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Bible Commentaries
Matthew 21

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Verses 1-46

Palm Sunday and Its Lessons

Matthew 21:9

Palm Sunday ought to have something to say to us, if we can hear its voice and learn its lessons.

I. One thing we learn here is that the sympathies of the multitude are right. This great mass of people, untaught, ignorant, simple-minded, with no one to guide them, instinctively gave their honour and adoration to Christ. They had heard of His kindly works, His sympathy with all who were in sorrow, His uniform goodness and purity, and their hearts went out to Him. Their instincts, as we may call them, were right. But their opinions and judgments were weak and easily swayed. And when a few crafty priests and glib-tongued Pharisees had been in and out among them saying this and that false thing of Christ, slandering and reviling Him, and declaring that He sought not the people's good, but to subvert their customs and destroy the nation, that was quite enough to change the sentiments and voices of all who had greeted Him with Hosannas. You can get any sort of music from a crowd, if you know how to play skilfully enough. Everything depends upon those to whom they lend their ears their guides and leaders.

II. The ideals of the multitude are often coarse and material, and sorely need to be purified and raised. On that Palm Sunday they were chanting praises, not to the real Christ as He was, but to the imaginary Christ which they thought He ought to be. When they spread those palm branches for Him to tread upon, they had no idea that He had come to save them from their sins and uncleanness, and to purify their hearts. They thought He was the Messiah whose purpose was to enrich them and the nation with wealth and bodily comfort, to relieve them of Rome's bondage and heavy taxation, and bring in a time of plenty and prosperity for the very poorest. That was what the shoutings and songs of Palm Sunday meant. And that sort of glorying and huzzaing could not last. It was soon to pass away, like so much empty breath, simply because it came out of a falsehood. They found out very soon that that coarse material work was not Christ's purpose at all, and then they turned against Him. There is no real worship of Christ save that which is founded on a true understanding of His character and mission. He comes not to change things without, but to make the world slowly new by a change of the heart within.

III. Palm Sunday bids you go steadily on. You are not to be elated by temporary triumphs, or cast down by the proved fickleness of those among whom you labour. If you are engaged in any sort of public work you will have the palm branches waved around you at one season, and ere long there will be no palm branches, but something not unlike the shadow of a cross. And you need to steady your heart's purpose by sitting at the feet of Christ.

J. G. Greenhough, Christian Festivals and Anniversaries, p. 20.


Matthew 21:9

The Advent, or coming of Christ, in one sense or other is the message of all Scripture. This coming of Christ is manifold in its nature.

I. Christ came to visit us in great humility. At first men found no room for Him, and then they slew Him. There were occasions, however, when the power of His Divine majesty claimed their wonder and adoration even at this season. A great multitude spread their garments in the way as though He were some mighty king; others strewed palm branches before Him, as though He were some triumphant conqueror; and all cried to Him as unto their Saviour Hosanna. And yet in one short week the King the Conqueror the Saviour was forgotten; and men cried Away with Him Crucify Him and mocked Him as He hung upon the cross.

This advent of Christ into Jerusalem is but a figure and a pattern of His general reception in the world. We must not only be willing to confess a conquering King, but ready also to believe in a crucified Saviour.

II. Think of the Second Advent of Christ's entrance into a new Zion not to die but to reign when He shall 'return in glorious majesty to judge both the quick and the dead '. Think then of the witness which our own conscience will bear against us when Christ shall judge the world; and so judge yourselves that ye be not judged. We know nothing perhaps so little or so badly as our own heart. It will not be so at that day. Then we shall see our sins as God sees them. No one speaks carelessly of death and the judgment after death but he who knows nothing of himself nothing of God. The first lesson which we learn of our own nature, if we deal sincerely with ourselves, must be one of deep, inexpressibly deep humility. The first lesson which we learn from the Bible, if we truly realize its teaching, must be one of deep, inexpressibly deep gratitude.

III. But there is yet a third Advent full of joy and peace and hope and comfort to every troubled soul. Christ comes to each one of us who have been made His in especial manner as He once came to His own, in love and tenderness.

If Christ be already with you, labour more and more earnestly that your whole life may be devoted to God through Him. If Christ be not found in you, pray faithfully for the presence which He has pledged to you. Pray faithfully, earnestly, ceaselessly, and be very sure that your prayer will be heard, and Christ will come to you, and make His dwelling with you.

But that Christ may thus come to us, we must cast out all that is hostile to Him. We must patiently wait for Him. We must be silent. We must pray to Him, as the multitude prayed, Hosanna. Save now, we beseech Thee.

B. F. Westcott, Village Sermons, p. 1.

References. XXI. 9. H. J. Wilmot-Buxton, Sunday Sermonettes for a Year, p. 72. W. C. E. Newbolt, Church Times, vol. xlix. 1903, p. 489. R. W. Church, Village Sermons (2nd Series), p. 1. M. G. Glazebrook, Prospice, p. 98. H. P. Liddon, Passion-Tide Sermons, p. 196. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xxxvii. No. 2196. Parker, Inner Life of Christ, vol. iii. p. 91; and see his Homiletic Analysis of Matthew. Homiletic Quarterly, vol. iii. p. 136. Pulpit Analyst, vol. iii. p. 654. Dr. Arnold's Sermons (3rd Series), No. ix.

'Who Is This?'

Matthew 21:10

Who is this? The question was asked by some, no doubt, in idle curiosity; by some, perhaps, in doubting hesitation, for the days were evil, and the glory seemed to have departed from Israel; by some with eager hope that the answer would announce their King.

I. So is the question asked still in varying moods. Who is this? Who is the Leader of the great Christian procession of the ages? The Chief Figure in that procession is now as of old a Master of men. But who is He? Why do men go after Him?

It is a great question for every soul. You can hardly escape it. That great procession passes by your doors, incessant and unending. You must have an answer. It is answered in the text, you say. This is the Prophet, Jesus, from Nazareth of Galilee. Yes, that was a true answer as far as it went; but we cannot forget that the men who gave it seem soon to have lost their faith in the Prophet.

II. Who is this? The question comes to us still, and meets, alas! at times with as poor an answer. Men and women still follow the great Christian procession. They join in the Confession, which declares that He on whom their eyes are fixed is the Christ, the Redeemer, 'Very God, of Very God'. But they have not really thought of what they are saying. And so when the question comes to them, as come it surely does one day, Who is this? they receive a shock. It is best left to theologians, they suppose; and so they take refuge in an answer which nobody can gainsay: This is Jesus, the Prophet. He was the world's greatest Teacher, who spake as man never spake, who brought men a message of holiness and peace. They do not see that they have given the lie to all their previous professions; they have robbed their halfhearted allegiance of the only element which justified its existence at all.

III. It is a real danger that we should acquiesce in this way of thinking about our Lord. The devotion of the Christian centuries is not devotion to the memory of a great Prophet of the past, but love to an ever-present Lord and King who still lives and reigns among men. We cannot replace the one conception by the other without disaster to our spiritual life, without a shipwreck of faith, without peril to our souls.

And thus the story of the text with its terrible sequel teaches us the miserable insufficiency of any such view of the Christ as that which regards Him only as a great Teacher, a great Prophet Such a belief as that will not nerve men and women with courage to trust Him in an hour of spiritual darkness, in days of perplexity and distress and pain.

J. H. Bernard, Via Domini, p. 136.

References. XXI. 10. J. Cameron Lees, Christian World Pulpit, vol. lviii. 1895, p. 116. H. P. Liddon, Advent in St. Paul's, p. 1. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. li. No. 2939. XXI. 10-16. Selected Sermons of Schleiermacher, p. 103.

Matthew 21:12

As the good husbandman, when he sees the leaves grow yellow, and the branches unthriving, looks presently to the root; so didst Thou, O Holy Saviour, upon sight of the disorders spread over Judea and Jerusalem, address Thyself to the rectifying of the temple.

Bishop Hall.

When nations are to perish in their sins,

'Tis in the Church that leprosy begins.


References. XXI. 12-14. V. R. Lennard, Passion-Tide and Easter, p. 33. XXI. 13. A. G. Mortimer, One Hundred Miniature Sermons, vol. i. p. 7. T. H. Ball, Persuasions, p. 1. R. F. Horton, Christian World Pulpit, vol. lviii. 1900, p. 8. F. D. Huntington, Christian Believing and Living, p. 602. XXI. 15. W. H. Lyon, Christian World Pulpit, vol. lviii. 1900, p. 269. XXI. 15, 16. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xxx. No. 1785. XXI. 17. W. P. Balfern, Glimpses of Jesus, p. 167. XXI. 17-20. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xxxv. No. 2107. XXI. 17-22. J. Laidlaw, The Miracles of Our Lord, p. 125. Archbishop Trench, Notes on the Miracles of Our Lord, p. 357. XXI. 18, 19. V. R. Lennard, Passion-Tide and Easter, p. 33. XXI. 18-22. W. M. Taylor, The Miracles of Our Saviour, p. 412.


Matthew 21:19

'Let no fruit grow on thee henceforward for ever;' and presently the fig-tree withered away. A stern sentence surely, and executed with dreadful swiftness, and for that very reason, worthy of our notice; since it concerns us very deeply to remember, that although the Lord our God is gracious and merciful, slow to-anger and of great kindness, He who is very Holiness cannot bear with wilful and unrepented sin. He Who is the Truth itself may not endure hypocrisy, and the pretence of righteousness in those that have it not. Consider carefully what the real forgiveness of sins is, and what are its conditions. There are two great facts about sin and forgiveness:

I. In this World there is no 'Forgiveness of Sins'. Nature is unflinchingly, cruelly just. Those who keep her laws shall prosper, those who break them must suffer. We all recognize this to some extent in outward things, and shape our course accordingly. We know that the fire will burn us, that the deep waters will drown us, and we call him a madman who acts as if it were not so, and suffers for his neglect. But the laws of our moral nature are not less stern. We may dream, if we will, that we can play for a while with the burning fire of lust or anger, and come away unscathed, but it is not so; before we know it, our souls are seared and branded with scars that nothing earthly can ever efface. Let us never fancy that we can sin a sin and be done with it. When you are tempted to sin, think what you are doing not to yourself only, nor your neighbours, but toothers, whom maybe you will never know.

In this world there is no forgiveness of sins. Yet we believe that God will pardon us and heal us, if we turn to Him rightly; it was for this that Jesus Christ died upon the cross; that we might be cleansed and restored, and live with Him for ever.

II. There is no Forgiveness at all without Repentance. Real repentance means doing as well as feeling; and the first thing to do is to read carefully through that sad chapter of the past which we would so gladly close for ever, in order that we may truly know what we have been doing; and laying our sin before God in all its meanness, stripped of every excuse, implore His pardon. It may be, of course, if we have been grievously sinning against others, that our conscience will bid us make open confession and reparation; but in every case there must be absolute plainness with ourselves, absolute submission to God. You see it is not a pleasant nor an easy thing to repent; think of this too when you are going to sin.

III. Consider the especial sin and its punishment which are denounced in our text; the sin of spiritual barrenness, what I may call ineffectualness, the failure to help our fellow-creatures, and its punishment, the loss of power to help.

Day by day, and hour by hour, the choice of good and evil is offered to you, and every time you choose the better part you are bearing fruit acceptable to God; every time you yield, and choose the worst, you are losing power; and remember this, that if you go on refusing God's service, and doing what seems easiest, a time will come when it will be too late, when the will is utterly paralysed, and repentance is only despair. To such an one the judgment is come in his lifetime; on him already the terrible doom is pronounced, 'Let no fruit grow on thee henceforward for ever'. Is it not the experience of all of you, that already your own shortcomings have prevented you from boldly rebuking vice, or stretching out a hand of help, when you would gladly have done it, if you had dared.

Let us learn of Jesus Christ how the poor wasted lives, which we menage so ill for ourselves, may become rich and useful these are His words: 'I am the Vine, ye are the branches. He that abideth in Me and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit, for without Me ye can do nothing.'

J. H. F. Peile, Ecclesia Discens, p. 97.


Matthew 21:19

The whole thing is symbolical only so is it intelligible.

I. Christ Seeking Fruit. He comes to give, but also to require. He has a right to you. He is the Creator of you, as of the tree, and He is the Redeemer. He desires fruit from you. He not only demands, but desires, longs for and delights in it. The fruit He desires is yourself.

II. The Barrenness which is a Crime. What a lively image of human nature this is plenty of leaves, that is professions, talk, etc., but no fruit! Now observe that naturally we ought to bring forth fruit. Human nature is made for God, to blossom in goodness just as does the tree. He comes requiring, for the demands of God's law cannot drop down to our impotence. What we ought to be remains always the same, however much we may vary.

III. The Close of the Time of Seeking. This points to the great law of the limitation of the period of probation. The whole analogy of God's dealings seems to teach that the time of probation is limited. Christ comes seeking fruit for the last time, then there is:

IV. The Punishment of Fruitlessness by Perpetual Fruitlessness. Sin punished by continual sinfulness. A natural process which God allows to take effect. And this is the most awful idea of hell, that the bottomless pit is an endless descent; that the fire which shall never be quenched is the fire of burning passions; that the chains of darkness are 'the cords of his sins'. Every sin tends thitherwards.

A. Maclaren.

The Barren Fig-tree

Matthew 21:19

This tree was a symbol of that which, in man, is a worse sin than a merely fruitless life. It had leaves, you will observe, though it had no fruit. That was the distinction of this particular tree among its fellows ranged along the road, with their bare, leafless, unpromising branches. They held out hopes of nothing beyond what met the eye. This tree, with its abundant leaves, gave promise of fruit that might be wellnigh ripe, and thus it was a symbol of moral or of religious pretentiousness.

I. And thus the fig-tree represented immediately, we cannot doubt, in our Lord's intention, the actual state of the Jewish people. The heathen nations, judged from a Divine point of view, were barren enough. Israel was barren also, but then Israel was also pretentious and false. Israel was the fig-tree of the spoken parable which our Lord had pronounced just a year before. No Jew with his eye on the language of the Prophets, particularly of Ezekiel, could have doubted that in this parable our Lord referred to the Jewish people; but what He then taught by words He now would teach, in its completeness, by action, for now the year for which the dresser of the vineyard had pleaded had just run out. During that year of patient appeal our Lord had stretched out His hands, in entreaty, all day long, to a disobedient and gainsaying people. The tree by the roadside was a visible symbol of the moral condition of Israel as it presented itself to the eye of Jesus Christ, and there was no longer any reason for suspending the judgment which had been foretold in the Saviour's parable. 'No man eat fruit of thee, hereafter, for ever.' If humanity needed light, strength, peace, consolations, Israel could no longer give them. Israel was hereafter to be a blasted and withered tree on the wayside of history.

II. But the parable applies with equal force to nations or to Churches in Christendom, which make great pretensions and do little or nothing of real value to mankind. For a time the tree waves its leaves in the wind. It lives on, sustained by the traditional habits and reverence of ages. But, at His own time, Christ passes along the highway passes to inquire and to judge some unforeseen calamity, some public anxiety, some shock to general confidence, lifts the leaves of that tree, and discovers its real fruitlessness.

III. To every individual Christian this parable is full of warning. The religious activity of the human soul may be divided, roughly, into leaves and fruit into showy forms of religious activity and interest, on the one side, and the direct produce of religious conviction on the other. It is much easier, we all know, to grow leaves than to grow fruit, and many a man's life veils the absence of fruit by the abundance of leaves. It is always easier, for instance, to take interest in and to discuss religious questions, than to submit the will entirely to religious principle. An anxious question for all of us is whether the foliage, so to call it, of our Christian life is the covering of fruit beneath that which is ripening for heaven, or whether it is only a thing of precocious and unnatural growth which has drained away the tree's best sap before its time, and made good fruit almost impossible. To take an interest in religious questions, in religious society, in religious observances, is most right and important; but it is not necessarily the same thing as being the servant of Christ our Lord in whose soul His wonder-working grace is bringing forth the fruit of the Spirit 'love, joy, peace, long-suffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance'. We know that what He demands is fruit, not merely leaves.

H. P. Liddon, Penny Pulpit, vol. xiv. No. 830, p. 317.

References. XXI. 19. R. W. Church, Village Sermons (2nd Series), p. 71. H. P. Liddon, Sermons on Some Words of Christ, p. 100; see also Expository Sermons on the New Testament, p. 45. J. Parker, Hidden Springs, p. 98. XXI. 21. H. Ward Beecher, Sermons (1st Series), p. 536. XXI. 22. F. E. Paget, Helps and Hindrances to the Christian Life, vol. ii. p. 131. XXI. 23. J. A. Bain, Questions Answered by Christ, p. 65. A. F. Winnington Ingram, Lenten Mission, 1905, p. 35. XXI. 23-27. A. B. Davidson, Waiting Upon God, p. 183. F. D. Maurice, Lincoln's Inn Sermons, vol. iv. p. 84; see also Sermons, p. 95. XXI. 23-46. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xlvii. No. 2756. XXI. 25. H. J. Martyn, For Christ and the Truth, p. 158.

Working for the Master

Matthew 21:28-30

I. Let us consider how this parable applies to the classes our Lord was especially addressing at that time. You will find on looking at the context that our Lord was addressing the elders and chief priests in the Temple. The chief priests and elders and Pharisees whose outward deportment seemed to make them correspond with the one who said, 'I go, sir, but went not,' rejected our Lord's teaching, disparaged His miracles, refused His invitations and scorned His threatenings, and, on the other hand, the history shows us that His preaching of the truth came home with power and effect to the hearts of the publicans and the harlots who pressed into the kingdom of God. Such is the application of the parable to those whom our Lord primarily addressed.

You will see how it applies with equal force to the Jew and the Gentile.

II. Let us bring this home to ourselves. Does not this parable find, in almost every congregation, two classes very aptly represented on the one hand by the first son who refused but afterwards went, and on the other by the second son who seemed to assent but nevertheless went not. In almost every congregation you will find a number of persons who may be very easily wrought upon and impressed by peculiar circumstances. There will be many who will listen with eager, breathless attention as the message comes: 'Go work Today in My vineyard'. The attitude they assume, their eager, riveted interest, might well fill a minister's heart with hope and confidence. Yet often those who say, 'I will not,' will doubtless be found amongst the best workers in the vineyard of Christ.

How often have some of you known it in your own experience how the promise made on a sick bed is altogether forgotten when the season of health returns, and he who under sickness and trial responded readily to all the minister had to say about eternity shows how evanescent have been the resolutions he made, and the man who said 'I go' afterwards went not.

III. The message comes to every one of us, 'Son, go work Today in My vineyard'. Prodigals as many of us may be, all our wanderings do not destroy the fact that we are still, in some sense, God's children, and He addresses us as our father: 'Son, go work Today in My vineyard'.

But though salvation is freely provided and offered to us and becomes ours by faith in Him who wrought it out, yet there is a work for every one of us to do. There is no room for sloth, we are summoned to work for God, for ourselves and for others, and to work Today. Today is the only time that we can call our own.

References. XXI. 28. C. G. Lang, Church Times, vol. Leviticus 9:0 Feb. 1906, p. 183. F. W. Farrar, Christian World Pulpit, vol. xxxvii. 1890, p. 353. W. L. Watkinson, ibid. vol. liv. 1898, p. 184; see also vol. lxvi. 1904, p. 122. H. W. Burrows, Oxford Lent Sermons, 1868, p. 45. A. F. Winnington Ingram, The Call of the Father, p. 114. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xxiii. No. 1338.

Promising Without Doing

Matthew 21:28-30

So very difficult is obedience, so hardly won is every step in our Christian course, so sluggish and inert our corrupt nature, that I would have a man disbelieve he can do one jot or tittle beyond what he has already done; refrain from borrowing aught on the hope of the future, however good a security for it he seems to be able to show; and never take his good feelings and wishes in pledge for one single untried deed. Nothing but past acts are the vouchers for future. Past sacrifices, past labours, past victories over yourselves these, my brethren, are the tokens of the like in store, and doubtless of greater in store; for the path of the just is as the shining, growing light. But trust nothing short of these. 'Deeds, not words and wishes,' this must be the watchword of your warfare and the ground of your assurance But if you have done nothing firm and manly hitherto, if you are as yet the coward slave of Satan, and the poor creature of your lusts and passions, never suppose you will one day rouse yourselves from your indolence.

J. H. Newman.

References. XXI. 28-30. J. H. Newman, Parochial and Plain Sermons, vol. i. p. 165. H. Scott Holland, Christian World Pulpit, vol. lviii. 1895, p. 145. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xlvii. No. 2747. XXI. 28-31. Stopford A. Brooke, Short Sermons, p. 287. T. Sadler, Sermons for Children, p. 30. C. J. Vaughan, Last Words in the Parish Church of Doncaster, p. 293. XXI. 28-32. B. W. Maturin, Practical Studies on the Parables of Our Lord, p. 110. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xiii. No. 742. Trench, Parables, p. 191. Calderwood, ibid. p. 163. Marcus Dods, ibid. p. 171. XXI. 28-32; 33-43. R. Winterbotham, The Kingdom of Heaven, p. 129.

Matthew 21:29

That doing of the right thing, after a term of paralysis, cowardice any evil name is one of the mighty reliefs, equal to happiness, of longer duration.

George Meredith, One of Our Conquerors, chap. xxv.

References. XXI. 30. H. Ward Beecher, Sermons (1st Series), p. 414. XXI. 31. C. H. Parkhurst, Christian World Pulpit, vol. xlvi. 1894, p. 388.

Matthew 21:32

I have often observed how incongruous and irrational the common temper of mankind is, especially of youth, in that they are not ashamed to sin, and yet are ashamed to repent; not ashamed of the action for which they ought justly to be esteemed fools, but are ashamed of the returning, which only can make them be esteemed wise men.

Defoe, Robinson Crusoe, chap. I.

References. XXI. 33-46. A. Maclaren, Expositions of Holy Scripture St. Matthew XVIII.-XXVIII. p. 107. XXI. 37. R. D. B. Rawnsley, Village Sermons (3rd Series), p. 12. XXI. 39. H. Hensley Henson, Christian World Pulpit, vol. lxviii. 1905, p. 296. XXI. 40, 41. H. Scott Holland, Christian World Pulpit, vol. lviii. 1900, p. 153. XXI. 44. J. Smith, The Integrity of Scripture, p. 109. A. Maclaren, Expositions of Holy Scripture St. Matthew XVIII.-XXVIII. p. 116; see also Sermons Preached in Manchester, p. 1; Creed and Conduct, p. 348. XXII. G. Tyrrell, Oil and Wine, p. 103. XXII. 1. B. Wilberforce, Sanctification by the Truth, p. 40. XXII. 1-4. A. Maclaren, Expositions of Holy Scripture St. Matthew XVIII.-XXVIII. p. 126. XXII. 1-14. B. W. Maturin, Practical Studies on the Parables of Our Lord, p. 124. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xlviii. No. 2809. XXII. 2. J. Vaughan, Fifty Sermons (9th Series), p. 193. XXII. 2-4. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xvii. No. 975. XXII. 3. F. E. Paget, Helps and Hindrances to the Christian Life, vol. ii. p. 108.

Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William Robertson, M.A., L.L.D. "Commentary on Matthew 21". Expositor's Dictionary of Text. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/edt/matthew-21.html. 1910.
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