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Jesus' Authority Questioned (Mark 11:27-33)

Analysis and Commentary

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Jesus Teaches in the Temple

Jesus Teaches in the Temple

    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.
    Compare: Matthew 21:23-27; Luke 20:1-8

Where Does Jesus’ Authority Come From?

After Jesus explains to his disciples the meaning behind his cursing of the fig tree and cleansing of the Temple, the entire group returns yet again to Jerusalem (this is his third entry now) where they are met at the Temple by the highest authorities there. By this point they have gotten tired of his shenanigans and have decided to confront him and challenge the basis on which he has been saying and doing so many subversive things.

The situation here is similar to events that occurred in Mark 2 and 3, but whereas earlier Jesus was challenged by others for the things he was doing, now he is being challenged primarily for the things he has been saying. The people challenging Jesus were predicted back in chapter 8: “the Son of man must suffer many things, and be rejected of the elders, and of the chief priests, and scribes.” They are not the Pharisees who had been Jesus’ opponents all through his ministry up to this point.

The context in this chapter suggests that they are concerned with his cleansing of the Temple, but it’s also possible that Mark has in mind preaching that Jesus could have done in and around Jerusalem. We aren’t given enough information to be sure.

It appears that the purpose of the question posed to Jesus was that the authorities were hoping to trap him. If he claimed that his authority came directly from God they might be able to accuse him of blasphemy; if he claimed that the authority came from himself, they might be able to ridicule him and make him appear foolish.

Instead of simply answering them directly, Jesus responds with a question of his own — and a very curious one, too. Until this point not much has been made of John the Baptist or any kind of ministry that he might have had. John has served only a literary role for Mark: he introduced Jesus and his fate is described as one that foreshadowed Jesus’ own.

Now, however, John is referred to in a way that suggests that the Temple authorities would have known about him and his popularity — in particular, that he was counted as a prophet among the people, just like Jesus seems to be.

This is the source of their conundrum and the reason for responding with a counterquestion: if they admit that John’s authority came from heaven, then they would have to allow the same for Jesus, but at the same time be in trouble for not having welcomed him. If, however, they assert that John’s authority came only from man then they can continue to attack Jesus, but they will be in a lot of trouble due to John’s great popularity.

Mark has the authorities answer in the only way left open, which is to plead ignorance. This allows Jesus to refuse any direct answer to them as well. While this initially appears to result in a stalemate, Mark’s audience is supposed to read this as a victory for Jesus: he makes the Temple authorities appear weak and ridiculous while at the same time sending the message that Jesus’ authority comes from God just like John’s did. Those with faith in Jesus will recognize him for who he is; those without faith never will, no matter what they are told.

The audience will, after all, remember that at his baptism, a voice from heaven said “Thou art my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” It’s not clear from the text of chapter one that anyone else but Jesus heard this announcement, but the audience certainly did and the story is ultimately for them.

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