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Warren Wiersbe: This series of three parables grew out of the demand of the chief priests and elders for Jesus to explain what authority He had for cleansing the temple.  As the custodians of the spiritual life of the nation, they had the right to ask this question.  But we are amazed at their ignorance.  Jesus had given them three years of ministry, and they still would not face the facts.  They wanted more evidence.

Walter Wilson: Undeterred by the hostile reception he received from the authorities on his first day in Jerusalem, Jesus once again enters the temple alone (21:23a; cf. 21:12a), once again is challenged by the authorities with a question (21:23b–c; cf. 21:16a), and once again responds with a counter-question (21:24–25a; cf. 21:16b).

Appropriately enough, the authorities raise a question about authority, and in so doing establish a basic rubric for the whole cycle of controversy stories and polemical parables that make up this part of the narrative (21:23 – 22:46). The reader, of course, recalls that Jesus teaches “as one having authority” (7:29, also with διδάσκω and ἐξουσία).  In challenging this authority, the chief priests and the elders expose themselves to questions about the nature of their own authority. Indeed, the pericope (and the whole unit) can be understood as presenting a clash of different forms of authority. On one hand, there is the cultic authority of the chief priests (representing the temple) and the sociopolitical authority claimed by the elders “of the people” (21:23), who together with the scribes constitute the Sanhedrin, which in turn represents the nation. On the other hand, contrasting with this institutional basis of authority, the roles of king, teacher, and prophet are (as we have seen) all applicable to Jesus, though in this instance the association of Jesus with John the Baptist foregrounds the last of these roles (21:26; cf. 21:11), thereby drawing attention to his charismatic presence.

The character of this authority will be demonstrated in no small measure through the skillful manner in which Jesus debates his various opponents. In this case, he immediately understands that the question in 21:23c is a sham, and that his opponents are searching for some basis to accuse him of blasphemy (cf. 26:63–66). In response to their two-part question (regarding the nature and origin of his authority), Jesus responds with a two-part question of his own: was the baptism (and, by implication, ministry) of John the Baptist of heavenly or human origin (21:25a)? He prefaces the question by indicating that his willingness to answer their question is contingent upon how they answer his (21:24).

Stu Weber: The king’s authority will threaten those who desire to usurp his authority for themselves. . .  If they really wanted a truthful answer, they would have admitted to the authority of God behind Jesus’ teachings and miracles. Jesus knew they were not open to the truth, so he placed a hurdle between them and the answer to their question. They had to acknowledge that John’s authority came from heaven. Their refusal to answer was acknowledgment of their resistance to the truth—that Jesus’ authority came from God.


A.  Forum for Interrogation = the House of God

And when He had come into the temple,

Grant Osborne: In light of the imminent judgment that is his central theme at this time (see chs. 24–25) Jesus is likely proclaiming the judgment side of the arrival of the kingdom and calling for repentance. Most likely he is teaching in one of the porticoes in the Court of the Gentiles, where most teaching occurred.

B.  Fallacious Interrogators = the Jewish Religious Leaders

the chief priests and the elders of the people came to Him as He was teaching,

Richard Gardner: The dispute narrated in verses 23-27 pits Jesus against two groups of Jewish leaders, one with the power of office {chief priests), the other with representative authority (elders of the people; cf. Exod. 19:7; Isa. 3:14; Jer. 19:1). It is the same combination of opponents who shortly will plot Jesus’ destruction (26:3-5) and condemn him to death after his arrest (26:57-68; 27:1-2). When these authorities question Jesus about his authority, they raise an issue that accompanies Jesus throughout the Gospel (cf. 7:28-29; 12:38; 16:13-15; 28:18): What are Jesus’ credentials? Who or what authorizes him to act as he is now acting in the temple (cf. John 2:18)?

C.  Fundamental Question = By What Authority and Who Gave You This Authority

and said,By what authority are You doing these things,

and who gave You this authority?’

Grant Osborne: The first question challenges his presumption to both teach and perform miracles in the temple; how can he act as both rabbi and prophet? In so doing they are laying a trap for him, since if he answers “human authority” he will contradict his actions, and if “divine authority,” he will be guilty of blasphemy. The second question assumes it could not have come from God, a possibility the leaders have long ago rejected. They are daring Jesus to incriminate himself by answering.

Leon Morris: The expression is very general and may cover the triumphal entry, the driving out of the traders, and the healings in the temple. Certainly these were significant happenings, and in the view of the questioners they should not be done without authority of some kind. What authority?  The groups associated with the questioners had not given Jesus any authority, so they are intrigued. Their second question implies that nobody could assume authority. There had to be some superior person or institution that gave anyone the authority to act in ways like those Jesus had just demonstrated.

R. T. France: “These things” which the authorities object to are the openly messianic manner of his arrival and the high-handed way in which he has interfered with the business of the temple, compounded by his refusal to silence his young supporters. This northern villager, proclaimed by his followers as a prophet (v. 11), is assuming an authority which challenges the duly constituted leadership of the official guardians of the temple and of the religious life of Jerusalem. They could hardly ignore such a challenge. His behavior is not only highly irregular; it is a threat to their position. Just who does he think he is?

Donald Hagner: Not infrequently the request of information can hide, as here, a lack of receptivity and commitment.

Stanley Saunders: The question about the source of Jesus’ power is not new; the Pharisees have already accused Jesus of casting out demons by Beelzebul (9:34; 12:24). These two questions together pose the fundamental terms of Jesus’ struggle with the Jewish leaders and articulate the nature of the conflict that will lead to his crucifixion.

Daniel Doriani: The authorities think they have trapped Jesus with a dilemma. If he says he gained his right to criticize from a human authority, they will say, “But we are the human authority.” But if he says his authority came from God, they will accuse him of blasphemy. So they decided in advance to reject both possible replies.


A.  (:24-25a) Counter Question Posed by Jesus

  1. (:24)  Tit for Tat – I Will Answer If You Will Answer

And Jesus answered and said to them, ‘I will ask you one thing too,

which if you tell Me, I will also tell you by what authority I do these things.’

Grant Osborne: This is not just a way of avoiding giving an answer. The very question Jesus asks contains the answer to their two questions, for Jesus’ mission and authority are tied closely to that of John the Baptist.

  1. (:25a)  The Authority Question Rephrased –

Based on Continuity with the Ministry of John the Baptist

The baptism of John was from what source, from heaven or from men?

Walter Wilson: Significantly, Jesus responds to a question about himself by talking about someone else, the presupposition being that there is a fundamental continuity between the authority that informs Jesus’s ministry and the authority that informs John’s.

Robert Gundry: John predicted that the one coming after him—that is, Jesus—would be stronger than he was (3:11). So if the chief priests and elders attribute heavenly authority to John’s baptism, Jesus will ask them why they didn’t believe John’s prediction that Jesus has fulfilled, as proved by the marvels they’ve seen him perform the previous day right in the temple. From the quotation of Scripture in 3:3, of course, Matthew’s audience know that John’s baptism had divine authority behind it. “The crowd” consists of those who submitted to John’s baptism because they considered him a prophet and who now follow Jesus as the stronger one predicted by John. With “we fear the crowd” the chief priests and elders confess to one another their principle of expedience and thus expose their guilt to Matthew and his audience.

D. A. Carson: He does not raise this question as a simple rebuke—as if to say that if the authorities cannot make up their minds about John, neither will they be able to do so about him. His question is far more profound. If the religious authorities rightly answer it, they will already have the correct answer to their own question. If they respond, “From heaven,” then they are morally bound to believe John—and John pointed to Jesus (see comments at 11:7–10; cf. Jn 1:19, 26–27; 3:25–30). They would, therefore, have their answer about Jesus and his authority. If they respond, “From men” (v.26), they offer the wrong answer—but they will not dare utter it for fear of the people. The religious authorities share Herod’s timidity (14:5).

R. T. France: The focus specifically on John’s baptism, rather than his call to repentance, picks out the element in his ministry which was likely to have been found most offensive by the Jewish establishment (see on 3:6), with its radical implications for the membership of the true Israel, a theme which will be explored further in Jesus’ parables which follow in 21:28 – 22:14.

B.  (:25b-26) Consequences of their Answer Hamstring Their Response –

Caught between a Rock and a Hard Place – No Safe Answer

  1. (:25b)  Considering the Answer: From Heaven

And they began reasoning among themselves, saying,

If we say, ‘From heaven,’ He will say to us, ‘Then why did you not believe him?’

Leon Morris: Their reasoning covers the consequences of each of the possible answers, and they give no attention whatever to the actual source of John’s baptism. They reasoned among themselves; this was not for public hearing.

R. T. France: The dilemma of the questioners is not an intellectual one—their view of John seems to have been clear enough—but tactical, involving the danger of “loss of face”. To voice their true view of John would have exposed them to popular anger, but to give an insincere answer would expose them to ridicule, since their rejection of John’s message was well-known, as Jesus will confirm in v. 32. While there is some ambivalence about the popular response to John as Jesus describes it in 11:16–19, the presupposition is that they went out to him as a prophet (11:9), even if his style of prophetic ministry proved not to be to their taste. John’s prophetic image is confirmed in 16:14, and his popular appeal, already mentioned in 14:5, is presupposed in v. 32.

  1. (:26)  Considering the Answer: From Men

But if we say, ‘From men,’ we fear the multitude;

for they all hold John to be a prophet.

C.  (:27) Contest Decisively Won by Jesus

  1. Embarrassing Answer of Expediency by the Jewish Religious Leaders

And answering Jesus, they said, ‘We do not know.’

Walter Wilson: By responding out of cowardly self-interest (21:27a), the leaders demonstrate that their own authority is in fact human in character (21:25a), their failure to provide spiritual leadership revealing them to be blind guides (cf. 23:16–26).  Their answer may be a calculating evasion, but the reader recognizes that in a real sense, the religious authorities do not “know” the truth about the nature of God’s involvement in the world.

D. A. Carson: Their equivocation gave Jesus a reason for refusing to answer their question. Rejection of revelation already given is indeed a slender basis on which to ask for more. In one sense, the Sanhedrin enjoyed not only the right but the duty to check the credentials of those who claimed to be spokesmen for God. But because they misunderstood the revelation already given in the Scriptures and rejected the witness of the Baptist, the leaders proved unequal to their responsibility. They raised the question of Jesus’ authority; he raised the question of their competence to judge such an issue.

William Barclay: For a moment, the Jewish chief priests and elders were silent. Then they gave the lamest of all lame answers. They said: “We do not know.” If ever anyone stood self-condemned, these men did. They ought to have known; it was part of the duty of the Sanhedrin, of which they were members, to distinguish between true and false prophets; and they were saying that they were unable to make that distinction. Their dilemma drove them into a shameful self-humiliation.

There is a grim warning here. There is such a thing as the deliberately assumed ignorance of cowardice. If we consult expediency rather than principle, our first question will be not ‘What is the truth?’ but ‘What is it safe to say?’ Again and again, the worship of expediency will drive us to a cowardly silence. We will lamely say: ‘I do not know the answer,’ when we know perfectly well the answer, but are afraid to give it. The true question is not ‘What is it safe to say?’ but ‘What is it right to say?’

The deliberately assumed ignorance of fear and the cowardly silence of expediency are shameful things. If we know the truth, we are under obligation to tell it, though the heavens should fall.

  1. End of Dispute Dictated by the Victor

He also said to them,

‘Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.’

Robert Gundry: The chief priests and elders didn’t really want to know the nature and source of his authority. They only wanted to embarrass him. So he doesn’t tell them what they didn’t want to know anyway, and embarrasses them instead.

Donald Hagner: If Jesus regarded the work of John as ἐξ οὐρανοῦ, “from heaven,” it is clear that the same answer was implied with regard to his own ministry (cf. Bengel). That was implied already in the message that through his ministry the kingdom of God was being made manifest (cf. 12:28; 13:16–17).