One day as Jesus was teaching the people in the temple courts and proclaiming the good news, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, together with the elders, came up to him. “Tell us by what authority you are doing these things,” they said. “Who gave you this authority?”
He replied, “I will also ask you a question. Tell me: John’s baptism – was it from heaven, or of human origin?”
They discussed it among themselves and said, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will ask, ‘Why didn’t you believe him?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ all the people will stone us, because they are persuaded that John was a prophet.” So they answered, “We don’t know where it was from.”
Jesus said, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.”
Luke 20: 1-8
It did not take long for the chief priests and elders to strike. They had agreed on a question to put to him together: “Tell us by what authority you are doing these things – who gave it to you?”
It was a clever question, designed to distract from the real issues: was Jesus right in driving out those who had turned the temple into a robbers’ den? Was his message true? Was he truly the King? They wanted to draw people’s attention to the fact that, in their eyes, he had no authority to do what he had done. They certainly hadn’t given him a licence to teach. He wasn’t an officially recognised teacher of the law. He wasn’t even a member of the priestly tribe. So how dare he? Who does he think he is? It is an age-old strategy: attack the person rather than deal with the truth or otherwise of what the person says.
As Messiah, Jesus had, of course, total authority. He didn’t require any licence from the religious leaders. However, the issues behind their question were much deeper than technical matters of procedure. They were moral and spiritual. It was important, in his love for these men as well as for those who were being deceived by them, that Jesus expose what was really going on in their hearts. So he asked a question in turn: “was the baptism of John from heaven or from men?”
It was a brilliant question and they were caught. If on one hand they replied that John’s baptism was from heaven, the implications were obvious: if they truly believed it was from heaven, why had they not accepted John? If on the other hand they replied that his authority to baptise was merely human, they would be in serious trouble with the people who were listening in to this exchange. For many of the ‘ordinary people’ had listened and responded to John, submitting to his baptism as a mark of their repentance. They did so, not because John had some official licence to preach from the religious establishment – he didn’t. But because people generally can recognise moral and spiritual authority when they meet it.
Christ’s antagonists were caught in their own political game. And as many do in such circumstances, they took refuge in agnosticism: “we don’t know”. That, of course, was pure fudge! The truth was that they had refused to believe John. By not submitting to his baptism they had demonstrated that they did not believe he had divine authority. But they couldn’t afford to tell the truth, so they professed ignorance. It was a game, thinly masking their real interest: power. They were not interested in following the truth where it led.
People like that will bow to no authority but their own, not even if Messiah, the true King, comes to them. There is nothing they will not do if it allows them to hold on to their power.
It is one thing to own up when we genuinely don’t know and to commit to seeking the truth. It is quite another to refuse to acknowledge the truth when we see it and take refuge instead in agnosticism. Why do we do this? Is it not so that we can persist in living life as we want to live it, without having to bow our hearts and wills to Jesus as King? Truth liberates. When we stop being genuinely interested in truth we don’t find freedom. Rather, we make ourselves slaves of some other power that ultimately will destroy us.