Jesus Versus The Den of Robbers, Part Two

Matthew 21:18-46

Matthew 21:18-46:

18 Now in the morning, as He returned to the city, He was hungry. 19 And seeing a fig tree by the road, He came to it and found nothing on it but leaves, and said to it, “Let no fruit grow on you ever again.” Immediately the fig tree withered away.

20 And when the disciples saw it, they marveled, saying, “How did the fig tree wither away so soon?”

21 So Jesus answered and said to them, “Assuredly, I say to you, if you have faith and do not doubt, you will not only do what was done to the fig tree, but also if you say to this mountain, ‘Be removed and be cast into the sea,’ it will be done. 22 And whatever things you ask in prayer, believing, you will receive.”

23 Now when He came into the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people confronted Him as He was teaching, and said, “By what authority are You doing these things? And who gave You this authority?”

24 But Jesus answered and said to them, “I also will ask you one thing, which if you tell Me, I likewise will tell you by what authority I do these things: 25 The baptism of John—where was it from? From heaven or from men?”

And they reasoned 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 men,’ we fear the multitude, for all count John as a prophet.” 27 So they answered Jesus and said, “We do not know.”

And He said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.

28 “But what do you think? A man had two sons, and he came to the first and said, ‘Son, go, work today in my vineyard.’ 29 He answered and said, ‘I will not,’ but afterward he regretted it and went. 30 Then he came to the second and said likewise. And he answered and said, ‘I go, sir,’ but he did not go. 31 Which of the two did the will of his father?”

They said to Him, “The first.”

Jesus said to them, “Assuredly, I say to you that tax collectors and harlots enter the kingdom of God before you. 32 For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him; but tax collectors and harlots believed him; and when you saw it, you did not afterward relent and believe him.

33 “Hear another parable: There was a certain landowner who planted a vineyard and set a hedge around it, dug a winepress in it and built a tower. And he leased it to vinedressers and went into a far country. 34 Now when vintage-time drew near, he sent his servants to the vinedressers, that they might receive its fruit. 35 And the vinedressers took his servants, beat one, killed one, and stoned another. 36 Again he sent other servants, more than the first, and they did likewise to them. 37 Then last of all he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ 38 But when the vinedressers saw the son, they said among themselves, ‘This is the heir. Come, let us kill him and seize his inheritance.’ 39 So they took him and cast him out of the vineyard and killed him.

40 “Therefore, when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those vinedressers?”

41 They said to Him, “He will destroy those wicked men miserably, and lease his vineyard to other vinedressers who will render to him the fruits in their seasons.”

42 Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the Scriptures:

‘The stone which the builders rejected

Has become the chief cornerstone.

This was the Lord’s doing,

And it is marvelous in our eyes’?

43 “Therefore I say to you, the kingdom of God will be taken from you and given to a nation bearing the fruits of it. 44 And whoever falls on this stone will be broken; but on whomever it falls, it will grind him to powder.”

45 Now when the chief priests and Pharisees heard His parables, they perceived that He was speaking of them. 46 But when they sought to lay hands on Him, they feared the multitudes, because they took Him for a prophet.


Last week we saw the legitimate King ride into His kingdom, while the illegitimate pretenders scurried out to oppose Him. We also saw Him pre-enact the temple’s destruction. In our passage today, Jesus picks right up where He left off. He still is at war with the Den of Robbers. His ministry is to the lost sheep of Israel, and now we have come to the climactic moment, He is before the beating heart of Israel standing against the monumental wickedness of Israel’s leaders.

God Hates Figs (v. 18-22)

Jesus has left Bethany, a village just outside Jerusalem where He spent the night, and now is returning to the Temple. He is hungry and wants something to eat. Along the road He finds a fig tree. And He condemns the fig tree because it has no fruit. And it withers away and dies before the disciples eyes. Now, this is one of the scenes in the Bible that is hard to make sense of. It is really strange. Why would Jesus randomly get angry at a tree. What is this even about. This is an episode that a lot of people when they are teaching through this gospel just skip right over. “Can’t really explain it, moving on.” Or they’ll try to spiritualize it, “What it really means is that we should bear fruit” and then talk about the fruits of the Spirit. Okay, that’s true, but why does it happen in this story at this exact moment. Why does Matthew tell us about this?

We have to understand how to read the Bible. The Bible is this huge, self-referential book. Every part of the Bible expects you to know the rest of the Bible to be able to make sense of what it is saying. So an example we looked at before, if you want to know what the meaning of the people putting their cloaks down for Jesus to ride on, we have to have a biblical theology of robes. What do they mean. When we look at Noah’s robe and Joseph’s robes, for example, they symbolize authority. So it is safe to conclude the people throwing down their garments are casting down their crowns at Jesus’s feet. You wouldn’t get it unless you had a good understanding of the rest of the Bible.

So here, with the fig tree, what is a biblical theology of fig trees. Does the Bible talk about them? It describes Israel this way in Deuteronomy 8:8: “a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive oil and honey;” when Solomon reigned and peace and prosperity filled the land this is how the Bible describes it in 1 Kings 4:25 “And Judah and Israel dwelt safely, each man under his vine and his fig tree, from Dan as far as Beersheba, all the days of Solomon.” And when God’s judgment was coming upon Israel, this is how the Bible describes it, in Jeremiah 5:17:

 “And they shall eat up your harvest and your bread,

Which your sons and daughters should eat.

They shall eat up your flocks and your herds;

They shall eat up your vines and your fig trees;

They shall destroy your fortified cities,

In which you trust, with the sword.

And in Jeremiah 8:13:

“I will surely [a]consume them,” says the Lord.

“No grapes shall be on the vine,

Nor figs on the fig tree,

And the leaf shall fade;

And the things I have given them shall pass away from them.” ’ 

The fig tree is synonymous with Israel, particularly with Israel living life under God’s blessings. Jesus cursing the fig tree isn’t about Him being hungry and in need of a Snickers. It is about judgment that was soon coming to Israel. He has already pre-enacted what the Romans are going to do to the temple when He overturned the money changers tables. Now He is symbolically judging Israel.

That is what it means when He tells the disciples that “if they have faith and do not doubt” they can do things like what He did to the fig tree and move “this mountain” into the sea. He’s not giving license to health, wealth, and prosperity teachers to tell people “if you just believe hard enough you will get that 7,000 square foot mansion with an infinity pool and Ferrari.” That’s not at all what He is saying. What He is saying is that Israel has become an enemy of her God and His church and will face judgment for it. And when His apostles pray that this mountain be cast into the sea, He is not taking about mountains in general. He is talking about THIS mountain. Which mountain is that, exactly? Mount Zion, upon which the temple sat. When they pray, it will be cast into the sea. Obviously, there is no sea right next to Jerusalem, so what is Jesus talking about? What does “the sea” represent so often in the Bible? The gentiles. A gentile flood is about to consume the temple, and it will happen because the Apostles lead the church in imprecatory prayer against it. Those who attack and persecute Christ’s church will not prevail. That is what He is telling His disciples.

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Where Do You Think You Get The Right To Say This Stuff, Jesus? (v. 23-27)

When Jesus reaches the temple, the rats have come out of their nest and are ready for Him. The chief priests and elders come out to confront Him, saying “by what authority do you do these things?” These are the wicked men, leading Israel to do abominable things, and they are upset because they are being upstaged. “Who do you think you are, Jesus, coming in here and making a scene? Saying the stuff you are saying? How dare you!”

And not only are they furious with Him, but they are also trying to trap Him. But He launches a trap of His own, He asks them where John the Baptist, who they also surely disliked, got his authority. They couldn’t say “from God” because they would’ve had to listen to him and repent, and oh no, they couldn’t do that. And they couldn’t say “from men” because the people would turn against them. So they had to plead ignorance. And Jesus, having won yet again against them, says “I’m not gonna tell you where mine comes from either.”

Whores and Deadbeats Who Repent Are Better Than Respectable, Dignified Men Who Refuse To (v. 28-32)

While they are still standing there with Him, after He has thoroughly embarrassed them, He begins to tell them a parable about two sons and a vineyard (it is no coincidence that the scene begins with the fig tree, and the counterpart in all those passages listed before is a vineyard). The first son refuses to obey his father and go to work, but regretted it and eventually worked the vineyard. The second son tells his father he will work, but doesn’t.

Jesus then asks the chief priests and elders, who He has just publicly smacked around, which son did their father’s will?

And they rightly answer the first one.

And to that he reveals who the parable is about. “I’m talking about YOU!” The low-status sinners in Israel, the tax farming thugs and prostitutes who repent will enter the kingdom before the high-status righteous. And Jesus brings it back to John the Baptist. He told them to repent, and you leaders of Israel refused to. But the people at the bottom, the extortionists who farm taxes and the women of the street, they listened to John, and you leaders of Israel saw their repentance and still refused to believe John.

Remember, this is all happening in public, imagine this today, Jesus standing before the most wicked members of Congress, totally embarrassing them, and then dropping this on them. Imagine how much they would want Him dead.

A Parable About Israel Getting Replaced (v. 33-46)

From this parable, He launches into another one about a vineyard. A man built a vineyard and winery, and went away and leased it out. When it was time to get the wine, he sent servants to collect what was his. The tenants beat one of his servants, killed another, and stone yet another. He kept sending servants and they kept doing the same thing. Finally he sends his son, but the tenants realize this was their chance to take the property for themselves and kill the son.

Jesus asks them, what do you think the owner is going to do to the tenants?

And the chief priests tell him “he will destroy those men and give the vineyard to someone else.”

They do not realize he is talking about them. They have no idea Jesus is reciting Israel’s history to them, and they do not see themselves in the story. They believe they are the good guys. But they are the tenants. They do not realize that their fathers murdered all the prophets that came before Him, including John, and now they want to murder the Son and seize the kingdom for themselves.

They answered rightly. The kingdom is going to be taken from them. It is going to be given to a different twelve tribes, ruled by 12 apostles. The kingdom will be ripped away from them and given to Christ’s church. Their fig tree will whither, their mountain will be cast into the sea, but the stone which the builders rejected is that stone in Daniel that grows into a great mountain that covers the earth. The mountain that the church sits upon will never be shaken. The fig tree of the church will never whither, because by the grace of God, it will always bear fruit. Jesus gives them the choice, you can fall upon the rock that is Christ and be saved, or you will be crushed and ground into powder by it. Jesus is not nice, but He is good.

The chief priests and Pharisees knew very clearly He was talking about them. And rather than see themselves in the story, they instead fulfill it, and plot how they would murder the Heir. But they knew they could not because the multitudes were with Him. They want Jesus dead, but they are not able to kill Him just yet. But the stage is clearly set.


Jesus here, as clearly as anywhere in Scripture, gives us a picture of the transition from the Old to the New Covenant. Israel is the old, dried out wineskin that the new wine is going to burst. And we see it starting to burst in this passage. Israel is not going to make it. It is going to be crushed by the stone that is Christ. Israel’s only way out is throwing themselves upon it. And many in Israel did after Pentecost and during the ministry of the church.

What we have to understand is that all of the promises in Scripture are to us, in the church. When the Psalms talk about the temple and Mount Zion and Jerusalem, it’s not talking about the dried up discarded wineskins or the branches cut out of the olive tree, it is talking about us, the people of God, assembled before the King. All of the great blessings that God gave to Israel out of all the peoples of the world, He has now given to us.

This is a great privilege, but with it also comes responsibility. We are that fig tree now, and we must bear fruit. We are the vinedressers in the vineyard now, and we must tend to His vineyard and bring out the vintage in its season. We should not have the perspective the chief priests and Pharisees had “oh isn’t God so lucky to have me in His kingdom” but a gratitude that “wow, I am part of the kingdom of God even though I absolutely do not deserve it whatsoever. It is total sheer grace that God bring me in to Him, wash me clean, adopt me as a son.” Our position must be gratitude that we are forgiven and given mercy, it should not be one of pride and arrogance. And from a position of humility we can be a blessing to others and grow His kingdom. Daniel shows us the future: the stone that the builders rejected comes crashing down and destroys the kingdoms that oppose God, including the old wineskins of Israel. And that stone doesn’t stay small, it grows until it is a mountain that covers the earth. That’s what you are part of. And by God’s grace, you play a role in that mountain growing. So, with that in mind, make His mountain bigger. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen!