John 12, Matthew 21-23
The Return of the King
With this lesson, we begin the final week of the Lord’s mortal life and ministry. He has gained followers throughout Israel over the preceding three years, but he has also gained many enemies. His critique of the Sadduccees and Pharisees has increased with each visit to Jerusalem, especially at the previous Festival of Tabernacles and Festival of Dedication.
It is Springtime, and the animals are birthing in the fields. It is the time of Passover, when Israel solemnly remembers the Ten Miracles of Moses in Egypt, culminating in the sacrifice of the unblemished lamb, sprinkling its blood on the doorposts so that the Destroyer will pass over that household, and eating its flesh as a symbol of salvation.
Jesus stays in Bethany at night during much of the festival. It is a small town near Jerusalem. Recently, this blog discussed the miracle of raising Lazarus from the grave, as paralleled by the parable of Lazarus and the rich man. Such notoriety from such miracles have preceded Jesus into Jerusalem. The leaders of the Jews fear him and his power.
And now the Messiah enters triumphantly into the city of David. He rides while his followers wave palm fronds and lay their cloaks out for him to ride upon. The laying out of cloaks was a sign of submission, while the palm fronds represented victory. First century Jewish coins had a palm leaf symbol with the phrase “redemption of Zion” on them, signifying that the Jews sought a Messiah who would save them from Rome’s oppression. Jesus’ riding on the ass’ foal fulfilled a prophecy of Zechariah (Zech 9:9). Jesus chose a donkey to ride upon. Horses were used for war. Donkeys were a symbol of peace. The colt especially was a harmless and peaceful animal, just as Christ was come to be the Prince of Peace and not the violent warrior many Jews wished for.
The people shouted out, “Hosanna to the Son of David: Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord; Hosanna in the highest” (Matt 21:9). Hosanna means “save now” or “save us”. So the people were asking Christ to save them. As Son of David, they recognized him as their king. King David successfully defeated the enemies of Israel, and they expected Jesus to do the same.
The shout comes from Psalms 118:
10 All nations compassed me about: but in the name of the Lord will I destroy them.
11They compassed me about; yea, they compassed me about: but in the name of the Lord I will destroy them.
12 They compassed me about like bees; they are quenched as the fire of thorns: for in the name of the Lord I will destroy them.
13 Thou hast thrust sore at me that I might fall: but the Lord helped me.
14 The Lord is my strength and song, and is become my salvation.
15 The voice of rejoicing and salvation is in the tabernacles of the righteous: the right hand of the Lord doeth valiantly.
16 The right hand of the Lord is exalted: the right hand of the Lord doeth valiantly.
17 I shall not die, but live, and declare the works of the Lord.
18 The Lord hath chastened me sore: but he hath not given me over unto death.
19 Open to me the gates of righteousness: I will go into them, and I will praise the Lord:
20 This gate of the Lord, into which the righteous shall enter.
21 I will praise thee: for thou hast heard me, and art become my salvation.
22 The stone which the builders refused is become the head stone of the corner.
23 This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvellous in our eyes.
24 This is the day which the Lord hath made; we will rejoice and be glad in it.
25 Save now, I beseech thee, O Lord: O Lord, I beseech thee, send now prosperity.
26 Blessed be he that cometh in the name of the Lord: we have blessed you out of the house of the Lord.
27 God is the Lord, which hath shewed us light: bind the sacrifice with cords, even unto the horns of the altar.
28 Thou art my God, and I will praise thee: thou art my God, I will exalt thee.
29 O give thanks unto the Lord; for he is good: for his mercy endureth for ever.
We will see that Jesus will quote a portion of this later to the Jewish leaders, telling them he is the stone which the builders (they) had rejected. For now, the people are begging him to “Save now” (Hosanna) and to send prosperity (in the highest). Yet the people do not fully understand the Messianic meaning of the Psalm. For them, the sacrifice would be the destruction of Rome. However, Jesus knows, even as he enters triumphantly into the City of David, he is the sacrifice bound with cords to the altar of the temple.
This triumphant entrance into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday will be very different than his exit out the gate on Friday. Instead of riding, he will be carrying his own cross. Instead of shouting “Hosanna!”, the people will shout “crucify him!” Instead of being Son of David and King of Israel, he will be a traitor, blasphemer and a criminal worthy of the worst death imaginable. Instead of being surrounded by believers, he will have thieves to each side. Instead of reviving the dead Lazarus on the Saturday before, he will die.
The Fig Tree
Unlike many other types of fruit tree, the fig first puts out its fruit and then come the leaves. When Jesus was “afar off” he saw the tree full of leaves. He anticipated a meal after traveling back to Jerusalem, but was disappointed to see the tree had no fruit. In its own way, the tree deceived him, and so he cursed it for not fulfilling its calling to bear fruit and multiply.
The fig tree symbolizes the Jewish leaders of his day. From a distance, they looked like true leaders of God’s Church. But upon closer inspection, one could see they bore no real fruit. They were deceivers that encouraged people to come to them for spiritual nourishment, only to leave them wanting. Later, Jesus would condemn the Pharisees as hypocrites. They made their disciples worse than they themselves were. These were people seeking God at God’s holy temple, but were left spiritually twisted and depraved.
Jesus cursed the tree to never more have fruit, but to wither and die. For the Pharisees, he sought them to never more have disciples to destroy. He wished them to wither away and die, as well. Symbolic of this is Jesus’ first act in going to Jerusalem: cleansing the temple.
The temple represented the House of the Lord, the most sacred spot on earth. From a distance it looked magnificent and astounding. It was a wonder to behold. But it was desecrated by money changers, turned from a holy place to a market place. Jesus described the Pharisees and the current Jewish religions as a white sepulchre (Matthew 23:27-28). From the outside they looked magnificent and inspiring. But inside, one only found dried, bleached bones. Starvation and death awaited those who depended upon the deceptive fig tree or upon the Pharisees.
Answering the Hypocrites
Jesus’ answers became more biting towards the Pharisees and Sadduccees. He was forcing people to get off the fence and choose who they would follow: the traditions of men, or the Messiah.
The Parable of the Wedding of the King’s Son describes a huge event. For his friends and servants to ignore his invitation was to shun him. He was humiliated by the other prominent men of the kingdom when they even mocked and murdered those sent out with the invitations. These are actions worthy of war.
The Jews had often slain the prophets, who were sent to invite all mankind to believe in Christ. The King would destroy those who rejected the invitation to come. Instead, the King would then invite the poor and humble in circumstance to the wedding. This showed that the Jewish leaders and much of the people would be rejected as God’s covenant people. It also looks forward to the day when the gospel would go outside of the kingdom of Israel and into the “highways” to bring in Gentiles and whomever else was willing to come.
One guest had not dressed for the wedding. Upon arriving at such a wedding, it was expected for the guests to stop long enough to change into wedding garments. Often these were provided, so they only had to change. For one invited to break with such an important issue meant the person was showing huge disrespect for the wedding party. The person showed up for the food, but not to honor the King nor his Son. Such dishonor required quick action. When asked why he did not change, the man “remained speechless”, meaning he did not have a good reason for breaking protocol. He intentionally went in without changing, not caring to show respect.
That the scripture says he is bound and cast into Outer Darkness, suggests even more. Those who merit Outer Darkness are like Satan, they seek to destroy God’s plan and overthrow God. The man who did not change into the wedding garment, sought heaven on his own terms. As Lucifer seeking to overthrow God’s throne (Isaiah 14) would be cast out of his grave, or the Pharisees attempting to steal the religion from Jesus, this is an issue of outright rebellion.
Resurrection and Marriage
Later, the Sadduccees would attempt to trick Christ. They did not believe in resurrection, yet still posed to him a question regarding resurrection. A woman married a man, who died. In the Mosaic law, she was then to marry a relative of the man in order to raise seed to him. Yet, she sequentially married his brothers with all dying. Finally she died, meaning there was no seed. They asked which man she would be left with in the resurrection.
Jesus’ answer does not say there is no marriage whatsoever in heaven. It says there is no marriage in heaven for this woman and her husbands:
29 Jesus answered and said unto them, Ye do err, not knowing the scriptures, nor the power of God.
30 For in the resurrection they neither marry, nor are given in marriage, but are as the angels of God in heaven.
31 But as touching the resurrection of the dead, have ye not read that which was spoken unto you by God, saying,
32 I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob? God is not the God of the dead, but of the living.
Jesus was telling them that there IS a resurrection. The woman and her husbands would not be married in heaven, because they were not worthy of such a blessing. Why? Because since Sadduccees, who did not believe in resurrection nor in Christ, were asking the question, they would not have eternal marriage, either. Such would be angels in heaven, having rejected the most important parts of the gospel. Rather than being the “heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ” (Romans 8:17), they would be “angels of God in heaven.”
This is an example of levels of glory in heaven. Jesus noted that the woman and men would still receive place in God’s heaven. However, they will not receive his highest glory, reserved for those who accept the fullness of Christ’s gospel.
The Two Great Commandments
According to the Jewish scholar Maimonides, In the Mosaic Law there are 613 Mitzvot or commandments. These include the Ten Commandments, but also a myriad of laws regarding the Jewish health code, temple, and Sabbath observance. This included good laws, but also many we would consider strange or excessive today.
A lawyer of the sect of Pharisees asked Jesus, “what is the greatest commandment?” Pharisees were very strict followers of the law. Not only did they have the 613 laws from the Bible, but had added a series of laws and requirements of their own as a wall or barrier to keep people from breaking the laws of the Torah (books of Moses). These included many Sabbath laws that prevented men from helping others in trouble on the Sabbath - a key reason the Pharisees condemned Jesus for healing on the Sabbath.
For the Savior, there was an easy answer:
“Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Matt 22:37-39).
The Law and the Prophets were the 613 laws given in the Mosaic Law, plus the additional teachings of all the prophets since Moses. The Mosaic Law commanded a person to love his neighbor (other Israelites), but it was okay to hate their enemies. Now Christ brought the law into a new perspective. They were to love all mankind.
What Think Ye of Christ?
Jesus then posed a difficult question to the Jewish leaders:
41 While the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them,
42 Saying, What think ye of Christ? whose son is he? They say unto him, The Son of David.
43 He saith unto them, How then doth David in spirit call him Lord, saying,
44 The LORD said unto my Lord, Sit thou on my right hand, till I make thine enemies thy footstool?
45 If David then call him Lord, how is he his son?
46 And no man was able to answer him a word, neither durst any man from that day forth ask him any more questions.
They believed the Christ or Messiah would be the literal Son of David, and as such would come as a mortal king to destroy the enemies of Israel, which in their time were the Romans.
Jesus teaches them that the coming Messiah would not just be the Son of David, but would actually be Yahweh/Jehovah, the Lord. The Messiah would be the literal Son of God, and not just an archangel sent to earth to fight Israel’s battles. Old Testament Scholar Margaret Barker notes that the ancient Jews understood that Yahweh was their Messiah. The Jews lost this understanding before the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians. Jesus was restoring this understanding, something the early Christians definitely understood and embraced.
After all his miracles (including raising Lazarus just a couple days before), his remarkable entrance into Jerusalem, and his ability to stymie the best lawyers and scholars of the Jews, they would no more ask him questions in public.
Don’t be a Pharisee
Jesus warned his disciples to follow the teachings of the Mosaic Law when taught by the Pharisees, but not to follow their example. The Pharisees followed the letter of the law, but not the spirit. Their actions betrayed their insincerity.
The Law of Moses required the wearing of phylacteries, little boxes with scripture hung from the forehead and wrist. While the Pharisees did this, they wore very large ones, to stand out. For them, it was a sign of righteousness to have a bigger phylactery than the next person. The inner vessel did not matter.
On the edge of their Talit or prayer shawl, Jews wore a knotted fringe on the shawl, called tzit-tzit. In Numbers 15:37-41, the Lord commanded Israel to wear such a fringe to remind them to keep the commandments. For the Pharisees, however, the fringe was not used to remind them of their duties, but as an outward display to others that they were holy. In their attempt to show holiness, they allowed pride and narcissism to corrupt them. The temple was also corrupted in the same way. It was the symbol of God’s presence, but instead was a place for the Jewish leaders to make a large profit off those people traveling from afar to Passover. At Passover, they would be expected to spend local currency, and so money changers would extract huge gains through corrupt exchange rates. Then travelers would have to purchase animals for sacrifice. Again, they would be forced to spend large sums to buy sacrificial animals to offer up to God.
Just as with the fig tree, the focus was on the pretty leaves that could be seen from a distance, rather than the fruit. But upon close inspection, the tree, the temple and the Pharisees were all barren of fruit.
13 But woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye shut up the kingdom of heaven against men: for ye neither go in yourselves, neither suffer ye them that are entering to go in.
14 Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye devour widows' houses, and for a pretence make long prayer: therefore ye shall receive the greater damnation.
15 Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye compass sea and land to make one proselyte, and when he is made, ye make him twofold more the child of hell than yourselves.
16 Woe unto you, ye blind guides, which say, Whosoever shall swear by the temple, it is nothing; but whosoever shall swear by the gold of the temple, he is a debtor!
17 Ye fools and blind: for whether is greater, the gold, or the temple that sanctifieth the gold?
The Pharisees had exchanged the important things of the spirit for things of the flesh. Widows seeking salvation would spend everything they had to buy animals to sacrifice at the temple, enriching the Pharisees and scribes of the temple. For the Pharisees, the length of the prayer was more important than the intent behind the prayer. They sought out converts, which they would then corrupt by their true methods. If the Pharisee could be corruptible, the convert could go several steps beyond in enriching himself and his Pharisaic leaders. Gold was more important than the temple’s real purpose. They were taking the symbol of heaven and casting it down to hell. They would soon take the Son of God and desecrate him, as well.
Today the same call goes out. Are we Pharisees or true followers of Christ? Do we give lip service to God, while enriching ourselves upon the backs of the widows and orphans? Do we show ourselves to better Christians by having a larger cross, bigger Bible, or dropping more into the offering plate in a manner where everyone else sees it? Do we build ourselves up by tearing down the publicans and sinners of our day?
In our daily lives, do we embrace the Christ, laying palm branches and our cloaks down before him? Or are we waiting in the shadows for the time to betray him? Each of us must answer for ourselves if we have truly accepted and received Jesus the Messiah as our personal Lord and Savior. And then we must answer if we truly are following him, or as the fig tree are only wearing the leaves of our deception?
Palm Sunday (Wikipedia): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Palm_Sunday
Alfred Edersheim, Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah: http://www.ccel.org/ccel/edersheim/lifetimes.toc.html
Ibid, the Fig Tree
The 613 Mitzvot: http://www.jewfaq.org/613.htm
Margaret Barker on Jesus as Messiah:
Margaret Barker’s Book, The Great Angel, a Study of Israel’s Second God:
Amazon.com Margaret Barker's Great Angel
Talit and tzit-tzit: http://www.religionfacts.com/judaism/things/tallit.htm