THE CHIEF PRIESTS AND ELDERS
The chief priests and the elders then came to the Lord Jesus (Matt. 21:23-27). The chief priests held high positions in religion, and the elders held notable positions in the community. They asked the Lord, "Who gave you this authority?" (21:23). This question shows the connection between this passage and the passages we have already covered. The underlying thought of ambition and authority connects these portions of Matthew, just as the washing of hands, the eating of crumbs, and the leaven connected those in chapters fifteen and sixteen. The disciples were ambitious for authority and position, but the Lord Jesus conducted Himself in an unassuming way. Although He was the King, He did not assume the kingship. The opposers, the religious and community leaders, also had ambitious thoughts. "Who is this little man from Nazareth? Who gave him this position and authority? We are the high priests and the elders. Who is he?"
Once again we see the wisdom of the Lord Jesus. When they asked Him concerning His authority, He asked them about the authority of John the Baptist. "I also will ask you one question, which if you tell Me, I also will tell you by what authority I do these things: The baptism of John, whence was it? From heaven or from men?" (21:24-25). The Lord Jesus, of course, knew everything. The priests should have known not to play with the Lord Jesus. When the Lord Jesus asked the priests and the elders about the baptism of John, they were caught in a corner.
The priests and elders realized that they had a problem. "They reasoned among themselves, saying, If we say, From heaven, he will say to us, Why then did you not believe him? But if we say, From men, we fear the crowd, for all hold John as a prophet" (21:25-26). They did not know what to do. Finally, they followed the father of lies and said, "We do not know." The Lord Jesus replied, "Neither do I tell you by what authority I do these things" (21:27). He realized that they knew, but were unwilling to tell Him. For them to say they didn’t know was a lie. So the Lord said, "Neither do I tell you by what authority I do these things."
The Lord Jesus continued by telling a parable that offended them: "But what do you think? A man had two children, and he came to the first and said, Child, Go today, work in the vineyard. And he answered and said, I will not; yet later he regretted it and went. And he came to the second and said likewise, and he answered and said, I go, lord, and did not go. Which of the two did the will of the father? They say, The first. Jesus says to them, Truly I say to you, that the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God before you" (21:28-31).
By this parable the Lord Jesus put the tax collectors and prostitutes above all the Pharisees. The Pharisees thought that they were on top and that the tax collectors and prostitutes were under their feet, but the Lord Jesus put the Pharisees on the bottom. John had come according to the way of righteousness, and when the tax collectors and prostitutes had heard his preaching, they changed their minds and repented. But the Pharisees did not repent, so the Lord ranked them below the tax collectors and prostitutes. Do you see the wisdom of the Lord Jesus in this parable? Once again we have the line of who is first, greater, or higher than others.
(The Kingdom, Chapter 29, by Witness Lee)