No one could walk into the temple and drive out the money-changers without stirring up a lot of antagonism. But when Jesus did this (Matt. 21:12-17), he did it to uncover the wickedness and sinfulness of those who claimed to be serving in the sanctuary but who gave no evidence of righteousness in their lives. The rest of the chapter, then, deals with this matter of producing fruit that will be evidence of a genuine life of faith. On the whole, Jesus was announcing here that the Jews as a whole had failed, and that God was going to turn to the Gentiles as the prophets had warned (see, for example, Mal. 1:11).
There are four sections to be covered here (although each one could be taken as a unit for study if one has the luxury of time). The first episode is the cursing of the fig tree because it had no fruit on it (21:18-22), and then the second is a challenge to Jesus’ authority (21:23-27); this is followed by two parables, the parable of the two sons (21:28-32), and the parable of the tenants (21:33-46). The last parable is the most important part of the section, because it explains what has come before it and clearly announces that the Messiah has been rejected by his own people who bear no fruit and so the kingdom will be taken from them and given to a people who will bear fruit.
So we have two short narrative episodes, and two parables. In all of the material Jesus was clearly calling for repentance that leads to righteousness; and he had the authority to do this because he is the King, the Stone, who can exclude people from the kingdom as much as include those who love righteousness. The authority of Jesus is first demonstrated by his cursing of the tree, and then in the end by his announcement of the cursing of Israel by removing from them the kingdom. There was no need for the leaders to ask about his authority--the words and the works made it clear who he was, just as the words and the works of John made it clear he was the prophet.
For convenience it will be better to take each of the four parts separately and then at the end reiterate the message.
18 Early in the morning as he was on his way back into the city, he was hungry. 19 Seeing a fig tree by the road, he went up to it but found nothing on it except leaves. Then he said to it, "May you never bear fruit again!" Immediately the tree withered.
20 When the disciples saw this, they were amazed. "How did the fig tree wither so quickly?" they asked.
21 Jesus replied, "I tell you the truth, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only can you do what was done to the fig tree, but also you can say to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and it will be done. 22 If you believe, you will receive whatever you as for in prayer."
There are several things that the student of the Scriptures needs to address in this little section. First is the comparison with Mark, the only other place where the cursing of the fig tree is mentioned. Mark has it in two parts, the cursing, and then the withering after the cleansing of the temple the next day. Matthew puts the two parts together for the topical value of the episode, and does not specify when the tree withered and the disciples marveled.
The cursing of the fig tree is in itself a parable of the cleansing of the temple, which has been recorded by Matthew just prior to this. So the study will have to determine the symbolism of the fig tree, and perhaps any symbolism of the mountain that is possibly moved, whether it represents any obstacle or just the mountain.
The passage appears to contain two lessons, the lesson of the cursing of the fig tree being the main message about the religious standing of Israel. But the disciples’ response was shallow, wondering how it was done. And so Jesus answered their question with a lesson on faith, the second message.
I. The Cursing of the Fig Tree (21:18-22)
This first episode can be divided into the two parts: the cursing of the tree, and the question of the disciples.
A. The Lack of Fruit Brings Judgment (vv. 18, 19).
This point has been worded as a principle that the incident teaches. Jesus was traveling from Bethany to Jerusalem, less than a mile, and came upon a fig tree. He was hungry and so hoping to find some figs on the tree. A simple incident! But there was no fruit on the tree and so Jesus cursed the tree.
It was a little early in the year for the harvest of figs, since this occurred during the holy week, which in 33 A.D. was the last week of March. But Mark tells us that there were leaves on the tree, and fig trees produce leaves and figs about the same time--this was early growth. The early figs are edible, but not as good as the figs that are harvested in June. The point is that the presence of leaves indicates there should be fruit. When Matthew says that he found only leaves, the readers would have known there should have been figs. If this had taken place at the normal time of figs, Jesus could have simply gone to another fig tree. But this was an unusual early growth, and as Jesus was hungry, expected he could pick some fruit from it.
The question then is often raised as to why Jesus would curse a tree that was not supposed to be in season. Well, the action was symbolic. The point is that the leaves on the tree advertized that there were figs there as well, but it was a false advertisement. Jesus used this to teach a memorable lesson: the tree was cursed not just because it was not bearing fruit, but because it was making a show of life that promised fruit but delivered none. What Jesus intended by this acted parable was that those who make a show of being religious but in fact are spiritually barren will be cursed. In this context it would apply directly to Israel, but it applies to all people who produce no evidence of genuine spiritual life. This teaching harmonizes with the previous account of the cleansing of the temple, and prepares for the messages to come (Matt. 23). The Jewish leaders in the context of Matthew are the primary targets, for they advertised piety without producing true righteousness.
It is interesting to note that Jesus’ miracles about cursing are directed at things other than people--the drowning of the pigs (8:28-34), and now the cursing of the fig tree. The warning is clearly for people to heed; but the way it is presented is indirect. Yet the message is clear: those who claim to be pious better produce the fruit of righteousness or they too will fall under the Lord’s judgment.
B. Faith is Essential for the Work of the Lord (vv. 20-22).
The second part of this story concerns the question that the disciples ask--how this was done, and not what it meant. Jesus’ answer draws upon his earlier teaching (17:20), that with faith all things are possible--even casting this mountain--probably the Mount of Olives on which they were standing--into the sea. This is a hyperbolic example of a miracle--whether what is to be done is great or small, faith is sufficient.
So based on this miracle and the disciples’ question, Jesus taught them on the power of believing prayer. The faith that he taught throughout his life was a genuine faith on the power of God and a developed discernment of his will. They should discover what the will of the Lord is, and then by faith pray for it to happen, not matter how impossible it might seem.
Because Jesus meant that the fig tree without fruit represented hypocritical religious people, the cursing anticipated their judgment. Thus, God’s plan includes the judgment of hypocrites; and Jesus’ cursing of the tree conformed with that part of the plan of God. Otherwise, there was no reason for him to curse a tree that gave him no food. Thus Jesus’ lesson on faith has to be seen in the context of Matthew--it was not just a lesson that faith could do all kinds of spectacular things--it was faith in praying! And prayer always must harmonize with the will of God.
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?"
24 Jesus replied, "I will also ask you one question. If you answer me, I will tell you by what authority I am doing these things. 25 John’s baptism--where did it come from? Was it from heaven, or from men?"
25 They discussed it among themselves and said, "If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will ask, ‘Then why did you not believe him?’ 26 But if we say, ‘From men’--we are afraid of the people, for they all hold that John was a prophet."
27 So they answered Jesus, "We do not know." Then he said, "Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things."
This episode is part of a longer section that runs through 22:46, a section that includes all kinds of controversies in the temple courtyard. We are presently dealing with chapter 21 as a unit since it is concerned with bearing fruit as obedience to do the will of God. In this section the leaders challenged Jesus’ authority for his works (cleansing the temple) and his stern words of judgment.
If the triumphal entry took place on Sunday as tradition claims, then these discourses took place on Tuesday according to Mark’s chronology. But there is good evidence that the entry may have taken place on Monday, which would make these discourses occur on Wednesday. In either case, the messages of chapters 21-23 were delivered in the temple area in the morning; and chapters 24, 25 were delivered in the later afternoon on the Mount of Olives (so the Olivet Discourse).
This first episode follows the account in Mark very closely (Mark 11:27-33).
II. The Authority of Jesus (21:23-27)
A. Hypocrites Challenge the Authority of Jesus (v. 23).
Jesus entered into the temple courts, which could refer to any of the walkways or porticos in the vast area (33 acres). There he was approached by members of the priestly aristocracy and elders, probably all members of the great Sanhedrin, the Jewish court. These were heads of the most influential families in the country. They had authority to make the decisions about the religious and civic affairs of the people.
But Jesus acted with authority, cleansing the temple and declaring things that went far beyond an ordinary teacher’s authority. They really did not want to know if there was authority given to him--they were more interested in stifling his teachings, healing, and powerful works. Had they listened to his teachings and seen his miracles without their blind resistance, they would have known the source of his authority.
B. Those who Challenge Jesus’ Authority Display their Hypocrisy (24-27).
Jesus responded to their question with a question of their view of John’s baptism. By referring to John’s baptism, he was of course referring to John’s entire ministry. This is a masterful reply. If the religious leaders answered correctly, that is, that John’s ministry was of God, then they would have the answer to their own question, for John was sent by God as the messenger of Malachi 3:1 to prepare the way for the divine Messiah. If John was that messenger, then Jesus is the Lord who comes to his temple.
But if they said it was not of God, then the people would rise against them because they did believe John was a prophet from God. The leaders refuse to answer.
Jesus was not refusing to answer their question. He answered it with a question. He answered it in a way that the honest person who was actually looking for the truth without regard for public opinion would not fail to see that he was the Messiah, and that he had the authority of heaven behind him. But the question uncovers a more deep seated problem, their blindness to the revelation of God. They rejected Christ totally, so they were not here looking for proof of his authority. They wanted to destroy him.
Those who reject the revelation already given cannot expect to be given more revelation. Jesus, therefore, would not tell them. They had already misunderstood the revelation of Scripture, rejected the ministry of John, and accused Jesus of doing things by the power of Satan! They were not open to a clear answer from Jesus--and they were not fit for positions of authority themselves. They may have questioned his authority; but he questioned their spiritual competence to determine this issue.
While the text does not directly explain the connection between this challenge and the surrounding events, it is clear from the context that this kind of blindness was behind their hypocrisy. Here were people displaying piety, but they not righteous.
28 What do you think? There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, "Son, go and work today in the vineyard."
29 "I will not," he answered, but later he changed his mind and went.
30 Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, "I will sir," but he did not go.
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. 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."
This is a short parable and will not take much time to develop in the message of the chapter. But for those who want to get into the criticism of the material, the study can become involved pretty quickly. There are lots of suggestions about the composition of the material, but when all is said and done the parable appears to be authentically Matthean and an integral part of the block of material found in 21:23--22:46. This material preserves confrontational discussions that took place on this one occasion.
For the lower or textual criticism, there are different readings for the parable, one being followed by the NIV and the other by the NASB. It is a question of which of the sons went and which did not. While the textual difficulty has to be taken seriously and sorted out for the precise reading, the variation does not change the basic meaning of the passage: one said he would go and did not, one said he would not and did go.
III. Genuine Repentance and not Religious Intentions (21:28-32)
Sinners like tax collectors and prostitutes, considered the scum of society, had lived lives that refused to obey God--but they repented at the preaching of John and will have a share in the kingdom. But the pious religious authorities say yes to God in ways that everyone could hear, but inwardly they do not obey his Word. They do not enter into the kingdom. So the distinction is between religious leaders with expressed intentions and public sinners who changed their minds and entered the kingdom.
John came in the way of righteousness (literally, v. 32); i.e., he came preaching God’s will about what was right. His message (3:2-3) was a call for ethical reform in the light of the appearance of the Messiah. But the religious leaders did not believe in his message, even when people were being converted. Those religious leaders will not enter the kingdom.
In the context this parable is an open rebuke to the religious leaders who were opposing Jesus. They, like the fig tree, made all the appearances of being spiritual and devout, but they showed no signs of repentance and no acts of righteousness. The sinners who believed and repented would have a share in Messiah’s kingdom.
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. 34 When the harvest time approached, he sent his servants to the tenants to collect his fruit.
35 The tenants seized his servants; they beat one, killed another, and stoned a third. 36 Then he sent other servants to them, more than the first time, and the tenants treated them the same way. 37 Last of all, he sent his son to them; "They will respect my son," he said.
38 But when the tenants saw the son, they said to each other, "This is the heir. Come, let’s kill him and take the inheritance." 39 So they took him and three him out of the vineyard and killed him.
40 Therefore, when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants? 41 "He will bring those wretches to a wretched end," they replied, "and he will rent the vineyard to other tenants, who will give him his share of the crop qat harvest time."
42 Jesus said to them, Have you never read in the Scripture:
The stone the builders rejected has become of capstone;
The LORD has done this, and it marvelous in our eyes?
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. 44 He who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces, but he on whom it falls will be crushed.
45 When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard Jesus’ parables, they knew he was talking about them. 46 They looked for a way to arrest him, but they were afraid of the crowd because the people held that he was a prophet.
Here we have the simple pattern again of the parable following by the explanation of it as well as a concluding narrative report. The meaning in the story is pretty obvious: God is the landowner, the vineyard is Israel, the tenants are the leaders of the nation, the servants are the prophets, and Jesus is the son.
Critical scholars find this simple arrangement problematic and so have reconstructed the parable. Some have argued that the parable did not come from Jesus but from the early Church influenced by Isaiah 5. But there is no reason that Jesus could not have used Isaiah 5 and its imagery to describe the situation with his enemies. Others do not think that Jesus would have used the language of "son" for himself, but that it was introduced by the early Church. It would be difficult to imagine how Jesus would tell this story without immediately thinking of the son as himself. Others have tried to argue that the original story is in the Gospel of Thomas (65, 66); but the omissions in the story are due to the Gnostic influence there and show how that version relied on the Syriac. The passage is authentic and belongs in this place in the argument of the book.
IV. The Kingdom Will Be Taken away for Lack of Fruit (21:33-46).
A. The Parable (21:33-41)
The meaning of the parable is pretty straightforward. Jesus had been telling his disciples for months that he was going to be killed by the religious leaders in Jerusalem; now in the temple a few days before Passover he is telling the people and the leaders, albeit in parable form. But they knew what he was saying.
It will be helpful to point out some of the details in the parable. The first is the loving care the landowner (God) has for his vineyard (Israel; cf. Isa. 5:1-7 and Ps. 80:6-16). He build a protecting wall, a watchtower (against thieves) and a winepress to press the grapes right there. This shows his anticipation that there will be fruit from the vineyard that can be pressed into wine.
The servants are sent to collect some of the fruit from the tenant farmers who rent and work the vineyard. They do not come for all the fruit, only for the agreed upon portion that the owner expects. These are the prophets that the Lord sent to Israel to see if they were producing fruits of righteousness.
The tenants are mean and calloused. The owner sends servants and they are beaten; he sends others (are the two sets the former and the latter prophets?--probably) and they too are treated roughly. Their motive is selfish--they want to keep everything and feel no responsibility to the true owner of the vineyard. Lastly when the owner sends his son, they kill him.
Some commentators argue that the Jewish leaders did not know who Jesus was and would not have killed their Messiah. But this argument is not convincing. They should have known because of his works and his words; they should have known because of Old Testament prophecy that said Messiah would die. And even if they did not know or understand, their guilt remains. The fact is that these religious leaders were unwilling to discover Jesus’ true identity (see 23:37). Besides, the main charge of the parable is not just that they killed the son, but that they bore no fruit. They were not righteous--they were self-righteous, and that is not the same at all. When Jesus came calling for repentance and righteousness, they did not want to bow to his authority. They wanted him to submit to them--but they were hypocrites (see chap. 23). Their rejection of Jesus is the last act of unrighteousness; they would be judged.
After telling the parable, Jesus drew out of the people the self-condemning response to the story.
B. The Application (21:42-46)
Now to make the lesson clear, Jesus drew upon Psalm 118, with the formula, "Have you never read." They had read it, probably knew it by heart--but he was saying they needed to take a closer look at it now. The message of the psalm explains what God’s program is, and how the rejection of the Messiah is one of the ironic twists of the program.
Psalm 118 was probably written after the exile when the Hebrews finally could return to their land and worship once again. They approached the rebuilt temple doors with the intent of praising God for delivering them from the nations who had captured them. Their praise is essentially that the stone that the builders had rejected had now become central to God’s building program. The stone in the psalm represents Israel, probably their political leader who represents Israel. The builders were the nations, Assyria, Babylon, Egypt, who rejected Israel when they were building their empires--as a builder would toss aside a small stone when building a palace. But now, that stone has been restored to its land, and is at the center of God’s kingdom. This was the day the Lord had made; this was marvelous in their eyes.
Matthew gives full expression to Jesus’ claims to being the true seed of Abraham--everything Israel was supposed to be but was not. Jesus is the stone now. In fact, a number of Old Testament prophets use the stone image for the Messiah and his kingdom (see Isa. 8; Dan. 2; Zech. 3). The builders, then, would be the chief priests, scribes, Pharisees, Sadducees, Romans--all who were trying to build a nation. They rejected Christ (which means he was killed - in the parable they killed the son), but he would become the main stone in the new building of God (which presupposes the resurrection). Jesus is not only vindicated through his resurrection, but becomes the central figure of the New Covenant of God. What the leaders rejected--Jesus the Messiah--is the very program God has designated for the redemption of the world. Because they reject him, they do not have a share in the new program of God.
Then, in verse 43, Jesus further explains the parable. Because those entrusted with the vineyard of God had cared for it so badly, and then killed the son, the responsibility of leading God’s program would be given to another people who would produce righteousness. The verse does not go fully forward to say the kingdom is taken from the Jews and given to the Gentiles, although it leads to that; it speaks of ending the role of Jewish rulers over God’s covenant people. Besides, in the early church there was a mixture of Jews and Gentiles.
Matthew confirms that the religious leaders knew that Jesus was talking about them. They should have realized that the image of the stone for Messiah is a dangerous image: it can be a stumbling stone (Isa. 8) for those who do not believe; and it will be a stone of judgment for those caught up in the world (Dan. 2).
Amazingly, the religious leaders who have just heard the parable that they will kill the son set about planning how to kill him. Here is true spiritual blindness.
The theme of these four sections is the teaching of the authoritative Christ that the religious leaders and most of the people had failed to do what God had intended them to do, to be the faithful people of God producing works of righteousness. Paul will tell the Romans that because of their unbelief, the natural branches of the tree were lopped off, and wild branches grafted into the tree. Gentiles have been grafted into the tree--that is, by God’s grace been brought into Israel’s New Covenant. And Paul warns that if God did not spare the natural branches of the tree--those generations of Jews who rejected him, he need not spare us either if we do not produce righteousness.
The warning for all time is that God rejects the show of piety without the fruit of righteousness. Those who claim to be devout must submit to the authority of Christ and bring forth fruit of repentance--a changed life.