Matthew 21:23-32— 23 And when he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came up to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” 24 Jesus answered them, “I also will ask you one question, and if you tell me the answer, then I also will tell you by what authority I do these things. 25 The baptism of John, from where did it come? From heaven or from man?” And they discussed it among themselves, saying, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ 26 But if we say, ‘From man,’ we are afraid of the crowd, for they all hold that John was a prophet.” 27 So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.
28 “What do you think? A man had two sons. And he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ 29 And he answered, ‘I will not,’ but afterward he changed his mind and went. 30 And he went to the other son and said the same. And he answered, ‘I go, sir,’ but did not go. 31 Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you. 32 For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him. And even when you saw it, you did not afterward change your minds and believe him.
In the name of Jesus. Amen.
“What gives You the right? Where do You get Your authority?” The chief priests and elders want to know why Jesus thinks He can do all the things He has been doing.
Well, what has Jesus been doing? In last week’s text, Jesus was teaching in parables, but today’s text moves Jesus’ story late into the 4th quarter. We have jumped ahead to Tuesday of Holy Week – in three days Jesus will be hanging on the cross. So what has Jesus done in the last few days that has the chief priests and elders upset? If you look at Matthew and Mark together you get a sense of the timeline. Mark (11:1-27) gives us a sense of how time has passed (Matthew, as he writes, isn’t as concerned about letting us know what happened on what day).
Jesus entered Jerusalem on Sunday riding a donkey while the crowds welcomed Him waving palm branches, laying their cloaks on the road before Him, and shouting, “Hosanna! Save us now, Lord! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!”
On Monday, Jesus enters the Temple again and causes quite a scene. He drives out the people who are selling and buying animals with a whip, and He overturns the tables of the money changers. You might think after causing such a scene, Jesus would want to abscond, to slip out to a quiet alley. But instead He stays in the Temple healing the blind and lame while children cry out, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” And Jesus doesn’t tell the kids to be quiet and reverent. Instead, He accepts their praise. None of this goes over well with the leaders. They don’t like it one bit and are trying to figure out how to destroy Jesus.
Now our text picks up on Tuesday. Jesus is in the Temple again. The chief priests and elders of the people, the spiritual leaders, walk up to Jesus and ask Him, “What gives Jesus? Who do You think You are? Why are You doing all these things? This is our turf. We get to say how things are supposed to be done here. We told the money changers and sellers they could be here. Why do You think you can drive them out and change how we do things? By what authority do You do all this?”
Jesus responds, “I also will ask you one question, and if you tell me the answer, then I also will tell you by what authority I do these things.” Jesus asks, “The baptism of John, from where did it come? From heaven or from man?”
The answer to the leaders’ question is the answer to Jesus’ question. The source of John’s authority was the source of Jesus’ authority. If they answer Jesus’ question right, then they will have answered their own question.
But these spiritual leaders huddle up and discuss how to respond, and they realize they have a problem. If they answer, “From heaven,” Jesus will say, “If John’s message was from heaven, why didn’t you believe John? He told people to believe in Me. John himself said that I was the one mightier than he was. He said that I am the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. If John came from God, why don’t you believe Me?” But these leaders also realize that if they answer, “From man,” the crowds will be upset because they believed that John was a prophet. Gobs of people from all over the country believed John’s preaching which called for repentance, and they went to him to be baptized (Mk. 1:5). If the leaders say that John’s baptism was only from man, the crowds will hate them.
So they decide to answer with a humble-sounding lie, “We don’t know.” So Jesus tells them, “Than neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.”
But Jesus doesn’t let them off the hook. Jesus traps the leaders with another question. But He doesn’t trap them to condemn them; instead, He traps them to bring them to repentance. Jesus asks a question with a mini-parable, “What do you think? A man had two sons. He said to them both, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ The first son said, ‘I will not go,’ but later changed his mind (lit. ‘repented’) and went. The second son said, ‘I will go,’ but he did not go. Which of the two sons did the will of his father?”
The leaders know the answer – it’s elementary, it’s obvious. “The first. The one who said he would not go but then repented and went.” With this right answer, Jesus has them right where He wants them. He says, “Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you. John came to you in the way of righteousness preaching repentance. But you did not believe him – you did not repent. But the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him and repented. And even when you saw it, you did not afterward change your minds (lit. ‘repent’) and believe him.”
Let’s leave Jesus and the leaders for now. What does this mean for you?
Who do the characters in the parable represent? The father is God, the two sons are believers and unbelievers. To work in the vineyard is to do the will of God. That doesn’t mean to fly straight and obey all of God’s commandments. To do the will of God is to repent of everything you do because what you do always falls short of God’s command. God sent John and Jesus preaching telling people what His will was – “Repent.” Jesus said that God’s will is that everyone look to Jesus and believe in Him for eternal life (Jn. 6:40). Without repentance and faith you will never do the will of the Father. Instead, you will watch as tax collectors and prostitutes, as all sinners, enter the reign of heaven ahead of you.
It doesn’t matter how good you are, you are still a sinner. And sinners, all sinners, the worst of the worst sinners, enter the reign of God only because of repentance and faith in Jesus. Abandoning your works and efforts is the only way into the reign of God. Jesus is the Lamb of God who has taken away the sin of the world.
Jesus has authority from God. And Christ used His authority to take your sins and make them His own (2 Cor. 5:21; 1 Pet. 2:24). He suffered, bled, and died for those sins. As far as God is concerned, you have never sinned at all because of Jesus’ sacrifice.
So, repent, believe. Enter the reign of God on the basis of Jesus’ authority to forgive you because He has forgiven you. All of you. Amen.
The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen