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By What Authority?

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27 And they came again to Jerusalem. And as he was walking in the temple, the chief priests and the scribes and the elders came to him, 28 and they said to him, “By what authority are you doing these things, or who gave you this authority to do them?” 29 Jesus said to them, “I will ask you one question; answer me, and I will tell you by what authority I do these things. 30 Was the baptism of John from heaven or from man? Answer me.” 31 And they discussed it with one another, saying, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ 32 But shall we say, ‘From man’?”—they were afraid of the people, for they all held that John really was a prophet. 33 So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And Jesus said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.”

12:1 And he began to speak to them in parables. “A man planted a vineyard and put a fence around it and dug a pit for the winepress and built a tower, and leased it to tenants and went into another country. 2 When the season came, he sent a servant to the tenants to get from them some of the fruit of the vineyard. 3 And they took him and beat him and sent him away empty-handed. 4 Again he sent to them another servant, and they struck him on the head and treated him shamefully. 5 And he sent another, and him they killed. And so with many others: some they beat, and some they killed. 6 He had still one other, a beloved son. Finally he sent him to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ 7 But those tenants said to one another, ‘This is the heir. Come, let us kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.’ 8 And they took him and killed him and threw him out of the vineyard. 9 What will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others. 10 Have you not read this Scripture:

“ ‘The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone;
11 this was the Lord’s doing,
and it is marvelous in our eyes’?”

12 And they were seeking to arrest him but feared the people, for they perceived that he had told the parable against them. So they left him and went away.

This is the third time Jesus has entered Jerusalem since he arrived outside the city. But this time he is confronted by the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders as he lingered in the temple. The plot is thickening; these are the exact three groups that Jesus predicted would reject him and kill him: “And he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again” (Mark 8:31). These three groups comprise the Jewish supreme council and court of justice, the Sanhedrin. They have come to question Jesus. What right does he have to do the things he has been doing?

Jesus simply cannot be ignored, either by the Sanhedrin in Jesus’ day or by any serious person today. One of the most distinctive features of the life and ministry of Jesus is the authority that he commanded. So what does Jesus have to say about himself? Let’s examine the authority of Jesus, and then look at how that authority was rejected by the Sanhedrin. We will conclude by seeing how Jesus promises to reestablish his authority in spite of widespread rejection.

THE AUTHORITY OF JESUS

The Gospel of Mark opens with people observing that when Jesus taught, there was unique authority in his instruction, such that “even the unclean spirits” were forced to obey him (Mark 1:22, 27). Jesus also demonstrated his authority by pronouncing forgiveness of sins and by healing people (Mark 2:10). When he came to Jerusalem, he continues to demonstrate his unique authority.

The claim of authority

First, he rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, not only a symbol of royalty but also a symbol of the claim to be the long-awaited King, the Messiah. The religious elite were outraged by this act and by the adulation of the crowd who shouted, “Hosanna” (save us, now).

But then the next day he entered the temple and forcibly removed the merchants and overturned the tables of the money-changers. This fueled the indignation of the chief priests and scribes and is the basis of their question in verse 28, “By what authority are you doing these things, or who gave you this authority to do them?” They have not misinterpreted Jesus’ actions. Jesus is claiming to be Lord of Jerusalem and Lord of the temple mount. This is a claim of divine authority.

The source of authority

The obvious question, then, is the one the Sanhedrin asks Jesus. He has made a claim of authority by acting with authority. “Jesus, from where did you get this authority?”

Jesus responds to their question with a question of his own in verse 30. He says in verse 29 that if they will answer his question, then he will answer theirs. This is, of course, standard rabbinic teaching technique, to answer a question with a question, but why does Jesus do this? Why, even at the end of this chapter, does he refuse to answer the question? (“Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things,” verse 33.)

The reason is that Jesus knows the Sanhedrin have not come with sincerity in asking this question. The kind of authority Jesus is demonstrating can have only one source. Yet if Jesus admits that he has received his authority from God, it could lead to a charge of blasphemy.[1] In other words, they have come to Jesus for exactly the same reason the Pharisees came to Jesus to ask him about divorce in chapter ten. They have come to “test” Jesus. They are not looking for reasons to believe Jesus; they are looking for reasons to reject Jesus.

Jesus masterfully reveals this insincerity by posing this question to the Sanhedrin. “Was the baptism of John from heaven or from man?” This was not an irrelevant change of subject. The correct answer to this question will point to the answer to the question they had asked Jesus. In other words, Jesus knows that the problem for the Sanhedrin is not a “knowing” problem but an “accepting” problem. Their problem is not a lack of information but a lack of faith.

So he asks them about their views concerning John the Baptist. From where did John get his authority? There is only two options. Either John was baptizing on the authority of God as a prophet, or he was baptizing on his own authority as a fraud. And Jesus declares his solidarity with John. After all, he had been baptized by John (Mark 1:9). And he preached the same message as John (Mark 1:4, 15). So there are only two options about Jesus’ authority, too. There are two options and only two possible verdicts. How will the Sanhedrin decide?

The response to authority

We don’t have to guess how they wanted to answer. But Mark tells us that “they discussed it with one another” first (v. 31). The verb “discussed” occurs seven times in Mark, and each time it describes the actions of people who are “trying to evade the force of Jesus’ word or claim on them.”[2] Jesus has put the Sanhedrin in a dilemma. They reason that if they were to confess that John and Jesus’ authority came from God then their refusal to believe either of them would be self-condemning. On the other hand, what they actually believed about John and Jesus was not the popular opinion. To say that they were both a fraud would be political suicide. The Sanhedrin enjoyed the accolades of their fellow man, so they are afraid to violate common belief about John and Jesus.

Jesus has forced them into a corner. The Sanhedrin must decide and confess what they believe about Jesus. We all must face the same dilemma. Jesus will not go away quietly. He commands our attention and forces us to decide. We cannot ignore him. Most of us don’t think this is a dilemma at all. We have no problem confessing that Jesus’ authority is divine authority. But as soon as we confess that we are at the same time condemning ourselves. If we confess that Jesus is sent from God, then why don’t we believe him? Why do we not do what he commands? Why do we dismiss his words and assume there will be no consequence for doing so?

You have to admire this about the Sanhedrin. At least they see the implications of this decision. They desire to save face so they claim ignorance. Are John and Jesus sent from God or not? “They answered Jesus, ‘We do not know’” (v. 33). They assume the safest bet is to remain neutral, to pretend to keep an open mind. They are saying, “We haven’t been given enough information to make any decision with certainty.” But that’s not true! They have made their decision about both John and Jesus, and Jesus knows that to be the case. That’s why he refuses to play their game. “Jesus said to them, ‘Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things’” (v. 33).

Why does Jesus refuse to answer them? Because he knows they have not come to him in faith but in skepticism. They do not want to believe; they want to find more reason not to believe. Jesus refuses to answer them because they are not being honest in their questioning. And this insincerity is shared by many today who pretend to be neutral and open-minded. But Jesus will not reveal himself in such a situation. He commits himself not to the skeptic but to the one who comes to him in need of mercy. Claims of ignorance are not always signs of humility. Sometimes they are signs of hard-heartedness. It is not arrogant to be certain about some things. Indeed Jesus expects us to be certain about him.

Jesus offers himself to the one that receives him for who he is in faith that he is from God. Jesus turns away from those who reject him, even if they reject him by claiming neutrality. There is no neutrality when it comes to who Jesus is. Our only option is to receive him or to reject him.

THE REJECTION OF JESUS AND HIS AUTHORITY

In Chapter Twelve, Mark relates a parable that Jesus told about a man who planted a vineyard and then leased it out to some tenants. Don’t let the chapter division break the flow of what was happening in the last chapter. “He began to speak to them in parables,” that is, to the Sanhedrin, the ones who came to ask him about from where he got his authority to act as Lord over the temple. At the end of the parable, the Sanhedrin “perceived that he had told the parable against them” (v. 12), so the parable of the tenants is a commentary on the dialogue between Jesus and the Sanhedrin at the end of Chapter Eleven.

God’s vineyard

As with any parable, we should take note of the analogies in the story. One clear analogy is the vineyard. “A man planted a vineyard and put a fence around it and dug a pit for the winepress and built a tower” (v. 1). The wording here closely resembles the details found in Isaiah 5.

Let me sing for my beloved
my love song concerning his vineyard:
My beloved had a vineyard
on a very fertile hill.
He dug it and cleared it of stones,
and planted it with choice vines;
he built a watchtower in the midst of it,
and hewed out a wine vat in it;
and he looked for it to yield grapes,
but it yielded wild grapes
. (Isa 5:1-2)

In Isaiah the failure of the vineyard points to God’s disappointment with his people who fail to produce the righteousness that he expected of them as his chosen people (Isa 5:7). The meaning is a bit different in Jesus’ parable where the problem lies with the tenants of the vineyard and not with the vineyard itself. But the vineyard reference is no doubt the same. God has a vineyard, a chosen people in whom he carries out his mission in the world.

And so God, the “planter of the vineyard” also has expectations. He expects to be able to get some of the fruit from his vineyard. When the season for harvesting had come, “he sent a servant to the tenants to get from them some of the fruit of the vineyard” (v. 2).

God’s collection

But what stands in the way of God’s expectations being met are some wicked tenants who not only refuse to grant him his rightful due as owner of the vineyard, but who also plot to seize the vineyard from him. The servant he sends to collect the fruit is beaten by the tenants and sent away empty-handed (v. 3). God sent “another servant” whom the tenants wound and mistreat (v. 4). A third servant is sent, and this time the tenants kill the servant (v. 5). Amazingly, God sends many other servants but the result is the same: some are beaten and others are killed.

One cannot help but wonder at this point why anyone would continue to send servants to these tenants. But it gets worse. The owner of the vineyard—God himself—“had still one other, a beloved son. Finally he sent him to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son’” (v. 6). Yet we know what is going to happen. “And they took him and killed him and threw him out of the vineyard” (v. 8).

The chief priests and scribes and elders understand what Jesus is saying. They are the wicked tenants in the story. As leaders in Israel, God expects them to lead the nation in righteousness but they have failed miserably. The servants that the owner of the vineyard sent represent the prophets. And just as in Israel’s prior rebellion against God, so now Israel refuses to submit to these messengers of God.

And what is the significance of the “beloved son”? The answer is obvious. The phrase is found two other times in Mark, at Jesus’ baptism (1:11) and at his transfiguration (9:7). The wicked tenants make the same statement in killing the Son that they made in how they treated each of the servants, but the crime is all the more severe since this was the owner’s only son.

God’s response

So we know exactly what “the owner of the vineyard will do. He will come and destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others” (v. 9). That is a just and right response. If John was a prophet of God and if Jesus is God’s beloved Son and if both are sent by God to lay claim on God’s possessions and if both have been rejected and killed then we can only expect God to respond in wrath and vengeance. And we affirm his righteousness in doing so.

Jesus condemns the Sanhedrin by making them the wicked tenants in this story. They will literally kill God’s beloved Son in just a few days just as the tenants had done to the son of the owner of the vineyard. But they are not the only ones represented by the tenants. As one commentator notes, “What is the sum total of human history if not the attempt to rid the universe of God.”[3]

But this is lunacy. The wicked tenants actually think they will get away with their murderous behavior. They reason that if they can just eliminate the heir, “the inheritance will be ours” (v. 7). In the same way those who reject the authority of Jesus and his rightful claim on them are making the absurd challenge to God to come and reclaim his authority if he possibly can. You can be sure he can and he will.

THE REESTABLISHMENT OF JESUS AND HIS AUTHORITY

As irrational as the behavior of the tenants is, there is something else in the parable that seems even more unreasonable. Why does God send servant after servant to the tenants when it is obvious what the results will be in each case? And how can he possibly be convinced that when all else fails he can send his beloved son to them and, as he thinks to himself in verse six, “They will respect my son”? Is God that naive? Does he have more faith in the human condition than we do?

There are two answers to this question. The simplest answer is seen in his incomparable compassion. If only the wicked tenants will repent and receive his messengers, then God will not have to come and destroy them. This is why he continued to send his prophets in the Old Testament.

The Lord, the God of their fathers, sent persistently to them by his messengers, because he had compassion on his people and on his dwelling place. But they kept mocking the messengers of God, despising his words and scoffing at his prophets, until the wrath of the Lord rose against his people, until there was no remedy. (2 Chron 36:15-16)

But once it became clear that the wicked tenants would not receive the servants, why does the owner of the vineyard go ahead and send his beloved son, exposing him to their cruel treatment? Jesus explains why at the end of the parable.

Jesus, the cornerstone

Jesus concludes by citing again from Psalm 118 (the crowd in Mark 11:9 had cited from Psalm 118:26). Verse 10 comes from Psalm 118:22: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.” In Psalm 118 this refers to a stone which had been set aside during the construction of the temple but which eventually became a key stone in the final composition. It became the cornerstone upon which the foundation was held together. Jesus’ citation of this verse points to the reversal of fortunes in God’s kingdom that he has proclaimed often. The last shall be first (Mark 10:31) and the greatest is the servant of all (Mark 10:43-44).

So the one who is despised and rejected by men and by wicked tenants (Isa 53:3) will take center stage in the kingdom of God. Jesus is saying that though he be killed and ignored by millions, he will not be set aside forever.

“This was the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes”

So God will reestablish the authority of the Son, but the question remains: why does he subject the Son to the murderous rejection of the wicked tenants in the first place?

Jesus is not done citing from Psalm 118. Verse 11 quotes from Psalm 118:23: “This is the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes.” The verse speaks of the sovereign providence of God in turning the rejected stone into the cornerstone. He not only effects the “reversal of fortunes” but he does so in such a way as to bring wonder and amazement to the onlookers. See the word cornerstone literally means, “the head of the corner.” So it might mean “cornerstone” but it could also mean “crowning stone,” a stone which was prominently displayed and added beauty to the finished product.

In applying the words of Psalm 118 to the parable of the wicked tenants, Jesus is saying that it is not naïveté that leads God to send servant after servant and ultimately his own beloved Son to be abused by the tenants of his vineyard. It is his sovereign will that leads him to do so. And he does so in order to bring a sense of wonder and amazement that will captivate us forever, even if now we can’t understand his actions. It is precisely Jesus’ humbling of himself to the point of death on a cross that leads to his exaltation which will bring every tongue to confess that he indeed is Lord (Phil 2:9-11).

CONCLUSION: The salvation of the rebels

The message to the representatives of the Sanhedrin is clear. In refusing to submit to the authority of Jesus, they are disrespecting God. And God will, in the words of verse nine, “come and destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others.” To whom will he give it? The parable does not say, but it would surely be given to those who honored Jesus and his authority.

And whom might that be? It is easy for some of us to feel self-righteous in light of the behavior of the chief priests, scribes, and elders. We would not respond to Jesus as they had, would we? But imagine Jesus turning to us and asking, “If you say I am sent from God, then why don’t you believe me?” You see, we too are found guilty of rebellion. The most “righteous” among us are still more like the wicked tenants than we would care to admit.

What hope do we have of not being destroyed with the wicked tenants? Our only hope is the rejected stone. The one that we have rejected. But the good news is that he came to save rebels like us. Listen to what Peter later proclaimed to the Sanhedrin.

This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders, which has become the cornerstone. And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved. (Acts 4:11-12)

The Son who was killed by wicked tenants has reestablished his authority over all. No one will be saved from the wrath of God apart from him. But all can be saved from God’s wrath precisely because of him. You and I have rebelled against God and by our sin have killed his Son. But God vindicated him, raising him from the dead and offering salvation through him. Is this “marvelous” in your eyes?


[1] James R. Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark, The Pillar New Testament Commentary, ed. D. A. Carson (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2002), 351.

[2] Ibid., 352-53.

[3] Ibid., 359.

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