When representatives of the Sanhedrin question the nature and source of Jesus’ authority, he responds with a question of his own. His question plainly exposes their hearts. They are blind watchmen, mute watchdogs … worthless leaders. And they will soon lose their own authority
The scene is comical and full of irony. The Sanhedrin (the chief priests and the scribes with the elders) comes to Jesus to challenge both the nature of his authority and its source. They want to know whether he comes as king or prophet or priest. After all, he rode in on a donkey in a clear allusion to Zechariah 9:9. And by their shouts his disciples show that they both caught and bought the allusion. But then he played the prophet in the prediction of Jerusalem’s destruction. Then he came into the temple and began dictating what ought and ought not go on there. And it wasn’t exactly clear when he called the temple “my father’s house” whether he was speaking for himself or quoting scripture, so they want to get him to hang a charge of blasphemy on himself. So they ask him the nature of his authority and where he got it.
But Jesus turns the tables on them. They are asking him a question about his authority. They are men in authority. They are called to be the watchmen of Israel. Their remit includes identifying heretics and ridding the land of them. So Jesus’ counter-question isn’t out of line at all. Knowing the nature and source of John’s authority is at the heart of their job description. And the stand that they take with regard to John will answer their question regarding Jesus, since John pointed to Jesus as the Messiah.
But these men are not interested in the truth. The question of what is true regarding John does not even enter into their deliberations. All they care about is political expediency and self-preservation. We know that they do not actually believe John’s baptism was from God. We were told that in Luke 7:30.
I tell you, among those born of women none is greater than John. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.” 29 (When all the people heard this, and the tax collectors too, they declared God just,having been baptized with the baptism of John, 30 but the Pharisees and the lawyers rejected the purpose of God for themselves, not having been baptized by him.) (Luke 7:28–30 ESV)
If John is a heretic, falsely claiming to prophesy, then they had a legal responsibility to declare it and have him stoned. But if they now come out and say that he was a false prophet, they may be the ones stoned, since the people had seen God working through John. He’d been a whistle-blower on the corruption of his day. He’d convicted their hearts and brought them to repentance. And he’d even died for his beliefs. The leadership is on the horns of a dilemma. And they “plead the 5th” rather than answer the question. Their professed agnosticism is nothing more than a political dodge.
When men reject God’s revelation, two things eventually happen. God stops talking to them (Amos 8:11-12; 1 Samuel 3:1), and God rejects them. Jesus does actually answer them, just not directly. The answer is in his very thinly veiled parable. He is the Son. That’s the nature of his authority and its source. They should have known this already, of course, since he taught with authority, banished demons, commanded the winds and the waves, etc. But since they had rejected this clear revelation, Jesus would refuse to give them more … at least plainly. He does tell them a parable.
And in that parable they are rejected as wicked tenants. They were upset about his citation of Isaiah 56 at the temple cleansing: “My house will be called a house of prayer for all peoples” (verse 7). But they should have kept reading:
All you beasts of the field, come to devour— all you beasts in the forest. 10 His watchmen are blind; they are all without knowledge; they are all silent dogs; they cannot bark, dreaming, lying down, loving to slumber. 11 The dogs have a mighty appetite; they never have enough. But they are shepherds who have no understanding; they have all turned to their own way, each to his own gain, one and all. 12 “Come,” they say, “let me get wine; let us fill ourselves with strong drink; and tomorrow will be like this day, great beyond measure.” (Is 56:9–12 ESV)
This is why they are being rejected. And this is why Jesus pointed them to John. Not only was Jesus’ ministry tied to John’s, but that connection would reveal their failure as men in authority. They were like watchdogs that were mute and hungry. As long as they are fed, they have no bark. They are like blind watchmen, who cannot see truth and who overlook evil and coming disaster. And so they will be rejected. God will give his vineyard to others.
This should not have taken them by surprise. The prediction was ancient: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone’ (Psalm 118:22) and the image had been picked up on a number of times. In another passage condemning faithless leaders of his covenant people, God says,
Behold, I am the one who has laid as a foundation in Zion, a stone, a tested stone, a precious cornerstone, of a sure foundation: ‘Whoever believes will not be in haste.’ 17 And I will make justice the line, and righteousness the plumb line; … (Is 28:16–17 ESV)
A cornerstone, like a plumb line, is a standard of straightness. If the cornerstone is not perfect, the walls will be crooked.
The leadership were not guided by justice and righteous, but by political expediency. They cared more about the people’s perception of them than they did about God’s perception of them. God is making a name for himself. And his blessings, his people, are his doing. Any authority men are given to administer those blessings and that people is a derived authority. It was given, and it can be taken away.
Jesus is the cornerstone, the plumb line, the standard of all things for the church. The leadership of the church must never forget that. When they cease to care more about truth than popularity, when they care more about money than souls, when justice and righteousness no longer dictate all their actions, when they begin to lord their authority over others, rather than making themselves nothing and leading by Christ’s example, they have become blind watchmen, mute guard dogs. They are worthless leaders.
If Jesus is the cornerstone, then everything the church does must be directly related to him. The gospel must be the center about which the whole machine turns. We must have the same mind in us that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant,being born in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (Phil 2:5–8 ESV)
Everything we do must be measured against Jesus’ love, Jesus’ joy, Jesus’ peace, his patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.
It really is a matter of authority. Do we bow before him as our King? Do we give up our demands of self-direction, and trust that his word is true and perfect, and that his love is pure, and that his power is immeasurable and incomprehensible.? Do we recognize his mercy and grace and give ourselves up as living sacrifices, our rational response of worship?