They arrived again in Jerusalem, and while Jesus was walking in the temple courts, the chief priests, the teachers of the law, and the elders came to him.
“By what authority are you doing these things?” they asked, “And who gave you authority to do this?”
The day after cleansing the temple, Jesus arrives again. As he walks through the temple courts, the leaders of the temple – no doubt upset after yesterday’s disruption – begin to question Jesus’ authority. If Jesus is claiming the right to cleanse the temple or challenge the teachings of the elders and rabbis, what gives him the right to do so?
Messianic Jew David Stern argues that behind the Greek word exousia (authority) is likely the Hebrew word s’mikhah (ordination). This word is connected to the practice of laying on of hands that would symbolically transfer the authority and responsibility of an office from one person to another. The practice goes back to Moses’ ordination of Joshua and the seventy elders in the book of Numbers. By laying his hands on them, they were given the authority and responsibility of his office. They were ordained to it. By Jesus’ day, a more formal process had developed. In order to be an ordained Rabbi (who could offer new interpretations of God’s word), a man had to be examined by a board of three elders, one of whom had to be ordained. Only then would one be granted s’mikhah.
Having ruminated on Jesus’ temple cleansing for the better part of a day, the temple leaders decide to question Jesus’ credentials. Is he ordained? Does he have the authority to do what he did? Even with full credentials, Jesus’ actions would have been shocking and unprecendented, but without them, he would stand on shaky ground.
Understanding their question helps understand Jesus’ response. There is no record of Jesus studying under an ordained Rabbi, nor that he was examined by a set of elders. As far as we are told in the gospels, there is no direct evidence that Jesus went through this ordinary process. However, he was anointed by the Holy Spirit and twice declared by the Father himself to be the beloved Son. Jesus was ordained and given greater authority, greater s’mikhah, than any teacher before, because his authority came directly from God. So Jesus’ asks these teachers a question about John’s baptism. Was the power and authority of John’s baptism something conferred by humans or by God? Trapped by their own fear of Jesus and the crowds, they fail the test and do not get Jesus’ answer. Yet, I wonder if his answer isn’t in the question itself. Is Jesus’ authority from God or from man? Did Jesus receive his ordination as God’s messiah from humans or God? The discussion is telling:
“If we say, ‘from heaven’, he will ask, ‘then why didn’t you believe him?’”
Jesus’ authority to cleanse the temple, to challenge the prevailing interpretations of God’s word, and to offer new teaching rests on authority given to him by the Father, sealed by the testimony and work of the Holy Spirit.