And when He had come into the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to Him as He was teaching, and said, “By what authority are You doing these things, and who gave You this authority?” (21:23)
It was still Wednesday morning of Passover week. After Jesus and the disciples had passed the fig tree He cursed the day before and found it completely withered (vv. 18–22; cf. Mark 11:20–21), He had come with them into the temple.
The group of chief priests and elders may have included the high priests Caiaphas and Annas, who served concurrently for several years (Luke 3:2). Because of the seriousness of their confrontation of Jesus, it is likely that at least the captain of the Temple, the second highest official, was present. The elders comprised a wide variety of religious leaders, which definitely included Pharisees (Matt. 21:45) and scribes (Luke 20:1), and possibly Sadducees, Herodians, and even some Zealots and Essenes. Although those groups had many differences from each other and were constantly disputing among themselves, they found common ground in opposing Jesus, because He threatened the authority of the entire religious establishment.
Every false religion has the common denominator of works righteousness, of salvation by human achievement, and is by nature offended by and opposed to the gospel of divine accomplishment by God in Christ. Although the religions of the world are divided by vast differences in theology and practice, they find common ground against the gospel of Jesus Christ, just as did the Jewish religionists in the Temple. They may presume to honor Christ as a prophet, a great teacher, or even as one among many gods, but they vehemently oppose the truth that He is the only Savior and that no person can come to God except through the merits of His sacrifice.
As He had the day before, when He so dramatically cleansed the Temple, Jesus now took center stage there again and was teaching as He walked about the courtyard (Mark 11:27). It seems certain that those whom He had driven out for making His Father’s house a den of robbers (Matt. 21:13) had not returned, and the entire spacious Court of the Gentiles was now available for those who came to worship. Many of them had probably followed Jesus there when they saw Him come into the city that morning.
We are not told what Jesus was teaching on this occasion, but He was likely reiterating some of the more important truths He had taught many times before. We can be sure that whatever He said was related to His kingdom, the subject with which His ministry began (Matt. 4:17) and ended (Acts 1:3). In His parallel account, Luke reports that Jesus was “teaching daily in the temple, … preaching the gospel” (Luke 19:47; 20:1), which was sometimes called “the gospel of the kingdom” (Matt. 9:35). Whatever His specific theme, “all the people were hanging upon His words” (Luke 19:48).
The primary question the Jewish leaders now had for Jesus was the same as it had been from the beginning, “By what authority are You doing these things, and who gave You this authority?” (cf. John 2:18). By these things, they probably meant everything Jesus had been teaching and doing, but they particularly had in mind His abrupt and, in their eyes, utterly presumptuous cleansing of the Temple the day before. Except for His similar act at the beginning of His ministry, He had never done anything that more clearly, forcefully, and publicly devastated the religious establishment. While it was happening, they were powerless to stop Him and apparently were even speechless. But now that they had recovered from the initial shock, they were on the offensive and were demanding an explanation.
Rabbinical candidates originally had been ordained by a leading rabbi whom they respected and under whose teaching they served a kind of apprenticeship. And just as the teachings of the leading rabbis varied greatly, so did their ordinations. Because of widespread abuses, and probably also to centralize rabbinical authority, the Sanhedrin, or high Jewish council, had taken over all responsibility for ordination.
At his ordination a man was declared to be rabbi, elder, and judge, and was given corresponding authority to teach, to express his wisdom, and to make decisions and render verdicts in religious as well as many civil matters. During the service various discourses and readings were given and hymns sung. Once ordained, the man had official recognition as a credentialed teacher of Israel.
Jesus had had no such ordination and therefore had no such recognition. By what authority, then, the leaders asked, did He not only teach and preach but even heal the sick, cast out demons, and raise the dead? Most especially, why had He presumed to take upon Himself—an untrained, unrecognized, self-appointed rabbi—the task of casting the merchants and moneychangers out of the Temple? Although not themselves religious leaders, those men were operating their businesses under the auspices of the Temple authorities. “Who gave You … authority to throw them out?” those authorities asked Jesus.
Although they did not recognize the source and legitimacy of Jesus’ power, they never questioned that He had it. That His authority was unprecedentedly powerful was incontestable. No one had ever healed as many sick people, cast out as many demons, or raised people from the dead as Jesus had done. The miracles were so obvious, numerous, and well attested that the religious leaders never doubted that Jesus performed them, having seen many of them with their own eyes.
Those leaders knew that power such as Jesus displayed had to be of supernatural origin, and they knew He claimed it was from God, whom He repeatedly called His heavenly Father. When He forgave a paralytic’s sins, some of the scribes present “said to themselves, ‘This fellow blasphemes.’ ” Knowing what they were thinking, Jesus accused them of having evil hearts and proceeded to heal the man’s paralysis in order to show His critics that He, the Son of Man, had “authority on earth to forgive sins” (Matt. 9:2–6). The crowd of common people who witnessed what He did made the only sensible response: “They were filled with awe, and glorified God, who had given such authority to men” (v. 8). But the scribes refused to accept the obvious. No amount of evidence could penetrate their confirmed unbelief. And like the Pharisees on an earlier occasion (Matt. 12:24), the Temple authorities who now confronted Jesus no doubt preferred to believe that His power came from Satan rather than God.
The chief priests and elders in the Temple also knew, as the multitudes often acknowledged in amazement, that Jesus taught authoritatively, with a clarity, definitiveness, and certainty that was completely lacking in the pronouncements and interpretations of the scribes (Matt. 7:29; Mark 1:22). As in many liberal church circles today, a key qualification for acceptance was lack of dogmatism. Virtually every doctrine was open to reinterpretation and revision, and absolutes were shunned as presumptuous. Human wisdom had long since replaced divine revelation, and Old Testament Scripture was cited primarily to support their humanly-devised religious traditions. When Scripture conflicted with tradition, tradition prevailed (Matt. 16:6). In the minds of most Jewish religious leaders, there were many authorities but none that was exclusively authoritative, not even Scripture.
Yet Jesus’ ministry was nothing if not authoritative. He demonstrated authority to grant those who believe in Him the right to become children of God (John 1:12). His heavenly Father “gave Him authority to execute judgment” (5:27) and “authority over all mankind” to give eternal life to those His Father has given Him (17:2). He had authority over His own life, “to lay it down,” and over His own resurrection, “to take [His life] up again.” (10:18).
In all the things He said and did, Jesus never sought approval or support from the recognized Jewish authorities. He completely ignored their system for ordaining rabbis and approving doctrines. He did not ask approval for His teachings, His healings, or His casting out of demons, and certainly not for His forgiving sins.
Jesus had both dunamis (power) and exousia (authority). Dunamis refers to ability, and exousia to right. Jesus not only had great power but the right to exercise that power, because both His power and His authority were from His heavenly Father. “Just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life,” Jesus said, “even so the Son also gives life to whom He wishes,” and “just as the Father has life in Himself, even so He gave to the Son also to have life in Himself” (John 5:21, 26). “For I have come down from heaven, not to do My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me” (6:38; cf. v. 44, 57; 7:16, 28; 8:18, 54).
And because Jesus had the Father’s power and authority, He sought no human authority, accreditation, ordination, or credentials. By so doing, He pitted Himself directly against the Jewish religious system and incurred its unrelenting wrath. Its leaders were appalled and scandalized that He not only failed to consult the Sanhedrin and the Temple authorities but had the audacity to condemn them.
In asking Jesus to identify His authority, those leaders probably hoped He would say, as He had many times before, that He worked under the direct power and authority of God, His heavenly Father. That would give them another opportunity to charge Him with blasphemy, and perhaps to succeed in putting Him to death for it, as they had tried to do before without success (John 5:18; 10:31).
23 Jesus’ teaching takes place in the “temple courts,” probably in one of the porticos surrounding the Court of the Gentiles. The chief priests were high temple functionaries, elevated members of the priestly aristocracy who were part of the Sanhedrin (see comments at 2:4); the elders were in this case probably nonpriestly members of the Sanhedrin, heads of the most influential lay families (cf. Jeremias, Jerusalem, 222ff.). In other words, representative members of the Sanhedrin, described in terms of their clerical status rather than their theological positions (e.g., Sadducees and Pharisees), approached Jesus and challenged his authority to do “these things”—namely, the cleansing of the temple, the miraculous healings, and perhaps also his teaching (v. 23). Their first question was not narrowly theological but concerned Jesus’ authority; yet their concern in asking who gave him this authority (cf. Ac 4:7) sprang less from a desire to identify him than from a desire to stifle and perhaps ensnare him.
23 “The temple” (i.e. the Court of the Gentiles; see pp. 770–71) is the scene for all the remaining teaching and action until 24:1. The colonnades around the great courtyard offered ample shaded space for people to gather round a preacher. “As he was teaching” indicates that this was Jesus’ normal practice during these days before the festival, even though Matthew’s record of specific teaching will not begin until v. 28. We are therefore to assume a substantial crowd around Jesus when this official approach is made, so that the following dialogue takes place in public (as v. 26, “we are afraid of the crowd,” confirms).
We have heard of the “chief priests and elders” (together with the scribes) in 16:21 as the body who will bring about Jesus’ death. At this point Mark and Luke again give the full list of the component groups of the Sanhedrin, but Matthew abbreviates by mentioning only the two groups who were to take the “political” lead in responding to the threat Jesus posed to their official status as guardians of the temple and of the community affairs of Jerusalem. In chapters 26 and 27 he will regularly (except for 26:57) single out these two groups as the opponents of Jesus, though in 27:41 all three groups will again be mentioned as mocking him on the cross. Matthew, unlike the other evangelists, often gives the full title “elders of the people” (cf. 26:3, 47; 27:1), perhaps in order to emphasize their role in representing the whole people of God, just as it is only Matthew who in 27:25 will attribute the demand for Jesus’ death to “all the people,” using as here the term laos which spoke especially of the communal privilege of the chosen people.
The challenge as to Jesus’ “authority” is a more explicit expression of the suspicion which led the leaders in Galilee to ask for a “sign” (12:38; 16:1; see comments on 12:38). Jesus’ actions imply a personal authority greater than that of a mere village preacher from Galilee. In particular, his action in the temple implies a claim to authority greater than that of the priests who were responsible for its affairs. They had given him no such authority, so who had?
The Challenge to Jesus (21:23)
As Jesus teaches in the temple, two groups approach him. ‘The chief priests’ (hoi archiereis) were ‘high functionaries of the Temple, former high priests, and members of priestly families—mostly Sadduceean.’ ‘The elders of the people’ (hoi presbyteroi tou laou) came from the lay nobility and were closely aligned with the priests. Mark 11:27 and Luke 20:1 (par. to 21:23) state that scribes (hoi grammateis) were also present. The three groups sat together on the Sanhedrin.
In Matthew 16:21 Jesus prophesied that he would suffer at the hands of the chief priests and the elders (together with the scribes). Yet the chief priests confront Jesus for the first times in 21:15 and 21:23; and the elders do so for the first time in 21:23. That they do so here and now is not in the least surprising. Neither group witnessed Jesus’ cursing of the fig tree (21:18–19). It is his actions in the temple on which they focus—just what chief priests and their lay allies would be expected to do. ‘By what authority are you doing these things [tauta]?’ they ask. The plural tauta suggests that the question encompasses all that Jesus has said and done in the temple: his expulsion of the merchants and money changers (vv. 12–13), his miraculous works (v. 14), his acceptance of the children’s praise (vv. 15–16) and his present teaching (v. 23). ‘And who gave you this authority [tēn exousian tautēn]?’—i.e. authority as exercised in these words and deeds. Verse 15 reported the chief priests’ indignation over Jesus’ marvelous works and the children’s acclaim. In all probability it is especially his action in verses 12–13 that prompts the interrogation of verse 23. The concern most directly voiced in the questions is this: ‘What gives you the right to take such action, and so severely to disrupt the workings of the temple, when you have no priestly credentials?’ Behind the questions is also anxiety over the stability and security of the temple, especially since Jesus takes this action so close to Passover.7 Perhaps the remainder of the passage will bring further concerns to light.
21:23 By what authority are you doing these things? The challenge issued by the chief priests and elders sets the stage for the rest of chapters 21–22. The question of authority is at the heart of the conflict between Jesus and various groups of Jewish leaders that challenge him. But Jesus will confound them and evade their “traps” (22:15, 23, 34). His wisdom amazes those listening (22:22, 33), and his final riddle silences their interrogations (22:46). We can outline this as follows:
- Jesus’ authority is challenged by chief priests and elders (21:23–27).
- Jesus tells three parables to challenge the Jewish leaders: they will miss out on the kingdom because they reject him (21:28–22:14).
- Pharisees and Herodians test Jesus on the imperial tax (22:15–22).
- Sadducees test Jesus on resurrection (22:23–33).
- Pharisees test Jesus on Torah (22:34–40).
- Jesus confounds the Jewish leaders with a riddle (22:41–46).
Ver. 23.—When he was come into the temple. The conversation recorded here belongs to the Tuesday of the Holy Week, and took place in the courts of the temple, at this time filled with pilgrims from all parts of the world, who hung upon Christ’s words, and beheld his doings with wonder and awe. This sight roused to fury the envy and anger of the authorities, and they sent forth sections of their cleverest men to undermine his authority in the eyes of the people, or to force from him statements on which they might found criminal accusation against him. The chief priests and the elders of the people. According to the other evangelists, there were also scribes, teachers of the Law, united with them in this deputation, which thus comprised all the elements of the Sanhedrin. This seems to have been the first time that the council took formal notice of Jesus’ claims and actions, and demanded from him personally an account of himself. They had been quick enough in inquiring into the Baptist’s credentials, when he suddenly appeared on the banks of Jordan (see John 1:19, etc.); but they had studiously, till quite lately, avoided any regular investigation of the pretensions of Jesus. In the face of late proceedings, this could no longer be delayed. A crisis had arrived; their own peculiar province was publicly invaded, and their authority attacked; the opponent must be withstood by the action of the constituted court. As he was teaching. Jesus did not confine himself to beneficent acts; he used the opportunity of the gathering of crowds around him to preach unto them the gospel (Luke 20:1), to teach truths which came with double force from One who had done such marvellous things. By what authority doest thou these things? They refer to the triumphal entry, the reception of the homage offered, the healing of the blind and lame, the teaching as with the authority of a rabbi, and especially to the cleansing of the temple. No one could presume to teach without a proper commission: where was his authorization? They were the guardians and rulers of the temple: what right had he to interfere with their management, and to use the sacred precincts for his own purposes? These and such like questions were in their mind when they addressed him thus. Wilfully ignoring the many proofs they had of Christ’s Divine mission (which one of them, Nicodemus, had long before been constrained to own, John 3:2), they raised the question now as a novel and unanswered one. Who gave thee this authority? They resolve the general inquiry into the personal one—Who was it that conferred upon you this authority which you presume to exercise? Was it some earthly ruler, or was it God himself? Perhaps they mean to insinuate that Satan was the master whose power he wielded—an accusation already often made. They thought thus to place Christ in an embarrassing position, from which he could not emerge without affording the opportunity which they desired. The trap was cleverly set, and, as they deemed, unavoidable. If he was forced to confess that he spoke and acted without any proper authorization, he would be humiliated in the eyes of the people, and might be officially silenced by the strong hand. If he asserted himself to be the Messiah and the bearer of a Divine commission, they would at once bring against him a charge of blasphemy (ch. 26:65).
Matthew 21:23. By what authority doest thou these things? As the other schemes and open attempts to attack Christ had not succeeded, the priests and scribes now attempt, by indirect methods, if they may possibly cause him to desist from the practice of teaching. They do not debate with him as to the doctrine itself, whether it was true or not—for already had they often enough attacked him in vain on that question—but they raise a dispute as to his calling and commission. And, indeed, there were plausible grounds; for since a man ought not, of his own accord, to intermeddle either with the honour of priesthood, or with the prophetical office, but ought to wait for the calling of God, much less would any man be at liberty to claim for himself the title of Messiah, unless it were evident that he had been chosen by God; for he must have been appointed, not only by the voice of God, but likewise by an oath, as it is written, (Psalm 110:4; Heb. 7:21.)
But when the divine majesty of Christ had been attested by so many miracles, they act maliciously and wickedly in inquiring whence he came, as if they had been ignorant of all that he had done. For what could be more unreasonable than that, after seeing the hand of God openly displayed in curing the lame and blind, they should doubt if he were a private individual who had rashly assumed this authority? Besides, more than enough of evidence had been already laid before them, that Christ was sent from heaven, so that nothing was farther from their wish than to approve of the performances of Christ, after having learned that God was the Author of them. They therefore insist on this, that he is not a lawful minister of God, because he had not been chosen by their votes, as if the power had dwelt solely with them. But though they had been the lawful guardians of the Church, still it was monstrous to rise up against God. We now understand why Christ did not make a direct reply to them. It was because they wickedly and shamelessly interrogated him about a matter which was well known.
23. The chief priests and elders together with the scribes made up the Sanhedrin, which was responsible for maintaining order in civil and religious affairs. This was, then, a high-level deputation. These things are presumably Jesus’ actions in vv. 1–13, but underlying the question are the ummistakable claims which those actions involved, which had led to the explicitly Messianic reaction of the crowd (vv. 9, 15) to which they had already objected.
21:23 “the chief priests and elders of the people” Notice in verse 15 they are called “chief priests” and “scribes.” These three groups made up the Sanhedrin. Whether they were an official or unofficial delegation is uncertain, but they represented the Jewish leadership.
“while He was teaching” Jesus taught under Solomon’s portico in the Court of the Gentiles within the Temple area. He was still trying to reach the Jewish leadership.
“ ‘By what authority are You doing these things’ ” This was the central question! “These things” could refer to the cleansing of the Temple (cf. vv. 12–16), Jesus’ rejection of oral tradition, or His public miracles. They could not deny the miraculous acts, so they attacked the source of His authority. Apparently the religious leaders of Jesus’ day thought Jesus was an extremely powerful demon possessed person (cf. 12:24; Mark 3:22; Luke 11:15; Jn. 7:20; 8:48, 52; 10:20–21).
23. Now when he had entered the temple and was teaching there, the chief priests and the elders of the people came up to him with the question, By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority? Jesus was teaching, no doubt, in one of the “porches,” “porticos” or “halls” of the temple. These porches were beautiful and huge. They were covered colonnades that ran all around the inside of the wall of the vast temple complex. Or, to put it differently, these halls were bounded on the outside by the temple wall, on the inside by the Court of the Gentiles. Most splendid and widest of them all was “the Royal Porch” (Stoa Basilica)—built where according to tradition the palace of Solomon used to be—consisting of four rows of columns, 162 in all, forming three vast halls, on the south side of the temple complex. Famous also was Solomon’s Porch on the east side (John 10:23: Acts 3:11; 5:12).
While Jesus was teaching and “preaching the gospel” (Luke 20:1) in one of these places, “the chief priests and elders” (thus Matthew), “the chief priests and the scribes and the elders” (Mark 11:27; cf. Luke 20:1), came up to Jesus. See on 2:4 and 16:21 for a description of these three groups. Again, as in 21:15, it is impossible to say definitely whether these groups were acting on their own initiative or as a delegation sent by the Sanhedrin, though in the present instance—because they ask Jesus about his authority—the latter seems probable. Their question is clear. They want to know by what authority Jesus was doing these things, that is, who had given him this right. They were saying, “Show us your credentials!” It was an attempt to embarrass Jesus. If he admitted that he had no credentials the people could be expected to lose respect for him. On the other hand, if he considered himself authorized to do the things he had been doing, was he not arrogating to himself rights that belonged only to God? Could he not then be accused of being guilty of blasphemous behavior? By not assaulting him directly, for example by having him arrested, they reveal that they are afraid of him because of his following.
But what do they mean by “these things”? They must have been referring to recent or present activities, that is, to things he had done on Sunday or on Monday, or to what he was doing on this Tuesday. Among commentators there is general agreement that the cleansing of the temple was included in “these things.” This opinion is undoubtedly correct (cf. John 2:18). But was this the only thing to which these enemies of Jesus referred? There is a wide difference of opinion among commentators. Some would include Sunday’s royal entry into Jerusalem. Others say, “No,” for the ovation he received at that time was not his own doing. Over against this stands the fact that he did not at all oppose the hosannas of his disciples and of the children (see 20:16; Luke 19:39). The royal entry may therefore have been included in “these things.” And if we bear in mind the fact that Christ’s enemies ascribed his miracles to the power of Beelzebub operative within him, even the deeds of kindness to the blind and the lame may have been included. However, the context in Luke would seem to indicate that it was especially the teaching in the temple and the preaching of the gospel there that must have irked the Jewish leaders. To say, with some, that the chief priests, elders, etc., could not have had this in mind because “any rabbi had a right to teach” misses the point: these Jewish dignitaries certainly did not want “the gospel” preached there!
21:23. Jesus returned to the temple since this was the place in Jerusalem where people came to hear the Scriptures taught. And teach he did. But Jesus also returned to do battle, knowing that his opponents were waiting for him.
The chief priests and the elders of the people interrupted his teaching to challenge his authority. Both groups belonged to the Sanhedrin, the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of the Jewish government. These things that Jesus was doing included his purging of the temple on the previous day, but they may also have included other events (the triumphal entry, his acceptance of praise as the “Son of David,” his teaching in the temple, and his miraculous healings). They asked him to state the authority by which he did these things and the source of his authority (who gave you this authority?).
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