Living near (and working on) a college campus, I have the opportunity to interact with college students every day. Like most Americans, college students tend to hold vague ideas about religion and spiritual matters, but the majority aren’t willing to go deeper. I’ve noticed a pattern—a calculated agnosticism—when it comes to their understanding of who Jesus is. They have a lot of respect for the man, but they don’t know if he’s really God, and they’re not intent on finding out. If they did, they might have to form beliefs that will offend their peers.
Jesus faced this same attitude when he was confronted by the religious authorities in Jerusalem, an informal delegation from the Sanhedrin. In Mark’s account, he has just arrived in the Holy City and has announced that the corrupt temple leadership is unacceptable. And they’re not too happy that someone is criticizing them.
Here’s the question that the religious and political leaders of Jerusalem are posing to Jesus: “By what authority are you doing these things, or who gave you this authority to do them?” They certainly haven’t given him permission. The things Jesus has been saying are intolerant and arrogant. How dare he judge them? Who does he think he is?
Now, Jesus is an expert heart surgeon. He knows exactly how to reveal what’s really going on deep inside these men. So like a good rabbi, he poses a question in response: “Was the baptism of John from heaven or from man?” The answer to his question will reveal the answer to their question.
Now, these religious leaders weren’t big fans of John the Baptist. He had appeared like a madman in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming that Israel should repent of their sins, announcing that a mightier one would come, promising that “he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit” (Mark 1:8). And when John baptizes Jesus, God vindicates Jesus as sinless and pleasing to him and commissions him as his anointed Son.
Jesus forces the delegation to pick one of two options. There can be no in-between. If John’s baptism was backed by divine authority, then the leaders are guilty of hypocrisy, because they didn’t believe they had to repent. They’re also guilty because up till now, they haven’t been buying into Jesus either. If they’d believed John, they would have believed Jesus. Their behavior proves that they don’t really believe Jesus has come from God.
On the other hand, there’s a lot of danger in declaring that Jesus possesses merely human authority. The people believe that Jesus is a prophet; they’re enamored with his profound and challenging teaching. It’s trendy to ride the Jesus wave. Like calculated agnostics, the members of the delegation don’t want to appear closed-minded and contrarian. So they take the easy way out, telling Jesus, “We do not know.”
Mark records this thought process as a discussion among the delegation. This discussion reveals the hearts of many agnostics, or people who claim they’re “spiritual but not religious,” or anyone else who tap-dances around the question of who Jesus really is. The reality is that such people are practical atheists. They want to hold Jesus at arm’s length, leaving open the possibility that he might be from God in order to save face with the pluralist crowd. But they don’t want Jesus interfering with their lives; they don’t want to turn from behavior that he says is sinful. So they act as if he had no more authority than any other man.
How does Jesus respond to this attitude? He tells the delegation, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.” This isn’t a childish response; it’s a wise response. Jesus sees that they don’t really want to know the truth. They’re looking for reasons not to buy into him. He knows it’s a waste of time to argue; his miracles are argument enough. They don’t believe because they don’t want to believe.
This deadly condition is not limited to unbelievers. You and I must be careful of the practical atheism that is rooted deeply in our hearts. If you are a Christian, you have been fundamentally changed by the Holy Spirit to serve God with a renewed heart. However, the old self has not yet rotted away; there is still a hardened core that will not relent to the absolute authority of Jesus. Watch out for the practical atheism of others, and beware of it in your own heart. Jesus will accept nothing less than total rule over your heart.