What does Matthew chapter 21 mean?Jesus and the disciples have nearly completed their long journey from the region of Galilee in the north to Jerusalem. They have now travelled the last leg from Jericho to the town of Bethphage on the Mount of Olives, not far from Jerusalem's gates.
Before entering Jerusalem, though, Jesus directs two of His disciples to go into a village where they will find a donkey and its colt tied up. Jesus has arranged to ride the colt into Jerusalem to intentionally fulfill a prophecy about the Messiah. Zechariah predicted the King would come humbly and riding a donkey (Zechariah 9:9). The symbolism of this is easy to miss. Donkeys are common work animals and unsuited for battle. Victorious conquerors of that era would parade on horses, much as a modern general might ride into a city on the back of a tank. Riding a donkey, rather than a warhorse, is more like a modern person sitting in a pickup truck. In the future, Christ will come in power and judgment (Revelation 19:11–16). This time, His arrival is consistent with His role as a sacrificial Savior (Matthew 21:1–7).
As Jesus rides toward the gates, the large crowd following Him is joined by even more people coming out of Jerusalem, who have heard He is arriving. They put their outer garments and branches on the road in front of Him as symbols of submission and Jewish victory. They also shout out lines from Psalm 118 that are meant for the Messiah: "Hosanna to the Son of David!" and "Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!" Jerusalem is stirred up. People who don't know ask who Jesus is. Some reply that He is a prophet from Nazareth of Galilee (Matthew 21:8–11).
Jesus later enters the massive temple in Jerusalem. He drives out those selling and buying animals. He overthrows the tables and benches of the moneychangers. This seems to be a second, separate incident from the one recorded in the gospel of John (John 2:13–22). Jesus' anger is not about business or money, itself, but the crass way in which these men are profiting from the spiritual needs of the people (Matthew 21:12–13).
While at the temple, Jesus heals some blind and lame people who come to Him for help. Some children see this and begin to repeat the praises of the crowds as Jesus rode into town. Jesus defends the children to some chief priests and scribes who question Him. He does this, once again, by citing Old Testament Scripture (Matthew 21:14–17).
Jesus leaves the city to stay in Bethany for the night and returns the next morning, hungry. He sees a fig tree with leaves but finds no fruit. Though there would be no reason to expect ripe figs, at that time, a productive tree would have edible buds. The fact that the tree has nothing means it won't produce fruit this year. Jesus curses the tree to never bear fruit again and it withers. The disciples ask Jesus how He has done this, and He tells them that all things are possible for them if they believe and do not doubt when they pray. With His other comments on prayer, this can be understood in the context of God's will and the way faithful believers pursue it (Matthew 21:18–22).
Returning to the temple, Jesus is challenged by chief priests and elders. They ask Him to justify his authority to do all these things. Using the typical debate style of the era, Jesus promises to answer if they will respond to His question. The implication of His question is whether John the Baptist was a true or false messenger. Jesus knows these men rejected John but are too cowardly to admit it in front of the people. They weakly reply that they do not know (Matthew 21:23–27).
Rather than leave the issue alone, Jesus presses it. He tells two parables, each about vineyards, to show how the Jewish religious leaders have failed. He first compares them to a son who says "yes" to his father, but then disobeys. The people despised and dismissed by their culture as sinners were the ones who repented at John's message; they will enter the kingdom of God before these hypocritical spiritual figureheads (Matthew 21:28–32).
The second parable pictures the Jewish leaders as tenants of a vineyard who refuse to give their agreed rent, in the form of harvested crops, to the owner's servants. Instead they mistreat and kill the servants and then the owner's son, as well. This connects to an Old Testament reference to Israel as a vineyard (Isaiah 5:1–7). Jesus applies this parable to Israel's history of persecuting messengers of God (Acts 7:52), as well as how the men attacking Him were opposed to God's message. The leaders recognize how the parable's landowner will react, but don't seem to fully grasp what that implies (Matthew 21:33–41).
Finally, Jesus applies Psalm 118:22–23 to Himself. He is the stone rejected by the builders that has become the cornerstone. The Greek phrase used here either means the strongest, most critical stone used in a building's foundation, or the top brick in an arch. Either way, it is the ultimate basis of that structure's integrity. The kingdom of God will be taken from the Israelite leaders and all who reject Jesus will be broken on or crushed by the cornerstone. In another display of political cowardice, these men who reject Jesus keep their silence out of fear of public opinion (Matthew 21:42–46).