27 And they came again to Jerusalem. And as he was walking in the temple, the chief priests and the scribes and the elders came to him, 28 and they said to him, “By what authority are you doing these things, or who gave you this authority to do them?” 29 Jesus said to them, “I will ask you one question; answer me, and I will tell you by what authority I do these things. 30 Was the baptism of John from heaven or from man? Answer me.” 31 And they discussed it with one another, saying, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ 32 But shall we say, ‘From man’?”—they were afraid of the people, for they all held that John really was a prophet. 33 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.”
Upton Sinclair once wrote one of the most profound and insightful quotes I think I have ever heard. Here it is: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” That is so very very true, is it not?
The term “inconvenient truths” has become popular in our day, but what of “vocation-destroying truths,” “ego-demolishing truths,” “assumption-destroying truths”? Well, in these cases, it is not enough for the threatened to ignore the truth, they must silence these threatening truths altogether as well as those who dare to say them.
As we approach the cross in our journey through the gospel of Mark, keep that in mind. Here, in Mark 11:27-33, we see the first real movements in the final stages of the escalating conflict that will culminate in the cross itself. Jesus is questioned by the bodies that make up the Sanhedrin, the high court of Jewish religious power. This questioning does not happen formally, but what happens is a definite harbinger of things to come.
As we watch this scene unfold, note the radical differences between Christ and the religious establishment, these men who do not want to hear truths that threaten all they have built.
The religious establishment assumes power while Jesus embraces powerlessness.
It is often said that those who commit crimes often return to the scene of the crime. I called North Little Rock Police Chief Mike Davis this week and asked him if that was true. He informed me that it is and the theories as to why cover a whole range of possibilities. But oftentimes those who commit crimes do return to the scene of the crime. This can even happen on the anniversary of crimes, Chief Davis informed me, as when, for instance, somebody who has killed a person will go to their graves on the one year anniversary.
Of course, in cleansing the temple Jesus most certainly did not commit a crime in the eyes of the only court that matters—God’s court!—but in the eyes of the religious establishment He most certainly did. It has been observed by many commentators that for one person to disrupt temple business all by himself would take some kind of special outburst, but Jesus had done just that. In doing so, He threatened the establishment as well as the security of the religious establishment.
While, in reality, Jesus’ cleansing of the temple was actually intended to stop a crime—the crime of the fleecing of God’s people for crude gain and the crime of perversion of true worship—in the eyes of the religious elites what He had done was unforgiveable. And as if they were expecting the criminal to return to the scene of the crime, they were waiting on Jesus when He returned to the temple the next day.
27 And they came again to Jerusalem. And as he was walking in the temple, the chief priests and the scribes and the elders came to him
Mark mentions three groups: (1) the chief priests, (2) the scribes, and (3) the elders. Mark has mentioned these three groups before, specifically in Mark 8.
31 And he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again.
They have been mentioned together but this is the first time they are seen together in Mark’s gospel. Their appearance in Mark 11 therefore constitutes the fulfillment of a prophecy that Jesus made in Mark 8.
But who are these people? In short, they are the religious establishment. They are the experts. They are the pastors’ pastors, the seminary professors, the bishops and popes of 1st century Judaism, to use our terms anachronistically. They are the religious elites, the religious powers, the keepers of the books and the gates! Ronald Kernaghan writes of these groups that “they were the most powerful people in Jerusalem. They controlled the temple, oversaw the resolution of legal disputes, and administered the political and financial affairs of the Jewish people.”
These are the powers…and here they are, all together, standing where just the day before Jesus had caused absolute chaos. They are united and they are not pleased. Their initial question to Jesus is interesting and telling.
28 and they said to him, “By what authority are you doing these things, or who gave you this authority to do them?”
You can tell a lot about a person by the question he or she asks. Certainly that is the case here. “By what authority…”
This is how their minds worked. It all came down to this: authority…power…rights.
By what authority are you doing these things?
Do you think you have the power to disrupt our temple activities?
Who gave you the right?
These men do not question their own authority. They assume they have authority. But this Jesus they do not know and His authority they do not recognize. From whence or from whom does His authority come?
In asking these questions, these men showed their priorities as well as their hands. To them, religious action rests on legitimate authority and authority is manifested in recognized power. They see themselves as having authority. They see Jesus as having none.
In asking these questions, they also contrast their own hearts with the heart of Christ, for while the religious establishment assumes power Jesus embraces powerlessness.
Could their ever be a more startling contrast? Jesus is moving toward the cross and the hill on which He will embrace powerlessness as the world sees it. He will set aside His authority and allow these men to nail Him to the cross. Jesus comes to empty Himself. But these men! These men come to assume and guard their own power and authority. They come to deal with a threat to their authority. They come to hold it up over a rival claim.
The stage is set. The key players are, on the one hand, Jesus, and, on the other, the religious establishment…the very people who should know better and who should see behind the façade of their own claim of authority to the truth of Jesus’ authority.
Church, the religious establishment assumes power while Jesus embraces powerlessness. Beware of powerful men who claim to have the sole angle on God! Beware the men who will not tolerate questions, the men who set themselves up above you, the angry men, the thin-skinned men, the men who assume they are right and who, in their assumptions, have become blind to the truth.
J.C. Ryle, the great 19th century Bishop of Liverpool, saw in this collision between Jesus and the religious establishment a critique of the professionalized ordained clergy.
These things are written to show Christians that they must beware of depending too much on ordained ministers. They must not look up to ministers as Popes, or regard them as infallible. The orders of no church confer infallibility, whether they be episcopal, Presbyterian or independent…There is only one Priest and Bishop of souls who makes no mistakes. That one is the Lord Jesus Christ…[W]e must not suppose that God is absolutely tied to the use of ordained people.
I say this as a member of the clergy and as one who believes that the pastorate is biblical and good: do not give your heart and soul and mind to any pastor, to any mortal man! Give it only to Jesus Christ! I am not calling for uncharitable skepticism. If a minister proves himself to be a careful handler of the Word and a man who is not seeking to fleece the people of God, surely appropriate trust is due. But giving a blank psychological and spiritual check to a man just because he went to seminary and is ordained is not appropriate trust, it is deadly idolatry of the worst sort.
Remember how Soren Kierkegaard railed against the empty boasting and hypocrisy of the established clergy of his day in the Danish press. Kierkegaard wrote:
Imagine that the people are assembled in a church in Christendom, and Christ suddenly enters the assembly. What dost thou think He would do?
He would turn upon the teachers (for the congregation He would judge as He did of yore, that they were led astray), He would turn upon them who “walk in long robes,” tradesmen, jugglers, who have made God’s house, if not a den of robbers, at least a shop, a peddler’s stall, and would say, “Ye hypocrites, ye serpents, ye generation of vipers”; and likely as of yore He would make a whip of small cords and drive them out of the temple.
See here the preachers and priests and seminary professors and religious elites. They are proud and haughty in their robes and finery and they dwell in a fantasy world of self-certainty. Then see there Jesus, the Son of God! If anybody in this tragic scene had a right to claim authority and power and demand silence, it was Jesus! Even so, He does not do this. He comes to allow these same men to nail to a cross!
Here is the wonder of the gospel: by allowing the perversity of blind religious power and violence to run its course, and by putting Himself in the cogs of its hellish machinery, Jesus brought true religion and true faith and true prayer into the world! He proved His authentic authority by tolerating for a spell their sham authority.
The religious establishment protects status while Jesus lays down His life.
The establishment saw Jesus as a threat to their authority and in Jesus’ response to their arrogant question He went on to threaten their status.
29 Jesus said to them, “I will ask you one question; answer me, and I will tell you by what authority I do these things. 30 Was the baptism of John from heaven or from man? Answer me.”
In answering their question, Jesus asks a question of His own and, in doing so, He laid a brilliant trap for the religious elites. His question was unexpected. He asked them about John the Baptist. Specifically, he asked them, “Was the baptism of John from heaven or from man?” That is, did John bear the authority of God or did He not?
What was so brilliant is that it threw these men on the horns of a dilemma, a dilemma that Mark clearly explains.
31 And they discussed it with one another, saying, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ 32 But shall we say, ‘From man’?”—they were afraid of the people, for they all held that John really was a prophet.
In essence, these scheming religious elites were effectively “hoisted on their own petard,” caught in their own trap, for in their attempts to trick Jesus with a question about authority they were themselves caught in a trap concerning authority. Jesus effectively put them into a conundrum in which they would either have to (a) condemn themselves for their unbelief or (b) anger the crowd by admitting that a true prophet had been killed.
Behind it all, of course, was their desire to protect their own status as wise men of God, men who do not misstep, men who have the voice of God in their ear. In essence, Jesus had forced them into a situation in which they had to reveal their true preservationist hearts. Their answer to Jesus’ question will reveal just that, but their very struggle to answer reveals another key different between the religious establishment and Jesus: the religious establishment protects its own status while Jesus lays down His life.
Look at the panic on the faces of these religious powers. Hear their feverish whispering. See their furrowed brows, their panicked sidelong glances. What is really behind their hesitation? Is it really about just knowing how to answer or is it not ultimately about status protection? Religious professionals who have lost sight of God are always concerned about protecting their own status, their own lives, their own pockets, and their own livings.
This is a problem that predates, obviously, the church age, for we are witnessing it in our text before the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. But as the rest of the New Testament and as the story of Church history will reveal, this problem has plagued the life of the church as well. You can see this, for instance, in the Council of Sardica that met in the year 343. It decreed:
There is no more injurious custom than the corrupt practice of a bishop moving from a small city to another. This must be rooted out. The reason is obvious. No one has ever yet been found who tried to move from a large city to a less important one. Such persons burn with covetousness and are slaves to ostentation and wish to gain greater authority.
Ambition and status increase and preservation is always a temptation for people in “the God business.” It is a pernicious temptation. In Calvin Miller’s aptly titled book for pastors, O Shepherd, Where Art Thou?, he writes:
It struck me one day in a Christian bookstore that most of the “church growth” books I picked up in that store were not books on vision but on image. They hadn’t been published to help me see the world in a particular way but to help the world see me – were I a megachurch pastor – in a particular way.
The religious establishment, then as now, has always faced the temptation of image polishing and image projection. What Jesus effectively did in His questioning of the Sanhedrin powers was threaten their image. Everybody was watching. Everybody was listening. And these religious powers knew it perfectly well. Charles Simic states that he was once struck by the carefully projected image of the TV evangelists he observed.
The men doing the preaching had made millions saving souls and had no qualms offering themselves as a model to emulate. Their lack of humility was astonishing. I’m flying high, the faces said, because God has time for me.
This, too, is what the faces of these men said…before, that is, Jesus asked them about John the Baptist. But this was their assumption: “I’m flying high because God has time for me.”
There is a haunting line in William Faulkner’s Light in August. A preacher, Rev. Hightower, reaches the conclusion that the greatest threat to the church is its ministers:
It seems to him that he has seen it all the while: that that which is destroying the Church is not the outward groping of those within it nor the inward groping of those without, but the professionals who control it and who have removed the bells from its steeples.
Is this not a beautiful description of these blind religious leaders who plotted against Jesus? Had they not “removed the bells from their steeples”? Had they not forgotten God? They had, though they did not know it. They had, in fact, begun to worship themselves. Their mistake was simple: they mistook their worship of self for worship of God. Even they were blind to the difference.
Notice once again the contrast. There are the religious leaders. They are worried. They are fretting. They are nervous. They are trapped. What will they do? How will they answer? More to the point, how will they protect their status as the favored ones, the blessed ones, the fortunate ones.
But there too is Jesus! He is not trying to protect anything. He is not nervous about anything. He is not trying to hold to anything. On the contrary. He has set aside all status. He is not seeking the applause of men. He has embraced the cross! His only concern is obedience to the Father. In this, He shows again the difference between true religion, true faith, and the sham religious show that the establishment seeks to keep propped up.
The religious establishment fears transparency while Jesus is the light.
The response of the religious establishment to Jesus’ question reveals one final difference between the religious establishment and Jesus.
33 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.”
Unbelievable. “We do not know.” Cowards. They feign agnosticism on a question about which they do, in fact, have very definite opinions. That is, the pretend to be ignorant because they fear transparency. They fear the consequences of answering.
Jesus refuses to answer but for very different reasons. Jesus does not fear stating the truth. He has done nothing but state the truth all the way to this very point and He will do nothing but tell the truth for all of eternity. His silence is not a fear of transparency. His silence is intended, in fact, to reveal the true state of the hearts of His critics, both to those watching and, if they will dare to be honest, to themselves. Put another way, even in concealing Jesus reveals!
The contrast is once again staggering: the religious establishment fears transparency while Jesus is the light.
The religious establishment likes closed doors and obfuscation. It likes smoke and mirrors and vague answer. It fears. It trembles in the dark. The religious establishment loves the dark.
Not so, Jesus. Jesus comes and saturates the darkness with life-giving light. Nobody said it better than John in John 1 when he wrote.
1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. 4 In him was life, and the life was the light of men. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
The light shines.
The light reveals.
Jesus was not part of the religious establishment. The religious establishment wanted to get rid of Jesus. Jesus offered instead a shocking and threatening alternative: truth, authenticity, reality, freedom, life, salvation, grace. Jesus offered everything that the establishment was seeking to conceal or control.
Jesus called for truth. Jesus called for actual relationships between God and His people. Such things are terrifying to religious powerbrokers and gatekeepers, for they seek to control, but a relationship between God and His people is the way of the Kingdom.
Thank you, O God, for the light-bringing, life-giving King who calls us out of religious emptiness and darkness into the brilliant light of His beautiful love!
 Alan Hirsch and Tim Catchim, The Permanent Revolution. (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2012), p.3
 Ronald J. Kernaghan, Mark. The IVP New Testament Commentary Series. Ed., Grant R. Osborne. Vol.2 (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2007), p.224.
 J.C. Ryle, Mark. The Crossway Classics Commentaries. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1993), p.177-178.
 Soren Kierkegaard. Attack Upon Christendom. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1968), p.123.
 RJN, “While We’re At It,” First Things. November 2005.
 Calvin Miller, O Shepherd, Where Art Thou? (Nasvhille, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2006), p.34-35.
 Timothy George and John Woodbridge, The Mark of Jesus (Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2005), p.15.
 William Faulkner. Light in August. (New York: Vintage Books, 1990), p.487.