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A Battle of Wit

What does Jesus have to say to the religious leaders in Jerusalem, and what does it mean?

Written by Mike Biolsi on .



Jesus is in Jerusalem, though he and the disciples are camped a little bit outside of the main city. So far the following has happened since his arrival:‌

  • The king’s entry on a foal of a donkey
  • The people waving branches and declaring Jesus the Son of David
  • Jesus cursed a fig tree and it withered
  • Jesus drove out the markets from the temple

‌What a dramatic entrance into the Holy City. A city that was full of chaos because of the masses that had made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem to celebrate the passover. 

During all of this activity, Jesus was spending his days in the temple - the one he just cleared out. He was teaching:

‌Luke 19:47–48 CSB
47 Every day he was teaching in the temple. The chief priests, the scribes, and the leaders of the people were looking for a way to kill him, 48 but they could not find a way to do it, because all the people were captivated by what they heard.

‌Jesus returned to the temple each day to teach. In Luke 20:1 we read that "he was teaching the people in the temple and proclaiming the good news” . 

And, as we learned over the past few weeks, people are not quite sure who this Jesus is and what to do with him. Well, most people don’t know what to do with him; others have plans. Luke makes it very clear that the religious leaders were looking for a way to kill Jesus. Not to silence or arrest, but to kill him. Why? Perhaps because that is the punishment for blasphemy? Perhaps out of pure jealousy or rage? Whether to motives were selfish or altruistic and pious, their final goal was the death of the Nazarene. 

TIME OUT: You and I are on the sidelines for this event. We are a couple thousand years removed from the event, AND, we acknowledge Jesus as the Son of God and therefore the good guy.  But imagine if, some Sunday morning, a stranger from out of town pulled into the parking lot with an line of cars behind him all honking their horns. A man steps out and starts telling the deacons they are not caring for the building properly. After that, he holds a healing service.  Then, he stands on the steps of the church and starts teaching about “the kingdom of heaven” - every day of the week! On top of that, some of the things he is saying about the church leaders is downright disrespectful. He is not a member of our congregation, we do not know his education, all we know is he is offensive to some and adored by others. WHAT WOULD YOU DO IF YOU were the pastor, or the deacon?

With that in mind, let’s imagine ourselves among the smells of burnt offerings, the noise of an over crowded city, the tension of the berated religious leaders and lets read our passage in Matthew 21:

Matthew 21:23–27 LSB
23 And when He entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to Him while He was teaching, and said, “By what authority are You doing these things, and who gave You this authority?” 24 And Jesus answered and said to them, “I will also ask you one thing, which if you tell Me, I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. 25 “The baptism of John was from what source, from heaven or from men?” And they began reasoning among themselves, saying, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ He will say to us, ‘Then why did you not believe him?’ 26 “But if we say, ‘From men,’ we fear the crowd; for they all regard John as a prophet.” 27 And they answered Jesus and said, “We do not know.” He also said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.

‌The Questioning

‌Let me as you a question: do YOU think the Chief priests and elders were out of line to ask the question in verse 23?

‌I do not think that is out of line at all! If you are going to stand in the temple and teach, by what authority to you stand and do that? You are not known, you have obviously not been invited - where did you get your training? Where are you getting all of these “new” ideas? WHY are you OK with people referring to you as the Son of David?

Jesus could have just said, “I have been sent by Yahweh”, but instead, he answered the question with a question - which was a very rabbinic thing to do! Basically, he took the posture of the ones questioning him to avoid the trap. 

And that is what it was. A TRAP. 

The source of Jesus’ authority was the same as that of John. If the leaders would tell Jesus what they believed was John’s authority then Jesus would share where his authority came from. 

ASK: did you catch the part where it mentioned that these leaders KNEW the message of John well enough to KNOW that Jesus was the Messiah John said was coming!

The religious leaders were forced to make a decision. However, their matrix for decision making was very much askew. They did not want to admit one answer because they did not like how that answer would apply to other things. 

“if we way John’s authority was from heaven we have to admit Jesus’ authority was from heaven”

Their other possible answer they did not want to give because they feared the reaction of the people. If we say something that is contrary to the belief of the masses there will be an uprising and a revolt - big trouble, especially with a large crowd in Jerusalem! It might even cause Rome to crack down on them. 

In the end, they refuse to answer the question by saying they do not know. 


1‌. You cannot have a double standard. 

It seems to me, like they WANTED to say: John’s authority was from God but yours is not. However, that would have been a double standard. And for all of their faults, they had that right. They knew they could not pick one set of standards for John and a different set for Jesus. 

You have to be consistent in your convictions and in your application of those convictions and scriptures.  For instance, you cannot say that “black lives matter” or “blue lives matter” and then say that unborn lives don’t matter.  In July of 2019 our state signed a law stating that it is “inhumane” to declaw cats and that it can create physical and behavioral problems for helpless animals. In January of that same year, our state made it legal to terminate the life of an unborn child up to 24 weeks unto the pregnancy - which apparently is not considered “inhumane” for the helpless child in the womb.

While that might seem a bit off topic from our scripture today, I believe the principle is important - the religious leaders knew that they had to be consistent with their judgement and beliefs. We need to be the same way with the way we handle God’s word and culture - we must apply a Bible standard and we must do it consistently. Which leads into our next application:

2. We must act on truth.

‌It is apparent that the leaders were blinded by their anger, or fears or zeal. 

‌It is very possible that we can be blinded by our own prejudices as well as crippled by our own fears. Is it possible in the US to have an opinion about Jesus that is not popular with the masses and because of that some religious leaders and Christians might not want to speak the truth? Is it possible that religious leaders and Christians might be blinded by historical, or perhaps historically bad teachings and be more concerned about protecting those faulty beliefs and their own systems than acknowledging the truth?

WHAT IS YOUR FILTER? tradition? protection? not wanting to upset people? going with the masses? OR is it the Word of God. Matthew, over and over, has quoted the scriptures regarding what Jesus did and said. Why? Because there must be a standard, and the word of God is it. 

What is recorded after this confrontation is a series of encounters and parables targeted at the religious leaders - addressing their unbelief and hard hearts. 

While we could spend months trying to unpack these parables, I want us to spend our time looking at the macro message of each of them and how Matthew has tied them together into this encounter with the religious leaders. 

#1 - the Parable of the 2 sons

Matthew 21:28–32 CSB
28 “What do you think? A man had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘My son, go work in the vineyard today.’ 29 “He answered, ‘I don’t want to,’ but later he changed his mind and went. 30 Then the man went to the other and said the same thing. ‘I will, sir,’ he answered, but he didn’t go. 31 Which of the two did his father’s will?” 

They said, “The first.” 

Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God before you. 32 For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you didn’t believe him. Tax collectors and prostitutes did believe him; but you, when you saw it, didn’t even change your minds then and believe him.

FIRST: did you notice how many times Jesus said “you” or “your”? This is a very directed message to the religious leaders.  This parable is a parable of their unbelief. 

It appears that Jesus KNEW what was in their hearts and discussions as they debated how to answer him. They said, “If we say John’s authority was from heaven, he will say, ‘why did you not believe him?’”. 

SIDE NOTE: In this parable, Jesus accused them of not believing JOHN’s message, not his own. 

Imagine being someone who devoted their lives to the scripture and adherence to the Torah - and now you are told that tax collectors and prostitutes are going to be more acceptable to God than you.  It was scandalous and a tremendous public insult!

This teaching is certainly in line with the upside-down kingdom of God that Jesus had been preaching about where the least is the greatest. They were great not because of their education, pedigree or social status - they were great because they believed.

The religious leaders had a lot to say about obeying Yahweh, but ultimately, they were all talk and no action when John (and Jesus) showed up. 

THE LESSON: Life service is far more important than lip service. 

#2 - the Parable of the Landowner

Where the parable of the brothers attacked the BELIEFS of the religious leaders, this next parable is going to attack their actions. ANOTHER way to consider these two together is that the last parable confronted the religious leaders for what they DID NOT DO (believe the message and repent) and this next one condemns them for what they WILL DO (in killing him).

​Matthew 21:33–46 CSB
33 “Listen to another parable: There was a landowner, who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a winepress in it, and built a watchtower. He leased it to tenant farmers and went away. 34 When the time came to harvest fruit, he sent his servants to the farmers to collect his fruit. 35 The farmers took his servants, beat one, killed another, and stoned a third. 36 Again, he sent other servants, more than the first group, and they did the same to them. 37 Finally, he sent his son to them. ‘They will respect my son,’ he said. 38 “But when the tenant farmers saw the son, they said to each other, ‘This is the heir. Come, let’s kill him and take his inheritance.’ 39 So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. 40 Therefore, when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those farmers?” 41 “He will completely destroy those terrible men,” they told him, “and lease his vineyard to other farmers who will give him his fruit at the harvest.” 42 Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the Scriptures: The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone. This is what the Lord has done and it is wonderful in our eyes? 43 Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruit. 44 Whoever falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; but on whomever it falls, it will shatter him.” 45 When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they knew he was speaking about them. 46 Although they were looking for a way to arrest him, they feared the crowds, because the people regarded him as a prophet.

‌Can you fill in the pieces of the parable?

  • ‌The Landowner  = Yahweh
  • ‌The Servants = The Prophets
  • ‌The Son = Jesus
  • ‌The wicked Tenants = The religious leaders

‌In the last parable Jesus accused the religious leaders of rejecting John’s message and authority. In this parable Jesus is accusing the religious leaders of  rejecting Yahweh, the prophets and the Son (Jesus). 

The actions of the farmers is abhorrent! They had no right to do what they did, and they HAD to know the landowner would retaliate! Jesus is predicting his death, and the religious leaders want to kill him - so this is a message of warning to those leaders, but apparently they do not fear the punishment either?

A question from this parable that we are meant to ponder and meditate on is:

What is the fruit that they were expected to produce? We know it was grapes in this passage, but what does it stand for? 

Perhaps it is repentance? That was John’s message:

Matthew 3:7–10 CSB
7 When he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “Brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8 Therefore produce fruit consistent with repentance. 9 And don’t presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that God is able to raise up children for Abraham from these stones. 10 The ax is already at the root of the trees. Therefore, every tree that doesn’t produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.

This seems to be the most immediate application, especially since the last parable was about believing John’s message. If they believed it, they would have acted on it. Acting on it would have meant repenting and showing the fruit of that repentance. This would also be connected to the fig tree that was cursed because it did not show fruit. 

‌NOTE: I have done some research on growing figs. Did you know that fig trees produce figs very early on in the season? They sit dormant for quite some time - it can be 70-90 days! Then, all of the sudden they swell and ripen in a very short time. Even it was not the season for figs, there should have been fruit! 

‌HOWEVER: this is a parable and there can be many layers to it. Perhaps the fruit is loyal followers of Yahweh? (Matthew 7). Perhaps it is the nations knowing Yahweh and is pointing out that Israel failed to fulfill the Abrahamic promise to be a blessing to the nations? Both of those are things that can be “given” back to Yahweh. 

‌Perhaps it is all of these? Repentance, obedience and disciple making?

‌#3 - the Parable of the Wedding Banquet

‌“Once more”… to Matthew does not mean it came rapid fire right after the others, but rather that it is connected to the other parables. The last two parables have seemed pretty negative. This next one starts out talking about a wedding banquet. Perhaps this one will be a bit more positive?

‌Matthew 22:1–14 CSB
1 Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables: 2 “The kingdom of heaven is like a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. 3 He sent his servants to summon those invited to the banquet, but they didn’t want to come. 4 Again, he sent out other servants and said, ‘Tell those who are invited: See, I’ve prepared my dinner; my oxen and fattened cattle have been slaughtered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding banquet.’ 5 “But they paid no attention and went away, one to his own farm, another to his business, 6 while the rest seized his servants, mistreated them, and killed them. 7 The king was enraged, and he sent out his troops, killed those murderers, and burned down their city. 8 “Then he told his servants, ‘The banquet is ready, but those who were invited were not worthy. 9 Go then to where the roads exit the city and invite everyone you find to the banquet.’ 10 So those servants went out on the roads and gathered everyone they found, both evil and good. The wedding banquet was filled with guests. 11 When the king came in to see the guests, he saw a man there who was not dressed for a wedding. 12 So he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without wedding clothes?’ The man was speechless. 13 “Then the king told the attendants, ‘Tie him up hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ 14 “For many are invited, but few are chosen.”

‌The theme of a wedding should not be new to us, and it will appear again. We should actually expect a theme of a banquet in this section. Why? Because we are talking about the way that the PEOPLE reject both John and Jesus. 

‌Do you remember having this teaching before?

Matthew 11:16–19 CSB
16 “To what should I compare this generation? It’s like children sitting in the marketplaces who call out to other children: 17 We played the flute for you, but you didn’t dance; we sang a lament, but you didn’t mourn! 18 For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon!’ 19 The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.”

In this parable, the king is having a wedding banquet for his son. While there is a lot that can be explored and even debated about the meaning of parts of this parable, there is a main point that stands out and connects with the previous messages.

‌We should start by noting those that are mentioned in the parable:

The king.

There is a form of nobility in each of these parables: the father, the land owner and in this one, the king. 

Those who are invited. 

‌This group ignores the invite of the king. This would naturally include prominent people, his advisors, etc. 

Not just once either! They ignored the invite both times and it says they went back to their fields and businesses - the two ways you would make a living. They chose to go back to work rather than to feast with the king!

Some of them even killed the messengers! What hostility. So the king killed them and destroyed their city. 

NOTE: some believe this was a prophecy of the coming destruction of Jerusalem. 

Everyone else. 

‌These were the people that were not part of the city, not on the original guest list. There were both bad and good people. Jesus has talked about this before (cf 13:24-30 and 13:47-52).

Because it is a parable, there is always a variety of views on the interpretation. Let me as you what YOU think, based upon our studies in Matthew:

Who would you associate with the “invited”? The descendants of Abraham, the religious leaders. Those that are arrogant?

Who would you associate with those “outside the city”? This might be the outcast. lepers, and even Gentiles. Those that are humble - perhaps even children?

What we can say for sure is that those who were at the banquet were the ones who heard the invitation and acted on it. They accepted the kings invitation and went to the banquet. 

While this parable could be foretelling the mission of the disciples to take the gospel to the marginalized and the Gentiles, it could similarly be a called to all of the servants of Yahweh, including you and me, to do just the same. 

‌Jesus is saying that the banquet WILL be full - but not just with Jews, and not just with the elite. His calling is to all who will accept the invitation to celebrate new life with the Son. This is open to everyone! 

These three parables seem to be pretty heavy on judgement. However, I hope you also see the mercy of God in them. Do you realize how many times the religious leaders are given opportunity to confront the truth and repent? Even in the parable of the wedding banquet - those that were invited were invited multiple times. 

Numbers 14:18 CSB
18 The Lord is slow to anger and abounding in faithful love, forgiving iniquity and rebellion. But he will not leave the guilty unpunished, bringing the consequences of the fathers’ iniquity on the children to the third and fourth generation.

‌As we wrap up, we should summarize this:

We need to choose to believe the truth about Jesus and act on it. 

We need to be obedient to the Father.

We need to show the fruit of repentance and also share the gospel to create more fruit

We need to accept the invitation of God to come to him:

‌John 14:6 CSB
6 Jesus told him, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.

‌I pray that you accept the invitation to the banquet - that you accept Jesus as the one chosen by God to take the punishment for your sins, and that you surrender your life in service to the king. 

A Battle of Wit