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.)



Most people would agree that who you socialize with is important and says something about you. For instance, parents want their children to hang out with other kids who will have a good influence on them. But although we understand the potential pitfalls of being negatively influenced by others, as Christians we’re also taught to connect with others so we can make a positive impact on them by our words and actions.

During His ministry Jesus modeled the practice of interacting with others, primarily by eating with them. And because He regularly spent time with those who were not considered respectable by the Jewish religious establishment, He was criticized and questioned by the religious leaders. There were several groups of religious leaders, but those who criticized Jesus most often were the Pharisees.

The specific criticism and questioning of Jesus discussed in this chapter began with the calling of Matthew, a tax-collector, to be a follower of Jesus. In reading the account it is obvious that as a tax collector, Matthew (called Levi by Luke) would not be considered a good candidate to follow Jesus.

Tax collectors were looked down on and hated for a variety of reasons. They were considered traitors because they worked for the Romans who occupied the land. In addition, they were known to be dishonest and greedy, taking as much money as they could for themselves beyond what tax was required. A window into the system is opened in John the Baptist’s reply to tax collectors in response to their question about what they should do; he says,  “Don’t collect any more than you are required to” (Luke 3:13). Because of these first two factors, tax collectors did not pay much attention to the religious rules many of the Jewish people followed. We’ll say more about it later, but the pairing of “tax collectors and sinners” shows how despised they were.

For Jesus to call a man like Matthew to follow Him was totally out of the ordinary and a snub to conventional ideas of respectability. The fishermen He had called earlier (Peter, Andrew, James, and John) were not high on the social scale, but they were not as suspect and low-down as a tax collector.

Perhaps equally significant as the fact that Jesus called Matthew is that Matthew answered the call. We shouldn’t think of this as the first time Matthew had encountered Jesus. He undoubtedly knew who Jesus was and had heard Him teach before. When Jesus called he was ready. Luke tells us that Matthew “got up, left everything and followed him” (5:28). Matthew gave up a lot because tax collectors were in the upper class, but it was even more than that. One New Testament scholar notes, “We should not miss the quiet heroism involved in this. If following Jesus had not worked out for the fishermen, they could have returned to their trade without difficulty. But when Matthew walked out of his job he was through.”

After Matthew responded to Jesus’ call he hosted a dinner party for his friends, Jesus, and Jesus’ disciples. Luke’s Gospel reports, “Levi held a great banquet for Jesus at his house, and a large crowd of tax collectors and others were eating with them” (5:29). Matthew’s friends were tax collectors and sinners just like he was! Matthew’s Gospel phrases it, “many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him [Jesus] and his disciples” (9:10).

When Jesus ate with Matthew and his friends, it prompted the Pharisees to question Jesus about hanging out with the wrong kind of people. Matthew 9:11 tells us, “When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, ‘Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?'” Luke 5:30 says they “complained to his disciples” asking the same question. Note the Pharisees did not ask Jesus Himself, but His disciples. It makes me think the Pharisees were somewhat cowardly–a lot of critics are. To their credit, however, on other occasions the Pharisees did question Jesus directly.

However, note that the Pharisees’ question to Jesus’ disciples really wasn’t a question, but a judgement on Him. They didn’t want to know why Jesus ate with those kind of people, they wanted His disciples to know they thought it was wrong. Associating with those kind of people was bad enough, but it was altogether something else for Jesus to eat with them. Far more than today, eating with someone in the ancient world suggested tolerance and acceptance. We’ll say more about it in chapter five, but for the Pharisees eating with such people would result in ritual defilement.

“Sinners” in the gospel accounts refer to common people who for a variety of reasons did not or could not follow the elaborate religious rituals the Pharisees followed. The Pharisees scorned those who did not follow their rules and wouldn’t have anything to do with them. In the eyes of the religious leaders of Jesus’ day they were disreputable people and undesirables; what we might call “the wrong kind of people.” The Pharisees were upset that Jesus would associate with people like Matthew and his friends. They viewed it as discrediting Him as a rabbi and making Him out to be a phony. In their view, really righteous people wouldn’t do such a thing.

Matthew 9:12 notes, “On hearing this, Jesus said” and Luke 5:31 says “Jesus answered them.” And what an answer it was! He said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” Luke 5:32 adds that Jesus told them He came to call sinners “to repentance.” And Matthew 9:13 adds a challenge from Jesus citing Hosea 6:6, “But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’” This Old Testament challenge was about going beyond ceremonial obedience.

Please realize that Jesus did not deny the charge–He was eating with tax collectors and sinners. As I heard a preacher say in a Bible study many years ago, “But when you think about it, who else was there to eat with? If He ate with the Pharisees He would still be eating with sinners!” Nor did Jesus apologize; no apology was necessary. In His response Jesus used physical illness as a metaphor for spiritual need. What would be our response to a health care system where doctors would only see people who were healthy? It would be a strange system, wouldn’t it? But that is the analogy Jesus used to describe the Pharisees’ outlook on Him. They did not understand the purpose of Jesus’ coming: apparently they thought the Messiah would condemn the sinful and praise the righteous. But that is not why Jesus came. One of the reasons Jesus was so popular with sinners was that, in the words of Arron Chambers, “the judged found the Judge to be surprisingly nonjudgmental.”

In eating with these “sinners” Jesus was not approving of their sin. By His response He indicated the people He was eating with were “sick”–they were indeed “sinners.” Remember Luke’s account reports Jesus saying, “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (5:32). Matthew’s account doesn’t have the same words, but they are implied and understood. From the beginning of both John the Baptist’s and Jesus’ preaching there was a call to repentance, and the point of calling sinners is not that they should remain the same, but that they may find true righteousness through faith in Jesus. Jesus accepted and welcomed sinners as they were, but He also challenged, encouraged, and empowered them to change.

Even though Jesus’ metaphor confirmed those He ate with were sinners, I do not think He was suggesting the Pharisees were righteous people who were not sick. Do you? I think rather Jesus was emphasizing that they were unaware of their condition. The Pharisees thought they had it all together and were better than everyone else. But they were not as healthy as they thought or as righteous as they appeared. And Jesus certainly was not approving of their blind self-righteousness that resulted in the harsh judgment of others.

Don’t forget the part of Jesus’ response recorded only in Matthew where He told the Pharisees, “Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’” “Go and learn” was a phrase used by teachers to send students back to the Bible to study a passage further. Imagine how taken aback the Pharisees must have been to have Jesus imply they were like first year seminary students. The point of God’s Word through the prophet Hosea is that you cannot rely on ritual only and ignore God’s internal moral desire. The Pharisees were preoccupied with external ritual purity.

What does Jesus’ response to this questioning mean to us? For one thing, we are not to be like the Pharisees. In general we are not to focus on the external to the neglect of the internal heart attitude God wants. Specifically, we are not to stay away from or shun the very people Jesus came to heal and save. If just being around sinners was the way sin was transmitted, or it degraded one’s relationship with God, Jesus would have been one of the worst sinners of all and not very pleasing to God. The Pharisees could only see the failures of sinners, but Jesus saw their need and wanted to help them. We might ask ourselves if we have isolated ourselves from the people Jesus has called us to reach out to. Are we afraid of those who don’t believe as we do, or who hold a political opinion different from ours, or who don’t carry out their faith as we do? If we are, we have missed the point of Jesus’ coming.

We are not to be like the Pharisees; we are to be like Jesus. He did not look down on and separate Himself from those who weren’t religious. Just as Jesus came to call sinners, He sends Christians today to witness for Him. He gives us the same commission He gave His closest followers after His resurrection: “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you” (John 20:21). In terms of His teaching in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus calls us to be both salt and light (Mathew 5:13-16). And we can only do what He has asked us to do by being in contact with those we are commissioned to influence. We have to be in the world so we can connect and build bridges of friendship with those who need a “doctor.” We cannot look down on those who need the Lord and come across as though we have it all together and are better than they are. The reason people like Matthew and his friends were attracted to Jesus is because of the way He saw them and treated them. He saw their potential.

You and I are sinners called by Jesus to follow Him. He can only help us if we acknowledge our need and admit we are sick and need a doctor. And admitting our need is not something that happens only at the beginning of the Christian life. Nor is repenting of our sin something that happens only at the beginning of our walk with Jesus. Since we will never reach perfection, we will always need Jesus and need to regularly repent of our sins.

Of all the designations given to Jesus, none is more attractive than the label His enemies gave Him—that He was “a friend of tax collectors and sinners” (Matthew 11:19 and Luke 7:14). Aren’t you glad Jesus is a friend of sinners? Aren’t you glad He is your friend? Jesus is still calling people to follow Him today—unlikely candidates like Matthew and sinners like you and me. And people are still responding to follow Him. We call them Christians.

(This post is adapted from Chapter Three, How Can You Welcome those Kind of People?, of my book Questioning Jesus: Considering His Responses.)

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