One day, as he was teaching the people in the temple and telling the good news, the chief priests and the scribes came with the elders and said to him, “Tell us, by what authority are you doing these things? Who is it who gave you this authority?” He answered them, “I will also ask you a question, and you tell me: Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” They discussed it with one another, saying, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say, ‘Why did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ all the people will stone us; for they are convinced that John was a prophet.” So they answered that they did not know where it came from. Then Jesus said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.”
After the entry into the city on Palm Sunday, Jesus came into the city each day that following week – a week we now celebrate as Holy Week – and taught in the temple. Sometimes, he would have taught in the colonnades of the temple courts, or in the courts; at other times he might have taught on what were called the “Teaching steps”. These were steps leading to gates in the retaining wall of the temple; these gates would have led into tunnel like ramps, like entering a stadium, leading up to the temple courts. When we visited Jerusalem last year, we sat on those same steps (unearthed only a few years ago by the archeologists), and Bishop Carter did the teaching.
But the chief priests and scribes came out, bringing along the elders to assert their authority, and asked him by what authority he was teaching – in the temple – and of course, “doing these things”, refers not just to his teaching but to his cleansing of the temple, sending Caiaphas money machine running! The authority for the temple was said to belong to the chief priest, Caiaphas; he was appointed by Rome. Jesus’ action of cleansing the temple was in defiance of both the religious authorities and Rome. And they would come together to kill him later that week! For now, the delegation asks, “Who is it who gave you this authority?”
As he often did, Jesus answered their question with a question, “Did the baptism of John come from heaven or was it of human origin?” The Pharisees and religious leaders had often tried to trap him with a question – now he turns the tables. You answer my question and then I will answer yours. But they see that his question as well is a trap – it never occurs to them to simply answer the question – they are looking at the political repercussions of their answer. If they say”from heaven”, he will ask why they did not follow his teachings. If they say human, the people will be up in arms, for they believed John to be a prophet. So they said, “We don’t know.”
Of course, Jesus knew all along that they would not answer the question! He caught them in their own snare. But every time he got the better of them, their anger grew. They never once opened their hearts and minds to see, that maybe John’s power was from God, or that maybe Jesus’ authority was much greater than that of the chief priest, or of Rome; Jesus’ authority was from, and of, God.
The attached pics are from Israel – the teaching steps today, and a model of ancient Jerusalem and the temple. In the first of the model you can see the two ramp openings in the temple courtyard; in the second you can see the two gates leading to those ramps, and before them the teaching steps.