"Now when He came into the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people confronted Him as He was teaching, and said, 'By what authority are You doing these things? And who gave You this authority?' But Jesus answered and said to them, 'I also will ask you one thing, which if you tell Me, I likewise will tell you by what authority I do these things: The baptism of John--where was it from? From heaven or from men?' And they reasoned among themselves, saying, 'If we say, "From heaven," He will say to us, "Why then did you not believe him?" But if we say, "From men," we fear the multitude, for all count John as a prophet.' So they answered Jesus and said, 'We do not know.' And He said to them, 'Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.'"
When Jesus came into the temple that day, He was interrogated by the Jewish religious leaders. It seems likely that the Lord was in the large outer court of the temple, which was known as the court of the Gentiles. This area would have been swamped with people, especially because of the approaching feast. Jesus taught and "preached the gospel" to the people (Luke 20:1).
"By what authority are You doing these things? And who gave You this authority?" The religious leaders who asked these questions were recognized by the Jews as being the authorities. They are hoping to make it clear to the people that Jesus was an unauthorized, self-appointed meddler in matters over which they had exclusive control--or so they wished!
They demand that Jesus explain who gave Him the right to do the things He was doing (i.e., entering Jerusalem triumphantly, casting out the money changers and sellers from the temple, and teaching in the temple). They are boldly challenging His right to do these things because they want Him to be forced into publicly declaring Himself as the Messiah. If they could accomplish this, then they would use His words as an accusation against Him (cf. Matt. 26:63-66).
Jesus' response to them was this - "I also will ask you one thing, which if you tell Me, I likewise will tell you by what authority I do these things." Their question was a ridiculous one for the simple fact that the miracles Jesus was working clearly illustrated whose authority He was laboring under (cf. 21:14). They were there to trap Him, not genuinely learn. Because of this fact, Jesus answers them in a way to expose their folly, not to enlighten them.
"The baptism of John - where was it from? From heaven or from men?" - For Jesus to ask about the baptism John administered was essentially to ask about the authority for John's entire ministry (as is seen by their reasoning among themselves). Was John's ministry authorized by God or by men? This question is closely connected to the one the religious leaders had just asked Jesus. In his ministry, John the baptizer had plainly declared Jesus to be immeasurably greater than himself; he had proclaimed Him as the Messiah (cf. John 1:7,15,25-34; 3:26ff; 10:40-42). Now, if they admit that John's ministry was authorized by God, then they are also implying that John's teaching was from God. No one could rationally acknowledge that a messenger was authorized by heaven and yet deny his testimony! Thus, for them to admit that John's authority was from God was to acknowledge that what John said about Jesus must be true!
There is more to this narrative that we will consider in our next lesson.