XI. Ministry in Jerusalem (Matthew 21:1–23:39)


XI. Ministry in Jerusalem (21:1–23:39)

21:1-7 As he approached Jerusalem, Jesus sent two disciples to find a donkey and its colt, untie them, and deliver them to him (21:1-3). Matthew then tells us that this fulfilled the prophecy of Zechariah, declaring to Jerusalem that her King would come riding on a donkey (21:4-5; see Zech 9:9). His disciples obeyed, and Jesus saddled up (21:6-7).

21:8-11 When the crowd saw him, they spread tree branches and their clothes for his mount to walk on and shouted, Hosanna to the Son of David! (21:8-9). By calling Jesus the Son of David, they weren’t merely acknowledging who his great, great grandfather was. They recognized this itinerant preacher from Nazareth as the Messiah, the promised King. The whole city of Jerusalem was in an uproar (21:10). Everyone was talking about him.

21:12-13 In the temple in Jerusalem, pilgrims who’d come to offer sacrifices could buy animals from those selling them, as well as exchange currency with the money changers. When Jesus entered the temple, he threw out all those buying and selling and overturned the tables of the money changers (21:12). Why? Because God’s house was to be a house of prayer, but they had made it a den of thieves (21:13). Instead of a place focused on worship of the one true and living God, the temple had become a place of materialism and commercialism. When the temple was dedicated, Solomon prayed that God would hear the prayers of his people from the temple and forgive, heal, defend, and bless them (2 Chr 6:14-42). Yet these “thieves” were using God’s house to rob the people and reap a financial reward.

Religious materialism often appears among God’s people today as a result of “prosperity theology.” It’s easy to find so-called preachers on the radio and television whose essential message is that God exists to bless you, as if the Creator and ruler of the universe is your personal, spiritual Santa Claus. Moreover, they seek their own financial “blessing” from God by using you to foot the bill. It doesn’t matter who a preacher is, if you have to pay for his blessing, his ministry’s a racket.

Jesus pronounced judgment on those misusing the temple and disrupted their program. And his actions didn’t merely offend the businessmen in the temple, but also the religious leaders who would ask him, in effect, “Just who do you think you are?” (21:23).

21:14-17 Jesus healed the blind and the lame (21:14), and two different responses resulted. The children shouted, Hosanna to the Son of David! (21:15) just as the crowds had done (21:9). But the chief priests and the scribes, in spite of actually witnessing the wonders Jesus accomplished, were indignant (21:15). They couldn’t believe this Galilean would allow children to hail him as the Messiah. But Jesus once again questioned the Jewish leaders’ lack of Bible knowledge. He defended the children’s praise by insisting that it was a fulfillment of Scripture (21:16; see Ps 8:2).

21:18-19 The next morning, Jesus saw a fig tree with nothing on it except leaves. Hungry, he cursed it, and it withered (21:19). While the tree had given the impression of having fruit, it was barren. This condition was true of Israel. With all its religious practices, it gave an appearance of godliness but bore no authentic fruit.

21:20-22 The disciples were amazed by how quickly the fig tree withered (21:20), so Jesus took the opportunity to teach them about faith. What he did to the fig tree was a small thing. By faith, they could move a mountain—an impossible circumstance (21:21). He wanted them to understand the power of prayer (21:22). God wants followers of great faith, as opposed to the faithless Jewish leaders.

21:23-27 While Jesus taught in the temple, the chief priests and the elders came to him to ask by what authority he was doing these things (21:23). He agreed to answer—if they answered his question first: Did John’s baptism come from heaven, or was it of human origin? (21:24-25). Since they wanted to know the source of Jesus’s authority, he asked them the source of John’s authority.

This put them in a catch-22. If they said, from heaven, the obvious question would be, Then why didn’t you believe him? If they said, of human origin, they would be in trouble with the crowds who considered John to be a prophet (21:25-26). Since they were concerned with appearance more than anything, they were in a no-win situation. So they answered, We don’t know (21:27). They punted the football, so to speak. Jesus had laid the perfect trap. They demonstrated by their response that they weren’t really interested in the truth, so he refused to answer their question (21:27).

21:28-30 Instead of answering the question posed by the chief priests and elders, he told them a parable. A man had two sons whom he instructed to go and work in the vineyard. The first son refused but later changed his mind and obeyed. The second son said he would work but didn’t go.

21:31-32 Jesus then asked, Which of the two did his father’s will? (21:31). By answering correctly, the Jewish leaders condemned themselves. For the tax collectors and prostitutes refused to obey God but later repented. The leaders, on the other hand, claimed to follow God but didn’t have the actions to back it up. And even when they saw the tax collectors and prostitutes repent and believe, they still didn’t change their minds (21:32). Lips that say, “Amen,” mean nothing without hands and feet backing them up.

21:33-39 Jesus then launched into another parable about a landowner who planted a vineyard and leased it to tenant farmers and went away (21:33). At harvest time, he sent his servants to the farmers to collect his fruit, but they rebelliously beat and killed them (21:34-36)! So the landowner sent his son, expecting them to respect him, yet the wicked farmers killed the son too (21:37-39).

21:40-42 Jesus asked, What will the vineyard owner do to those farmers? (21:40). There’s only one possible answer, and the religious leaders gave it: He will completely destroy those terrible men (21:41). Again, the leaders’ failure to understand the Bible was actually a fulfillment of the Bible. Jesus claimed that he was the stone that the builders rejected, as described in Psalm 118:22-23 (21:42). Thus, he was the “son” in the parable—scorned and (soon-to-be) killed—and they were the wicked tenant farmers.

21:43-46 As a result, the kingdom of God would be taken away from them (21:43). The one they rejected would be their Judge. Realizing that he was speaking about them, they wanted to seize him, but they feared the people who regarded Jesus as a prophet (21:45-46).

22:1-7 Once more Jesus told them a parable (22:1). This time he compared the kingdom of heaven to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son (22:2). The king made plans, invited guests, but no one would come (22:3-4). In fact, they mistreated his servants and killed them (22:6). The king was enraged, so he burned down their city (22:7).

This describes the response of the nation of Israel to God’s messianic plan—a response reflected primarily in its leaders. They rejected God’s Son and his kingdom, and God would bring fiery judgment on them with Rome’s destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70.

22:8-14 The king had his servants invite all kinds of people until guests filled the wedding banquet (22:8-10)—an image that I understand to refer to the millennial reign of Christ. However, the guests who were invited and accepted the invitations had a personal responsibility to get dressed in wedding clothes appropriate for the banquet (22:11-12). Since the people had been invited off the streets (22:10), it’s likely the king provided them with wedding clothes to wear. But one man refused to dress for the wedding (22:11-12). The king, therefore, had his attendants throw him out.

Many interpreters see this ejection as a description of final judgment. However, this language of weeping and gnashing of teeth (22:13) is a picture of “sons of the kingdom” losing rewards in the millennial period (see 8:12). While they have accepted an invitation to enter the banquet, the messianic kingdom, those who do not utilize what God has provided and fail to be faithful servants will lose out on full participation in the millennial kingdom. As a result, they will experience profound regret. Many are called to salvation because of their faith in Christ, but few are chosen to rule with him in his millennial reign because of their unfaithfulness (see Luke 19:12-27; 1 Cor 3:12-15; 9:26-29; 2 Tim 2:12).

22:15-17 Matthew tells us that the Pharisees and the Herodians plotted together to trap Jesus (22:15-16). So we know from the outset that their question in verse 17 was a trick. What’s amazing is that the Pharisees and Herodians were working together. The Pharisees were the conservative religious movement of the day. The Herodians were not a religious group at all, but a political party that supported the dynasty of Herod. The only thing they had in common was their mutual hatred of Jesus.

Nevertheless, the groups came to Jesus full of compliments: You are truthful . . . teach truthfully . . . don’t care what anyone thinks nor do you show partiality (22:16). Hearing such words from such people would raise a few eyebrows. The alert listener would suspect something was up. “Give us your opinion,” the plotters told Jesus in essence. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not? (22:17).

This may seem like an easy question to answer, but the men were attempting to put Jesus in a no-win situation. Israel was under Roman rule, so Jews were required to pay taxes to Rome. To be an advocate for paying taxes, then, would put Jesus at odds with the people who hated being subject to the pagan Romans. But to publicly denounce paying taxes would put him at odds with the Roman authorities. No doubt the Pharisees and Herodians were thinking, “Whichever way he answers, we’ll win.”

22:18-20 Jesus wasn’t fazed: Why are you testing me, hypocrites? (22:18). He knew what they were up to. They claimed to be interested in Jesus’s answer, but all they really wanted was to see him destroy himself. He asked them to show him the coin used for the tax, which was a denarius, a Roman coin that was the equivalent of one day’s wage. Then he asked whose image and inscription was on it.

22:21 The coin bore the image of the Roman emperor, Tiberius Caesar. So Jesus gave his answer: Give, then, to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s. This Roman coin had Caesar’s image on it, so, Jesus concluded, it made sense to give Caesar what belonged to him. Moreover, since human beings bear God’s “image,” they naturally belong to God (Gen 1:26-27). So as sure as Jesus affirmed paying taxes to Caesar, he also said they should give themselves in total obedience to God. By opposing Jesus, they were opposing God.

It’s proper to pay taxes to a government for the services it provides, including defense and roads. These are legitimate realms of government activity and must be supported. However, everything falls within God’s realm. The government may give you highways, but God gives you oxygen. You owe him more than a weekly visit on Sundays. Give him total obedience in honor of the daily benefits he gives you.

22:22 The Pharisees and Herodians were amazed at Jesus’s clever answer and left. Jesus will leave you speechless.

22:23-28 Next it was the Sadducees’ turn to test Jesus with a question. The Sadducees were a powerful religious sect associated with the high priests and aristocratic families. They rejected many of the theological views of the Pharisees—including belief in the resurrection (22:23). Pointing to the law that required a deceased man’s brother to marry his wife in order to continue his brother’s family line (22:24; see Deut 25:5-6), they proposed a hypothetical scenario in order to make a mockery of the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead. If seven brothers had the same woman for a wife after each one died, whose wife would she be in the resurrection? (22:25-28).

22:29-33 They thought they’d tripped him up, but they were mistaken because they didn’t know the Scriptures or the power of God (22:29). First, Jesus explained that people don’t marry in the resurrection, but are eternal like angels (22:30). Second, Jesus quoted God’s words to Moses: I am the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob (22:32; see Exod 3:6). In other words, though Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were physically dead even back in Moses’s day, he was still their God. Spiritually speaking, they are very much alive: God is not the God of the dead, but of the living (22:32). Once again, the crowds were astonished (22:33).

22:34-36 Jesus’s opponents weren’t ready to give up yet. He had silenced the Sadducees, so the Pharisees decided to have another go (22:34). One of them who happened to be an expert in the law asked, Teacher, which command in the law is the greatest? (22:35-36).

22:37-38 Jesus wasted no time identifying the greatest and most important command by quoting from Deuteronomy 6:5: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind (22:37-38). God’s entire law, in fact, can be reduced to this. At their core, the Ten Commandments are really a command to love God. While we frequently associate love with a feeling, it must be more than that because it’s something that can be commanded.

God wants a relationship with you. He wants you to love him, to passionately and righteously pursue his glory. So what does loving God look like? It requires all of your heart, soul, and mind—in other words, your entire being. Some of us Christians love God with some rather than with all, yet we want all of God. But you can’t love God some and love the world some because these two are antithetical to one another (see 1 John 2:15). God will not share you with anyone. Your love for him must be comprehensive.

It’s easy to say, “I love God,” but words can be cheap. So remember, love for God is consistently expressed when you obey his commands (see John 14:15; 1 John 5:3). Align your decisions with his expectations.

22:39 Then Jesus answered a question the Pharisee didn’t ask. The command that ranks second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself (see Lev 19:18). Why does Jesus mention this command? Because you can’t obey number one without obeying number two and vice-versa. To love your neighbor is the decision to compassionately and righteously pursue his or her well-being. The two commands, then, are inseparable (see 1 John 4:20–5:2).

Do you want to draw closer to God? Help someone else draw closer to God. When you love others, God will boomerang it back to you and provide you with a deeper experience of him.

22:40 All the Law and the Prophets depend on these two commands means all of God’s commands are included in the first and second greatest commands. Fulfill these, through Christ, and you’ll fulfill them all.

22:41-46 After a barrage of questions from different religious leaders, Jesus had a question of his own for the Pharisees about the Messiah: Whose son is he? They rightly replied that Messiah would come from the line of David (22:41-42). However, Jesus pointed out that in Psalm 110:1 David calls the Messiah, Lord (22:43-44). If the Messiah was merely David’s descendant, why would David refer to him as his Lord—as his Master? The opposite would be expected.

Inspired by the Spirit when he wrote the Psalm (22:43), David confessed that the Messiah would be more than his son (22:45). He would be divine. Though he would be fully human, a descendant of King David, he would also be fully God. The view of the Jewish leaders, though, was that the Messiah would be merely human—not divine. It was Jesus’s claim of deity that would lead to his rejection and crucifixion (26:57-68). The Pharisees were obviously stunned by Jesus’s words, unable to understand, and unable to answer. So no one dared to question him further (22:46).

23:1-4 When all those who tried to trick him with their questions were gone, Jesus spoke to the crowds and his disciples to warn them about the scribes and the Pharisees (23:1-2). They were good at telling others what to do but not good at carrying those instructions out themselves: They don’t practice what they teach (23:3). They were hypocrites. Instead of helping to relieve the burdens of others, the Pharisees weighed them down with burdens (23:4).

23:5 Everything the Pharisees did was for show; they wanted to be seen by others. They wanted observers to see how holy they looked regardless of how dirty and ugly they were on the inside. Phylacteries were small boxes containing copies of Scripture verses that were tied to the arm or the head and were worn as reminders to pray. Tassels were on the edges of prayer shawls. The Pharisees wore supersized versions of these items to impress people. They were like walking religious billboards, proclaiming to everyone, “Look how holy I am!”

23:6-7 The Pharisees didn’t want to practice their righteous deeds (such as giving to the poor, praying, and fasting) “in secret” (6:1-6; 16-18). They wanted people to see them in action. The front seats in the synagogues allowed them to be the focus of attention at gatherings and being called, Rabbi, stroked their egos.

It’s not wrong to honor others. Paul said to give honor to whom honor is owed (Rom 13:7) and to “give recognition to those who labor among you . . . in the Lord” (1 Thess 5:12). But it’s another thing altogether to love being honored and to seek it for yourself. The scribes and Pharisees thought too highly of themselves (see Rom 12:3).

23:8-10 In light of the Pharisees’ behavior, Jesus told his followers not to get wrapped up in being called by titles of honor, for we are all brothers and sisters of one another. There is one Father and one Messiah to whom we owe all honor (23:8, 10). We have different roles and job descriptions, but we’re all equal in value before the Lord.

No matter the position a brother in Christ holds, he’s still your brother. You can take a one-hundred-dollar bill, crumple it up, and rub it in the dirt. When you’re finished, it may not look attractive but it’s still worth the same as when you started.

23:11-12 There is to be no elitism in the family of God, and the cure for elitism is servanthood (23:11). When was the last time you served someone—someone who couldn’t do anything for you in return? That’s what Jesus did. The eternal Son of God became a servant to save those who couldn’t save themselves (see Phil 2:5-8). As a result, God the Father exalted him (Phil 2:9-11). And that’s what Jesus promises his disciples: Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted (23:12).

23:13-15 In 23:13-36, Matthew presents Jesus’s declarations of judgment to the scribes and Pharisees. To say, Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees is to pronounce condemnation on them. These men had rejected the kingdom of heaven through Jesus Christ, and, as a result, they were preventing others from receiving him too (23:13). They were blocking the way of salvation. Now, that doesn’t mean they weren’t religious. In fact, they were extremely zealous about their religious practices and would travel far and wide to make Pharisee converts. But by exhorting others to practice external religion without internal spirituality, they hindered them from true salvation and simply made them fit for hell (23:15).

23:16-22 Jesus explained how the Pharisees made false distinctions between different kinds of oaths. They considered some oaths binding and some not, but any oath made before God should be kept. Whether someone swore by the sanctuary or the altar, the temple was all God’s house. The Pharisees were deceptive and served as blind guides to all who followed them (23:16).

23:23-24 The scribes and Pharisees proudly paid a tenth of their possessions—even of tiny things like spices. However, while focusing on these minute details, they would neglect the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy, and faithfulness (23:23). They would major on the minors, and minor on the majors. Jesus’s illustration is vivid: You strain out a gnat, but gulp down a camel (23:24).

23:25-26 The men were consumed with external appearances and rituals but not with the internal condition of their hearts. They cleaned their outsides, but inside they were full of greed and self-indulgence (23:25). Be warned: when your chief concern is being seen and accepted by men, you’ll concentrate on making a good outward impression while ignoring the corruption inside of you. But if you seek to please God above all by cleaning the dirt from your heart, clean actions will follow (23:26).

23:27-28 Whitewashed tombs refers to the practice of painting tombs white so that they looked beautiful. On the inside, though, pretty tombs were still full of . . . bones (23:27). No matter how much you decorate the exterior of a grave, the interior still contains death. Similarly, the Pharisees seemed righteous to people on the outside, but on the inside they had wicked motives and desires (23:28).

23:29-32 The scribes and Pharisees were hypocrites. They built tombs of the prophets and decorated the graves of the righteous (23:29), quickly claiming that they wouldn’t have joined with their forefathers who killed the Old Testament-era prophets (23:30). Yet, at the same time, they were rejecting the Messiah and planning to murder him! In truth, they were just like those who had gone before them and murdered the prophets (23:31).

23:33-36 In spite of all that he’d said against the scribes and Pharisees, Jesus wasn’t done: Snakes! Brood of vipers! How can you escape being condemned to hell? (23:33). Since the scribes and Pharisees continued to reject the truth, their destiny would be eternal judgment. Jesus predicted that they would kill those whom he would send. In the same way that Abel and Zechariah were martyred by unbelievers, so the Pharisees would martyr the righteous believers in Jesus Christ (23:34-35).

23:37-39 After his outburst of righteous anger against the religious leaders (23:13-36), Jesus lamented over Jerusalem, the capital city of Israel and home of God’s temple. Though it ought to have been a holy city devoted to the Lord, those within her gates slayed the servants of God sent to her (23:37).

Unlike chicks that naturally run to a hen during times of danger, the religious leaders were not running to their Messiah (23:37). Eventually the city and temple would be besieged and destroyed by the Romans. However, Jesus would return one day. Quoting Psalm 118:26 (23:39), Jesus announced that he would depart but promised he would come back. This moment was the time of his rejection. On that day, however, he will come to establish his millennial kingdom.