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Luke 20:1-8 (ESV)

One day, as Jesus was teaching the people in the temple and preaching the gospel, the chief priests and the scribes with the elders came up and said to him, “Tell us by what authority you do these things, or who it is that gave you this authority.” He answered them, “I also will ask you a question. Now tell me, was the baptism of John from heaven or from man?” 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. And Jesus said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.”

Jesus has just chased the moneychangers out of the temple. The chief priests and the scribes with the elders aren’t just questioning Jesus about his teaching, they’re upset about all these things – especially clearing the temple. They want to know about His right to do that. Jesus answers with this famous piece of apologetic judo.

But there are actually two judo moves in Jesus’ reply. He traps them, and He changes the subject. Notice their exact words. “Tell us by what authority you do these things, or who it is that gave you this authority.”

They’re not even thinking about authority from God! They want to see a court order or something like that. They think that if no one gave Him official permission to do this, they can get Him on disturbing the peace, destruction of property, and other crimes. When Jesus asks them about John the Baptist, He takes the conversation out of the legal realm and into the spiritual.

Luke reports that they discussed it with one another. That must have been painful. Many people were involved, and they were trying to resolve an unresolvable problem. John had declared that Jesus is the Christ, and they aren’t going to agree to that. So they had to reach a consensus that they did not know.

Embarrassing answers like that don’t come easy.

That main goal of apologetics is to get people to think. Jesus achieved that in spades. They now know what they’re up against, and undoubtedly many of them are starting to have second thoughts.

We often get this wrong when witnessing to nonbelievers; we think our job is to convert.

But that’s the Holy Spirit’s job. Our goal should be to prepare the soil. Often, this means not promoting Christianity, but just shaking things up.

This is actually more of a listening skill than a speaking one. The best way to prepare the soil is to learn as much as possible about what someone believes. Don’t challenge them – at least not at first. Often, if you let someone get into details about their belief system, they’ll point out the shaky bits.

If your relationship hasn’t gotten to the point where they feel comfortable doing that, then you’re not in a position to witness to them.

When you respect them, they’ll respect you. Then they’ll listen and ponder what you say.

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Mike Slay

As a mathematician, inventor, and ruling elder in the Presbyterian Church in America, Mike Slay brings an analytical, conversational, and even whimsical approach to the daily study of God's Word.