11. Old is out; new is in, 21:1-23:39

iii] The issue of Jesus' authority


Following Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem and the cleansing of the temple, Matthew records a number of controversies that occur in the precincts of the temple court. Jesus has just entered the temple again and is approached by the chief priests and elders who ask him by what authority he acts as he does. Jesus puts a trick question to them concerning the Baptist's authority which, for political expediency, they refuse to answer. Jesus then follows up with the teaching parable of The Two Sons, applying it in terms of the great reversal and the consequent judgment upon old Israel.


Godly people, sure of their own self-righteousness, can easily neglect the offer of God's free grace in Christ and find themselves standing by while "tax collectors and prostitutes" happily accept God's invitation to freely share in the promised blessings of the kingdom.


i] Context: See 21:1-11. Jesus has revealed that old Israel stands under a curse, leaving the new Israel with the task of being God's people of grace through faith. Jesus is now given the treatment by the Jewish authorities who display a complete lack of faith, v23-27. This leads to a description of old Israel's condition in the parable of The Two Sons, v28-32. This parable is the first of a group of three in which Jesus critiques unrepentant Israel and its religious leaders. The first and the third are peculiar to Matthew, the third being a kingdom parable without explanation, 22:1-14.


ii] Structure: The issue of Jesus authority:

The Pharisees question Jesus' authority, v23;

Jesus asks a counter question, v24-25a;

re. John's baptism.

The Pharisees refuse to answer, v25b-27;

OK, "neither will I tell you

by what authority I am doing these things."

Jesus poses a counter argument, v28-32:

Teaching parable / illustration / pronouncement story, v28-30:

Application / saying / pronouncement, v31:

"the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering

the kingdom of God ahead of you."

Explanation / saying, v32:

"John came to show you the way of righteousness

and you did not believe him, but ...."


iii] Interpretation:

The passage before us sits within the context of Jesus' entry into Jerusalem. Like the barren fig tree, Jesus finds the temple devoid of true worship - it is a "den of robbers". Sadly, the curse upon the fig tree will inevitably fall upon old Israel, v12-20, leaving the new Israel with the task of being God's people of grace through faith, v21-22. Consequently, Jesus is given the treatment by the Jewish authorities who display a complete lack of faith, v23-27. So, Jesus follows up with the parable of The Two Sons.

This teaching parable illustrates "the importance of doing what is right and not merely talking about it", Morris. In his application of the parable Jesus notes that sinners, living a life opposed to the will of their heavenly Father, now choose to accept God's offer of free grace revealed in the gospel (repent and believe) and so enter the kingdom. On the other hand, the righteous (self-righteous), claiming to be obedient sons, reject the gospel and remain outside the kingdom (some argue, come in second / just get in, although this is unlikely). See v28.

There is a slight technical problem in the parable which affects translation, although not its interpretation. The problem concerns the two sons. There are two options:

• The first (older) son says no, but repents and goes; the second son says yes, but does nothing. Who performs the Father's will? The first. This is the translation used by the NIV.

• The older son says yes, but does nothing; the second son says no, but repents and goes. Who performs the Father's will? The younger, the last / the second.


Studies in the new perspective on Paul reveal that religious Israel of the second temple era was not legalistic, but nomistic, ie., although the Pharisees understood that their participation in the covenant derived from divine grace, they none-the-less held that the maintenance of covenant standing for the appropriation of the blessings of the covenant depended on a holiness achieved by law-obedience. In short, they had failed to realize that the emphasis on law in the renewal of the covenant at Sinai served primarily to force reliance on the founding Abrahamic covenant, a covenant which rests wholly on divine grace (promise) appropriated through faith. Law is but a guide to the outworking / fruit of faith. As such, Matthew would have us see that the seemingly covenant compliant ("the chief priests and the elders of the people"), now embedded in law-obedience for blessing, reject the ground of their compliance, namely grace, and thus are lost to the promises of the covenant, while the outcasts and sinners now welcome the message of divine grace and receive the promised blessings of the covenant.

This insight helps us understand the blind rejection of Jesus' authority by the Pharisees and their failure to accept the gospel. It also reveals that Matthew's intent in this passage is pastoral, rather than evangelistic, for the danger of nomisim (sanctification by obedience / blessings through obedience) lives on!!


The righteous and their standing in the kingdom of heaven. In the parable of the two sons we find a common theme which runs through the gospels. The righteous, those marked by their strict attention to the Law (eg., Israel's religious leaders, particularly the Pharisees), find themselves excluded from the kingdom of God, while the lost, "publicans and sinners", "tax collectors and prostitutes", "outcasts", find themselves included in the kingdom of God. The term "the lost" initially referred to those children of Abraham who were members of the ten northern tribes taken into exile. It was later widened to include those who had remained behind in Judea after the Babylonian invasion and who had intermarried with foreigners. Finally, it included all "evil doers". They were the outcasts of Israel, excluded from its social and religious life.

In the gospels we witness God's unprecedented move toward the lost in the ministry of Jesus. In a real sense, God discriminates positively in favor of the outcast. Today we would call this behavior affirmative action; God moves positively toward the lost. Jesus' statement in Mark 2:17 summarizes this unexpected move on God's part; "It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners." This theme is dominant in the parables of the Lost Sheep, Lost Coin and the Lost Son, Luke 15. All display an unprecedented concern for the lost and a seeming disregard for the righteous.

Yet, does God actually show disregard toward the righteous? In the parable of the Lost Son, the older brother is put out by his father's excessive generosity toward the younger brother, who was lost but now is found. Yet, the status of the older brother is not necessarily threatened; "You are always with me, and everything I have is yours." His status is only threatened if he steps away from his father's gracious kindness. If the righteous do not rely in faith on the mercy of God as their forefather Abraham did, but rest on their own self-righteousness, it is only then that they find themselves beyond their Father's gracious kindness.

The parable of the Great Feast further illustrates the point, Matt.22:1-13. The invitation is rejected by the righteous, but is accepted by the publicans and sinners. The simple fact is, God is discriminating positively toward the outcast. He is acting graciously, offering eternity as a gift to those who do not deserve it. Yet, God's positive discrimination toward the outcast does not necessarily impact negatively on the righteous. Any good Jew, with a reasonable understanding of the Old Testament, could not help but be overjoyed to see God take a special interest in the lost. The gathering of the lost from the four corners of the earth is a demonstrable sign of the dawning of the new age of the kingdom. In God's move toward the outcast, no Israelite loses their place in the kingdom. The true remnant of Israel take their place in the courts of the new temple, accompanied by outcasts and sinners.

This then is how we Gentiles fit into God's gracious program of affirmative action. Zechariah describes the Gentiles scraping in on the tassels of the incoming children of Israel, cf., Zech.8:23. We get a look-in because at this moment God is dealing with outcasts, and so we get to squeeze in on the tassels of the one righteous Jew, namely, Jesus. The movement of the gospel to the Gentiles is an act of God's grace - his covenant mercy now extending forgiveness to the lost who rest in faith on the faithfulness of Christ.


iv] Synoptics:

A similar pericope, covering the question of the Pharisees and Jesus' counter question, is found in Mark 11:27-33. The rest of the passage is unique to Matthew, although the application / explanation of the parable is reflected in Luke 7:29-30; some argue for a Q source. Verses 28-31 are best viewed as an example of Matthew's own prime source (M), rather than being redactional, ie., his own creation. Verse 32 could be Matthew's own commentary on the passage as a whole.


v] Exposition: A simple exposition of this passage may be found in the linked pew-level Sermon Notes.

Text - 21:23

i] The issue of Jesus' authority, v23-27. The question concerning Jesus' authority, v23. Public questioning and debate between religious teachers was a popular sport in Judaism. Yet, it is likely that these representatives of the Sanhedrin were more into entrapment than debate. In seeking to identify the authority by which Jesus exercised his ministry, they were hoping to gather further evidence for a charge of blasphemy.

elqontoV (ercomai) gen. aor. part. "[Jesus] entered" - [he] having come [into the temple]. The genitive absolute participle forms a temporal clause; "when he entered the temple", Moffatt.

didaskonti (didaskw) pres. part. "while he was teaching" - [the chief priests and elders of the people approached him] teaching. The participle is adverbial, probably temporal, although some have taken it as causal, "because he was teaching."

oiJ arciereiV (uV ewV) "the chief priests" - The chief priests were a priestly aristocracy who led the temple services and were members of the Sanhedrin.

oiJ presbuteroi (oV) "the elders" - Probably here non members of the Sanhedrin.

tou laou (oV) gen. "of the people" - The genitive is adjectival, possibly of subordination; "elders over the people."

autw/ dat. pro. "[came] to him" - Dative of direct object after the proV prefix verb "to come to, approach."

legonteV (legw) "-" - saying. Attendant circumstance participle; "came and said."

en + dat. "by [what authority]" - in [what kind of authority]. Here instrumental, expressing means, as NIV. "What right have you to act as you are doing?", Barclay.

tauta pro. "these things" - [do you do] these things. Accusative direct object of the verb "to do." Referring to Jesus' miracles, his activity in the temple, or possibly his teachings. "Do these things", Torrey = "makes you act in this way", Cassirer.

edwken (didwmi) aor. "gave" - [and who] gave [this authority]. The question as to who gave Jesus the authority to do "these things" is most likely not a genuine question, but rather serves as a form of entrapment. This explains why Jesus plays with their question rather than answering it at face value.

soi dat. pro. "you" - to you. Dative of indirect object.


In return, Jesus asks by what authority John performed his baptismal ministry - either God or man. The religious leaders are unwilling to answer due to the issue's political sensitivity, v24-27.

de "-" - but/and. Indicating a step in the dialogue.

apokriqeiV (apokrinomai) aor. pas. part. "[Jesus] replied" - having answered [jesus said to them]. Attendant circumstance participle, redundant, expressing action accompanying the verb "said"; "answered and said."

kagw "I" - and i / i also. Emphatic. Jesus can ask difficult questions as well.

erwthsw (erwtaw) fut. "will [also] ask" - will ask, question. The question Jesus asks in return corners his opponents. If they affirm John's authority, then they must accept the authority of Jesus since John pointed to Jesus. Of course, they have not accepted John's authority, having rejected his message. If they openly reject John's authority then they face the wrath of the crowd. No minister openly alienates their congregation (well, not on purpose!!). As a consequence they "become ensnared in dissembling", Luz.

e{na adj. "one [question]" - [you] one [word]. The indefinite tiV would be expected, so "a question."

on} "-" - which [if you tell me, i also will tell you by what authority i do these things]. Accusative direct object of the verb "to say."

ean + subj. "if [you answer me]" - if [you tell me]. Introducing a conditional clause, 3rd. class, where the proposed condition has the possibility of coming true; "if, as may be the case, you tell me, then ......" "And if you answer it correctly."

uJmin dat. pro. "[I will tell] you" - [i also will say by what .....] to you. Dative of indirect object.


to Iwannou (hV ou) gen. "John's" - [the immersion] of john. The genitive is probably adjectival, verbal, subjective; "the baptism which was performed by John."

to baptisma "baptism" - Nominative subject of the verb to-be. The word is used either literally of immersion in water, or figuratively of being caught in a pressure-cooker situation. Here, Jesus possibly has in mind the totality of John's ministry rather than just his practice of water baptism.

poqen "where [did it] come from?" - from where [was it]? Probably a question as to the source of John's authority. "Who gave John the right to baptize?", CEV.

ex (ek) + gen. "from [heaven]" - from [heaven or] from [men]. Expressing source; "was it divine?", Barclay.

dielogizonto (dialogizomai) imperf. "[they] discussed it" - [and they] were reasoning, debating, considering, discussing. The imperfect possibly indicating the discussion went on a bit, ie., durative action (note that speech by nature is durative), or identifying the beginning of a discussion that was bound to go on a bit, ie., inceptive; "they began to argue with each other", Barclay.

en + dat. "among [themselves]" - Here expressing association; "with, among."

legonteV (legw) pres. part. "and said" - saying. Attendant circumstance participle; "discussed ... and said."

ean + subj. "if" - Introducing a conditional clause 3rd. class where the proposed condition has only the possibility of coming true; "if, as may be the case, we say from heaven, then he will say ...."

hJmin dat. pro. "[he will ask]" - [we say from heaven he will say] to us. Dative of direct object.

dia ti "then why" - because why [then do you not believe him]. Causal interrogative construction.


de "but" - but/and. Transitional, indicating a step to a contrast.

ean "if" - if [we say from men we fear the crowd for everyone considers John as prophet]. Conditional clause, as v25.

foboumeqa (fobew) pres. pas. "we are afraid" - we fear. Political expediency is nothing new. The religious authorities lined up well with Herod and Pilate. "We can't say John acted on his own authority. The people are convinced that he is a prophet and they might turn on us."

gar "for" - for. Introducing a causal clause explaining why they are afraid of the people.

panteV adj. "they all" - all, everyone. The adjective serves as a substantive, "everyone", as NIV.

ecousin (ecw) pres. "hold" - have. Here in the sense of consider; "they all regard John as a prophet", Barclay.

wJV "was [a prophet]" - as, like [a prophet]. Comparative; "they all look to John as a prophet", Cassirer. With the accusative "prophet" the construction serves as the complement of the object "John" standing in a double accusative construction.


apokriqenteV (apokrinomai) aor. pas. pat. "so they answered" - [and] having answered. The NIV takes the participle as adverbial, consecutive, expressing result, but attendant circumstance, redundant, is more likely; "they answered .... and said."

tw/ Ihsou (IhsouV) dat. "Jesus" - [they said] to jesus. Dative of indirect object.

oidamen (oida) perf. "[we don't] know" - we do not know as a fact. The authorities considered John slightly unhinged, but would be too afraid to say. Jesus demonstrates that they really have no authority to ask the question they have put to hims since they have failed to address the scriptures that point to him, nor have they considered the testimony of John. "We do not know who gave John his authority", TH.

en + dat. "by [what authority]" - [he also said to them, neither i tell you] by [what authority i do these things]. Instrumental, agency;"who authorized me."


ii] The parable of the two sons, v28-30. Unlike kingdom parables, teaching parables serve to illustrate a truth. The parable of the two sons illustrates the difference between saying and doing. The Pharisees had a real problem in this department; they claimed to be righteous, tithing mint and cumin, but neglected the weightier matters of the law. "Not everyone who says to me, Lord, Lord, shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven", 7:21. In proclaiming the gospel of God's grace, John the Baptist proclaimed the way that leads to righteousness, but instead of taking advantage of God's escape plan, the Pharisees, and their religious friends, stood by and watched tax collectors and prostitutes take hold of the way of grace in front of them, and having witnessed the lost "pressing into the kingdom" they still didn't "change their minds and believe him." Their loss can be ours if we similarly lose sight of the way of grace through faith.

Ti de umin dokei "what do you think?" - what does it seem to you? We might say "Once upon a time" = "let me run this story / tale by you." This construction is peculiar to Matthew. As a typical teaching parable a once upon a time introduction helps set the tone; "I will tell you a story about a man who had two sons", CEV.

uJmin dat. pro. "you" - to you. The dative is adverbial, reference / respect; "what does it seem as far as you are concerned?"

proselqwn (prosercomai) aor. part. "he went" - [a man had two children and] having come to. Attendant circumstance participle expressing action accompanying the verb "said"; "he came .... and said."

tw/ prwtw/ dat. adj. "the first" - first, former, prominent [he said]. Dative of direct object after the verb pros prefix verb "to come to." Literally "first", superlative, but probably taking a comparative sense, "senior", "older", "the elder", NAB.

en "in [the vineyard]" - [child, go today work] in [the vineyard]. Local, expressing space / sphere.


ou qelw "I will not" - [but/and he having answered said] I do not will. Probably emphatic, "no, I will not go"

apokriqeiV (apokrinomai) aor. pas. part. "he answered" - answering [he said]. Attendant circumstance participle; a common Semitic construction, partly redundant.

de "but" - but/and. Transitional, indicating a step to a contrast.

u{steron adv. "later" - afterwards, later on. From the verb "to come late", the comp. adj, "later", the superlative, "last", and the adverb "afterwards".

metamelhqeiV (metamelomai) aor. pas. part. "he changed his mind" - [he went] having repented. Attendant circumstance participle expressing action accompanying the verb "he went; "he repented and went." Possibly "regretted what he had said."


proselqwn (prosercomai) aor. part. "then the father went to" - [and] having approached. The NIV takes the participle as adverbial, serving to introduce a temporal clause. "The father" added for meaning to "he went". "Approached", Phillips.

tw/ eJterw/ dat. pro. "the other son" - the other, different. The pronoun serves as a substantive, dative of direct object after the proV prefix verb "to go to, approach." The second", Barclay, "the younger son."

wJsautwV adv. "the same thing" - [he spoke] likewise, similarly. Modal adverb expressing similarity; "he said the same to him", Berkeley.

egw "I will" - [and having said] i will go [lord]. "I am on my way, sir", NAB.

kai "but [he did not go]" - and [he did not go]. The literal AV "and went not", indicates that an adversative sense works best for the modern ear, as NIV; "but did not go", ESV.


iii] Jesus applies the parable, v31-32. The long awaited age has dawned. John the Baptist, faithful to his calling, has detailed the means of access into the very presence of God - how to stand before God right / approved in his sight; how to enter the kingdom and be a part of God's new age. Access into God's presence is through repentance (a turning from self to God) and belief in the promise of God's grace revealed through John and particularly now, through and in the words and works of Jesus. Yet, an amazing and totally unexpected thing has occurred, the seemingly righteous sons have refused to enter and the outcasts are streaming in.

ek + gen. "of" - out of, from. The preposition serves as a partitive genitive, twn duo, "of the two." An example of the language of the time moving from a simple genitive construction which, without a defining preposition, is often unclear in its intended meaning.

twn duo adj. "of the two" - [which] of the two. The articular adjective serves as a substantive.

tou patroV (hr oV) gen. "[did what] his father [wanted]" - [did the will] of the father. The genitive may be classified as adjectival, possessive, or verbal, subjective.

autoiV dat. pro. "[Jesus said] to them" - [they say the first. jesus says] to them. Dative of indirect object.

amh legw uJmin "I tell you the truth" - truly i say to you. Serving to underline the following statement.

oJti "-" - that. Here introducing a dependent statement of direct speech expressing what Jesus said.

oiJ telwnai kai aiJ pornai "the tax collectors and the prostitutes" - Nominative subject of the verb "to go ahead of." Within the community of Israel, both its social and religious life, these two groups were excluded on moral grounds. It is indeed a marvel when the doors or the kingdom open to such.

proagousin (proagw) pres. "are entering [the kingdom of God] ahead of you" - are going before you, are preceding you. Those who never accepted God's authority over them are now accepting it in Jesus and are entering the kingdom, while those who once accepted it, now reject it in Jesus and find themselves outside the kingdom. A realized / inaugurated eschatology, "are going into the kingdom of God in front of you", Phillips, is better than a future eschatology "are going to go into the kingdom of heaven before you", Barclay. "Ahead of" is possibly "instead of", "in place of", but unlikely.

tou qeou (oV) gen. "the kingdom of God" - [into] the kingdom of god. Where the kingdom is defined as the dynamic reign of God in and through Christ, the genitive would be classified as verbal, subjective, cf., 3:2. Out of deference toward God Matthew prefers the title "the kingdom of heaven", but some four times he uses the term found more commonly in Mark and Luke. The use here possibly evidences Matthew's respect for his received tradition and may indicate that his use of "the kingdom of heaven" lies with the oral tradition he relied on for his gospel, a tradition possibly found in Jewish Christian churches. All guesswork, of course, but interesting none-the-less.


gar "for" - for [john come to you]. Expressing cause/reason; introducing a causal clause explaining why tax collectors and prostitutes take precedence over the Pharisees and their religious friends in the kingdom of God.

en/ + dat. "to show you [the way]" - in [the way = way of life, conduct]. Here adverbial, modal, expressing manner of John's coming, "John came to you with the way of righteousness", ie., he brought it along with him." Possibly in the sense that John came living the righteous conduct required of kingdom membership.; "John came to you as a truly good man", Phillips, John "lived the life that corresponds to the will of God", Luz.. Also possibly in the sense that John came showing the way of righteousness; "showing you the right path to take", TEV, ie., proclaiming righteousness, either morally, "showed you how to live as God wants you to live", Barclay, or theologically, "John came proclaiming the gospel ("the righteousness of faith)."

dikaiosunhV (h) gen. "of righteousness" - The genitive is adjectival, attributive, limiting "way"; "the righteous way." See en above for the word's meaning in this context. The word "righteousness" is theologically charged and fosters numerous interpretations. Matthew often uses the word to mean doing what is right according to the Father's will (performing the will of God), but sometimes of possessing a righteousness of which God is the source and author. "Righteousness" is beyond our doing, which fact reminds us of our unworthiness in the sight of God. An awareness of this fact then prompts us to seek God's mercy and a righteousness (covenant compliance) that is divinely accredited on the basis of Christ's faithfulness, namely his sacrifice on our behalf, the worth of which sacrifice we appropriate through faith.

autw/ "[you did not believe] him" - [and you did not believe] him. Dative of direct object after the verb pisteuw, "to believe in." "You did not believe his message."

de "but" - but/and [the tax collectors and prostitutes believed him]. Transitional, indicating a step to a contrast; "but the tax collectors and prostitutes did believe in him / in his message."

idonteV (oJraw) aor. part. "even [after] you saw this" - [but you] having seen. The participle is adverbial, best taken as concessive, "although"; "even though you saw that", Moffatt.

u{steron adv. "after" - [did not repent] afterwards, later. Temporal adverb; "although you saw the witness of outcasts responding to the dawning kingdom, you did not repent / change your mind even after witnessing their act of repentance."

oude metemelhqhte (metomelomai) aor. pas. "you did not repent" - did not repent. The word often takes the sense "be sorry", extending to "change your mind", Barclay, so also Moffatt, Cassirer, REB, "refused to think better of it", NJB.... Yet, the stronger religious sense is likely here, "repent", of turning about and facing God to seek his mercy and forgiveness, ie., as in response to the gospel / to John's preaching, so D&A; "you did not afterward repent", Berkeley.

tou pisteusai (pisteuw) aor. inf. "and believe [him]" - to believe [in him]. This construction, the genitive articular infinitive, usually introduces a purpose clause in Matthew, "in order that", but it can be consecutive, expressing result / consequence, or hypothetical result; Olmstead opts for result. Following this line Burton translates the clause "did not repent afterward, so as to believe in him." Both McNeile and Hagner follow Moulton, M.I, and take the construction here as epexegetic, "providing the content of the preceding verb." Burton's translation is probably closer to Matthew's intent. At any rate, as is typical of the gospels there is an interlocking of both repentance and faith for a valid response to the gospel - a turning around to face Christ, and a resting on / relying on Christ.


Matthew Introduction


TekniaGreek font download


[Pumpkin Cottage]