Matthew Chapter 21

Gospel of MatthewI have to admit, when I read this chapter recently in June while on sabbatical there was a verse in this chapter that moved me and deeply.   In this passage Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a donkey while the people go berserk, cutting palm branches and shouting, “Hosana!”  which means, “Lord save us.”   The chief priests and teachers of the law continued to be jealous of Jesus popularity, but what hit me hard was that they were upset about how the children were so involved in these chants as if instinctively.  Jesus quoted from Psalms 8:2, “From the lips of children and infants, you have ordained praise.”  I sensed God speak to me so clearly:  Jesus was happy to have the kids worship him; they were created to do this!  Our church must do all we can to reach, include and minister to children; who by God’s design long to know Him and praise Him.  They are seeking salvation and are quick to cry out, “Lord save us!”  Do we give kids the priority they deserve in our church, our budget and our time? Not as much as we should, but that will change.  I hope God speaks to you as He did me.


This is Passover season, and Jesus has walked all the way from Galilee with thousands of other Galilean pilgrims. Jesus did not need to ride the last few miles, but he did so to point to his identity as the Messiah. Matthew concentrated chapters 21 and 22 in the temple area to show Jesus’ authority and superiority over the Jewish leaders and their way of thinking.

21:1-2 As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage on the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go to the village ahead of you, and at once you will find a donkey tied there, with her colt by her. Untie them and bring them to me.”NIV After passing through Jericho and healing the blind men (20:29-34), they approached Jerusalem and came to the villages of Bethphage and Bethany. These two villages were about one mile apart, one and two miles respectively from the eastern wall of Jerusalem, and sat on the eastern slope of the Mount of Olives. Bethany was the home of Jesus’ dear friends Mary, Martha, and Lazarus; he often stayed there with his disciples (see John 11:1). He may have returned to their home each night after his visits to Jerusalem during the days of this final week.

The Mount of Olives is a ridge about two and a half miles long on the other side of the Kidron Valley east of Jerusalem. The view from the top of this twenty-nine-hundred-foot ridge is spectacular—one can see the whole city.

From this site, Jesus discussed the coming destruction of the city and temple (24:1-3). The Mount of Olives is important in the Old Testament as the place of God’s final revelation and judgment (see Ezekiel 43:2-9; Zechariah 14:1-19). When Jesus spoke these words, they were probably in Bethphage.  

Preparation for the Triumphal Entry

On their way from Jericho, Jesus and the disciples neared Bethphage, on the slope of the Mount of Olives just outside Jerusalem. Two disciples went into the village, as Jesus told them, to bring back a donkey and its colt. Jesus rode into Jerusalem on the donkey, an unmistakable sign of his kingship.


He sent two disciples to Bethany to get the donkey and her colt and bring them back. Jesus had walked all the way from Galilee; in fact, it seems that he walked everywhere during the years of his ministry. So this switch to riding a colt the last mile into Jerusalem was a deliberate gesture, filled with meaning for the Jews.Matthew mentions a donkey and a colt, while the other Gospels mention only the colt. This was the same event, but Matthew focused on the prophecy in Zechariah 9:9, where a donkey and a colt are mentioned, thus affirming Jesus’ royalty. He showed how Jesus’ actions fulfilled the prophet’s words, thus giving another indication that Jesus was indeed the Messiah. When Jesus entered Jerusalem on a donkey’s colt, he affirmed his messianic royalty as well as his humility. When Jesus came to Jerusalem, he did not fulfill the people’s hopes as the conquering deliverer to drive out the Gentiles, but he nonetheless gave all the signs of a royal person making entrance into the city.

This was Sunday of the week that Jesus would be crucified, and the great Passover festival was about to begin. Jews would come to Jerusalem from all over the Roman world during this week-long celebration to remember the great exodus from Egypt (see Exodus 12:37-51). Many in the crowds had heard of or had seen Jesus and were hoping he would come to the temple (John 11:55-57).

Jesus did come to the temple, not as a warring king on a horse or in a chariot but as a gentle and peaceable king on a donkey’s colt, just as Zechariah 9:9 had predicted. Jesus knew that those who would hear him teach at the temple would return to their homes throughout the world and announce the coming of the Messiah.

The parallel accounts of the Triumphal Entry make a good example of the benefits of having four biographies of Jesus. Matthew and John were eyewitnesses of these events; Mark and Luke recorded eyewitness accounts by others. Matthew highlighted the prophetic fulfillment by noting a second donkey, the colt’s mother. Jesus didn’t ride her, nor is she essential to the story. But she provides a detail of fact. Her calming presence also explains the handling of an unbroken colt. In contrast, John’s recollection of the colt is almost incidental. Perhaps he wasn’t involved in the errand to fetch it. He was more concerned to indicate to his readers that the disciples understood little of what was happening at the time (John 12:16). While John viewed the Triumphal Entry in light of its impact on the disciples themselves, Matthew highlighted the crowd’s responses, pointed to Jesus as the Messiah, and kept the story in the temple area to show Jesus’ authority over Judaism. Further, Mark reported the events in storyteller fashion. Luke focused on Jesus’ state of mind. Each of the views helps make a complete picture.

Each of the Gospels presents a variation of the Triumphal Entry. Overall, the Gospel accounts are seldom identical. The differences usually have to do with perspective and priorities. Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, each writer told his story. The Gospels maintain a balance between shared similarities and independent entries. The similarities in language indicate that the later writers were aware of and used material from the earlier ones and that they were all writing about the same life. The dissimilarities show that they wrote independently and that each one had a slightly different purpose and audience in mind while composing his version.

21:3 “If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.”NRSV Jesus knew the disciples would be asked why they were taking the colt. Donkeys and their colts were valuable; this could be compared to borrowing someone’s car. So Jesus, sensitive to this fact, told them to explain that the colt would be returned.

By this time Jesus was extremely well known. Everyone coming to Jerusalem for the Passover feast had heard of him, and Jesus had been a frequent visitor in Bethany. The Lord needs them was all the two disciples would have to say, and the colt’s owners (Luke 19:33) would gladly let them take the animals. Jesus used these words to indicate His universal authority, His Chief Proprietorship of all things—the Lord hath need of them.

G. Campbell Morgan



The disciples went and found everything just exactly as Jesus had said. Those who owned the colt may have been spoken to ahead of time by Jesus; thus, they were expecting this incident. Others suggest that Jesus, who had been a frequent visitor in Bethany, would have been well known enough to be able to commandeer a donkey and colt for a short time. Jesus, who would ride into Jerusalem as a “lowly king,” was at the same time master over all his circumstances. Even these details were under his command and control.

21:4-5 All this was done that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet, saying: “Tell the daughter of Zion, ‘Behold, your King is coming to you, lowly, and sitting on a donkey, a colt, the foal of a donkey.'”NKJV When Jesus mounted the colt and headed toward the city, the people recognized that he was fulfilling prophecy. The first part comes from Isaiah 62:11, the rest from Zechariah 9:9, “Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion! Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey” (niv). Matthew omitted the words “righteous and having salvation” from the Zechariah quote—perhaps because he wanted to focus on the “lowliness” and “humility” of this King. His arrival on a donkey was a sign of peace; a conquering king would come on a warhorse. Jesus was indeed king but not in the nationalistic sense. He was the King, but he would bring peace by his own suffering.

Jesus chose a peaceful entrance into Jerusalem. He restrained the crowd’s exuberance by his actions. He accepted their joy while recognizing that it was based on false assumptions. Jesus arrived as King, but not by the crowd’s definition. Their perspective was limited to the immediate historical moment: They wanted a political Messiah. Jesus insisted on remaining the timeless Savior. His contemporaries couldn’t see beyond the Roman occupation; Jesus saw the needs of the world held hostage to sin.
We reduce God when we demand his attention only to our concerns. True, God encourages us to bring our daily needs to him in prayer. But God refuses to be a private deity. When we treat him like a house idol or a village god, he graciously fails our expectations. If we answer the question “How big is your God?” by mere human measures, we will diminish the King of kings and Lord of lords. We can be confident that God can meet our daily needs when we have a clearer picture of his greatness. Have you limited God to your expectations?

21:6-7 The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them.NRSV The two disciples went to Bethany and found the donkey and colt just as Jesus had directed them. They walked the animals back to Bethphage. The colt, never having been ridden (Mark 11:2), did not have a saddle, so the disciples threw their cloaks on its back so that Jesus could sit on it. The mother donkey may have been brought along to help control the colt; she may have been festooned with cloaks as well. The action of placing the cloaks on the donkey and Jesus riding it connotes majesty (see 2 Kings 9:13 where cloaks were spread out for King Jehu).

21:8 A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road.NRSV Crowds of people had already gathered on this stretch of road a mile outside of Jerusalem, going to the city for the Feast of Unleavened Bread and Passover. The crowd’s spontaneous celebration honored Jesus; it was demonstrated when they spread their cloaks on the road for him to ride over (compare with 2 Kings 9:12-13).

In addition, others cut branches from the trees. These branches were used as part of the pilgrimage into Jerusalem. Some were spread along Jesus’ path; others were probably waved in the air (see Psalm 118:27). The branches, probably from olive or fig trees, were used to welcome a national liberator and symbolized victory. John recorded that they used palm branches (John 12:13). This verse is one of the few places where the Gospels record that Jesus’ glory was recognized on earth. Today Christians celebrate this event on Palm Sunday.

The Triumphal Entry included a number of acts of respect. People shouted blessings and Old Testament phrases of praise to God. Some waved branches or placed them on the road. Many removed their coats and spread them under the colt’s hooves. The people “rolled out the red carpet” for Jesus. Their spontaneous worship puts much of our worship to shame. How often in your church does the presence of Jesus cause a genuine stir? Are the “rules for worship” defined so narrowly that spontaneous expressions of praise for Christ are frowned upon? Also, lest we blame the church too quickly, how often does your experience with Christ cause you to want to praise?
We can’t blame the lack of praise for God on lack of opportunity. Certainly there are appropriate times for formal worship. But a genuine relationship with God ought to find expression beyond “official” structure. Do you use hymns and choruses in your private times with God? Do you look for opportunities to give thanks to God? What does “Hosanna” mean to you? What, in your experience, would be similar to spreading your coat for Jesus to walk on? Make sure your worship includes action and tangible expressions.

21:9 Then the multitudes who went before and those who followed cried out, saying: “Hosanna to the Son of David! ‘Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!’ Hosanna in the highest!”NKJV This was not a little group of people along the wayside; this crowd was characterized as “multitudes.” The people chanted words from Psalm 118:25-26. Although the word “Hosanna” technically means “save now,” the people were probably not asking God to do so. They were using a phrase like “Praise the Lord” or “Hallelujah,” not really thinking about the meaning. The expression “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord” may have been recited as part of the Passover tradition—as a blessing given by the people in Jerusalem to the visiting pilgrims. Thus, not all the people saying this would have realized its messianic significance. Of course, others did. They spoke of Jesus as Son of David because of God’s words to David in 2 Samuel 7:12-14 (see note on 1:1). The people lined the road, praising God, waving branches, and throwing their cloaks in front of the colt as it passed before them. “Long live the King” was the meaning behind their joyful shouts because they knew that Jesus was intentionally fulfilling prophecy.

This was the crowd’s acclamation that he was indeed the long-awaited Messiah. He chose a time when all Israel would be gathered at Jerusalem, a place where huge crowds could see him, and a way of proclaiming his mission that was unmistakable. The people were sure their liberation from Rome was at hand. While the crowd correctly saw Jesus as the fulfillment of these prophecies, they did not understand where Jesus’ kingship would lead him. The people who were praising God for giving them a king had the wrong idea about Jesus. They expected him to be a national leader who would restore their nation to its former glory; thus, they were deaf to the words of their prophets and blind to Jesus’ real mission. When it became apparent that Jesus was not going to fulfill their hopes, many people would turn against him. A similar crowd would cry out, “Crucify him!” when Jesus stood on trial only a few days later.

For one brief moment in time, lots of people greeted Jesus with enthusiasm and honor, respect and celebration. It’s a great experience to be part of such a crowd. Consider attending the national convention of a major Christian organization or movement, volunteering to help in a large-scale evangelistic crusade, or traveling to an overseas missions conference or national church gathering. Every once in a while, it’s refreshing to be reminded of how large the church really is, how enthusiastic are today’s disciples, how diverse their means of celebrating God’s love. Join them. Catch their spirit.

21:10-11 When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred and asked, “Who is this?” The crowds answered, “This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee.”NIV The people in Jerusalem were naturally very interested in who was causing the furor. When Jesus had been born and the wise men had come seeking him, the entire city had been “disturbed” (2:3). Once again, Jesus caused a great disturbance in this great city. So the city leaders asked the crowds, “Who is this?” and the crowds gave their reply, “This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee.” The description seems almost anticlimactic—why all this fuss over a prophet? But Jesus was not just another prophet; he was the prophet who was to come. Moses had prophesied, “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own brothers. You must listen to him. . . . I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers; I will put my words in his mouth, and he will tell them everything I command him” (Deuteronomy 18:15-18 niv). Who was this “prophet”? Stephen used this verse to support his claim that Jesus Christ is God’s Son, the Messiah (Acts 7:37). The coming of Jesus Christ to earth was not an afterthought but part of God’s original plan. Jesus was the man for whom they had been waiting. No wonder the city was in an uproar!


21:12 Then Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who were selling and buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves.NRSV Jesus entered the great city and went to the temple, entering its outer courts as did many in the crowd. The temple in Jerusalem was already rich with history. There had been three temples on the same site. The first, Solomon’s glorious temple, had been built in the tenth century b.c. and was destroyed in 586 b.c when the Babylonians captured Jerusalem. The second, Zerubbabel’s temple, was much smaller than Solomon’s temple and had been built on the same site by the exiles who had returned from captivity in the sixth century b.c. The second temple, the one Jesus entered, had been enlarged by Herod the Great. Construction on this magnificent structure, much larger and more elaborate than the others, was begun in 20 b.c. and may not have been completely finished before it was destroyed by the Romans in a.d. 70 in response to a Jewish revolt.

What were people selling and buying in the temple? People came to the temple in Jerusalem to offer sacrifices, where Jewish sacrifices were only to be offered. The temple was run by the high priest and his associates. All adult male Jews were required to go to Jerusalem for three annual celebrations: Passover in late spring, the Feast of Tabernacles (or Booths) in the fall, and the Feast of Weeks in early summer. God had originally instructed the people to bring sacrifices from their own flocks (Deuteronomy 12:5-7). However, the religious leadership had established four markets on the Mount of Olives where such animals could be purchased. Some people did not bring their own animals and planned to buy one at the market. Others brought their own animals, but when the priests managed to find the animal unacceptable in some way (it was supposed to be an animal without defect, Leviticus 1:2-3), worshipers were forced to buy another.

Next, in an economic move that surely lined many pockets and enriched the temple coffers, the high priest had authorized a market to be set up right in the Court of the Gentiles, the huge outer court of the temple. The Court of the Gentiles was the only place Gentile converts to Judaism could worship. They could go no farther into the temple because they were not “pure” Jews. But the market filled their worship space with merchants so that these foreigners, who had traveled long distances, found it impossible to worship. The chaos in that court must have been tremendous. Josephus, an ancient Jewish historian, wrote that 255,600 lambs were sacrificed at the Passover in a.d. 66. This lack of worship atmosphere didn’t seem to bother the religious establishment who saw lots of money to be made in selling animals, grain, oil, and salt for the various sacrifices.

The money changers exchanged all international currency for the special temple coins—the only money the merchants would accept. The money changers did big business during Passover with those who came from foreign countries. The inflated exchange rate often enriched the money changers, and the exorbitant prices of animals made the merchants wealthy. The money changers also exchanged Hebrew shekels for Roman drachmas for the temple tax. Because the drachmas had the stamped image of Caesar (who was an idol worshiper) on them, they were considered blasphemous by the Jews.

The mention of doves refers to an alternate sacrifice for those too poor to purchase larger animals. Doves were also sacrificed for the cleansing of women and lepers (Leviticus 12:6; 14:22). Imagine money boxes spilling and clattering across the floor as doves escaped from their overturned cages and scattered above the crowd. Jesus became angry because God’s house of worship had become a place of extortion and a barrier to Gentiles who wanted to worship.

Because both those who bought and those who sold were going against God’s commands regarding the sacrifices, Jesus drove out all of them. This is the second time that Jesus cleared the temple (see John 2:13-17).

21:13 And He said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer,’ but you have made it a ‘den of thieves.'”NKJV Obviously Jesus’ actions stunned the many people crowded into the temple area and probably drew spectators from both inside and outside. Jesus recognized an opportunity to teach, and he didn’t waste it. He quoted from Isaiah 56:7 and used it to explain God’s purpose for the temple. God’s “house” was meant to be a house of prayer, but the merchants and money changers were using it for other purposes. This was judgment on Jerusalem and the corrupt system that governed the temple. It was meant to be a place of spiritual worship, but the Jewish leaders had allowed it to become a market where extortion took place.

Not only that, but all these merchants were no more honest than thieves (the word would be more correctly translated “robbers,” as in Jeremiah 7:11, those in organized bands who worked on large-scale robberies). Jesus had just come from Jericho a few days before, along a road known for its dangerous bands of robbers that preyed on travelers. (In the story of the Good Samaritan, the man was attacked on the road between Jerusalem and Jericho—see Luke 10:30.) No organized band of robbers along that treacherous stretch of road could possibly match the thievery going on in the temple. The merchants had turned the temple into their den. This was a horrible desecration. No wonder Jesus was so angry. Mark records that Jesus entered the temple and then returned the next morning to perform this cleansing (Mark 11:11, 15-16).

In this instance, Jesus set himself in authority above the religious leaders—the high priest (Caiaphas) and all those on the Sanhedrin. They were in charge of the temple, and they would soon have words with Jesus about this episode (21:15-16).

21:14 Then the blind and the lame came to Him in the temple, and He healed them.NKJV It was significant that the blind and the lame came to Jesus in the temple. Usually they were excluded from worship in the temple based on laws stemming from 2 Samuel 5:8. With the coming of the Messiah, Jesus himself welcomed them in the temple and healed them, for he himself was greater than the temple (12:6). This was also an expected result of the messianic age (Isaiah 35:5). These are the only recorded healings inside the temple walls, indicating a new age when God would accept all people into his presence (the tearing of the curtain in the temple at Jesus’ death was another such indication, 27:51).

21:15-16 But when the chief priests and the scribes saw the amazing things that he did, and heard the children crying out in the temple, “Hosanna to the Son of David,” they became angry and said to him, “Do you hear what these are saying?”NRSV It didn’t take long for news of Jesus’ actions in the temple to reach the ears of the chief priests and scribes. The chief priests were mostly Sadducees (the wealthy, upper-class, priestly party among the Jewish political groups); the scribes (also called teachers of the law) were usually Pharisees. These two parties had great contempt for each other (see, for example, Acts 23:6-10). That these two groups could agree on anything was highly unusual. But Jesus’ actions in the temple brought the wrath of these religious leaders against him. The children who were in the temple with their parents were also crying out Hosanna to the Son of David, echoing the cries made by the crowd along the road to Jerusalem (21:9). Matthew highlighted these words again to stress Jesus as the Messiah and to show that the children perceived what the religious leaders would not. The religious leaders’ question indicated that they objected to the concept of Jesus as “the Son of David.”

It is difficult to know whether these religious leaders were angry at the lack of decorum from children, who were expected to be quiet in the temple, or afraid that the Romans might misinterpret the furor and come down on them, or upset at the claims the children were making in their words about Jesus. Probably all three factors were involved in the reaction of the chief priests and scribes. They may also have been angry that the blind and lame had been allowed into the temple and that Jesus had actually performed healings there (21:14). Jesus was becoming a real problem, especially in this instance because he was undermining their authority in the temple.

Jesus said to them, “Yes; have you never read, ‘Out of the mouths of infants and nursing babies you have prepared praise for yourself’?”NRSV Yes, Jesus heard what the children were saying, and yes, what they were saying was absolutely true. Jesus affirmed his agreement with their shouts of praise. His words “have you never read” were meant to insult these religious leaders who spent much time reading and studying the law. Unfortunately, they read and studied but never understood. Jesus was quoting from Psalm 8:2, a psalm regarded as messianic by the early church.

What a delightful experience to hear children in heartfelt praise to God! The children in the temple repeated the shouts of praise they had heard. Some of the cries were echoes from the Triumphal Entry. Others were responses to the cleansing of the temple. Still others were made by the blind and lame whom Jesus had healed. As they often do, the children found a way to participate in the excitement. Their innocent praise glorified Jesus.
They can still praise God. What place do children occupy where you worship? Are they recognized as participants? Are they treated reasonably regarding their attention spans, their ages, and their ability to understand? Does the order of worship include a children’s sermon? Are children offered “children’s church”? At some point, children will pass into adulthood. In the meantime, however, can they contribute as children to the worship in your church? Make some observations about the way children are involved in your church. Share any suggestions you have with the church leadership.

21:17 He left them, went out of the city to Bethany, and spent the night there.NRSV With the religious leaders plotting to kill him, Jerusalem would hardly be a safe place for Jesus to spend the night. Safely outside the city, Jesus could not be surprised and arrested by the temple priesthood. So when evening came, Jesus and the disciples left the city and returned to Bethany. Most pilgrims who traveled to Jerusalem for the great feasts found lodging outside the city.

Jesus knew and practiced the discipline of rest, and he honored his friends by allowing them to host him throughout this final week. Between days of intense public pressure in Jerusalem, Jesus found fellowship in Bethany. Jesus balanced stress with friendship and quietness. His example reminds us to make time for rest.
A life intent on serving God will meet resistance. Others may reject or misunderstand our efforts. Evil doesn’t give ground without a fight. Even God’s work leads to tired workers. The fourth commandment has not been canceled. Jesus put it in its proper context (Mark 2:27) by reminding us that God ordered us to rest for our benefit, not just to obey a command. Like Jesus, we may have to leave the place of conflict and stress in order to rest. Bethany was no escape or retreat; it was refreshment. How often do you rest? Do you plan times of withdrawal for reflection and renewal? Discipleship will be weary work without the component of rest. We are under orders to include it.


21:18 Early in the morning, as he was on his way back to the city, he was hungry.NIV After their stay in Bethany overnight (21:17), Jesus and the disciples got up and headed back into Jerusalem. Bethany was about two miles outside of Jerusalem, making it a suburb of the city. Somewhere along the way, Jesus mentioned that he was hungry. Jesus’ hunger portrays his humanity. He was fully human, just as we are, and can sympathize with our human experience and daily needs. When we pray to him, expressing our weaknesses and troubles, we can be confident that he knows what we are facing. He has faced it too (Hebrews 4:15).

21:19-20 And seeing a fig tree by the side of the road, he went to it and found nothing at all on it but leaves. Then he said to it, “May no fruit ever come from you again!” And the fig tree withered at once.NRSV Fig trees were a popular source of inexpensive food in Israel. In March, the fig trees had small edible buds; in April came the large green leaves. Then in May, the buds would fall off and be replaced by the normal crop of figs.

This incident occurred in April, and the green leaves should have indicated the presence of the edible buds that Jesus expected to find on the tree. This tree, however, though full of leaves, had no buds. Fig trees require three years from the time they are planted until they can bear fruit. The absence of buds indicated that the tree would not produce figs that year. The tree looked promising but offered no fruit. Is not everyone who claims to be a Christian but does not bear fruit, in awful danger of becoming a withered fig-tree? So long as a person is content with the mere leaves of religion— with a reputation for being alive while he is dead, a form of godliness without the power—so long his soul is in great peril.

J. C. Ryle


Jesus did not curse this fig tree because he was angry at not getting any food from it. Instead, this was an acted-out parable intended to teach the disciples. By cursing the fig tree, Jesus was showing his anger at religion without substance. Jesus’ curse did not make the tree barren of figs; instead, it sealed the way the tree had always been (see 13:13-15). Jesus’ harsh words to the fig tree could be applied to the nation of Israel and its beautiful temple. Fruitful in appearance only, Israel was spiritually barren. Just as the fig tree looked good from a distance but was fruitless on close examination, so the temple looked impressive at first glance, but its sacrifices and other activities were hollow because they were not done to worship God sincerely (see Jeremiah 8:13; 24:1-8; Hosea 9:10, 16; Micah 7:1). The temple displayed beautiful architecture, but contained barren ritual; it was ripe for destruction. Most likely, Jesus was not limiting his condemnation of fruitlessness to the temple or Judaism of that day. This action displays his stand against all hypocrisy—any religious people who make a show of bearing fruit but are spiritually barren.

After Jesus spoke these words, the fig tree withered at once. Mark told the story in two stages: Jesus cursed the tree on Monday, then the next morning, Tuesday, Jesus and his disciples passed by the same fig tree, and in the morning light, they could see that the tree had died. Jesus had done more than condemn the tree, he had killed it. When the disciples saw this, they were amazed. “How did the fig tree wither so quickly?” they asked.NIV This parable of judgment on spiritually dead people revealed a severe judgment. The early church later applied this parable to the total destruction of Jerusalem in a.d. 70.

21:21 Jesus answered them, “Truly I tell you, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only will you do what has been done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be lifted up and thrown into the sea,’ it will be done.”NRSV Jesus did not explain why he cursed the fig tree, and we don’t know whether the disciples understood Jesus’ meaning. Yet his words to them could mean that they must have faith in God. Their faith should not rest in a kingdom they hoped Jesus would set up, in obeying the Jewish laws, or in their position as Jesus’ disciples. Their faith should rest in God alone.

Jesus then taught them a lesson about answers to prayer. Jesus had cursed the fig tree; the fig tree had died; the disciples had expressed surprise. Jesus explained that they could ask anything of God and receive an answer. Jesus again used the words “truly I tell you” to introduce this important message. They should not have been surprised that a fig tree could be withered at Jesus’ words. Jesus was using a mountain as a figure of speech to show that God could help in any situation: This mountain (referring to the Mount of Olives on which they stood) could be thrown into the sea (the Dead Sea, that could be seen from the Mount). Jesus’ point was that in their petitions to God they must believe without doubting (that is, without wavering in their confidence in God). The kind of prayer Jesus meant was not the arbitrary wish to move a mountain of dirt and stone; instead, he was referring to prayers that the disciples would need to faithfully pray as they faced mountains of opposition to their gospel message in the years to come. Their prayers for the advancement of God’s kingdom would always be answered positively—in God’s timing.

Many have wondered about Jesus’ statement that if we have faith and don’t doubt, we can move mountains. Jesus, of course, was not suggesting that his followers use prayer as “magic” and perform capricious “mountain-moving” acts. Instead, he was making a strong point about the disciples’ (and our) lack of faith. What kinds of mountains do you face? Have you talked to God about them? How strong is your faith?

21:22 “If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.”NIV This verse was not a guarantee that the disciples could get anything they wanted simply by asking Jesus and believing. God does not grant requests that will hurt people or that will violate his own nature or will. Jesus’ statement was not a blank check to be filled in by believers, not a “name it and claim it” theology. To be fulfilled, requests made to God in prayer must be in harmony with the principles of God’s kingdom. They must be made in Jesus’ name (John 14:13-14). The stronger our faith, the more likely our prayers will be in union with Christ and in line with God’s will; then God will be happy to grant them. God can do anything, even what seems humanly impossible.


The basic theme of this whole section is that Jesus was taking on the religious leaders at their own game and defeating them with their own logic. And Jesus was triumphant in his dealings with them. This served to anger them even more.

21:23 Jesus entered the temple courts, and, while he was teaching, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him. “By what authority are you doing these things?” they asked. “And who gave you this authority?”NIV Jesus and the disciples returned to the temple, where Jesus had thrown out the merchants and money changers the day before. A delegation of the chief priests and the elders of the people stopped him. This was an angry official group sent on an official mission to question Jesus regarding his actions. This group of leaders was already plotting to kill Jesus (Mark 11:18), but they couldn’t figure out how to do it. His popularity was far too widespread and his miracle-working powers too well known. The Sanhedrin probably had met on Monday night in a hastily called session to decide how to handle this man who was flouting their authority. So they brought him a question that they hoped would trap him into saying something for which he could be arrested. They asked for his credentials and demanded that he tell them who gave him the authority to cast the money changers and merchants out of the temple. That this delegation would even ask these questions indicates that Jesus had not yet publicly declared himself to be the Messiah.

If Jesus were to answer that his authority came from God, which would be tantamount to declaring himself as the Messiah and the Son of God, they would accuse him of blasphemy and bring him to trial (blasphemy carried the death penalty, Leviticus 24:10-23). If Jesus were to say that his authority was his own, the religious leaders could dismiss him as a fanatic and could trust that the crowds would soon return to those with true authority (themselves). Jesus would not let himself be caught; however, turning the question on them, he exposed their motives and avoided their trap.

The struggle between Jesus and the religious leaders often revolved around the issue of authority. By the final week, only a shell of civility covered the attacks. Faced with Jesus’ character, the religious leaders repeatedly tried to pin him down on a technicality. They dared him to make an open claim about himself that they could label blasphemous. Their questions had no other purpose than to gather evidence against Jesus.
But Jesus’ authority came from God, and that fact could not be denied. In Jesus’ world, as in ours, people looked for the outward sign of authority—education, title, position, connections. But Jesus’ authority came from who he was, not from any outward and superficial trappings. As followers of Christ, God has given us authority—we can confidently speak and act on his behalf because he has authorized us. Are you exercising your authority?

21:24-26 Jesus said to them, “I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?”NRSV To expose the leaders’ real motives, Jesus countered their question with a question. This was a common debating technique among rabbis. Jesus explained that his answer would depend on their answer. The questions the religious leaders asked were perfectly valid questions to check for a false prophet or false teacher, but their sinister motives made it an evil test.

Jesus’ question seems totally unrelated to the situation at hand, but Jesus knew that the leaders’ attitude about John the Baptist would reveal their true attitude toward him. In this question, Jesus implied that his authority came from the same source as John the Baptist’s. So Jesus asked these religious leaders what they thought: Did the baptism of John come from heaven [thus, from God] or was it of human origin?

And they argued with one another, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.”NRSV The interchange recorded among these factions of the religious leaders revealed their true motives. They weren’t interested in the truth; they didn’t want an answer to their question so they could finally understand Jesus—they simply hoped to trap him. But they found themselves in a position of looking foolish in front of the crowd. If they answered that John’s baptism had come from heaven (with God’s authority), then they would incriminate themselves for not listening to John and believing his words. The people knew that the religious leaders had been silent about Herod’s murder of John. If they accepted John’s authority, they would be accepting his criticism of them as a brood of vipers who refused to repent (see 3:7-10). They would then have to admit that Jesus also had divine authority.

If they rejected John as having any divine authority and said that his baptism was of human origin, then they also would be rejecting Jesus’ authority and would be in danger of the crowd (see Mark 12:12). Luke recorded that they were afraid the crowd would stone them for such an answer (Luke 20:6), for all regard John as a prophet. They would have preferred this answer, but they could not give it because of the crowd.

21:27 So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.”NRSV The Pharisees couldn’t win, so they hoped to save face by refusing to take either alternative. Thus, Jesus was not obligated to answer their question. In reality, he had already answered it. His question about John the Baptist implied that both he and John received their authority from the same source. The crowds believed that John was a prophet; Jesus’ words should have made them realize that he was victorious over the Pharisees and that his authority was from God. While some in the crowd may have understood and believed, the religious leaders had already decided against Jesus, and nothing would stand in the way of their plan to kill him. They had already rejected both Jesus and John as God’s messengers, carrying on a long tradition of the leaders of Israel rejecting God’s prophets. This was the point that Jesus made in the following parable (21:28-32).


21:28-30 “What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go.”NRSV Jesus continued his conversation with the religious leaders who had attempted to trip him up with a trick question (21:23-27). This parable was spoken directly to them, and it showed them their true position in the kingdom of heaven.

The family laws made the father the absolute head over his children. The man in this parable represents God, while the two sons represent, respectively, the “sinners” (or outcasts among the Jews) and conservative Jews.

The first son said he would not go to the vineyard, but later he changed his mind and went. This son represents the “sinner” and outcast who rejected the call but “repented” and then obeyed.

True beliefs are responses tested by time. Each of the sons in Jesus’ story responded immediately to their father’s request. As it turned out, their first answers were meaningless. Each changed his mind. What they finally did and said mattered most. Jesus faced his detractors with a blunt application. Those considered farthest from God (prostitutes and tax collectors) were boldly embracing his grace. Meanwhile, those most familiar with God were rejecting the promised Messiah. Jesus didn’t close the door of the kingdom to the religious leaders, but he challenged their assumed citizenship. Four lessons flow immediately from this story:
1. Those who accept or reject the gospel too easily will be tested.
2. Regardless of how we came to Christ, our present state of obedience indicates our spiritual health.
3. People who resist the gospel may be closer to conversion than those who are familiar with it.
4. Where God is at work, we dare not jump to conclusions.

The second son said he would go to the vineyard, but then did not go. This son represents the Jewish leaders of the day who said yes to the kingdom message (that is, they accepted the outward call to Jewish piety) but did not obey its intent. They rejected the call to true obedience. They said they wanted to do God’s will, but they constantly disobeyed. They lacked insight into God’s real meaning, and they were too stubborn to listen to Jesus. It is dangerous to pretend to obey God when our hearts are far from him, because God knows our true intentions. Our actions must match our words.

21:31 “Which of the two did what his father wanted?” “The first,” they answered. Jesus said to them, “I tell you the truth, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you.”NIV Jesus directed his question to the religious leaders, and they gave the obviously correct answer. The son who did what his father wanted was the son who refused at first but then repented and actually obeyed his father. Jesus’ words “I tell you the truth,” introduce a solemn truth: The tax collectors and the prostitutes would be entering the kingdom of God ahead of the religious leaders. These were astounding words. The tax collectors and prostitutes were representative of the despised classes, those who were the most despicable to the self-righteous leaders. The pious religious leaders had said they would “go to the vineyard” but then had refused. The tax collectors and prostitutes had obviously strayed from God and had refused to go to the vineyard. But those who repented of their sin would enter the kingdom of God, instead of pious Jews, who thought they would be the ones to enter.

Beware of churches that teach that to enter a relationship with Christ, you must first get a haircut, shave a beard, lengthen your dress, or talk like “the rest of us.” Jesus warns religious leaders that the kingdom of heaven has a dramatic appeal to “low-life” types (that is, to people generally shunned by religious types). To the prim and proper, Jesus says, “Make way! God’s message is getting through!”

21:32 “For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him.”NIV Why would the tax collectors and prostitutes enter the kingdom of heaven instead of the religious leaders? Jesus explained why in this verse. The total rejection of John the Baptist (and his acceptance by the less-esteemed members of society) spelled out their rejection (or acceptance) of the one John proclaimed—Jesus, the Messiah. Even when the religious leaders saw how lives were changed at John’s preaching of the way of righteousness, even as they saw what happened when these sinful people repented and believed, these leaders still did not believe John. Neither, then, would they believe Jesus.


21:33 “Listen to another parable: There was a landowner who planted a vineyard. He put a wall around it, dug a winepress in it and built a watchtower. Then he rented the vineyard to some farmers and went away on a journey.”NIV The main elements in this parable are (1) the landowner—God, (2) the vineyard—Israel, (3) the farmers—the Jewish religious leaders, (4) the landowner’s servants—the prophets and priests who remained faithful to God and preached to Israel, (5) the son—Jesus, and (6) the other tenants—the Gentiles. In this parable, Jesus displayed his knowledge of the religious leaders’ murderous plot (21:45).

The imagery follows Isaiah 5:2, which also calls Israel a vineyard. It pictures a landowner who builds a farm and rents it to tenant farmers to run and care for in his absence. In a vineyard such as this, the watchtower would have been for guards who would protect the farm from thieves; the wall would have kept wild animals out; the winepress was for making wine. These building projects were normal parts of a tenant farm.

21:34-36 “When the harvest time approached, he sent his servants to the tenants to collect his fruit. The tenants seized his servants; they beat one, killed another, and stoned a third. Then he sent other servants to them, more than the first time, and the tenants treated them the same way.”NIV The rent on the farm was paid by crops at harvesttime, a common practice in this culture. So, as expected, when the harvest time approached, the landowner sent his servants to collect the rent in the form of fruit from the harvest. But the tenants seized his servants, beating, killing, and stoning them. More servants were sent, and they received the same treatment. These “servants” refer to the prophets who had been sent to Israel over the centuries. Some had been beaten (Jeremiah 26:7-11; 38:1-28), some had been killed (tradition says Isaiah was killed; John the Baptist had been killed, Matthew 14:1-12), and some had been stoned (2 Chronicles 24:21). Jesus was reminding the religious leaders that God’s prophets often had been ridiculed and persecuted by God’s people.

21:37-39 “Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.’ So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him.”NRSV After all his servants had been killed, the landowner sent his son, thinking that surely the tenants would respect his son. The historical situation behind this section reflects the law that property would go to anyone in possession of it when the master died. So the tenants assumed that by killing the son and heir to the property, they would obtain the inheritance. So they killed the son. (They may have thought that the owner had already died.) With these words, Jesus was revealing to the religious leaders his knowledge of their desire to kill him.

The tenants in Jesus’ story knew exactly what they were doing. They killed the son to take his property. Did the conspirators against Jesus knowingly reject him? The tenants assumed wrongly that they would inherit the vineyard if they eliminated the son of the owner. The religious leaders of Jesus’ day assumed they would continue in power if they killed Jesus. In both cases (the story and history), people who should have recognized rightful authority rejected it.
Scripture makes one of its most sobering points when it teaches that we will be responsible for what we know (Romans 2). The results of the tenants’ rejection of the son are not immediate. But justice will be served when the landowner arrives. Submit to Jesus’ authority. Accepting or rejecting him has eternal consequences.

21:40-41 “Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.”NRSV Jesus’ question forced the religious leaders to announce their own fate. These words allude to Isaiah 5:5 and continue the same imagery. In their answer to Jesus, the religious leaders announced themselves to be wretches who deserved a miserable death, and stated that other tenants would take over what they thought they had. Jesus explained what this meant in 21:43.

21:42 Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the Scriptures: ‘The stone which the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. This was the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes’?”NKJV The religious leaders had answered correctly, but they still didn’t understand. So Jesus said, “Have you never read in the Scriptures”— this was a statement of rebuke, since that’s what they did for a living—but Jesus pointed out that they may have read but had never understood. The imagery of the stone rejected by the builders is taken from Psalm 118:22-23, referring to the deliverance of Israel from a situation when it seemed that their enemies had triumphed. Their deliverance could only be attributed to God’s miraculous intervention. Various people rejected David (Samuel, David’s family), but God chose and used David to deliver the nation. Jesus referred to himself as the stone which the builders rejected. Although Jesus had been rejected by many of his people, he will become the cornerstone of his new building, the church (see Acts 4:11 and 1 Peter 2:6-7, where it is clear that Peter was impressed with this vivid image of Jesus being the rejected stone). It seemed that Jesus had been rejected and defeated by his own people, the Jews, but God would raise him from the dead and seat him at his own right hand. Jesus would be vindicated, and it is marvelous in our eyes.

Cornerstones and capstones were valued architectural pieces. Stone masons demonstrated their ability by choosing just the right rock. Cornerstones anchored and shaped the foundation of a large building. They had to be square and solid. Capstones required a special shape. They were the final piece in an arch. Jesus is both cornerstone and capstone. Jesus’ role gives shape to all of history. His presence defines the church. Though rejected by those who should have known better, Jesus was placed in the honored position by his heavenly Father. Make Jesus the cornerstone of your life.

21:43 “Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit.”NIV Again Jesus introduced a solemn truth with the words “therefore I tell you.” The “other tenants” who will pay their rent refers to the Gentiles who will be added to make up God’s people (21:41). By their rejection of the prophets’ message and finally of the Son himself, Israel showed that they were incapable of repentance and belief. So the kingdom will be taken away from them and given to a unity of Jews and Gentiles, a foreshadowing of the church. The same presentation is given by Paul in Romans 11:11-24, where he used the image of branches being grafted into the olive tree.

21:44 “The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.”NRSV Jesus used this metaphor to show that one stone can affect people different ways, depending on how they relate to it (see Isaiah 8:14-15; 28:16; Daniel 2:34, 44-45). Ideally they will build on it; many, however, will trip over it. At the Last Judgment, God’s enemies will be crushed by it. At that time, Christ, the “building block,” will become the “crushing stone.” He offers mercy and forgiveness now, and he promises judgment later. Some versions do not include this verse because many of the older manuscripts omit it. The verse may have been inserted later, copied from the parallel passage in Luke (Luke 20:18).

The very people who should most welcome the coming of God’s kingdom will be denied its privileges, and the very people most unlikely to succeed spiritually will find it.
So all spiritually satisfied, religiously proud, and biblically astute and learned people should take note. Christ is the center, and no amount of paraphernalia can take his place. You may know Greek and Hebrew, you may hold church office, and you may be a respected Christian philanthropist, but if any of this nudges Christ from the center of your faith and life, beware of some stunning reversals ahead. Others will receive God’s blessing.

21:45-46 When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.NRSV It seems that the religious leaders finally understood something, for here when the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. What they realized was that they were the “wicked tenants” who were plotting to kill the son and who would have the “vineyard” taken away from them. They must have become very angry, so much so that they wanted to arrest him. The Jewish leaders wouldn’t do so because they feared the crowds. To arrest Jesus would have caused an uprising against them and an uproar that they couldn’t afford with the Romans ready to come down on them. The crowds regarded Jesus as a prophet.

Source:  Life Application Bible Commentary – Matthew.


About dkoop

Lead Pastor of Upwards Church: Leander & Jarrell, TX
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