We have here Christ examined by the great Sanhedrim concerning his authority; for they claimed a power to call prophets to an account concerning their mission. They came to him when he was walking in the temple, not for his diversion, but teaching the people, first one company and then another. The Peripatetic philosophers were so called from the custom they had of walking when they taught. The cloisters, or piazzas, in the courts of the temple, were fitted for this purpose. The great men were vexed to see him followed and heard with attention, and therefore came to him with some solemnity, and did as it were arraign him at the bar with this question, By what authority doest thou these things? Mark 11:28. Now observe,
I. How they designed hereby to run him aground, and embarrass him. If they could make it out before the people, that he had not a legal mission, that he was not duly ordained, though he was ever so well qualified, and preached ever so profitably and well, they would tell the people that they ought not to hear him. This they made the last refuge of an obstinate unbelief; because they were resolved not to receive his doctrine, they were resolved to find some flaw or other in his commission, and will conclude it invalid, if it be not produced and ratified in their court. Thus the Papists resolve their controversy with us very much into the mission of our ministers, and if they have but any pretence to overthrow that, they think they have gained their point, though we have the scripture ever so much on our side. But this is indeed a question, which all that act either as magistrates or ministers, ought to be furnished with a good answer to, and often put to themselves, By what authority do I these things? For how can men preach except they be sent? Or how can they act with comfort, or confidence, or hope of success, except they be authorized? Jer. 23:32.
II. How he effectually ran them aground, and embarrassed them, with this question, “What are your thoughts concerning the baptism of John? Was it from heaven, or of men? By what authority did John preach, and baptize, and gather disciples? Answer me, Mark 11:30. Deal fairly and ingenuously, and give a categorical answer, one way or the other.” By this resolve of their question into this, our Saviour intimates how near akin his doctrine and baptism were to John’s; they had the same original, and the same design and tendency—to introduce the gospel kingdom. Christ might with the better grace put this question to them, because they had sent a committee of their own house to examine John, John 1:19. “Now,” saith Christ, “what was the result of your enquiries concerning him?”
They knew what they thought of this question; they could not but think that John Baptist was a man sent of God. But the difficulty was, what they should say to it now. Men that oblige not themselves to speak as they think (which is a certain rule) cannot avoid perplexing themselves thus.
1. If they own the baptism of John to be from heaven, as really it was, they shame themselves; for Christ will presently turn it upon them, Why did ye not then believe him, and receive his baptism? They could not bear that Christ should say this, but they could bear it that their own consciences should say so, because they had an art of stifling and silencing them, and because what conscience said, though it might gall and grate them a little, would not shame them; and then they would do well enough, who looked no further than Saul’s care, when he was convicted, Honour me now before this people, 1 Sam. 15:30.
2. If they say, “It is of men, he was not sent of God, but his doctrine and baptism were inventions of his own,” they expose themselves, the people will be ready to do them a mischief, or a least clamour upon them; for all men counted John that he was a prophet indeed, and therefore they could not bear that he should be reflected on. Note, There is a carnal slavish fear, which not only wicked subjects but wicked rulers likewise are liable to, which God makes use of as a means to keep the world in some order, and to suppress violence, that it shall not always grow up into a rod of wickedness. Now by this dilemma to which Christ brought them, (1.) They were confounded and baffled, and forced to make a dishonourable retreat; to pretend ignorance—We cannot tell (and that was mortification enough to those proud men), but really to discover the greatest malice and wilfulness. What Christ did by his wisdom, we must labour to do by our well doing—put to silence the ignorance of foolish men, 1 Pet. 2:15. (2.) Christ came off with honour, and justified himself in refusing to give them an answer to their imperious demand; Neither tell I you by what authority I do these things. They did not deserve to be told; for it was plain that they contended not for truth, but victory; nor did he need to tell them, for the works which he did, told them plainly that he had authority from God to do what he did; since no man could do those miracles which he did unless God were with him. Let them wait but three or four days, and his resurrection shall tell them who gave him his authority, for by that he will be declared to be the Son of God with power, as by their rejecting of him, notwithstanding, they will be declared to be the enemies of God.