One day as he was teaching the people in the temple courts and preaching the gospel, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, together with the elders, came up to him.
“Tell us by what authority you are doing these things,” they said. “Who gave you this authority?”
He replied, “I will also ask you a question. Tell me, John’s baptism – was it from heaven, or from men?”
They discussed it among themselves and said, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will ask, ‘Why didn’t you believe him?’ But if we say, ‘From men,’ all the people will stone us, because they are persuaded that John was a prophet.”
So they answered, “We don’t know where it was from.”
Jesus said, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.” (Luke 20:1-8)
The text makes an important contribution to our understanding of spiritual authority and its relationship to human institutions, and provides a corrective to existing doctrines and practices. Men, because of sin, tend to substitute divine revelation with human tradition, and divine authority with human approval. To maintain an appearance of faith but to hide their unbelief at the same time, it is asserted that things worked differently in Jesus’ day than in our day. By this dispensational invention, although some are ironically and even vehemently anti-dispensational, they attempt to render irrelevant any biblical doctrine that they do not wish to affirm and avoid situations that they are too afraid to face.
Thus God withdrew his power and the demons went on vacation, and spiritual authority now comes from human institutions. As for ministerial credentials, the apostles looked for the fullness of the Holy Spirit, but the Holy Spirit, for all purposes except the most hidden operations, died with the apostles. The doctrine is to ensure that his absence remains undetectable – it is normal to be powerless. Now we demand printed documents from respectable – meaning approved by other equally unqualified men – seminaries and denominations. The fact that they posit a change is indication that sin has not changed, that like the Pharisees, religious leaders continue to work around God’s word with manmade doctrines and traditions. The good news is that, since they have neither heavenly nor demonic powers, not believing in either, spiritually speaking they can be safely ignored. But beware of vicious political maneuvers.
If these paragraphs are vague enough that they name no one, but clear enough that they offend most, then they have accomplished their purpose, and we may proceed to our main topic, which is the way Jesus answered his challengers and how it applies to our own practice.
Against all that is wise and holy, Christians are enamored with the non-Christian intellect, and admire their scholarship, methods, and most of their conclusions. Thus Christians are accustomed to following non-Christian standards in their discourses and arguments, and in debates they allow non-Christian assumptions to dictate the rules of engagement. Of course, this is unnecessary and rather pathetic. A giant leap in our understanding of theology and performance in apologetics can be achieved if we would learn to despise the non-Christian mind, but instead put on the mind of Christ.
One illustration is name-calling, that is, the practice of assigning derogatory labels to non-Christians. Whether one is for or against this, it does not usually affect the course of a debate to an overwhelming extent, but it is a good example precisely for this reason, since there is little to distract us from considering how Christians have compromised. Name-calling is often regarded as an informal fallacy; however, this in itself is illogical. If a term applies to a person, then it is a description, not a fallacy. And when it is a fallacy, it must be so because it is inaccurate, and not because it is an insult.
Although it appears to be a simple issue, it would be a mistake to think that it is therefore unimportant. This is because the Bible calls non-Christians all kinds of derogatory names, including dogs, pigs, snakes, donkeys, foxes, brutes, whores, murderers, dung, rubbish, toilets, demons, sinners, hypocrites, wicked men, blind men, dead men, fools and morons, sons of hell, and many more. Therefore, when a Christian attempts to vindicate the faith before non-Christians, it must be at least an implicit part of his purpose to defend the Bible’s practice of name-calling as well as the scathing names and curses that it applies to non-Christians.
If the Christian rejects this aspect of it, then he himself stands as an enemy of God’s revelation, and has disqualified himself from speaking in its defense. In any case, if the Christian admits that name-calling as such is an informal fallacy, then he has accepted a non-Christian standard of argumentation that condemns the Bible from the start. This world belongs to Jesus Christ. He can call non-Christians anything he wants, and we can – we must, since we must agree with Christ – call non-Christians anything that the Bible calls them.
To make this more relevant to our text, it is usually considered rude or evasive to answer a question with a question. Jesus’ example teaches us that when we face the opponents of the faith, we are to operate by his rules of engagement, and not the unbelievers’ rules. His example authorizes us to break from non-Christian practice. Indeed, it is true that sometimes a person answers a question with a question because he wishes to avoid the challenge, but this is not always the case.
The chief priests and the teachers of the law, together with the elders, came to Jesus and demanded an answer: “Who gave you this authority?” They were the human authority, the religious establishment, and they knew that they did not authorize Jesus’ ministry. But if Jesus had said that his authority came from God, they would not have believed him. They had already decided to oppose him no matter what. As the matter stood, any answer that Jesus gave would not have led to a greater appreciation of his work, but would be used as ammunition against him. The question itself could have been asked without hostility by another person, but in this case there was something wrong with the people who asked it, so that it was not in Jesus’ best interest to answer the question right away and in the most straightforward manner.
Their deliberation illustrates this point. Instead of telling the truth or speaking honestly, they tried to design the best response. They could not say that John the Baptist received his authority from heaven, since they did not believe him. Such an answer would have exposed something wrong in them, that they would reject a messenger from God. But they could not say that he received his authority from men, because the people believed that he was a prophet, and they were afraid of the people. This again exposed something wrong in them, that they were interested in producing a calculated effect, and not in knowing or telling the truth, or even debating about it. Instead of offering them the kind of answer they wanted, Jesus saw through them and went on the offensive.
Non-Christians attack us and demand answers from us. We can answer all their questions and objections, but how we may best do this without losing focus is another matter. Similar to the priests, teachers, and elders in our text, unless God has opened their minds, non-Christians are not interested in the truth, but they are interested in attacking it. If an ironclad answer shuts one door to them, they will open another area for debate, no matter how absurd or farfetched, to stay on the offensive and to indefinitely delay an actual confrontation with Jesus Christ. They will make excuses and throw up smokescreens to stop you from talking about them and uncovering their reasons, desires, and motives, and forcing them to examine themselves.
Our aim is to declare and apply God’s word to people, to them as individual persons. Jesus’ response immediately exposed them, and what appeared to be a ministerial issue is shown to have a spiritual and ethical root. Likewise, if we will learn from Jesus, we will see that all statements and challenges from non-Christians are rooted in their hatred, wickedness, prejudices, and defective intellect. We have the answers, and there is no need for fear or evasion, but at the same time, non-Christians are not really looking for answers. Their demands only reveal the wickedness of their hearts. Thus eventually, and the sooner the better, a Christian must go on the offensive and expose their inward condition, often using the very questions and objections that are thrown at him.
All authority belongs to Jesus Christ. As his servants, we are not obligated to answer the non-Christians on their terms. Christ’s world, Christ’s rules. The non-Christians have many things that they must answer for – their assumptions, their lifestyles, their ethics, their sciences, and so on. When a Christian engages them, he should make sure that he digs up all these things and demand the non-Christians to defend their positions. The Christian who does this will find that the Bible’s verdict is correct, that sinners, because of their wickedness, refuse to face reality and admit the truth about God, and that although they claim to be good and clever people, the truth is that without Jesus Christ, all of them are wicked and stupid.