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“And when he [Jesus] entered the temple, the chief priests and the 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?” Jesus answered them, “I also will ask you one question, and if you tell me the answer, then I also will tell you by what authority I do these things. The baptism of John, from where did it come? From heaven or from man?” And they discussed it among themselves, saying, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘From man,’ we are afraid of the crowd, for they all hold that John was a prophet.” So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.” (Matthew 21:23–27)
If you had seen Jesus walk into the temple and begin driving out those who were buying and selling, then you too might want to know by what authority He was doing these things. The question posed by the chief priests and elders makes sense. However, as Jesus’ follow-up question revealed, this was not an innocent inquiry.
The Jewish leaders had long felt threatened by Jesus’ ministry, and rightly so. He had been pointing out their sin and hypocrisy, and His signs and wonders were evidence that His power was far greater than theirs. In contrast to their false teaching, He taught the truth of God with authority. These Jewish leaders sensed that their power and popularity were being undermined.
Not for the first time, Jesus answered their question with a question. He asked them whether the baptism of John was from God or from men. This question forced their hand, for they had opposed John the Baptist and therefore could not admit that he was sent from God. Yet they knew the people revered John as a prophet, so to claim that John’s baptism was a man-made practice would have hurt their reputation. Would they openly claim to oppose God’s messenger, or would they risk losing the crowd’s favor?
These Jewish leaders who had come to trap Jesus found themselves in a trap.
Jesus displays not merely the wisdom of One who knows a lot of religious information, but rather the wisdom and knowledge of One who is able to penetrate the hearts of men. He exposes our motives and deepest desires. We’re reminded of the way Hebrews 4:12 describes the word of God:
For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. (Hebrews 4:12)
Christ, the Word made flesh, looks through outward appearances. He knew the intentions of the Jewish leaders, and He refused to play their game. They failed to see that they were not standing in judgment of Him; He was standing in judgment of them.
On Tuesday of Holy Week we ought to marvel at the sovereign wisdom of Jesus. Nothing is hidden from Him, not even our secret thoughts. Therefore, let us submit to Him, trusting that what He says is true and that it is for our eternal good.
(This article created with the assistance of David Burnette.)