This Sunday’s sermon passage encompasses both: (a) Jesus’ teaching about prayer, and (b) the account of a confrontation between the Jerusalem leadership and Jesus. I plan to devote the bulk of the sermon to the topic of prayer. In that light, please allow the following comments to help you meditate upon the second half of the passage.
“The chief priests, the scribes, and the elders came to him.”
Wow! What a delegation. After Jesus cast the moneychangers out of the temple, members of these three leading classes came together to plan a response. Such a meeting may have taken place in the context of the daily assembly of the Great Sanhedrin. Readers of Mark’s gospel know that the Jewish leaders want to put Jesus to death (Mark 3:6; 8:31; 11:18). In that light, tension fills the air as the delegation approaches Jesus.
“By what authority are you doing these things, or who gave you this authority to do them?”
Perhaps the leaders’ goal is to incite Jesus to say that his authority comes from God. Upon this basis they could then charge him with blasphemy. The second half of the question also functions as an assertion of their own authority over the temple: “What gives you the right? Get this now — we are the real authorities around here!”
“Answer me and I will tell you…”
Jesus knows it is not wise to give them a straightforward answer. He responds with a challenge of his own, probing their beliefs and motives.
“Was the baptism of John from heaven or from man?”
Jesus could have asked any old stumper: “How many stars are in the night sky?” “What’s that — you can’t answer my question. Oh well, I won’t answer yours either.” To take that approach would have been mere avoidance. But that is not what Jesus is doing. His response-question parallels their original challenge-question. The correct answer to both questions is the same: John’s baptism was from heaven, and Jesus’ authority is from heaven. Are the leaders willing to acknowledge either of these parallel truths?
“If we say…”
As the leaders contemplate their options, the shoe is on the other foot. From the start, they had thought through Jesus’ possible responses. “If he says this, we’ll do this; if he says that, we’ll do that.” But in this chess match, Jesus made a move they hadn’t anticipated, and now they are on the defensive. They need to both think through their own response, and at the same time, once again attempt to anticipate Jesus’ next move.
“They were afraid of the people.”
If the leaders were brave enough to answer freely, they would say “of human origin” to either question, whether about John or Jesus. And if they were confident in divine authorization for their own opinions and authority, they would indeed answer freely. Tactfully, but boldly, they would express their position, even in this public setting. Jesus’ challenge, however, brings the leaders’ weakness to the surface. What is the source of the their authority? Does their authority come from God? From the Romans? From the people? At some level, it derives from the consent of the Jewish people. The leaders are afraid to say openly what they think because they cannot afford public outcry against themselves. Jesus’ question reveals that the Jewish leaders’ authority rests on shaky ground.
“Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.”
You can imagine how disappointed the leaders are. They thought they had him. Instead he had them. Always one step ahead. Earlier this week, Jesus entered Jerusalem, willing to be acclaimed as Messiah (Mark 10:47,48; 11:9-10). But he’s not going to give red meat to his enemies. Their hardened hearts can’t handle the truth, and he will grant them the blindness they have chosen (see Mark 4:11-12). Yes, Jesus did come to die (Mark 10:45), and he will give them grounds for his own execution, but only when the timing is exactly right (see Mark 14:62-64). So who is it that’s really in charge here?!
The Old Temple Replaced:
Throughout Mark’s gospel, we see the authority of Jesus from various angles. This passage adds Jesus’ remarkable ability to debunk pretenders to authority. Sure, the Jewish leadership has a certain temporal power in the moment, but their moment is passing. They are being replaced. Jesus asserts authority over the temple because as God-With-Us, he is the long-foreshadowed fulfillment of the meaning of the temple. Furthermore, upon his ascension Jesus will give his Spirit to his people. Thusly filled with the divine presence, we the church are God’s New Temple. The call, then, to me and to you, is to be God’s holy place, yielding daily to King Jesus who has authority over us his temple.
Michael Horton on Christ’s Authority Today:
Regarding Christ’s kingly authority ever since the First Coming, in comparison to the glory of the reign of the Second Coming: “Christ is already a king with his kingdom, but for now this realm is visible chiefly in the public ministry of Word, sacrament, and discipline, and also in the fellowship of the saints as they share their spiritual and material gifts in the body of Christ… Like its gospel, the kingdom’s form, means, government, and effect seem weak in the eyes of the world. It is often persecuted or simply ignored by the powers and principalities of this present age, and yet it grows precisely in and through the apparent weakness of its message and ministry.”
Regarding the close union between king and people: “Christ rules over by ruling within those who are identified as part and parcel of his own body.”
Regarding other powers, like the Jewish leadership in our passage, that pretend to have authority: “The claim ‘Jesus is Lord’ [means that] the threats to God’s promises have been conquered… There are no powers, authorities, thrones, or dominions that can thwart his purposes, although they may present fierce opposition until they are finally destroyed… Christ’s reign topples all rivals who hold us in bondage, so that even death has lost its legal authority to keep us in the grave.”
R. T. France, The Gospel of Mark. The New International Greek Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002.
Michael Horton, The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way. Zondervan, 2011. pp. 525-537.