The love of our own glory is the greatest competitor with God in our hearts. And sometimes we can cloak this idol in a pious disguise. In Matthew 21, Jesus unmasked such an idol with a single question.
It was the final week before Jesus’ day of judgment—the day he would stand before his Father’s bar of justice bearing the sins of all who ever had or would believe in him and in their place be crushed by the Father’s wrath.
He no longer avoided the treacherous Jewish political and religious leaders. He openly confronted their errors and duplicity, pouring fuel on the fire of their fear and hatred of him.
As the Jewish leaders saw it, Jesus was out of control. He had been a growing problem for a couple of years. But Sunday, he had wreaked havoc in the temple, driving out the sacrifice merchants as if he owned the place. And this after he rode into Jerusalem like a hero to the wild cheers of thousands—many of whom proclaimed him the Messiah. And he did not refute them!
The leaders rejected Jesus as the Christ. After all, he was from God-forsaken Galilee. And he was a blasphemer and a chronic Sabbath-breaker—yet he called them hypocrites!
Now he had become a full-blown crisis. If they didn’t take decisive action soon, the Romans would get involved.
The problem was the crowd. They had to find a way to win the people to their side.
After some deliberation, they conceived a question that would surely hang Jesus on the horns of a dilemma. Either answer would incriminate him, divide the crowd, and give them cause to arrest him.
On Monday morning, as Jesus was teaching in the temple, the appointed delegation made their way to him through the crowd. The spokesman loudly asked, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?”
Jesus, sitting, leaned back a bit and squinted up at them. The tension was thick.
Then he answered, “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. The baptism of John, where did it come from? From heaven or from man?”
This was a stunning counter. They faltered. The crowd began to murmur. Their hesitation was humiliating.
They huddled for a quick conference. “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘From man,’ we are afraid of the crowd, for they all hold that John was a prophet.” How had Jesus managed to flip the dilemma horns around on them?
They decided not to grab either horn. “We do not know.” It was a politically expedient lie.
Restrained anger flashed in Jesus’ eyes. “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.”
* * *
The question the Jewish leaders asked, taken by itself, was not wrong. They were supposed to guard God’s truth and God’s people. That’s why Jesus was willing to answer it. But his prerequisite question revealed that their apparent truth-guarding was a sham.
John the Baptist’s love for God’s glory and truth had cost him his head. Jesus’ love for God’s glory and truth would get him crushed by God’s wrath. Jesus’ question was designed to reveal whether these leaders loved God’s glory and truth more than public approval. If they answered him straight, he would give them a straight answer to their question.
But they were “afraid of the crowd.” In other words, they loved their positions and reputations more than they loved the truth—more than they loved God. So they “exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature (themselves) rather than the creator” (Romans 1:25).
We must remember that we do the same thing every time we distort or deny the truth for the sake of our own reputations. Self-glory is revealed to be an idol in our heart when the Lord presents us with an opportunity to glorify him by speaking the truth about our convictions or our sins, yet we are unwilling to do it for fear of what someone else will think of us.
We have all done this. Thank God for the cross! “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). Let’s resolve to love God’s glory more than our own by being rigorously truthful in our professions and confessions.