|Commentary on Matthew 21:23-27
by Dr. Knox Chamblin
THE QUESTION OF AUTHORITY. 21:23-27.
"Between 21:23 and 22:46 there are recorded five controversies between Jesus and the
authorities of Israel's religion. They are presented in the form of question and answer, a
method used in connection with controversy material in the Talmud" (Hill, Matthew,
296). The other four occur in 22:15-46. Confronting and opposing Jesus in one or more
of these controversies, are all elements of the nation's religious and secular leadership,
namely the chief priests (controversy no. 1), the elders (no. 1), the Pharisees (nos. 2, 4
and 5), the Herodians (no. 2), and the Sadducees (no. 3).
II. THE OPENING QUESTION. 21:23.
A. The Questioners.
Jesus is questioned by "the chief priests and the elders of the people" (Mk 11:27 includes
"the teachers of the law" as well). The chief priests were "high functionaries of the
Temple, former high priests [the term used here, archiereus, is used of Caiaphas in 26:3],
and members of priestly families - mostly Sadduceean" (Hill, 296). The elders were "in
this case probably nonpriestly members of the Sanhedrin, heads of the most influential
lay families" (Carson, 447, following Jeremias, Jerusalem, 222-32, on "the lay nobility").
It is not at all surprising to find chief priests and elders working in concert (see Appendix
B. The Question.
They ask, "By what authority are you doing these things? And who gave you this
authority?" This twofold question (the nature of the authority depends on its source)
embraces several things (note the plural "these things," tauta): Jesus' teaching ("while he
was teaching," v. 23a), his healing miracles (v. 14), and his cleansing of the temple (vv. -
12-13). It is (I believe) especially this last event that is in view; for the questioners are
both directly involved in the workings of the temple and also very concerned about its
stability and survival (cf. again Appendix A., on the Sadduceean and the lay view about
the seat of power). Note that the "chief priests" were also among those who (on the
preceding day) became indignant over Jesus' responses to the blind, the lame, and the
children, while in the temple (v. 15).
C. The Motive.
Jesus prophesied that his suffering and death would come about at the hands of "the chief
priests and the elders" (16:21; 20:18). Yet this (21:23) is the first time that either group
has directly confronted him; here they do so together. As there is no prior reference in
Mt to their antagonism toward Jesus, we shall have to depend on the present passage for
glimpses into their attitude toward him and into their motives for asking the question.
From one standpoint the question is legitimate: "The Sanhedrin was concerned to learn
why Jesus [in cleansing the temple] performed what appears to be an official act if he
possesses no official status" (Lane, Mark, 413). Whether there are more hostile or
sinister motives lurking beneath the surface, we shall have to see.
III. THE ENSUING DIALOGUE. 21:24-27.
A. Jesus' Question. 21:25.
Jesus hereby does three things: (1) He makes explicit the fundamental question
concerning the source of authority, namely whether it is divine or human. (Were the
questioners implying the same thing? or were they more concerned to learn whether Jesus
had received the proper human authorization? See below.) (2) By drawing attention to
John the Baptist, he implies that the source of John's authority is the source of his as
well. (3) Thus he further implies that anyone who correctly identifies the source of
John's authority (and therefore of his baptism) will thereby identify the source of Jesus' as
B. The Effects.
Jesus brings to light his interrogators' true condition.
1. Their pragmatism. Astonishingly, they admit that they are "afraid of the
people" (v. 26). This admission reveals something else, namely their belief that John was
nothing more than self-authorized. While the people "hold that John was a prophet," they
do not; but they refuse to say so, because they fear the people. "That the Jewish leaders
admit to themselves their policy of political expedience intensifies their guilt" (Gundry,
2. Their unbelief. By their own admission, they "did not believe" John (v. 25).
Why should they? For in their eyes his authority is merely human and merely private -
whereas theirs is corporate and divine (cf. comments on 15:1-9). Their failure to believe
John, reveals in turn their failure to believe Jesus; believing the one would lead inevitably
(it is implied) to believing the other (cf. comments on 11:7-19). It is interesting, in view
of the leaders' present indignation over Jesus' ministry to the common people (vv. 14-15),
to observe the same division in Mt 3: whereas ordinary Israelites confess their sins and
receive John's baptism (3:5-6), the Pharisees and Sadducees are the objects of the
Baptist's scathing denunciation (vv. 7-10).
3. Their imperception. Their unbelief rests on a failure to perceive the divine
authority that underlies the ministries of both John and Jesus. This helps to explain Jesus'
response. If the questioners recognize the source of John's authority, they will surely
recognize the source of his own. But the chief priests and elders, having witnessed the
ministries of John and Jesus, have nevertheless failed to recognize that God has
authorized both. This means that even if Jesus had answered the question of v. 23 with
the words "God authorized me," the questioners would have been no closer to faith. That
kind of answer would simply provide the occasion for more skepticism ("How do we
know that God sent you?") for persons who find it necessary to raise the question of v. 23
in the first place. Bruce comments: "If spiritual authority...is not recognized as
self-authenticating, no amount of argument, not even a sign from heaven (cf. 12:38;
16:1) will validate it" (Matthew, 69, emphasis mine). Cf. WCOF, Ch. 1, sec. V., on the
self-authenticating character of Holy Scripture by virtue of the work of the Holy Spirit.
4. Their hostility. The questioners' attitude toward John, reveals their attitude
toward Jesus. To their minds both John and Jesus are self-authorized. I conclude from
the foregoing three considerations that the question of v. 23 conceals a hostile intent and
a desire to trap Jesus into self-betrayal. (This conclusion gains support from the Markan
parallel. According to Mk 11:27 "the teachers of the law" join the others in questioning
Jesus. We know from Mt that these "scribes" have already demonstrated a suspicion and
growing antipathy toward Jesus: cf. Mt 9:3; 12:38; 15:1.) By prodding Jesus into an
open admission that God has authorized him, the questioners seek to expose the absurdity
of his claim. For how (they reason) could God possibly authorize such a person to take
the action of Mt 21:12-13? Not only does he lack priestly credentials. He has already
shown himself to be the enemy of the Law. The hostility that Jesus exposes, will
continue to build until it comes to final expression in the crucifixion (16:21; 20:18;
21:45-46; 26:3-4 etc.).