The central question in Matthew 21:23 and following centers around the issue of authority. The chief priests and elders of the people want to know by what authority Jesus is teaching and performing miracles and who gave him this authority. So, as Jesus is teaching in the temple in Jerusalem, they interrupt him to ask: “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority.”
I don’t know what sort of answer they expected from Jesus. They would have found fault with whatever he said, since they’re asking not because they really want to know the answer, but because they’re accusing him of not having the right to do the things he’s been doing.
Jesus seems to know this, so as in many places in the Gospels, he turns the tables on them. He says, “I also will ask you one question, and if you tell me the answer, then I also will tell you by what authority I do these things.” Then he asks them about John the Baptist and the baptisms he performed. Jesus asks, “The baptism of John, from where did it come? From heaven or from man?”
This is a very good question, and it gets to the heart of what baptism is. Prior to John the Baptist, there were a number of different types of washings that the Israelites and Jews performed. In the Old Testament, the Israelites had ritual washings that prepared them for worship or service in the Temple by making themselves ceremonially clean; these were self-administered, the person who wished to be ceremonially clean would wash himself. Then, there was what was called proselyte baptism. This was for proselytes – or Gentiles who wished to join themselves to Israel. It was also self-performed, but was done only once in the proselyte’s life; it brought him into the community of promise, making him a part of the Church Israel.
So, these types of washings – the regular ceremonial washings and the one-time proselyte baptisms – preceded John. And what they had in common were that they were both self-administered. But, when John comes, he does something different. The baptism he performs is no longer self-administered. The one who was to be baptized did not baptize himself, but rather received baptism from John. And John’s baptism was done only once to a person; it was a baptism of repentance in anticipation of the coming of the Promised One. So, John’s Baptism served as a mark of repentance – a recognition that the one who had received John’s Baptism felt the weight of God’s Law and repented of his sins and looked for the Messiah, or Christ, who would save him from his sins.
And, most significantly, John’s baptism was for Jews. This was the message: that the descendants of Abraham needed to repent and receive God’s grace through Christ; that God saves all people one way, and that is through Jesus Christ. The baptism of John said that people were not saved by works or ancestry, but rather by faith in the Christ – a faith that could only be grasped through the door of repentance.
We now see why some Jews – particularly the chief priests and elders – took offense at this. They considered themselves sinless – they thought they were shoe-ins for heaven because of their works and descent from Abraham – and so John’s baptism was offensive to them. So when Jesus asks them from where John’s Baptism came, they had to discuss it among themselves. They reasoned, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘From man,’ we are afraid of the crowd, for they all hold that John was a prophet.” They’re trapped by their own self-righteousness. So, they tell Jesus that they don’t know from where John’s Baptism came.
But, we can answer the question that the authorities were afraid to answer. In Matthew 11, Jesus called John the Baptist “Elijah who is to come.” That is, John the Baptist is the one who came to prepare the way for the Lord as foretold by the Old Testament prophets Isaiah and Malachi. So, the authority by which John acted was the authority of God. God called John to his ministry to prepare the way for the coming of Christ and the proclamation of the Gospel in his name.
Now, let’s consider this some more. Jesus Christ, our Lord, came to bring Good News. And this Good News is that he has died for our sins and been raised for our justification to atone for our sins before our heavenly Father and to reconcile us to Him. So, we have the free forgiveness of our sins and restoration to God through Christ’s death and resurrection, apart from any works of our own, and apart from anything residing in us.
But, what does this Good News mean to someone who does not acknowledge that they are sinful and that their relationship with God and others is broken? It means nothing. Being told that God forgives you of your sins through Christ means nothing to someone who doesn’t think he has sins that need to be forgiven. And being told that Christ restores our relationship to God means nothing to someone who doesn’t think that there’s a problem in this relationship. And the problem is sin. Sin is a departure from the way God has willed things to be, most succinctly stated in the 10 Commandments, but written on the hearts of all people as the natural moral law.
So, John the Baptist’s ministry of a baptism of repentance preceded Jesus’ ministry. John came first to preach the Law to bring people to repentance, to show them that they are sinners, and turn their eyes outward to look for the Savior. And then Jesus the Savior came with forgiveness; he came with the Gospel. But, the Law had to come first, before the Gospel could be received, because people first had to feel God’s wrath and the longing for forgiveness before that forgiveness could be received by them as the gift that it is.
So, that’s why the chief priests, elders, and Pharisees took offense at John’s Baptism. John was saying that something was wrong with their relationship with God – they were sinners. Now these leaders of the people did not consider themselves sinners, so they didn’t see the need to receive a baptism of repentance, because they didn’t see that they needed to repent of anything. And they certainly didn’t see the need to receive a baptism from John – a man living in the wilderness dressed in a cloak of hair and eating locusts and wild honey – a man who was treating the Jews no better than the Gentiles.
And so this is the background that gives us a better understanding for the parable that Jesus tells in the text. The parable comes immediately after Jesus tells the rulers that since they will not tell him by what authority John baptized, neither will Jesus tell them by what authority he does these things. This context helps make sense of Jesus’ parable.
Jesus speaks of a man with two sons. The father tells the first son to go work in the vineyard, and the son refuses. But, later, the son did in fact go work in the vineyard. And the man tells his second son to go work in the vineyard also. And this son said that he would go work, but then he didn’t. So, Jesus asks the chief priests and elders, “Which of the two did the will of his father?” And the rulers answered that the first son – the one who had initially refused, but then went to work in the vineyard – he was the one who did the will of his father.
Jesus has just caught them in their own words. He says to them, “Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him. And even when you saw it, you did not afterward change your minds and believe him.”
The tax collectors and prostitutes are used as symbols of sinners as a whole. Sinners who repent are like the son in Jesus’ parable who repents of his sin and then goes to work in the vineyard; that is, they come to faith and then their works flow from their faith. But, the chief priests, elders, and Pharisees were like the other son in Jesus’ parable who said that he would follow God’s Law, but then didn’t do it and didn’t repent, instead deluding himself that he was self-righteous.
So, those who feel their sins due to the conviction of God’s Law repent, and instead of trusting in their own works they trust instead in the work of Jesus Christ on the cross and the empty tomb for forgiveness and salvation. Conversely, those who are self-righteous reject Christ and instead trust in themselves, which is a fatal mistake, because they are sinners too, but just don’t realize it.
And so we come back to the issue of authority. John came with the authority of God; he came to proclaim a baptism of repentance in order to show people their sinful nature and to point people to the one person in whom they have forgiveness – he came to point people to Christ.
And Jesus likewise comes with the authority of God; for he is the Son of God sent by the Father. He comes to proclaim the forgiveness of sins and restoration to God that is found in his death and resurrection.
So these two belong together – John and Jesus – just as Law and Gospel belong together. For John preceded Jesus, just as the Law precedes the Gospel. The Law opens the hearts and minds of people to realize that they need the Gospel; it shows them their need for forgiveness.
And just as the Law is not the end of the matter, for it is pointing to something greater, John was not the end of the matter, for he too was pointing to something – someone greater. John’s Baptism was from God, but it pointed to a greater Baptism – a Baptism that would come after Jesus’ death and resurrection.
For we now have Christ’s Baptism – Christian Baptism. And this baptism is similar to John’s in that it is not self-administered – as if we were the ones in charge of our salvation – but rather is administered to us by another. But, it differs from the baptism of John in that our Christian Baptism seals us in God’s promise of salvation through Christ with the bestowing of the Holy Spirit upon us. And it also unites us with Christ’s own death and resurrection. Just as Christ died, we too die in our Baptism – God buries the old person that we were, the one who was born dead in sin. And just as Christ rose, we too rise in our Baptism – God raises up a new person, one reborn into Christ’s life. So, our Baptism which God bestows on us connects us with Christ’s own death and resurrection and gives us the benefits of Christ’s dying and rising.
Paul wrote of this to the Colossians when he exhorted them to remain faithful to their confession of faith. For their faith is what grasps hold of the promises of God given to them in Baptism. Paul wrote:
“See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ. For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority.
In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead.
And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.“ (Colossians 2:8-15).
So, it’s all an issue of authority. You were once the walking dead, dead in your sins and unable to free yourselves through your own authority. No matter what you did, no matter what you do, by your own power, works, and authority you could not and cannot free yourselves from sin, death, and the devil.
But, there is one with greater authority than you, because He created you. And he came to free you by virtue of his authority as the almighty Lord God. And he came in the flesh; God incarnate with His authority as the eternal Lord came to free you from your captivity. And he did this through his death and resurrection. And he gave you the benefits of his death and resurrection when he baptized you into his name and bestowed on you the Holy Spirit to bring you to faith in this promise.
So, you have been freed from your slavery to death and made sons and daughters of God instead through Christ. This is a sure promise, because it rests on God’s authority and not on you. Because it’s all a question of authority. You can be sure of your salvation, because God has told you that you are saved. He’s given you His Word in the waters of Baptism and His incarnate Word in the Lord’s Supper. And His Word is backed by His authority as Yahweh – He who is and causes to be – the Lord.
So His authority is what matters and He has spoken you into salvation through His Word, just as He created all things in the beginning through His Word. He has recreated you as His children in Baptism by the authority of His Strong Word. And He will raise you up from your graves when Christ returns on the last day, and He will fix your broken bones and ashes, put muscle and flesh upon them, and then breathe His Spirit back into you to make you the living. And this is all because He has the power and authority to do this, and He has chosen to use this authority to save you from eternal death so that you and He and all His people may live together in eternity in a creation that He is also restoring. Amen.
(Image: Jesus and John the Baptist. 15th century, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7105684).