Notes Matthew chapter 21
© copyright 1997 drs Gijs van den Brink
The Entry into Jerusalem 21:1-11
21:1. As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage on the Mount of Olives. The Mount of Olives (about 850 m. high) lay a sabbath day’s journey east of Jerusalem (Acts 1:12). The village of Bethphage (‘house of unripe figs) was apparently a hamlet or an estate on the eastern slopes of the Mount of Olives bordering on the edge of Jerusalem. It lay between Bethany and Jerusalem, which is also named in this respect by Mark (Mark 1:11) and Luke (19:29). According to the halaka the normative Jewish tradition, Bethphage belonged to Jerusalem, though it was the most remote part of the city. For this reason it was permitted to eat the Passover here (SB, I, 839).
Jesus arrived in Bethany six days before the Passover, on Friday the eigth day of Nisan (John 12:1). He spent the Sabbath here and on the first day of the week, Sunday 10th Nisan, five days before His death, He entered Jerusalem riding on a donkey. 10th Nisan was also the day on which the Passover lamb was to be chosen (Exod 12:3). On this day Jesus presented Himself as the Messiah in the presence of the people, by a symbolic act, which would lead up to the death of the real Passover lamb.
Jesus sent two disciples. It is not written who the two disciples were who were sent off. Perhaps it was Peter and John, who were later sent on a similar errand (Luke 22:8).
2. The village ahead of you must mean Bethphage.
a donkey … with her colt … bring them to me. The Lord Jesus, who sees in the spirit what the situation in the village is and whose the donkeys are, gives the disciples a clear and simple task to perform: Bring them to Me. This refers to the young animal, the foal of an ass (Mark 11:2; Luke 19:30), which stood near its mother. But a she-ass and her young are inseparable, of course.
3. tell him that the Lord needs them. It was obvious that the owner would object, but just as obvious that he would not resist their taking the animals away when he heard who wanted to use them. This makes one suspect that the man must have been a disciple of the Lord. This is not so strange, for Jesus had personal relationships with people in and near Jerusalem (cf. John 11:1-12:11; Luke 10:38-42).
That the ‘he’ who was to send them immediately was not the owner can be seen clearly in the gospel of Mark (Mark 11:3).
4. to fulfil what was spoken through the prophet. Everything Jesus did was in accord with the words of the prophet Zechariah, especially that the Messiah would be a humble Prince of Peace. The disciples had not in fact understood that at that time (John 12:16). Of course Jesus knew the prophecy and did not fulfil it unconsciously.
5. This is a quotation from Zech 9:9. Cf. introduction of Isa 62:11.
Daughter of Zion is a term for the messianic people.
gentle and riding on a donkey. Jesus fulfils the prophecy from Zech 9 and hereby shows that He is the Messiah. Since Solomon’s time no king had ridden on a donkey. The Messianic king would be meek and humble and would ride a donkey, i.e., He would not be interested in violence nor be militant, but would be a humble King of salvation and peace (Zech 9:10). In this respect the Messiah of the prophecy not only stands directly opposed to the popular expectation of the Messiah, but is also opposed to political Messianism (a sort of liberation theology) of the Zealots.
6. The disciples obeyed Jesus at his word, without asking why. That too while it was not entirely clear to them what was going to happen.
7. They … placed their cloaks on them, and Jesus sat on them. In the first instance both animals were saddled with clothing by the disciples (‘on them’). The second ‘on them’ does not refer to the donkeys but to the clothes, so that the meaning is not that Jesus sat on two animals at the same time, but that He sat on the clothes (which lay on the foal, cf. Mark 11:7).
In contrast to horses, chariots and other warlike material (Zech 9:10) with which kings show off and conduct war (cf. Zech 4:6; Ps 20:7; Exod 15:1; Isa 31:1-3), this King makes Himself noticeable by riding on a donkey, the simple riding-animal of times of peace. The Messiah is not proud of his own power, but is a humble Ruler (Zech 9:9) who trusts in God.
8. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road. Among the multitude mentioned here there were pilgrims from Galilee and Perea, but there were also people from the city (cf. John 12:9, 18). Spreading branches and clothing on the road surface was a spontaneous homage paid to the Lord Jesus. This homage witnessed to the fact that He was regarded as a king and was at the same time a sign of subjection (cf. 2 Kings 9:13). The whole entry was a Messianic confession of faith. The glory of the Lord would dawn from the Mount of Olives (v.1; Zech 14:4).
9. “Hosanna to the Son of David!” The call of ‘hosanna’ occurs in the so-called ‘Hallel’ (Ps 113-118), psalms which were sung especially during the Passover celebrations, which also appears in Matt 26:30, where they are called ‘hymns’. The word ‘hosanna’ was originally a plea for help and redemption, often directed towards a king (2 King 16:7), but also to God (Ps 20:9; 118:25). Besides other verses it was customary to shout and sing Ps 118:25 (‘hosanna’) on each of the seven days of the Feast of Tabernacles as people proceeded to the Altar of Sacrifice with palm branches (which were also called ‘hosannas’) in their hands. Thanks to its fixed position in the liturgy of the great feasts it changed gradually from a cry for help into a cry of rejoicing (‘Vivat; Long live…’), which can clearly be seen in our text from the ensuing dative ‘to the Son of David’.
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord is a quotation from Psalms 118:26, where it refers to every pilgrim who came to Jerusalem during the great feasts, but later it was applied ever more to and limited to the coming of the Messiah (cf. John 12:3; Matt 11:3; 23:28).
Hosanna in the highest: the angels, too, are called on to lift up a song of praise (cf. Ps 148:1-2).
The crowd which followed Jesus rejoiced and praised Him who had come to fulfil the promises for Israel as the Son of David, as the Messiah. But compare the hallelujahs with Matt 27:22, 23.
10. the whole city was stirred and asked, “Who is this?” Only Matthew tells of the enthusiasm surrounding Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem (the Greek word for ‘stir’ –eseisth– is used elsewhere for earthquakes!). The excited inhabitants of Jerusalem, who could not see who was making such an entry and did not know who he was, asked the celebrating entrants: ‘Who is this?’
11. “This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee.” The crowd accompanying Jesus answers: ‘This is the prophet, the promised great prophet, whose coming Moses foretold’ (Deut 18:18; cf. also John 6:41). It is Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee. It is a fruit of His appearance in Galilee that Jesus is now taken into Jerusalem as the Son of David.
Jesus in the Temple (The Cleansing of the Temple) 21:12-17
12. In vv. 12-17 the great crowd has disappeared and Jesus is surrounded by pure strangers, so that it is clear, even without consulting the gospel of Mark, that Matthew has linked two occurrences separated from each other in time by the word ‘and’ (Gk. kai) as he frequently does. Apparently what is related now took place on the Monday morning, after the cursing of the unfruitful fig-tree (cf. Mark 11:11-19). Jesus cleansed the Temple twice. The first occasion is related in John 2. This took place at the beginning of His public ministry. The second cleansing, described here, was a picture of the judgment of the Jewish people.
the money-changers and the benches of those selling doves. The business carried on in the forecourt was connected to the sacrificial offerings and the Temple tax. At Passover time, every Jew had to pay a half shekel as Temple tax (see commentary on Matt 17:24). The money-changers were here for good reason for those flooding in for the feast brought with them currency from many different countries (cf. John 12:20; Acts 2:5 ff). The merchants sold what was needed for the sacrifices: animals, wine, oil, salt, etc. The poor, who had no means to sacrifice a larger animal, were allowed to sacrifice a pair of doves for their purification (cf. Lev 5:7; 12:8; Luke 2:24).
The godlessness in the Temple, which Jesus called His Father’s House, was not that money was changed nor that doves were sold, but that the priestly class was organising the business to improve their status and so were putting God in the service of sin.
13. Here Jesus cites Isa 56:7 and Jer 7:11. It was not so much that worship was rendered impossible by the noise but rather that the worthiness of the Temple was adversely affected by business.
A den of robbers is not the place where robbery takes place but where the thieves lodge.
It would appear from the quotation of the prophetic word (and the appearance of Jesus in general) that the cleansing of the Temple was not a revolutionary act (the Temple Guard would have been summoned if it had been), but a sign, a prophetic demonstration. In it Jesus was pronouncing judgment on the priestly class, which was abusing its calling by engaging in trade and working for its own advantage. Just as in Jer 7:11-15 judgment on the Temple followed v. 11, so here did Jesus lay the foundation for what He would soon say explicitly, see Matt 23:38; 24:2.
14. The blind and the lame came to him … and he healed them. First of all, Jesus proved Himself in the Temple to be the healer of the sick and permitted Himself to be praised as the Son of David in the mouth of children (v.5). Some moments before He had been filled with righteous wrath; now He is filled with compassion. He did not tell those in need to come back at some other time. He stood there among the overturned tables and healed them.
15. the chief priests and the teachers of the law … were indignant. These spiritual leaders were apparently a deputation from the Sanhedrin, the High Council. They were very indignant at what had happened here; not only that Jesus had permitted Himself to be praised as the Messiah, but also at the presence of the lame and the blind in the Temple, which in their opinion was not permitted (cf. 2 Sam 5:8).
the children shouting … Hosanna. In this respect, ‘children’ must have been somewhat older children, as appears from the crying out and the Greek word used (pais = lad, youth). ‘Hosanna’ was not unknown to the children. They were taught it as early as possible during the Feast of Tabernacles, to wave their palm branches whenever they heard the word ‘hosanna’. (SB, I, 853). They repeated the jubilant call the people had used on the previous day (v. 9).
16. “Do you hear what these children are saying?” The spiritual leaders wanted to settle with their question whether Jesus had nothing to do with the outcry or whether He would accept responsibility therefore. They did not dare to summon the Temple guards. It was obvious to them how the crowd of pilgrims saw matters.
‘From the lips of children and infants you have ordained praise’. By quoting Ps 8:2, Jesus gave a clear answer. If God Himself accepted the children’s praise, then they certainly might praise God’s Representative, the Messiah. Jesus declared plainly: the children are right and you are wrong. He also declared by making use of this quotation that the words of Ps 8:2 referred to Him.
17. And he left them and went out of the city. We read in Mark 11:19 that it was Jesus’ custom to leave the city every evening (this is to be seen in the form of the Greek verb), and Luke 21:37 underlines the item.
to Bethany, where he spent the night. Bethany lay on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho, on the southeast side of the Mount of Olives. The place is not mentioned in the OT and only in the Gospels in the NT. Later is was called Lazarium and is now known as El-Azariyeh, in which the name of Lazarus may be heard. It is possible that Jesus spent the nights in Bethany with Martha, Mary and Lazarus (cf. John 11:1).
The Cursing of the Fig Tree 21:18-22
18. Early in the morning. The Greek word (prïas) means ‘very early’ (cf. Mark 1:35 ‘very early in the morning, while it was still dark). Jesus was hungry, which may indicate that He had spent the night out of doors. This was not unusual at Passover-tide.
19. found nothing on it except leaves. Normally the fruit of the fig tree appears forty days after the leaves. On a tree with leaves one may therefore expect to find fruit, after some time, unripe early figs which are also eaten by people in the Middle East. They are the best proof that the tree will bear fruit, in this case when early figs are gathered, at the end of May.
“May you never bear fruit again!” It is unthinkable that He who patiently waited for His daily bread from God (cf. Matt 6:25-34) would curse a tree because He sought fruit on it in vain. What happened here was symbolic, as was the cleansing of the Temple (vv. 12-13), a prophetic sign, in which Jesus declared judgment on Israel (or Jerusalem), which was as an unfruitful tree (cf. Micah 7:1; Hosea 9:16; Matt 3:10;21:41,43;Luke 13:6-9).
Immediately the tree withered. The fig tree did not rot away before their eyes, but from the roots. The next morning the disciples saw that the fig tree had withered (Mark 11:20).
20. “How did the fig-tree wither so quickly?” The disciples were not interested in why Jesus had done this, but in how He had done it. And because they marvelled only at the immediate results of the words, Jesus repeats His assurance from Matt 17:20, that they too, on the condition of a faith without doubt, would possess this unlimited power, and that prayer was the means to obtain it all (cf. Matt 18:19).
21. if you have faith and do not doubt. Jesus did not answer the disciples’ question directly, but pointed out what could happen if they believed without doubting (cf. Matt 17:20). Believing is not just hoping and wishing, but counting on God with steadfast certainty.
you can say to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and it will be done. ‘This mountain’ is the Mount of Olives, and ‘the sea’ is the Dead Sea. Yet Jesus did not mean that the disciples would be able to move mountains in a concrete sense, but He is speaking figuratively and hyperbolically (cf. commentary on 17:20). He promises everyone who believes a share in His authority and in the power of the Kingdom of God, which now becomes visible in having power over demons and diseases, among other things.
22. If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask. Believers have a relationship with God. For this reason it is natural for them to pray. We see here that faith and prayer are linked with unbreakable bonds. Praying must be done in faith, for otherwise it is useless. On the other hand, faith (v. 21) should go with prayer (v. 22), or it will cause faith to go astray.
The Question of Christ’s Authority 21:23-27
23. the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him. Both Mark (11:27) and Luke (20:1) tell that there were scribes present too on this occasion. In any case we are dealing with an official delegation from the Sanhedrin (cf. Matt 2:4;26:3). They did not interrupt Jesus while He was teaching the people, but waited for a pause, during which He walked round the Temple (Mark 11:27).
“By what authority are you doing these things?” … “And who gave you this authority?” The question the religious leaders asked was relevant both to the cleansing of the Temple (vv. 12-14;’are you doing’) and to His teaching in the Temple (‘while he was teaching’). The double form of the question is typically Jewish (cf. Mark 12:14; 13:4; Acts 4:7). The two questions are certainly interrelated but not identical. The first questions the quality of Jesus’ authority: is it that of a scribe, or a prophet, or is it something else again? The second question concerns the source of Jesus’ authority. The authority to instruct on one’s own account could only be given to a rabbi by the laying on of hands (SB, II, 647-649). The deputation’s question was especially suitable as the starting-point for a lawsuit against Him.
24. Jesus replied, “I will also ask you one question. It was a typical rabbinical practice to pose a counterquestion. This did not always mean an attempt to evade the question and avoid a confrontation, but often meant that a question was put which came closer to the heart of the matter and led in the direction of a correct answer, as happened here. The answer is implicit in the question Jesus poses here. His authority rested on what had happened to Him when He was baptized by John (Matt 3:15-17).
25. John’s baptism–where did it come from? Was it from heaven, or from men?” ‘Heaven’ is a periphrasis for the name of God, which it was better not to speak aloud. The counterquestion caused the questioners great embarrassment. They could not admit that John had been sent by God, for why had they not been baptized by him and believed what he had said about Jesus?
26. But if we say, ‘From men’ –we are afraid of the people. If they answered: ‘from men’, they had the crowd to fear. Luke says they were afraid the crowd would stone them (Luke 20:6; cf. John 8:59). For they all considered John to be a prophet sent by God.
27. So they answered Jesus, “We don’t know.” And because the delegation could find no solution to their dilemma, they prefered to take refuge in untruthful ignorance, rather than to speak their conviction openly. When the leaders refused to answer His question, Jesus in His turn refused to answer them. Although He had not done so formally, He had answered them implicitly (see commentary on v. 24).
The Parable of the Two Sons 21:28-32
28. This parable (which is to be found only in Matthew) and the two which follow it, those of the Unjust Tenants (vv. 33-46) and the royal Wedding Banquet (Matt 22:1-14), are connected with what has occurred previously (vv. 23-27).
“What do you think? It is clear that the three parables are intended for the representatives of the Sanhedrin (‘you’ in vv. 28,31 and 43; cf. Matt 22:1,15).
The two sons are both born to the same father.
29. “‘I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went. The first son’s answer, ‘I will not’, shows his self-centredness, for which he is later sorry. The Greek word used for ‘change his mind’ (meta-melomai) is found only five times in the NT, two of which occurrences are in this passage (vv. 29, 32). It is also used for Judas’ repentance in Matt 27:3; Paul’s in 2 Cor 7:8; and God’s in Heb 7:21. The word does not so much speak of repentance for moral errors or sins, but of a change of insight.
30. ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go. The second son says, ‘I will, sir’, very politely. He makes a dutiful impression, but that was superficial, for he did not go. This reminds us of the Israelites’ response to the reading of the Law in Exod 24:7.
Jesus points His critics to themselves: you are like the second son, who humbly said ‘Yes, father’, but then disobeyed him.
31. “Which of the two did what his father wanted?” By letting the delegates of the Sanhedrin answer this question for themselves, they express a judgment on themselves (cf. v. 41).
the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. Jesus also directs his critics towards sinners. For publicans and harlots are indeed those who say ‘No’ to God with their lives (greed and sensuality), but on whom the call to repentance made such a deep impression that they repented and were converted. They are the son who said ‘no’, but repented and went. The publicans (and harlots), whose conversion was impossible according to the scribes, are closer to God than they are, and will enter the Kingdom of God ahead of them. For these sinners came to repentance and did God’s will, while the Pharisees, despite their pious words, refused to be converted.
32. For when John came, showing the way of righteousness (cf. 2 Peter 2:5,21), i.e. God’s will and order, the people and the harlots and the publicans believed him and acknowledged God’s counsel, but the Pharisees and scribes rejected John and with him the counsels of God (Luke 7:29-30).
The Parable of the Unjust Tenants 21:33-46
33. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard. The surrounding hedge and the watchtower served as protection against thieves and animals. The winepress was hewn out of solid rock and consisted of at least two vats or tubs. Grapes were trodden in the upper vat. The juice flowed through a channel into the lower collecting vat. Relating these details emphasises the care with which the vineyard was laid out. In Palestine it was customary to rent out a vineyard for a part of the harvest. The owner’s being abroad explains why he could not gather the yield himself.
The close relationship with the Song of the Vineyard in Isa 5:1-7 (especially v. 2) makes it apparent that Jesus is referring to Israel (cf. Isa 5:7; Ps 80:8; Jer 2:21).
34. When the harvest time approached. The harvest time did not fall in the year of planting but in the fifth year after (Lev 19:23-25). In that year the owner sent servants to collect his share of the harvest.
he sent his servants. We must read ‘prophets’ for ‘servants’ (cf. Amos 3:7; Zech 1:6; Jer 7:25; 25:4). God sent His servants the prophets, both early and late (cf. vv. 34 and 36), but the people did not want to listen to them (Jer 35:15).
35-36. The tenants seized his servants. These verses remind us of the revolutionary mood among Galilean farmers and their attitude towards the Roman occupation forces.
they beat one, killed another, and stoned a third.
The word ‘beat’ (Gk. der) literally means ‘flay’, but it can also mean ‘work to death’, ‘thrash’. Stoning also indicates that by these servants the prophets are meant. Stoning was the end of most of the prophets (2 Chron 24:21; Heb 11:37; Matt 23:37).
37. Last of all, he sent his son to them. Usually someone insulted in this fashion would not dream of sending his son. But the owner wanted to make one more attempt, for he thought ‘They will respect my son’. Here the parable becomes prophetic. Jesus was speaking about Himself, although it is unlikely that His hearers understood this.
38. ‘This is the heir. Come, let’s kill him and take his inheritance’. When the son came, the tenants must have thought that the owner was dead and that the son was coming to claim his inheritance. If we kill the heir, the tenants must have thought, the vineyard will become ‘ownerless property’. Anyone could appropriate such property, the first comer having the greatest right.
The actual situation in the parable does not exclude, of course, but includes the possibility that Jesus was speaking prophetically about the Son of God (see in particular v. 39).
39. they … threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. The tenants seized the son and threw him out of the vineyard, probably in order not to defile the soil with a corpse, thus rendering it unfit for cultivation.
‘And’ in ‘they threw him out … and killed him’ should not be understood as ‘and after that’ (cf. reverse order in Mark 12:8), but as ‘and even’. In Matthew all the emphasis is on the killing.
40-41. the owner of the vineyard … what will he do to those tenants? Jesus poses a rhetorical question (reminiscent of Isa 5:4), whereby the answer is put in the mouth of the hearers. They answer: the owner will come to see to his rights. He will kill the tenants (whether by force of arms or by legal means) and give the vineyard to other tenants. The audience, the representatives of the Sanhedrin, spoke to their own condemnation (cf. v. 31).
42. “Have you never read in the Scriptures: … Jesus now quotes a verse from Psalm 118 to reinforce their own judgment on themselves (v. 41) and to apply it to them. He quotes here Ps 118:22-23, a quotation the first Christians also used. Peter quoted this text too when he and John were summoned before the High Council (Acts 4:11) and further in his first Epistle (1 Peter 2:7).
“‘The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone. With this new image Jesus takes up again the main theme of the parable and expands its prophetic meaning. What the tenants do to the son, the builders do to this important stone. But the Son who was rejected by the leaders of the people will be restored by God and will even become the cornerstone of the new Temple (cf. Matt 16:18; Eph 2:20).
When Jesus quoted this text, it is as if He were saying: ‘You who are so proud of your knowledge of the Word, have you never read this?’
43. the kingdom of God will be taken away from you. Here Jesus speaks to the leaders as representatives of the people. From v. 42 it appears that not only will the leaders be replaced (v.41), but also that a new temple will come. Now Jesus says expressly that Israel will no longer be God’s vineyard (cf. Isa 5:1-7), i.e., will be God’s people, but will be replaced by another people who will accept the message of the Kingdom of God. Here He means the believers among the gentiles (cf. Matt 8:11-12; Acts 13:46-47).
44. He who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces, but he on whom it falls will be crushed.” We have here two images, that of the pot which falls on a stone and is broken, and of a pot on which the stone falls and is crushed. The two images speak of the Lord Jesus as ‘a stumbling block’ (cf. Isa 8:14-15; Rom 9:32 ff; 1 Peter 2:8) and as the destroying stone of judgment (Dan 2:34,35,44, 45; cf. Luke 13:35; 19:43,44; 21:20-24; 23:28-31; Rev 19:11-21). But the same stone that will destroy unbelievers will be the corner-stone of the new Temple, the Church (v.42; Eph 2:20-22).
45-46. they knew he was talking about them … but they were afraid of the crowd. After hearing the two parables, the religious leaders understood clearly who Jesus had spoken about. They would have loved to express their anger by seizing Him, but did not dare to because of the crowd. Compare the situation in v. 26. There, fear for the people made it impossible for them to condemn John the Baptist, here, their fear prevents them from arresting Jesus.