Jesus challenged in the Temple
Attitudes towards authority – various.
Today we’re encouraged in many circumstances to question authority.
Authority is made the issue here but it is more of a pretext than anything else.
The Stage is Set
If I were a film director I think I’d like to have charge of shooting this scene. Come with me in your mind’s eye and let me describe it for you.
Jesus is in the temple complex, in one of those areas of relatively uninhibited access, and there is is surrounded by a group of people. Jesus is busy teaching them just as he has done for the previous three or so years up and down the country. His teaching includes that message which is so crucial to true Christianity, the gospel, that is the good news that sinners can be reconciled to a holy God because this God is a gracious Father who is full of mercy and compassion.
We don’t know how long Jesus had been there or how many people were there listening to him but we do know he wasn’t making any attempt at secrecy. It was hardly any time since he had entered Jerusalem in royal splendour and it was even less time since he performed that very public act of cleansing the same temple in which he now stood teaching. After all having gone so very public Jesus knew he could not long remain unrecognised in the temple.
And there they are – an angry group of men is rapidly towards making its way towards that man from Nazareth.
Word must have spread quickly that Jesus was back in the temple and that he was teaching there. The Jewish authorities were told and almost at once a delegation representing the Sanhedrin is on its way.
The Sanhedrin was the main council that oversaw Jewish affairs. Because of Roman rule this council could only exercise a limited authority but that authority was nevertheless real.
The council was made up of different factions:
The chief priests had the overall responsibility for the temple and were the ones who bore ultimate responsibility for what took place there.
The scribes were men who studied the law in great detail until they became experts in all things legal. Given their particular expertise they were the main teachers of the people and they carried out their teaching both in the synagogues and in this temple. This group was generally responsible for what was taught in the temple. Many of them were also members of the Pharisees.
The third group that made up the Sanhedrin was that of the elders. In ancient Israel an elder was the respected head of a tribe or tribal division. In fact in just about every town of any importance you could find a category of ruling elders. On the Sanhedrin they functioned rather as lay members when compared to the clergy of priest and scribe.
This delegation marched straight up to Jesus and spoke with him. We can’t be sure that they interrupted Jesus or whether they waited for a break in his teaching programme but pretty soon the entire situation was changed.
A Matter of Authority
As soon as these men get the chance they launch into their challenge. They feel as though things are getting out of hand and most definitely out of their control and they don’t want to let things slip any further. Jesus – you’ve got some explaining to do!
They begin with a question:
v.2 "Tell us by what authority you do these things, or who it is that gave you this authority."
By speaking about "these things" they are probably referring not only to Jesus’ recent cleansing of the Temple but also to his teaching and preaching of the gospel in the Temple. Objectively there was nothing wrong with either set of actions but these men are not interested in discussing the rightness or the appropriateness of what Jesus had done but only who did he think he was to do it!
Now sometimes to ask a question is a good thing and particularly to ask a question concerning a person’s credentials might be a very positive thing to do. After all if you have to see a doctor about an operation you want to be sure he has the necessary know-how and authorization to carry out the task. It’s why, if you’re looking for a workmen to come and do some work on your home, you want some assurance that he can properly do what you want him to. Does the gas engineer have the appropriate certification? etc. etc.
So to ask Jesus for some evidence and some information that confirms he is entitled to act as he has been doing seems perfectly reasonable doesn’t it? Or does it?
Let’s stop for a moment and consider. Is Jesus some new kid on the block who has just burst, untried on the scene? If that were the case then to ask for some accreditation would be fully understandable but he was no such newcomer!
For some three years now Jesus had been active in ministry up and down the country. He had gone around doing good: he had healed those who were sick, he had given eyesight to those who were blind, he opened the ears of the deaf, he had even brought a number of dead people back to life again. In addition to that, he had cast out evil spirits from those who were demon-possessed, he had fed huge crowds, he had exercised power over the natural world in calming raging seas and stilling the strong winds that blew. Nor was this the major part of his ministry: he had set himself the task of preaching and teaching and he had done so in a way that was unequalled amongst his contemporaries. And what was more everyone knew that all this was true! Earlier delegations had been sent to investigate this man from Nazareth and they couldn’t deny what he said and did much as they would have liked to!
Jesus knew that the leaders of the people were hostile towards him yet urged them to listen to him and to believe in him giving them a way of testing him:
Jn.10:37-38 "If I am not doing the works of my Father, then do not believe me; but if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father."
But these leaders had not wanted to follow such advice. They had decided long before that they wanted nothing this man had to offer and they refused to allow what he said to influence them positively.
It was in this spirit that they came to Jesus that day in the temple and challenged him about his authority. They weren’t asking for answers so much as throwing down the gauntlet. They wanted to hamper Jesus, they wanted to diminish his standing in the eyes of the people in short they wanted to get rid of him destroying his influence once and for all.
‘Where are your credentials?’ they asked, knowing full well that he had not been approved by them – and they were the ones who counted – or so they thought.
Who gave you your authority? It wasn’t the religious leaders was it? Go on, say you got it from God and we’ll charge you with blasphemy again.
They formed their challenge in the form of some question but they weren’t interested in hearing the truth because they had already made up their minds about Jesus!
I wonder whether that is true of any of you this morning – I hope not. But it is possible for you to ask your questions and to make them sound so reasonable but all along you don’t really want to hear the answer. Why so? Because you don’t want to have to bring Jesus into your life and have him start to bring about the changes you know must take place in your life.
I know that those changes can look daunting from the outside but I want to tell you along with millions of his followers that we have a wonderful friend in Jesus. He will never give up on us or abandon us but will always be there for us leading and guiding us and giving us the strength to go on day after day.
You can keep Jesus at arm’s length by asking your insincere questions but think of the consequences: you will never have your sins forgiven or your guilt washed away, you will forgo any genuine peace with God and you will face a hopeless eternity.
Why don’t you settle matters today by quietly telling God in a prayer of your own that you know you are a sinner and come short of his standards, that you know you can’t save yourself and that you want Jesus to become your Lord and Saviour? You don’t even have to wait until you get home you can pray right where you are right now!
Jesus responds to the Challenge
Jesus has been asked a question but he doesn’t answer it directly but responds with a counter- question. This was a typically Jewish manner of proceeding and frequently used by rabbis in their discussions and arguments. We should not think that he is trying to avoid the issue because his counter-question is relevant to the matter at hand. Here again Jesus’ response:
vv.3-4 "He answered them, "I also will ask you a question. Now tell me, Was the baptism of John from heaven or from man?""
In order to appreciate just how relevant this question was to the nature of Jesus’ own authority and who gave it to him we need to focus not so much on the ruminations of the embarrassed members of the delegation party but upon John the Baptist himself and his ministry.
John came as a prophet sent from God with a particular mission to accomplish; John’s task was to prepare the way for the Messiah, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. This One as far greater than John ever was or would be.
If the members of the delegation could recognise the importance of John and his ministry then they should be prepared to listen to what he had to say and to look to the One for whom he prepared the way. Indeed we might even want to investigate the phrase "the baptism of John" in so far as it refers to Jesus being baptised by John. Do you remember what happened when Jesus came up out of the waters? A voice spoke out clearly from heaven giving divine authentication to our Saviour. The exact words used are these:
Lk.3:22 "You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased."
Jesus’ counter-question drove his opponents into a corner. How would they answer now that it was them on the spot?
If they owned John to be a true prophet then Jesus could refer to John’s testimony as indicating the nature and source of his own authority.
But if on the other hand they refused to recognise John’s testimony there was little point in Jesus giving them further answers.
Their answer would reveal much about these men.
In the event, it turns out that they were not prepared to be open and honest. They didn’t want to declare that John was a true prophet for they understood the implications that held for them – Jesus would call upon them to act accordingly and believe what he had testified concerning Jesus. And this was precisely what they didn’t want to do. But that left them in a difficult position. If they declared that John’s ministry was purely of human origin they were afraid that the crowd might turn against them as they all thought of John as a genuine prophet.
The delegation representing Jewish leadership was unprepared to be honest and further hardened their own hearts. They didn’t want to answer Jesus’ question but instead of saying so openly they tried to hide behind a lie: ‘we don’t know’ they said.
And with that response disappears any reason why Jesus should bother to answer their questions. If they were so determined to resist God’s will then no more light would be given them. To reject the truth deliberately is to harden your heart and that is such a dangerous thing to do.
Jesus final words to them at this time indicates very clearly that ignorance was not their real problem that lay elsewhere and was located not at the level of the intellect but at the level of their will.
Lk.20:8 "And Jesus said to them, "Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things."
Jesus follows the instructions he gave to his own disciples – he refuses to cast pearls before swine (Mt.7:6)
My friend, this morning, where do you stand with regards to Jesus?
Some of you might still think you are in genuine need of more information before you can commit yourself to Jesus and become one of his followers. I have something to say to you. You really need to understand very little indeed before you know enough to come to Jesus. Don’t imagine that you can’t come to Jesus until you’ve got answers to all your questions – if you proceed like that then you’ll never come to Christ for you’ll always find a reason to ask just one more question. You need to stop asking questions and ask instead for forgiveness before you make your heart so hard that it becomes impervious to the divine overtures of grace.
Some of you are not committing yourselves to Christ and you already know far more about him and his gospel than many others in the world who in spite of knowing much less than you do have already repented of their sins and called on the name of the Lord and have been saved.
Will you not call out to him today for salvation? Then come and tell me what you’ve done and we can talk about the next step you’ll need to take – the step of expressing your faith publicly as you in receive baptism into his name.
May God have mercy on us all!