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Bible Commentaries

F. B. Hole's Old and New Testament Commentary
Matthew 21

 

 

Other Authors
Verses 1-46

THIS CHAPTER OPENS with the Lord presenting Himself to Jerusalem according to the prophecy of Zechariah. The Lord had spoken through the prophet, and now some five centuries later the ass and her colt were standing ready exactly at the right time, under the charge of someone who would immediately respond to the need of the Lord. Once more the Lord was plainly authenticated before them as their Messiah and King. He had been born of the Virgin in Bethlehem, brought out of Egypt, and had risen as the great Light in Galilee, as the prophets had said. Now, when the sixty-nine weeks of Daniel 9:1-27 were completed, as King He entered His city. Alas! the people overlooked the fact that He was to be meek, and the salvation He was to bring must be compatible with that, and not based upon victorious power. Consequently they stumbled at that stumbling-stone.

Yet for a brief moment it looked as if they might receive Him. The example of the disciples was infectious, and the multitude did Him honour, saluting Him as the Son of David, and as the One who was to come in the name of the Lord. But the reality of their faith was soon tested, for entering the city the question was raised, “Who is this?” The answer of the multitude displayed no real faith at all. They said, “This is Jesus the prophet of Nazareth of Galilee.” Quite true, of course, as far as it went; but it went no further than what was obvious even to those who had no faith. A good many prophets had entered before this, and Jerusalem had slain them.

Jesus had just presented Himself to them as King, so, having arrived in the city, He went straight to the temple, the very centre of their religion, and asserted His kingly power in cleansing it. He had done this at the very beginning of His ministry, as recorded in John 2:1-25; He did it again at the end. The trafficking and money-changing in the temple had doubtless sprung out of the kindly arrangements of the law, which Deuteronomy 14:24-26 records. Ungodly men had taken advantage of this provision to turn the temple precincts into a den of thieves. God intended His temple to be the house where men drew near to Him with their requests. Its custodians had turned it into a place where men were swindled, and so the name of God was maligned. To defile or corrupt the temple of God is a sin of tremendous gravity. 1 Corinthians 3:17 shows this, in its application to God’s present temple.

Having driven out these evil men, Jesus dispensed mercy to the very people they would have kept outside. The blind and lame were forbidden to approach in Leviticus 21:18, and 2 Samuel 5:6-8 records David’s sentence against them: he said, they “shall not come into the house.” The great Son of David had now arrived in Zion, and He reverses David’s action. The kind of folk that were “hated of David’s soul” were loved and blessed that day. The sordid money-changers had misrepresented the God whose house it was, and caused men to blaspheme His name: in healing the needy, Jesus rightly represented the very heart of God, and in result there was praise. Even the children were found crying, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” They had caught up the cry from the older folk.

The religious leaders themselves witnessed His wonderful works of power and grace, and to their sore displeasure they heard the children’s cry. Jesus vindicated them in their simplicity, quoting the verse from Psalms 8:1-9 as finding a fulfilment in them. The Psalm says, “ordained strength,” whereas He gave an application of it in saying, “perfected praise;” but in either case the thought is that God accomplishes what He desires, and receives the praise He looks for, through small and weak things. Thus it is made manifest that the strength and the praise is of and from Himself. Thus it was here. When the leaders were not only silent but opposed, God took care to have suitable praise through the lips of the babes.

For the moment however the city and temple were in the custody of these unbelieving men; so He left them and it, and went out to Bethany for the night—the place where was found at least one household that believed in Him and loved Him. Returning next morning He uttered His sentence against the fig tree that bore nothing but leaves. All outward show but no fruit; and on that tree no fruit was to grow for ever. It was utterly condemned. Immediately it withered away! The occurrence was so obviously miraculous that it compelled the attention and the comment of the disciples.

The Lord’s reply turned their thoughts from the fig tree to “this mountain.” The fig tree was symbolic of Israel, more particularly that part of the nation which had returned from the captivity and were now in the land. Judged nationally there was nothing in them for God and they were condemned; and since they were picked samples of the human race the fruitless tree set forth the fact that Adam’s race, as men in the flesh, is condemned and there will never be found in them any fruit for God.

Jerusalem and its temple crowned “this mountain,” which symbolized, we believe, the whole Jewish system. If they had faith they might anticipate what God was going to do in removing the mountain so that it might be submerged in the sea of the nations. The Epistle to the Hebrews shows how the Jewish system was set aside, and “this mountain” was finally cast into the sea when Jerusalem was destroyed in A.D. 70.

What is needed is faith. Hebrews emphasizes this, for in that Epistle there occurs the great chapter on faith. Israel’s system was after all but a shadow of good things to come and not the very image of the things. It needed faith to discern this and many who believed in Christ had not got clear of the shadows even when Hebrews was written. The man of faith it is who penetrates to the realities which Christ has introduced, and such may pray in the confidence of receiving what they ask.

The religious leaders felt that the arrival of Jesus in Jerusalem and His wonderful actions were a challenge to their authority, so they determined to act aggressively and challenge His. By doing this they started a controversy, the record of which continues to the end of chapter 22. It produced three striking parables from the lips of the Lord, followed by three crafty questions from Pharisees and Herodians, from Sadducees, and from a lawyer, respectively; and then crowned by the Lord’s own great question which reduced all His adversaries to silence.

In demanding that He produce His authority, the chief priests assumed that they had competency to assess its value when produced. The Lord’s answer was virtually this, that if they would prove their competency by pronouncing on the far lesser question of John’s authority. He would then submit His authority to their scrutiny. This at once plunged them into difficulty. If they endorsed John’s baptism as coming from heaven, they condemned themselves for they had not believed him. If they rejected it as merely of men, they would lose popularity with the people who held him to be a prophet. That popularity was very dear to them, for “they loved the praise of men” (John 12:43). They would not say John’s baptism was valid, and they dared not say it was invalid, so they took the ground of ignorance, saying, “We cannot tell.” Thus they destroyed their own competency to adjudicate and lost any possible ground of protest when Jesus refused to reveal His authority. The power of God that He wielded gave Him ample authority apart from anything else. But they had refused it and attributed it to the energy of the devil, as we saw earlier in the Gospel.

The Lord now took the initiative with His parables. As we consider them we shall see that the first concerns their response as under the law; the second their response as tested by the presence of the Son upon earth; the third is prophetic and looks on to the response which would be accorded to the Gospel. The Divine order is observed—the Law, the Messiah, the Gospel.

Jesus opened the first with the words, “What think ye?” since He submitted the short parable to their judgment and allowed them to condemn themselves. The parable as to two sons in Luke 15:1-32 is somewhat lengthy, whereas here we have a parable of two sons which is very short, yet in both the same two classes are portrayed—the religious leaders on the one hand, the publicans and sinners on the other. Here however we find their responsibility under the law, whereas in Luke 15:1-32 it is their reception according to the grace of the Gospel.

In several Old Testament passages the figure of a vineyard sets forth Israel under the law; so the words, “Go work today in My vineyard,” most aptly express Jehovah’s command. These words are often quoted as though they urged Christians to serve their Lord in the Gospel, but that is not their meaning, if read in their context. The figure which would apply to us is that of labour in “the harvest” and not “the vineyard,” as we see in Matthew 9:38, John 4:35-38, and elsewhere. The great word under the law was, “This Do,” for it set men to work; but by the works of the law no flesh has been justified.

This fact may be seen in the parable, for neither of the two sons was marked by full obedience. One made fair profession in words but totally disobeyed. The other flagrantly refused at first, but then was brought to repentance, and obedience as the fruit of that. Just so the chief priests and elders were deceiving themselves by their religious profession, while publicans and harlots repented and entered the kingdom. In verse Matthew 21:32 the Lord definitely connects the matter with John’s ministry. He came at the close of the age of law, calling those who had failed under it to repentance. Thus the Lord Himself connected the parable with law and not the Gospel.

The parable of the householder and his vineyard follows. It is still the vineyard, we notice; and “the vineyard of the Lord of Hosts is the house of Israel” (Isaiah 5:7). Now we have not only their failure under the law but their ill-treatment of all the prophets by whom God had addressed their consciences, and then finally the mission of the Son, who came as the supreme test. The “husbandmen” of the parable evidently represent the responsible leaders of Israel, who now not merely repeated their failure to produce any fruit for the benefit of the “householder,” but crowned their wickedness by slaying the Son. They desired the whole inheritance for themselves. Thus the Lord summed up the indictment against Israel under these three heads: no fruit for God; ill-treatment of His servants the prophets; the rejection and murder of the Son.

Having propounded the parable He again said, in effect, “What think ye?”—submitting to their judgment what fate the husbandmen deserved. His opponents, though so acute as to things concerning their own interests, were obtuse and very blind to everything of a spiritual nature. Hence they entirely failed to discern the drift of the parable, and gave an answer which foretold the righteous doom which would come upon their own heads. They would find themselves in two words, dispossessed and destroyed.

The Lord accepted as correct the verdict they had passed upon themselves, quoting Psalms 118:22, Psalms 118:23, in corroboration. He was the stone which they, the builders, were rejecting. He in no way fitted into the building which they designed and they refused Him. A day is coming when He will be brought forth to be the foundation and set the lines of the building that God has in view; and this wonderful event will involve the destruction of wicked men and their false building.

In verse Matthew 21:43 and the beginning of verse Matthew 21:44 we get the present effects of His rejection. He becomes a stone of stumbling to the leaders of Israel and the mass of the nation, and in consequence they are broken as a people. This finally came to pass when Jerusalem was destroyed. God’s kingdom had been established in their midst through Moses, and now this was definitely taken from them, and it was to be given in another form to a “nation” that would produce its proper fruits. The prophets of old had denounced the sin of the people, and announced that God would raise up another nation to supplant them, as we see in such scriptures as Deuteronomy 32:21; Isaiah 55:5; Isaiah 65:1; Isaiah 66:8. That nation will be “born at once” at the beginning of the millennial age; that is, they will be born again, and so have the nature that delights in the will of God, and enables them to bring forth fruit. We Christians anticipate this, as we see in 1 Peter 2:9. Redeemed and born again, we have been called out of darkness into God’s marvellous light, and so are enabled as “an holy nation” to show forth the virtues of the One who has called us. This surely is bringing forth fruit which gratifies Him.

The latter part of verse Matthew 21:44 refers to what will happen to the unbelieving at the beginning of the millennium. The Lord’s words look like a reference to Daniel 2:34, Daniel 2:35, and set forth the pulverizing effect of the Second Advent upon men, whether Jew or Gentile. So the teaching of these two verses comprises the national breaking of Israel as a consequence of their rejection of Christ, the substitution for them of a new “nation”, and the final destruction of all adversaries when the Lord Jesus shall be revealed in flaming fire.

Having heard these things it dawned upon the darkened minds of the chief priests and Pharisees that He was speaking of them, and that unwittingly they had been condemning themselves. What a shock it must have given them! In their defeat they thought of murder, and were only restrained for the moment by fear of popular opinion. In verse Matthew 21:26 we saw fear of the people putting its restraint upon their tongues. In verse Matthew 21:46 it lays a restraining hand upon their actions.

 


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Bibliography Information
Hole, Frank Binford. "Commentary on Matthew 21:4". "F. B. Hole's Old and New Testament Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/fbh/matthew-21.html. 1947.

Lectionary Calendar
Friday, December 13th, 2019
the Second Week of Advent
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