Matthew 21:23-25 – Jesus entered the temple courts, and, while he was teaching, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him. “By what authority are you doing these things?” they asked. “And who gave you this authority?”
Jesus replied, “I will also ask you one question. If you answer me, I will tell you by what authority I am doing these things. 25 John’s baptism — where did it come from? Was it from heaven, or from men?”
They discussed it among themselves and said, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will ask, ‘Then why didn’t you believe him?’ NIV
Jesus is teaching in the Temple courts, and the leaders of the Temple came and asked, “By what authority are you doing these things? And who gave you this authority?” Disregarding their motives, this was probably a fair question for them to ask anyone teaching in the Temple Courts.
Jesus knew their motives and did not answer their question directly. He gave them a condition on which He would answer their question. If they would answer His question about the authority of John the Baptist’s baptism, he would answer their question. The Jewish leaders reasoned that Jesus had put them in a bind where either they would have the disapproval of the populace who followed John or looking like hypocrites for not believing in John. They declined to answer with: “We don’t know.”
So Jesus in keeping with his stated conditions, declined to answer their question and continued teaching using parables that eventually pointed out the poor stewardship of the Jewish leaders religious authority and reinforced their desire to get rid of Him.
What would have happened if He would have answered them directly? Quite possibly he would have been accused of blasphemy right then and there. However, I think that He wanted to point out to the crowd the motives behind the question and the desire for power and control that drove these leaders.
Often when we are faced with a question, we might do well to test the motives and basis for the question. It is good to find out where people are on their spiritual journey before we respond to their questions because the answer we give may just be what they were looking for to begin an argument that will derail discussion.
It’s like the little child who comes up to a parent and asks, “Where did I come from?” The parent gulps and gives “the talk” about human sexuality. To which the child replies, “That’s not what I’m talking about. Tommy is from Denver. I want to know where did I come from?”
Certainly, Jesus can teach us discernment as we seek to talk with receptive people and some not so receptive people about our faith.