Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Jesus Versus the Religious Elite - Matthew 21: 23-32

What's Going on, Again?

Let's review the context of where we are in Matthew.  In our last study, we saw Jesus enter Jerusalem in a spectacle demonstration of His identity as Messiah, literally chase the hypocritical religious establishment out of the Temple, and use a fig tree as a way to teach His followers that the religious elite weren't truly in God's favor.  Obviously, all this behavior really angered the Jewish religious leaders, which ultimately led to their decision to murder Him.  Today, we see the confrontation continue...

You see, as we progress to this point in Matthew's Gospel, Jesus is becoming quite blatant in exposing the religious hypocrites for what they really are.  He will humiliate them, tell three parables defaming them, debate with them publicly, and then denounce and curse them.  We will look at the humiliation and first parable today.

But before we dive in, I'd like to remind you of one very important question: How do we apply these passages to our own lives today?  Clearly it's important, since such a large portion of Matthew's Gospel is devoted to it.  My viewpoint is that:
  • These passages give us a clear picture of what hypocrites and wolves look like.  We can keep that picture in mind to prevent ourselves, our loved ones, and our church family from being hurt spiritually be such people.
  • For some of us, these passages may bring to mind persecutors of sorts - the religious elite in our lives who may oppress, defame, or try to guilt trip us for not living the legalistic lifestyles they do.  We can find comfort in the fact that we are not alone.
  • And, we should pay attention to what the religious elite are doing wrong in these passages, so we can be sure not to adopt such behavior ourselves!  We must be on constant guard against legalism and self-righteousness in our own lives.
The Wrong Question
23 When He entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to Him while He was teaching, and said, "By what authority are You doing these things, and who gave You this authority?"
24 Jesus said to them, "I will go ask you one thing, which if you tell Me, I will also tell you by what authority I do these things.
25 "The baptism of John was from what source, from heaven or from men?"  And they began reasoning among themselves, saying, "If we say, 'From heaven,' He will say to us, 'Then why did you not believe him?'
26 "But if we say, 'From men,' we fear the people; for they all regard John as a prophet."
27 And answering Jesus, they said, "We do not know."  He also said to them, "Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things."
The religious elite didn't really want to know where Jesus got His authority from; they just wanted to trap Him, because He would be in the same predicament - either answer would get Him in trouble.  If He said His authority came from men, His followers would stop following Him, since clearly He couldn't be Messiah or even a true prophet.  But if He said His authority came from God, they would have grounds to execute Him for blasphemy (except for the fact that it was true, of course).
Jesus was never afraid or unwilling to answer when people asked Him who He was because they genuinely wanted to know (see John 4 for one wonderful example of this).  But in this case, answering will bring no good.  So, He doesn't just evade the question; He challenges them to answer their own question, just applied to John the Baptist.  The mastery of this tactic is amazing - He isn't hiding His identity, and in fact, His move to hold His authority and superiority over them in this confrontation shoves His identity as Messiah in their faces!
We can also learn from this passage that although debate can be useful in some situations (like the Christian philosophers, historians, scientists, etc. who publicly debate atheists and other religions' leaders to bring audience members to Christ, or having a private "debate" with a loved one you're trying to bring to Christ) - but only if it can bring about good.  In situations like the one here (for example, if a cult member is trying to "prove" that you're wrong and you're too unfamiliar with their beliefs to have a chance at persuading them), refusing to engage is not the same as denying the Truth or chickening out - it's the wise thing to do!
There Are Two Types of People in the World...
28 "But what do you think?  A man had two sons, and he came to the first and said, 'Son, go work today in the vineyard.'
29 "And he answered, 'I will not'; but afterward he regretted it and went.
30 "The man came to the second and said the same thing; and he answered, 'I will, sir'; but he did not go.
31 "Which of the two did the will of his father?"  They said, "The first."  Jesus said to them, "Truly I say to you that the tax collectors and prostitutes will get into the kingdom of heaven before you.
32 "For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him; but the tax collectors and prostitutes did believe him; and you, seeing this, did not even feel remorse afterward so as to believe him."
Let's break down the symbolic components really quick:
  • The man or the father is God the Father.
  • The vineyard the world, the "mission field," our callings, the good works prepared before us - however you want to look at it.
  • The two sons are two types of people who have interacted with God:
  • The first son is a sinner who comes to repentance.
  • The second son is a person who seems religious but isn't truly following God.
So, we see that God doesn't care how bad our pasts are - He only cares what we do with the present.  A man who murdered and raped but repents and comes to Christ is a blameless saint in Christ's kingdom, but a legalist who lives cracker-jack-clean and is heavily involved in the local church and charities but never comes to have a personal relationship with God, instead relying on self-righteousness, is not honored by God.
The original point for the religious elite themselves was that they were claiming to be something they weren't, so truly had no authority over God's followers.  I love how Jesus tells them this so blatantly in the second person (you), don't you? :-)
But for us, I see it as a call to rely on grace, not our own works or self-righteousness, and to keep growing in Him and to finish strong!
Is there anything else you saw in these passages that you'd like to add to our discussion?  What about questions - something I didn't make clear or spend enough time on? :-)  Leave a comment below!
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