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Matthew 21:23-27

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?”

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. John’s baptism – where did it come from? Was it from heaven, or from men?” (verses 23-25)


I love this passage. It shows Jesus’ strategic brilliance. It also makes a crucial point.

Jesus sets a condition for answering their question. He’s quite straightforward, not refusing to answer, but requiring that they answer a question from him first. His question puts the religious leaders in a complete bind. Either way they answer, it puts them on the hook. Jesus, of course, knows the dilemma. He’s brilliant.

The question has to do with John the Baptist’s authority. “Was it from heaven, or from men?” These leaders realize they will be exposed with whatever response they give. They clearly understand the common people viewed John as a prophet whose authority, therefore, clearly came from God. If the religious leaders deny this authority, they will run afoul of popular opinion. (Which begs a further question: if John’s authority is so obvious to everyone else, why can’t they see it?) But, on the other hand, if they acknowledge that John was sent by God, the logical follow-up-question will be, “Then why didn’t you believe him?” Which, of course, is the crucial question they should have been dealing with ever since John first came on the scene.

So, Jesus’ question catches them out. They can’t answer. So, neither does he.

But, apart from his strategic brilliance, Jesus is making a crucial point. It’s not that he’s trying to evade their question, but simply pointing out that the foundational issue has to do with authority. If they have not accepted the source of John’s authority, then they won’t be able to accept the source of Jesus’ either. If he had simply given them an immediate straightforward answer, it wouldn’t have helped. They would be none the wiser, for their eyes have been blinded and their ears stopped. John was given authority to prepare the way, but since they haven’t recognized his authority, they haven’t received the preparation either. So their hearts remain hard. They are not prepared to recognize Jesus, whether he answers their question or not.

It's the same today. When hearts are hard and minds made up, further insights seem to hit a brick wall. It points to the ongoing need for divine intervention, rather than mere argumentation. “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him,”Jesus said (John 6:44). Further proofs, on their own, won’t do the job.

Graciously, the Father intervened in the lives of some, like Nicodemus. He would intervene further in coming days as the preaching of the early believers turned the hearts of many, including priests, to Jesus (Acts 6:7). What wonder.

In the meantime, these religious leaders, face to face with Jesus himself, are stuck in their unbelief. It’s a cautionary tale.


Lord Jesus, I marvel at your wisdom, indeed your brilliance. Praise you. Father, thank you for your intervention in my own life, drawing me to your Son. Spirit, open my eyes to see Jesus more clearly. Open my ears to be attentive to his authoritative word as he speaks it. Open my heart to respond with obedient allegiance. To the glory of Jesus. Amen.


Pray: (1) For some who are currently stuck in unbelief – speak their names to the Lord, asking for his intervention. (2) For yourself, that you might be more responsive to his authority – place before him any area in which you currently struggle.


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