“One day, as Jesus was teaching the people in the temple and preaching the gospel, the chief priests and the scribes with the elders came up 2 and said to him, “Tell us by what authority you do these things, or who it is that gave you this authority.” 3 He answered them, “I also will ask you a question. Now tell me, 4 was the baptism of John from heaven or from man?” 5 And they discussed it with one another, saying, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say, ‘Why did you not believe him?’ 6 But if we say, ‘From man,’ all the people will stone us to death, for they are convinced that John was a prophet.” 7 So they answered that they did not know where it came from. 8 And Jesus said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.”(Luke 20:1-8)
“Was the baptism of John from heaven or from man?” Jesus smartly answers their question with another question.
The chief priests, the elders, and the scribes they are all trying to indirectly ascertain who Jesus is. They don’t want to come out and ask him if he is the messiah directly. That is too hot a question to be asked directly. It would feed into the feverish frenzy the people are already experiencing. So they ask by what authority, by what power Jesus does these things, teaches what he teaches, drives out money changers and so on. They hope to trap him. But they feel powerless to stop him. The people support him, no one dares to stop him.
Instead Jesus traps them. His question turns the tables on them. The people knew that John was a prophet, that his baptism came from heaven. But the scribes, the elders the priests, they didn’t want to answer, nothing they said could come out right for them. The only expedient thing they could do was say “we don’t know.” But saying “we don’t know”, they showed they were incompetent to judge between heaven and hell, between what was from God and what wasn’t.
It won’t stop them though, and they will find themselves on the wrong end of it.