“I also will ask you a question”(Luke 20:3).
It is days before Jesus’ death. The religious leaders are concerned. The man has entered the temple—their turf!—and presumed to drive out the merchants. To make matters worse, now he is “teaching daily in the temple”(Luke 19:47). The chief priests want him dead but are hampered by the people who are “hanging on his words”(Luke 19:48). Since force (for the moment) is not an option, they attempt to discredit him.
“Tell us by what authority you do these things, or who it is that gave you this authority”(Luke 20:2). Just who do you claim to be? It is likely they are looking for Jesus to claim that he is from God so that they can accuse him of blasphemy. Perhaps there were more steps to their trap—asking for a sign to prove his authority, for example—but we will never know. Jesus stops their question in its tracks.
“He answered them, ‘I also will ask you a question. Now tell me, was the baptism of John from heaven or from man?’”(Luke 20:3-4). It is a simple question: what is your conclusion about John the Baptist? Was he a prophet—a man of God—or just another guy? But it is a question that requires an amount of honesty these priests cannot muster. “And 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”(Luke 20:4-7). Their answer is not couched in terms of their personal beliefs. They think in political terms. What will be the fallout of our answer here? Will Jesus expose our hypocrisy if we answer he is from God? Will the people turn on us if we admit we don’t really believe in John? Ultimately they decide it is just better not to answer. Jesus, receiving this “answer,” shuts down the conversation. “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things”(Luke 20:8).
What Jesus teaches us here is that dishonesty makes religious discussion unproductive. Their inability to answer a simple question honestly means that there is no need for further discussion. If they miss on the John question, what will their response be when Jesus tells them where he is from? Can we imagine that going well?
It is important to remember that just because the topic of our conversation is religious does not mean that all our motives are pure. If we are truly seeking to do God’s will (John 7:17) because we love the truth (2 Thess 2:10-12), religious discussion can be of tremendous value. But if we are seeking the praise of men, or seeking to justify some behavior, or seeking to show how smart we are, or seeking to use religion as a weapon to control others, religious discussion will hold little value. Jesus guides us to the north star of people’s hearts—are we willing to be honest about spiritual things? It is in this way that the word of God is “discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart”(Heb 4:12).
None of this is to say that we should stop having religious discussions. These men are literally out for Jesus’ blood and this is certainly not the first discussion he has shared with them. Rather, this truth shows us that it is not the genius of our arguments that convinces people in religious discussion. It is about their hearts and God’s word. When our efforts to convert others are unsuccessful, we are in good company!
But this truth cuts even deeper. Dishonesty in me makes religious discussion unproductive. I cannot expect others to be honest when I will not seriously consider the impact of God’s word myself. Do I twist it to say what I want? Do I ignore the parts that challenge me? If I ask others to consider the possibility that long-held beliefs are wrong, am I willing to consider it for myself? Do I truly listen to the other side—or do I just bide my time until I can tell them how right I am? The shocking thought is that these same chief priests and scribes will continue to teach others in their dishonesty! How tragic that we could be in their number!
This scene also shows us that there is more to honesty than factual accuracy. We can speak truth yet be dishonest. The dishonesty of the chief priests is about insincerity. They claim to serve God but care more about the political dimensions of their views than whether they are true. Worldly consensus does not establish truth (see Rom 3:4). When we wear the name of Christ yet truly show allegiance to our fellowman, we are dishonest—even if all our statements pass their fact-checks. Others may agree with me or they make think I’m crazy, but am I honest?
Are you honest with God’s word?
By Jacob Hudgins