Saturday, August 11, 2018

How Jesus handles a question about His authority



27 And they come again to Jerusalem: and as he was walking in the temple, there come to him the chief priests, and the scribes, and the elders,
28 And say unto him, By what authority doest thou these things? and who gave thee this authority to do these things?
29 And Jesus answered and said unto them, I will also ask of you one question, and answer me, and I will tell you by what authority I do these things.
30 The baptism of John, was it from heaven, or of men? answer me.
31 And they reasoned with themselves, saying, If we shall say, From heaven; he will say, Why then did ye not believe him?
32 But if we shall say, Of men; they feared the people: for all men counted John, that he was a prophet indeed.
33 And they answered and said unto Jesus, We cannot tell. And Jesus answering saith unto them, Neither do I tell you by what authority I do these things. (Mark 11:27-33)

Many commentators like to go into great depth about the trap laid for Jesus in their question. They also usually point to Jesus’s counter-question as a brilliant defense by which He puts them all in their place.

Yet something about it struck me as odd. I began to wonder what we are supposed to learn from this incident that can help us. Are we to learn that Jesus can unequivocally win arguments and devastate the opposition? Is winning the argument His goal?  Does this help us in our conversations about the gospel? 

It seems to me that when faced with a question about His authority, Jesus’s major goal would be persuading someone to recognize His power to redeem. The question in His mind would be, If I tell you, will you acknowledge my authority and allow me to save you? He might want to know if they were asking sincerely or out of bad faith. Because He wants to save everyone, He has to assume sincerity until they prove bad faith. 

He asks a question to learn from them. I see this incident as instance in which Christ demonstrated His meekness and lowliness of heart. He didn’t ask, “Why do you want to know?” He asked whether they thought John’s baptism was from heaven or of men. His question is meant to discern their level of sincerity and belief. He knew their ability to respond positively to a prophet in their day would determine their ability to respond to the Messiah. 

It is interesting that the reasoning of the chief priests, scribes, and elders was captured in the record in verses 31-32. (As an exercise, just try reading the account without that reasoning inserted, and you’ll see how it might have looked to everyone else who wasn’t privy to the motivation coloring the answer of those leaders.)

Their reasoning indicates that they thought His question was a trap. This was pure projection on their part. They thought Jesus was doing to them what they were trying to do to Him. If they had been sincere, they might have seen His question for what it really was. And I hardly think they’d want such a blatantly self-interested politically-obsessed thought process to get about, but someone overheard, and now it is memorialized for all time. 

Since they claimed they couldn’t tell whether John’s baptism was from heaven or men, Jesus knew then that they’d be similarly obtuse in public about Jesus’s authority. He probably said to Himself, I can’t do anything with people who ‘can’t tell,’ when it’s so obvious, so I guess I can’t tell them anything about my authority either because they won’t get it. And He wouldn’t push His authority on them; He wouldn’t want to condemn them so quickly. He’d want to give them more time in hopes that He could save them later.

One thing I learn from this incident is that Jesus chooses whether to answer a question based upon the receptiveness of the hearer. Even though those leaders thought they were saving face by refusing to commit, they actually disqualified themselves from receiving a real answer. Seeming wishy-washy or obtuse marked them as having spiritual problems, even if they concealed for a time that their problem was outright hostility. It is particularly sad that these were chief priests, scribes, and elders, men who should have been most spiritually mature and receptive.

Jesus’s test question is still a good one for today. How we respond to a modern prophet determines how receptive we’d be to Jesus Himself. If we ‘can’t tell’ if a modern prophet is from God, when his goodness has been demonstrated over years, then our ability to receive revelation is diminished. On the positive side, if we respond to the modern prophet and apostles, we will be receptive to revelation and receptive to Jesus Himself.

I also think that Jesus’s willingness to take time and ask questions of the questioner to gauge where they were at is a good pattern to follow in gospel conversations. If people ask us questions about the church or the gospel, maybe it would be wise to first take time to ask them questions about what experiences have brought them to us or what they believe so that we can better meet them where they are spiritually.