The chief priests and the elders ask Jesus who authorized him to “do these things” (21:23). They what to know where Jesus get his authority to condemn the Temple as if he were a prophet sent from God.
This group includes influential groups in Jerusalem, and they may be questioning Jesus as members of the Sanhedrin. It is the chief priests and elders who persuade the crowd to demand Barabbas (Matt 27:20). It is likely they were not present when Jesus turned the tables and made his prophetic pronouncement on the people selling in the Temple. Now that the troublemaker was back, they come to Jesus and demand to know who he thinks he is!
They ask about Jesus’s authority to do “these things.” To what are they referring? It is possible they are talking about the miracles and signs which he has performed throughout his ministry (such as healing of blind and lame in Matthew 21:14). In Mark, Jesus did not do any public miracles in Jerusalem prior to this question.
More likely, they are questioning his authority to disrupt selling in the temple and to condemn it as a “den of thieves.” Jesus publicly challenged Temple aristocracy and humiliated them by comparing them to Jeremiah’s generation, tacitly suggesting they would soon fall under the judgment described in Jeremiah 7. Jesus will be clear in Matthew 24 about the coming judgment.
These representatives of the Temple aristocracy are not really asking to see Jesus’s ordination papers or check his rabbinical transcripts. They want to embarrass Jesus and expose him as a fraud (Hellerman, “Challenging the Authority of Jesus,” 223).
What kind of authority did these officials think Jesus might have? A rabbinic “ordination.” The question could be “Which rabbinical school has authorized you to teach?” But the source of his authority to teach is not the question, but rather his authority to condemn the temple. The issue is Jesus’s prophetic authority: does Jesus’s authority come from God, or was his condemnation of the Temple by his own authority?
Jesus has not been shy about telling his followers where his authority came from. In Matthew 11:27 and 28:18 it is clear Jesus’s authority comes from God, his father.
Matthew 11:27 (ESV) All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.
Matthew 28:18 (ESV) And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.
Taken together with the Parable of the Tenants (21:33-46), the answer Jesus would give is his authority comes from God because he is the son of God. He is the son sent to those in charge of God’s vineyard, the Temple and Jerusalem.
Jesus’s response is a counter-question: Where did John get his authority? (21:24-25a) This is not evasive (a good political answer). This is the way Jewish teachers typically debate issues. The question seems on the surface to be different than the question put to Jesus. Mark includes the borderline disrespectful “answer me!” omitted in Matthew and Luke.
Jesus’s question is about John’s authority to baptize. Did that authority come from heaven (God) or man (the official channels in Jerusalem)? The question is “self-incriminating.” Whatever the chief priests answer will result in accepting the authority of Jesus. When John first appeared in Matthew, he was baptizing people to prepare them for the soon-arrival of the Messiah. When Jesus is baptized there is a theophany announcing that Jesus is God’s son. Jesus is reminding the people following him from the beginning that he is God’s Son.
There is no response possible without acknowledging Jesus’s authority (21:25b-27). In a private dialogue, the chief and elders realize there is no answer possible without accepting Jesus’s authority comes from God. John soundly condemned the Temple aristocracy, directly condemning the Pharisees and Sadducees as a “brood of vipers” (Matt 3:7) and declaring that the axe was already at the root (3:10), wheat as being gathered into the barn and the chaff was about to be burned up (3:12).
John was on the outside of the religious establishment, but he was also popular with the people. Even a few years after his death, John the Baptist was still respected many of those gathered for Passover in the Temple courts. John was a true prophet of God who was killed by the hated family of Herod. By accepting John as a prophet, the teachers open themselves up for the obvious. Jesus will respond, “John thought I was the Messiah; if he was a prophet, why don’t you believe him?”
Jesus refuses to answer the question, although he has already been clear, his authority to “do these things” comes from his father, God.