I could title this study something like, “Who’s the Boss?” for, fundamentally, that is what the religious leaders were asking. Jesus’ non-answer gave the answer: Jesus is. Christians need to remember this. Non-Christians need to know this. Everyone needs to submit to this. Jesus is Lord. That means he is the boss. Whether you realise it or not, he is your boss.
I recently had opportunity to attend a pastors’ fraternal at a sister church. The pastor introduced the fraternal with a little bit of introduction to the church. He said, “We have been consistently teaching these distinctives: expository preaching, biblical leadership, congregational involvement, believer’s baptism, lordship salvation and the doctrines of grace.”
What struck me was the mention of “lordship salvation.” I appreciated the boldness for the biblical teaching of lordship salvation has invited a whole lot of criticism, name-calling, fraternal excommunication, and even church splits.
Lordship salvation is simply the biblical teaching that, when we are born again, we embrace Jesus Christ as Lord when we embrace him as Saviour.
This should not be controversial, though it has been. John MacArthur stumbled headlong into controversy over this matter when he wrote, The Gospel According to Jesus in the late 1980s. It did not strike me as controversial. It struck me as being what the Bible clearly teaches. But it was a theological shot heard around the world.
Why was there so much controversy, and why at that particular point of church history? Perhaps primarily because of a worldview that had gained ascendancy in the West during the 1960s. Namely, open rebellion against authority.
In the 1960s, anti-establishment protests took place in the United States, the United Kingdom, and elsewhere. There was a subtle, and sometimes not-so-subtle, shift from parental authority in the writings of popular figures like Dr Spock.
As a sceptical and cynical mindset grew towards authority, many churches became infected with this ideological disease and subsequently lost their conviction about the clear word of the Lord as found in Scripture. With that, these churches began to lose their grip on the gospel. Jesus became the panacea for all of our ills. He was seen as a Saviour; one with a therapeutic rather than a transformative concern—even a Saviour we were entitled to—but not necessarily a Saviour with the right to tell us what to do. Jesus as our lover replaced the idea of Jesus as our Lord—with tragic results.
There seemed to be a sudden spike in false professions of faith and stunted spiritual growth, deeply inconsistent with Christian living. This resulted in weakened churches.
Of course ever since the fall in Eden, man as sinner has resisted divine authority. Fallen, sinful humanity rejects the lordship of its Creator. Having fallen for the lies of the devil, we desire to be our own lord. We want to call the shots. In our commitment to our autonomy (self-rule, self-law), we resist those who interfere with this, including Jesus.
In our saner moments, we realise we need help. We realise we have problems, even the problem of a breakdown in our relationship with God. So we are grateful for a Messiah who will reconcile us to God. We are grateful for a Saviour who will die for our sins and who will rise again from the dead for our justification bringing about our reconciliation with God. But the offence arises when this Saviour tells us what to do. “Jesus, I appreciate you dying for my sins. I am grateful that you bore the wrath of God so that I would not. I am thankful that you rescued me from eternal condemnation giving me eternal life. I will praise you for this. I will sing about this. I will ‘Amen!’ this. But when it comes to telling me how to live, well, I can do just fine on my own, thank you very much.”
Again, this has always been a sin problem, though at certain points in history it has been particularly evident—like in Jesus’ day. We have an example of this in the text before us.
As we examine these verses, I trust we will clearly see the authority of Jesus. Christians, we need to constantly keep this truth before us. Without this understanding we will fail as disciples as we fail to follow Jesus as he commands. Without this conviction our church will be weakened.
Non-Christian, the authority of Jesus is fundamental to a proper understanding of his identity. Once you submissively see this, his marvellous and amazing saving benefits can be yours. As one contemporary pastor has written, the lesson of this passage is that “you will not truly confess Jesus as the Christ until you are willing to bow to his authority as your Saviour, Lord and Teacher” (Ferguson). May today be the day when you bow to him. It will change you, forever.
The Boldness of Jesus
The text opens by highlighting Jesus’ boldness. Mark tells us that Jesus and his disciples “came again to Jerusalem” and that “he was walking in the temple” (v. 27). Almost carefree, he returned to the very place where he had raised most tensions.
Someone has written that “cowardly leaders struggle to give clear direction because clear direction means there is a course of action.” Jesus was no coward. He was committed to a divinely appointed course of action. For this reason, he was in Jerusalem “again” (v. 27), where he would finish his work determined before the foundation of the world.
Jesus had wept outside Jerusalem’s walls prior to his entrance (see Luke 19:41–44). We have seen why. The worship of God had become corrupted. The sacrificial system, prescribed by God, had become commercialised and compromised and therefore, like the fig tree (vv. 12–14), it needed to be cursed.
Tragically, the temple, which God had intended to be a house of prayer for all nations, was not fulfilling this purpose. In fact, the Gentiles were being hindered from access. The Court of the Gentiles was cluttered with those who were peddling sacrifices. Further, it was being used as a shortcut by the Jews through the temple. In a hurry for “worship,” other worshippers were being hindered in their worship. And the main culprits were the religious leaders.
The chief priests lined their pockets with the profiteering from the vendors in the temple. Those entrusted as mediators between God and men were blocking the way to God. Those entrusted with the responsibility to lead, feed, and give heed to God’s people were like the pathetic shepherds denounced in Jeremiah 23:1–4, 9–40 and Ezekiel 34:1–10. No wonder Jesus wept. He wept over the spiritual condition of the nation of Israel; he wept over the judgement that would befall them (see Mark 13).
It is within this context that “now for the first time, in the temple and before the Sanhedrin—in the most authoritative place and before the most authoritative body in Israel—Jesus opens a window of understanding into his own authority” (Edwards).
Though representatives from the Sanhedrin challenged Jesus’ authority, the opening words of the passage—“and they came again to Jerusalem”—place the authority of Jesus front and centre. After all, in the light of events over the past 48 hours, this was a bold, and authoritative move.
From the opening of Mark’s Gospel, the authority of Jesus has been revealed time and again. We saw his authority in his heavenly commendation at his baptism (1:1–11). We saw his authority in his victory over Satanic temptation (1:12–13). We saw his authority in his authoritative proclamation of the kingdom of God (1:14–15). We saw his authority in his authoritative call of the disciples (1:16–20; 3:13–21). We saw his authority in his exorcism of demons (1: 21–26). We saw his authority in his authoritative teaching (1:27–28). We saw his authority in his healings (1:29–34). We saw his authority in his authoritative claim to forgive sins (2:1–12). We saw his authority in his authoritative claim to be Lord of the Sabbath (2:23–28). We saw his authority in his authoritative claim to be the stronger man (3:22–30). We saw his authority in his demonstrated authority over sea and storms (4:35–41). We saw his authority in his authoritative commissioning the disciples (6:7–13). We saw his authority in his miracles, demonstrating his authority over creation (6:30–52; 8:1–10). We saw his authority in his authoritative teaching overthrowing tradition (7:1–13; 8:14–21; 10:1–12). We saw his authority in his authoritative breaking the social and demographic barriers (7:24–30). We saw his authority in his revelation and confirmation of his true identity (8:27–30; 9:1–13). We saw his authority in his prophetic pronouncements (8:31; 9:31; 10:33). We saw his authority in his authoritative claim that he is worth leaving all (10:17–31). We saw his authority in his acceptance of the disciple’s acknowledgement he is King (10:35–45). We saw his authority in his acceptance of the title “Son of David” (10:46–52; 11:1–10). We saw his authority in his cleansing the temple (11:15–19). We saw his authority in his authoritative teaching about faith, forgiveness, and prayer (11:20–26).
If you consider the other Gospel accounts, over thirty times Jesus used the authoritative phrase, “Truly, truly, I say to you.” In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus repeatedly said, in direct refutation of the corrupt spiritual leaders, “You have heard it said, but I say unto you.” It has been noted by many that Jesus never quoted anyone. In fact, every time he spoke it was with “red letters.”
The point we need to see, and to submit to, is that Jesus has all authority. That is both terrifying and comforting.
A Terrifying Truth
Jesus is God; we are not. Jesus is sinless; we are not. Jesus is perfect; we have a problem (see Luke 5:8). The disciples recognised this truth with fear when they witnessed him calming the storm (Mark 4:41).
Fear is a fairly common theme in Mark (4:41; 5:15, 33, 36; 6:50; 9:32; 10:32; 11:18, 32; 12:12; 16:8). There is legitimate, even necessary, fear we need to have when confronted with the authority of Jesus. He determines our destiny.
A Comforting Truth
The same authority that strikes fear into our hearts also dispels that fear. John Newton put it this way: “’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved.” Jesus has the authority, not only to condemn us—because he is Lord—but also to save us. He has authority to say “condemned” and authority to say “there is therefore no condemnation.”
Though the reader is aware of these manifestations and even declarations of Jesus’ authority, not everyone was exposed to all of this. But word had spread far and wide over the course of Jesus’ ministry, resulting in the religious leaders being on high alert (see 3:22; 8:11–13).
The most recent events—him being hailed as King outside Jerusalem and especially him confronting the corruptions in the temple—brought their concerns to the forefront. The last straw had broken the camel’s back and something needed to be done. This brings us to the second point.
The Belligerence of Unbelief
The religious leaders responded to Jesus’ authority with belligerent unbelief: “The chief priests and the scribes and the elders came to him, and they said to him, ‘By what authority are you doing these things, or who gave you this authority to do them?’” (vv. 27b–28).
What was the issue? Jesus had a demeanour of moral authority precisely because he was so moral. He was perfectly moral—perfect in every way—and such sinless perfection makes sinners, at least initially, very uncomfortable.
Sinners who refuse to see that they are sinners, who need a Saviour, often respond like these religious leaders: with hostility rather than humility.
The status quo has been challenged and those with status—the Sanhedrin, an authoritative group of 71 religious leaders—were miffed.
These are the very ones whom Jesus had foretold would oppose him, arrest him, andkill him (8:31; 9:31; 10:33). The fundamental issue is the authority of Jesus, which was an authority that delegitimised their own by exposing their corruptions, exposing their dereliction of duty, and, ultimately, by exposing their hypocritical ungodliness. This is all on display in this brief yet revealing scene.
We might ask, why this line of questioning? Why not simply arrest him as a troublemaker? Because the people held him in high regard. The people acknowledged his authority. So to directly assail him would possibly incite a riot, which would get them in trouble with Rome. These leaders therefore needed to keep things under control (11:18).
The question they asked Jesus was not from honest, humble enquiry. Rather it stemmed from an arrogant, rebellious, self-preserving motive to guard their position. They didn’t care about God. They didn’t care about God’s people. They didn’t care about the fame of God’s name among the nations. They cared only about being exposed. They cared about losing their privileged position, which they had become accustomed to abusing (see 12:38–40). They therefore had one design: “Their hope was that by his answer Jesus would be brought into disrepute with the people and thereby clear the way for their arresting him” (Wessels).
These who had no moral authority were confronting to condemn the one who had all authority. Corrupt subjects dared to question the rights of the glorious King. No wonder Jesus wept.
Like many throughout the history of the church, this group of people were not looking for reasons to believe Christ; they were looking for reasons to criticise, gripe, and disbelieve him. The fundamental problem was resentment of his authority. They resented his lordship. They resented the very thing they needed!
This can be a problem even in the church. When members practically reject the lordship of Jesus, they make themselves the boss.
This was the problem, for example, with Diotrephes in 3 John. Diotrephes exalted himself and the fallout was great: discouraged ministers and, more significantly, a hindered mission.
Much damage is done when church members reject the clear word of God. Just ask the church of Jerusalem (Acts 5). Just ask Pau (see Titus 1:9–11; 2 Timothy 4:14–15). Ask Jude (Jude 3–4). Non-Christian don’t continue to reject the Lord Jesus Christ. Confess that you make a lousy lord. Repent and call upon the name of the Lord. Bow the knee before it is too late.
Jesus Exposes their Belligerence
Jesus would not allow their belligerence to go unexposed:
Jesus said to them, “I will ask you one question; answer me, and I will tell you by what authority I do these things. Was the baptism of John from heaven or from man? Answer me.” And they discussed it with one another, saying, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ But shall we say, ‘From man’?”—they were afraid of the people, for they all held that John really was a prophet. So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And Jesus said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.”
Jesus provided us with a great example of how to deal with scoffers: directly (because they are not looking for the truth) but rather in a way that forces them to deal with the issue at hand.
Jesus boldly answered their question with another question. This was not the first time he had done so (10:1ff) and it would be the last. In the case before us, Jesus’ “counter-question is evidence of the very authority about which he is questioned” (Edwards).
Jesus’ answer confronted them with the stupendous truth that he was the predicted Messiah. He was the one whom Malachi prophesied who would “suddenly come to his temple” (Malachi 3:1). This was literally coming to pass before their very eyes. The one with authority over the temple had come, just as John the Baptist proclaimed. By correctly answering Jesus’ question, these leaders would have answered their own question. Tragically, they refused to do so.
The reference to John the Baptist was not merely a debating strategy. Rather, it was a brilliant means of confronting these so-called scriptural experts with the word of God and its very fulfilment. I like how Robertson describes this scene: “It was not a dodge, but a home thrust that cleared the air and defined their attitude both to John and Jesus. They rejected John as they now reject Jesus.”
But further, and instructive for us, Jesus’ response was also a gracious means to offer them the salvation he came to give. Cole notes, “The question of Jesus to them was not a trap; it was yet another opportunity for them to realize and confess their blindness, and to ask for sight.”
Jesus’ reference to John’s baptism itself was testimony to Jesus’ authority. John pointed out to those who would listen that Jesus was the Lamb of God, which takes away the sin of the world. John made the point that he was unworthy to baptise Jesus. In fact, because of the kind of baptism John was pronouncing, he saw no need for the sinless Saviour to be baptised. What did Jesus have to repent of? Further, it was at this baptism that the voice from heaven pronounced divine approval.
Again, Jesus’ reference to John’s baptism was weighted with significance. John was the forerunner of Messiah. To accept John’s message as from God was to accept Jesus as being from God. As MacArthur puts it, “It’s a package deal. You can’t take John without Jesus. And you can’t throw away Jesus without throwing away John.”
France observes, “If they accept John’s authority, they must also accept his as greater.” Ferguson comments, “Jesus himself had been recognised and baptised by John as the Messiah! To acknowledge that John’s baptism was God-ordained would be to confess that Jesus was the Christ!” Calvin adds:
We now see that Christ employed no cunning stratagem in order to escape, but fully and perfectly answered the question which had been proposed; for it was impossible to acknowledge that John was a servant of God, without acknowledging that he was Himself the Lord.
How would these men respond? How will you respond?
Their Response was Fearful
To answer truthfully would be to undermine their murderous intentions. But denying the heavenly authorisation of John’s ministry would put them at odds with the populace. Like many politicians throughout history, they were controlled by the polls. Like many, rather than considering whether this was true or false, they considered what was safe and unsafe. Their choice for temporary safety put them in grave eternal danger.
They chose to lie. They lied to the Son of God. They lied to the second person of the Godhead. Yes, rather than submit to the authority of Jesus, they lied. And someone would die because of this. They and their city would be destroyed because of it. Indeed, “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death” (Proverbs 14:12).
Are you playing it safe? Be careful. Please, I urge you, fear the Lord, not man. Your eternity depends on it.
Christian, our discipleship can be summarised as the process of reducing our fear objects to but one: our Lord.
Their Response was Faithless
As observed, their problem was unbelief: stubborn, God-defying, truth-resisting unbelief. Jesus responded to their unbelief as he characteristically does—he left them to themselves (see John 6:60–67).
We need to see that Jesus was not being evasive in this exchange; he was being wise. These men were not interested in the truth; they were interested in setting a trap to kill him. If Jesus made a false claim, they would have legal grounds to put him to death. This was of course their goal (see 14:63). As Matthew Henry observed, “Because they resolved not to receive his doctrine, they were resolved to find it invalid.”
Jesus did not enter into a debate with them. The way in which Jesus interacted with these representatives of the Sanhedrin sifted their integrity. It asked whether they were sincerely looking for the truth. You see, their question was not illegitimate. After all, we should know the source of authority of one who tells us to trust them. However, their question was insincere.
This approach is instructive as we are sometimes confronted by those who ask about our faith. Beware of answering a fool according to his folly (Proverbs 26:4). The works of Jesus gave ample testimony of his divine authorisation.
Like Jesus, avoid the trap laid by the cynic. There are some people to whom you do not owe an answer (see Mark 16:60–61; Luke 23:8–12). As Matthew Henry says, “What Christ did by his wisdom, we must labour to do by our well-doing—put to silence the ignorance of men (1 Peter 2:15).”
Having looked at this passage, and having been confronted with the authority of Jesus, what should we take away from this? Let me suggest a few things.
First, let us be sure that salvation is an authority issue. If we do not recognise and submit to the divine authority of Jesus Christ, we will never receive the benefits of that salvation. He holds those who resist his authority in derision and will ultimately stand as their judge (Psalm 2).
Be sure that the one you are trusting is worthy of your trust. Where is the authority? Where is the proof? Jesus gave proof: He died and rose again. And note his subsequent claim: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matthew 28:18).
Second, when evangelising, tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Don’t skimp on the demands of the gospel. Don’t neglect to in some way make clear that Jesus Christ is King.
If you dilute the deity of Christ, you will dilute his demands as dilute his ability to save. You may get a profession, but will you see a conversion?
Third, the authority of Jesus demands that our view of Scripture must be the same as his. That is, we cannot pick and choose what parts of the Bible we will and will not believe.
Let me broadly say that, when it comes to the Bible, it too is a package deal. The authority of Jesus demands this. After all, since he affirmed all of Scripture, who are we to contradict him?
Fourth, examine yourself to be sure whether you are truly in the kingdom of God. Is there evidence of submission in your life? Disciples of Christ are those who demonstrate submission to the Jesus they say they believe. Jesus has all authority over every area of life. Do our lives manifest this? Do we submit to his authority with our time, our talents, and our treasure? Is he Lord in our work, in our walk, and in our worship? It does little good to call him Lord if we do not do what he commands (Luke 6:46).
Fifth, submission to the authority of Jesus means submission to a biblical local church. This is one major reason that meaningful church membership matters. It matters a lot. It matters because Jesus is the head of the church and we are a part of his body. To reject meaningful membership in and connection with the local church is to reject Jesus.
Submission to a biblical local church includes submission to its biblical mission. Matthew 28:18–20 identifies this mission. If you acknowledge Jesus’ authority, then you will make disciples. And, I might add, you will not, like these religious leaders, be making trouble.
If you claim to be a Christian while rejecting accountability to the local church, then you are making a grossly and seriously contradictory claim. Bow the knee to Jesus, join a biblically faithful local church and grow in your submission to the authority of Jesus. Jesus is Lord. Live like it.