23 And when he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came up to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” 24 Jesus answered them, “I also will ask you one question, and if you tell me the answer, then I also will tell you by what authority I do these things. 25 The baptism of John, from where did it come? From heaven or from man?” And they discussed it among themselves, saying, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ 26 But if we say, ‘From man,’ we are afraid of the crowd, for they all hold that John was ga prophet.” 27 So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.
By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?
The people asking this of Jesus represented the highest authority the land knew next to God. The Chief priests and the Elders made up the Sanhedrin, the great council. And they had not given Jesus the authority to do these things.
Of course we only have a little section here. What are these things that the Chief priests are asking about? Well, he drove out the money changers and those selling the sacrificial animals. That hurt. He healed the sick, the lame and the blind, and he allowed the toddlers and infants to praise him as the Son of David. At these things Matthew tells us they were indignant.
No one intervened when Jesus ran the money changers out, which is incredible enough. The Chief priests knew how unpopular they were, so they remained quiet and let it happen. They were afraid of the people. Perhaps, they thought that his authority came from popular support alone. If that was the truth then the trap they laid with their question might have worked. One could understand them asking about that, who gave him the authority to forbid what the highest authority in the land allowed, indeed what the highest authority gained their income from. They made a prophet charging rent for the space, a percentage on the exchange rate, a percentage on the animals sold. That hurt their pocket books.
But it is strange what makes them indignant. He heals people. By what authority do you give the blind sight? One wouldn’t think a person should even have to answer for that! You allow the lame to walk? How dare you! And this wasn’t a matter of anything occurring on a Sabbath when it was forbidden to work. It was the sheer audacity that he was able to do it at all. And the infants crying out that Jesus was the Son of David? Jesus answered them with a Psalm hinting that he was the Messiah.
This is what they are after. If Jesus would say out right that he was the Messiah, they would catch him in a trap. Instead they find themselves caught in the trap. Jesus asks them about the baptism of John. The Chief Priests don’t want to answer. They had rejected John, but the people knew he was a prophet. John had told them that the Messiah was coming, that the Kingdom was near. They had all gone to repent and hear him, and then wait for the Messiah to come. But this sort of answer couldn’t be used in a trial. Jesus had evaded the question. The Priest’s couldn’t answer him. The people knew John was a prophet. If they said he operated by man’s authority they would be stoned to death for blasphemy. But they had not gone to repent. They had not received John’s baptism of repentance. So they could not affirm that he was a prophet, it would be to condemn themselves and their own unrepentance. Because they had not recognized John they had not recognized the Messiah. Because they refused to bow before the Law as John preached it, they could not see the gospel that stood before them.
It’s a strange thing that the priests did not bow before the law. This wasn’t just a matter of them being liberals, cultured or educated. The Pharisees were conservative cultured and educated and they didn’t receive John’s baptism either. This was something deeper. This had to do with a whole different understanding of the law. Some believe the law is something that can be kept by sinful man if he tries hard enough. Some had understood that they had not kept the law, they were broken before it. For some it was the law, the creation, and not the law giver, the creator that had become their god. It is what they had put their trust in, and they were blind to the many ways they had broken the law, the many ways in which the law had betrayed their sinful flesh. Why should they submit to a baptism of repentance? They were not publicans. They were not harlots. They were not those who had been raised without the law like the soldiers that John also baptized. To join in a baptism with them would be to make themselves equal with the likes of these sinners who needed repentance. They thought they had managed to keep it, they were above it.
Of course, that was the stinging accusation behind all he overturned tables and spilled coinage in the temple square. These men who profited off the piety of the poor, who turned the temple from a house of prayer into a den of thieves. These men who stood before the altar to sacrifice what they sold, were as unclean as the publicans and the girls they employed on a Saturday night.
It’s the same today. There are those who think the law can be kept with just a bit more effort. There are those who have allowed the law to become their idol. They trust in it. They think it will set them free. They stake their lives on it. Perhaps they needed forgiveness once or twice. But now they are better, now they are obedient. Some think therefore they are too good for church. They don’t need it to be good. Some go to church as a matter of keeping the law. And by keeping the law, they keep God at bay. They have no need of forgiveness. They do not recognize the authority of Jesus to do these things, and the things that he does they think are blasphemous, they think they have become our idols they can’t believe that we should think our salvation, the forgiveness of sins can be given in such things.
But we have a priest whose authority is higher than that of the chief priests. We have a priest by the order of Melchizedek. He was not above the law, but subjected himself to it. First when he was eight days old and the knife cut into the most tender flesh. Then when he fulfilled all righteousness and was baptized with publicans and harlots, though he had no sin. It was love that compelled him. Love is the highest of the laws. It was the law that the priests, the rabbis, the scribes, the Pharisees and the Sadducees could not fulfill. It was the law that the publicans broke, and the harlots sold. It is what makes sinful flesh incapable of fulfilling the law. But it is what compelled Christ to finally die on the cross for you. His love. His love for you fulfilled the law with his blood that we could be saved by grace through his word, that the righteousness of John’s baptism would be fulfilled by his love.
So he baptizes us, not with John’s baptism but with his own death and resurrection, a circumcision not made with hands, but which puts off the sinful flesh, and restores us to love through his love. So he feeds us with his love in a feast of forgiveness, and receiving his forgiveness, by kneeling here at this altar and receiving the benefit of the sacrifice our priest made in his house of prayer, here we, here we acknowledge our sin and bow before the law, even the law that John preached that we may recognize a greater presence, even our Lord Jesus Christ who flips over the money changing tables in our hearts, who drives out all the beasts the law requires for sacrifice to say I and I alone am needed, and then he purifies your heart that you would be his temple, no longer a den of thieves, but once again a house of prayer filled with love.
Now the peace of God that surpasses all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.