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Bible Commentaries
Matthew 21

Dr. Constable's Expository NotesConstable's Expository Notes

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Verses 1-2

Jesus and his disciples traveled the 17 miles from Jericho to Bethany along the Roman road. They climbed about 3,000 feet in elevation between those towns. Bethphage ("house of figs") lay slightly farther west than Bethany also on the southeast slope of the Mount of Olives. It no longer exists, and its exact location is unknown, but it had messianic connotations (Zechariah 14:4; cf. Ezekiel 11:23; Ezekiel 43:1-5). It may have been the name of that district and the name of a little village close to Jerusalem where the district began. [Note: Edersheim, The Life . . ., 2:364.] When Jesus approached Bethphage He instructed two disciples to go into that village and bring a donkey and its colt to Him. Most people, except the wealthy, walked everywhere in first-century Palestine. [Note: France, The Gospel . . ., p. 775.] This is the only record of Jesus riding an animal. He was preparing to recreate the return of King David to Jerusalem in peace and humility (2 Samuel 19-20) and the entrance of Solomon into Jerusalem for his enthronement (1 Kings 1:38-40; cf. Genesis 49:10-11). On both occasions these kings rode either a donkey or a mule.

Verses 1-7

1. Jesus’ preparation for the presentation 21:1-7 (cf. Mark 11:1-7; Luke 19:29-35; John 12:12-16)

Verses 1-17

B. Jesus’ presentation of Himself to Israel as her King 21:1-17

Jesus came to Jerusalem to present Himself formally to the leaders of Israel as the nation’s Messiah. He did this when He entered Jerusalem as Isaiah and Zechariah predicted Messiah would appear.

"Jesus entered Jerusalem for the last time in a manner which showed that He was none other than the Messiah, the Son of David, who was coming to Sion to claim the city as His own." [Note: Tasker, p.197.]

The events Matthew recorded in chapters 21-28 happened within six days. John recorded that Jesus arrived in Bethany six days before Passover, evidently the Saturday evening before Passion Week (John 12:1-10). Jesus had previously traveled from Jericho eventually arriving in a town called Ephraim from which He then went to Bethany (cf. Luke 19:1-28; John 11:55-57). Jesus apparently stayed in Bethany until Monday when He entered Jerusalem. [Note: Hoehner, Chronological Aspects . . ., p. 91.] After that, He seems to have gone back and forth between Bethany and Jerusalem throughout the week (Matthew 21:17).

Matthew continued to tell his story by presenting groups of three, as he did in previous chapters: three symbolic actions (Matthew 21:1-22), three polemical parables (Matthew 21:28 to Matthew 22:14), and three hostile questions and responses (Matthew 22:15-40).

Verse 3

This is the only place in Matthew’s Gospel where Jesus used the title "Lord" (Gr. kyrios) of Himself. In every other place it refers to Yahweh. Even though "lord" was a respectful address, used this way it became a title of authority. Probably Jesus had previously made arrangements with the owner to use the animals. Now the disciples went to pick them up and when questioned explained that they were taking them to "the Lord," who needed them (Mark 11:5-6; Luke 19:33-34). Evidently the owner was a believer in Jesus.

"The careful preparation which the Lord makes indicates His sovereignty. That which is about to transpire is no accident." [Note: Toussaint, Behold the . . ., p. 237.]

Verses 4-5

It is possible that Jesus spoke these words. However, it is probable that Matthew added them as he did other fulfillment passages in his Gospel (Matthew 1:22; et al.). The first two lines of the quotation are from Isaiah 62:11, and the last two cite Zechariah 9:9. Zion is a poetic name for Jerusalem often used of the city under Messiah’s rule during the kingdom. [Note: Walvoord, Matthew: . . ., p. 155.] Jerusalem belonged to Messiah (Matthew 5:35). Matthew omitted quoting the part of Zechariah 9:9 that speaks of Messiah bringing national salvation to Israel. Jesus would not do that then because of Israel’s rejection.

"Here was the King’s final and official offer of Himself, in accord with the prophecy of Zechariah 9:9." [Note: The New Scofield . . ., p. 1027.]

Rulers rode donkeys in Israel during times of peace (Judges 5:10; 1 Kings 1:33). This was a sign of their humble service of the people. Warriors rode horses. Jesus was preparing to declare His messiahship by fulfilling this messianic prophecy. By coming in peace He was extending grace rather than judgment to the city. He was coming as a servant now. He would return as a king on a horse later (cf. Revelation 19:11).

Jesus rode on the colt (a young male donkey), not on its mother, the donkey (Mark 11:2; Luke 19:30). It would have been remarkable that Jesus was able to control a presumably unbroken animal moving through an excited crowd with an unfamiliar burden on its back. This was just one more demonstration that Jesus was the Messiah who was the master of nature (cf. Matthew 8:23-27; Matthew 14:22-32). Surely He could bring peace to Israel if He could calm the young colt (Isaiah 11:1-10).

"Matthew could hardly make the presentation of the royalty of Jesus more explicit." [Note: Toussaint, Behold the . . ., p. 238.]

Toussaint titled his commentary on Matthew "Behold The King" because he believed these words are the theme of Matthew’s Jewish Gospel.

Verses 6-7

The disciples ran their errand, returned to Jesus, and spread their outer garments on both animals. Both the donkey and the colt entered Jerusalem. The "them" on which Jesus sat were the garments, not both animals.

This deliberate preparation for a citywide reception contrasts with Jesus’ former approach to ministry. Before He had not drawn attention to Himself deliberately, but now He prepared to do so. He had formerly withdrawn from the antagonistic hierarchy, but now He organized a parade that they could not miss. [Note: Morgan, p. 249.]

Verse 8

The large company of pilgrims from mainly Galilee were acknowledging Jesus as a King by spreading their garments on the road before Him (cf. 2 Kings 9:13). Likewise throwing small branches before Him symbolized the same thing (cf. 1 Maccabees 13:51; 2 Maccabees 10:7). [Note: Edersheim, The Life . . ., 2:372.]

"A Galilean was essentially a foreigner in Jerusalem, and Jesus’ entourage, being made up of Galileans, would normally stand out as distinctive among the Jerusalem crowd." [Note: France, The Gospel . . ., p. 771.]

Verses 8-11

2. Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem 21:8-11 (cf. Mark 11:8-11 a; Luke 19:36-44; John 12:17-19)

Verse 9

This crowd of non-Jerusalemites preceded Jesus and followed Him as He approached Jerusalem.

"Apparently the Galilean pilgrims accompanying Jesus and the Jerusalem crowd coming out to greet him formed a procession of praise." [Note: Carson, "Matthew, p. 439.]

Undoubtedly word of Jesus’ coming had preceded him, so the people of Jerusalem were anticipating His arrival. Since Jesus was an obedient Jew, He visited Jerusalem for the three required feasts annually. The Synoptic writers gave no hint of this, but John mentioned ministry that Jesus had in Jerusalem during these visits. Therefore many people who lived in Jerusalem had seen and heard Him before He entered Jerusalem in the Triumphal Entry. The population of Jerusalem, which covered only about 300 acres, normally numbered between 200,000 and 250,000. But during the feasts, this number swelled to near 3,000,000. [Note: Edersheim, The Life . . ., 1:116-17.]

The people’s words of praise came from Psalms 118:25-26. The Jews used this psalm at the Passover as part of "the great Hallel" (Psalms 113-18) and at the feasts of Tabernacles and Dedication. "Hosanna" transliterates the Hebrew word for "Save us now!" (cf. 2 Samuel 14:4; 2 Kings 6:26). It had become an acclamation through usage (cf. Revelation 7:10). [Note: Gundry, The Use . . ., pp. 41-43; Dalman, p. 221.] "Son of David" is the messianic title that stressed the kingly role that Messiah would play. "He who comes in the name of the Lord" is likewise a messianic reference (Matthew 23:39; cf. Matthew 3:11; Matthew 11:3; Psalms 118:26). [Note: Carr, p. 242.] "Hosanna in the highest" probably meant "Glory to God in the highest" (Luke 2:14). [Note: Carson, "Matthew," p. 439.] This quotation voiced praise to God for sending the Messiah and cried out to Him for deliverance.

"The enthusiastic multitudes thus acclaim Jesus as being blessed by Jehovah, not merely with a verbal benediction, but, as Jehovah always blesses, with the gifts and the treasures implied in the benedictory words; and they acclaim him as coming and bringing all these blessings to them and to their capital and their nation." [Note: Lenski, p. 809.]

However the people, like the disciples, did not understand Messiah’s role as the Suffering Servant who would have to die. They did not appreciate the universal, contrasted with the national, scope of the kingdom either.

Verses 10-11

Jesus probably entered Jerusalem through the sheep gate (St. Stephen’s gate, a name given to it after Stephen’s martyrdom; cf. Acts 7:58). This gate pierced the eastern city wall to the north of the temple enclosure. Worshippers brought sheep into the city through this gate for sacrificing because it was the closest gate to the temple. It was fitting that the Lamb of God should enter Jerusalem through this gate. Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem became the popular topic of conversation (cf. Matthew 2:3). The residents wondered who He really was. Most people who knew about Him described Him as a prophet from Nazareth whose arena of ministry had been mainly Galilee (cf. Matthew 2:23; Matthew 16:14; Matthew 21:46). This description reflects popular disbelief that He was the Messiah. [Note: See Kingsbury, Matthew as . . ., pp. 80-81.]

Matthew stated that Jesus’ entry stirred up the whole city (cf. Matthew 2:3). At this time a Herodian king no longer ruled Judea. Rome ruled it directly through a prefect. [Note: France, The Gospel . . ., p. 781.] The arrival of a Jewish king, from Galilee of all places, would, therefore, have caused great concern among Jerusalem’s residents. How would the Romans react?

"The significance of the triumphal entry is tremendous in this Gospel. To Matthew it is the final and official presentation of Jesus to Israel as its Messiah. This is evident for several reasons. The first is the manner in which Christ acts throughout this whole course of events. He deliberately makes very careful preparations to fulfill every detail of the prophecy of Zechariah 9:9. In addition He planned His movements with understanding of their significance. . . .

"A second indication of the fact that Jesus presented Himself to Israel is seen in that the people recognized it as such. . . . [Note: Footnote 48: Johnson, "The Argument . . .," p. 151.]

"A third proof that the Lord presented Himself as the King of Israel is seen in the parables which the Messiah gives following this event. . . .

"A fourth indication . . . is the time in which it occurred. Sir Robert Anderson has shown that the entry of Christ into Jerusalem occurred on the very day that the sixty-ninth week of Daniel’s prophecy had run out. [Note: Footnote 50: Robert Anderson, The Coming Prince, pp. 127-28.] This is the exact time in which the Messiah was to come (Daniel 9:25).

"Because Israel refused to accept the King when He was presented in exact fulfillment of their Scripture, their unbelief was confirmed beyond the shadow of a doubt. The reception which was given the King was without genuine faith and understanding. However, it did give a brief glimpse of that which will characterize the King’s reception when He appears to Israel for a second time." [Note: Toussaint, Behold the . . ., pp. 241-42. See S. Lewis Johnson Jr., "The Triumphal Entry of Christ," Bibliotheca Sacra 124:495 (July-September 1967):218-29.]

Verse 12

The Mosaic Law required that the Jews pay a half-shekel temple tax, which they paid in temple coinage (cf. Matthew 17:24-27). To accommodate out of town pilgrims, the religious leaders set up currency exchange tables in the large temple courtyard. There people with Greek and Roman money could obtain the required Tyrian currency. The religious leaders also accommodated worshippers by selling animals used in the offerings of Judaism there. Thus the temple courtyard had come to resemble an outdoor market. Probably greedy merchants cheated their buyers if they could, especially during the feasts when pilgrims from far away crowded the temple area. However it was that Sadducean priests permitted merchants to conduct business in the Court of the Gentiles rather than how the merchants conducted their business that provoked Jesus’ wrath.

"If one bought his animals here, had his money exchanged here, these would be accepted; otherwise he might have trouble on that score." [Note: Lenski, p. 813.]

Jesus entered the temple area (Gr. hieron) and proceeded to destroy the market (cf. Zechariah 14:21).

Verses 12-17

3. Jesus’ entrance into the temple 21:12-17 (cf. Mark 11:11 b, Mark 11:15-18; Luke 19:45-48)

Matthew stressed Jesus’ cleansing of the temple as the work of David’s Son (Matthew 21:9; Matthew 21:15). This activity had great messianic significance. [Note: See the diagrams of Jerusalem and Herod’s Temple at the end of these notes.]

Verse 13

Jesus explained why He was doing what He did to the authorities. He quoted Scripture here similarly to the way He did in replying to Satan (Matthew 4:1-10). First, He referred to Isaiah 56:7, a passage in which Isaiah looked forward to a time when the temple would be a house of prayer. Significantly Matthew omitted "for all the peoples" from Isaiah’s statement focusing his readers’ attention on Israel as the target of Jesus’ ministry still. Second, Jesus referred to Jeremiah 7:11, a condemnation of superstitious reverence for the temple while the people dishonored it.

"No matter what they do even by violating the sanctity of their Temple, they imagine that their adherence to this Temple will protect and shield them from any penalty." [Note: Ibid., p. 816.]

In the context of Jeremiah’s prophecy, the "robbers" in view were nationalist rebels. That is also the meaning of the Greek word lestai that Jesus used here. Rather than being a house for prayer, Israel’s leaders had turned it into a stronghold of Jewish nationalism that dishonored the temple while they maintained a superstitious respect for it. [Note: For some insights into the temple environment to which Jesus alluded, see Karen K. Maticich, "Reflections on Tractate Shekalim," Exegesis and Exposition 3:1 (Fall 1988):58-60.]

". . . for Jesus to raise the claim through his cleansing of the temple that the temple has, under the custody of the religious leaders, become a ’den of robbers’ and that his purification of it from the desecration of merchants is its restoration to rightful use as Israel’s house of prayer and worship, is for him to mount a massive assault on the authority and integrity of the religious leaders (Matthew 21:12-13)." [Note: Kingsbury, Matthew as . . ., p. 81.]

By coming to the temple and purifying it, Jesus was making another messianic claim (cf. Malachi 3:1-4). However the nation’s rejection of her Messiah frustrated the cleansing of the temple and precluded the fulfillment of the blessing following purification (Malachi 3:5-6). This prophecy will finally find fulfillment when Messiah comes the second time.

Verse 14

This is the last reference to Jesus’ healing ministry in Matthew’s Gospel. The healing probably happened in the Court of the Gentiles. Some of these blind and lame people could not participate fully in worship activities at the temple (cf. 2 Samuel 5:6-8, where David excluded the blind and lame). However, Jesus made it possible for them to do so by healing them (cf. Acts 3:2). Jesus therefore cleansed both the temple and those who came to it. One greater than the temple had arrived (Matthew 12:6). The authorities would later question His authority to do this cleansing (Matthew 21:23).

Verses 15-16

The popular response to Jesus’ actions aggravated the chief priests and teachers of the law further. The wonderful things that Jesus was doing had messianic implications, and the people realized this.

Jesus introduced the Psalms 8:2 quotation with a rebuke. Surely these experts in the Old Testament should have seen the messianic implications of what Jesus was doing and the words people were using as they responded to Him (cf. Matthew 12:3; Matthew 19:4; Matthew 21:42; Matthew 22:31). This psalm describes the praise that people, even little children, will give to God for the conditions that will prevail during the messianic kingdom. Ancient Near Eastern mothers often nursed their babes long after the children learned to talk, sometimes for as long as three years following their births.

Jesus’ rebuke provided a basis for the children’s continuing praise and temporarily stifled the leaders’ criticism. It also declared His deity since Jesus accepted praise reserved only for God. Moreover it reinforced the truth that the humble and childlike often perceive spiritual truth more clearly than the sophisticated, though they are often unaware of its full significance (cf. Matthew 19:13-15).

"The ’Magi’ (Matthew 2:1) and the ’centurion’ (Matthew 8:5) serve as foils for Israel: the faith of these Gentiles contrasts with the unbelief of Israel (Matthew 2:1-12; Matthew 8:5-13). The ’two blind men’ (Matthew 9:27), the ’Canaanite woman’ (Matthew 15:22), the other ’two blind men’ (Matthew 20:30), and the ’children’ in the temple (Matthew 21:15) also serve as foils for Israel: these ’no-accounts’ see and confess what Israel cannot, namely, that Jesus is its Davidic Messiah." [Note: Ibid., pp. 26-27. See also p. 81.]

Verse 17

Jesus’ withdrawal to Bethany each evening during the festival season was probably for practical reasons. Jerusalem was full of pilgrims, and Jesus had dear friends in Bethany, namely, Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. Jeremias estimated the normal population of Jerusalem at this time as about 30,00, but during Passover about 180,000. [Note: Jeremias, Jerusalem in . . ., pp. 77-84.]

Verses 18-19

Jesus passed the lone fig tree somewhere between Bethany and Jerusalem.

"Fig leaves appear about the same time as the fruit or a little after [normally in April]. The green figs are edible, though sufficiently disagreeable as not usually to be eaten till June. Thus the leaves normally point to every prospect of fruit, even if not fully ripe. Sometimes, however, the green figs fall off and leave nothing but leaves." [Note: Carson, "Matthew," p. 444.]

The leaves on this tree suggested that it had borne fruit, since fig trees bore fruit before the leaves came out, but it had not. Jesus saw an opportunity to teach His disciples an important truth using this tree as an object lesson. He cursed the tree to teach them the lesson, not because it failed to produce fruit.

Most interpreters of this pericope have seen Jesus’ cursing of the fig tree as closely related to the context, namely, the cleansing of the temple and Jesus’ denunciation of Israel’s leaders. Many see the fig tree as a symbol of the whole nation of Israel not bearing the fruit of repentance (cf. Jeremiah 8:13; Hosea 9:10; Hosea 9:16; Luke 13:6-9). [Note: E.g., Bruce, 1:264; Tasker, p. 201; and Lenski, p. 825.] The problem with this view is that Jesus did not abandon Israel forever for rejecting Him (Romans 11). A similar view takes the fig tree as representing the generation of Jews who rejected Jesus. [Note: E.g., Toussaint, Behold the . . ., p. 245; and Barbieri, p. 69.] God would judge them by withholding the kingdom from them. This is the best view from my viewpoint. A third view is that the fig tree illustrates a segment within Jesus’ generation of Jews, namely, the hypocrites within the nation who made a show of bearing fruit but did not (cf. Matthew 6:2; Matthew 6:5; Matthew 6:16; Matthew 7:5; Matthew 15:7; Matthew 22:18; Matthew 23:1-39). [Note: E.g., Carson, "Matthew," p. 445.] They were barren spiritually. These were the temple merchants and the chief priests and scribes but not the children or the blind and the lame. However, Jesus cursed the whole tree and nation, not just the parts in it that proved unfruitful.

The idea that Jesus cursed a helpless fig tree for no fault of its own has bothered some people. However, Jesus also cast demons out of people and into pigs that drowned in the sea (Matthew 8:28-34). This really demonstrates Jesus’ compassion for people as distinct from the animal and vegetable forms of life. Humankind was God’s special creation, and Jesus’ recognition of this superior form of life shows that He did not regard all life as equally valuable. In the destruction of the swine Jesus warned people of Satan’s destructive power. In the cursing of the fig tree He warned them of God’s judgment for lack of fruit (cf. Matthew 3:8; Matthew 3:10; Matthew 7:16-20; Matthew 12:33; Matthew 13:8).

"One of the Old Testament images of God’s judgment on Israel was the picture of the land being unable to bear figs (Jeremiah 8:13; Micah 7:1-6)." [Note: Bailey, in The New . . ., p. 43. Cf. Jeremiah 24:1-10; Hosea 9:10; Hosea 9:16-17; Micah 7:1-6.]

Verses 18-22

1. The sign of Jesus’ rejection of Israel 21:18-22 (cf. Mark 11:12-14; Mark 11:19-25; Luke 21:37-38)

The Triumphal Entry happened on Monday. The cursing of the fig tree took place on Tuesday, and the disciples’ mention of its withering followed on Wednesday (cf. Mark 11:1-14). [Note: Hoehner, Chronological Aspects . . ., p. 91.]

Verses 18-46

C. Israel’s rejection of her King 21:18-22:46

This section of Matthew’s Gospel presents Israel’s formal rejection of her Messiah. Jesus had made a formal presentation of Himself to the nation’s populace and leadership in the messianic capital with His triumphal entry (Matthew 21:1-17). Jesus’ earlier rejection had taken place in rural Galilee (ch. 12). Now Matthew recorded Israel’s response. [Note: For more light on the connections that unite this pericope with the previous one, see Mark Moulton, "Jesus’ Goal for Temple and Tree: A Thematic Revisit of Matthew 21:12-22," Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 41:4 (December 1998):561-72.]

Verses 20-22

Mark separated the cursing of the tree and the disciples’ discovery that it had withered by one day (Mark 11:13; Mark 11:20). Matthew simply combined both events into one story without saying anything that would make Mark’s account incompatible.

Jesus’ response has led some commentators to conclude that what He was teaching with the cursing of the fig tree was simply the importance of faith, not God’s judgment on Israel. [Note: E.g., Walvoord, Matthew: . . ., p. 159-60.] However this seems unlikely to me in view of the preceding context and the symbolism of the fig tree. It seems to me that Jesus was teaching both lessons. The disciples’ amazement that the fig tree had withered so quickly led Jesus to comment on that lesson but not on the other. He used the miracle to teach them a lesson on the power of believing prayer.

Jesus had exercised faith in God when He cursed the tree. God had rewarded Jesus’ trust by killing the tree. Jesus pointed out that trust in God can have amazing consequences. The hyperbolic figure of casting a mountain into the sea was one that Jesus had used before to illustrate the power of faith (Matthew 17:20). There His point was that even a little faith can accomplish great feats. Here His point was that His disciples should believe God rather than disbelieve Him. The disciples had been observing many doubters in those who did not believe that Jesus was the Messiah in spite of the evidence that God had given them, and they themselves had struggled with doubt. Jesus was urging them to have full confidence in Him as the Messiah with the promise that that kind of faith can accomplish supernatural feats (cf. Acts 3:6-7). [Note: See David DeGraaf, "Some Doubts about Doubt: The New Testament Use of Diakrino," Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 48:8 (December 2005):733-55.]

". . . belief in the NT is never reduced to forcing oneself to ’believe’ what he does not really believe. Instead, it is related to genuine trust in God and obedience to and discernment of his will . . ." [Note: Carson, "Matthew," p. 446.]

Jesus may have been teaching a deeper lesson with His reference to the mountain cast into the sea. A mountain in the Bible sometimes stands for a kingdom (Psalms 30:7; Isaiah 2:2; Isaiah 41:15; Jeremiah 51:25; Daniel 2:35; Daniel 2:44; cf. Revelation 8:8; Revelation 16:20; Revelation 17:9). The sea likewise has the metaphorical meaning of the Gentile nations (Deuteronomy 33:19; Psalms 72:8; Psalms 114:3; Psalms 114:5; Isaiah 11:11; Isaiah 60:5). Perhaps with this illustration Jesus was anticipating the coming of His kingdom that would destroy Gentile world dominion (cf. Matthew 6:10; Daniel 2:44-45).

Matthew 21:22 assumes what Jesus taught elsewhere about prayer, namely, that God will grant the petitions of His people when they are in harmony with His will (Matthew 6:9-13; Matthew 7:7-11; cf. John 14:13-14; John 15:16; John 16:23-24; 1 John 5:14-15). His point was that when we pray we should believe that God can do anything we request and that He will do what is consistent with His will and what He has promised to do. [Note: See Thomas L. Constable, Talking to God: What the Bible Teaches about Prayer, pp. 170-76.]

2. Rejection by the chief priests and the elders 21:23-22:14 (cf. Mar_11:27 to Mar_12:12; Luke 20:1-19)

The cursing of the fig tree happened as Jesus and the disciples walked from Bethany to Jerusalem on Tuesday. The disciples’ exclamation about the withered tree and Jesus’ lesson followed on Wednesday. Jesus and His disciples proceeded into Jerusalem where confrontations with three groups erupted in the temple courtyard that day.

Verse 23

Jesus taught in the temple courtyard or perhaps under one of the colonnades that surrounded it. The chief priests were high officials in the temple. At this time in Israel’s history the Roman authorities appointed these leaders (cf. Matthew 2:4). They constituted part of the Sanhedrin, the ruling council in Judaism. The elders were evidently non-priests who represented leading families in Israel. They also had representation on the Sanhedrin. [Note: Jeremias, Jerusalem in . . ., pp. 222-32.] Matthew described these men in terms of their status, not their party affiliation. His point was that these were high-ranking leaders of Israel.

They inquired about Jesus’ authority to drive out the moneychangers and merchants, heal the sick, and teach the people. They were the people with authority to control what happened in the temple area. Authority (Gr. exousia) is the right, and the power that goes with the right, to do something. [Note: Lenski, p. 826.] They wanted to know what authority Jesus had and who had given Him the authority to do what He did since they had not. The validity of Jesus’ authority depended on its source. [Note: Bruce, 1:265.] Their question indicated their opposition to what He did.

". . . at the time of our Lord, no one would have ventured authoritatively to teach without proper Rabbinic authorisation [sic]. . . . ’who gave Thee this authority to do these things?’ seems clearly to point to their contention, that the power which Jesus wielded was delegated to Him by none other than Beelzebul." [Note: Edersheim, The Life . . ., 2:382, 283.]

"The real issue in the passage concerns not information about the authority of Jesus but the unbelief and unreceptivity of the Jewish leadership. The latter knew well enough that Jesus would have claimed divine authority for his doings in the temple area. Their question thus reflects not an inquisitive openness but an already established rejection of Jesus and the attempt to gain evidence that could later be used against him." [Note: Hagner, Matthew 14-28, p. 610.]

Verses 23-27

The issue of authority 21:23-27

Israel’s religious leaders approached Jesus asking that He show them His credentials authorizing Him to disrupt the buying and selling in the courtyard and to heal people.

"Two incidents about authority (Matthew 21:23-27 and Matthew 22:41-46) serve as ’bookends’ to three parables (Matthew 21:28 to Matthew 22:14) and three controversial dialogues with the Pharisees and Herodians, the Sadducees, and the Pharisees (Matthew 22:15-40)." [Note: Bailey, in The New . . ., p. 44.]

Verses 24-26

Jesus responded to their question with one of His own. This was common rabbinic debate technique (cf. Matthew 15:3; Matthew 22:20). [Note: Plummer, p. 293.] By referring to John’s baptism Jesus meant everything associated with his baptism, his whole message and ministry. Since John was Jesus’ forerunner the leaders’ response to John’s ministry would answer their own question about Jesus’ authority. If they said John’s ministry was from heaven they would have had to acknowledge that Jesus’ received His authority from God, since that is what John announced. [Note: Allen, pp. 225-26.] If they said John’s ministry was from men, lacking divine authentication, they knew the people would rise up against them because the people regarded John as a prophet from God. The leaders’ refused to commit themselves knowing that whatever they said would have bad consequences for them. They wanted to avoid losing face.

Any honest seeker among the leaders would have understood and accepted Jesus’ answer to the leaders’ question. However most of the leaders simply wanted to get rid of Jesus having previously rejected Him. Jesus pointed out with His question that their rejection of Him grew out of an earlier rejection of John.

Verse 27

The leaders’ equivocation gave Jesus a reason to refuse them a direct answer without losing face. Why did He not give them one? They had refused earlier revelation through John. Having refused that revelation they had no ground to ask for more. They were incompetent to judge Jesus’ authority since they misunderstood the Old Testament and rejected the ministry of John. That was tragic since these were the men charged with evaluating the claims of those who said they spoke for God. They were ineffective spiritual leaders because they refused to judge fairly. [Note: Carr, p. 246.]

"Jesus’ subtle answers to the religious leaders’ challenge concerning His authority continued for several chapters even after it initially seemed that He had stopped. Without reading on, one would miss the answers Jesus actually did give, namely, that He is the Son of the Father, and that He demonstrated His authority conclusively when challenged to debate by those who considered themselves authorities." [Note: Gene R. Smillie, "Jesus’ Response to the Question of His Authority in Matthew 21," Bibliotheca Sacra 162:648 (October-December 2005):469.]

Matthew used this confrontation over Jesus’ authority to introduce three parables. He typically used events to introduce teaching in this Gospel. All three parables deal with these religious leaders. They focus on their failure to respond to God’s call and the consequences for the future of the Israelites.

Verse 28

Jesus evidently launched into this parable immediately. His introductory question, unique in Matthew, continued the rabbinic dialogue. The first son was the older of the two (Matthew 21:30). The vineyard again referred to Israel in view of Old Testament usage (cf. Matthew 20:1-15).

Verses 28-32

The parable of the two sons 21:28-32

This first parable condemned the conduct of these leaders. It showed that they condemned themselves by judging Jesus as they did.

Verses 29-31

The ancient Greek texts of these verses contain variations that have resulted in different translations. The NASB has the older son saying yes but doing nothing. The younger son says no but repents and goes. The younger son does the father’s will. The NIV has the older son saying no but then repenting and going. The younger son says yes but does not go. The older son does the father’s will. Probably the interpretation of the parable influenced early copyists. The better reading appears to be the one represented in the NASB. [Note: Metzger, pp. 55-56.]

This is the first time Jesus applied one of His parables directly to Israel’s leaders (Matthew 21:31). He introduced this application with His usual solemn introduction (cf. Matthew 5:16; et al.). Both the NASB and the NIV have translated the last verb in this sentence poorly. The Greek verb proago ("get into . . . before" or "entering . . . ahead of") here means "enter instead of." [Note: Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, s.v. "telones," by Otto Michel, 8:105, footnote 158. See also J. Jeremias, The Parables of Jesus, p. 102, footnote 54.]

The tax gatherers and harlots were the dregs of Jewish society. Jesus undoubtedly shocked His listeners when He made this statement. The scum of society, though it originally said no to God, repented at the preaching of John and Jesus and thereby did God’s will (cf. Matthew 8:11-12). Consequently these people would enter the kingdom (by resurrection). However the religious leaders affirmed their willingness to do God’s will but refused to do so by rejecting Jesus. They would not enter the kingdom.

Note that Jesus described both groups as sons of the father in the parable. All the Jews, those with a privileged position and those with none, enjoyed being sons of God in the sense that God had chosen Israel as His son (cf. Hosea 11:1). The leaders could still believe in Jesus and enter the kingdom. Individual salvation was still possible even though national rejection was strong.

Verse 32

This verse links the parable with Jesus’ earlier words about the leaders’ response to John and His authority (Matthew 21:23-27). John had come preaching what was right, the way of righteousness. Israel’s leaders had not responded positively to his message. Even the repentance of Israel’s most despised citizens did not change their minds. It should have.

Verses 33-34

Jesus alluded to Isaiah 5:1-7 and Psalms 80:8-16 where the vineyard is Israel and the landowner God. The care the landowner took with his vineyard shows God’s concern for Israel. He had a right to expect that it would be a fruitful vineyard and yield much fruit. The tenants to whom the landowner entrusted his vineyard represent Israel’s leaders. The harvest time (lit. the season of the fruits) stands for the time when God could expect to obtain some reward for His investment in Israel. The slaves (Gr. douloi) are God’s faithful servants the prophets. In Jesus’ society slaves were not necessarily on a low social level; many of them held important positions in their owners’ households. [Note: France, The Gospel . . ., p. 812.]

Verses 33-46

The parable of the wicked tenant farmers 21:33-46

Jesus proceeded immediately to tell another parable. Luke wrote that Jesus addressed it to the crowds in the temple courtyard (Luke 20:9). The chief priests and elders continued to listen (Matthew 21:45-46).

Verses 35-37

Israel’s leaders had beaten and killed various prophets (cf. 1 Kings 18:4; 1 Kings 18:13; 1 Kings 22:24; 2 Chronicles 24:21-22; Jeremiah 20:1-2; Jeremiah 26:20-23; Jeremiah 37:15). Sending his son might seem foolhardy in view of the tenants’ former behavior. [Note: Lenski, p. 835.] However this act showed the landowner’s patience and his hope that the tenants would respond properly to the representative with the greatest authority.

"The contrast is between what men would do and what God had done." [Note: Walvoord, Matthew: . . ., p. 162.]

Verses 38-40

Israel’s leaders did not reject Jesus because it was not clear who He was but because they refused to submit to His authority (Matthew 23:37). Jesus had announced to His disciples that the Jewish leaders would kill Him (Matthew 16:21; Matthew 17:23; Matthew 20:18). Now He announced this to the leaders themselves and the people.

Verse 41

The hearers who responded may have been the leaders, but since Jesus identified the guilty in the parable clearly, they were probably the people standing about listening. They easily anticipated God’s action. He would depose the leaders and bring them to a miserable end. Then God would deliver the care of His vineyard to other slaves who would present the desired fruit at the appointed time. These refer to the prophets, apostles, and servants of God who would represent Him after Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension.

Verse 42

Every time Jesus said, "Did you never read?" He was stressing that the Scriptures pointed to Him (cf. Matthew 12:3; Matthew 12:5; Matthew 19:4; Matthew 21:16; Matthew 22:31; Mark 12:10). In these instances He also referred to well known texts, but He used them in unexpected ways. Jesus changed the figure from a vineyard to a building. This quotation is from Psalms 118:22-23. It probably originally described David, Jesus’ ancestor and type. All Israel’s leaders including Samuel and Saul had originally rejected David, but God chose him and made him the capstone of the nation. Likewise God had chosen Israel, a nation that the other world leaders despised. However, God would make Israel the capstone of the nations when He established the kingdom.

Similarly in Jesus’ day Israel’s leaders had rejected after trial (Gr. apodokimazo) the Son of David, but God would make Him the capstone of His building. Jesus’ history recapitulated the history of both Israel and David. Earthly leaders were rejecting Him, but God would exalt Him over all eventually. This reversal of fortunes is a phenomenon that onlookers marvel at as they observe it. Jesus made another strong messianic claim when He applied this passage to Himself.

Verse 43

This verse continues to explain the parable of the wicked tenant farmers. Because Israel’s leaders had failed to produce the fruit God desired and had slain His Son, He would remove responsibility and privilege from them and give that to another "nation" or "people" (Gr. ethnei). What God did was transfer responsibility for preparing for the kingdom from Israel and give it to a different group, namely, the church (cf. Acts 13:46; Acts 18:5-6; Romans 10:19; 1 Peter 2:9). David Turner argued that those who received the responsibility were the faithful Jewish remnant represented by Jesus’ apostles. [Note: David L. Turner, "Matthew 21:43 and the Future of Israel," Bibliotheca Sacra 159:633 (January-March 2002):46-61.] This is a very similar view since Jesus’ apostles became the core of the church.

"Matthew 21:43 could be the key verse in the entire argument of Matthew." [Note: Bailey, in The New . . ., p. 45.]

The unusual term "kingdom of God" rather than Matthew’s customary "kingdom of heaven" probably stresses the fact that the kingdom belongs to God, not the leaders of Israel.

Jesus did not mean that God would remove the kingdom from Israel forever (cf. Romans 11:26-27). When Jesus returns to the earth and establishes His kingdom, Israel will have the most prominent place in it (Genesis 12; Genesis 15; 2 Samuel 7; Jeremiah 31).

"For the first time the King speaks openly and clearly to someone outside of the circle of the disciples about a new age. This is full proof that the kingdom was no longer near at hand." [Note: Toussaint, Behold the . . ., p. 252. See also idem, "The Contingency . . ., pp. 234-35; and idem and Quine, p. 140.]

Verse 44

The capstone, the top stone on a wall or parapet around a flat-roofed building, could and did become a stumbling block to some. Many Jews similarly tripped over Jesus’ identity and plunged to their destruction. Likewise a capstone could fall on someone below and crush him or her. These are allusions to Isaiah 8:14-15 and Daniel 2:35; Daniel 2:44-45. Jesus was a dangerous person as well as God’s chosen representative and the occupier of God’s choice position in His building, Israel. Jesus was claiming to be the Judge; He would crush those on whom He fell.

Verses 45-46

The meaning of Jesus’ words was clear to Israel’s leaders who heard Him. Matthew probably described them as chief priests, who were mostly Sadducees, and Pharisees because these were the two leading parties within Judaism. Together these two groups stood for all the Jewish authorities who opposed Jesus.

Rather than fearing Jesus, whom they understood claimed to be the instrument of their final judgment, these leaders feared the multitudes whose power over them was much less. Rather than submitting to Him in belief, they tried to seize Him. Thus they triggered the very situation that Jesus had warned them about, namely, His death at their hands. Their actions confirmed their rejection of Jesus and their consequent blindness.

Bibliographical Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Matthew 21". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/dcc/matthew-21.html. 2012.
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