The Royal Procession into the City (Matthew 21:1-11)
[April 1, 2012] For this meditation, I will assume many of the details brought out in my earlier post in 2008, “Jesus’ Entry into the City of God.” It is in the year 30 CE, on the tenth day of the Jewish month of Nisan when the lamb that was to be slaughtered for the Passover Seder on the fourteenth was to be set aside (Exodus 12:3). Jesus sent two of His disciples ahead to fetch a donkey and its colt at the crossroad by the little village at the bottom of the Mount of Olives. When they returned to Jesus, they also brought a crowd that accompanied them from Jerusalem and they met Jesus who already had a larger crowd gathered around Him. All this had been arranged beforehand. The crowd with made up mostly of other pilgrims from Galilee who had likewise come to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover, some of whom were staying in the City; there were also some sympathizers who lived in or around Jerusalem. Jesus had planned to enter the City in a parade, riding (apparently) first the donkey and then the colt.
It was a joyous crowd that surrounded Him. Many of them spread their garments on the road in front of Him as a carpet for the donkey and colt to walk on and many cut branches from the trees and spread them out on the road before Him. As they processed, they cried out triumphantly, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessèd is He who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” “Blessèd is He who comes in the name of the Lord!” is a Hebrew expression of welcome. The Hebrew word “Hosanna” means “Do save, we pray” (see Psalm 118:25), a cry for deliverance, and they shouted this to the One they called, the “Son of David,” the heir to David’s throne on Mount Zion in Jerusalem, in the name of God (“the Highest”). The title “Son of David” is messianic and evokes the image of Solomon riding on a mule to take the throne of his father David when Adonijah had attempted to claim it illegitimately. Jesus, however, chose to ride on a donkey and a colt in fulfillment of the prophecy from Zechariah 9:9-10, “Exult greatly, O daughter of Zion; shout, O daughter of Jerusalem! Now your King comes to you. He is righteous and bears salvation, lowly and riding upon a donkey, even upon a colt, the foal of a donkey. And I will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the horse from Jerusalem, and the battle bow will be cut off; and He will speak peace unto the Gentiles, and His dominion will be from sea to sea and from the River [Euphrates] unto the ends of the earth.”
People were expecting the Kingdom of God to be manifested at this time, during the Feast (Luke 19:11). Perhaps it was in anticipation of this that the two blind men whom Jesus healed as He was leaving Jericho had called out to Him, “Have mercy on us, Lord, Son of David!” in the incident that just preceded the event told here (in Matthew 20:29-34). (Matthew prepared us for this title from the first chapter and indeed from the opening words of his gospel.)
The Kingdom of God was not about to be manifested, however, but it was about to be accomplished. For Jesus knew that He had come to the City to die. In Matthew 16:21 He told His disciples that “He must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes and be killed and on the third day be raised,” and in 17:22-23 He told them again, “The Son of Man is about to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill Him, and on the third day He will be raised,” and 20:18-19 He told them a third time, “Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be delivered to the chief priests and scribes. And they will condemn Him to death, and deliver Him to the Gentiles to mock and to scourge and to crucify Him, and on the third day He will be raised.”
Matthew depicts this as a joyous event, which it was for the crowds who loved Jesus, and Jesus welcomed their cheers. After all, He planned this! But something else was roiling inside of Him. For while the farmers and villagers of Galilee and many others welcomed Him into the royal City, the people of Jerusalem were not prepared to do the same. They looked on this parade with grave suspicion (21:10), and their leaders looked on with annoyance and hostility. What did this upstart want? The City of David was occupied by the Romans, and those in power among the Jews were managing things as well as they could; in fact, they had prospered and done well under Roman rule, as had practically every other place in the Empire. The influx of pilgrims boosted the economy several times a year, and the whole city prospered as a result. It was important to maintain the peace of the status quo. Jesus threatened trouble. What did He expect to accomplish by this affair? The peace of the City depended upon how well everyone got along with those in authority, with the Romans and with the chief priests and the scribes (authorized teachers) of the Temple and the elders of the high council (the Sanhedrin). Jesus, an outsider, came into the City claiming to be the Messiah. After all, no son of David had taken the throne of David for generations; that was past history; anyone who claimed to was making a messianic claim, which could spell nothing but trouble with the Roman overlords.
And sure enough, the chief priests and elders were not the only ones who looked askance at this affair of the parade. The Romans too would have been looking on with disapproval. Word would have come to the governor, Pontus Pilate, who would be in the City for the Feast. As it turns out, he decided to make an example of Jesus, based on this incident, in order to instill fear in the multitude to discourage anyone else from getting any crazy ideas that would threaten the Pax Romana.
So we have this divide: the crowds who welcome Jesus as the promised Son of David who would deliver them, who recognized “the Prophet from Nazareth” as the Messiah (though the concept of Messiah was not loaded for them with the ideas of divinity that Christians have since given it), and the people of Jerusalem (though this is understated in the text) who are not prepared to welcome Jesus, at least, certainly not on those terms. Indeed, it would seem as if Jesus planned this event in order to force the issue, to be provocative in a way. The people of Jerusalem (or their leaders at least) were going to have to decide what to do with Him, and their decision would expose them to God’s judgment—not God’s judgment for their decision, per se, but rather for the condition that their decision revealed.
As always the text confront us as well. Where do we stand with respect to Jesus? Jesus is indeed provocative, for there can be no neutral ground with respect to Him. We are either for Him or against Him.
The Scene in the Temple (21:12-17)
As Jesus entered the gate of the City He walked into the courtyard of the Temple precincts. Here, in the Court of the Gentiles—where uncircumcised Gentiles were allowed to stand and worship God (outside the Court of the Women, from which it was separated by a low wall)—were the money changers and those selling animals such as doves for sacrifices. Not everyone could bring their own animals for sacrifice; they had come from afar and so they needed to purchase them. Moreover, Jews who had come from the Diaspora only had foreign coins, which had graven images printed on them. They could not very well bring graven images into the Temple; so they needed to change their coins for Jewish denarii.
Yet when Jesus saw this commerce going on in the Court of the Gentiles, He began to “cast out all those who were buying in the Temple. And He overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who were selling the doves.” It was not a fit of temper but undoubtedly something Jesus had planned to do. It was what we would call a “demonstration.” It disrupted things and it got some people very angry, and by it Jesus called attention to Himself. The Temple grounds, however, were very large and very crowded. This incident took place in one corner and most people in the precincts probably were not even aware that it had taken place. If the Romans who stood guard on the walls (the Antonio Fortress was attached to the Temple precincts) saw the incident, they did not interfere. Jesus acted as a “Prophet,” accompanying this object lesson with the words, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer,’ but you are making it a den of robbers” (from Isaiah 56:7 and Jeremiah 7:11).
Jesus was demonstrating against the businessmen in the Temple, and in particular in the Court of the Gentiles, for the words from Isaiah in full say, “For My house will be called a house of prayer for all the peoples” (i.e., foreigners). The passage also includes eunuchs and the outcasts of Israel. Isaiah had a particular interest in the salvation of the Gentiles, and associated it with the coming of the Messiah. In the eyes of Jesus, the people who worked in and for the Temple were not serving God’s interests but their own—their personal, family, business or political interests—and had missed the purpose of God entirely. People saw the Temple and its operations from an entirely “practical” point of view without any awareness of the reality of God and His personal claim on them.
Symbolically Jesus cleansed the Temple. He acted as if He had the right to do so; and, indeed, in His own estimate it was in fact His own Temple and He was acting on its behalf as the King, the Son of David. Having cleansed the Temple, the blind and the lame, who were excluded from worship in the Temple, came to Him in the Temple, and He healed them. This too was a demonstration, albeit miraculous in nature. Again, He was acting as if He had the right to do this; as if, in fact, it was His Temple.
While this was going on—while He temporarily cleansed the Temple of its businessmen and healed the blind and lame afterwards—apparently the children who had accompanied the parade and followed Him into the Temple continued to shout their “Hosanna to the Son of David.” Jesus did not stop them at any point but allowed them to continue.
The chief priests and the Temple scribes (the enrolled teachers) saw the healing miracles that He was performing as the children accompanied Him with their shouting, and became indignant, probably because they understood these actions the way they were intended. To them they were presumptuous and arrogant and provocative and dangerous, and could lead to no good. Who did He think He was? “Do You hear what these are saying?” they said to Jesus. You cannot be as mad as You appear, Man, can You?
Yes, He could, apparently to them, for He replied, “Yes [I hear them]. Have you never read, ‘Out of the mouth of infants and sucklings You have perfected praise’?” This quote is from Psalm 8:3. Elsewhere in the New Testament the psalm is given a messianic interpretation (1 Corinthians 15:27; Ephesians 1:22; Hebrews 2:12). The “wonders” that Jesus was performing to “correct” the Temple by making the outcasts fit for worship there were the works of “YHWH our Lord,” whose name is excellent in all the earth (Psalm 8:1).
Jesus leaves without hearing their response (or without responding to whatever they said). He left them to lodge outside the City in the village of Bethany, among friends. It is interesting that Jesus came into the City to announce His arrival in this manner, yet He did not stay in the City but stayed outside its walls. Of course, this may have been for practical reasons, but it was also clear that the City itself (as represented by its leaders) did not welcome Him.
The cleansing of the Temple was also symbolic in two other ways, which will become clear in the chapters that follow. One is that the act was pronouncing God’s judgment on the Temple. In the chapters that follow Jesus will eventually foretell the complete destruction of the Temple and the end of its system of worship (the priestly and sacrificial system). The people were not repentant, as John the Baptist and Jesus both called for. Their double misappropriation of the Kingdom of God—by the chief priests and the Jerusalem aristocracy on the one hand and the zealous of the Pharisees on the other—led to the disastrous war with the Romans that ended Second Temple Judaism. Israel was torn between Rabbinic Judaism (that arose in the aftermath) on the one hand and the church on the other (that preceded the disaster by a generation). The two did not have to split the way they did; but it was the judgment of God that they did, because of the sin on both sides of the divide. As it is, each is a sign from God to the other, and neither can exist historically without the other—until the Messiah comes (again).
The other symbol is that the Temple in Jerusalem is replaced by the Temple of Jesus Himself. No, Christianity does not replace Judaism, but the body of Jesus is nevertheless the fulfillment of the Temple, as archetype to type. “Destroy this Temple, and in three days I will raise it up,” John reports Him to have said, and explains that He spoke of the Temple of His body. He replaces the priestly system and the offering up of Himself to the Father replaces the sacrificial system. Moreover He does this not only by the atonement which He accomplished on the cross, but by virtue of His believers entering into the “sphere” of His Person. In Pauline and Johannine terms, His believers are in Him and He in them, and, in strictly Pauline terms, they become His body. We are “built upon the foundation of [the ministry of the Word of] apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the cornerstone; in whom all the building, being fitted together, is growing into a holy Temple in the Lord; in whom you also [as a local church] are being built together into a dwelling place of God in spirit” (Ephesians 2:20-22).
The Fig Tree and the Mountain (21:18-22)
The following morning Jesus saw a fig tree with leaves but no fruit. The tree symbolized Jerusalem. It had leaves but no fruit. John the Baptist had to the Pharisees and Saducees, “Produce fruit worthy of repentance.” Jesus also called for Israel to repent (Matthew 3:7; 4:17). Instead, Jesus saw the Temple and the City full of activity, even religious activity—these were the leaves—but without the fruit of repentance. Instead, the leaders of the City used the religion of the Temple for their own self-interests. In another parable of a fig tree (in Luke 13:6-9) this meaning is confirmed. The fig tree is used in the Old Testament to symbolize Israel in the Land enjoying the blessing of God. Here, however, the fig tree seems to refer particularly to Jerusalem. They were enjoying a blessing, but there was no fruit. The idea of fruit also comes up later in this same chapter (Matthew 21:33-44), though there it refers to the fruit of the Lord’s vineyard. There too the fruit was not being rendered to the vineyard owner; but it was not the fault of the vineyard but of those to whom the owner had tenanted the vineyard, the “vinedressers.” That parable becomes a key to this whole section.
Jesus sees that the fig tree has leaves but no fruit, and so He curses it: “May there no longer be fruit from you forever!” Immediately the fig tree was dried up. The cursing of the fig tree forever refers not to Judaism, for that would be impossible without contradicting God’s promises to His people and the ordinances which He gave them to keep for all generations, and would make nonsense of the New Testament as well. It refers, probably, to the Temple mount itself. Jesus was pronouncing the end of Second Temple Judaism; and He was saying that for the duration of the age (eis ton aiōna) Israel’s worship would no longer have the Jerusalem Temple and its accoutrements.
The disciples are amazed at the miracle but do not recognize the sign. When they comment on it, Jesus says, “Truly I say to you, if you have faith and do not doubt, you will not only do what was done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and cast into the sea,’ it will happen. And all that you ask in prayer, if you believe, you will receive.”
This teaching can be understood without recognizing the significance of the sign that Jesus performed. It teaches us about the relation between faith and prayer. Of course not all that we ask in prayer do we receive, even when we try to believe very earnestly. Why not? Probably because the faith that Jesus speaks of is a special gift from God. When we possess this kind of faith, so that in fact God is the One who initiates our prayer, then what we ask we will receive. The prayer that God answers is the prayer that God initiates in our spirit. When God wills to do the work of His Kingdom, God initiates it from heaven by creating our earthly cooperation through prayer. The offering of our prayer is part of that which God wills to do. Our faith then is for the sake of our ministry of prayer. When this is the case, God can do amazing things. The spontaneous growth of the church is an example.
Jesus’ teaching, however, is connected to the cursing of the fig tree as a sign. As such, it is also connected to the cleansing of the Temple as a sign. Both these signs are related. “If you have faith and do not doubt, you will not only do what was done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and cast into the sea,’ it will happen.” Think of the church. As Stephen in his defense before the Sanhedrin said, Israel’s stay in the Land was provision; it was not yet permanent, not until the Messiah comes in glory. In the meantime Israel is under God’s judgment. The days of the Temple will soon be over. The church of the Messiah in the meantime carries on without need of the Temple. For them, the Temple mount is already “dried up.” How? Through the faith that exists in the church through Christ. So the fig tree in this verse has this significance. Not that the church curses this fig tree (only God can do that), but that the fig tree is dried up for the church and the church can carry on without it.
Jesus also speaks of “this mountain.” If the fig tree refers to the “dried up” Temple mount, the mountain refers to the Temple too. Only, this mountain refers not to the physical Temple of Jerusalem but to the idea of the Temple as the center where God is worshiped. If the church has faith, the mountain can be cast into the sea. The sea in Matthew’s gospel symbolizes the Gentile nations. The Sea of Galilee symbolizes what one imagines when one looks out on the Mediterranean from, say, Caesarea—the nations on all its coasts. The sea indeed represents all the nations of the world. With the church’s Gentile mission, the Temple (of Christ’s body, the church) is cast out into the sea of nations. When the disciples go out and disciple all the nations, baptizing them into the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, they are fulfilling this. The worship of God, including the Shekinah glory of the Holy of Holies, the atoning sacrifice of Yom Kippur, the incense offerings and all the sacrifices of the brazen altar, are no longer localized in Jerusalem. The heavenly sanctuary and the veil of the heavenly Holy of Holies has been opened, and now the Temple of God is wherever Christ is among His people. This has been cast into the sea for all the Gentile nations. (It also refers in a secondary way to the Rabbinic synagogues of the Diaspora where God continues to be with His people throughout the Gentile world, alongside the church.) Imagine Paul saying to the churches among the Gentiles, “In Christ you all are growing into [one] holy Temple in the Lord, in whom you also [in your local churches] are being built together into a dwelling place of God in spirit.”
“All that you ask in prayer, if you believe, you will receive.” The disciples, whether they knew it or not, and we too, in these words, are being summoned by our Lord to pray for the expansion of the church throughout the world, beginning in the local Gentile world in which we live.