Jesus—His Life and Message: The Question of Authority

January 19, 2021

by Peter Amsterdam

Each of the Synoptic Gospels1 speak of a time when the Jewish religious leaders questioned Jesus as to who had given Him authority to do the things He was doing.2 These Gospels also give the account of Jesus’ response when these religious leaders questioned Him regarding paying taxes to the Roman emperor.3 In this article, we’ll look at the descriptions of these two events in the book of Luke.

Conflict with the Temple Leadership

One day, as Jesus was teaching the people in the temple and preaching the gospel, the chief priests and the scribes with the elders came up and said to him, “Tell us by what authority you do these things, or who it is that gave you this authority.”4 

We are not told exactly when this event happened, only that it was on one of the days Jesus was teaching in the temple in Jerusalem. It is likely that whenever Jesus was in the city, He spent time in the temple.

On this day, while He was teaching and preaching the good news of the gospel in the temple, He was approached by representatives of the Jerusalem Sanhedrin—which included the chief priests; the scribes, who were legal experts; and the elders. Earlier in this Gospel, Jesus had mentioned that He would be rejected by these three groups.

The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed.5

Earlier we read that the chief priests and the scribes and the principal men of the people were seeking to destroy him.6

Their question addressed the nature of Jesus’ authority and who had given it to Him. In asking this, they were challenging the source of His authority and asking Him to declare its origin. The source of Jesus’ authority is known to the readers of this Gospel, as we have been told who Jesus truly is.

He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end. … The Holy Spirit will come upon you [Mary], and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God.7

This Gospel, however, doesn’t record a response from Jesus to this question. Instead, Jesus posed a question of His own.

He answered them, “I also will ask you a question. Now tell me, was the baptism of John from heaven or from man?”8 

Jesus demanded an answer from these leaders before He would address their question about His authority. In the Gospel of Mark, we read that Jesus told them that He would answer them on the condition that they first answer His question.

Jesus said to them, “I will ask you one question; answer me, and I will tell you by what authority I do these things.”9

His question put the religious leadership in a difficult position. Jesus specifically asked them whether John was a messenger from God. It was a straightforward question, but a difficult one for the religious leadership to answer, because John’s and Jesus’ ministries were linked. John spoke of Jesus’ ministry when he said, “I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.”10 Jesus said of John, I tell you, among those born of women none is greater than John.11

These leaders began to debate the issue amongst themselves.

They discussed it with one another, saying, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say, ‘Why did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘From man,’ all the people will stone us to death, for they are convinced that John was a prophet.” So they answered that they did not know where it came from.12 

The Jewish leadership recognized that Jesus had put them in a difficult position, as they had rejected the ministry of John the Baptist. If they were to say that John’s baptism was from God, it would bring up the question of why they had not been baptized by him. However, if they said it was not from God, they would face the wrath of those who had believed in John’s message and baptism. And so, they claimed ignorance.

Jesus said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.”13 

As the religious leadership of Jerusalem refused to answer Jesus’ questions, so the Son of God refused to answer theirs. Their attempt to discredit Jesus by questioning His authority completely failed.

Questions about Caesar’s Tax

We are told that after hearing the parable of the wicked tenants (which comes at this point in the Gospel of Luke), the religious leadership had a negative response.

The scribes and the chief priests sought to lay hands on him at that very hour, for they perceived that he had told this parable against them, but they feared the people. So they watched him and sent spies, who pretended to be sincere, that they might catch him in something he said, so as to deliver him up to the authority and jurisdiction of the governor.14

Having been exposed by their confrontation with Jesus, the Jewish leadership receded into the background and had others do their bidding as they continued their efforts to discredit Jesus. They sent individuals who pretended to be believers, but were actually spies. The Greek word translated as spies literally means “hired to lie in wait,” which gives the impression of men lurking around as they monitored Jesus’ behavior and waited for the opportunity to damage or destroy Him.

Using subterfuge, the religious leadership sought to use Jesus’ words against Him. If their spies heard Him say anything seditious, anything the Roman rulers would consider dangerous, they would have an opportunity to destroy Him. Earlier in this Gospel, these leaders had used the same tactics against Jesus.

As he went away from there, the scribes and the Pharisees began to press him hard and to provoke him to speak about many things, lying in wait for him, to catch him in something he might say.15

Elsewhere in this Gospel, the religious authorities had also tried to catch Jesus in some violation of Jewish religious law, as that would have also given them an opportunity to accuse Him. The scribes and the Pharisees watched him, to see whether he would heal on the Sabbath, so that they might find a reason to accuse him.16 One Sabbath, when he went to dine at the house of a ruler of the Pharisees, they were watching him carefully.17

So they asked him, “Teacher, we know that you speak and teach rightly, and show no partiality, but truly teach the way of God. Is it lawful for us to give tribute to Caesar, or not?”18 

The scribes and chief priests began their question with flattery, by stating that Jesus spoke and taught accurately, meaning that He presented God’s way correctly. Second, they commended Jesus for His impartiality. However, earlier in this Gospel, they had criticized Him for that very thing.

Levi made him a great feast in his house, and there was a large company of tax collectors and others reclining at table with them. And the Pharisees and their scribes grumbled at his disciples, saying, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?”19

Lastly, they said Jesus taught the way of God.20

After flattering Jesus, they then asked the question which was intended to trap Him: Is it lawful for us to give tribute to Caesar, or not? The us in their question referred to the Jews. The tax which they were referring to was known as the poll tax. This was a tax of one denarius, which was equal to one day’s wage, that was paid to Rome by every adult male each year. It was a reminder to those who lived in Israel that they were subjects of Rome.

But he perceived their craftiness, and said to them, “Show me a denarius. Whose likeness and inscription does it have?” They said, “Caesar’s.”21 

Jesus knew these men to be cunning, and He detected their trickery. This Roman coin had the image of Tiberius, the Roman emperor, on one side. The inscription on the coin said Caesar Augustus Tiberius, son of the divine Augustus. On the reverse side of the coin Caesar’s mother, Livia, was portrayed as an incarnation of the goddess of peace.

He said to them, “Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”22 

Jesus instructed them to pay the tax to Caesar. In doing so, He acknowledged the need to pay tax as part of one’s civic responsibility. One author wrote: His answer implies recognition of political government’s authority.23 However, Jesus also added that God was to receive the honor due Him.

And they were not able in the presence of the people to catch him in what he said, but marveling at his answer they became silent.24

The Jewish leadership, who were intent on ensnaring Jesus in their trap, failed miserably. Even though they watched Him closely, and sent spies masquerading as sincere believers to catch Him saying something that could incriminate Him and lead to His arrest, they failed in their mission. Not only were they unable to find anything incriminating, but they marveled at how wisely He had gotten the better of them. While Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion were on the horizon, His time had not yet come.


Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

General Bibliography

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Young, Brad H. Jesus the Jewish Theologian. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1995.

1 Matthew, Mark, and Luke.

2 Matthew 21:23–27, Mark 11:27–33, and Luke 20:1–8.

3 Matthew 22:15–22, Mark 12:13–17, and Luke 20:21–26.

4 Luke 20:1–2.

5 Luke 9:22.

6 Luke 19:47.

7 Luke 1:32, 33, 35.

8 Luke 20:3–4.

9 Mark 11:29.

10 Luke 3:16.

11 Luke 7:28.

12 Luke 20:5–7.

13 Luke 20:8.

14 Luke 20:19–20.

15 Luke 11:53–54.

16 Luke 6:7.

17 Luke 14:1.

18 Luke 20:21–22.

19 Luke 5:29–31.

20 Luke 20:21.

21 Luke 20:23–24.

22 Luke 20:25.

23 Bock, Luke Volume 2, 1613.

24 Luke 20:26.