I was in Russia training pastors and emerging leaders. I returned home to a firestorm of epic proportions, all due to the fact that our worship leader moved the church organ six feet. It wasn’t that he moved it, but that he didn’t ask permission. One person complained to my wife, and Carol responded that the worship leader had talked to me about the idea. The individual responded, “Mark doesn’t have authority to make that decision.” Ironically, people wanted to move the organ for years, but the fact the worship leader made the decision without getting congregational buy-in short-circuited their thinking.
In Mark 11:27-33, members of the Jewish Sanhedrin challenge Jesus because they think he overstepped his boundaries and acted without authority. It is the first of seven controversies between Jesus and the religious establishment (11:27-12:40).
The Sanhedrin was made up of 71 men who served as the ruling body in Israel. The group was made up of the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders. They were the guardians of Israel’s religious life. They exercised complete authority in religious matters and restricted authority in political matters.
As Jesus is walking through the temple precinct on Tuesday following Palm Sunday, several of the chief priests, scribes, and elders accost him (27). While it was not an official delegation of the Sanhedrin, it was the Sanhedrin nonetheless. They ask Jesus two questions, “What is the nature of your authority?” and “Who gave it to you?” (28). The implication is, “It wasn’t us, and we’re in charge!”
The question is, What are “these things” they are so upset about? Undoubtedly, it refers to the events that took place on Palm Sunday as Jesus entered Jerusalem (11:1-11), as well as the day after when he cleared people out of the temple (11:15-19) and cursed the fig tree (11:12-14, 20-21). It could also include Jesus teaching with authority (1:22), casting out demons (1:27), forgiving sins (2:5, 10), accepting sinners (2:13, 15), redefining the Sabbath (2:28), giving his disciples authority over demons (3:15; 6:7), and challenging tradition (7:1-13).
The religious leaders decided enough is enough and challenged Jesus, “Who said you could do this?” They were thinking civil authority, but they disregarded Jesus’ divine authority (Matthew 11:27; John 3:35).
Jesus counters by answering their question with his own question (29-30). Rather than being rude or evasive, this was the normal teaching pattern done by a rabbi. While it seems curious that Jesus would ask their opinion about the ministry of John the Baptist, it makes sense when you realize that when John baptized Jesus, it inaugurated Jesus’ authority. During that event, the heavens opened, the Holy Spirit descended, and the voice from heaven proclaimed Jesus as God’s Son.
By saying, “Answer me,” Jesus was challenging the religious elite to stop straddling the middle line and to take a stand.
The religious leaders are smart enough to recognize that Jesus just backed them into a corner (31-32). No matter what they answer, they are in trouble. If they recognized John as a prophet, they were in trouble with God because they didn’t obey his teachings. If they said John was a self-appointed teacher, they were in trouble with people who esteemed John highly. Playing not to lose, the members of the Sanhedrin pleaded ignorance (33a).
Since Jesus knew the religious leaders were confrontational, not curious, he did not answer their question (33b).
There are two lessons I take away from this passage. One is to follow the example of Jesus in recognizing the difference between a question and a confrontation. Questions should be answered, but confrontations should be ignored. A second lesson is that Jesus has thoroughly demonstrated his authority and right to rule. In light of that, we should submit our lives to him.
This is the synopsis of a message preached at First Central Baptist Church in Chicopee, MA, on September 20, 2015. It is part of a series in the Gospel of Mark. Please click on the link to download a copy of the sermon notes.