The sequence of events so far in this final week of Jesus’ earthly life include the following:
Sunday – Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a donkey colt in fulfillment of prophecy, identifying him as Messiah. It is late in the day, and Jesus looks around in the temple (Mark 11:11), probably noting with sorrow the ending of the day’s sacrifice buying and selling activity. He then returns to Bethany.
Monday morning – On his way to Jerusalem, Jesus sees a fig tree. Being hungry and with the tree in leaf, he looks for figs. Not finding any, he makes it an object lesson for his disciples of what he had witnessed in temple—religiosity without fruit. Jesus condemns the tree as he would soon condemn the Hebrew religious leaders.
Monday in Jerusalem – Jesus enters the temple finding the sacrifice selling activity in full swing. Angered over the religiosity with no heart, he overturns tables and drives out moneychangers, animals, and animal sellers. Later he sits and heals the blind and lame. He also receives from the children additional hosannas as Son of David—Messiah. He returns to Bethany for the evening.
On Tuesday morning, Jesus and his disciples return to Jerusalem. They follow the same road the leads from Bethany (just to the east of the Mount of Olives) over the Mount of Olives, down through the Kidron Valley, and back up to Jerusalem. Taking the same road, they again pass by the fig tree that Jesus condemned for its fruitlessness the previous morning. Remember, Matthew merges both mornings in his recording of the incident in chapter 21 verses 18-22. It is from the account in Mark 11 that we learn this event actually took place over two mornings.
The disciples notice that the tree has totally died, and they ask Jesus, “How did the fig tree wither at once?” (21:20). Jesus’ answer may at first seem a bit strange. He does not immediately recount for them the spiritual significance and his use of the tree as an analogy for the fruitlessness of the Jewish leaders. Instead, he seems to use the incident to discuss the wielding of faith as a tool to accomplish physically miraculous events. It is as if he is saying, “You think making this tree die is something? You yourselves could cause even greater miraculous events like tossing mountains into seas if you just focus your faith.” But this cannot be Christ’s intent. It doesn’t fit the context of the moment, the chapter, Matthew’s stream of events, or God’s purpose for creation and reconciliation. But if that was not Christ’s intent, what exactly was Jesus talking about?
This is a complex issue—not so complex as to his intent, but complex in how we must approach the passage to gain the right understanding. First, let’s take a look at Mark’s account. Remember Mark separates the mornings so that we see the condemnation of the fig tree on Monday morning and the discussion of it on Tuesday morning after the tree appeared withered. The events recorded in Mark so far for this week form a chiasm. (Remember, a chiasm is a literary structure in which ideas are placed in a pattern to provide emphasis. The pattern links the first idea presented with the last, the second idea with the second to last, and so on. The middle idea is often the conclusion of the ideas or the idea to which the others point.)
Mark’s chiasm is as follows.
– Triumphal Entry (Mark 11:1-11)
—— Fig Tree Condemnation (Mark 11:12-14)
———– Temple Cleansing (Mark 11:15-19)
—— Fig Tree Lesson (Mark 11:20-26)
– Authority Questioned (Mark 11:27-33)
Notice that the first and last events concern the authority of Jesus as Messiah. The next two events provide both what is wrong in the old covenant life of the Jews (the condemnation of fruitlessness) and what should be instead—God’s intent in establishing the covenant (relationship with God and others of the covenant community). These two events (ideas) lead to the middle event (idea)—judgment (the rejection of national Israel due to their covenant failures). So the progression is Authority – Relationship broken – Judgment.
Now let’s move back to Matthew. In Matthew’s account we also have a chiasm. But since the events recorded are slightly different in order (e.g., Matthew combines the two mornings dealing with the fig tree), the chiastic emphasis is different.
– Triumphal Entry (Matthew 21:1-11)
—— Temple Cleansing (Matthew 21:12-14)
———— Praise and Glory (Matthew 21:15-17
—— Fig Tree Lesson (Matthew 21:18-22)
– Authority Questioned (Matthew 21:23-27)
First, let’s look at the middle event that provides the conclusion of the chiasm’s direction—Praise and Glory. In Matthew 21:15-17 we read that the children (most probably those of the adults who had hailed Christ as Messiah during his Sunday entrance to Jerusalem) are gathered in the temple repeating the chant of the previous day. They call out “Hosanna (a cry for salvation), Son of David (the recognized title of the Messiah).” The Jewish leaders are upset that Jesus is not silencing the children, seemingly accepting this appellation. They come over to him and say, “Do you hear what these are saying?” Jesus confirms that he does hear the children, and by so doing, he confirms again that he is declaring himself to be the Messiah. Notice that the priests and scribes are upset because they understand this to be a call for the Messiah. So when Jesus answers, “Yes,” they also understand that Jesus is saying he is the Messiah.
In his answer, Jesus quotes Psalm 8:2, agreeing with the Psalmist that out of the mouths of children praise is prepared. The Hebrew Old Testament actually uses the word oz or strength rather than praise. Jesus, however, is quoting the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew OT, and the Septuagint uses the Greek word ainos (praise). So why does the Septuagint change from strength to praise? And why does Jesus quote the Septuagint rather than the inspired Hebrew text? Probably because the Hebrew word for strength contains more than just the thought of physical force. The strength there implies the power of majesty and splendor (which fits in well with Psalm 8). The same Hebrew word is translated as power (ESV) in Habakkuk 3:4 which reads, “His brightness was like the light; rays flashed from his hand; and there he veiled his power.” What is the power (strength or oz) being veiled? It is the splendor of God’s brightness and majesty. Thus the Septuagint shows the emphasis on God’s majesty and glory in Psalm 8, a connotation we miss when translating the Hebrew into the English as merely the word strength.
The point of Christ’s reply in quoting the Psalm is to emphasize the glory that is due the Messiah. Therefore, in Matthew’s chiasm the first idea (from the Triumphal Entry and Authority Questioned events) is again authority. The second idea, however, brings together the right relationship and how it was broken (Mark’s idea #2) with the judgment of the temple cleansing (Mark’s idea #3). Finally, Matthew’s middle and therefore concluding event/idea is the praise and glory to the Messiah that will come as he fulfills the old covenant and institutes the new. Thus, the progression for Matthew is Authority – Judgment – Praise and Glory.
Now we can go back to Jesus’ answer to the disciples concerning their amazement over the withered fig tree. He is not just telling them they can use their faith as a Star Wars type force to move objects with their minds. He is saying that faith in God—trust in God and his purposes—will accomplish more than mere withered fig trees used as an analogy to the rottenness of the Jewish leaders’ mangling of covenant relationship. Faith in God for them (who would be at the forefront of the battle when Christ soon leaves the earth) will be able to move “this mountain” and cast it into the sea. To which mountain does Christ refer? They are standing on the Mount of Olives, but looking straight ahead across the low Kidron valley to the mountain that rises in front of them on which Jerusalem and the temple sit. Jesus is telling them through this discussion of faith exactly what the fig tree analogy is supposed to represent—the removal of the Jewish leaders’ covenant failure (that mountain) from the progress to the New Covenant and its ultimate praise and glory of Christ as ruling King of kings.
So then they leave the fig tree Tuesday morning and continue to Jerusalem and enter the temple. Now, what do you think was happening at the temple that morning? Probably the day before, after Jesus left, they started picking up the tables, rounding up the animals, grumbling about who does that guy think he is, and where are the police when you need them. On Tuesday, then, they were probably back to temple business as usual, selling sacrifices. But imagine the scene Tuesday when Jesus walked in the temple. I imagine the bustle and noise of everything going on became suddenly stilled. Everyone stares at him, wondering if he’s going to go into a rage again. But this time Jesus continues teaching. Jesus was always teaching, and he was probably teaching on the way, as they entered, and he’s just continuing teaching. Maybe the background noise slowly started up again as Jesus doesn’t seem this time to be on the attack. But someone had run off to tell the chief priests that he was back. And next we see a group of priests and elders cross the courtyard together, stepping quickly with angry looks on their faces, as they march up to Jesus. And as they are marching toward him, the rest of the moneychangers are probably breathing easier—okay, the police are here. They’ll take care of him.
The priests and elders stop in front of Christ. Their hands are on their hips. They demand, “By what authority are you doing these things, and don’t just tell us God. We are the priests. We mediate between the people and God. So who gave you this authority?” Again, people are probably quiet, listening. Jesus says, “Let me ask you a question first. Answer this, and I’ll answer you. Speaking of authority, tell me about John’s baptism—what was the authority for that? Did it come from heaven (God) or from man?”
No one says anything at first. Remember, they are staring angrily at him with hands on hips. They are in control. They are the priests. They are the authorities. They want answers. Jesus asks them this question, and probably several seconds pass in silence with everyone watching until one of them says, “Okay…just…just a second.” And they step back a couple of steps, huddle and whisper. They can’t answer, “From God,” because then people would want to know why they didn’t follow John. They can’t answer, “From man,” because that would erode their authority with the people. Finally, they turn back to Jesus, still with angry faces and hands on hips, and reply, “We don’t know.”
I would think Jesus didn’t respond immediately. He probably nodded his head for a second to let that answer sink in to everybody around. These people—the authorities of their religion, the mediators of the covenant with God, the caretakers of the temple and the experts of the law—say that they don’t know whether John’s message was from God.
Jesus tells them, “You don’t know? Well, neither am I going to tell you by what authority I do these things.” So why didn’t Jesus tell them? He had made sure he rode in as Zechariah foretells to declare himself as the Messiah. He accepted the hosannas of the people. Why does he not say his authority is from God, declaring himself as God’s Messiah for his people?
I think he doesn’t tell them because he’s not wrapped up only in the details of the scene. He knows God’s purpose. Christ did not bring up John the Baptist as a random thought. Jesus is emphasizing John’s baptismal activity and message. John declared himself to be the forerunner of Messiah. The Jewish leaders did not believe John. They did not accept God’s authority since it had not come through them. They wanted to hold the authority. By not answering, Christ controlled the event. By not answering, he said, “You have no right to act as an authority over me.” Think how the people saw this. The chief priests, the supposed authorities, demand an answer. Jesus says no. That shows more than anything that Jesus did not consider them authorities.
And then what does Jesus proceed to do? He actually proceeds to answer them, but he speaks in parables. And the parables are for the benefit of those who trust in him. The first parable relates to John’s ministry as forerunner. The second parable relates to Christ’s ministry as Messiah.
In the first parable, the second son represented the Jewish leaders who said they follow God but actually were in it for themselves (the same message as that of the fig tree). The other son, the one who did do the will of the father, represents those sinners who repented when John preached his kingdom message.
In the second parable, the tenants (the corrupt Jewish leaders) ignore the ownership and purpose of the vineyard. They want it for themselves. The messengers of the master are the prophets that God sent to correct them but whom they ignored. The master’s son (the Messiah) comes and they kill him. The master will take the vineyard (covenant relationship) away from them and give it to others (all those of faith through the New Covenant).
Verse 45 is humorous. The Pharisees and chief priests “perceived that he was speaking about them.” Christ used very direct language to tie them to the evildoers in the parables, but even so, they were just on the edge of understanding.
Verses 45-46 are there, I think, to give us a slight scene change. It seems that the religious leaders leave at this point to go discuss what to do with Christ. The next parable is more for Christ’s followers than the religious leaders (although they are still part of the story).
In this third parable, a king has invited guests to the marriage feast of his son. Those guests had accepted the invitation (participated in the old covenant). But when the time for the feast arrives, they ignore the king’s request. The king destroys them (ends the covenant with them). He then proceeds to issue a call to any anywhere (Gentiles and Jews alike) to come to the feast, and the wedding hall fills. One that came did not wear wedding clothes (a special garment identifying him with the wedding festivities, which symbolizes faith in Christ or salvation). The king does not accept him. And the final teaching is that many are called, but few are chosen (22:14). Christ’s point in telling this to the throngs around him is to let them know that they must have faith in how he, the Messiah, will save if they want relationship with him.
During the telling of the third parable, the Jewish leaders had time to plan an attack. They would try either to have Christ arrested by perceived rebellion to Rome or to discredit him as one who did not know and could not argue God’s law well.
First, the Herodians approach him. These are Jews who were interested in supporting conformance to Rome. They ask whether the Jews should pay taxes. If Jesus answers yes, the people would be disillusioned with a Messiah who pays homage to Rome. If Jesus answers no, the Herodians would accuse him to the Roman officials as a rebellious zealot. But Jesus answers by asking whose inscription is on the coin for the tax. When they answer that it is Caesar’s, Jesus says to give Caesar the things that are Caesars and to give God the things that are Gods. In other words, there is only one kingdom, and it is Christ’s. But the rulers and powers that be are ordained of God. Live in this world as its citizen but be sure to give yourself to God.
The Herodians, who could not find fault with his answer, leave. The Sadducees replace them and ask Jesus a question. The Sadducees did not believe in a bodily resurrection. Therefore, they concoct a ridiculous situation concerning the Law’s requirement to marry a brother’s widow and a certain family of seven brothers who died in turn, each having to marry the same woman in order after the death of each brother. They want to know whose wife she will be in the resurrection since all had her as a wife on earth. Jesus replies that there is no giving of marriage in heaven. In other words, the legal and ritualistic establishment of the institution of marriage will not exist. This is not, I think, to say that there will be no special relationships. We will still be people in limited bodies. We will still have personalities that relate best to others of us with similar personalities. So special relationships will exist. However, in the resurrection, we won’t manufacture relationships as we did on earth. The fuller focus of relationship among all kingdom heirs will be so enhanced as to destroy the separatist image that we have of marriage. Exactly how everything works out—I don’t know. But we do know that Jesus had a closer relationship with John than with other disciples. Therefore, I think we may assume that we will have special relationships in the resurrection.
The point, however, is not a teaching on relationship, but rather that the Sadducees were wrong both in their question and in their assumption that there would be no resurrection. Christ first showed them how their question was no argument, and then he dismantled their whole belief structure by pointing out that God is the God of the living, and if God is the God of Abraham, Abraham must be alive.
Finally the Pharisees approach Christ with a legal expert to argue the Law. “Which law is greatest?” they ask him, thinking they have the expertise to argue against whatever Jesus proposes. But Christ gives the two commandments on which all the Law hinges—the two ideas behind all creation, reconciliation, covenant institution, and restoration. Jesus say to love God and to love others. Everlasting love relationship is the purpose for our existence. The Pharisees could not argue with him.
After silencing all these groups, Christ then asks his own question. The Messiah would be an offspring of David. A father is always considered due more honor than his son. David was Israel’s greatest king. But David refers to the Messiah as Lord. Why would David be referring to his offspring as Lord? The Pharisees had no answer. They didn’t know that the Messiah would not only be David’s offspring, but would be God himself.
And no one, we are told, dared ask him any more questions.