Three weeks ago, I listened to a talk by Dr. Richard Mouw and he was telling us about a time he was in a theological debate with a Muslim, a Buddhist, a priest and a rabbi. They had debated many topics and discussed the different approaches to life that each of their faiths represented. As the debate was wrapping up, each was asked about what makes them completely unique from the others. The others answered with some kind of moral platitude about being good and following their way of life. Mouw thought for a moment and decided to answer with a song. “My sin – oh the bliss of this glorious thought! My sin, not in part, but the whole, is nailed to the cross and I bear it no more. Praise the Lord, Praise the Lord! Oh my soul.” He said that quoting a song is not usually a good debate strategy but in this case it made the difference. No one else could say that. The debate was over and the clear case for Jesus alone was powerfully made.
In this next section of Mark we see Jesus as a masterful debater. It’s a wonder to see him debate with the Jewish leaders and put them in their place. But what is Jesus trying to get across to his listeners, his disciples and to us? Let’s read Mark 11:27-33.
Now remember the day before Jesus had been in the Temple and had cleared out the merchants and the money-changers. In doing so he had questioned and publically challenged the authority of the Jewish leaders who had officially endorsed the merchants being there. Previously the issue was about whose power Jesus was healing people with. Now Jesus has become an direct threat to their authority as a whole. So they demand to know by what authority he is challenging their authority.
This opposition to Jesus came from all the influential groups within Judaism. In fact, Jesus has this whole group in mind in the next section in the parable of the vineyard, which we will look at next week. That parable addresses these leaders who have rejected both John the Baptist and Jesus. These leaders who question Jesus are like the leaders of Israel throughout its history who had continually rejected God’s messengers, from the prophets to the Son.
So what is happening here? Jesus probably walking in one of the several porches of the Temple area when he was approached by representatives of the Jewish leaders. It is unlikely that the official Jewish high court would conduct a formal public inquiry. Still the fact that each of the three main leadership groups was represented indicates the alarm that Jesus’ teaching and actions brought to these leaders. The leaders ask Jesus about “these things.” This refers first of all to the tossing out of the merchants from the Temple courts. But they likely also have in mind the popular response to Jesus’ ministry.
But here, they are asking by what right does Jesus act with power within the Temple. Is it a right deriving from his own authority such as a prophet would have? Or by an authority grounded in the commission given to him by someone else. The leaders were concerned to learn why Jesus performed what appears to be an official act if he has no official status. Remember that in Mark, Jesus has not said openly that he was the Messiah or even a prophet. So part of their questioning is to do their job and find out what is going on under their area of responsibility; under whose authority did Jesus do what he did?
II. Jesus’ deep answer is given in verses 29-30.
First, be sure to pay attention to Jesus’ technique here. Answering a question with another question was a common technique used by rabbis, especially within the context of a debate. We saw this in Mark 10:2-3 when the Pharisees asked him about divorce and he responded by asking them, “What did Moses say?” What is distinctive here is that Jesus makes his answer depend entirely on theirs. Their decision about John the Baptist will determine their decision about Jesus. In fact, Jesus stakes his own authority entirely on that of John the Baptist.
His declaration of solidarity with John is really a statement about the current crisis with the Jewish leadership, which both John and Jesus had confronted. John and Jesus both stand in opposition to those who ignore the will of God. Already in his ministry John the Baptist had brought about a split between the people and their leaders by calling the Jewish leaders hypocrites. And that is what Jesus had done in the Temple and his ministry as well.
The question about John by Jesus allows only two possible conclusions regarding John. Either John was from God or he was from men. Either John was sent by God to bring his message of repentance. Or John was just another teacher that people happened to follow. Jesus is about to put the Jewish leaders in a box and show them his authority, like that of the baptism of John, is based in a commission directly from God.
III. Let’s look at Jesus’ debating skills in this question of authority in verses 31-33.
Jesus’ question presents a real conundrum for these leaders. In fact, Jesus’ question put his adversaries in an embarrassing situation. If they acknowledge John’s prophetic authority they would expose themselves to a charge of unbelief because they had opposed and ignored John. They also realized that they would be required to acknowledge that Jesus’ authority comes from God for John had said that Jesus was the Messiah.
The second sentence stops mid-sentence, “but if we say ‘from human origin...” It’s like you can hear their thinking, “But if we say this then we’re in trouble.” If they affirm John’s authority was from human beings and not from God, they will discredit themselves in the eyes of the people. And that might cause the people to turn against them in anger.
Both John and Jesus were regarded by the people as genuine prophets, and for this reason in both instances the authorities feared the people. Remember that this is why they didn’t arrest Jesus immediately after he cleansed the Temple earlier in Mark 11:18. They were in a tight spot from which they couldn’t escape.
So the spokesman for the group tried to evade the issue by saying, “We don’t know.” Here they are like children who get caught doing something wrong and who say, “I don’t know how the walls got painted with finger paints.” The leaders imply that they need more time in order to study it and then they could get back to Jesus. Like a denominational study committee, they wanted to buy some time to figure out a way out of this quandary.
Jesus, therefore, refused to answer their probing question and said, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.” The end result is that his authority not only remained firmly intact but was stronger than ever.
Jesus’ authority comes from a God-given powerful commission. And this authority is inseparable from the proclamation that the kingdom of God is now here. Jesus began his ministry by proclaiming in Mark 1:15: “The time has come. The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news.” Jesus has brought the new kingdom into a clear and powerful reality.
The time of the kingdom is still here now and Jesus still has his full authority. Do we accept the authority of Jesus in our lives? Before we quickly say, “Well yes, of course we do,” let’s think about this. Do we accept Jesus as the Lord of our lives completely?
Think of how you do your job. Is Jesus the Lord of your workplace? I’m not talking about if your workplace is Christian or does Christian things. Rather I’m talking about if you do your work with the clear understanding that Jesus is the Lord of your life in your workplace. Does the work you do reflect the values of the kingdom of God?
Is Jesus the Lord of your family and your relationships? Does your faith in Jesus shape how you relate to others in your life? Does it shape the decisions you make with others?
And here’s an even more difficult one: Is Jesus the Lord of your politics? Whether Democrat or Republican, do you make decisions on your political views based on what you think is right or wrong or what makes you comfortable? Or do you make decisions based on what Jesus has taught and wants us to do? Are you basing your hope or your despair on the rulers of the earth or on the King of heaven and earth?
Here is my challenge to Faith Church as you go forward: What will you be as you live under the authority of our Lord? Will our church be a cocker spaniel or a lion in our world? Let’s seek to be radical in how we live and what we say so that God may use us in whatever ways he chooses to further his powerful kingdom around us.