“I will also ask you one question. If you answer me ...” (Matthew 21:24-25)

Jesus entered the temple courts, and, while he was teaching, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him. "By what authority are you doing these things?" they asked. "And who gave you this authority?" Jesus replied, "I will also ask you one question. If you answer me, I will tell you by what authority I am doing these things. John's baptism—where did it come from? Was it from heaven, or of human origin?" They discussed it among themselves and said, "If we say, 'From heaven,' he will ask, 'Then why didn't you believe him?'" (Matthew 21:24-25)

What do they mean by 'authority'?

This question asked by Jesus was to answer the institutional temple chief priests and elders, who saw Jesus teaching in the temple courts. They asked him, “By what authority are you doing these things?”

They were questioning whether Jesus had the authority to stand on temple grounds and teach the people. Why?

Because they had doubts. Thus the question Jesus asks is specific to his authority.

This indicates that Jesus is pragmatically answering the questions of these doubters. He isn't threatening them or condemning them for asking the question.

In other words, Jesus is not a fanatic. He did not threaten people if they didn't listen to him. He understood that we each have the freedom to accept God's teachings or not.

He also understood that one must carefully choose who they accept as a teacher.

What does 'from heaven, or from men' mean?

This is the one question Jesus asks because this is the key to Jesus' authority.

Jesus is referring to his being baptized by John the Baptist. This confirms that Jesus became the disciple of John the Baptist, and that John had many other disciples, and Jesus was also baptizing but Jesus' disciples were doing most of it:
Now Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard that he was gaining and baptizing more disciples than John — although in fact it was not Jesus who baptized, but his disciples. (John 4:1-2)
This is confirmed as we find that Jesus baptized his own disciples, and delegated much of the act of baptizing to how disciples.

So Jesus is saying that John's baptism is what gave him authority. This is why Jesus asked them if John's baptism "came from heaven, or from men."

Where did baptism come from?

One might think - since there is no baptism in the Old Testament - that this process originated with John the Baptist.

However, this is not true. Baptism is essentially the same process utilized in the Old Testament and translated to the word 'anointing:'
“Anoint Aaron and his sons and consecrate them so they may serve me as priests." (Exodus 30:30)
This was God's instruction to Moses, as the process to be used to symbolize becoming a disciple of Moses. As mentioned in the above verse, this is also described as serving to 'consecrete them.'

Baptism is essentially the same process, as liquid is poured over the head in a ceremony of consecration. Oil was often used, but water was also used:
Then Moses brought Aaron and his sons forward and washed them with water. (Lev. 8:6)
We find from this that both John and Jesus utilized baptism to 'consecrate' [or purify] people, leading to their becoming disciples.

Therefore, one might consider using water from a river to baptize or consecrate as 'the poor man's' version of anointing.

As to the question asked by Jesus - whether John's baptism came from heaven or men, we find the answer in Exodus 30:30 above. Since God instructed Moses to do this, we must accept that John's baptism was 'from heaven.'

It is essentially a ritual, but it symbolizes a purification derived from devotion to God.

Was authority handed down through the Prophets?

The ritual of anointing or baptism leading to purification and becoming a disciple is consistent with the process of authority being passed down through the lineage of the Prophets for thousands of years.

Knowledge - and the authority to pass on that knowledge - was passed from Abraham to Lot and Isaac. From Isaac to Jacob. From Jacob to Joseph. From Joseph to the sons of Israel. From Jethro to Moses. From Moses to Joshua. From Eli to Samuel. From Samuel to Saul and David. From David (and Zadok the priest and Nathan the Prophet) to Solomon. This lineage descended from David and Solomon down to the devoted priest Zachariah - John the Baptist's teacher.

And Jesus accepted baptism from John the Baptist, and then baptized his own disciples, who baptized their own.

The scriptures are a testament of this lineage of teachers and students through the ages. Sometimes the teachings of loving service to God were given from a father who was a loving servant of God to his son, and sometimes they were passed from a priest who was a loving servant of God to his student.

In all cases, we see a tradition among God's prophets. Their empowerment came from God. Their service began to the Prophet and was symbolized by "anointing" or "baptizing." Once the disciple learned at the feet of the Prophet they would then apply this knowledge. As their relationship with God developed, God might empower them to become a teacher. This is the authority that Jesus is speaking of here.

Did the Pharisees accept this process?

The officials of the institutional temple that Jesus was speaking to here were not following this tradition. They had developed a political hierarchical system whereby councils of men appointed other men to become their "authorized" teachers. This is diametrically opposed to what is illustrated in the scriptures, and what Jesus is referring to here as the true authorization to teach.

We also see that Jesus not only accepted this process as he was baptized by John. He also baptized his followers. And he requested of those who were dedicated to his teachings to go out and also become teachers to others (which they did). In other words, Jesus authorized those followers, just as John the Baptist authorized Jesus. This is the process authorized by God as documented in Exodus.

The political process of the Pharisees was not authorized by God because the teachers and leaders were being elected by councils of men. This means their "authority came from men," as Jesus put his question.

The same goes for the political process used today among many sectarian institutions, as councils of men will elect priests, pastors, cardinals, deacons and so forth.

Yes, ironically, even though Jesus practiced this ancient process of a teacher transmitting instructions and teachings to a follower who then becomes a teacher, most of today's sectarian teachers subscribe to the political method of being "authorized by men."

It is not as if baptism is separated from teaching. As we can see from the record of John the Baptist, he was not simply dunking people in the water and then sending them off.

Rather, John was teaching from the river Jordan. He was giving them knowledge. The rite of baptism is simply a symbolic activity that represents a person accepting the teachings of his teacher, just as the anointing with oil was a symbolic activity among the ancient Prophets.

What about today's baptisms?

Today many politically-authorized sectarian teachers and their institutions are dunking or splashing people with water without any value. It has become an empty ritual.

That is because their authority has 'come from men.' The authority of most of these teachers comes in the form of election or appointment from men and their councils. Therefore it is a political appointment.

The baptism ritual has become a ceremony of joining a particular sect or group in many cases. This is arguably offensive to Jesus, because his core teachings (of loving and serving God) have been put in the background:
“Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will come to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles? Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!” (Matthew 7:21-23)
From these teachings, we can conclude that simply dunking someone in water “in the name of Jesus” is not in itself pleasing to Jesus or God. The activity can only have value if it is accompanied by the acceptance of the core teachings of Jesus - the first and foremost being to love God and do God’s will.

Only then can the submission (or baptism) come "from heaven" and not "from men."