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20 One day, as Jesus was teaching the people in the temple and preaching the gospel, the chief priests and the scribes with the elders came up and said to him, “Tell us by what authority you do these things, or who it is that gave you this authority.” He answered them, “I also will ask you a question. Now tell me, was the baptism of John from heaven or from man?” And they discussed it with one another, saying, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say, ‘Why did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘From man,’ all the people will stone us to death, for they are convinced that John was a prophet.” So they answered that they did not know where it came from. And Jesus said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.”

The first thing we need to notice is that Christ was preaching the Gospel.

A delegation from the chief priests and scribes interrupted him and asked him by what authority he did “these things”.

These men represented the Sanhedrin, the head of the “Church” for all intents and purposes.

Christ was preaching the Gospel of salvation and the authorities were only interested in Christ’s credentials to do “these things”.

They could have cared less about the Gospel message.

What they really want to know about was how Jesus thought He had the authority to overturn money tables and tell them how Temple operations should be handled.

The way Temple sacrifices worked at the time of Christ…

This delegation weren’t interested in learning anything from Christ.

They were two-faced in their questioning because they already had their answer.

Think of the political dialogue we’re all familiar with on TV shows today.

Questions are not asked so much to receive answers so much as to trap opponents.

Let me explain a bit about “authority” at the time of Christ.

It was universally accepted among Rabbis at the time that authoritative teaching required previous authorization.

All teaching had to be authoritative because it was approved by authority and handed down from teacher (rabbi) to student (disciple).

The ultimate appeal in any discussion was to some great authority, either an individual Teacher or a Decree by the Sanhedrin.

To teach or to decide contrary to established authority was either a sign of gross ignorance or a sign of rebellion.

In either case, you were to be visited with ‘the ban’ for putting out a shingle and teaching contrary to authority.

This is at least one aspect of the controversy here.

Nobody would have thought of haggling with what they called a Haggadist – a popular expositor, preacher, or teller of legends

But authoritatively to teach, required some sort of warrant.

There was regular ordination, called Semikhah, to the office of Rabbi, Elder, and Judge.

In Christ’s time these were not three offices but were combined into one.

A Rabbi was an Elder was a Judge.

There was no ordination outside of what the Sanhedrin conferred.

The presence of at least three ordained persons from the Sanhedrin was required to ordain a man and then, and only then, could He teach.

The bottom line is this:  at the time of Christ, no one would have thought to teach authoritatively without proper Rabinnic authorization from the Sanhedrin.

Think about it then.

Did the Sanhedrin know whether or not they had conferred Rabinnical authority on Christ?

Of course they knew they had not.

In their mind, Christ was coloring way outside the lines.

It explains, in great part, why they would not listen to a word He said because He had never been granted the right to teach by them.

Everybody knew that Christ had no authority to knock over tables or to teach unless the Sanhedrin granted it.

The question, therefore, was deceptive.

They were merely trying to get Christ to admit that no Commission of the Sanhedrin ordained Him.

Everyone present would then conclude, with them, that Christ was not a Rabbi and had no authority and should be ignored.

Their question was intended to expose Christ as a poser.

But Christ was not just any man.

He knew exactly what they were up to.

How did Christ respond?

He responded with a pointed question back to the delegation.

By what authority did John baptize?

Remember that, during John’s ministry a delegation had been sent by the Sanhedrin asking him about the authority he had to baptize.

J.C. Ryle notes this:

It may reasonably be doubted whether the importance of John the Baptist’s ministry is generally understood by Christians. The brightness of our Lord’s history overshadows the history of His forerunner, and the result is that John’s baptism and preaching do not receive the attention which they deserve. Yet it should never be forgotten, that the ministry of the Baptist was the only New Testament ministry foretold in the Old Testament, excepting that of Christ. It was a ministry which produced an immense effect on the Jewish mind, and aroused the expectation of Israel from one end of Palestine to the other. Above all, it was a ministry which made the Jews without excuse in their rejection of Christ, when Christ appeared. They could not say that they were taken by surprise when our Lord began to preach. Their minds had been thoroughly prepared for His appearing. To see the full sinfulness of the Jews, and the entire justice of the judgments which came on them after crucifying our Lord, we must remember the ministry of John the Baptist.Christ spoke of John and testified of him that he was the greatest prophet that Israel had in its history.


The greatest prophet of the Old Covenant had been in their midst.

Instead of coming to John to be baptized and to repent they had haggled with him as to why he was baptizing.

The greatest prophet in the Old Covenant had been in their midst and so Christ asked them plainly:  By what authority did John baptize?

The question was meant to expose a flaw in their thinking about the reality of authority.

They clearly did not believe John had the authority to baptize.


Because John hadn’t received his authority from them.

Uneducated men might have flocked to John but they knew better.

John was not acting according to the way they perceived reality and so he was ignored by them as an imposter.

They could stop their ears to everything John said without ever hearing him.

They were convinced that John, too, was an imposter.

But they knew the people held John to be a prophet.

And so they chickened out and said they didn’t know by what authority he baptized.

The doctors of the Church didn’t know?

They were the ultimate authority and they were ignorant of authority?

Men like these did not, therefore, deserve an answer from the Incarnate Son of God.

These men had hardened their hearts to the baptism of John.

These men had continually hardened their hearts to the ministry of Christ.

The rays of the sun were in blazing glory all around them but they clamped their eyes shut.

They said:  “We see nothing except what we authorize.  We see nothing except that what has been passed to us by our standards.  We know best.”

They could hear no voice but their own and so Christ refused to give them an answer.

They had forfeited the right to an explanation from the Son of God because they did not desire to be taught.

Some of you know that I grew up Roman Catholic.

A number of years ago, after my conversion to Christ through the writings of R.C. Sproul, I was in a conversation with a man from my former Church.

He was extolling the traditions of the Roman Catholic Church to me.

He noted that the Roman Catholic Church’s view of tradition was much like the Jews.

He thought, therefore, that Rome was in the strand of a grand tradition of how authority operates.

I thought with amazement that he could not see that his was precisely the problem the Pharisees and the Sanhedrin had in Christ’s day.

The similarities between the way in which the Scriptures can become obscured behind men’s traditions are strikingly similar.

Truth began to drift as doctrine was built not on the foundation of God’s Word but upon centuries of commentary on the Word.

Eventually men stopped looking to the Scriptures and the entire structure was built upon commentary.

The Scriptures must then be interpreted according to tradition instead of tradition giving way to Scripture.

Eventually the magisterium convinced itself that people should stay away from the Scriptures because it led them to error where error is defined as a departure from Church law.

Eventually the Church began to believe that its own pronouncements stood on equal footing with God’s own Word.

Indeed, the Word really fell under Church authority because it could only be used in support of what Church law had concluded.

Such a Church can hear no voice but its own.

But let us not pretend that we are immune from such error.

An even cursory reading of the Scriptures teaches us how prone our hearts are to wandering.

Within the life of Paul, he was concerned that the Church at Galatia had left a foundation he had laid for them in the Gospel.

Men quickly become conceited in their pride when they forsake the living Word for idols of their imagination.

Idolatry is not merely things we make with our hands but the ideas about God that we conceive in our minds..

We are foolish if we think it cannot happen to us.

Men who are entrusted to teach others are doubly damned if they teach others this same idolatry.

They are doubly damned when they replace the authority of God’s Word with their own.

We think too highly of ourselves if we imagine that the Sanhedrin and the Pharisees are some other species.

Surely I could never do such a thing.

I’m not a bad guy, I’m a good guy.

I love God.

I seek to obey His commandments.

This could never happen to me or my Church.

*Whenever you read a story in the Bible don’t look to see how you’re like the good guy but search your heart as to how you are just like those who oppose Christ.

In our time, we pray much for provision, for our success, and for an overthrow of the wicked around us.

But hear the prophet Amos as he testified to a prosperous nation:


Amos 4:6-12 (ESV)

Israel Has Not Returned to the Lord

          “I gave you cleanness of teeth in all your cities,

and lack of bread in all your places,

yet you did not return to me,”

declares the Lord.

          “I also withheld the rain from you

when there were yet three months to the harvest;

I would send rain on one city,

and send no rain on another city;

one field would have rain,

and the field on which it did not rain would wither;

          so two or three cities would wander to another city

to drink water, and would not be satisfied;

yet you did not return to me,”

declares the Lord.

          “I struck you with blight and mildew;

your many gardens and your vineyards,

your fig trees and your olive trees the locust devoured;

yet you did not return to me,”

declares the Lord.

10         “I sent among you a pestilence after the manner of Egypt;

I killed your young men with the sword,

and carried away your horses,

and I made the stench of your camp go up into your nostrils;

yet you did not return to me,”

declares the Lord.

11         “I overthrew some of you,

as when God overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah,

and you were as a brand plucked out of the burning;

yet you did not return to me,”

declares the Lord.

12         “Therefore thus I will do to you, O Israel;

because I will do this to you,

prepare to meet your God, O Israel!”


We suppose that the worst thing that can happen to us is the loss of everything good around us.

Loss of home.

Loss of employment.

Loss of an economy.

Loss of a nation.

But God testifies in His Word that He often sends these things to turn us from our idolatry.

These are not even remotely close to the worst thing that can happen to us.

The worst that can happen is prophesied later in Amos.

Amos 8:11 (ESV)

11         “Behold, the days are coming,” declares the Lord God,

“when I will send a famine on the land—

not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water,

but of hearing the words of the Lord.


Do you understand what Amos was prophesying?

The final judgment is not a loss of life, liberty, or the pursuit of happiness.

The final judgment of God is an inability to hear the Lord when He speaks in His Word!

This is like a punch in the gut for me.

That God would speak to us and we would be unable to hear.

That the living Word would be read in our midst and we could not hear what they speak to us.

That light would shine around us and we would be unable to see.

That the aroma of the Gospel would be around us and we would only smell the stench of death.

What good is it, beloved, if we gain the whole world and lose the ability to hear the living God?

Christ, save us all!

I don’t want you to walk out of here thinking that it’s because the Sanhedrin were learned men.

We’re called to study the Scriptures diligently.

We’re called to become mature in these things.

I also don’t want you to be deceived into thinking that one escapes this by rejecting the Church.

Christ Himself calls us into His Church.

Ephesians 4 makes clear that He gives us pastors and teachers that we may attain to the unity of the faith.

But we can so easily start to assume that we see clearly in our own hearts.

Perhaps some of you are bored right now.

Perhaps some of you know exactly what you wanted to hear.

Enough about sin and repentance already.

I’ve heard that before.

I’ve already got that filed away and understand it.

Enough of this stuff about hearing the Word.

I hear it every Sunday.

I’ve got more important things on my mind.

Beloved, we need to shake off this kind of thinking.

The living Word is penetrating us to our core and we need to come to attention before it.

We must fall again at the Savior’s feet and pray that He opens our ears.

We must never, never, never forget that it is Christ Who keeps us.

We begin by faith.

We begin by laying hold of Christ because we see our sin.

We see the sin that we rightly understand leads to our condemnation.

And so we turn way from our sin and look up to Christ and put our sin to death on a Cross.

We cling to Christ and believe that He has been resurrected from the dead.

We worship Christ because He has been testified to as the Son of God.

But this is not a self-generated effort.

This is not a mental exercise where we simply file away facts about Christ.

We must lay hold of Christ daily.

We must turn in faith daily.

We must pursue Christ and pray that He opens the Word to us.

Trust not your heart in your own strength.

Do not assume that your heart cannot lead you astray.

Do not assume that because, yesterday, you were excited about Christ that today is not a day to hear him anew.

Do not be satisfied with your zeal for Church attendance.

Do not be satisfied that you have been brought to Church by your parents.

Christ is placarded before you in His Word.

Do not walk away from here confident in your own strength.

Look up afresh at the Cross because Christ has given us eyes to see.

We are not secure because we belong to the right Church.

We are not secure because we believed once upon a time.

We are secure because all those who turn in faith to Christ are held tightly in His grip.

He knows His sheep and not one of them will be lost by the Good shepherd.

Christ has prayed for you even as He prayed in thanksgiving to His Father for the disciples of His day:

Matthew 11:25-28 (ESV)

25  “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; 26 yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. 27 All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. 28 Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.


Let us pray.