Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. Zechariah 9:9
We have now come to the last days of Jesus' life. Remember that He has spent much of His ministry focused in the region of Galilee, drawing nearer to Jerusalem in the region of Judea just in the last few months of Matthew's account. Now Jesus enters Jerusalem to begin the final phase of His ministry on earth. Before we do that, let's briefly recap the road so far... Matthew started his account with the Geneology of Jesus' family and several proofs from Scripture that this was the long-awaited Messiah. Then he set the stage for the purpose of Jesus' ministry and life on earth: to proclaim the Gospel of the Kingdom, to heal, and to fulfill the Law and all the Prophets. Over the course of Jesus' ministry, He has encountered three groups of people each with distinct reactions to His ministry and His identification as the Messiah: the Disciples who believed and followed Him, the Religious Leaders who en masse rejected Him (except for a couple of notable exceptions), and Gentiles some who chose to believe and some who rejected Him. Jesus makes it clear that He has come for the Jews first and then for the Gentiles, for this reason, He geographically focuses the vast majority of His ministry among His own people.
The key questions that have been posed so far are:
"Who do you say that I (Jesus) am?"
What must I do to enter the Kingdom of Heaven?
If I am not able to do this and am always found lacking, then how shall I or anyone else be saved?
Who is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven?
Are you able to drink my (Jesus') cup?
Is there a reward for living and suffering for the Name of Jesus?
Why must the Son of Man (Jesus) be handed over to the religious leaders and then to the Gentiles to suffer and die?
What does it mean He will rise again three days later?
These last two questions are ones I think even Jesus' closest disciples did not have an answer for in their own hearts at the beginning of this momentous week. However, I believe that they are the key to what makes Jesus more than just an excellent Teacher or Holy Man who happened to live thousands of years ago. Their answers are the key to the Gospel!
The Final Week - Day 1
The King Enters The Royal City
Now when they drew near to Jerusalem and came to Bethphage, to the Mount of Olives, then Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village in front of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her. Untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, you shall say, ‘The Lord needs them,’ and he will send them at once.” This took place to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet, saying, “Say to the daughter of Zion, ‘Behold, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden.’” Matthew 21:1-5
Imagine that you have been following Jesus for the last three years. You've seen Him do incredible things: healing the sick, opening the eyes of the blind, the ears of the deaf, making the lame walk, cleansing lepers, and rebuking demons. He has walked on water and calmed the raging wind and waves. More than once the crowds have tried to forcibly take Him and make Him their King. The nation of Israel is stirring, rumors fly from Jerusalem to Rome that the people are ready to rebel... they hope to throw off the tyranny of their Roman overlords for good! Jesus has brought up a few times that the reason He is going to Jerusalem is to be handed over for suffering and execution, but how could that be?! How would they dare?! Then you are sent to fetch a young donkey for your King to make His entrance into the Royal City of David... In case, dear reader, you didn't know, a donkey is not the first choice of transportation for a King. In Jesus' day, if He had come for what His people anticipated then He would have entered on some impressive horse or chariot dressed in the grandeur of His might. Instead, He comes to them humbly riding on a donkey. Do you think the people noticed this distinct choice?
Also note, that the disciples are simply to go ahead trusting that God will provide what Jesus has commanded them to retrieve and have faith enough that if anyone confronts them with their "virtual theft" of a donkey, they are to simply answer that, "the Lord needs them." And that person will have the faith to send them without further question.
According to scholars, the Scriptures Matthew is quoting from include Zechariah 9:9 which you read above, and Isaiah 62:11 which I have included below with its following verse. I highly encourage you to go read both of these chapters in their full context as they speak hundreds of years before the Triumphal Entry of the wonderful day when the Messiah would come to save His people; The Redeemed of the Lord.
Behold, the Lord has proclaimed to the end of the earth: Say to the daughter of Zion, “Behold, your salvation comes; behold, his reward is with him, and his recompense before him.” And they shall be called The Holy People, The Redeemed of the Lord; and you shall be called Sought Out, A City Not Forsaken. Isaiah 62:11-12
The disciples went and did as Jesus instructed them, bring back a young donkey for Him to ride into the city. In the meantime, the crowds gathered before Him to lay their branches and cloaks in the road as they would before a homecoming King.
The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them. They brought the donkey and the colt and put on them their cloaks, and he sat on them. Most of the crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. And the crowds that went before him and that followed him were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” And when he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred up, saying, “Who is this?” And the crowds said, “This is the prophet Jesus, from Nazareth of Galilee.” Matthew 21:6-11
Notice the conflict between what the crowds are shouting and who they tell the people of Jerusalem that Jesus is. They cry out before Him, "Hosanna to the Son of David!" This is a term of praise and worship clearly identifying Jesus as the Messiah but when asked the crowds answer that He is only a prophet from Nazareth of Galilee.
How many sit in our churches today who proclaim Jesus to be the Messiah when they sing praise to Him and sit to hear the teaching of God's Word, but when asked by their friends outside the church doors answer, "He was a good man. He had a good message. He makes me feel loved, accepted as I am, and hopeful. He was at most a prophet."?
Who do you say that He is?
The King Enters His House
And Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who sold and bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons. He said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer,’ but you make it a den of robbers.” Matthew 21:12-13
When we think of God today, we are often given a picture of a wrathful God in the Old Testament who judged His people harshly and dealt even more violently with His enemies. In the New Testament, we're made to believe that for some reason God has totally reformed and is now gentle, merciful, pacifist, and willing to forgive all of humanity. Those who characterize God this way do not know Him at all! From the very fall of Adam and Eve, He set in motion His plan to redeem those who would follow Him and to bring them back to Himself. Yet, in this plan, He did not stop being just in response to sin.
For a time, He set in place His ceremonial Law as a symbol of His covenant and grace for His chosen people Israel. The celebration that the people had come to Jerusalem for at this time was Passover in remembrance of God's deliverance of His people from slavery in Egypt. There they had sacrificed a lamb whose blood they placed on the doorposts of their houses so that the Angel of Death who had come to kill the firstborn of any family who was not under this covenant would pass them by. The people of Israel even in that generation forgot how good God had been to them and they constantly rebelled against Him, failing to give Him the honor that He is due! God's wonderful promise in Isaiah 56 is that when the Messiah comes, the House of the Lord will be open for all peoples to come to Him, not just the Jews who for so long have broken His covenant.
“And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord, and to be his servants, everyone who keeps the Sabbath and does not profane it, and holds fast my covenant— these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.” Isaiah 56:6-7
The other reference Jesus is making here is to Jeremiah 7 where God is warning His people that just because they call the Temple the House of the Lord and dwell in the city ceremonially "keeping His Law" when it pleases them to do so does not mean that they will be spared from the coming judgment that He is going to bring on the rebellious nation. He promises them that the very Temple they worship in will be torn down and destroyed just as Shiloh was once destroyed and the Ark of the Covenant carried away by Israel's enemies. This did happen when the Israelites were taken into captivity in Babylon and subsequently Persia, but King Herod had helped them to rebuild the Temple and in 70 a.d. it would be destroyed again by Rome. God stood as a witness against their great sin in His House.
Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your eyes? Behold, I myself have seen it, declares the Lord. Jeremiah 7:11
Jesus echoes this condemnation of how they have defiled His House and twisted the worship He had set up to remind them of His grace to satisfy their own greed. In another of the Gospel accounts, it says that Jesus actually took the time to braid His own whip before driving these corrupt moneychangers and salesmen out of the Temple! This was not a rash reactionary anger, but a deep premeditated wrath against these evil men.
The King is Worthy of Praise
And the blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he healed them. But when the chief priests and the scribes saw the wonderful things that he did, and the children crying out in the temple, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” they were indignant, and they said to him, “Do you hear what these are saying?” And Jesus said to them, “Yes; have you never read, “‘Out of the mouth of infants and nursing babies you have prepared praise’?” And leaving them, he went out of the city to Bethany and lodged there. Matthew 21:14-17
What an incredible end to a very busy first day of this last week of Jesus' life and ministry. Even the children in the Temple are crying out, "Hosanna to the Son of David!" Of course, this would piss of the religious leaders as these children are very loudly proclaiming Jesus to be the Messiah. Their question to Jesus is not one that they really expect an answer to, what they're saying is that Jesus should make the children stop declaring Him to be the expected King promised to them hundreds of years earlier. Instead, Jesus answers them with Psalm 8:2. In Greek, the translation would read, "you have established praise..." our Bible translates this Psalm out of the Hebrew which says strength instead of praise. It is indeed very interesting to consider as you read it both ways and meditate on what this equivalence of praise to strength means in the context of the Psalm and Jesus' quotation of it.
O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens. Out of the mouth of babies and infants, you have established strength because of your foes, to still the enemy and the avenger. Psalm 8:1-2
The Final Week - Day 2
The King Curses a Fig Tree
In the morning, as he was returning to the city, he became hungry. And seeing a fig tree by the wayside, he went to it and found nothing on it but only leaves. And he said to it, “May no fruit ever come from you again!” And the fig tree withered at once. Matthew 21:18-19
This is possibly one of the strangest miracles that Jesus performs! While it seems that Jesus has decided to curse this tree out of some kind of hangery reaction to its lack of fruit, I think it's important we give this miracle a second look. After all, Jesus had remained in the desert for 40 days without food and turned down the temptation of it when the Enemy came to test Him, so it's very unlikely this action has anything to do with hunger or anger toward the unfortunate tree. Perhaps we can find greater context for this strange behavior in the other Gospel accounts...
The first thing that you notice in Mark's account of this event is that his timeline is slightly different than Matthew's account. According to Mark, the Triumphal Entry took place late in the day, Jesus entered the temple and looked around but then left with His disciples. Similar to Matthew's account, Mark describes the cursing of the fig tree on the following day as they return to Jerusalem from Bethany.
On the following day, when they came from Bethany, he was hungry. And seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to see if he could find anything on it. When he came to it, he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. And he said to it, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard it. Mark 11:12-14
Here we have a couple of other clues that this event probably had very little to do with the fact Jesus was hungry. First, it was not the season for figs, so Jesus wouldn't have expected to find the ripe fruit there. Secondly, however, we do know that if this tree were going to produce fruit in the proper season, at this time there would have been edible buds apparent on the tree. Therefore, not only was there no fruit but there was no evidence that the tree would produce fruit that season.
Mark then tells us that Jesus went to the temple and drove out the moneychangers and vendors on this day. It is not until the following morning as they are once again traveling from Bethany to Jerusalem that the disciples notice the fig tree has withered.
As they passed by in the morning, they saw the fig tree withered away to its roots. And Peter remembered and said to him, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree that you cursed has withered.” And Jesus answered them, “Have faith in God. Truly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says will come to pass, it will be done for him. Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses. But if you do not forgive, neither will your Father who is in heaven forgive your trespasses." Mark 11:20-26
This last verse is italicized because some manuscripts do not include it. Mark has added here that not only must they have faith and not doubt but they must come to prayer in an attitude of forgiveness if they desire to be forgiven.
These are the only two accounts that include this event. The differences between the Gospels may have you wondering if this is evidence of contradiction or if the accounts are inaccurate. I would humbly submit to you that each of the Gospels is presented through four separate witnesses of the events, each with a distinct personal focus on the life of Jesus. If four different people witness a crime, each will have slightly varying accounts depending on where they were standing, how much they were able to see, how much they were able to hear, what personal knowledge they had of the criminal and the victim, and even dependency on their own personal biases about the crime being discussed. In Matthew's case, he focuses greatly on the proofs of Hebrew Scripture born out through Jesus' life, death, and resurrection. He groups his account of events topically instead of perfectly in chronological order. In the end, scholars have found that even with their differences the Gospel accounts do not contradict but only serve to confirm from four perspectives the wonderful truth of Jesus' life.
Taking all of these things into account, we find that the topical context of the events occurring around the cursing of the fig tree is even more important for understanding what it meant. We can also look back to the Old Testament for clues as Matthew has directed our focus there so often. I had a little help on this from Bible Reference so check out their resources if you are interested.
Following the chapter in Jeremiah that Jesus pointed to earlier when rebuking those who had turned the temple into "a den of robbers." God is telling Jeremiah was He has declared in judgment against His faithless and evil people who feel no remorse for their constant sin.
Were they ashamed when they committed abomination? No, they were not at all ashamed; they did not know how to blush. Therefore they shall fall among the fallen; when I punish them, they shall be overthrown, says the Lord. When I would gather them, declares the Lord, there are no grapes on the vine, nor figs on the fig tree; even the leaves are withered, and what I gave them has passed away from them.” Jeremiah 8:12-13
The fig tree of Israel has been made to wither, their King had come to gather the faithful into His storehouse but no fruit could be found. The salvation that had been promised to them has been removed from the faithless and He will no longer pass over their sin because they will not be covered by the blood of His perfect Lamb. Jesus commands His disciples then to have faith and not to doubt, to come before God giving and seeking forgiveness knowing the evil of their own hearts apart from His grace. This is not a promise of a vending-machine-type God who will give them whatever they want as long as they believe well enough! It is a warning not to become like the ever backsliding people of Israel. How fitting is it then that Jesus' very next encounter is with the religious leaders who once again challenge His authority?
And when he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came up to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” Jesus answered them, “I also will ask you one question, and if you tell me the answer, then I also will tell you by what authority I do these things. The baptism of John, from where did it come? From heaven or from man?” And they discussed it 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 man,’ we are afraid of the crowd, for they all hold that John was a prophet.” So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things. Matthew 21:23-27
Seeking to trap Him, the religious leaders had laid a trap for themselves instead! Jesus does not stop with this simple answer regarding His authority. He continues on with a series of parables that take us right back to God's rebuke of Israel's sin in Jeremiah chapter 8.
“What do you think? A man had two sons. And he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ And he answered, ‘I will not,’ but afterward he changed his mind and went. And he went to the other son and said the same. And he answered, ‘I go, sir,’ but did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him. And even when you saw it, you did not afterward change your minds and believe him. Matthew 21:28-32
Like their forefathers, these religious leaders had been given ample opportunity to turn from their sin. They knew the Law better than anyone else in Judea and they knew in their hearts that John's authority did indeed come from Heaven. Yet they would not repent, "No they were not at all ashamed; they did not know how to blush."
“Hear another parable. There was a master of a house who planted a vineyard and put a fence around it and dug a winepress in it and built a tower and leased it to tenants, and went into another country. When the season for fruit drew near, he sent his servants to the tenants to get his fruit. And the tenants took his servants and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Again he sent other servants, more than the first. And they did the same to them. Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir. Come, let us kill him and have his inheritance.’ And they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. When therefore the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death and let out the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the fruits in their seasons.” Matthew 21:33-41
For the entire history of the nation of Israel, God has sent His servants the Prophets to give His Word to His people. Without fail, the Israelites would persecute these men of God and disregard the warnings these servants gave for the people to repent and return to worshiping God as He is worthy! Finally, God has sent His Son to them and Jesus has told His disciples what is about to occur regarding His death. These Jews who are among the most outwardly righteous of God's people do not even recognize the King as He stands before them!
Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the Scriptures: “‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord's doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes’? Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruits. And the one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and when it falls on anyone, it will crush him.” When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they perceived that he was speaking about them. And although they were seeking to arrest him, they feared the crowds, because they held him to be a prophet. Matthew 21:42-46
The builders are the religious leaders of Israel, the Stone they have rejected is Christ. Yet God has made Him the Cornerstone on which His House is built. Pointing back to the Passover Jesus quotes from Psalm 118 which was read annually at this memorial feast.
The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone. This is the Lord's doing; it is marvelous in our eyes. Psalm 118:22-23
The Passover was the Jews greatest reminder of God's covenant of grace with them, yet now Jesus is making it increasingly clear that the old covenant is passing away. The endless sacrifices of hypocrites who honored God with their lips but not in their hearts would no longer be sufficient for the covering of Israel's sin. He will continue with one more parable in the next chapter, but for now I will leave you with one more quotation at the end of Jeremiah's lament after hearing what the Lord has declared in judgment against His people.
Thus says the Lord: “Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom, let not the mighty man boast in his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches, but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight, declares the Lord.” “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will punish all those who are circumcised merely in the flesh— Egypt, Judah, Edom, the sons of Ammon, Moab, and all who dwell in the desert who cut the corners of their hair, for all these nations are uncircumcised, and all the house of Israel are uncircumcised in heart.” Jeremiah 9:23-26
Do you know the Lord? Is your heart circumcised in the blood of the New Covenant that He has made with us through His Son? Or are you withered without fruit cursed like the fig tree?