Matthew 21 Commentary

Matthew 21:1-11

What a bittersweet moment the Triumphal Entry must have been for Jesus.  The masses celebrated his arrival thinking that a conqueror had come to overthrow Pilate and the Romans.  They laid down tree branches and coats paying him honor. They shouted in joy and hailed him as king. It was a time of celebration.  It was a time of triumph.  The Messiah had come to resuce his people. 

But the demeanor of the Savior was likely somber and sad.  No doubt the Great King had come to conquer, but he had come to conquer in the most unconventional way.  He had come to triumph over sin and death, but there would also be a great cost to pay.

And the great irony of Jesus’ arrival is that his conquering would come through the scorn and derision from these same masses who would completely turn on him in just  five days’ time.  Their shouts of joy would turn to angry scorn.   Their cheers of hope would turn to jeers of unbelief.

But the Scriptures had to be fulfilled, and so the Lord subjected himself to this bittersweet arrival that would lead to the agony and humiliation of a Roman cross.

The humble and gentle Godman came on a beast of burden listening to the roaring masses who had no inkling that though their rejoicing was appropriate, it was deeply misplaced.  The people rightly rejoiced for the coming of their king, but they still did not understand his mission nor his kingdom.  For the Romans were not the great evil the Messiah came to overthrow.  Christ had come to conquer their sin.  He came to destroy hell, the power of the devil and death and to offer eternal life through himself.

So the Messiah had come on a beast symbolic of the even greater load that he would carry.  For even at this moment, Jesus was beginning to bear the burden that would climax at the cross.  Even now he was quietly fulfilling Scripture in ways hidden, and that ran completely against tradition and the people’s expectations.

For people of faith, the Messiah must be embraced as he is.  He is the gentle Lamb of God, who humbly submitted himself and gave himself up for their sins and any other expectation of Jesus leads to spiritual ruin.  Looking to Jesus for good moral teaching or an inspiring role model will have no value if he is not looked to as the God who came to bear your sin, rose from the dead and ascended into heaven.  Jesus cannot be your Savior if you cannot believe that he came gently, willingly and meekly to the cross to pay for your sins in order to bring glory to his Father and to you, freedom.

Matthew 21:12-17

The American evangelical landscape is big business today.  Walk into any church and many will greet you with a whole host of books and merchandise – much of it completely unrelated to the Gospel.  Mega-churches have devoted entire storefronts (even mini-malls in their narthexs) to accommodate the worshipper who is supposedly about to enter a holy place in order to worship Christ by faith.  The age old cliche “the more things change, the more they stay the same” very much applies to the Western church today, and there is a need for a whip-like burst of zealousness from those who are resolved to thoroughly cleanse the temple courtyards of our church sanctuaries.

Though anger can never be a substitute for patience and love, not all anger is evil. When Jesus cleared the temple courtyard, he was illustrating a profound statement about himself.  Places of worship – whether at Herod’s magnificent temple in Jerusalem, or the closet Jesus commands that we secretly go pray in, need to be approached with reverence and humility.

And for Christians, especially when it comes to the temple of our hearts, Jesus needs to be approached with reverence and humility.  The Temple in Jerusalem was a holy place filled with things that were meticulously crafted in order to symbolize the holiness of God and to invite the worshipper in to partake and pursue this holiness.  The Temple also symbolized the coming of Christ who would make a permanent atonement for all sin. So when the merchants were brought into the temple’s courtyard to exchange coins and sell doves, they had bought into the holy what was common.  When Christ overturned the money tables and benches, he disrupted a scene that was no different than that of any common street in Jerusalem.

As Jesus drove out the merchants he restored justice and mercy.  When he heard the songs of the little children offering him praise, it was then that the sense of the holy had been restored. It was then that sinful hearts could enter into the temple courts to meditation and contemplate those things that had each been designed to beckon them to God.

Faith in Jesus requires humility and reverence.  We cannot bring to Christ the common things of our hearts and expect to please him. We can only ask that the common things of our hearts be purged from us in the hope that Jesus will come and reign in us.

Matthew 21:18-22

Was Jesus’ curse of the fig tree a moment of hungry impatience or a valuable lesson? Did the Messiah drop his guard in a moment of weakness or did he reaffirm his resolve to complete his mission as he strived for the cross?

Jesus’ curse is a frightening lesson, and the lesson is simple.  Whether in season or out of season, Jesus expects his people to always bear fruit through faith.  On the last day, every soul that has lived in every age, will be asked to show either what they have done for Christ through faith or what they have done apart from him.  Those who have offered as little as a cup of cold water for Jesus’ sake will find eternal life, but those who are found without faith will be destroyed at the Savior’s command just as this fig tree.

When the disciples asked how the tree could wither so quickly, Jesus’ response was amazing and unexpected.   Faith brings power.  By faith, we have access to Jesus’ forgiveness and love and we have access to real power.  We can do anything God desires through his Name by faith.

Faith is about knowing the will of God is and being confident to ask for it in prayer in order that he might use these situations to demonstrate his power.

God’s power does not come so that we can do with it whatever we wish.   God will not work his power like a magic trick in order to satisfy his skeptics, who would only just try to explain away any miracle they see anyway.  God’s power comes with the wisdom, and he disciplines us to use it as he desires.  He asks us to exercise our faith according to his will and for his glory.

Power from God exists, and it is available to those who cling to Jesus by faith.  It does not come through those who claim to know Christ yet become lazy and as fruitless as the withering fig tree.  It comes through those who ask, who exercise their faith by humbly making their requests before God.

Matthew 21:23-27

Seeing through their hypocrisy, Jesus’ answer to the Pharisees was a stroke of brilliance. Should the religious professional answer his question, they are either going to admit that John was a prophet (and destroy their credibility) or admit that he was an imposter, risking a riot on the steps of the Temple.  Sensing the danger in answering honestly, for none of them held that John was a prophet, the Pharisees answered with a cowardly lie: “we don’t know.  And through their answer they justified Jesus non-response to their question.

In this age, the power of cross is constantly called into question.  Jesus’ divinity is scoffed at liberally.  The idea that the cross is necessary to address our basic fundamental spiritual and emotional needs is openly ridiculed from every corner of our society.  The authority of the Bible is attacked by those who claim to be its biggest fans, and there are even those who claim to applaud the Gospel, yet who also believe that its greatest enemies should be given equal time in the Church to make their cases against the truth of the Gospel. But faith requires a hearing that listens beyond the shouts of the world, and that has the capability to believe that Jesus’ promises are true and trustworthy. 

After all, what is faith without trust? If the Scriptures aren’t trustworthy, what is left for us to rely upon?  If eyewitness testimony isn’t good enough for us, why are “new revelations” about Jesus from non-biblical sources suddenly more credible and more authoritative when they are discovered 2,000 years after the fact?

Thankfully, despite the sometimes artful and clever attacks on the Gospel, the Word of Christ still stands as reliable and trustworthy.  For there has been no answer that can explain the life and dedication of the disciples to Jesus’ teaching other than what they have told us is true.  There is no answer for their martyr’s deaths than that they died wholly convinced of what they saw and believed after their Master died.  And today we see that the teaching of the risen Christ still stands on the authority of God himself, empowering his servants to carry his Gospel to the ends of the earth.

Matthew 21:28-32

Though the religious elites refused to honestly answer Jesus’ question about John’s baptism, Jesus purges their true motivations here.  The Parable of the Two Sons fits perfectly into the question Jesus had just asked about John as it was the social outcasts and morally degenerate who came out to see and receive the good news from John, not the religious elites. 

Those who came out hear John’s preaching and to be baptized by him were like the first son.  There are those who first refused to work for the Father and then changed their minds and went.  But the Pharisees were like the second son.  They pretended to obey the Father’s command, but then never became obedient to it.  They always said they would go and work, but then never went.  They always knew the Father’s will, but they never embraced it.

It is ironic that the chief priests and elders understood this parable enough to answer Jesus correctly about which son was righteous in the end.  The first son eventually did what the Father wanted and the second son was a hypocrite. 

Though seeing Jesus’ reasoning, the Pharisees rejected Christ’s application.  To them, Jesus did not have the words of life nor did he practice the Law – which  for them was found in institutional rituals and in disciplines that Scripture never endorsed or commanded.

And for the Pharisees to truly see and hear the message of this parable would have meant that they would have to accept its outcome.  They would have had to admit that they had set aside the requirements of the Law in order to justify their disdain for sinners and those who had compassion on them.  They would have also had to embrace mercy and concede that God had made a way for sinners to return to him.

It is not enough to merely talk about spiritual things like the justice and mercy of God or to claim to do righteousness.  God did not give Israel his Law just to tantalize their minds, and his commands are not theological abstractions for sake of entertainment.

The Law was given to us to show us our inadequacy before God and to lead us to Christ.  It was never given as a means to earn God’s favor or to force his grace.

John’s message came straight from the heart of the Law which came straight from the mouth of God.  John didn’t advocate another set of laws, and he was never accused of subverting it in his teaching. Yet John was hated for preaching. He was hated for insisting that the chief priests and elders of the law were no better off than the tax collector and prostitutes themselves.  

The tax collectors and prostitutes, those the Pharisees had already passed judgment upon, received John’s baptism and entered the Kingdom of God before the Pharisees.  They entered into Christ’s rest by repentance and faith.  They entered in becasued they willingly embraced the death of Jesus Christ by faith in his Name.

Matthew 21:33-46

Fresh from the Pharisee’s challenges, Jesus raises the stakes. At the surface, this is a parable about renters of a vineyard, but in actuality it is a picture of how the religious professionals had not just disobeyed the Father, but had actively worked to steal his glory while abusing all his graces. So Jesus depicted the chief priests and elders as wicked farmers who were charged to work the land and to provide produce for the Owner, but who instead stole the land and assaulted the Owner’s representatives. When the Owner extends the final olive branch to the rebellious farmers, sending his own son to make peace and collect his fruit, the farmers murdered him. Their hatred for the Owner had grown so great and twisted that they conspired to murder his son, believing that they would somehow take permanent possession of the Owner’s land once the son was destroyed.

This parable reveals the inner heart of the Pharisees.  It is the vineyard and not the Owner that the Pharisees desire and their love for the Owner stretches only so far as to how he can be used to satisfy their deepest desires.  The farmers did not desire to rent the Owner’s vineyard because he was kind or merciful. They wanted his land, not his love. They want to work for themselves, not for the Owner.   They want his wine and the comforts the vineyard brings, not the Owner’s kindness.

Though the Pharisees again understood the  intent of  Jesus’  parable, they did not believe it. Their answer to his question was measured and correct. The owner will come and avenge his son’s death, destroy the farmers and give the vineyard to others who will work the land and give its share of the crops to the Owner. But the Pharisees rejected the notion that the parable applied to them. Outraged at Jesus’ charge that they had sought to replace God with themselves, they immediately sought to arrest the Lord, but their fear for the crowds stopped them.  Ironically, their fear of the people not only prevented them from exercising their authority when they thought they were justified in doing so, but it fueled their hatred towards him all the more because he had captured the people’s hearts and amazed them with his teaching.

For in this parable, Jesus reveals that the people’s hearts are the vineyard, and here we see the Pharisees’ idolatrous love for the people’s affections causes them to cower at the thought of losing the people’s affections and to become enraged at his success.  The people’s approval are the Pharisees wine and comfort they work from the vineyard, and they had become so lazy and drunk with the people’s approval that they couldn’t make any decision  without first considering how the people would react to them. 

 Just as Jesus had just taught them, Christ was looked upon as barrier between Pharisees  and the people’s affections.

But the greatest tragedy of all is that Jesus did not come to win the affections of the people in order to remove the Pharisees. Had the religious authorities turned to him in faith, he would have made them permanent owners of the vineyard and welcomed them as brothers into his Father’s kingdom.  But as keeper of the Law, the Pharisees were only the renters.  They were only caretakers until the Owner returned to find them faithful and to make them co-owners themselves. 

The Pharisees killed Jesus thinking that they would own the vineyard forever.  But rather than owning it, they found themselves evicted from the Kingdom as it was given to others who would bear its fruit through a Gospel that proclaims that eternal life is found only by faith in Jesus Christ and not through works of the Law.

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