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Today religious claims are a dime a dozen. If you survey the media it is not hard to find all types of claims about what God is doing. Ultimately the issue is not the claim but what stands behind it.
The Pharisees' question about Jesus' religious authority is in many ways a natural one. He has had no official training. He comes from Galilee, an area not known for its religious instruction or anything else of stature (Jn 7:52). He has never sat under a rabbi. Where does his authority come from? How can he justify the things he has been doing? This is really a fundamental question for the entire Gospel (4:32, 36; 5:24; 9:1; 10:19). It also opens a series of five controversies in 20:1-44. In these disputes the answer to the Pharisees' question becomes obvious, even though no direct reply is offered here. Though an answer is not forthcoming from Jesus, anyone who has followed Luke's story up to this point knows the reply, which is why Jesus' analogy with John the Baptist is so powerful. By whose authority does Jesus do these things? He responds, By the same authority John the Baptist possessed.
This controversy arises as Jesus is teaching in the temple, something he is doing daily (19:47). The fact that Jesus is teaching the gospel shows that his message has never changed. But the leadership wants to know the basis for Jesus' actions. Whether it is his teaching or his cleansing of the temple, where did he get the right to do such things? In Greek the question puts by what authority (en poia exousia) in the emphatic position, at the front of the question. In the questioners' view the leadership represents God's will and has the right to teach it. Where does Jesus get the right to challenge their teaching?
In good Jewish and Hellenistic fashion, Jesus answers the query with one of his own. This style of disputation was popular in the ancient world. It was designed to show who could ask the wiser question and expose weaknesses in the opponent. Such an approach also produced reflection about the proper approach to a problem. Jesus' question is a simple one: "John's baptism—was it from heaven, or from men?" The question is both obvious and subtle. By dealing with a public action, he has excluded a war of words merely over public claims, titles or credentials. There will be no appeal to derived authority by means of lineage or mere assertion. Did John give evidence that God stood behind his deeds? Only two options exist: either he did or he did not. The subtlety in the question lies not only in its appeal to concrete events but also in the popular consensus that has developed. The multitudes know the answer to this question: John came from God. God's presence manifested itself clearly in his ministry. Rejection of that conclusion can only reflect blindness.
So the leadership is in a dilemma, since they had not responded to John. They caucus to determine an answer. Either way of replying would leave them exposed. If they acknowledged divine authority, they would be hurting on two counts. First, they would raise the question why they had not embraced John. Second, they would concede a major point to Jesus: that one need not come from the Jerusalem school of rabbinic studies in order to teach the way of God.
Now the text only mentions the first reason, but surely the leadership senses the trap and knows that more than a historical religious dispute about John is wrapped up in the question. Jesus is building a solid analogy, and the leaders want to stay out of that building.
However, if they took the other option and said "From men," they would run the risk of being stoned, because the people know John was a prophet. Though the concern about stoning may be figurative for the rejection their answer would face, technically to reject a true prophet of God did merit stoning (Deut 13:1-11).
Faced with a catch-22 and sensing they have been successfully cornered, the leaders do what politicians often do when faced with a no-win situation: they dance around the query and refuse to take a position. Fence-sitting is always a tempting option when one is faced with a losing proposition. The leaders' private dialogue reveals the blatant hypocrisy of their answer. Clearly they regard John's authority as simply human, but they don't have the nerve to tell the crowd so. Rather than acknowledge their view and its unpopularity, they try to finesse the question. By doing so, they give up any moral ground for challenging Jesus. If they cannot decide about John, how can they decide about Jesus?
Jesus refuses to answer their original question, though the force of his analogy in his reply is obvious. The power behind Jesus is like that behind John. God has stood behind the actions of both, as Luke's narration had already made clear. In this case Jesus' silence lets the story of his ministry speak for itself. Claims of authority are not necessary since authoritative actions mark his entire ministry like giant footprints. Religious claims may be a dime a dozen, but some claims prove themselves to be true.
In this face-to-face battle, like a shootout in the Old West, the leadership had tried to destroy Jesus. But after the two sides had marked off their ten paces and turned to fire their questions, it was the leaders who blinked.