First-century Jews who were privileged to be eyewitnesses to the ministry of Jesus saw many amazing things: the feeding of thousands of people with only a few morsels of food, the restoration of sight to the blind, the resurrection of the dead, and many other miracles our Lord performed. But in addition to Jesus’ mighty works, people also found Christ’s teaching particularly compelling. In fact, they were astonished, “for he taught them as one who had authority, and not as the scribes” (Mark 1:22).
In today’s passage, Mark highlights the matter of Jesus’ authority by recording an exchange our Lord had in the temple with “the chief priests and the scribes and the elders” not long before He went to the cross. After witnessing the amazing things that Jesus had said and done, the religious authorities wanted to know the authority that gave Him the right to do such acts (11:27–28). The temple, symbolic of God’s authority, was a particularly apt place for such a question to be raised, and the query itself was an attempt by the leaders to trap Jesus. If Jesus were to answer that His authority came from man or that no one gave Him any authority, the religious leaders could safely tell others to ignore Him. God did not send Jesus or appoint Him, so why listen to Him? On the other hand, if Jesus were to reply that God gave Him His authority, the leaders could charge Him with blasphemy. For Christ to claim a divine commissioning would be to claim to be God Himself, since He had earlier assumed the prerogative of forgiving sins (2:1–12).
The question the leaders asked of Jesus was not worthy of a direct answer. It was clear to anyone who actually cared about the truth that Jesus operated under divine authority, for as Nicodemus recognized, no one could do the things Jesus did without being commissioned by the Lord (John 3:2). Deep down, the priests, scribes, and elders knew the truth, but they were suppressing it in wickedness. John Calvin comments, “Christ did not make a direct reply to them . . . because they wickedly and shamelessly interrogated him about a matter which was well known.”
Thus, Jesus answered them indirectly, posing a question of His own about John’s baptism (Mark 11:29–33). The leaders’ reticence to answer, lest they be trapped by their words and deeds, shows that they did not really want to hear what Jesus had to say in the first place. So, Christ saw no need to answer them.