Title: A Battle for the Ages
Text: Matthew 23:37-39
Jesus Advances; His Second Move
For the Jews, the Temple in Jerusalem was the center of everything Jewish, the very center of the Jewish people and Nation. It was the embodiment (if I can use that term for a building) of their very identities as a people; it was their pride, it was their joy, and it was their hope for a better day. Yet the real significance of the Temple ran far deeper than all of that, for its true significance was entirely apocalyptic in nature.
The Temple in Jerusalem was the symbol of God dwelling in the midst of His people, the symbol of their exalted status as God’s chosen; God’s elect. There, in the Most Holy Place, dwelt the Spirit of God Himself on the earth; in the heart of Israel’s capitol city. It was a place of gathering in community, a place of teaching and instruction, a place of worship and prayer, and it was also a place of atonement; it was by any definition a sacred place.
When Jesus entered the city on that donkey colt as the son of David, He went directly to the Temple, and He did so in a manner that asserted His authority as king and Messiah, as one who is greater than the Temple itself (12:6). His actions there demonstrated prophetically what the Temple had become, and in doing so, Jesus went to very heart of the corruption of Israel, for they had perverted the very blessing that set them apart from everyone else, and that blessing was their relationship with God. In His actions on that fateful afternoon, Jesus told an active parable about what would be the fate of the Temple, for it would be utterly destroyed. Later in chapter 24, Jesus would speak to His disciples prophetically about this destruction. But on this day, Jesus, by His actions, would deliver a stinging indictment of the entire ideology that had developed within the teachings of the Jewish religious leaders concerning the Temple.
As a result, they question His identity (21:10), and His authority (21:23); they were indignant (21:15). Later in the drama, Jesus’ predictions concerning the Temple’s destruction are levied against Him at His trial (26:61) and hurled at Him in the form of taunts at His crucifixion (27:40). Yes sir, the Messiah was on the scene, and He has brought to them a message that says serious house cleaning is needed, and in so doing, He has “let loose the dogs of (spiritual) war”!
Jesus’ Third Move
Matthew 21:18-22; Mark 11:12-26; Luke 19:45-48; 21:37-38
As I have mentioned, Jesus would make three moves that declare His Messianic identity upon His arrival at Jerusalem; the first two were public, His triumphal entry, and His clearing of the Temple. Now we come to the third, His private demonstration to the disciples who, it would seem, missed the point just as much as the Jewish leaders did.
Early in the morning, as Jesus was on his way back to the city, he was hungry. Seeing a fig tree by the road, he went up to it but found nothing on it except leaves. Then he said to it, “May you never bear fruit again!” Immediately the tree withered. (21:18-19)
Make no mistake, Jesus wasn’t having a temper tantrum because there was no fruit on the tree; His actions were quite illustrative of the situation they were in. He, the son of David, the Messiah had entered the Holy City of Jerusalem on the previous afternoon, headed directly to the Temple, the very dwelling place of God and the symbol of God in the midst of His people, and He had found only corruption and vice. Israel, as represented by its capitol looked healthy and productive from the outside, but the inside was rotten to the core.
The fig tree looked good, and it should have had fruit, but upon closer inspection, it was barren; Jesus pronounced judgment on that tree for its lack of fruit, and it withered and died. This action is prophetic, for like His actions in the Temple on the previous day, it was an illustration of what was in Jerusalem’s future: God’s judgment.
It would seem from their reaction in verse 20 that the disciples didn’t see the prophetic aspect of this, at least not at first, and as we probably would have been in their place, they were amazed at how Jesus said the words, and the tree had withered right before their eyes. I must admit that would be something to see. Jesus responds to their amazement by speaking to them of faith, a commodity they would need quite a bit of in the very near future:
Jesus replied, “Truly I tell you, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only can you do what was done to the fig tree, but also you can say to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and it will be done. If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.” (21:21-22)
This is not the first time Jesus has spoken to them in this way about their faith. In the days ahead, the disciples will need to have faith, for they will find themselves in a position where they will need to depend mightily on God; thus, He reminds them that in doing so, nothing will be withheld from them. The obvious contrast is the Jewish religious leaders, who rely entirely upon their own abilities and self-righteousness, even to the point of having their long-awaited Messiah nailed to a cross, thus sealing their doom.
Jesus Under Attack
Matthew 21:23-27; Mark 12:13-17; Luke 20:1-8
The Chief Priest demands to know by what authority Jesus is saying and doing the things He’s been up to, and I’m sure that His attack on their little Temple gold mine was foremost in their minds. Jesus, a tough customer, isn’t going to play their game, so He asks them a question of His own: By what authority did John the Baptist do what he did?
Pay close attention to their reasoning: Pure politics! They settled on “I don’t know” in an attempt to dodge the question, so Jesus told them that He wouldn’t answer them either. Notice in His wording that He fully recognized their dodge. The text tells us they feared the people who believed John, but they also must have known that John testified concerning the identity of Jesus; He really had them in a corner.
Then, remarkably, Jesus answers their question in a parable.
Isaiah 5:1-7; Matthew 21:33-46; Mark 12:1-12; Luke 20:9-19
The Chief Priest, the other priests, teachers, Pharisees and all the rest of them, knew exactly what Jesus was saying in the Parable of the Tenants; He was telling them the history of their people in a nutshell. Just as in Isaiah 5, the vineyard is Israel, they themselves are the tenants who beat and killed all of the servants God sent to them, yes, for those servants were the very prophets these guys talked about all the time. Now, God (the owner) has sent His Son to them, and they will kill Him too… and they will pay quite a price for their evil deeds.
Jesus finishes the parable off with a quote from Psalm 118 for good measure; they knew instantly who the “cornerstone” was… the stone the builders rejected. Jesus wasn’t going to play their games, but He was most assuredly speaking their language, and they were not pleased. It’s interesting don’t you think, that nobody stopped to consider the likelihood that Jesus was telling them the truth and offering them a way out of their jam.
At this point, they retreated. Jesus has fought off the first attack, but there were more coming, after all, it wasn’t even lunch time yet!
Jesus Under Attack, the Second Wave
Matthew 22:15-22; Mark 12:13-17; Luke 20:20-26
The second wave began later that same Tuesday. Jesus had already repulsed the attack of the Chief Priest, and this time, the Pharisees and their Herodian allies come at Him. As you recall, these two groups have been plotting to kill Jesus for some time now, and they have come to snare Him in a political trap.
“Teacher, we know that you are a man of integrity. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are; but you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not? Should we pay or shouldn’t we?”
The phrasing of this question is amateurish to say the least. First of all, they butter Him up a bit too much with the complimentary preamble to the actual question by saying that He is a teacher of the truth who cannot be swayed by anybody; He always sticks to the truth. Then they ask if it is lawful to pay the tax to Caesar; this is the real question. This is a terribly unpopular tax among the Jews because it isn’t honest. It is also unpopular because it isn’t a tax imposed under Jewish law, but by a foreign occupying power. If Jesus wants to remain popular with the crowds, He must say “no.” However, if He does that, they will report Him to the Romans, and He will be taken away in chains and not heard from again. At this point, they make a tactical blunder when they ask the redundant question, “Should we pay or shouldn’t we?” Here’s a debating tip for you, any time you are asked a question followed by a redundancy that pins you down to a yes or no answer, a trap has been set; beware.
Jesus of course, is several steps ahead of them, and asks to see a Roman coin, asks them who is pictured there and whose inscription is on the coin and has now turned the tables on His attackers.
“Why are you trying to trap me?” he asked. “Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.” They brought the coin, and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?”
“Caesar’s,” they replied.
Then Jesus said to them, “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”
And they were amazed at him.
Taking nothing away from Jesus’ quick thinking, these Pharisees and Herodians should stick to plotting and leave the confrontations to competent professionals, for even though they had set a trap, it is about the poorest excuse for a trap ever recorded, rising to the level of a child. Jesus was out of their snare with a simple request and had them checkmated in a one-liner.
He also taught something very important in the process… this was Jesus after all… and that is that our priority must be on the things of God and not on the things of this earth.
Jesus isn’t telling the people they should be thrilled to pay, nor is He making an endorsement of the Roman state; He is telling us to focus on God and the things of heaven.
At any rate, everyone was amazed at His answer, for once again Jesus’ perspectives were so entirely in opposition to their own perspectives that they hadn’t even considered that He might say what He did, for even then, following Jesus was entirely counter-intuitive, just as it is today.
Jesus Under Attack: The Third Wave
On that busy Tuesday, Jesus came under assault first by the chief Priest, then by the Pharisees, and now the third wave of attacks, this time from the Sadducees and then the teachers of the law. First, the Sadducees:
Matthew 22:23-33; Mark 12:18-27; Luke 20:27-39
The Sadducees don’t believe in a resurrection, so their trap is designed to get Jesus to either side with them, or wander into some kind of legal mistake, and frankly they ask a better question than the Pharisees did earlier. The flaw in their logic is this: If a man has several wives during his lifetime, and then rises from the grave at the last day and has multiple wives in heaven, that is one thing, but for a woman to have had multiple husbands, as can happen without any impropriety, as they demonstrate, the thought of a woman with multiple husbands is just too shocking… so it must prove that there is no resurrection.
As a note, the Pharisees were the ones who believed in a resurrection, and their rivals were the Sadducees. Actually, the Pharisees were about the only ones in authority who believed in a general resurrection in the Jewish community at the time; it isn’t one of the promises of the Law. Could it be that the Sadducees secretly hoped to use Jesus’ popularity against the Pharisees?
In verses 24-25, Jesus disarms their presupposition about marriage in heaven… their straw man, really… and then in the remaining verses, blows their no resurrection views out of the water by simply observing that the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is a God of the living and not a God of the dead; sorry boys.
The Sadducees retreat and the teachers of the law advance in attack:
Matthew 22:34-40; Mark 12:28-34; Luke 20:40
The teacher of the law who asked Jesus the next question had noticed that Jesus gave the Sadducees a good answer to their question, so he asked Jesus which of the commandments is most important, and it seems to me from Mark’s account that the man was actually asking an honest question; not to trick or trap Jesus but to find out what He would say. Of course, we all know the answer that Jesus gave in verses 29-31
“The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘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 mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”
What happens next is really interesting. The teacher speaks to Jesus as though Jesus were a bright pupil and compliments Him on His answer, and goes on to teach Jesus in verses 32-33
“Well said, teacher,” the man replied. “You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.”
Jesus told the man that he had answered wisely and that he wasn’t far from the Kingdom of God, for the man had told Jesus that the two greatest commandments were more important than all of the sacrifices.
Jesus Seizes the Initiative
Matthew 22:41-46; Mark 12:35-37; Luke 20:41-44
On that fateful Tuesday, Jesus has fought off three waves of attack from Jewish authorities who each peppered Him with questions designed to entrap Him into a mistake they could use as a pretense to arrest and kill Him. Now, Jesus moves to counter-attack.
His opening salvo comes in the form of a question in verse 35: “Why do the teachers of the law say that the Messiah is the son of David?”
To be fair, the teachers of the law were not wrong about the Messiah being the son of David in the sense that Messiah would clearly be of the House of David, the royal house of Israel, the house of kings. So, while they were technically correct as legalists usually are, they missed the larger point that Messiah would also be the Son of God, here on earth to establish an entirely new kind of kingdom; one that is not of this world at all.
David himself, speaking by the Holy Spirit, declared:
“‘The Lord said to my Lord:
“Sit at my right hand
until I put your enemies
under your feet.”’
Mark 12:35-36; c.f. Psalm 110:1
Take careful notice, of this statement of Jesus, for many in our time seem to miss its ultimate significance. Jesus is making the point that David himself in the Psalm refers to this Messiah as “lord” and the son is not the lord over his father; it’s the other way around under the Law (Honor your father and mother). Therefore, the Messiah is not merely of the clan of David, because He is also the Son of God, and being God’s Son entirely supersedes the fact that He is of the House of David.
Here’s an example of this relationship: Suppose the president had a son who was also a brigadier general. Everyone calls the son “general” and he receives the honor and respect of that rank. If a brigadier general walks up to the southwest gate of the White House, and his name is not on the guest list, he is turned away. If the son of the president walks up to the gate, he is always admitted because he is the president’s son, for being the president’s son supersedes his military rank when it comes to access to the president. So also does the fact that Jesus is the Son of God supersede His rank in the House of David.
Probably for all of the wrong reasons, the crowd was delighted.
Matthew 23:1-39; Mark 12:38-40; Luke 20:45-47
Jesus denounced the teachers of the law in this brief passage. His bill of particulars contains several charges:
They dress richly and expect to receive respect from the people.
They expect to get the best seats at public gatherings.
They “devour widows’ houses.”
They make long public prayers for show.
The other accounts add the Pharisees to this indictment, and Matthew records the seven woes here, while Mark as usual, is pithy. Consider what Jesus is accusing them of. Oh yes, He is calling them colossal hypocrites, but look at the priority system of these “righteous” and “religious” men. They want, more than anything else apparently, to be honored, respected and powerful. It is doubtful whether or not they care at all about their relationship with God, or about being faithful to Him; they are altogether worldly in their outlook in spite of their pious exteriors. They are using their lofty religious positions for personal advancement, and in the end, they will rue the day they started down this path.
Let’s not get too carried away throwing stones at the Pharisees and teachers of the Law, and let’s also not get too carried away with looking for the Pharisees in our midst, even though there are many, for this passage is within a larger context. This larger context runs through the entire chapter, and the climax and application is in the last few verses.
Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing. Look, your house is left to you desolate. For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’ (Matt. 23:37-39)
Jesus would make no more public speeches, the Jewish leaders retreated in defeat, reduced to plotting murder in secret. Yet Jesus still had much to teach the disciples.