Jesus taught in the temple courts. The chief priests and the elders of the people went to him and asked, “By what authority are you doing these things? And who gave you this authority?”

Jesus replied,

“I will ask you a question. If you answer me, I will tell you by what authority I am doing these things. John’s baptism – where did it come from? Was it from heaven or of human origin?”

The elders discussed it among themselves and said, “If we say ‘from heaven’ Jesus will ask, ‘then why did you not believe him?’. But if we say ‘of human origin’, we are afraid we will insult the people who believe John was a prophet.”

Pharisees question Jesus' authority

So the elders answered Jesus, “We do not know”.

Then Jesus said,

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“Then you will not learn by what authority I am doing these things.”

What the story means to us today

The chief priests question Jesus’ divinity – Jesus responds with a masterful question of this own

Jesus questioned - Artist unknown

In this exchange, the chief priests try to trap Jesus by asking a question that would condemn Jesus no matter how he answered. Jesus turns the question to the Jewish priests using John the Baptist as the subject (John was already dead at the time and was greatly revered by the people). But the authority by which Jesus taught was clear to all but the chief priests and leaders of the church who stood stubbornly by their twisted interpretation of the Old Testament and refused to recognized the messiah.

Additional thoughts and considerations

The chief priests do not question Jesus’ miraculous acts, but rather the authority under which he operates

The chief priests do not question the validity of Jesus’ miracles and healings that hordes of people in the area have observed firsthand. There were far too many witnesses to question whether or not Jesus did what he said he would do. In fact, John 9:16 tells us that the chief priests and Pharisees were flabbergasted by the “signs” that Jesus performed and were unsure how to react. So rather than attempting to disprove Jesus’ miracles, the priests question by which authority Jesus “does these things” to which Jesus gives his masterful reply with a question of his own.

Why didn’t Jesus just answer the question?

Rather than answering the chief priests’ question, Jesus replies with a question of his own. To answer a question with another question was a common response when rabbis debated and Jesus’ response worked as he intended. It confounded the chief priests while still allowing Jesus to skirt the question, granting him a little more time on earth to wrap up his teachings.

Why did the chief priest care what Jesus did?

Jesus' authority is questioned - Artist unknown

It is true that the chief priests were intimidated by the power Jesus acquired during his short life. But it is also important to recognize that their questioning of Jesus was not just their right, but their duty. As members of the Sanhedrin, they were bound by duty to question anyone who claimed to be a prophet of God.

The science and history behind the story

Who were the chief priests and the “elders of the people”?

The chief priests were members of the Sanhedrin – a sort of “supreme court” that governed the Jewish nation. The “elders of the people” were likely members of the Sanhedrin but not necessarily by religious affiliation. They may have been the Jewish elites who were given places on the Sanhedrin by their wealth and status.

Bible Text

NIV

23 Jesus entered the temple courts, and, while he was teaching, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him. “By what authority are you doing these things?” they asked. “And who gave you this authority?”

24 Jesus replied, “I will also ask you one question. If you answer me, I will tell you by what authority I am doing these things. 25 John’s baptism—where did it come from? Was it from heaven, or of human origin?”

They discussed it among themselves and said, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will ask, ‘Then why didn’t you believe him?’ 26 But if we say, ‘Of human origin’—we are afraid of the people, for they all hold that John was a prophet.”

27 So they answered Jesus, “We don’t know.”

Then he said, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.

The New International Version. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011. Print.

The NET Bible

Jesus questioned

21:23 Now after Jesus entered the temple courts, the chief priests and elders of the people came up to him as he was teaching and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” 21:24 Jesus answered them, “I will also ask you one question. If you answer me then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. 21:25 Where did John’s baptism come from? From heaven or from people?” They discussed this among themselves, saying, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say, ‘Then why did you not believe him?’ 21:26 But if we say, ‘From people,’ we fear the crowd, for they all consider John to be a prophet.” 21:27 So they answered Jesus, “We don’t know.” Then he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.

Biblical Studies Press. The NET Bible First Edition; Bible. English. NET Bible.; The NET Bible. Biblical Studies Press, 2006. Print.

New King James Version

23 Now when He came into the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people confronted Him as He was teaching, and said, “By what authority are You doing these things? And who gave You this authority?”

24 But Jesus answered and said to them, “I also will ask you one thing, which if you tell Me, I likewise will tell you by what authority I do these things: 25 The baptism of John—where was it from? From heaven or from men?”

And they reasoned among themselves, saying, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ He will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ 26 But if we say, ‘From men,’ we fear the multitude, for all count John as a prophet.” 27 So they answered Jesus and said, “We do not know.”

And He said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.

The New King James Version. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1982. Print.

The Message

      23 Then he was back in the Temple, teaching. The high priests and leaders of the people came up and demanded, “Show us your credentials. Who authorized you to teach here?”

      24–25 Jesus responded, “First let me ask you a question. You answer my question and I’ll answer yours. About the baptism of John—who authorized it: heaven or humans?”

      25–27 They were on the spot and knew it. They pulled back into a huddle and whispered, “If we say ‘heaven,’ he’ll ask us why we didn’t believe him; if we say ‘humans,’ we’re up against it with the people because they all hold John up as a prophet.” They decided to concede that round to Jesus. “We don’t know,” they answered.

      Jesus said, “Then neither will I answer your question.

Peterson, Eugene H. The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2005. Print.

King James Version

23 And when he was come into the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came unto him as he was teaching, and said, By what authority doest thou these things? and who gave thee this authority? 24 And Jesus answered and said unto them, I also will ask you one thing, which if ye tell me, I in like wise will tell you by what authority I do these things. 25 The baptism of John, whence was it? from heaven, or of men? And they reasoned with themselves, saying, If we shall say, From heaven; he will say unto us, Why did ye not then believe him? 26 But if we shall say, Of men; we fear the people; for all hold John as a prophet. 27 And they answered Jesus, and said, We cannot tell. And he said unto them, Neither tell I you by what authority I do these things.

The Holy Bible: King James Version. Electronic Edition of the 1900 Authorized Version. Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2009. Print.

Sources: NIV, The Message, The NET Bible, King James Version, NET Bible Notes, Faithlife Study Bible, The Apologetics Study Bible, The Bible Knowledge Commentary, Jamieson, Fausset, Brown Commentary, The Bible Reader’s Companion, Matthew Henry’s Commentary, Holman Concise Bible Commentary, The Bible Exposition Commentary, The Teacher’s Bible Commentary, The Teacher’s Commentary, The Bible Guide, Word Studies in the New Testament, Holman Bible Handbook, Calvin Commentaries, Wiersbe’s Expository Outlines, The New Manner and Customs of the Bible, Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary, The Lexham Bible Dictionary, Easton’s Bible Dictionary, Harper’s Bible Dictionary, Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible, The Archaeological Encyclopedia, Biblical Archaeology Review, The New Bible Dictionary, The Lexham Analytical Lexicon, Glossary of Morpho-Syntactic Database
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