But Jesus said to them, “I will question you one single word - and you must respond to me - and I will say to you by what authority I am doing these things. Was the baptism of John from heaven or from humans? Respond to me.”
Have you noticed how firmly Jesus asked them to respond? The particular issue about which he questioned them was ‘the baptism of John’.
John was a cousin of Jesus who had called the Israelites to change their minds about their own sinfulness and evil hearts and ways. He had a huge following among the ordinary people, and folk outwardly confirmed their self-sorrow by being baptized in the river Jordan by John. They went under in sorrow.
Jesus himself had been baptized by John three years earlier. He would speak to his disciples of his rejection, suffering and death a few days later as being his true baptism. He went under in sorrow not for his own sin but for the sin of others.
One could ask, “Was the baptism of Jesus from heaven or from humans?” Was he forced by humans into death or did he die for heavenly reasons? Have you responded to that? Everyone has.
And they reasoned among themselves, stating, “What shall we say? If we may say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say, ‘Through what then did you not believe him?’ But if instead we may say, ‘From humans’”—they were afraid of the people, because they all held that John truly was a prophet. And they responded to Jesus, stating, “We do not know.”
The religious, political and economic Jerusalem authorities focused solely on what to say – not on what they really believed or on what was really true. They couldn’t find any form of words to fit their rejection of John’s baptism and their wish to stay popular (to a degree) with the people.
“We do not know.” They pronounced themselves agnostic (no-knowledge). They hadn’t responded to John’s baptism; they didn’t respond to Jesus.
And Jesus stated to them, “Then I myself am not stating to you by what authority I am doing these things.”
This seems to be a wise decision. If he had claimed to have authority from his Father – the Lord God above – they would have condemned him (as they would shortly do anyway) as a blasphemer and a fraud. If he had stated that he was acting on his own authority in disrupting the Temple profit-takers they would have condemned him as one fighting against the Lord God and his Temple.