Earthly kings enter a city riding a horse, or in a chariot. Jesus chose to ride a donkey. The crowds that came with Jesus gave him the Messianic title "the Son of David." But the religious establishment wanted Jesus to deny this Messianic title (21:15).
21:1-2 Bethphage was a village on the road from Jericho just to the east of the Mount of Olives. It was next to Bethany (Mark 11:1), which was the home of Simon the Leper, who was perhaps the husband of Martha and brother -in-law of Mary and Lazarus (26:6; John 12:2).
Jesus did not go to his friends in Bethany till that evening after the clearing of the temple (21:17). But he did send two disciples for the donkey colt, which he had probably enjoyed on previous visits (Luke 10:38 and John 11:1, 17).
Mark and Luke tell us it had never been ridden (Mark 11:2; Luke 19:30), and Jesus knew it would be easier for the unbroken colt to come in to the city if it could come with its mother.
21:3 If the disciples were asked why they were taking away the colt and its mother, all the owners needed to know was that Jesus needed them. This confirms the fact that Jesus was known as a dear friend in this home (Luke 10:38; John 11:5).
21:4-5 As in other cases, Matthew includes an appropriate Messianic text from the Old Testament (Zechariah 9:9).
21:6-8 The crowd that had come up with Jesus from Galilee was now joined by others who had seen the resurrection of Lazarus in Bethany (John 11:44-45).
21:9 The Hebrew word hosanna means "save us." The crowd are shouting some words from a Messianic Psalm (Psalm 118:25-26). Matthew began his book with the genealogy of Jesus as rightful heir to the throne of David (1:1, 6, 17), and he recorded the announcement of that fact to Joseph (1:20). He was called "Son of David" by two different pairs of blind men (9:27; 20:30) and a Canaanite woman (15:22). Now the crowd from Galilee and Bethany use that Messianic title as Jesus enters Jerusalem.
21:10-11 The Jerusalem crowd questions this, and prefer the lesser title of "the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee."
21:12-13 Mark tells us that there was a first entry to look around the temple (Mark 11:11). And during those days before his arrest Jesus went back to lodge with his friends in Bethany (Matthew 21:17). The clearing of the temple would therefore have been on the Monday of Holy Week. The money changers exchanged coins with heathen inscriptions for money that was acceptable in the temple. And naturally a profit was made each time. The doves were offered as sacrifice by poor people (as in Luke 2:24).
The clearing out of all these traders gave a vivid picture of the commercialism that had taken over the temple. Solomon had prayed that the temple would be a house where people of all nations could come and pray (1 Kings 8:41-43) and Jesus uses a quote from the prophets to point out what had gone wrong (Isaiah 56:7 combined with Jeremiah 7:11). Later in the chapter Matthew will give Jesus' explanation why God's vineyard is going to be leased out to people of other nations (21:41).
21:14 The lame (Acts 3:2) and the blind (John 9:1) gathered to beg from the worshipers in the temple.
21:15 The religious authorities could not deny the fact that people were healed, but they were angry that Jesus was acclaimed by the crowd as the Davidic heir to the Messianic kingdom. The priests and theologians no doubt had their own reasons why Jesus could not be the Messiah. At this point an easy way to silence this claim would have been to produce evidence that Jesus' could not be heir to the throne (see the genealogical comments on 1:1, 16). But they evidently could not deny his title.
21:16 Their first strategy was for Jesus to see the enormity of the claim, and admit to the crowd he was not the Davidic Messiah. In answer to their question Jesus quotes a psalm about "babes and infants" recognizing the wonders of God's creation. (Psalm 8:2). He had previously said that the kingdom of heaven belongs to little children (19:14), which suggests that they would more easily accept their King.
21:17-18 From Palm Sunday to the Wednesday before the Last Supper and arrest Jesus went back each evening to stay with his friends in Bethany (see comment on 21:2). The Greek word for "morning" usually means early in the morning as dawn breaks (as in 16:3; Mark 1:35), and so Jesus would not have eaten breakfast.
21:19-20 In early spring before the fig harvest there would normally be a few figs under the leaves of a tree by the roadside. In the next chapter Jesus will use a fig tree putting out its leaves as a picture of the fall of Jerusalem in that generation (24:32; see Luke 21:29-30). In preparation for that he now chooses to use the withering of the fig tree as a parable of the withering away of the importance of the Jerusalem establishment.
21:21-22 The disciples apparently did not question water being turned to wine at a wedding (John 2:1-11). Or walking on water, or the restoration of withered limbs. They are now very curious about the sudden withering of the fig tree. Jesus reminds them that the prayer of faith expects an intervention in the "natural" course of events.
The chief priests and scribes are mentioned earlier in the chapter (21:15). Some of them now come as a delegation from the Sanhedrin, which was the Jewish parliament at that time. Their question is about authority. Government officials, whether in the state or in religion, always wants to know who authorized something to happen. Jesus first answers them by asking a question about their response to John the Baptist, and then by telling two parables about their rejection of the Messiah. The implication was that the religious leaders had rejected both John the Baptist and Jesus for the same reasons.
21:23 Jesus is now teaching as he did each day in the temple area. A delegation from the Sanhedrin arrives to silence him by questioning his authority to allow people to think he was the Messiah.
21:24-27 Jesus could have answered that his Messianic authority came from God the Father who had twice recognized him as his Son (3:17; 17:5). Instead he asked them about the authority of John the Baptist, whom they had rejected but all the common people accepted as a prophet sent from God to prepare for the coming Messiah (3:6).
21:28-30 Jesus immediately follows this with a story about two sons who changed their mind about their father's request for help in the vineyard (see 20:1; 21:33). As Isaiah had said "the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel" (Isaiah 5:7).
21:31-32 The point of the story is that the hated tax collectors (see comment on 9:9) and the despised prostitutes (see 9:10-11; 11:19) had never intended to enter the Messianic kingdom, but when they heard John the Baptist's preaching they changed their minds. The religious establishment, which was supposedly awaiting the Messianic kingdom, changed their mind to reject it. And when they saw common people believing the preaching of John the Baptist, even then they did not accept his call to prepare for the Messianic King.
21:33 This parable is again set in a vineyard (20:1; 21:28; see Isaiah 5:1-7). The watchtower and winepress are taken directly from the parable in Isaiah, and the same question is implied : "What more was there to do for my vineyard?" (Isaiah 5:2, 4). There was no mistaking its meaning (21:45).
21:34 God's vineyard is planted with a view to receiving the fruit (Isaiah 5:4; John 15:1-2, 16).
21:35-36 God has kept sending prophets, who were usually treated badly (23:34-35).
21:37-38 Finally God's Son is sent (called "beloved" in Mark 12:6; Luke 20:13; John 3:16).
21:38-39 This may suggest the enormity of the idea that by killing off the Messiah the Jerusalem religious establishment would be able to enjoy the fruits of their power (see John 11:50).
21:40 By his question Jesus indicates that there would be a coming or visitation to deal with the situation in the vineyard. As we will see in chapter 24, the coming referred to here is not what is wrongly called the second coming. It is the coming of the reigning Messiah to destroy the temple and decimate the religious establishment of the city. And this occurred in the generation of the hearers in AD 70 (23:36; 24:34).
21:41 The religious leaders answer correctly what should be done to tenants who beat and kill those who are sent to collect the fruit, and then finally kill the son of the owner. The "miserable death" described exactly what happened when the inhabitants of Jerusalem died in the terrible siege that ended with the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70. They also deduce that the owner would lease the vineyard to others (see 21:43).
21:42 The verse that Jesus quoted is from the same Psalm as the crowd had been shouting (21:9; Psalm 118:22). Originally it referred to David's experience of rejection for seven years before he eventually became king over both kingdoms (2 Samuel 2:8-11). Now Jesus relates it to his own rejection and crucifixion. He will however become the cornerstone (Acts 4:11-12; 1 Peter 2:6-7) of the new temple (1 Corinthians 3:16; Ephesians 2:19-22), and new priesthood which will include people of all nations (1 Peter 2:5, 9; Revelation 1:6).
21:43 The religious leaders had already deduced that the owner of the vineyard would want "other tenants" (21:41). Now Jesus defines these as the gentile churches among all nations. In the next chapter we will see how Matthew carefully distinguishes the spread of the Gospel through Paul and other Jewish apostles before "the end" (24:14) from the huge in-gathering by messengers from all nations after the fall of Jerusalem (see comment on 24:31).
21:44 Jesus now connects himself as the rejected stone (21:42) with two Old Testament passages. The first refers to "the Lord of hosts" who becomes "a stone one strikes against" (Isaiah 8:13-15). The second is a stone that "was cut out, not by human hands" (Daniel 2:34) that would eventually become the Messianic kingdom that would "crush all these kingdoms" (Daniel 2:44-45).
21:45 The religious leaders had no doubt about the meaning of the two parables of rejection (21:28-41) combined with the three texts about the rejected stone which became the stone of stumbling and destruction (21:42-45).
21:46 The Pharisees had previously conspired to arrest Jesus (12:14). They had then allied themselves with their Sadducee enemies (16:1), and they tried to force Jesus to deny his Messianic title to the throne of David (21:15). Their problem was that the crowds sided with Jesus, and they would need an opportunity to arrest Jesus when the crowd could not riot (23:3-5). They chose to make the arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane (26:47) the evening before the Passover preparations (see note on the timing of the Passover preparation, 26:17).