Matthew 21:23-46, Confronting the Tenant Leaders of David’s City

[October 21, 2012] In the Gospel according to Matthew, Jesus presented Himself to Israel as the presence of the kingdom of the heavens (1:1—4:17), called individuals to Himself through this Gospel (4:18—8:1), sent them out with the Gospel to Israel and the gentiles (8:2—11:1)—even though most people do not receive it (11:2—13:52)—forms His church among the nations out of the Jews and gentiles who do receive the Gospel (13:53—20:28), and will come (again) as King to judge Israel, the church and the gentiles (20:29—25:46). In 26—28 the King accomplishes our salvation by becoming our atonement, realizes the kingdom of the heavens in Himself through His obedience, and effectuates it in Himself and the church through His resurrection.

So, according to this schema, the section 20:29—25:46—in which Jesus enters the city of Jerusalem as the Son of David, passes judgment on it, and declares the destruction of the Temple as God’s reaction—is a typological depiction of the judgment to come when Jesus is manifested in glory, i.e., the end of the age. God judges Israel, the church and the nations in the present course of time, each in their own way, but a day of reckoning will come when we all stand before His judgment seat. Israel will repent when the Messiah is manifested to them; the church will stand before His judgment seat and the believers will be judged individually for their fitness to enter the kingdom (many will not); and the nations will be judged by how they treated His siblings, Israel and the church, even the least of them.

The destruction of the Temple built by Solomon was a sign of God’s judgment, and Israel has lived under that umbrella since those days. In reality, the Temple only symbolized their relationship to YHWH. The sinfulness of the nation that led to the Assyrian and Babylonian exiles was only the manifestation of what was always there. It was the manifestation of the human condition, if truth be told, which is why the judgment against Israel that the prophets spoke of was inseparable from God’s judgment against all the gentiles. It became manifest, but the condition itself was not new: it was there from the beginning, from the days of the tower of Babel, and earlier, the days of Noah, and before that all the way to the emergence of humanity from the Garden of Eden. The exile of Israel symbolizes its existence under the judgment of God, and that exile has continued to this day.

The return of the exiles and the building of the Second Temple were not the end of YHWH’s judgment against Israel but signs of His mercy. They were not the fulfillment of which the prophets spoke. The prophets spoke of the coming of the Messiah, when all Israel would be gathered back to the Land, and the blessing of the Land would come to them. That day has not yet come. That the Second Temple was provisional is signified by the fact of the provisional nature of the priesthood and the fact that the Holy of Holies was empty—the Ark of the Covenant was not there. The rabbis dispute whether it was taken to Babylon and never returned (1 Esdras 1:54) or whether it was hidden at the time and has never been found (2 Maccabees 2:4-8). The destruction of the Second Temple was not more significant than the destruction of the First but a return to the status of Israel after the destruction of the First. Israel is still living in the time of exile described of the prophets.

That Israel is now in the Land again is, like the Second Temple, a sign of God’s mercy. But it is provisional. It is not the fulfillment spoken of by the prophets when the Messiah comes and gathers all Israel. So whether their being in the Land is permanent we can only hope, and pray for the peace of Jerusalem. It is not, as far as I can see, a given, but will depend—as in Jesus’ own day—on their faithfulness to God, as Moses in Deuteronomy makes clear.

What is also clear to me is that the destruction of the Second Temple was not the result of Israel not hailing Jesus as the Messiah. Many in Israel did. Rather it was because of their unwillingness to repent. John the Baptist called them to repentance. Jesus called them to repentance. The church called them to repentance. The rabbis called them to repentance. That they did not recognize “the day of their visitation” (Luke 19:44) means that they did missed the opportunity of the Messiah’s presence among them, the opportunity which He presented of repentance. God visited His people in mercy and they missed it. What was demanded of the vinedressers (the tenant farmers) in the parable of Matthew 21:33-41 was the fruit of the vineyard, not that they recognize the son of the vineyard owner. That they killed the son of the vineyard owner revealed how evil their intentions actually were. They intended to take the vineyard for themselves, even if it meant killing the owner’s son!

That the stewards of the city of Jerusalem—who were meant to “keep” the city for the Son of David and as stewards of the Temple were meant to be the interim shepherds of the Messiah’s people—refused to recognize the Messiah, and in fact handed Him over to the gentiles to be killed, certainly made things worse for them. The punishment or consequence was that they lost the Temple and their stewardship of the people, and indeed, their place in history.

The result was not, however, the Messiah’s abandonment of His people Israel, even though they do not recognize Him. It was YHWH giving the people other leaders. “They said to Him, ‘He will miserably destroy those evil men and will lease the vineyard to other vinedressers, who will give the fruit to him in their seasons.” Jesus agreed: “The kingdom of God shall be taken from you and shall be given to a nation producing its fruit” (Matthew 21:41, 43). Chronologically, the first was the church. Many in Israel believed that Jesus was the Messiah; this was especially true in the East (in Syria, Asia Minor and Parthia). But many did not. After the destruction of the Temple, the Rabbinic movement formed and took the place of the chief priests and Sadducees and the overzealous Pharisees. They in fact were the descendants of the moderate Pharisees, with whom Jesus’ own teachings aligned (apart from His claim with regard to His own Person). Historically, the vineyard—the people of Israel—was given to the Rabbis. According to Jesus this took place under the providence of God, as God’s way of taking care of His people until the day of the Messiah’s manifestation—when He comes in glory, a day for which all faithful Jews long.

This is where I differ from many Christian Bible commentators. This passage, in which Jesus confronts the chief priests and elders (21:23-46), is not about Jesus’ rejection of Judaism. That would be absurd. It is about His condemnation of these leaders. If anything, it is shows the preservation of Judaism under different leaders. Matthew’s gospel shows how the Messiah would become available—as a means of salvation—to the gentiles, in overflowing mercy. Never, however, does Matthew show the Messiah turning away from Israel. The very idea defies the Scriptures. What Matthew does show is that both Israel and the gentiles are under God’s judgment and are dependent on God’s mercy.

Judgment coming on Israel in the form of the destruction of the Temple and its institutions makes way for Israel to take its proper form—living faithfully under YHWH’s judgment, trusting in God’s mercy, as it awaits the Messiah. That is what Rabbinic Judaism is all about. It also makes way for the church, the people of Israel and the gentiles who recognize the coming of Jesus as the “hidden” coming of Israel’s Messiah. He came to atone for the sins of the people so that when He comes in glory He can show them His mercy. He also came to call a people to Himself, and for them He effectively takes the place of the Temple and fulfills its meaning. These people—called out from Israel and the gentiles—will accompany Him when He comes in glory. His coming in glory will be the manifestation of the revelation of who He is, a revelation given now only to those who believe through the Gospel.

Jesus expresses frustration at Israel’s not “beholding” Him, but He does not condemn Judaism or the people of Israel. In fact, He does the opposite. It is given to the church to “behold” Him, and historically they have hardly been more faithful to God with this benefit than Israel has been without it. Historically the church has not recognized that it too stands under the umbrella of God’s judgment in the world. It is in solidarity with Israel in this regard. In our existence in this world, in our lives, we are under God’s judgment just as Israel is. The bearing of the cross that Jesus calls us to is not that we experience God’s judgment—for we all do—but how we do it. The bearing of the cross is our approval of God’s judgment and of the rightness of it and our choosing God’s will in the course of it. It is always denying our soul (which is under God’s judgment) and choosing God’s will—this is what it meant for Jesus as He struggled in the Garden of Gethsemane.

So as we consider this portion of Matthew’s gospel, from the opening of the eyes of the blind to see Him and their welcoming Him into David’s royal city as its King (and Judge), to His confronting the stewards of His city and those left in charge of the well-being of His flock, and His condemning them for their incompetence, hypocrisy and evil ambitions, to His passing sentence on them, and to His depicting a future day when He shall come to judge the earth and all its inhabitants—His people Israel, His church, and the gentiles—we are confronted with the fact of God’s judgment. It is inescapable, both His historic judgment, our appearing before the judgment seat of Christ, and the final appearance of all humanity before the judgment of God.

God sifts the hearts of human beings. We see Him doing this through the Messiah, as He stands before those who would attempt to judge Him. In 21:23-27 (“By what authority do You do these things?”) we see their insincerity and therefore their incompetence. In 21:28-32 (“Which of the two [sons] did the will of the father?”) we see again their insincerity and now their disobedience. In 21:33-46 (the parable of the vinedressers or tenant farmers) we also see their insincerity but also their mutinous ambitions. They are rebels in arms.

The immediate lesson has to do with leadership. What happens when leaders in the church are not impressed enough with the reality of God? In the first case (21:23-27) they “fear the crowd” more than they fear God and do what keeps their own position safe. Churches have long been “fearing the crowd” and following the culture so as not to lose members. As a consequence, they have no real authority. What gives authority to one’s actions is that they are done by the will of God and “in His sight” (with an awareness of God’s presence and oversight). In the second case (21:28-32) they talk the talk but do what they want anyway. They make an impression by their claims, but in reality what they do has no correspondence to what they claim. Churches are organized according to our own designs for our own purposes, but we claim to be acting according to His command. In the third case (21:33-46) they are actually attempting to steal the people of God from God for themselves. Not only do they steal the fruit of the vineyard, they want to steal the vineyard itself. They think that the people of God belong to them. In all three cases there is no spiritual sense that the reality with which we are dealing with in Christ is God Himself. Christ is not just a name or figurehead or icon or symbol or historical figure or example but the living Lord who holds us to account. Either we live for Him or for ourselves (though we may disguise this from ourselves by self-righteously thinking that we are living for others).

However, as we said in the beginning, the whole passage—as is evident when we get to the end in 24—25, especially 25—depicts the Lord’s coming in judgment and our standing before Him to give an account of ourselves. The real question is whether we—each of us—lives in the sight of God, as if God were real, and that what we are and what we do matters to Him and not just to ourselves. This has been a theme that has run from the beginning of Matthew’s gospel and in all the teachings of Jesus. Jesus was absolutely aware of the presence of His Father, and the reality and force of that presence—the Father’s will, the Father’s arrangement of all things, the Father’s provision and protection, the Father’s love. It was not as though Jesus was only aware of an impersonal divine reality (He was of course was very aware of that); but for Him it was all very personal. The Father was a “Thou” to Him and He was a “Thou” to the Father’s “I.”

This was more than the Divine Absolute in relation to the conditional creation. It was the relation of one Person to Another. He is in this relation by virtue of His divinity. We are in this relation by virtue of Him, His addressing us and placing us in Him by virtue of the Holy Spirit. And this is the measure by which we are judged. Not only are we creatures before a beneficent divine Being; we are in Him in personal relation to the Father participating in the Son’s relationship to the Father, though we are also the Son’s bride, in relationship to the Son through the Holy Spirit in union with our spirit moving us from within.

This is the basis on which we are judged. So it is not a “free ride” where we can get all full of arrogance and pride. It is extremely humbling. If we were not in Christ we would be in a fearful place for sure, though we would not know it. But we are secure in Christ. Yet this too is a fearful place to be. Only more so, for in the fathomless love in which we are held we are more aware of Him with whom we have to do.

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