During the last week of his life Jesus had several encounters with the authorities in Jerusalem where they tried to trap him with tricky questions but found instead that they were the ones who got caught out.
In Matthew’s Gospel the sequence begins with the chief priests and elders of the people challenging Jesus about his authority to teach in the Temple. Characteristically, Jesus parries their question with one of his own:
Immediately they are stymied. They put their heads together to discuss the options. If they respond that John’s baptism came from heaven (that is, from God), then obviously Jesus will ask why they didn’t believe him. If, on the other hand, they say the whole thing was just John’s personal eccentricity, then they know that they will have the crowd against them because the crowd believed John to be a prophet – and they’re afraid of the crowd.
So, lamely, they say they don’t know. Jesus responds: in that case, he’s not going to answer their question either.
Why does Jesus do this? Is he just being awkward, or is something more significant going on?
I think he is doing two things:
First, he reveals to the Jerusalem leaders their spiritual condition – the condition of their hearts before God. They fear the crowds, but they have no fear of God. That is the extraordinary (but unspoken) conclusion of their encounter with Jesus. They are deeply afraid of what the common people might do to them if they publicly reject the ministry of John the Baptist. But they have no thought for the possibility that the Baptist’s ministry might actually have been God’s call to them to repent. They are supposed to be the guardians of Israel’s relationship with God; but they don’t care. He doesn’t enter their calculations. All they care about is politics – clinging on to power.
Scripture repeatedly says:
They ought to be postgraduates in the school of wisdom. In fact they are failing even at nursery school. They think they are wise but prove themselves fools.
Second, by refusing to answer the leaders’ question about his authority to teach, Jesus is showing them mercy. If he told them where his authority came from they would again have to choose whether to believe him. If they chose not to believe him, that would compound their guilt. Sometimes the silence of Jesus is the fruit of his kindness. If we refuse truth – and obedience to truth – we may not get any more truth for some time.
The fear of the LORD is not popular today. We instinctively recoil from any idea of fearing God. But every time God appears in any visible or audible form in Scripture the response is fear. How else could it be? Most of us feel a little nervous at the prospect of meeting the famous or the powerful. Surely we should expect to tread carefully in our dealings with Almighty God? The difference of course is that He is not visible to our eyes. We can exclude Him from our calculations if we want.
There are two kinds of fear at work in this encounter between Jesus and the Jerusalem leadership: the fear of man/other people and the fear of God. I suspect we all have to choose one or the other. Either we fear what other people think or we fear God. Which is better? Which is healthier? The evidence of this encounter is that the fear of man leads to hypocrisy and a crippling inability to act. The fear of God would have been liberating.
When the church or its leaders abandon the fear of God there is very often only the fear of man left. That way leads in the long run to disaster.
There is much fear of other people at work in our society. The fear of being “cancelled” or “de-platformed” or destroyed on social media is widespread. I doubt if that is the way to shape character in the direction of justice, kindness and mutual respect. More likely it leads to hypocrisy and simmering resentment. Bring on the fear of God.