem. That was their territory, and they were not about to let someone come in and upset what they had created. We know in scripture that Jesus taught daily at the temple.
Matthew 26:55 (ESV)
55 At that hour Jesus said to the crowds, “Have you come out as against a robber, with swords and clubs to capture me? Day after day I sat in the temple teaching, and you did not seize me.
One of these days while He was teaching in the temple, the chief priests and elders approached Him wanting to know under who’s authority was “doing these things”. They were more concerned with authority that with eternal life… Let that sink in for a moment. More concerned over control and who had it, than salvation and eternity.
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?”
Prior to this, the Pharisees had seen many things more worthy to be called great miracles, but now they were deeply troubled and asked Jesus to identify the authority by which he performed these works. Now Jesus already knew where His authority had come from, and that He had the authority to do all His Father commanded of Him.
The great mystery of the future is included in the consequences of present deeds. They felt the urge for special questioning, then, because the prefiguration of every danger was made known in this event. Maybe they were still sore over the cleansing of the temple. Maybe they were trying to figure out why someone would come in and challenge their authority. Maybe they were trying to get Him to confess something they could use as charges against Him. Never forget, Jesus not only knew the questions they were asking, but the heart in which they were asking.
The Lord replied that he would tell them by what authority he did these works if only they would also reply to his question about whether they considered John the Baptist to have come from heaven or from man. He had turned their game around on them. They were wanting to know whether His authority was from God or from man…then Jesus asked their opinion of whether John’s power was from heaven or from man.
What About John?
What About John?
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.”
They hesitated while pondering the dangers of responding. If they confessed John to have come from heaven, they would be convicted by that very confession for not believing in the authority of Jesus. They were afraid to say that he was merely from man, however, because of the large crowd of people who believed John to be a prophet.
So they answered that they did not know (they did in fact know him to be from heaven) because they feared that they might be convinced by the truth of their own confession. They chickened out on answering because either way they could be seen as hypocrites.
But they told the truth about themselves, even though it was their intention to deceive; it was only through their infidelity, their own UNFAITHFULNESS, that they did not know John the Baptist was from heaven. And they could not have known that John the Baptist was from man, because he was not.
Knowing their irreformable evil, the Lord asked them an entirely rhetorical question, not that they might understand it and respond but that they should be hindered from interrogating him further, for he had commanded, “Do not give what is holy to the dogs,” and it was not fitting that what the Lord commanded should be violated. But it would have profited them nothing, even if he had answered directly, since a darkened will cannot discern what is of the light. What good is it to show something beautiful to a blind man? Spiritual blindness consists of an evil heart, and evil people are not able to understand the mystery of devotion any more than the blind can gaze upon the splendor of the light.
When a stealthy hunter sees a place to dig a trap, he also raises a net adjacent to it so that wherever the prey he is seeking to capture attempts to flee, it will either be caught in the net or fall into the pit. Likewise, the Lord set a trap for the chief priests and elders by means of his simple question, in such a way that if they professed John to have come from heaven, he would be able to ask them, “Why, then, did you not believe him?” But if they replied that John was of the world, they would thereby have run into the danger of being stoned to death by the people, as though fleeing into a hunter’s trap.
It was proper that the Lord teach his interrogator and weaken his tempter in whatever way he could and confound the cleverness of his reproach with rational arguments, while not making known the truth of his own mystery. The Lord did virtually the same thing elsewhere to the devil, who had cited against him a scriptural text without understanding it: “For it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, and they will hold you in their hands, lest your foot stumble on a rock.’ ”17 The Lord did not respond, “That is not what this Scripture means.” Rather, he left the devil ignorant of the true meaning of the text and instead refuted him with another, clearer passage from Scripture in order to confound the devil’s arrogance without revealing the prophetic mystery.
We Do Not Know
We Do Not Know
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.
“They answered Jesus, saying, ‘We do not know.’ And he said to them, ‘Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.’ ” He did not say, “Neither do I know.” By them not answering Him, He had no obligation to answer them.
It was as if he had said, “You know the truth because you are men, but you deny it because you are evil; I know it because I am God, but I will not tell you because you are unworthy.” Liars will lie to themselves if they have no one to deceive. Similarly truth will keep itself pure if it finds no one to save. HOMILY 39.
NEITHER WILL I TELL YOU. JEROME: In answering Jesus that they did not know, the chief priests and elders lied. Consequently it would have been appropriate for the Lord to respond by saying, “Neither do I know.” The truth cannot lie, however, so he replied instead, “Neither will I tell you.” By this he shows both that they knew the answer but were unwilling to say it and that he also knows the answer but will not speak it because they remained silent. Immediately, then, he tells a parable designed to convince them of their own sinfulness and of the necessity that the kingdom of God be transferred to the Gentiles.
This was the reason Jesus did not give the Jewish leaders a straight answer in 21:23–27. If they really wanted a truthful answer, they would have admitted to the authority of God behind Jesus’ teachings and miracles. Jesus knew they were not open to the truth, so he placed a hurdle between them and the answer to their question. They had to acknowledge that John’s authority came from heaven. Their refusal to answer was acknowledgment of their resistance to the truth—that Jesus’ authority came from God.
Manlio Simonetti, ed., Matthew 14-28, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002), 133–135.
Stuart K. Weber, Matthew, vol. 1, Holman New Testament Commentary (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2000), 344–345.