Jesus Asks Questions: Part 1

Introduction

Jesus often asked questions. Good questions cause people to think. As recorded in the Gospels, in interactions with people, Jesus asked at least one question about 75% of the time. Examining the questions He asked and the circumstances under which He asked them reveals an innovative use of questions to accomplish His purpose. Jesus Christ our Lord, fully God and fully man, walked this earth using the art of asking questions in amazing ways – ways that are powerful examples for us.  

In this lesson two specific passages illustrate using questions to defeat verbal attacks. The situations in which the questions arose were serious, but you can’t help but chuckle at the clever way Jesus avoids attempts to ensnare Him. Not only did He successfully defend Himself, but in the process He brought forth truth that all people need to hear. The art of asking good questions is valuable for everyone to know.  

Importance of Asking Good Questions

Have you ever thought about the crucial importance of asking the right questions at the right time? The world around us is shrouded in mystery. Clues are necessary to unravel and understand mystery. As in any good detective novel, we must discover clues by observation and asking the right questions. God has provided an abundance of clues for us to find. To discern and utilize those clues, we must have eyes that see, ears that hear, and a mind that strives to develop understanding. 

The Apostle Paul, writing in Romans 1, points out that the created universe contains clues revealing God’s invisible qualities – His eternal power and divine nature. Because of these clues and man’s God-given abilities to understand the clues, Paul says people who reject God are without excuse. He goes on to tell the sad truth that even in the face of an abundance of clues, many people refuse to ask the right questions, and/or deliberately close their eyes to the answers God has provided. Paul says such people knowingly suppress the truth. He describes dire consequences of deliberate lack of discernment and of suppressing the truth.

Learning By Asking Questions

Everyone learns by asking questions. Children intuitively recognize the need to ask questions and they do – sometimes the same question over and over again. Knowledgeable people willing to answer questions makes learning a treat, and we thank God for all those people who have helped by answering questions. It is also important to ask ourselves questions. The practice of asking ourselves questions stimulates the entire learning process. It motivates thinking and actions and forms the basis for self-discipline.   

Questions come in a bewildering variety of types and forms with radically varying content and are asked with differing intent. The intent of a question may not be to obtain information. Questions may be intended to hurt – If someone says, “How could you do such a stupid thing?” – We know they are not trying to boost our ego. On the other hand, if someone says, “Where did you find such a perfect gift?” – the implied praise is equally obvious. Though intent behind questions is vitally important, it is often impossible to decipher. One way to uncover intent is to ask a counter questions.   

Sometimes merely asking a question forces a person to think about things in a new way. Suppose you are talking to someone about faith and you say to them “If you were to die tonight and find yourself standing before God, and He says, ‘Why should I let you into my heaven, what will you say?” Thinking about the possibility of immediate death has a way of opening up a person’s thoughts like a whiff of menthol opens sinuses. Questions can be uplifting or depressing, delightful or infuriating, useful or a waste of time. Each of us experience all kinds. Whatever their nature, questions in all their good and bad varieties are an essential part of life. If we were forbidden to ask questions, it would be difficult to interact with anyone. The most common greeting appears to be, “How are you?” God designed us with a questioning mind. Can we doubt that being inquisitive is essential to being human?

The Young Jesus Asking Questions

It is not at all surprising that Jesus in His earthly life asked a lot of questions. In His Divine Nature He was omniscient. But in His human nature, He was as you and I, a learner. As a child of 12, we find in Luke 2:46-47 that Jesus went with His parents to Jerusalem. When they began their return to Nazareth, His parents could not find Him among friends and relatives and thought they had lost Him. Finally, He was found in the Temple calmly “sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions.” Luke remarks that everyone who heard Him was amazed at His understanding. He asked good questions and He understood the answers. “And Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man” (Luke 2:52).  As a man, Jesus continued to ask questions. His questions were often innovative, unexpected, and probed deeply into His listeners’ hearts. At times, when confronted with verbal threats from critics, He used questions to disarm them. Whatever their immediate purpose, Jesus’ questions usually brought out important truth. Again and again He demonstrated that the right question asked at the right time is an extraordinarily powerful tool. It is clear from His example everyone needs to know the art of asking good questions.

Jesus Thwarts Authorities Who Question His Authority Using a Question

During the week following Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem, He was confronted by Jewish authorities while teaching in the courts of the Temple. They asked a loaded question intending to trap Him into admitting He had no authority to do what He was doing. The confrontation appears to have been instigated because of the authorities’ increasing concern about the people’s outward response to Jesus’ teaching (as in Jesus’ triumphal entry). Matthew describes the scene in Matthew 21:23-27. Jesus uses a cleverly framed question to defeat the verbal attack.

 “And 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?’ 24 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. 25 The baptism of John, from where did it come? From heaven or from man?’ And they discussed it among themselves, saying, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ 26 But if we say, ‘From man,’ we are afraid of the crowd, for they all hold that John was a prophet.” 27 So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.”

Matthew 21:23-27

What’s Going On

 It is easy to miss the full impact of this highly emotional episode.  A little background helps. First, this confrontation is not on a level playing field. The chief priests and elders are the elite of the country. They are the ones in charge. The Temple, where Jesus is teaching, is their home territory. In Luke’s description of this incident he mentions that theologians (or teachers of the law) were also a part of the group. Remember, the authority of the chief priests and teachers of the law extended over all the religious affairs of the country and specifically over the Temple and its affairs. The authorities are genuinely unhappy with Jesus. Here is why.  

The times were exceptionally tense. Some Jews, known as Zealots, bitterly opposed to the Roman occupation, were doing everything they could do to incite open rebellion. They dreamed of driving the Romans out of their land. The priests and other leaders generally opposed the Zealots, fearing the consequences of open rebellion would be disastrous.  Years later, the Zealots did succeed in inciting rebellion, and the priests were proven correct.  The end result was horrible. Rome was not driven out. Instead, Jerusalem was utterly destroyed, the people who survived the siege were scattered, and every vestige of freedom was lost. 

But, at the time of this incident, that horrible crushing of Jewish rebellion was still in the future. Nonetheless, fear of what Rome might do to suppress a rebellion filled the minds of the Jewish officials. The possibility Jesus or His followers might accidentally or deliberately incite rebellion made them anxious to be rid of the potential problem. Luke points out the leaders hated Jesus for the way He was stirring up the people. But the people were so attracted to Him, it was difficult for the leaders to find a safe way to get rid of Him. The confrontation in Matthew 21 is an attempt by the authorities to bring Jesus under control without angering the crowds.  

The picture, then, is this. We know Jesus as the second person in the Trinity, the divine Son. But how was Jesus viewed by the Jewish authorities? These highly placed men with official authority represented one side of the confrontation. On the other side stands Jesus – and as far as the official authorities were concerned, He was a poor itinerant preacher from Galilee with absolutely no official standing. Around them swirls a crowd of people who have heard Jesus preach and witnessed miracles. 

The authorities consider themselves to be vastly superior to the upstart from Galilee. They thought of Him as having pretentious ideas. He was teaching and preaching things they considered dangerous to the country’s well-being. Most unfortunately from their point of view, crowds are listening to Him. Why, just a few days earlier, He came into the city in great triumph riding on a donkey. There were shouts of acclamation from the crowd and they dared to call Him the Son of David. Now He has the gall to teach His dangerous ideas in the very courts of the Temple. What will He be up to next? Something must be done to stop Him before everything is ruined. The direction of their thoughts is made particularly clear by the record in John 11:50 where the chief priest declares it will be better for one man die for the people rather than for the whole nation to perish. That’s what the authorities are thinking.

Imagine yourself there in the crowd. Can you feel the tension? Can you sense the hate and concern emanating from the officials? Do you hear the derogatory tone of voice as one of them questions Jesus? Do you feel the press of the crowd as everyone tries to get closer to hear Jesus’ answer? This looks like trouble. What will Jesus do?

The Plan of the Authorities

The plan the authorities have concocted is simple. They will convince the crowd Jesus is a rebel who refuses to submit to God’s ordained authority. To that end, they ask Him a question to which they are convinced He can have no satisfactory answer. They ask, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” Everyone knows they really mean – Look Jesus – You have no authority and we know it and you know it – just say so and then get out of here – you have no legitimate reason to be here. People lean close to hear how Jesus will respond. Every possible reply seems to be a loser. After all, the truth is that Jesus really doesn’t have any legal authority. Legal authority in the country rests first with the Romans and then with the chief priests, teachers of the law, and elders. None of them have authorized Jesus to do anything. Looks like Jesus is trapped.  

Jesus’ Response

But wait! What is that Jesus is saying? It’s not what anyone expected. He is asking a question. His response to the authorities question was, “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. 25 The baptism of John, from where did it come? From heaven or from man?” What an astounding unexpected response! The crowd no doubt gasps in surprise because suddenly the verbal spear the authorities had pointed at Jesus is reversed and now points at them. Jesus has shocked them and turned the tables against them with a clever strategy. Do you understand what He has done and how? Here is why the strategy worked. 

Why It Worked

The John the Baptist affair had been badly mishandled by Herod and the scandal of it has been on everyone’s tongue. Over-reacting to the dancing of a young girl, Herod had John arbitrarily executed (beheaded). John was popular with the people and had attracted large crowds who were convinced he was a prophet from God – the first prophet God had sent in some 400 years – and now he had been executed in strange circumstances. Indeed, the circumstances of John’s death must have both disturbed and embarrassed the religious elite. It was true that they didn’t like the fact that John had rejected the priestly calling that was his by right as the eldest son of a priest. They didn’t like the message John was preaching or the large crowds he attracted. But, still – still, the circumstances of his death at the hands of Herod were awkward and weird. Maybe there was fault in John the Baptist, but Herod’s fault was much, much greater.

What the Authorities Did

So how are the authorities to handle this verbal “hot potato” Jesus tossed to them? By the very wording of His question, Jesus limited their possible responses to just two. Either John’s authority came from God or it came from men. It presents a nasty dilemma to the leaders. They discuss it among themselves. If they say John’s authority was from heaven, Jesus will say, OK, so why didn’t you believe him. If they say his authority came from men, they are afraid of what the people might do. Luke elaborates on that point saying that the leaders fear the people will stone them to death if they deny that John was a prophet whose authority was from God. 

What do they do? They punt! They know they are between a rock and a hard place. So they give a very wimpy answer. It amounts to something like “Hey man, that’s a very good question, but you see we simply don’t know the answer.” Jesus says, OK fine, neither will I tell you the source of my authority. Jesus won. He not only avoided answering their question, but He has put the leaders in a very awkward position. The officials apparently leave quickly before anyone can ask them “Mr. Official, where does your authority come from – is it from heaven or from men?” That’s a question they definitely don’t want to answer. See what I mean about getting a chuckle out of the clever way Jesus sidesteps their thrust.

Jesus Uses a Question to Thwart a Second Attempt Against Him

You know how sometimes after you have been in a heated discussion it seems like your mind finally begins to work and you think of great things you wish you had said. Something like that seems to have happened to the authorities. They realize they should have said to Him, “OK, Jesus, if you want to talk about other people’s authority, tell us by whose authority does Caesar act?” That in fact seemed like such a good thing to do that a little later they send someone to Jesus to bring up that very issue. 

 “Then the Pharisees went and plotted how to entangle him in his words. 16 And they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, ‘Teacher, we know that you are true and teach the way of God truthfully, and you do not care about anyone’s opinion, for you are not swayed by appearances. 17 Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?’ 18 But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, ‘Why put me to the test, you hypocrites? 19 Show me the coin for the tax.’ And they brought him a denarius. 20 And Jesus said to them, ‘Whose likeness and inscription is this?’ 21 They said, ‘Caesar’s.’ Then he said to them, ‘Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’ 22 When they heard it, they marveled. And they left him and went away.” 

Matthew 22:15-22

 Is It Lawful To Pay Taxes to Caesar?

In this passage it is clear that, far from causing the authorities to give up, the little set-back at the Temple caused them to seek other opportunities and to plan more carefully. Their latest ploy will be based on the issue of paying taxes to the Romans, a variation of the question concerning “Caesar’s authority.”   

Most Jews detested the necessity to pay taxes to the Romans. The Pharisees were particularly incensed. In their lives the Pharisees emphasized moral purity and religious devotion. They believed their tithes and offerings were owed to God and not to the despicable ungodly people who had conquered them. It was difficult to disagree with them.  

But, on the other hand, to gain the privilege of ruling, the Herodians collaborated with Rome. They were eager to do most anything the Romans wanted. The Sadducees (particularly the high priests) took the moderate middle ground. They were willing to some extent to compromise with the Romans (but not too much). Their moderate position enabled them to hold on to official positions and keep the Temple and its sacrifices functioning with minimum Roman interference. The Pharisees didn’t particularly like either the Sadducees or the Herodians, but at times it was prudent to work with them. In this incident the Pharisees decide to combine forces with the Herodians. Having Herodians present will assure the presence of witnesses whom the Romans trust if Jesus can be trapped into making a rebellious statement.

The Authorities New Plan

Their new plan is to ask Jesus a carefully worded “yes or no” question, so worded that either answer will get Him into trouble. It’s a tactic like asking, “Are you still cheating on your taxes, yes or no?” What can you say? They expect His answer to either incriminate Him before the Romans or disgrace Him before the Jewish people. No other outcome seems possible. They begin by feeding Him compliments about His integrity and then ask their famous question.

A Trick Question from the Authorities

Jesus understands their intent. Rather than a yes/no answer, Jesus asks to see the coin used for paying the tax. They bring Him a denarius and He asks them, “Whose portrait is this? And whose inscription?”They answer truthfully, it is “Caesar’s.” No doubt they were thinking, “What in the world does this have to do with whether it is right to pay taxes to Caesar?” Then with one simple statement He turns the plot upside down. He said, “Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”  They were amazed and dismayed at His answer. They knew He had avoided their trap and they went away. But, notice Jesus did not in fact answer their question. His response was ambiguous. The meaning of what He said depends on further interpretation. It could be used either to support paying taxes to Caesar or to support refusing to pay taxes to Caesar. It all depends on what you think belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God.

Significance to Believers

How are believers to determine what belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God?  When Jesus said – “whose likeness” – He gave us a clue. It is the key to the rest of the story. Think about it.  Jesus focused everyone’s attention on the image or likeness shown on the coin. “Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”Jesus’ listeners knew the Genesis story well. Man was made in the image and likeness of God. Caesar’s image may be on the coin, but God’s image is in them. The Jews thought a coin bearing Caesar’s image to be an idolatrous thing. Such coins may belong to Caesar, but men bear the image of God and belong to Him. Men owe God their obedience, their love, and their very being. The Apostle Paul in Romans 12:1 reminds believers of that truth when he urges – as a spiritual act of worship – to offer themselves as living sacrifices to God.

Conclusion

Seeing the ways the Lord used questions, it is clear that questions can be powerful friends. Questions motivate and direct our thoughts and actions. Questions can be a good defensive maneuver. Answers to good questions bring useful information. Questions get people’s attention. 

Evangelism Explosion ministry uses questions to open people’s hearts to hear the gospel. Each believer needs a repertoire of questions which can stimulate interest in God’s truth. 

Likewise, it is important everyone understand authority – God’s and Man’s. Are we able to distinguish between the obedience owed God and the obedience we owe others including secular government? Scripture provides the basis for the answers we need.  

Do we give to God what is God’s and to others that which is rightfully theirs? Have we given ourselves as living sacrifices to God? It’s something worth thinking about!

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