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The Beginning of the End – Matthew 21


The beginning of the end started with Jesus’ return to Jerusalem. He did not creep into town. He entered triumphantly with crowds from Jerusalem going out to meet Him and the crowd of pilgrims accompanying Him from Bethany.

This was a prophesied, Messianic moment. Psalm 118 has many allusions to what the crowd shouted that day. Zechariah 9:9 said:

See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey….

The crowds shouted many things – most of them having Messianic overtones.

Hosanna to the Son of David!

Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!

Hosanna in the highest!

This is fulfillment of Psalm 118:25-27.

O Lord, save us; oh LORD, grant us success. Blessed is He who comes in the name of the LORD. From the house of the LORD we bless you. The LORD is God, and He has made His light shine upon us. With boughs in hand, join in the festal procession up to the horns of the altar.

“Lord, save us” is the meaning of Hosanna. “The Son of David” was one designation of the Messiah. “The horns of the altar” were at the Temple, which is where the procession ended – with the children still crying out their Hosannas. The palm branches were borrowed from the Feast of Tabernacles (Leviticus 23:40), one of the most joyous of all the Jewish festivals. These palm fronds had become a symbol of Jewish nationalism.

Join all of these things together, and you can see why the Temple authorities were alarmed. They were already concerned that the enthusiasm of  the crowd would bring down the wrath of Rome on them. Such an open display was bound to get their attention and their indignation.

Monday in the Temple

Mark has some chronological notes that Matthew does not have. Mark says that when Jesus entered the Temple, “He looked around at everything, but since it was already late, He went out to Bethany with the Twelve” (Mark 11:11). Thus, the next events took place on Monday, not on the Sunday of the Triumphant Entry.

When Jesus returned to the Temple, He “drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves” (Matthew 21:12). He quoted Isaiah 56:7 against those there:

My house will be called a house of prayer, but you are making it a “den of robbers.” – Matthew 21:13

I was reminded of this passage when I visited some of the great cathedrals in England, particularly The Westminster Abby in London. These cathedrals have become tourist attractions more than places of worship – and they have all of the commercial activity of most any tourist destination.

The Temple activity was particularly heinous because they took advantage of the worshipers in many ways. (1) Those coming could not bring their own animals for sacrifice, because the sacrifices had to be approved as spotless – and the inspectors were the Temple priests. (2) They would sell their own animals and bring money to buy pre-inspected animals at the Temple. But they could not use their money; they had to exchange their currency used all over the Empire for Temple cash – at a poor rate of exchange. (3) They then would buy the acceptable sacrifices – at high prices. All of this was overseen by Annas, the former High Priest and father-in-law of Caiaphas the current High Priest. (These were the men who presided over the Jewish trials of Jesus later in the week.)

Again, Jesus returned to Bethany with His disciples.

Tuesday in the Temple

The next day, they returned to the Temple. On Monday, as they were going into the city, Jesus had cursed the fig tree. Actually, the cursing of the tree was on Monday; the disciples marveling at how soon it withered was on Tuesday. You can see this by comparing Mark 11:12-14 and 11:20-21. Matthew 21:18 conflates the events of the two days and puts it on the day after the Triumphant Entry.

This event is a parable in action. The nation of Israel is the unfruitful fig tree. Jesus is showing that the nation, being unfruitful, is withering and will soon be destroyed. Jesus told several parables this day with the same message.

Before that, though, he had to face some questioning by the Temple authorities. As He was going about His business teaching in the Temple, the chief priests and elders came to Him with a question:

By what authority are you doing these things?

By this they meant driving the buyers and sellers from the Temple courts, overturning the tables of the money-changer, and driving the sacrificial animals from the Temple. “Who do you think you are upsetting our Temple routine this way?”

Jesus deflected their question and pointed out how utterly unqualified they were to judge Jesus’ credentials by asking them a question: “John’s baptism – where did it come from? Was it from heaven or from men?” After considering the alternatives – and the likely responses of Jesus and the people around Him – they decided they could not answer.

Parable One: The Two Sons. Jesus told this one to his questioners. A father told two sons to go work in His vineyard. The first said he would not go – but later repented and went. The second said he would go – but did not. Who did the will of the father? The crowd responded that it was the first. Jesus replied,

I tell you the truth, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him. – Matthew 21:31-32

Parable Two: The Parable of the Tenants. A landowner planted a vineyard, fully equipped. He let it out to tenants on a “sharecropper” basis. The rent was a portion of the produce. When it came time to pay, the tenants abused those sent to collect and finally even killed the heir, thinking this would give them the vineyard. Jesus asked what would the landowner do to the tenants?

The Jewish leaders replied that he would “bring those wretches to a wretched end, and he will rent the vineyard to other tenants, who will give him his share of the crop at harvest time.”

Jesus applied it: “The kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit” (Matthew 21:43).

The chief priests and the Pharisees knew He told this parable against them (21:45). They looked for a way to arrest Him – but they were afraid of the people.

QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER

  1. Jesus obviously took advantage of the excitement of the crowds to provoke the Jewish leaders to jealousy when He rode into Jerusalem on the donkey. Why would He do this?
  2. His provocation of the Jewish leaders continued when He overturned the tables of the money changers. How is this related to His statement that “No one takes my life from me; I lay it down of myself”? (See John 10:17-18, said not long before this last week.)
  3. How was Israel an unfruitful fig tree? (Cf. Isaiah 5:1-7)
  4. How did Jesus’ question about John’s baptism expose the incompetence of the Jewish leaders? What would this do to their moral authority over the people?
  5. In what way were the tax collectors and prostitutes on the one hand and the Jewish leaders on the other hand like the two sons who were asked to go into the Father’s vineyard and work?
  6. What fruit did the landowner expect from his vineyard? (See Isaiah 5:1-7, which forms the background to this parable.)
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