A Capital With No King

37 “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! 38 See, your house is left to you desolate. 39 For I tell you, you will not see me again, until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’” – Matthew 23:37-39 ESV

Jerusalem.gif

After pronouncing His seven woes on the Pharisees and religious leaders of Israel, Jesus turned His attention to the city of Jerusalem. And He spoke over it as if addressing an individual. The city of Jerusalem, the capital of the nation of Israel, was representative of all the people. It was the city of David, the great king, and contained the temple built by his son, Solomon. But the city and its inhabitants were guilty of unfaithfulness to God. Like their ancestors, who had rejected the prophets of God, the people of Jerusalem were going to end up rejecting the Messiah of God and the men whom He had chosen to take the good news of His kingdom to the world. Jesus had made it clear that this generation of Jews was just as guilty as those who had come before them.

Thus you witness against yourselves that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets.” – Matthew 23:31 ESV

The rejection of God’s prophets was a serious matter – one He does not take lightly. And to think that the people of Israel were guilty of murdering those whom God had sent to them is difficult to comprehend. But the people of Israel had made a habit of it. And their refusal to accept God’s messengers and their message had eventually led to their fall and deportation to Babylon. God had brought judgment on them for their unfaithfulness and rebellion against Him. And Jesus warned His audience that they would be no different than their predecessors.

“Therefore I send you prophets and wise men and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and persecute from town to town.” – Matthew 23:34 ESV

Not only would they reject Jesus as their Messiah and demand His crucifixion, but they would also continue to reject His apostles long after His resurrection and ascension. The Jews would deny His claim to be the Messiah and reject His offer of salvation. Their track record as a nation would continue unabated. Centuries had come and gone, but little had changed. The rebellion of the people of Israel was undiminished, and Jesus informed them that all the woes He had pronounced against the Pharisees would “come upon this generation.”

But He expressed sorrow over their coming judgment. He longed for them to repent and return to God in contrition over their sin. He wanted to protect them like a mother hen protects her chicks. But they would refuse His offer. And, Jesus warned them that “your house is left to you desolate” (Matthew 23:38 ESV). That word, “desolate” is packed with meaning. The Greek word is erēmos, and it means “uninhabited, deprived of protection,” or it can refer to “a flock deserted by the shepherd.” Jesus was predicting the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD at the hands of the Romans. And He will elaborate on His prediction in the very next chapter.

“Do you see all these buildings? I tell you the truth, they will be completely demolished. Not one stone will be left on top of another!” – Matthew 24:2 NLT

Jerusalem would fall. The temple would be destroyed. And Jesus told the people, “For I tell you, you will not see me again, until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord’” (Matthew 23:39 ESV). This is an interesting statement because it echoes back to His recent entry into the city of Jerusalem. Luke records what happened that day.

As he was drawing near—already on the way down the Mount of Olives—the whole multitude of his disciples began to rejoice and praise God with a loud voice for all the mighty works that they had seen, saying, “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!” – Luke 19:37-38 ESV

The people of Jerusalem had welcomed Jesus as the King who comes in the name of the Lord. But as we will see, they will just as quickly turn on Him, demanding His execution at the hands of the Romans. Their shouts of praise and confession of His kingship had been a sham. He had not fulfilled their Messianic expectations, so they would turn on Him. They would reject Him.

But one day Jesus will return and, when He does, things will be different. The apostle Paul would later pen these words, quoting from the book of Isaiah:

“As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall confess to God.” – Romans 14:11 ESV

And Paul would remind the believers in Philippi:

Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. – Philippians 2:9-11 ESV

The Jews of Jesus’ day would not accept Him as their Messiah. But the day is coming when all the inhabitants of the earth will bow before Him, recognizing Him as the King who comes in the name of the Lord. The apostle John provides us with a preview of what that day will look like.

Then I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse! The one sitting on it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war. His eyes are like a flame of fire, and on his head are many diadems, and he has a name written that no one knows but himself. He is clothed in a robe dipped in blood, and the name by which he is called is The Word of God. And the armies of heaven, arrayed in fine linen, white and pure, were following him on white horses. From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron. He will tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty. On his robe and on his thigh he has a name written, King of kings and Lord of lords. – Revelation 19:11-16 ESV

And when Jesus returns to the earth, He will set up His Kingdom in the city of Jerusalem, where He will reign for a thousand years.

Then I saw thrones, and seated on them were those to whom the authority to judge was committed. Also I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for the testimony of Jesus and for the word of God, and those who had not worshiped the beast or its image and had not received its mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years. The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended. This is the first resurrection. Blessed and holy is the one who shares in the first resurrection! Over such the second death has no power, but they will be priests of God and of Christ, and they will reign with him for a thousand years. – Revelation 20:4-6 ESV

The Jews could and would reject Jesus as their Messiah. But that would not stop God from fulfilling His sovereign plan to redeem fallen mankind. The Romans would crucify Jesus, but that would not derail God’s predetermined outcome for His creation’s restoration. Even those who reject Jesus will one day recognize Him for who He is: The one who comes in the name of the Lord. They will bow before Him, either in veneration or subjugation. They will either revere Him or fear Him. But all will acknowledge Him.

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

(MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson
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Harsh Words for His Harshest Critics

13 “But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in. 15 Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.

16 “Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘If anyone swears by the temple, it is nothing, but if anyone swears by the gold of the temple, he is bound by his oath.’ 17 You blind fools! For which is greater, the gold or the temple that has made the gold sacred? 18 And you say, ‘If anyone swears by the altar, it is nothing, but if anyone swears by the gift that is on the altar, he is bound by his oath.’ 19 You blind men! For which is greater, the gift or the altar that makes the gift sacred? 20 So whoever swears by the altar swears by it and by everything on it. 21 And whoever swears by the temple swears by it and by him who dwells in it. 22 And whoever swears by heaven swears by the throne of God and by him who sits upon it.

23 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. 24 You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!

25 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. 26 You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside also may be clean.

27 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. 28 So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.

29 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the monuments of the righteous, 30 saying, ‘If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ 31 Thus you witness against yourselves that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets. 32 Fill up, then, the measure of your fathers. 33 You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell? 34 Therefore I send you prophets and wise men and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and persecute from town to town, 35 so that on you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah the son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar. 36 Truly, I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation. – Matthew 23:13-36 ESV

Brooklyn_Museum_-_Woe_unto_You,_Scribes_and_Pharisees_(Malheur_à_vous,_scribes_et_pharisiens)_-_James_Tissot

The Pharisees and teachers of religious law were not fans of Jesus. In fact, they despised Him and had been searching for ample cause to have Him eliminated. So, at this point in Matthew’s account, he portrays Jesus amping up His rhetoric in an unabashed attack on these so-called religious leaders. As He prepares to follow His Father’s will and head to the cross, Jesus goes out of His way to expose the truth about His enemies. But Jesus’ words are not intended to be a vindictive attack on those who disagree with Him. He is pulling aside the veil and revealing the long-hidden truth regarding these men. They are not what they seem. And, before He leaves this earth, Jesus wants to ensure that His disciples understood what true religion should look like.

Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world. – James 1:27 ESV

At this point, Jesus makes His message much more direct by turning His attention directly to the Pharisees and teachers of religious law. This is the part where He pronounces His seven woes or warnings against them. It is important to recognize that this is all about two distinctly different ways to approach God. What Jesus has to say is less about their behavior than the focus of their ministry.

Woe #1: They had a false view of the Kingdom of Heaven and how to enter it. Not only was their errant view making entry into God’s Kingdom impossible for them, but it was also slamming the door in the face of every person under their influence. They had made the attainment of righteousness all about human effort. In their minds, entry into the Kingdom of Heaven was reserved for law-keepers, and they viewed themselves as the quintessential keepers of the law.

Woe #2: Their false view of the Kingdom of Heaven had deadly consequences. Their refusal to accept Jesus as the Messiah was condemning themselves and others to hell. They were eager to convert others to their way of thinking and to their view of the Kingdom, but the result was that these individuals ended up as lost as they were. By following the teaching of these men, the people of Israel were being deceived into believing a lie. They were placing their faith in the faulty confidence professed by these false teachers.

Woe #3: In spite of all their knowledge of the Mosaic Law, they were blind to the one to whom the law and the prophets pointed. Jesus had already told these men that He was the primary focal point of the Hebrew Scriptures.

“You search the Scriptures because you think they give you eternal life. But the Scriptures point to me!” – John 5:39 NLT

But in their arrogance and prideful knowledge, they had missed the whole point. They had misunderstood what was of real value in the Kingdom of Heaven. Jesus points out that the temple, which God had set apart as His own, was holy, not the gold used to adorn it. The altar, the place God had set aside for sacrifice, was holy and anything that touched it became holy as well. Ultimately, it is God who makes heaven holy and gives it its value.

The religious leaders were focusing their attention on the wrong things. They were materially-minded, rather than spiritually-focused. Their whole practice of making and keeping oaths was little more than a series of man-made loopholes and escape clauses designed to give them an easy out from having to do what they swore to do. They could appear to be holy and righteous without having to accept any of the cost or consequences. And Jesus pointed out that they were really minimizing and trivializing the holiness of God.

Woe #4:They misunderstood the true nature of the Kingdom because they tended to major on the minors. Since they believed that entrance into the Kingdom was based on the keeping of the law, they ended up nitpicking the law to death. Jesus accused them of being meticulously observant of laws concerning the tithing of fruit, grain, and other produce – to the point of absurdity. But in doing so, they conveniently overlooked the more important commandments concerning justice, mercy, and faith.

Jesus borrowed from their own Scriptures to remind them of God’s own words concerning this matter.

No, O people, the Lord has told you what is good,
    and this is what he requires of you:
to do what is right, to love mercy,
    and to walk humbly with your God. – Micah 6:8 NLT

In all their zeal to tithe unscrupulously, they were failing to keep the two greatest commandments: To love God and to love others.

Woe #5: They had a false understanding of what constitutes righteousness in God’s Kingdom. God was interested in the INSIDE, not the OUTSIDE. Yet their focus was solely on the externals. They made behavior modification their goal, rather than heart transformation. Yet Jesus had taught just the opposite.

“But the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these things defile a person. For out of the heart come evil ideas, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are the things that defile a person; it is not eating with unwashed hands that defiles a person.” – Matthew 15:18-20 NLT

These men were all about appearances. They lived to impress and were addicted to the praise of men. As long as they looked good, they believed they were good. External appearances and outward behavior were the criteria by which they judged a man’s righteousness, but God looks at the condition of the heart.

Woe #6: This one supports the previous one. It reveals their false concept of what it took to become clean or righteous. Again, they had replaced heart transformation with behavior modification. They spent all their time obsessing about outward appearances while ignoring the internal state of their souls. Rather than heartfelt repentance, they focused on outward reformation. Rather than acknowledge their sin, they simply attempted to cover it up with good deeds and religious effort.

Jesus described them as painted tombs. Not exactly a compliment. Their outward display of righteous behavior was like putting makeup on a pig. It didn’t change reality. A well-manicured grave, covered with flowers and its tombstone meticulously clean, can’t change the fact that beneath the surface lies death and decay.

Woe #7: In failing to recognize their own sinful condition, they had become just like their ancestors – rebellious, stubborn, and resistant to God. The Israelites had built tombs and monuments to honor the prophets of God but had failed to listen to their words of warning. In fact, they had killed many of them. And Jesus made it clear that the religious leaders of Israel had done the same thing in His day, rejecting the most recent prophet of God: John the Baptist. And in just a matter of days, they would arrange to have the very Son of God put to death. After Jesus was out of the way, they would end up persecuting and killing the disciples as well.

“Therefore, I am sending you prophets and wise men and teachers of religious law. But you will kill some by crucifixion, and you will flog others with whips in your synagogues, chasing them from city to city.” – Matthew 23:34 NLT

Misplaced passion

Why was Jesus so upset with these men? What drove Him to treat them so harshly? They were passionate. They were zealous. They were religious. BUT THEY WERE DANGEROUS! They had become obstacles to the Kingdom of Heaven. Their misplaced zeal had led them to become stumbling blocks.

Jesus said to his disciples, “Stumbling blocks are sure to come, but woe to the one through whom they come! It would be better for him to have a millstone tied around his neck and be thrown into the sea than for him to cause one of these little ones to sin.” – Luke 17:1-2 NET

These men DID NOT represent the way into the Kingdom of Heaven. They didn’t even know the directions. But where do we see this today? In the myriad of false and pseudo-Christian religions. We see it in anyone who denies that salvation is through faith alone in Christ alone. We need to learn to look for these characteristics.

  1. Posing as spokesmen for God, but denying people access to the Kingdom of God
  2. Giving people false hope by offering them a false gospel
  3. Providing easy workarounds to true holiness and commitment to God
  4. Judging righteousness based on their own standards, rather than God’s
  5. Refusing to acknowledge sin, while emphasizing self-righteousness
  6. Putting undue emphasis on the praise of men, rather than that of God
  7. Failing to see their status as enemies of God

The spirit of the Pharisees is alive and well today. It’s evident in every religion that refuses to acknowledge Jesus Christ as the only way. It’s prevalent in many main-stream denominations that preach a gospel of works, not grace. It can be found anytime legalism and rule-keeping replaces a love for God and others. It shows up whenever our religion becomes more important than our relationship with Christ. It takes the form of hypocrisy, when what we say we believe fails to impact the way we behave. When we love the praise of man more than pleasing God.

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

(MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

A New Role Model

1 Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger. They do all their deeds to be seen by others. For they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long, and they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces and being called rabbi by others. But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers. And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. 10 Neither be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Christ. 11 The greatest among you shall be your servant. 12 Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” – Matthew 23:1-12 ESV

Christ-and-the-pharisees_by-Ernst-Zimmerman.jpegJesus had left the Pharisees speechless. Matthew records that, “no one was able to answer him a word, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions” (Matthew 22:46 ESV). They had come with their questions, designed to trip Jesus up and expose Him to. the people as a fraud and a fake. But Jesus had turned the tables on them, asking them a question of His own and exposing their ignorance of the Scriptures they revered and their blindness to the reality of His position as their Messiah.

These men were part of the spiritual leadership of Israel. They were revered and looked up to by the people. They, along with the Sadducees and scribes, were experts in the law of Moses. And yet, Jesus revealed that their knowledge of the Scriptures was insufficient and incomplete. In fact, in John’s gospel, we have recorded these powerful words of Jesus, pointing out their obsession with the written word of God, but their stubborn refusal to accept the incarnate Word of God who came that they might have life.

“You pore over the Scriptures because you presume that by them you possess eternal life. These are the very words that testify about Me, yet you refuse to come to Me to have life.” – John 5:39-40 BSB

Immediately after His latest and last confrontation with the Pharisees, Jesus turned to those around Him and delivered a blistering attack on these very same men. Chapter 23 of Matthew contains some of the harshest words found in the Scriptures. In it, we find Jesus unloading on the Pharisees in a rather uncharacteristic way. But this was NOT a personal attack. He was dealing with those who had become roadblocks to the Kingdom. By rejecting Him, they were rejecting the rule and reign of God Himself. These men were supposed to be pointing people to God but were actually doing just the opposite.

Earlier in His earthly ministry, the Pharisees had accused Jesus of working for and by the power of Satan. But He had responded to their accusation by saying, “Anyone who isn’t with me opposes me, and anyone who isn’t working with me is actually working against me. So I tell you, every sin and blasphemy can be forgiven – except blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, which will never be forgiven.” (Matthew 12:30-31 NLT).

The religious leaders had positioned themselves against Jesus and therefore, against God. They were denying the work of God as manifested by the power of God (the Holy Spirit), and attributing it all to Satan. So, in this particular teaching moment, Jesus pronounced a series of warnings or “woes” against the religious leaders of Israel. But rather than direct His attack at the source of the problem, Jesus chose to speak to those who were the unsuspecting victims of the Pharisees’ influence.

All of the warnings found in this passage would have come as a shock to the average Jew because they looked up to and admired the religious leaders as icons of virtue and the keepers of religious law. But Jesus gives His audience a few pieces of advice regarding these men.

 1. Don’t follow their lead

The Pharisees had set themselves up as the official interpreters of the Law of Moses. They were the “experts.” But God had not appointed them as such. They were a man-made organization, and their name was derived from an Aramaic word that means “separated.” They were separatists and saw themselves as the true keepers of the law of Moses. And they certainly knew the law, which is why Jesus told the people to listen to and obey what the Pharisees said concerning the law.

“So practice and obey whatever they tell you…” – Matthew 23:3a NLT

But notice what Jesus said next:

“…but don’t follow their example. For they don’t practice what they teach.” – Matthew 23:3b NLT

In other words, don’t do as they do. As long as they are talking about the content of the Law, listen. But when it came to behavior based on the Law, the people were not to use them as a model.

2. Don’t do what they do

Jesus made it painfully clear. These men were nothing but hypocrites. The Greek word Jesus used was a term commonly used to refer to actors in the popular Greek plays of the day. The actors would commonly play multiple roles and simply don a different mask to assume a new character. Since most of the performers were male, they would even be required to play any female roles written into the play. So, the word hypocrite made its way into the common vernacular to refer to anyone who was a “mask-wearer.” They were performing a role and were not what they appeared to be.

And Jesus pointed out that the Pharisees were nothing but play-actors, for whom everything was about appearances. They had perfected the art of performance. This is why Jesus warned, “Everything they do is for show” (Matthew 23:5 NLT).

3. Don’t love what they love

These men loved recognition and being noticed for their “spirituality.” In fact, they were addicted to being the center of attention. It showed up in their obsession with titles. They enjoyed being called “rabbi” or “teacher.” They took great pride in being recognized for their knowledge and expertise. Not only that, they saw their superior intellect and spiritual elitism as deserving of the peoples’ praise. They expected to be served and had no desire or inclination to serve others. They loved themselves more than they loved God and viewed others as inferiors. In essence, these men were religious exhibitionists! They were little more than performance artists who had perfected the art of impressing others. But they failed to impress God and His Son.

4. Have a higher standard

Jesus seems to have focused His attention directly on His disciples when He said, “But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers” (Matthew 23:8 ESV). He didn’t want His followers to be obsessed with titles. He didn’t want them seeking the praise of men. They were to be brothers. Their role in the Kingdom of God was not to be about rank and privilege or power and position. In fact, their whole perspective was to change, as they recognized the heavenly nature of their new relationship with God.

“…call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven…” – Matthew 23:9 ESV

And they were not to seek the title of “teacher” or “instructor.” In other words, they were not to covet the role of the expert as the Pharisees had.

“Neither be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Christ…” – Matthew 23:10 ESV

Contrary to what the Pharisees believed, Jesus was to be the disciples’ sole instructor in the things of God. The word Jesus used is kathēgētēs and it means, “master, guide, or instructor.” The Messiah was to be their source of all wisdom. Even the written word of God points to the incarnate Word of God. To become an expert in the Scriptures, but fail to obey the One of whom the Scriptures speak, would be futile and, ultimately, folly.

Finally, Jesus reminded His disciples of their need to live lives of servitude, not significance.

“The greatest among you shall be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” – Matthew 23:11-12 ESV

Their lives were to mirror His own, not those of the Pharisees. This was not new information to the disciples. Jesus had already told them, “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28 ESV). They were to model their lives after His. And in just a matter of days, they would stand by and watch as their rabbi, teacher, friend, and Messiah practiced what He preached. They would see Him betrayed, unjustly tried, brutally beaten, wrongly accused, and violently crucified. All so that they might have eternal life. Jesus was anything but a play-actor. He was far from a hypocrite. He would prove to be the way, the truth, and the life. And the role model for every Christ-follower.

And the apostle Paul reminds us that Jesus is to be our example, setting for us a higher and more holy standard for life and godliness.

You must have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had.

Though he was God,
    he did not think of equality with God
    as something to cling to.
Instead, he gave up his divine privileges;
    he took the humble position of a slave
    and was born as a human being.
When he appeared in human form,
    he humbled himself in obedience to God
      and died a criminal’s death on a cross. – Philippians 2:5-8 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

(MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Lord and King

41 Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them a question, 42 saying, “What do you think about the Christ? Whose son is he?” They said to him, “The son of David.” 43 He said to them, “How is it then that David, in the Spirit, calls him Lord, saying,

44 “‘The Lord said to my Lord,
“Sit at my right hand,
    until I put your enemies under your feet”’?

45 If then David calls him Lord, how is he his son?” 46 And no one was able to answer him a word, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions. –  Matthew 22:41-46 ESV

001-lost-sheep.jpg

We are quickly coming to the end of Matthew’s chronicle of the earthly ministry of Jesus. As we read through the events surrounding the last week of His life, we should begin to recognize that this is really about two kingdoms in conflict – the one the Pharisees and religious leaders had come to know, love and control; and the one that Jesus had come to establish. As John the Baptist began his ministry, paving the way for the coming of the Messiah, he had told the people of Israel, “Repent of your sins and turn to God, for the Kingdom of Heaven is near” (Matthew 3:2 NLT).

His call to repentance was not just an encouragement to change their behavior, it was a demand that they change their minds, their way of thinking. John was calling them to alter their preconceived notions about God, their concept of sin, the kingdom, the Messiah, and the means by which man can be restored to a right relationship with God. Repentance would require them to do an about-face concerning what they currently believed about all of those things. And that change of mind and heart would result in a change in behavior.

In the world into which Jesus came, the Jewish people had strong opinions about these matters, the byproduct of centuries of man-made decrees and religious doctrines and dogma. They thought they had God figured out and were convinced that they knew what they had to do to deal with sin. But they had grown callous to God and carefree about their own sin, justifying their actions and downplaying their own guilt. They put a lot of stock in their position as descendants of Abraham and in their unique status as God’s chosen people. But John the Baptist had come preaching a call to repentance. He had told them that the Kingdom of Heaven was close at hand. And Jesus came preaching that very same message, telling them, “Repent of your sins and turn to God, for the Kingdom of Heaven is near” (Matthew 4:17 NLT).

The Kingdom of Heaven was NEAR – in the form of the King of Heaven – Jesus Himself. This was a statement of authority and divine representation. Jesus was Emmanuel – God with us. He was the one true King. But the Jewish people failed to recognize Him as such.

Which brings us to today’s passage, where we see Jesus still sparring with the religious leaders of Israel. He had weathered a relentless gauntlet of questions from these men, as they attempted to expose and entrap Him. But this time Jesus turned the tables on them by requiring them to answer a question from Him. In doing so, He reveals some Messianic misconceptions on their part. He exposes their faulty views of who the Messiah would be and what He would do when He came.

Jesus asked them a very simple, yet revealing question: “What do you think about the Messiah? Whose son is he?” (Matthew 22:42a NLT). Jesus already knew what their response would be, and that answer would reveal a lot about their understanding of not only the Messiah but of His coming Kingdom.

“They replied, ‘He is the son of David.’” – Matthew 22:42b NLT

So, what does this answer tell us about their view of the Messiah? They believed the Messiah would be a descendant of David. But it also reveals that they viewed the Messiah’s kingdom would be of this earth and not heavenly in nature. In other words, they were anticipating a king just like David had been. They were expecting a ruler, a royal heir to David, who would wear his crown and sit on his throne, re-establishing Israel’s power in the region. They weren’t looking for a Savior from sin, but a deliverer from subjugation to Rome.

So, Jesus asked them a qualifying question: “How is it then that David, in the Spirit, calls him Lord, saying, ‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet”’?” (Matthew 22:44 ESV).

At first glance, it sounds like Jesus is posing some kind of riddle or trick question. But He was quoting from a well-known Messianic passage found in Psalm 110:1. The Pharisees would have understood this passage as applying to the coming Messiah, or Davidic descendant. In fact, over the centuries, this psalm had been applied to each successive king in the Davidic dynasty and was used to refer to the ideal Davidic king. As a result, they would have been very familiar with the passage and its application to the coming Messiah. So, Jesus pointed out that in the psalm, David calls the Messiah his Lord.

If the coming Messiah was to be a “son” or descendant of David, the greatest king Israel had ever had, why would David call this man his “Lord?” To understand this question, you have to recognize that there are two different words used for “Lord” in Psalm 110. The first is Jehovah, a noun used to refer to God. It is the proper name of the God of Israel. The second word is adon, a noun that means “lord” or “master”. But when used in conjunction with Lord (Jehovah), it typically refers to God’s sovereignty or authority. So, you could read the line in Psalm 110 this way: The LORD (God) said to my (David’s) Lord (Messiah)

The point Jesus was making was that David knew something about the Messiah that the Pharisees did not. That’s why Jesus asked them a further question: “Since David called the Messiah ‘my Lord,’ how can the Messiah be his son?” (Matthew 22:45 NLT). The Pharisees had a limited view of the Messiah. They believed He would be an earthly, physical, and fully human descendant of David, nothing more, nothing less. But Jesus’ point was that David seemed to know that the Messiah would be MORE than just a descendant. He would be divine and have God-given authority to rule and reign over God’s Kingdom. He would be David’s LORD and Master. He would be a divinely appointed ruler with power and authority far beyond anything David had known.

But the Pharisees couldn’t bring themselves to see or acknowledge this. Jesus was not what they were expecting and not what they wanted. He didn’t look like a king. He didn’t act like a king. And the Israelites wanted a king just like all the other nations. They wanted a king on their terms and according to their definition. It was the very same problem their ancestors had when they had demanded that the prophet Samuel appoint them a king like all the other nations.

They had rejected God as their King and, in response, God had given them Saul. Now, centuries later, they were demanding the same thing. But God was not going to give them another Saul. He was going to give them another David, an actual descendant of David, but a man greater than David had ever been. He would be the God-man, the Son of God, and the ultimate Savior of the world.

This whole exchange left the Pharisees stumped. For the first time, they had no response and no more questions. “And no one was able to answer him a word, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.” (Matthew 22:46 ESV).

This doesn’t mean they were giving up. They were simply changing their tactics. Their views had not changed. They remained unrepentant, refusing to change their minds about God, the Messiah, the Kingdom, and about their own sins. They refused to acknowledge Jesus as the Messiah. They stubbornly rejected any call to admit their own sin and their need for a Savior. They were not buying what Jesus was selling. And they would live to regret it.

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

The Greatest Commandment

34 But when the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together. 35 And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. 36 “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” 37 And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. 38 This is the great and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. 40 On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” –  Matthew 22:34-40 ESV

Pharisees question Jesus.jpg

In this section of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus is being bombarded by a relentless series of questions posed to Him by various factions of the religious elite. First, they questioned His authority, wanting to know what right He had to say and do the things He did. Then the Pharisees tried to trick Him with a question regarding the payment of taxes to the Roman government. When they failed, the Sadducees, the liberals of their day, asked Him a question regarding marriage and the resurrection. The fact was, they didn’t believe in the resurrection, and they wanted to show that Jesus was in opposition to their belief system. They viewed Jesus as a heretic and wanted to expose Him as such. But Jesus saw through their motives and easily handled their question.

Like a tag-team wrestling match, the Sadducees were quickly followed by the Pharisees, who once again posed a controversial question to Jesus. This time it concerned the Mosaic Law – their area of expertise.

But when the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees with his reply, they met together to question him again. One of them, an expert in religious law, tried to trap him with this question: “Teacher, which is the most important commandment in the law of Moses?”Matthew 22:34-36 NLT

This was a common topic of debate among rabbis. They were constantly arguing whether one commandment took precedence over another. And this was a significant issue to them because the Pharisees had codified the law into 248 commandments and 365 prohibitions, many of which were man-made addendums to the law given by God to Moses. And the people of Israel were expected to keep this staggering list of 615 rules and precepts.

With that many laws, it wasn’t long before one seemed to contradict another. For instance, over in the book of Leviticus, the Law records, “Do not stand idly by when your neighbor’s life is threatened. I am the Lord” (Leviticus 19:16 NLT). Yet, over in Exodus, it declares, “…but the seventh day must be a Sabbath day of rest, a holy day dedicated to the Lord. Anyone who works on that day must be put to death. You must not even light a fire in any of your homes on the Sabbath” (Exodus 35:2-3 NLT). So, if your neighbor’s life was threatened on the Sabbath, what were you to do? Take action or rest?

This argument came up regularly between Jesus and the Pharisees because He seemed to make a habit of healing on the Sabbath, which they saw as a clear violation of the Law. In essence, by asking Jesus this question, they are testing Him to see if He had any greater insight into the Law than they did. And they had serious doubts about that.

The answer Jesus gave revealed His authority over the Scriptures.

“‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment.” – Matthew 22:37-38 NLT

Jesus quoted from the Shema, a portion of Old Testament Scripture recited daily by all Jews.

Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. – Deuteronomy 6:5-6 NIV

This is just the first part. The love of God was to dictate all their behavior. But Jesus points out that there was a second part to the command.

“A second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” – Matthew 22:39 NLT

Here, Jesus quotes from Leviticus 19:18 and reminds them that this second part was equally essential. While loving God was vital, so was loving your fellow man. And while this would not have been a revelation to the Pharisees, Jesus instilled these commands with new emphasis and meaning. While love for God was to be supreme, one of the greatest expressions of love for God shows up in our love for others. The apostle John reminds us:

If someone says, “I love God,” but hates a Christian brother or sister, that person is a liar; for if we don’t love people we can see, how can we love God, whom we cannot see? – 1 John 4:20 NLT

Why would this have been so revolutionary and revelatory to the religious leaders? THEY DIDN’T DO IT! They claimed to love God but actually hated their brothers and sisters. As a matter of fact, Jesus was going to have some stinging things to say to them.

“For they crush people with unbearable religious demands and never lift a finger to ease the burden.” (Matthew 23:4 NLT

In His answer, Jesus was giving them a new way to see the Law of God. “The entire law and all the demands of the prophets are based on these two commandments” (Matthew 23:40 NLT). Every other law was based on a love for God and a love for man. These two things were foundational to every other command given by God. The Ten Commandments themselves were divided into these two areas: A love for God and a love for others. There was to be a horizontal and vertical aspect to our love. You can’t have one without the other. They are meant to be reciprocal – and this Law of Love is found throughout the New Testament.

Owe nothing to anyone — except for your obligation to love one another. If you love your neighbor, you will fulfill the requirements of God’s law. For the commandments say, “You must not commit adultery. You must not murder. You must not steal. You must not covet.” These — and other such commandments — are summed up in this one commandment: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to others, so love fulfills the requirements of God’s law. – Romans 13:8-10 NLT

But don’t use your freedom to satisfy your sinful nature. Instead, use your freedom to serve one another in love. For the whole law can be summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” – Galatians 5:13-14 NLT

Yes indeed, it is good when you obey the royal law as found in the Scriptures: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”But if you favor some people over others, you are committing a sin. You are guilty of breaking the law. – James 2:8-9 NLT

So now I am giving you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, you should love each other. Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples.”John 13:34-35 NLT

Jesus puts love for God and love for man on an equal footing. They are inseparable, and yet the Pharisees claimed to love God but hated their fellow man. They despised all those whom they considered to be sinners or law-breakers.

Fast-forward to Matthew 25:37-40. In this passage, Jesus talks about the future judgment of man. He uses the picture of a shepherd dividing his flock between the sheep and the goats. This is an image of what will take place at the end of the great period of tribulation that will mark the end of the age. With His story, Jesus alludes to those Gentiles who will have survived the tribulation, some having come to faith during that time. And their love for God will be evidenced by their actions and their treatment of the Jews who will also be going through intense persecution during the final half of the tribulation. These “sheep” will stand before God and receive recognition for their efforts. And they will ask God a question:

“Then these righteous ones will reply, ‘Lord, when did we ever see you hungry and feed you? Or thirsty and give you something to drink? Or a stranger and show you hospitality? Or naked and give you clothing? When did we ever see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will say, ‘I tell you the truth, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me!’” – Matthew 25:37-40 NLT

Their love for others will be proof of their love for God. Their capacity to love others will provide evidence that their hearts have been transformed by God. In fact, it will be the main criterion for judgment. Yet Jesus states that all those who fail to do the same will be condemned.

OUR LOVE OF OTHERS IS OF GREAT IMPORTANCE TO GOD. It gives visible, tangible evidence of our love for Him. It reveals that we understand and appreciate His love for us.

So, how are you doing with these two commandments today? Do you claim to love God but struggle with loving others? Since you can’t put your arms around God and show Him how much you love Him, why not express your love for Him by loving those He has made?

Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples. – John 13:35 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

God of the Living

23 The same day Sadducees came to him, who say that there is no resurrection, and they asked him a question, 24 saying, “Teacher, Moses said, ‘If a man dies having no children, his brother must marry the widow and raise up offspring for his brother.’ 25 Now there were seven brothers among us. The first married and died, and having no offspring left his wife to his brother. 26 So too the second and third, down to the seventh. 27 After them all, the woman died. 28 In the resurrection, therefore, of the seven, whose wife will she be? For they all had her.”

29 But Jesus answered them, “You are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God. 30 For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven. 31 And as for the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was said to you by God: 32 ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not God of the dead, but of the living.” 33 And when the crowd heard it, they were astonished at his teaching. –  Matthew 22:23-33 ESV

saducees-and-pharisees

Jesus is facing yet another confrontation with the religious leaders. This time it is the Sadducees. They were the religious liberals of their day who rejected the idea of an afterlife, the doctrine of the resurrection, and the reality of angels. For them, this life was all there was, and it was to be lived in strict adherence to the written law as found in the Torah. They were elitists who rejected the oral law of the Pharisees, the “traditions of the elders” that contained hundreds of additional laws or addendums to the written law. But while they were not exactly bosom buddies with the Pharisees, they shared one thing in common with them: A hatred for Jesus. So, in this passage, the come to Jesus posing a question intended to expose Jesus’ heretical views on the resurrection.

Their question is a lengthy one, in the form of a short story. It’s a fictitious scenario involving what was called the Levirate Law, part of the Law of Moses found in the book of Deuteronomy. This law ruled that when a man died, leaving his wife a widow with no children, one of the deceased man’s brothers was obligated to marry the woman. The intention behind the law was to carry on the deceased man’s name and keep any inheritance he might have had in the family.

The law states, “If two brothers are living together on the same property and one of them dies without a son, his widow may not be married to anyone from outside the family. Instead, her husband’s brother should marry her and have intercourse with her to fulfill the duties of a brother-in-law. The first son she bears to him will be considered the son of the dead brother, so that his name will not be forgotten in Israel” (Deuteronomy 25:5-6 NLT).

These Sadducees had purposely created a highly unlikely scenario where the woman ends up marrying seven different brothers, each one dying before they could father a son with her. And their story ends with the woman’s death, seven times a widow and childless. This complicated and completely contrived tale had a purpose behind it. Matthew makes it clear that the real point behind their question was the resurrection. They were not interested in Jesus’ interpretation of the law but wanted to expose His views concerning the resurrection. Which is why they ended their story with the pointed question: “So tell us, whose wife will she be in the resurrection? For all seven were married to her” (Matthew 22:28 NLT).

They think they have Jesus trapped. Since the Torah did not explicitly teach about the resurrection, they did not believe in it. So, their little story was designed to expose the ridiculousness of the whole idea of the resurrection. In their minds, they had shown that the very concept of the resurrection would conflict with the law itself. How could a woman have seven husbands in heaven? But Jesus exposes the flaw in their thinking and the problem in their lives. He simply states, “Your mistake is that you don’t know the Scriptures, and you don’t know the power of God” (Matthew 22:29 NLT).

This would have been like a sucker punch to the stomach. Jesus had caught them off guard and had wiped the smug look of satisfaction off their faces with one simple sentence. These men prided themselves on their knowledge and understanding of the Scriptures, and yet Jesus accused them of not knowing the Word of God or the power of God. They were intelligent but ignorant. In all their study of the Scriptures, they had overlooked God’s power on display. They had relegated all they knew about life to the here-and-now and rejected the idea of a hereafter. So, Jesus rocked their religious sensibilities by informing them that, in the resurrected state, there is no state of marriage.

Jesus rendered their convoluted scenario pointless and irrelevant. In her resurrected state, the woman would not be married to any of the brothers, “For when the dead rise, they will neither marry nor be given in marriage” (Matthew 22:30 NLT). This statement by Jesus must have totally surprised the Sadducees, catching them completely off guard. And it may be just as shocking to some who are reading these words right now.

Your concept of heaven has always included marriage. You have assumed that if you are married here on earth, you will be married in heaven. But what would be the purpose of marriage in heaven? As an institution, it was designed to illustrate the relationship between Christ and His Bride, the Church. It was intended to be a physical representation of a spiritual reality.

In heaven, the union of Christ and the Church will be complete. There will no longer be a need for a symbol of that union. And while we may find that idea disturbing and possibly disappointing, we have to remember that our condition in our resurrected state will be one of perfection. We will be like Christ and have perfect fellowship with God the Father. Our primary relationship will be with Him. There will no longer be the need for another person to complete or complement us.

But Jesus knew that the real issue behind their question was their view concerning the resurrection, so He cuts to the chase and takes it head-on.

“But now, as to whether there will be a resurrection of the dead—haven’t you ever read about this in the Scriptures? Long after Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob had died, God said, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’ So he is the God of the living, not the dead.” – Matthew 22:31-32 NLT

Once again, Jesus questions their knowledge of the Scriptures, letting them know that in spite of all their study, they had missed a key point. When referring to His relationship with the great patriarchs of the Hebrew people, God had spoken in the PRESENT tense. He had said, “I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.”

These words were spoken long after all three of these men were dead and gone, and yet God refers to His relationship with them in the present tense. Jesus made it clear that this was not a grammatical error but a theological truth. There is an afterlife, and there will be a resurrection. The Sadducees’ problem was that they tended to study the Scriptures with a biased view and a limited understanding of the power of God. The idea of the resurrection was impossible to them. It was inconceivable. So, they simply refused to believe in it. In establishing their doctrinal views, they had unknowingly limited the power of God. Because they couldn’t comprehend something, they simply eliminated it from consideration. But Jesus made it clear that the resurrection was not only possible, it was undeniable and inevitable, because of the power of God.

For the Sadducees, life had become all about what they could see and explain. Their view was limited and restrictive. They had no room in their theology for an afterlife because it made no sense to them. So, they put all their eggs in one basket, concentrating all their efforts on making the most out of this life. In doing so, they missed the whole concept of the afterlife, of heaven, and the resurrected state. For them, this earthly life was the only life. Nothing more, nothing less.

And sadly, there are many who live with that same restrictive mindset today. Even those claiming to be Christ-followers live as if there is no eternal life, focusing all their attention and energies on making the most of this life. They simply ignore what they can’t see or explain. And yet, we are encouraged throughout the Word of God to run the race of life with the end in mind. We are to set our affections on things above, not the things of this earth. We are told to consider ourselves as strangers here and to remember that this world is not our home. We are simply passing through on our way to somewhere better. There is an afterlife. There is a heaven. This is not all there is. And we should live with that reality in mind.

We worship a God of the living. The power of God assures us that the dead in Christ are not gone. They are experiencing the joys of heaven, and one day we will see them again. It is just as Jesus promised:

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” – John 3:16 ESV

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Made In His Image

15 Then the Pharisees went and plotted how to entangle him in his words. 16 And they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are true and teach the way of God truthfully, and you do not care about anyone’s opinion, for you are not swayed by appearances 17 Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” 18 But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why put me to the test, you hypocrites? 19 Show me the coin for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius 20 And Jesus said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” 21 They said, “Caesar’s.” Then he said to them, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” 22 When they heard it, they marveled. And they left him and went away. –  Matthew 22:15-22 ESV

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It’s probably safe to say that none of us actually enjoy filing our taxes. We see it as a necessary evil and a burdensome obligation. And we do it because it’s required by law and that law carries some pretty stiff penalties for those who choose to ignore it. Taxation has had a long and less-than-popular reputation throughout history. And, as bad as we think our taxes may seem, they were far worse in Jesus’ day.

The Romans levied heavy taxes on the Jews. On top of that, the Jewish tax collectors added their own exorbitant fees. And then there was the Temple tax that every Jew had to pay, which in actuality, was used to support the lavish lifestyles of the priests themselves. These men lived in luxury while the average Jew struggled to make ends meet.

In his book, The Message and the Kingdom, Richard Horsley describes the elegant lifestyles enjoyed by these government-appointed tax collectors.

“…impressive archeological remains of their Jerusalem residences show how elegant their lifestyle had become. In spacious structures unhesitantly dubbed ‘mansions’ by the archeologists who uncovered them in the 1970’s, we can get a glimpse of a lavish life in mosaic floored reception rooms and dining rooms with elaborate painted and carved stucco wall decorations and with a wealth of fine tableware, glassware, carved stone table tops, and other interior furnishings and elegant peristyles.”

This staggering combination of tax obligations was overwhelming to the Jewish people, making everyday life practically unbearable and the very mention of taxes intolerable. Palestine was a veritable powder keg waiting to ignite and, according to the Jewish historian Josephus, the refusal of the Romans to lessen the tax burdens was the eventual cause of the Jewish War and the Siege of Jerusalem in 70 AD.

By now, we know that the Jewish religious leaders were looking for any and all opportunities to trick and trap Jesus in order that they might have Him arrested and eliminated. They were certain that it was just a matter of time before He said something that got Him into trouble with the people or with the Roman authorities. If they could get Him to say something the people would disagree with, He would lose His popularity and His growing following. If they could trick Him into saying something that could be taken as divisive or revolutionary by the Romans, then they could enlist the aid of the government in getting rid of Him. So they sent some “spies pretending to be honest men” (Luke 20:20 NLT).

In other words, they didn’t come dressed as priests, Pharisees, or religious leaders. They disguised themselves as average Jews, hoping to blend in with the crowd and catch Jesus off-guard and unprepared. Their question was well-planned and had a clear motivation behind it. “They tried to get Jesus to say something that could be reported to the Roman governor so he would arrest Jesus” (Luke 20:20 NLT). After attempting to butter Him up with false flattery, they asked their question: “Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” (Matthew 22:17 ESV).

Render-Unto-CaesarBut Matthew makes it clear that Jesus saw through their ruse. He knew they were trying to trick Him and even accused them of hypocrisy. But in spite of His awareness of their less-than-sincere motives, He chose to answer their question. He asked for a Roman coin, which would have carried the image of Caesar, a fact that He got them to verify. Then He told them, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:21 ESV).

The simple interpretation of this passage would be that Jesus was simply encouraging civil obedience. The people of God must be good citizens. They must set a good example, even in the case of a corrupt and oppressive government. But there appears to be a much more significant point to Jesus’ statement.

It’s interesting that He emphasized the image of Caesar on the coin. The Roman emperor was considered a god by his own people. So, Jesus told them to give the coin bearing Caesar’s image back to Caesar. It was stamped with his image and, therefore, belonged to him. But Jesus also stated that they were to give to God what belonged to God. Don’t miss Jesus’ logic.

What is stamped with God’s image? Back in the book of Genesis, we read, “So God created human beings in his own image. In the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27 NLT). Every good Jew would have known this story and would have understood what Jesus was saying. Men and women are made in the image of God. In a sense, they are stamped with His image. Therefore, they belong to Him.

Jesus was teaching that, instead of worrying about the temporal things of this world, like money and taxes, the people needed to give themselves to God and His Kingdom.

All the way back in His sermon on the mount, Jesus had said, “So don’t worry about these things, saying, ‘What will we eat? What will we drink? What will we wear?’ These things dominate the thoughts of unbelievers, but your heavenly Father already knows all your needs. Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and he will give you everything you need” (Matthew 6:31-33 NLT).

Those in Jesus’ audience that day had been made in the image of God. But as Jews, they also enjoyed the distinction of being God’s chosen people. They had been handpicked by God and then redeemed out of slavery in Egypt. They were His people – His prized possession. He had told them, “For you are a holy people, who belong to the LORD your God. Of all the people on earth, the LORD your God has chosen you to be his own special treasure” (Deuteronomy 7:6 NLT).

These people had been oppressed and burdened before, and God had rescued them. And while, in Jesus’ day, they were suffering oppression under Roman rule, it had far less to do with taxes than it did with sin. God wanted to rescue and redeem them from slavery to sin and death, which is why He had sent His Son. But their minds were elsewhere. They saw their burdens as earthly, not spiritual. They wanted a Messiah to rescue them from the taxes and tyranny of the Romans. But Jesus had come to rescue them from a life enslaved to sin and the death sentence that came with it.

Jesus wanted these people to give God what was rightfully His – their lives. He wanted them to turn over their lives to the very one who could save them. Jesus stood before them as the Son of God and their Messiah. He was the answer to their problem, but they failed to recognize Him. Jesus had not come to foment insurrection, but to provide salvation. He had not come to lead a revolt against Rome, but to provide restoration with God. His was a spiritual revolution, not an earthly one. And He was subtly reminding His listeners that God, in whose image they were made, required what was due Him. And just as Caesar would punish any and all who refused to pay his mandatory tax, God would punish all those who refused to give Him what rightfully belonged to Him.

God had warned the people of Israel what would happen if they failed to render unto Him what was rightfully His. “Understand, therefore, that the Lord your God is indeed God. He is the faithful God who keeps his covenant for a thousand generations and lavishes his unfailing love on those who love him and obey his commands. But he does not hesitate to punish and destroy those who reject him” (Deuteronomy 7:9-10 NLT).

As believers, we have a spiritual obligation to God. He has made us, and He has redeemed through the precious and priceless blood of His own Son. Our lives are not our own. We belong to Him because He has paid for us at a great price. He has redeemed us from slavery to sin and made us His own. We are stamped with His image, and so we should “give to God what belongs to God” – our very lives.

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

A Standing Invitation

1 And again Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding feast for his son, and sent his servants to call those who were invited to the wedding feast, but they would not come. Again he sent other servants, saying, ‘Tell those who are invited, “See, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding feast.”’ But they paid no attention and went off, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his servants, treated them shamefully, and killed them. The king was angry, and he sent his troops and destroyed those murderers and burned their city. Then he said to his servants, ‘The wedding feast is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore to the main roads and invite to the wedding feast as many as you find.’ 10 And those servants went out into the roads and gathered all whom they found, both bad and good. So the wedding hall was filled with guests.

11 “But when the king came in to look at the guests, he saw there a man who had no wedding garment. 12 And he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding garment?’ And he was speechless. 13 Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot and cast him into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ 14 For many are called, but few are chosen.” –  Matthew 22:1-14 ESV

wedding feast

In this, the final of the three parables Jesus shared on this occasion, He told the story of a king who prepared a wedding feast for his son. When the great day arrived, the king sent his servants to escort all the invited guests to the festivities. But, shockingly, all those who had received the king’s gracious invitation refused to come. So, he sent additional servants, equipped with details concerning the elegant and elaborate feast awaiting them.

“Look! The feast I have prepared for you is ready. My oxen and fattened cattle have been slaughtered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding banquet.” – Matthew 22:4 NLT

They were told that the king had prepared this feast with them in mind, and he had spared no expense. This was going to be an unforgettable, once-in-a-lifetime event that they would long remember. But each of those who had received the king’s personal invitation to this very special occasion chose to ignore his kind offer. Instead, they gave lame excuses, stating they had other, seemingly more important things to do with their time. They showed no interest in the king, his son, or the feast that had been prepared on their behalf.

But it gets worse. Jesus described some of the invited guests showing their disdain for the king by verbally and physically abusing his servants, and even putting them to death. Obviously, they had never heard the age-old maxim, “Don’t kill the messenger.” Their violent treatment of the innocent servants of the king revealed their attitude toward him as their sovereign. They showed him no respect and refused to extend to him the honor associated with his title. They displayed no fear that the king, the father of the groom, might seek retribution. Their actions revealed a total disregard for the king’s position and power.

But they were in for a big surprise. Upon hearing of the murder of his servants, the king ordered his army to seek out and destroy these people, burning their town as recompense for their ungrateful and unrighteous actions. He accused them of being murderers and treated them accordingly. And the king made it clear that their actions had exposed their inherent unworthiness to be guests at the wedding feast of his son.

“The wedding feast is ready, but those invited were not worthy.” – Matthew 22:8 ESV

Their actions had disqualified them. But it wasn’t the fact that they had murdered the king’s servants. It was that they had refused his gracious and repeated invitation to be guests at his son’s wedding feast. They had placed no value on the king’s decision to include them as his guests to this invitation-only event.

By now, Jesus’ intent behind this parable should be clear. He was telling His disciples about the coming kingdom of God. The king in the parable represents God, the Father. The king’s son is Jesus. The wedding feast is the Marriage Supper of the Lamb, a future event described in Revelation 19.

Let us rejoice and exult
    and give him the glory,
for the marriage of the Lamb has come,
    and his Bride has made herself ready;
it was granted her to clothe herself
    with fine linen, bright and pure”—

for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints.

And the angel said to me, “Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.” – Revelation 19:7-9 ESV

The guests who had received invitations to the wedding feast but who had refused to attend are meant to represent the nation of Israel. God had extended His invitation to the Jewish people, sending His Son to proclaim the coming of the kingdom of heaven. But as John records in his gospel, “He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him” (John 1:11 ESV). Not only that, God had sent His prophets, years in advance of Jesus’ incarnation, and they had proclaimed the future coming of the Messiah. The Jewish people had been “invited” by the servants of God to be His guests at His Son’s great wedding feast. But the Jewish people had rejected the words of the prophets, even putting some of them to death. Jesus would later declare His sorrow over Israel’s rejection of Him.

“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing.” – Matthew 23:37 ESV

In the parable, Jesus described the king’s decision to extend his invitation to others. He sent his servants to invite anyone they found – “both bad and good” – to fill the banquet hall for his son’s wedding. In other words, the king opened up the invitation to anyone and everyone. The chosen ones had refused his kind offer and been deemed unworthy, so now the king was providing an open invitation to any and all.

And it seems that many of those whom the servants found were unlikely candidates to receive an invitation to an event of this magnitude. The king even supplied them with the proper clothes to wear to a wedding. Having not been part of the original group invited to the wedding feast, they would have had no time to prepare for the occasion. So, the king provided everything they needed: The invitation that provided them with entrance into the feast and the proper attire to wear to an event held in the king’s palace.

And the king’s gracious provision of garments should not be overlooked because Jesus points out that, in spite of the king’s gracious provision of clothing fit for a wedding, one man had the audacity to show up improperly dressed. He had failed to put on the elegant clothes he had been given by the king, and, as a result, he was promptly bound and thrown out. He was denied entrance to the feast. The invitation alone proved insufficient. He was expected to come properly attired for an occasion of this magnitude.

So what’s the point? God had invited the nation of Israel into His kingdom. Over the centuries, He had sent His messengers, the prophets, to the Jewish people, with His call to repent, but they had refused God’s messengers, rejecting and even killing them. So, through this parable, Jesus reveals that God, the king, was going to deal harshly with all those who had received a personal invitation to His Son’s wedding feast. Even the Jews of Jesus’ day were going to reject Him as Messiah, effectively refusing the Father’s gracious invitation to join Him at the Marriage Supper of the Lamb.

As a result, the invitation would be extended to the “both bad and good,” a clear reference to the Gentiles. The refusal of the Jews would cause God to open up the doors to the feast to those outside the Jewish community. He would even provide these formerly uninvited guests with the proper “attire” for a wedding.

Through His upcoming death on the cross, Jesus would clothe those who believed in Him with His own righteousness. He would replace their rags of sin with the white garments of righteousness, making them acceptable before God the Father. But if anyone tries to enter God’s Kingdom clothed in their own righteousness, they will be rejected. As the prophet Isaiah so aptly put it, “We are all infected and impure with sin. When we display our righteous deeds, they are nothing but filthy rags” (Isaiah 64:6 NLT). An invitation to the feast is not enough. You must come appropriately attired, dressed in clothing provided by the Father of the Groom: Wearing the righteousness of Christ.

I will greatly rejoice in the Lord;
    my soul shall exult in my God,
for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation;
    he has covered me with the robe of righteousness – Isaiah 61:10 ESV

The nation of Israel had received a personal invitation from God to enter into His kingdom, but they had refused. They had rejected the message of the prophets, even killing some of them for speaking the truth of God. And while many of the Jews had seemingly accepted the message of John the Baptist, even undergoing the ritual of baptism meant to symbolize their repentance, they would eventually reject Jesus as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29 NLT).

All of this ties into the issue of authority. Remember, that is what the Pharisees had asked Jesus.

By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” – Matthew 21:23 ESV

Jesus had authority as the Son of God. He was the Son of the King and the rightful heir to the throne. And the message of the prophets concerning the coming Messiah was fulfilled in Him. But that raises additional questions: Is Jesus Christ the authority in your life? Do you hear what He says and obey it? Have you accepted His invitation, or are you too busy, too good, or too smart to buy into something so hard to believe? Does the way you live your life reveal that you sometimes question whether Jesus has authority over your life? Do you refuse to put on the righteousness He has provided because you prefer your life just the way it is?

Jesus not only wants to be the Savior, but He also wants to be your King. He wants to rule and reign in your life. He wants to lead you and direct you. He wants you to worship and obey Him. He wants you to live in submission to Him. Because He loves You, and He alone knows what is best for you. He is a gracious, loving, merciful, righteous King who longs to provide for and protect His people.

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Rejected, But Still Ruling

28 “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.’ 29 And he answered, ‘I will not,’ but afterward he changed his mind and went. 30 And he went to the other son and said the same. And he answered, ‘I go, sir,’ but did not go. 31 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. 32 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.

33 “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. 34 When the season for fruit drew near, he sent his servants to the tenants to get his fruit. 35 And the tenants took his servants and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. 36 Again he sent other servants, more than the first. And they did the same to them. 37 Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ 38 But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir. Come, let us kill him and have his inheritance.’ 39 And they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. 40 When therefore the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” 41 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.”

42 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’?

43 Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruits. 44 And the one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and when it falls on anyone, it will crush him.”

45 When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they perceived that he was speaking about them. 46 And although they were seeking to arrest him, they feared the crowds, because they held him to be a prophet. –  Matthew 21:28-46 ESV

Yesterday’s passage revealed the Pharisees confronting Jesus with a question that was designed to malign His actions. They had witnessed His triumphal entry, His cleansing of the temple, and all “the wonderful things that he did” (Matthew 21:15 ESV), and they were incensed at His audacity to bring His little carnival sideshow onto their turf. Jerusalem was their domain. And as far as they were concerned, Jesus had no right to do what He was doing. So, they had asked Him, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” (Matthew 21:23 ESV).

To understand the gist of their question, you have to consider the context. Jesus had walked on to the Temple grounds and angrily cleared out the moneychangers, overturning their tables. He drove away all those buying and selling animals for the sacrifices. And most importantly, Mark tells us, “he stopped everyone from using the Temple as a marketplace” (Mark 11:16 NLT). If you think about it, Jesus completely disrupted the entire sacrificial system for that day. He threw a wrench into the well-oiled machine of the corrupt religious system that had turned God’s house into a money-making enterprise that lined the pockets of their robes.

That sets up the passage we are dealing with today. Jesus had arrived back in Jerusalem from Bethany and was immediately confronted by the leading priests, the teachers of religious law, and the elders. They demanded to know who had given Him the authority to do what He had done. And it seems clear that they were talking about His disruption of the sacrificial system the day before.

By asking their question, they were inferring that Jesus had no right or authority to do what He did. His actions were not in keeping with accepted tradition. In their minds, Jesus was a renegade and a trouble maker. He was not one of them. He had not gone through the proper channels or received the necessary training. He had no authority because He had never been a disciple of one of the great rabbis. He was an imposter and needed to be dealt with as such.

Without knowing it, they were actually questioning Jesus’ kingship. Remember, just a few days before Jesus had ridden into town to the shouts of “Praise God! Blessings on the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessings on the coming Kingdom of our ancestor David! Praise God in highest heaven!” (Mark 11:9-10 NLT).

Jesus had been welcomed as a king. But now they were questioning His authority and attempting to paint Him as a radical and a revolutionary.

But rather than answer their question, Jesus countered with one of His own. “I’ll tell you by what authority I do these things if you answer one question,” Jesus replied. “Did John’s authority to baptize come from heaven, or was it merely human? Answer me!” (Mark 11:29-30 NLT).

Jesus put them squarely on the horns of a dilemma. If they said John’s authority was from heaven, they would be guilty of rejecting God. If they said it was of human origin, they risked alienating the people who saw John as a prophet. So they decided to plead ignorance. “We don’t know,” they responded. And as a result, Jesus refused to address their question regarding His authority. But in reality, Jesus did answer their question. He did so by telling three short parables. He turned to the crowd and began to teach in His usual method, using simple stories to teach a much deeper truth. But the context tells us what Jesus had in mind by telling these stories. The issue is one of authority and Jesus used these stories to address their original question.

Jesus shares three parables: The parable of the two sons, the parable of the landowner, and the parable of the wedding feast. In the first one, Jesus tells about a father with two sons, who orders the first son to go into the household vineyard and work. The son refused, but later repented and did what the father had asked. He orders the second son to go and he initially agrees, feigning obedience, but later refuses, never doing what the father asked. So, Jesus asked His audience, “Which one obeyed?” and they answered, “The first son.”

So what’s the point? The religious leaders believed they were sons of the kingdom due to their heritage as descendants of Abraham. Jesus made it clear that corrupt tax collectors and prostitutes would get into God’s Kingdom before they did. Why? Repentance and belief. The religious leaders refused to repent. They refused to believe. They would not acknowledge Jesus’ claim to be the Messiah and His authority as their rightful King.

In the second parable, Jesus tells of a landowner who planted a vineyard and then leased it out and moved to another country. When the grape harvest came, he sent his servants to collect his share of the crop. But the farmers to whom he had leased the land beat one servant, killed another, and stoned the last. So the landowner sent a larger group of servants and they were treated in the same way. Finally, he decided to send his own son, hoping that they would show him the respect he deserved. But when he arrived, they grabbed him, dragged him out of the vineyard and killed him. So, once again, Jesus asked the crowd what they thought the landowner would do to those rebellious tenant farmers when he returned. And the Pharisees were the first to respond.

The religious leaders replied, “He will put the wicked men to a horrible death and lease the vineyard to others who will give him his share of the crop after each harvest.” – Matthew 21:41 NLT

Their own answer condemned them.

Over the centuries, God had sent His prophets to His people, and they had been abused, rejected, and, in many cases, killed. So He had sent more, and they had been treated in the same way. Now, He had sent His Son, but He too would be killed in just a matter of days.

In telling this particular parable, Jesus was referring to a story from the book of Isaiah (Isaiah 5:1-7). Jesus makes sure they get the meaning of the story. “I tell you, the Kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a nation that will produce proper fruit. Anyone who stumbles over that stone will be broken to pieces, and it will crush anyone it falls on” (Matthew 21:43-44 NLT).

Jesus was the stone that the builders would reject, but in spite of their efforts, He would become the cornerstone. As King, Jesus had the authority to do as He wished – even if it meant taking away the Kingdom of God from those who rejected Him.

The Pharisees didn’t miss the point. Matthew later reveals: “When the leading priests and Pharisees heard this parable, they realized he was telling the story against them – they were the wicked farmers. They wanted to arrest him, but they were afraid of the crowds, who considered Jesus to be a prophet” (Matthew 21:45-46 NLT).

Jesus had authority because He was the Son of God, and all the prophecies contained in the Old Testament had predicted His coming. And, upon His arrival, He had called the people of Israel to repent for the kingdom was near because their long-awaited King had appeared. The nation of Israel had been extended an invitation to enter into His newly arrived kingdom, but they would end up refusing the offer. They would reject the messages of the prophets, of John the Baptist, and would refuse the offer of Jesus Christ.

It’s all a question of authority. And even today, each individual must decide whether Jesus Christ will have authority over his life. Will he hear what Jesus says and obey it? Will He accept His gracious invitation or reject it?

It seems that the arrogance and pride of the Pharisees are alive and well today. Many are too busy, too good, or too smart to buy into something so hard to believe. They question the validity of Jesus and, as a result, deny His authority over their lives. But sadly, so do many of us who claim to be Christ-followers.

Does the way you live your life reveal that you sometimes question His authority over your life? Do you refuse to put on the righteousness He has provided because you prefer your life just the way it is? Jesus not only wants to be the Savior, He wants to be your King. He wants to rule and reign in your life. He wants to lead you and direct you. He wants you to worship and obey Him. He wants you to live in submission to Him. Because He loves You and He alone knows what is best for you. He is a gracious, loving, merciful, righteous King who longs to provide for and protect His people.

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Faith and Fruitfulness

18 In the morning, as he was returning to the city, he became hungry. 19 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.

20 When the disciples saw it, they marveled, saying, “How did the fig tree wither at once?” 21 And Jesus answered them, “Truly, I say to you, if you have faith and do not doubt, you will not only do what has been done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ it will happen. 22 And whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith.” 

23 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?” 24 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. 25 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?’ 26 But if we say, ‘From man,’ we are afraid of the crowd, for they all hold that John was a prophet.” 27 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 21:18-27 ESV

FigOne of the reasons it is important to read the four gospels simultaneously, in what is called a “harmony,” is that it provides you with a much more accurate timeline of the events. You will also discover that each of the authors has provided his own unique retelling of the events surrounding the life of Jesus. When read together, they provide a 3D-rendering of the circumstances, with each gospel providing different details that help fill out the story.

This is especially true with today’s passage. The story of Jesus cursing the fig tree is difficult to understand, and it requires a reading of each of the three synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) to get a well-rounded understanding of the circumstances involved.

Mark tells us that, after entering Jerusalem on Monday to joyous shouts of the people, Jesus went to the Temple and, “after looking around carefully at everything, he left because it was late in the afternoon. Then he returned to Bethany with the twelve disciples” (Mark 11:11 NLT). Bethany would be their home base during what is called the Passion Week. They would return there each evening and spend the night. Then each morning, they would make their way back to the eastern gate of the city of Jerusalem, passing through the Mount of Olives along the way, roughly a two-mile walk.

On Tuesday morning, Jesus and the disciples returned to Jerusalem, and along the way, they passed a fig tree. Jesus “noticed a fig tree in full leaf and little way off, so he went over to see if he could find any figs. But there were only leaves because it was too early in the season for fruit. Then Jesus said to the tree, ‘May no one eat your fruit again!’ And the disciples heard him say it” (Mark 11:12-14 NLT).

This sequence of events is critical to understanding what Jesus does next. He curses the fig tree, then He and the disciples made their way into Jerusalem, where He “entered the Temple and began to drive out the people buying and selling animals for sacrifice. He knocked over the tables of the money changers and the chairs of those selling doves, and he stopped everyone from using the Temple as a marketplace” (Mark 11:15-16 NLT).

Taking these two events out of order or attempting to deal with them independently will render them virtually incomprehensible. The cursing of the fig tree makes sense only if you keep in mind what Jesus did next.

When He arrived in Jerusalem that Monday and took a look around the Temple grounds, He saw what had become of His Father’s house. He assessed the situation and then left for the day. On the way back into the city the next morning, He saw the barren fig tree and cursed it. Matthew tells us that Jesus was hungry, and when He went to find fruit on the tree, there was none. But His cursing of the tree is not done out of anger or vindictiveness. This was not some petty power display or a form of divine judgment upon a fruitless tree. It was intended to be visual lesson for the disciples.

One of the important details found in the story is that the tree was in full bloom. It was a healthy, visibly vibrant tree that had all the appearances of fruitfulness. But the fruit was missing. Think back on what John the Baptist had to say to the Jewish religious leaders, “But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance’” (Matthew 3:7-8 ESV).

We could do a lengthy study on the fruit-bearing properties of the Middle Eastern fig tree, but that is not the point of the story. There are commentators who try to explain that the fig tree in that part of the world has fruit on it year-round. Others say that if the tree was in full leaf it should have had fruit. But all we know from the gospel accounts is that IT HAD NO FRUIT.

Mark tells us it was not the season for fruit, and yet, Jesus hungered for fruit. He came to the tree expecting to see and enjoy fruit. BUT THE TREE WAS EMPTY OF FRUIT. It was appealing to the eye but failed to live up to Jesus’ expectations.

As usual, this event had much to do with Jesus’ perception of the religious leaders of His day. Jesus had accused the Pharisees of doing everything they did to be noticed by men. It was all about the show.

“They do all their deeds to be seen by others.” – Matthew 23:5 ESV

But this problem had become a national epidemic. To all appearances, the nation of Israel had all the trappings of religious fervor and faith. They had a place of worship – the Temple. They practiced the religious requirements as handed down by God – Passover, Pentecost, Feast of Tabernacles, the Law, etc. They had a priesthood. They made regular sacrifices to atone for their sins.

In his book, The Words and Works of Jesus, J. Dwight Pentecost writes, “Like the leafy tree, they had given external evidence of being fruitful but on examination, they were seen to be barren and fruitless. Therefore judgment had to come on that generation.”

Mark indicates that it was the next morning, as they passed by the fig tree again, that the disciples noticed it was withered from the roots up. “Peter remembered what Jesus had said to the tree on the previous day and exclaimed, ‘Look, Rabbi! The fig tree you cursed has withered and died!’” (Mark 11:20-21 NLT).

So what’s the point? The cursing of the fig tree was a statement against the spiritual hypocrisy and religious formalism of the Pharisees. The fig tree had all that was required for fruitfulness, but no fruit. And Jesus used the moment to teach the disciples an important lesson on faith, and He makes the main point right at the outset: “Have faith in God” (Mark 11:22 NLT).

No faith. No Fruit.

It was the lack of faith in God that resulted in Israel’s barrenness. They were not experiencing the power of God in their lives (Mark 11:23). They were not enjoying answered prayers from God (Mark 11:24). Their prayers were hindered by hatred and unforgiveness (Mark 11:25). Over in the book of John, we read the words of Jesus:

“Yes, I am the vine; you are the branches. Those who remain in my, and I in them, will produce much fruit. For apart from me you can nothing. Anyone who does not remain in me is thrown away like a useless branch and withers. Such branches are gathered into a pile to be burned. But if you remain in me and my words remain in you, you may ask for anything you want, and it will be granted! When you produce much fruit, you are my true disciples. This brings great glory to my Father.”John 15:5-8 NLT

Fruitfulness and faith go hand in hand.

When Jesus cleansed the Temple, He had shouted, “The Scriptures declare, ‘My Temple will be called a house of prayer for all nations,’ but you have turned it into a den of thieves’” (Mark 11:17 NLT). He accused the religious leaders of stealing glory from God. They were abusing the people of God. They were more obsessed with financial gain than holiness. They were more interested in fleecing the flock than in faithfulness. But God’s house was for all people. Jesus had come for all men. Salvation was for all who would believe.

Yet, the Jewish religious leaders had taken the court of the Gentiles, the only place non-Jews could worship, and had turned it into a three-ring circus. It was there that they had set up their system of graft and greed, disguised as religion. But at the end of the day, Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple was all about obedience and faithfulness. It was about wholehearted commitment to the Lord and not about religiosity and ritual. Jesus compared them to their rebellious ancestors and concludes that NOTHING HAD CHANGED!

And He warned them that the temple would not save them. It was the God of the Temple who was to be their only hope. And it was the people who God had called to His Temple who were important.

Over in his letter to the Corinthian believers, Paul reminds us, “Don’t you realize that all of you together are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God lives in you? God will destroy anyone who destroys this temple. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple” (1 Corinthians 3:16-17 NLT).

Jesus is still looking for fruitfulness from His people. That fruitfulness is only possible through faith in God. And those who have faith in God and believe in His Son will experience the fruit of the Spirit and the power of God in their lives. That is why Jesus told the disciples, “Truly, I say to you, if you have faith and do not doubt, you will not only do what has been done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ it will happen” (Matthew 21:21 ESV).

Israel was going to be judged by God for its lack of fruitfulness, caused by its lack of faith in Him. Like the barren fig tree, they would be judged for their failure to bear fruit in keeping with repentance. They had all the appearances of religiosity but lacked the one thing that could make them truly religious: Faith in God. Which is why they rejected His Son and their Savior. And Jesus wanted His disciples to know that they would need to have faith without doubt, so that they could experience the kind of fruitfulness God had planned for them.

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson