Commentary on Matthew 21: 23-27 by Dr. Knox Chamblin the question of authority. 21: 23-27. I. Introduction

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Commentary on Matthew 21:23-27

by Dr. Knox Chamblin
"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).
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.
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 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.).

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