The religious leaders asked Jesus for evidence regarding His authority. It was after some incidents at the temple. He responded by telling them parables. But let’s first look at what led up to that moment as recorded in Matthew chapter 21. Remember, these are the Israelites; their foremost authority was Scripture, followed closely behind by the religious leadership. Now here is the evidence that He had given them in the preceding hours.
Jews from all over the world came to Jerusalem to observe Passover. On the first day of the feast, everyone in the nation put their sacrificial lamb on display to show that it was spotless and worthy of covering sins. That day, God also put His Lamb on display –the righteous One who would take away the sins of the entire world (Matthew 21:1-3).
He arrived riding on a donkey –fulfilling the prophecy in Zechariah chapter 9 that identified Him as Israel’s new king (Matthew 21:4-5). The crowds acknowledged Him with praise (Matthew 21:7-11). It was the “Triumphal Entry” of the King. (In just a few day He would triumph over sin and death.)
Later in the day Jesus went to the temple. There He confronted the entire religious system. Men were selling animals and changing money –but even worse was the fact that what they were doing was accepted by the religious leaders. Quoting Scripture –speaking on God’s behalf– He condemned them all (Matthew 21:12-13).
Those authoritative Scriptures contained a prophecy in Isaiah which says that God Himself would appear to them (Isaiah 35:3-6). They would recognize Him by His healing of the blind, the deaf, and the lame (Matthew 21:14-15). Another prophecy said that their own children would recognize and praise Him (Psalm 8:1-2).
The very Scriptures that the religious leaders used to justify their position also revealed Jesus to be their Messiah.
Then there’s the incident with the fig tree. It’s one of the most mistaught symbolic figures. The fig tree applies to Israel but it does not represent Israel! Let me explain.
The account is found in two of the gospels –and it is slightly different in each one (Matthew 21:18-22, Mark 11:12-14, 20-25). The main thrust is the same however. Jesus looked to see if it had any fruit –but all He found was leaves and no fruit. He cursed the tree and it withered. His disciples were amazed and He told them that they could do even more if they had faith.
So what does the fig tree represent? It’s a reference back to Genesis 3. That’s where mankind attempted to cover his sin (unrighteousness) with fig leaves. It represents self-righteousness. Following laws and religious traditions to be on good terms with God has never worked. God has always required man to live by faith in what He has provided. In the garden, God had to provide something better than fig leaves to take care of sin –He used the skin of a sacrificed animal. Payment of sin has always involved death –spilled blood.
Jesus was looking for fruit –works resulting from living by faith. There is no fruit –”fruit of the Spirit”– where self-righteousness is concerned. In this allegory, Jesus was merely retelling what had been declared so many times in the Scriptures.
He had been challenged to justify His authority to men –as if they had any authority that had not been given to them by God. They had changed the purpose of the Law. It was presented to show their unrighteousness and need for dependence on God. They used it in an attempt to be righteous without God. It would only be a very few days and He would be the sacrifice that was required to remove the curse of sin. Then Jesus would become the eternal High Priest and usher in a new law. This is so clearly described in the New Testament –particularly in the book of Hebrews. (Read the Old vs. New Covenant to see this.)
In the previous passage where Jesus caused a fig tree to wither, the disciples were told that they would be able to do even more. . . More than what? Move mountains into the sea! As far as what is written, there have not been any accounts of disciples doing that. But what they did –and we too can do– is proclaim that the way to God is through His Son.
How is that more than what Jesus did? He was only able to tell what was going to happen –just like the Scriptures foretold. We can tell what actually did happen! Jesus was crucified on the cross, descended into death, and on the third day was raised to life again. The disciples preached that message then and we can do it too!
How is that like moving a mountain into the sea? Mountains represent huge authorities in this world. The sea represents death. By preaching the gospel, we are putting an end to worthless traditions of legalism that have always stood against man’s gaining access to God. He welcomes us through His Son.
Jesus was asked to prove His authority.
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?”
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. John’s baptism—where did it come from? Was it from heaven, or from men?”
They discussed it among themselves and said, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will ask, ‘Then why didn’t you believe him?’ But if we say, ‘From men’—we are afraid of the people, for they all hold that John was a prophet.”
So they answered Jesus, “We don’t know.”
Then he said, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things. (Matthew 21:23-27)
They wanted to use His own words to denounce Him. So He gave them the same treatment by asking them a simple question. John had been baptizing and through that baptism, John announced that Jesus was the long awaited “Lamb of God.” If they answered that the message was from God, then their leadership would be ended and Jesus would take over their place. If they answered that Jesus was merely a man and John’s message was false, then the people would rebel against them. Either way, they would lose the respect of their followers and supporters.
This parable and the one following use the setting of a vineyard. The purpose of a vineyard is to produce fruit of the grapevine –wine. And wine always represents blood. First, the grapes must grow up and become mature. At just the right time, they are picked, and crushed, and stored, and drank. When the process is done perfectly, a perfect wine is produced. At the last supper, Jesus told us that we must drink His blood. We are reminded to do this in remembrance of Him. It is through His death that we were reconciled to God. The bread is a reminder of His body of which all of us Christians are a part.
“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.’
“‘I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went.
“Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go.
“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. 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. (Matthew 21:28-32)
Working in the vineyard is doing God’s work. The first son was a rebel who later came to his senses and did what was asked. He is like all of us Christians. We started out in life doing only what satisfied our selfish desires. And after realizing that is far from what God wants, we gradually learn to do things His way –learn to live by faith.
The second son said that he would do all that was required of him. He followed the Ten Commandments and all of the traditions. But he did not accept Jesus to gain life and godliness. This son was religious, but did not please God. The only way to please Him is by trusting that what was done through His Son is sufficient. That relationship is one of faith, not works.
Like the previous parable, this setting is a vineyard; however in this one, we have more pictures to consider. The vineyard has a wall and a tower and it has a winepress. There are tenants who were to take care of the vineyard and share in its bounty. There’s the owner, his servants and his son.
Most of the story is straight forward.
“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. When the harvest time approached, he sent his servants to the tenants to collect his fruit.
“The tenants seized his servants; they beat one, killed another, and stoned a third. Then he sent other servants to them, more than the first time, and the tenants treated them the same way. Last of all, he sent his son to them. ‘They will respect my son,’ he said.
“But when the tenants saw the son, they said to each other, ‘This is the heir. Come, let’s kill him and take his inheritance.’ So they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him.
“Therefore, when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?”
“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 at harvest time.”
Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the Scriptures: “‘The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; the Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes’?
“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. He who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces, but he on whom it falls will be crushed.”
When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard Jesus’ parables, they knew he was talking about them. They looked for a way to arrest him, but they were afraid of the crowd because the people held that he was a prophet. (Matthew 21:33-46)
The owner of the vineyard is our heavenly Father. He planted it –all of creation– to produce a people that would love Him the way He loved all mankind. He built a wall around it to protect it –the Law. He built a watch tower to look into the distance to see what was coming –the conscience. He built a winepress to complete the harvest –the Judgment.
He entrusted it to tenants –people who would share the benefits with Him. The Father sent messengers to remind them of their role –the prophets. They maligned some and killed the others. He gave them one last chance by sending His Son to clearly state their position. They killed Jesus.
The tenants were the religious leaders of Israel. After the death of His Son, He choose another people to be caretakers of His vineyard. The ones who live by the Spirit.
Jesus presented His message so clearly to the religious leaders that they knew it was time to kill Him. And upon His death, a new era began. Now it’s the Ecclesia –the “called out ones”– who spread His good news. It’s composed of both Jews and Gentiles. It’s not a group or assembly that meets in a specific place and follows certain ways. Rather, it’s us –the body and bride of Christ who tell the world “Jesus is the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Him.” (John 14:6) “The world was reconciled through the death of His Son. We are His ambassadors telling men that God no longer holds men’s sins against them. Jesus became our sacrifice so that we might have the righteousness of God.” (from 2 Corinthians 5:17-21)