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)
On Jesus’ first day in Jerusalem beginning the last week of His life, He cleared the Temple of the sinful activity and had a brief run-in with the religious leaders. On His second day in Jerusalem, He again entered the Temple. Not surprisingly, the chief priests and elders came up to Him to confront Him.
Notice how brazen they are – they interrupt Jesus while He was teaching. They want to know by what authority Jesus was acting upon when He cleared the Temple, healed people, and taught people.
The procedure for becoming a rabbi involved being “sponsored” by other rabbis. A man was ordained as a rabbi on the “authority” of these other rabbis. Jesus had not gone through any of these procedures. For this reason, He was not recognized as a rabbi by the Jewish religious leaders.
But Jesus had already told these men – more than once – where His authority came from [Matthew 12:22-37]. They had also seen first hand many miracles that Jesus performed, validating His claim that His authority came from God. But since Jesus didn’t teach the same things they taught, and was never ordained as a rabbi according to their tradition, they concluded He was a fraud. It never occurred to them that they were the ones who were wrong.
But Jesus doesn’t play their game. Rather than answer their question He asks them one of His own – one that no matter how they answer they will be exposed as being frauds themselves.
Most Bible critics have pointed questions that they think will “corner” Christians and prove Christianity to be a hoax. Often the best defense is to ask a question in response that exposes their thinking as poorly thought out. As a former confrontational atheist I can tell you this strategy works [Proverbs 18:6-7]. But it does require a strong knowledge of the Bible.
In the end Jesus never gives these men an answer. They wouldn’t have believed Him anyway. God is always willing to provide answers to those who genuinely seek Him [Nehemiah 9:20, Matthew 7:7 et. al]. But He won’t answer those whose questions are ill-intentioned [Proverbs 3:3-4]. Neither should Christians [Proverbs 9:8, 23:9, 26:4 et. al].
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