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When Winning Is More Important than Truth

by Stephen Davey Scripture Reference: Matthew 21:23–32; Mark 11:27–33; Luke 20:1–8

To those who love themselves and hate God, the truth is an uncomfortable obstacle they would like to destroy. And this means they must attempt to destroy Jesus Christ, who embodies the truth.


The Scottish author and pastor George MacDonald once wrote back in the 1800s, “When someone argues for victory instead of truth, he can be sure of one ally, that is the devil.”[1]

We are watching now the opponents of Jesus mount an attack. They are not interested in the truth—they only want victory. And you can be sure their ally is the devil himself.

Jesus is just a few days away from His crucifixion, and He knows it. He entered Jerusalem on Sunday; then on Monday we watched Him drive the merchants and money changers out of the temple. Now it is Tuesday morning, and Jesus has returned to teach again in the temple.

This marks the beginning of a rather long day, with a number of challenges from the religious leaders. Let’s follow Matthew’s account of this day, beginning in chapter 21, verse 23:

When he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came up to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?”

They are like an ornery policeman stopping you and demanding to see your driver’s license. They are upset Jesus is teaching, so they ask for His credentials. The parallel accounts in Mark and Luke add that the scribes are present, along with the elders and chief priests. These three groups—chief priests, scribes, and elders—made up the Jewish council of seventy known as the Sanhedrin, Israel’s supreme court. So, this is not just a policeman here; this is the entire court system tracking Jesus down.

The chief priests were from the party of the Sadducees, and the scribes were primarily Pharisees. The elders were tribal leaders, and many of them served in the priesthood.[2]  

So, these representatives of the Sanhedrin come up to Jesus and ask Him for His driver’s license so to speak. Who gave Him the right to ride around the temple precinct doing whatever He wanted to do?

Now their question is not just an ornery one; it is a legitimate one. The leaders of the Jewish nation were responsible to keep false teachers off the road. So, they are trying to pull Jesus over here into a logical “ditch,” frankly, and take the keys away.

They know He never studied under the respected rabbis, so He does not have credentials from the local seminary. And if Jesus says He is authorized by God, well, they can accuse Him of blaspheming for suggesting He is speaking for God.

Jesus is fully aware of what they are trying to do, and He quickly turns it back on them:

Jesus answered them, “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. [In other words, “If you answer My question, I’ll answer yours.”] The baptism of John, from where did it come? From heaven or from man?” (verses 24-25)

Now the pressure is on them. The prophet, John the Baptist, was not endorsed by them either, but the people recognized him as a prophet from God. If they deny John’s prophetic ministry, they will anger the crowds; but if they acknowledge John as a true prophet, they are confessing their own guilt because they are rejecting Jesus, the one John the Baptist introduced as the Messiah.

As we say in the south, these religious leaders are in a pickle. And I really don’t know what that means, but it doesn’t sound good! They huddle up to talk it over:

“If we say, [his authority was]‘From heaven,’ [Jesus] 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.” (verses 25-26)

So, the leaders break out of their little huddle and say to Jesus, in verse 27, “We do not know.” Well, they should have known—and they actually did know. They also knew who empowered Jesus, but they did not want to give up their traditions and their sin and their power and let Him rule their lives.

With that, Jesus refuses to answer their question. He knows they are not interested in the truth anyway.

But Jesus does not stop with that; He delivers three parables that all relate to the religious leaders’ rejection of Him. The first parable begins in verse 28:

“A man had two sons. And he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ And he answered, ‘I will not,’ but afterward he changed his mind and went. And he went to the other son and said the same. And he answered, ‘I go, sir,’ but did not go.” (verses 28-30)

When Jesus asks the crowd which of the two sons did his father’s will, His hearers give the obvious answer in verse 31: the first son. He refused at first but regretted his words and then did what his father asked. The other son promised obedience but never followed through.

In case the religious leaders missed the point, Jesus says to them, “Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you” (verse 31).

Wow! What a stunning rebuke. The two kinds of people considered most sinful in Israel were tax collectors and prostitutes. And Jesus says they are getting into the kingdom before chief priests, scribes, and elders.

Jesus goes on to explain why:

“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. (verse 32)

In other words, “Tax collectors and prostitutes confessed their sin and believed the gospel of the Messiah preached by John the Baptist, but you religious leaders didn’t think you had any need to repent of anything.”  

Let me tell you, the religious leaders are becoming more hostile and aggressive in attacking Jesus, and Jesus is becoming more pointed and courageous in exposing them. There are a lot of people who think Jesus was a meek and mild wallflower who couldn’t help but get pushed around. Well, they have not read far enough into the Gospel accounts.

Beloved, Jesus will tell them the truth so courageously and so forcefully that He will effectively lead them to do what He wants them to do, and that is put Him on a cross.  

If Jesus visited the average religious establishment today, they would want to kill Him too. And that is because Jesus makes abundantly clear that religious devotion does not equal faith and religious traditions do not equal salvation. The church, the cathedral, the mosque, or the temple is not automatically a doorway into heaven—it may very well be the doorway into hell.

Jesus demonstrated true spiritual authority when He challenged these religious leaders. They questioned His authority when they should have submitted to it. They stood in judgment of Him, when they should have recognized that He would one day be their eternal judge.

Let’s learn from this, beloved. If we truly love people, let’s tell them the truth. If your neighbors’ house was on fire tonight at midnight, you would not stay in your house and decide that it would be unkind to wake them up. They need a good night’s rest; and besides, they would have to run outside in their pajamas, and that would be embarrassing.

No, because you care about them, you’ll bang on their door and warn them to get out while they can. So also, we must tell others about sin and the coming judgment. These are truths that will rescue the people God has placed in the traffic pattern of our lives. Let’s be as courageous as Jesus was and, in love, tell people the truth.

[1] The New Dictionary of Thoughts: A Cyclopedia of Quotations (Britkin Publishing, 1927), 29.

[2]  J. A. Thompson, “Sanhedrin,” in The New Bible Dictionary, ed. J. D. Douglas (Eerdmans, 1962), 1143.

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