[November 16, 2008] In chapter 23 of Matthew, Jesus speaks for the last time to the crowds, most of whom were pilgrims who had come to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover, and many of whom welcomed Him into the city with the words, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!” Jesus entered the city as the King of Israel, the royal Heir of David’s throne, and as the Messiah. He confronted the stewards of the city, and accused them of attempting to steal God’s vineyard out from under Him by rejecting God’s Son and Heir. Now He turns to the crowds who have stayed with Him, and He pronounces seven or eight “woes” on the scribes and Pharisees, those who have been entrusted with teaching the people the way of God. Jesus does not disagree with their teaching—He was in general agreement with it—but He accuses them of hypocrisy and blindness.
Last week we took a close look at the nature of hypocrisy. Today we hear the last four woes. The first speaks of paying so much attention to the trees that they miss the forest. We miss the point of the little things if we do not grasp the big issues. The second and third woes speak of paying attention only to appearances and neglecting the inner reality. What matters is what is on the inside; the inside will automatically shape the outside. When we worry about how we appear in the eyes of others, we reverse this order. The last woe has to do with thinking that we are better than those we criticize when in fact we act the same way—we too would murder the prophets.
This last accusation leads to Jesus’ pronouncement of judgment.
Jesus among the Old Testament Prophets
There are a million sermons in Matthew, but right now we want to grasp the big picture so we do not end up “swallowing the camel.”
We come to the most painful part of Matthew’s Gospel (23:33—24:2). This Jesus is a stranger to many people: He speaks like an Old Testament prophet when we would rather He be meek and mild. The prophets in the Old Testament spoke of how a foreign army would besiege Jerusalem and destroy the beautiful temple of Solomon and force the people into exile. Then the Messiah would come. Their message was painful in the extreme, but they were right.
Jesus says this history will repeat itself, only instead of the Babylonians it will be the Romans, and instead of the temple of Solomon, it will be the second temple. The city will again be destroyed and the people exiled from the land. And Jesus also speaks of the
Messiah coming and gathering His people (24:27-31).
Intervening between these two events was the victory of the Maccabees against the Greeks. It led to a revival of pride and nationalism. Many people preferred this message to the message of the prophets. Jesus warned that this preference was going to lead to another disaster—a repeat of what the prophets had warned about.
In this way, Jesus connects directly to the prophets of Israel.
The Events to Come
What in fact happened is that the Sadducees’ love for wealth and power and collaboration with the Romans stirred up the people against them and against the Romans. The Pharisees’ disgust of Gentiles and their religious and nationalistic arrogance fed the extremism of the Zealots until they revolted against the priestly establishment and the Roman occupation. The Roman tenth legion under Titus sacked the city of Jerusalem and burned the temple to the ground, overturning every stone in search of the gold that had melted into the cracks. The people were captured, enslaved and exiled. It was the end of “Second Temple Judaism.”
The Judaism that reorganized itself after this, the Judaism of the synagogue that we know today, is quite different. Many of the criticisms and condemnations that Jesus made were taken to heart. After the Babylonian captivity, the Scriptures replaced the temple and the synagogue became the focus of Jewish life. Except for a devastating revival in the second century, they gave up nationalism and returned to living in exile, waiting for the Messiah. Jesus rejected the nationalism of the Maccabean period, implying that the Babylonian exile, the “Galut,” never really ended. The situation of the prophets still held true to Jesus. Judaism embraced His way of thinking about this, even though they rejected His claim to being the Messiah.
Matthew’s Affliction for Israel
Matthew wrote his gospel before these things came to pass. The gospel that he put in writing reflects his struggle with his fellow Jews. He was trying to come to terms with the fact that so many of them rejected Jesus as their Messiah. He had been with Jesus and was with the other apostles as together they proclaimed the gospel to Israel, and he had witnessed the beginning of the mission to the Gentiles, which Jesus had prepared. But he also shared with Jesus the heartache that Jesus felt for Israel. Matthew was not an outsider but wrote as someone within the Jewish community, who shared its fate. He expected to live through the catastrophe that Jesus predicted and to see God’s judgment (or at least he thought it would happen in his lifetime). He also saw himself as a “scribes” among the “prophets and wise men and scribes” whom God would send (23:34) and whom Israel would kill and crucify and scourge and persecute. Matthew was living through the words of verses 34-36.
In the Gospel according to Luke, when Jesus approached the city of Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, He wept over the city and said, “If you knew in this day, even you, the things that are for your peace! But now they have been hidden from your eyes. For the days will come upon you when your enemies will throw up a rampart before you, and will encircle you, and will press you in on every side, and they will level you to the ground and your children within you, and they will not leave a stone upon a stone in you, because you did not know the time of your visitation” (19:41-44).
So now, with the same pathos, Jesus says, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to you!”—in the past but also in the early church—“How often I desired to gather your children together, the way a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not!” Jesus identifies with the feeling of God. In the Old Testament God is compared to a bird that hovers and spreads her wings and gathers her young (Deuteronomy 32:11; also Isaiah 31:5). He speaks as a mother rejected by her children. In Hosea 11 the prophet speaks of God’s mother-love for Israel. He uses the word “compassion,” literally womb-love; he also speaks of Israel rejecting this love. Like a mother, God gently took them in His arms, fed them and taught them to walk. But they rejected Him.
“Behold, your house [the temple] is left to you desolate” (23:38).
Nevertheless, Matthew had hope for Israel. We have seen this in the whole structure of his gospel. It is clearly laid out in its symbolism. The turning of the Gentiles, their repentance from idolatry and turning to the Messiah, would eventually lead to the repentance of Israel, as Paul also believed and taught (see Romans 9-11).
In Hosea God says, “How shall I give you up, O Ephraim? How shall I deliver you up, O Israel? My heart is turned within Me; all My compassions have warmed. I will not execute the fierceness of My anger; I will not return to destroy Ephraim; for I am God and not man, the Holy One in the midst of you, and I will not come in wrath. They will walk after the Lord; He will roar like a lion. For He will roar, and the children will come trembling from the west. They will come trembling like a bird from Egypt and like a dove from the land of Assyria. And I will cause them to dwell in their houses, declares the Lord” (11:8-11).
Listen to these words: “For I say to you, you shall by no means see Me from now on UNTIL you say, ‘Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord’” (Matthew 23:39). The expression, “Blessed is he who comes,” is a common expression in Israel that means “Welcome.” One day Israel will welcome Jesus as their Messiah.
When the Messiah comes again, after a time of great tribulation, He will roar like a lion and Israel will welcome their Messiah. Matthew, I think, believed he would see this day. The faithful remnant of the Jews who believe in Jesus and the turning of so many Gentiles to His light is proof of the coming of the Messiah and the fulfillment of God’s promises to Israel. To Matthew and to all the apostles the existence of the church is the hope of Israel. How ironic that the main stumbling block today preventing the Jews from recognizing Jesus is how badly the church has treated them.
The Judgment at the Lord’s Coming
When the Messiah comes, He will gather Israel from the four winds after a terrible historic judgment (Matthew 24:15-31). Only then will Israel’s exile be over. But not only will Israel be judged (and restored). So will the church. In Matthew 24:36—25:30 Jesus gives five parables about the judgment of the church. Then finally, in Matthew 25:31-46, the nations to whom the church will be sent will be judged for how they treated the true church, the “little ones” who believe in Him, and its messengers (this parable is misunderstood).
The Gospel according to Matthew is about God’s purpose for Israel. The story of the church takes place within this and reveals that God’s purpose for Israel is so much bigger than what many of the Jews in Jesus’ time imagined. It embraces the whole world. The church was not meant to replace Israel but to blossom out of it and to reveal the heart of God to all of earth’s peoples.
We are not better than Israel. Even though Israel had Moses and the prophets, they rejected God’s call and came under judgment. But we not only have Moses and the prophets, we have the Messiah and yet we still reject God’s call. The church too will come under God’s judgment. It is painful to look at the church today and to read the history of the church. It is painful for me to look into my own heart.
Yet “the gracious gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable” (Romans 11:29). Though the Lord may seem absent for a long time, because we are so long in the dark, He never will forsake us. The salvation that Jesus brings overcomes our sinfulness. He knows us, He forgives us, and He will heal us. Even now He gives us the means to be restored, if only we would be faithful to Him and follow His teaching and the gift of the apostles’ teaching that He has given us.
We come to the Lord’s Table because He has called and invited us. The Table anticipates the Son’s wedding feast. We are guests at His Table, but we are also His bride, the beloved of His heart.