Matthew 21:23-27: Authority of Jesus
Parallel passages: Mark 11:27-33; Luke 20:1-8
The chief priests and elders claim the right of final judges of Scripture and God’s will and had the authority to question the prophets. Preachers or prophets had to be ordained to teach with authority, and Jesus taught as one who had authority, but he was not an official priest or have scribal authority. They ask how he has authority to do “these things,” very likely referring to the Temple cleansing (21:12-13), his authority to heal (21:14-16), and his authorization to teach and preach in the temple (21:23). Now this? At the end of three years of ministry? They wait until He comes to them on their turf. It shows their cowardice, irresponsibility, and unbelief.
Jesus asked a question they were afraid to answer and exposes their hypocrisy. If they had any real authority, they would have spoken boldly – as Jesus did. Their weak answer showed they had no real spiritual authority at all.
Jesus is saying, “John pointed to Me. What do you think of his prophetic ministry? You have authority to rule on it.” Their answer says they cannot tell what a real prophet looks like. Jesus beats them at their own game. He treats with their familiar style of halakah of rabbinical debate: a hostile question, a counter question, admission, and final rejoinder.
Jesus does not avoid their question but rather answers it and shows their own cowardice at the same time. Edersheim: “The point in our Lord’s reply seems to have been strangely overlooked by commentators. . . . He did answer their question, though He also exposed the cunning an cowardice which prompted it. To the challenge for His authority, and the dark hint about Satanic agency, He replied by an appeal the Baptist. He had borne full witness to the Mission of Christ from the Father, and ‘all men counted John, that he was a prophet indeed.’ Were they satisfied? What was their view of the Baptism in preparation for the Coming of Christ? No? They would not, or could not, answer! If they said that Baptist was a prophet, this implied not only the authorization of the Mission Jesus, but the call to believe on Him. On the other hand, they were afraid publicly to disown John! And so their cunning and cowardice stood out self-condemned, when they pleaded ignorance – a plea so grossly and manifestly dishonest, that Christ, having given what all must have felt to be a complete answer, could refuse further discussion with them on this point.”