This was the question the religious leaders asked Jesus — Matthew 22:23-32.
After Jesus had entered the temple and was teaching there, the high priests and the elders of the people came to him, saying, ‘By what authority do you do these things? And who gave you this authority?’ In reply Jesus said to them, I will ask you one question too. If you answer it for me, I will tell you by what authority I do these things. Where did the baptism of John come from—from heaven or from human beings?’ So they reasoned among themselves, saying, If we should say, ‘From heaven, he will say to us, Then why didn’t you believe him? And if we say, From human beings, we fear the crowd, because all the people hold that John was a prophet’. So in answer they said to Jesus, We don’t know. Then he said to them, ‘I will not tell you, then, by what authority I do these things.’
‘What do you think? A man had two sons. And going to the first, he said, Child, go today and work in my vineyard. In response he said, I don’t want to; but later he reconsidered and went. Then going to the other son, he said the same thing. But this one answered, I will, Lord, but he did not go. Who of these two did the will of the father? And they said to him, The first one. Jesus said to them, I tell you truly, that the tax collectors and prostitutes enter the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him. But the tax collectors and prostitutes believed him. And when you saw this, you did not then reconsider and believe him.’
This incident happened in the week before Jesus died on a cross and rose again. The day before this incident, He had entered Jerusalem in triumph, riding on a donkey. Images of the promised king flowed into the minds of the people. Great crowds had followed him, and children kept calling out,
Salvation! Happy is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Ps. 118
Jesus then entered the temple, and threw out those who were there simply to make money. People were either selling animals for the sacrifices required by the law (probably at an inflated price), or they were getting a good exchange rate on the money that would be used to buy the animals. This was the week leading up to one of the great feasts of the religious year, the Passover. It was a time when the people remembered that long ago God had rescued them from slavery in Egypt. God had spared their first born children because young lambs had been killed in their place. Israel was to remember that God promised forgiveness of sins through the death of a substitute. It was the language of the Passover that the prophet John the Baptist had used when he first pointed Jesus out. He had said,
Look, the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. John 1:29
So, the religious leaders came to Jesus. They were not happy with him. Jesus had a habit of pointing people to the Scriptures in a way that made these leaders look foolish.
For example, when they tried to correct Jesus’ disciples because they did not wash in the approved way, Jesus didn’t seem to care. He spoke instead about the evil condition of the human heart, mind and will. He told them that man-made traditions were unable to fix our sin problem, and he accused them of paying far more attention to their traditions than to the word that God had given them.
Side note: A tradition is a belief people have, or a thing people do, because it is handed down from the past. Christmas is celebrated in different ways in different countries because of different traditions. Some traditions are good. Paul says the Lord’s supper is a tradition that we have received from the Lord Jesus. Some other traditions are or can become very bad, especially if they are made more important than the things God tells us to believe or do in his Word.
On another occasion, when Jesus was teaching people about what is allowed on the weekly day of rest, he reminded the Pharisees that God had said, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice’, and gave them scriptural examples from the life of David and the work of the priests to show that the oppressive rules of the Pharisees were twisted (Matthew 12). Again, Jesus corrected the ugly views on divorce that these leaders had, and explained a passage in Deuteronomy by referring to the first chapter of Genesis (Matthew 19).
Often the Lord Jesus corrected these sorts of errors by asking, Have you never read this in the Scripture? The Pharisees certainly would have read the Bible, but Jesus’ question was not just about reading, it was about changing people’s thinking. What effect did God intend his word to have. What should we believe in the light of His word, and what should we do in response? These are the things Jesus wanted the leaders to think about. We should think about them too.
Finally, just the day before, when they had asked Jesus to silence the children who were calling out loudly that Jesus was the Son of David, Jesus asked if they had ever read that ‘From the mouths of nursing babies God had ordained praise.’ Who did Jesus think he was? Who did the people think he was? It was time, these leaders thought, to take matters firmly in hand.
Jesus had entered the temple, and as his custom was, he started teaching people the Scriptures. As he started to teach, the high priests and elders came with their question. It seems to me that they had been waiting and watching for him. As soon as they saw him, they gathered together and went for Him:
By what authority do you do these things, and who gave you that authority?
It was a good question to ask.
Continue in Part 2…