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The Advent Guest Book Sermon Series

Highlighted Text: Matthew 21:23-32  

It is important to remember that Jesus’ confrontation with the “chief priests and elders” at Matt. 21.23–27 follows closely on the heels of His triumphal entry and Matthew’s version of the cleansing of the Temple. These events thus provide the background and motivation for the chief priests’ and elders’ challenge to Jesus: “By what authority are You doing these things? Who gave You this authority?” In asking two questions that center around the authority of Jesus, they rightly recognize the claim to messianic kingship that Jesus’ actions connote. That Jesus’ claim to authority is motivating this confrontation with the chief priests and elders is further confirmed by the fact that their questions are posed while Jesus “was teaching” (v.23), where He was once again no doubt explaining the Scriptures “like one who had authority, and not like their scribes” (Matt. 7.29).

The fact that Jesus reveals his messianic kingship through His actions (“these things,” v.23) as opposed to verbal proclamation is in keeping with His preferred method of self-revelation that is emblematic of His broader ministry. For example, Jesus teaches in parables so that only those whose hearts are open to God can receive His teaching (Mk. 4.10-12) and when imprisoned, John the Baptist sends emissaries to Jesus inquiring whether He is “the One who is to come,” and Jesus responds by saying “Go and report to John…the blind see, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor are told the Good News.” In this way Jesus uses His triumphal entry into Jerusalem (Matt. 21.1–11), the cleansing of the temple complex (21.12–13), and the cursing of the barren fig tree (21.18–22) to show rather than tell that He is the long-anticipated messiah foretold in the Old Testament. Nevertheless, in questioning His authority the elders and chief priests fundamentally miss His true identity, “because looking they do not see, and hearing they do not listen or understand” (Matt. 13.13). In this way, Jesus’ rejection by the chief priests and elders after having just entered Jerusalem as the long-awaited King of Israel prefigures His further and ultimate rejection by “the” chief priest, thus leading to His crucifixion. Here the text is deeply ironic – the One with ultimate authority is rejected and killed by those who reject Him on the basis of their own so-called “authority.”

In answering the questions of the chief priests and elders concerning His authority with a question of His own, Jesus not only maintains His preferred method of His self-revelation, but also refuses to submit to their alleged authority. The content of the question Jesus poses to His antagonists furthers the motif of His authority since John did in fact recognize and submit to Jesus (cf., Matt. 3.14) and so in asking a question about their disposition toward John, Jesus in fact forces the hands of the chief priests and elders in their relation to Jesus Himself. They reject John the Baptist’s role in ushering in the Kingdom of God (21.32, cf., Matt. 3.3, Lk 1.17).

In this way, John the Baptist, a figure highly esteemed with the people who recognized and submitted to the messiahship of Jesus, becomes the fulcrum around which both the narrative of the confrontation and its subsequent parabolic exposition are joined. With His messianic authority having been rejected by the chief priests and elders, Jesus tells the story of two sons presumably under the authority of their Father. When told to go work out in the field, the first son initially rejects the authority of his father, only to later change his mind and submit. On the contrary, the other son is outwardly obedient, feigning verbal obedience, but in the end shows himself to be the one unwilling to bend to the authority of his father.

Unlike the chief priests and elders, tax collectors and prostitutes (21.32) are universally condemned and looked down upon in the cultural milieu of 1st Century Israel, but in repenting, especially at the message of John, they showed themselves to be the true faithful subjects of King Jesus.

Angle for Preaching: The pericope under discussion here offers an opportunity to examine the nature and manifestation of the Kingship and authority of Jesus in the life of a believer. We may attend a church and be involved in its activities, but in the nooks and crannies of our broader lives are we subjecting our will and wants to King Jesus? If we cannot speak to our spouses kindly, treat our children with patience, or refrain from gossiping about co-workers, Jesus is unimpressed with our external religiosity.

Furthermore, it can sometimes be the case that much time, energy, and emotion of the Christian can be dedicated to lamenting how bad the world has become or how wide-spread sin has become in the present culture. However, this passage reminds us that more time and attention should be spent in contemplating our own relation to Jesus and the degree to which our own lives reflect His Kingship rather than how little the lives of others might.

Jeff Volkmer<br />

Jeff Volkmer has served in a wide variety of both academic and pastoral positions over his 25-year career in ministry, with most of these spent as a professor of Old Testament and Semitic Languages.

Jeff has a passion to help others see the wonder and beauty of the Scriptures in a way that allows them to know the Lord more fully and love Him more deeply, and simply put, to help make the Bible make sense to believers and non-believers alike. He holds a ThM in Old Testament from Dallas Theological Seminary and is in the final stages of a doctorate in Semitic Linguistics from the University of Oxford.

Sermon Resources

Key Quote

But be doers of the word and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.

James 1:22

Key Illustration

Not Heeding the Call

Just the other day, I was out on a bike ride for some exercise. Because I work for a high-end cycling company, I had the opportunity to test ride one the bikes we make – a bike that comes with a price tag well in excess of the car I drive!

As I was riding along, I noticed a man on the side of the bike path, tucked away amongst some bushes to be out of the way of the other cyclists zooming by. He had his bike upside down beside him, no doubt due to a mechanical issue, and arrayed around him were the contents of a backpack – four water bottles, a flannel shirt, and most conspicuously, a small, foot-activated tire pump.

As soon as I quickly surmised that he most likely had a flat tire, I could also tell that he was probably homeless. His skin was a deep purple, the result from countless hours in the sun and his clothes did not at all match one out for an exercise along the bike path. He was probably in his mid-fifties and was crunched down beside his bike in the trees, trying to get some shade while reading what appeared to be the instruction booklet for the bike pump he had out near his bike, probably trying to figure out how to put it to use to fix what was likely his only source of transportation.

I was able to take this all in as I rode by and it was only about 20 yards later that I stopped my bike and put everything that I saw together in my mind. Having spent a good bit of my life as a bike mechanic, I was uniquely positioned to be able to help him and felt a tug to turn around to see what I could do.

However, as I paused for moment just up the road to ponder my next move, the excuses and justifications began. I started to consider the price of the bike that I was on and the state of the person I was about to help. What if he recognizes the wild value of my bike and tries to mug me? Crime is up everywhere and what if he has a weapon in that backpack? What will my company do if I end up getting their bike that I was out testing stolen? What if he is high on drugs and is going to try to do something erratic to me?

In the end, I talked myself out of helping him and continued on my way, leaving the man behind. Not long into that ride, my mind began to drift over to my preparing for this very lectionary guide and Jesus’ words in His parable hit me like a ton of bricks: “Which of the two did his father’s will?”

I may be a pastor and have degrees in biblical studies, but I couldn’t submit to the authority of the very King that I spend so much time writing and talking about.

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