One of the ways we might call someone down when we think they are out of line is to ask them, “Who do you think you are?” Parents sometimes ask that of their children, a teacher may ask that of a student, and a supervisor might ask it of a subordinate. It’s clearly not a question seeking information, but an expression of disagreement with something said or done. More than that, however, it is an attempt to put someone in his or her place. During the final week of Jesus’ life leading up to His crucifixion a group of Jesus’ critics asked a similar question for the same reason.
It was the week of Passover and the roads were crowded with people going to Jerusalem. On Palm Sunday Jesus entered the city riding on a donkey with crowds cheering and spreading their cloaks and palm branches before him. It resembled the entrance of a king and must have reminded some of the messianic prophecy of Zechariah 9:9: “Rejoice greatly, Daughter of Zion! Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you righteous and victorious, lowly and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” Certainly Jesus’ enemies noticed.
Then early in the week Jesus entered the temple and turned over the tables of the money-changers quoting Jeremiah 7:11, “It is written, ‘My house will be called a house of prayer,’ but you have made it ‘a den of robbers’” (Matthew 21:13). This action also got everyone’s attention, including his critics—who were not at all pleased.
Only Matthew reports that after this Jesus healed some who were blind and some who were lame. “But when the chief priests and the teachers of the law saw the wonderful things he did and the children shouting in the temple courts, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David,’ they were indignant” (Matthew 21:13). Matthew doesn’t record it, but this must have been “the final straw” because Mark tells us that after the money-changers episode, “The chief priests and the teachers of the law heard this and began looking for a way to kill him, for they feared him, because the whole crowd was amazed at this teaching” (11:18). And so they questioned him.
Matthew, Mark, and Luke all include this incident with only minor differences. Mark tells us the chief priests, the teachers of the law, and the elders came to Jesus in the temple and demanded of Him, “By what authority are you doing these things? And who gave you authority to do this?” (11:27 and 28). One of the things they had to be referring to by “these things” was Jesus throwing out the money-changers; but they were also no doubt going back to the way he had entered the city on Palm Sunday and everything else he had done since then.
They asked Jesus two related questions. They wanted to know what authority he had, and they wanted to know who gave it to him. In other words, as suggested above, “Who do you think you are?” They knew that to do what he was doing required some kind of authorization, and they knew they hadn’t given him that authority.
From these gospel accounts, it’s not immediately obvious what was behind this line of questioning. Perhaps they thought Jesus would claim the authority of the Messiah. He had certainly done and said things that suggested he thought he was the Messiah. But if he made that claim overtly the question was still relevant: who gave him that authority? Not only that, they might accuse him of blasphemy as they did a few days later when he was before the Sanhedrin.
Throughout his ministry Jesus had taught and acted in his own name and with God’s authority. That’s why his disciples followed him and crowds came to hear him. As a teacher Jesus was not like the other “official” teachers of the time. After Jesus preached the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew tells us “the crowds were amazed at his teaching, because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law” (7:28b and 29).
As always, Jesus’ response to their questions was masterful. At this point he was not yet ready to directly tell them he was the Son of God, so he responded with a question for them. “Answer me, and I will tell you by what authority I am doing these things. John’s baptism—was it from heaven, or of human origin? Tell me!” (Mark 12:29 and 30). On first reading, Jesus’ response seems evasive, but it really wasn’t. Is was the same basic question they had asked him, but Jesus’ question was not about himself, but John.
Jesus’ question of his questioners put them on the spot. All three accounts tell us they argued (Matthew and Mark) or discussed (Luke) with one another their two possible answers, neither of which worked for them. They had not accepted John’s message so they said to themselves, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will ask, ‘Then why didn’t you believe him?’” (Mark 11:31). But because of John’s popularity they reasoned among themselves, “But if we say, ‘Of human origin’—we are afraid of the people, for they all hold that John was a prophet’” (Matthew 21:26).
New Testament scholar Alan Cole suggests Jesus was not trying to trap them, but to give them the opportunity to admit they were wrong and acknowledge that both John and Jesus were legitimate. But they resolved their dilemma by giving the only answer they thought they could: “We don’t know” (Mark 11:33a). That answer, of course, did not help them, but it served to authenticate Jesus.
Note that Jesus did not deny he had authority, but responded, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things” (Mark 11:33b). Many in the crowd that day, as well as Jesus’ critics, knew he approved of John as a true prophet. And John had approved of Jesus as a prophet and much more. If John’s authority came from heaven, then so did Jesus’ authority. Commentator R.T. France affirms, “No one who heard Jesus’ response could fail to understand the implied claim to continuity between his ministry and that of John, and therefore to a divine authority for it.” But in the way Jesus handled the exchange, those who questioned him could not use it against Him.
It is telling that these critics were unwilling to answer Jesus’ question. Even though they thought they knew the answer, they pleaded ignorance. But their non-answer was an expression of fear; not fear of bodily harm, but fear that the people would lose respect for them and their position. Ironically, their unwillingness even to answer Jesus’ question probably also resulted in loss of respect for them among those witnessing the exchange.
You and I know not only who Jesus thought he was, we know who he was and is. And we know where He got His authority. He was and is the Son of God.
(Adapted from chapter 10 of my book “Questioning Jesus: Considering His Responses.” Feel free to leave a reply below and/or share this post on Facebook and other social media.)