JESUS IN JERUSALEM Matthew 21–23
” ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment” (Matt. 22:37–38).Jesus now entered His last week on earth. We see in the events which follow just how deep His love for His Father is.
Jesus entered Jerusalem hailed as the Messiah (21:1–11), angering temple leaders (vv. 12–17). Jesus condemned a fruitless fig tree symbolizing Israel (vv. 18–22), and told a series of stories which explain the fruitlessness of His people (v. 23–22:14). Jesus turned aside two verbal attacks (vv. 15–33) and silenced His critics (vv. 34–46). Jesus then pronounced woes on the Pharisees and sages for their spiritual blindness (23:1–36), and lamented over the doomed city of Jerusalem (vv. 37–39).
Understanding the Text
“Your King comes to you, gentle and riding on a donkey” Matt. 21:1–11. A fervent desire for the Messiah burned underneath the surface of first-century Judaism, and found expression in a number of short-lived revolts led by pseudo messiahs. Taxes were heavy, and life was hard for the common people. When the crowds acclaimed Jesus, most undoubtedly hoped He would expel the Romans and set up a powerful, independent kingdom. But Matthew reminded them of Zechariah’s prophecy (9:9). This King came “riding on a donkey.” In the ancient world kings rode horses when they went to war. A visit from a king on a donkey meant that he came in peace! It’s a helpful reminder for those of us who fear to surrender completely to Christ’s lordship. He came in peace, to bring peace. Surrender to this King will quiet our inner conflicts, not increase them. Surrender to this King offers each of us the gift of perfect peace. “Jesus entered the temple area” Matt. 21:12–17. Jesus’ coming does not mean peace to everyone. Inside Jerusalem He entered the broad courtyard where merchants licensed by the high priest changed coins and sold animals for sacrifices, and drove them out. This infuriated the chief priests, who made a profit on the trade and, some early sources suggest, were not above extorting more than was fair. But they felt helpless to act against Him because the crowds shouted so enthusiastically for Him. Not everyone is comfortable when Jesus enters today. There may be a conflict in us as there was in the first-century temple. But God’s house is to be a “house of prayer.” The Christian, who is the living temple of God, is to be completely dedicated to the Lord. Anything dishonest or unholy must be driven out of our lives. “Found nothing on it except leaves” Matt. 21:18–22. As often happened, the disciples asked Jesus the wrong question when they saw how a fig tree He cursed withered in one day. Their question? “How did You do it?” Jesus in effect suggested the miracle was nothing special. With even a little faith the disciples themselves could perform miracles. The question they should have asked was, “Why did You do it?” The answer to this question was, “Because the fig tree reminded Me so much of Israel!” Like the fig tree, God’s people seemed to flourish. They were dedicated to God and practiced their religion zealously. But when that religion was carefully examined, there was nothing there but leaves. The tree produced no fruit! In both Testaments fruit represents the moral product of intimate personal relationship with God. The New Testament summary describes fruit as “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness,” etc. (Gal. 5:22–23). These inner qualities would be expressed socially as the justice and compassion so exhorted by the Old Testament prophets (see Isa. 5:1–7). What is important to us is that this event introduces a series of stories that explain why the Jews of Jesus’ day failed to produce fruit and alerts you and me to attitudes that will keep us from vital, fruit-producing lives. “By what authority are You doing these things?” Matt. 21:23–27 It was clear from Christ’s miracles that He was a spokesman authenticated by the Lord. Yet the religious leaders of the Jews refused to accept His authority. Instead, as successors of Moses (see 23:2), they claimed to be religious authorities. Jesus’ question about John the Baptist, however, revealed their hypocrisy. If they truly had divine authority, they would reveal the truth. Their failure to answer for fear of the crowds showed they really knew the Lord did not stand behind their pronouncements. We too will be fruitless, unless we acknowledge the authority of Jesus in every area of our lives, and respond obediently to His Word. ” ‘I will, sir.’ But he did not go” Matt. 21:28–32. Jesus’ Parable of the Two Sons drives home an important point. It’s not what we say that reveals our basic attitude toward God. It’s what we do. I know a number of people who talk religion and holiness very well. And I know that several of them are like the Pharisees, who say they are ready to obey God, but who do not put God’s Word into daily practice. Religious words are the leaves some people use to disguise their fruitlessness. “Let’s kill him and take his inheritance” Matt. 21:33–46.This story focuses on motives. Why was it that the religious leaders of first-century Judaism refused to respond to Christ’s revelation of His deity and messiahhood? Christ’s analysis is, simply, that they wanted to “take His inheritance.” They did not want to acknowledge His ownership of God’s people, but were addicted to the thrill of running things their own way! And, oh, how the religious leaders hated Jesus for exposing their true motives (vv. 45–46). All too often we have the same problem. Why don’t we submit to Christ’s lordship? Because we want to run our lives our own way! Never mind that Jesus has every claim to our total allegiance. Never mind that He will make wiser, better choices that are truly for our good. We want to be able to say, with the familiar song, “I Did It My Way.” What then is Jesus’ prescription for fruitfulness? Three simple steps are given in these three parables. Acknowledge the authority of Jesus. Do what He tells you. Surrender your will to His. If you and I put these steps into practice daily, we most surely will bear spiritual fruit. “Everything is ready. Come to the wedding banquet” Matt. 22:1–14. One of the most compelling questions that can be asked about Jesus is, “Did He fail?” He came to God’s chosen people, and they rejected and killed Him. What now? The Parable of the Wedding Banquet answers the question. God’s feast of salvation will have guests aplenty. Since those who were invited first saw fit to refuse, God’s invitation has been extended to street corners and alleys of the whole world, and God gathers “all the people [His servants] can find.” So surely the wedding hall will be “filled with guests.” But what does the note about an intruder “not wearing wedding clothes” mean? It was common practice for kings to clothe their dinner guests in fine robes. A person who had a right to join the feasting had been clothed by the king. Many preachers have preached many sermons on this point. Unless we are clothed with righteousness by Jesus Himself we will not be welcome in heaven. And this is, of course, true. Yet the larger point of Jesus’ story must not be lost. God does not fail when any individual rejects the invitation to be saved. The failure is entirely that of an invited guest, who apart from faith in Christ can never enjoy the good things God has in store for us in eternity. And truly, the invitation is for all. Let’s do our part in sharing that invitation with others, and not be discouraged if of the many we invite, few choose to respond (v. 14). “Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap Him in His words” Matt. 22:15–46. Jewish writings from the first through third centuries document the contemptuous view the sophisticated leaders in first-century Judea had for the “country bumpkin” people of Galilee. The Pharisees, who were Judeans, could not challenge Jesus’ miracles. But they thought that, in the verbal arena, they could surely show Him up! The rest of the chapter traces four exchanges between Jesus and these men who spent their lives in study of the traditions of their faith. Before looking at the first trap, note how the Pharisees used words. The very first thing they did was to try to disarm Christ by a compliment they did not at all mean: “We know you are a Man of integrity and that You teach the way of God in accordance with the truth” (v. 16). They tried to trap Jesus in His words, but their words revealed their deceitful hearts and in fact they trapped themselves! You and I can be sure that what we say is just as revealing about us! Why did the Pharisees try to get Jesus to either endorse or reject paying taxes to Caesar? In the first century taxes created a heavy burden in the Jewish homeland, actually threatening the survival of some. No wonder this was an incendiary topic. If Jesus did endorse taxes, He must lose favor with the crowds. If He spoke against taxes, the Romans would surely deal harshly with Him! We can appreciate the cleverness of Christ’s reply. But it’s more important to grasp the principle. We all have a dual citizenship—participants in human society, and at the same time in God’s kingdom. We are to live as good citizens of each, honoring both God and our government. “The Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection” Matt. 22:23–33. Again, what is striking is the obvious insincerity of those who challenged Christ. They believed there was no resurrection. Why ask a complicated hypothetical question about it? I suppose the question had been useful in debates with the Pharisees, who did believe in resurrection. In form, the question is reductio ad absurdum.Try to reduce the other person’s position to an absurdity (vv. 24–28). Christ simply rejected the premise on which the argument rested—that there is such a thing as marriage in the resurrection. And then He went on to expose the Sadducees’ basic unbelief. “You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God.” Ultimately all our philosophy, all our careful logic, falls short. Our belief rests in confidence in the Scriptures, and assurance in the power of the God who reveals Himself to us in them. “The greatest commandment in the Law” Matt. 22:34–40. What had led Pharisees and Sadducees astray? These were truly religious men, committed to their beliefs. Christ’s answer to the last question asked Him exposed the flaw. All the Law and the Prophets spoke was intended to nurture love for God and love for one’s neighbor. We pervert the Scriptures if we use them as did the various Jewish parties in the first century to build themselves up and cut their brothers down. If we come to the Bible to discover how to better love God and others, we will avoid the attitudes which led to the corruption of first-century Judaism, and which were so strongly condemned by our Lord (see Matt. 23). “Whose Son is He?” Matt. 22:41–46 Jesus then turned the tables and asked His adversaries questions about words. If the Messiah is David’s Descendant, how is it that David acknowledges His superiority (i.e., “calls Him Lord”)? In view of the fact that in Judaism the father is always viewed as superior to the son, there is only one ancestor. Under inspiration David affirmed His deity. Why is it that “no one could say a word in reply”? It was not because no teacher had ever seen evidence in Scripture that the Messiah would be the Son of God. It was simply that these religious leaders did not want to acknowledge Christ’s authority. How often this is the issue today. It’s not that people can’t understand the Bible. It’s just that people don’t want to submit to its teachings. What a blessing it is to rid ourselves of such attitudes, and come to Scripture eagerly. What a blessing to love God, and bend every effort simply to please Him.
Perfect Failures (Matt. 23)
I suppose almost everyone knows that seven is the number of perfection in Scripture. The Creation was completed in seven days. Each week contains a cycle of seven days. Every seven years Israelites were to rest their fields and leave them unplanted. A seven-branched lamp in the temple represented the illuminating work of the Holy Spirit. And so on. In view of this, it’s fascinating to note that Jesus’ final words on the Pharisees and teachers of the Law of His day are summed up in seven “woes.” (“Woe” is an expression both of grief and denunciation.) I suppose the fact that there are seven of these “woe” statements indicates that the leaders were “perfect” failures. So how do we keep from being perfect failures in our own spiritual lives? We avoid their seven deadly sins, each of which is associated with exalting ourselves over others rather than living humble, loving lives. The seven? 1. Shutting others out. 2. Making converts for our own sake and in our own image. 3. Making rules for others despite a lack of personal spiritual insight. 4. Majoring on minor religious issues while ignoring God’s true priorities. 5. Being concerned with appearances rather than personal righteousness. 6. Covering sinful motives with deceitful talk and actions. 7. Professing responsiveness to God as a cloak to hostility. Oh, yes. If you want a positive prescription, you might try a simple exercise. Just turn each of these seven around, and make your own list of seven qualities that make for spiritual success!
Be wary, for we too are vulnerable to the attitudes that ensnared the Pharisees.
“Humility and self-contempt will obtain our wish far sooner than stubborn pride. Though God is so exalted, His eyes regard the lowly, both in heaven and earth, and we shall strive in vain to please Him in any other way than by abasing ourselves.”—John of Avila