Tag: Matthew

Return of the King (Zech. 9; Matt. 21)

by on May.22, 2016, under Sermon

Over the last 7 weeks we have been sharing together in the book of Zechariah. On behalf of the LORD, Zechariah issued a call for repentance coupled with a promise:

This is what the LORD Almighty says: ‘Return to me,’ declares the LORD Almighty, ‘and I will return to you,’ says the LORD Almighty. (Zech 1:3)

The rest of the book, and particularly chapters 9-14, elaborates on the promise of the LORD’s return using many powerful images: the LORD will be a good shepherd, who cares for his flock rather than taking advantage of them; he will be a ruler, a judge and a deliverer. Perhaps most powerfully of all, Zechariah pointed to a king who was to come:

Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion! Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. I will take away the chariots from Ephraim and the war-horses from Jerusalem, and the battle bow will be broken. He will proclaim peace to the nations. His rule will extend from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth. As for you, because of the blood of my covenant with you, I will free your prisoners from the waterless pit. (Zech 9:9–11)

Well, fast forward some 500 years and there was indeed a king in Jerusalem, King Herod. This king had poured vast amounts of time and energy into the rebuilding of the temple – 46 years, according to the Pharisees of Jesus’ day – with the result that it was more than twice the size of the Solomon’s Temple. True, he was not a Davidic king (he wasn’t even a Jew by birth), but he had done the work of a Son of David in building the Temple, just as the first Son of David, Solomon, had done before him. And he was acceptable to the Romans and therefore enjoyed a relatively long and prosperous reign.1

Was this the king that Zechariah had spoken of?

Matthew gives us our first clue that all is not well with this king in Matthew 2. Three men arrive in Jerusalem to ask after ‘the one who has been born king of the Jews’ (Matt. 2:2). Matthew records that, ‘When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him’ (Matt. 2:3). You see Herod had not been born king; he had been made king, rather unexpectedly, by the Roman Senate, and had assumed the throne with a Roman army at his back. If, now, someone had been born king, then his own security was placed in doubt. It is his actions that follow that put the question beyond all doubt. For Herod plotted to find and eliminate this new threat, ultimately killing all children under the age of 2 in Bethlehem and its surrounds. This is hardly the action of one ‘righteous and having salvation’ (Zech. 9:9)! It is a tragic irony that Jesus and his family escaped persecution and death by fleeing into Egypt, suggesting that Herod was even worse than the Pharaoh who put Israelite children to death in the days of Moses. Herod was a Pharaoh-like king, rather than a king after God’s own heart as a Son of David ought to be. He is not the king Zechariah prophesied.

So the question lingered: ‘Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews’?

Fast forward another 30 years. Once again, we find a city in uproar:

When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred and asked, “Who is this?” (Matt 21:10)

It is this question that we want to answer this morning.

The king of peace

The Galileans who arrived at Jerusalem with Jesus certainly thought they knew the answer. Many of them had witnessed Jesus’ ministry in their home towns, had seen the sick healed, the possessed exorcised, and even the dead raised. Moreover they had heard his teaching, teaching delivered with an authority beyond that of the scribes and Pharisees (Matt. 9:8; Mark 1:27; Luke 4:36). And now, here he was entering Jerusalem for one of the biggest festivals of the year, Passover, when the population of Jerusalem would temporarily swell to more than 6 times its normal size;2 surely this would be an ideal time for him to proclaim himself king?

Imagine their delight, then, when they see this same Jesus riding into Jerusalem, perhaps the only one riding amongst that throng of people. And he was riding a donkey just as Solomon, the first Son of David, also rode to his coronation (1 Kings 1:38).3 So they got on board, throwing their cloaks and branches on the road to form an impromptu ‘red carpet’ to welcome the king. And they shouted: ‘Hosanna to the Son of David!’, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!’ and ‘Hosanna in the highest!’

‘Hosanna’ is a plea for God to deliver,4 so ‘Hosanna to the Son of David!’ is a way of begging God to deliver by the hands of his anointed king. In fact, this is exactly what God was going to do, but it would not be in the way most of them anticipated. They would have expected Jesus to lead a revolt against the Roman authorities in the city, and to take the throne as king of the Jews.

But that was not Jesus’ plan. In fact, he carefully chose his actions to show that that was not the kind of king he intended to be – at least, not at this time. He rode into Jerusalem, not as warrior king mounted on a war horse or chariot, but as a king coming in peace and riding on a donkey. Matthew emphasises this by only partially quoting Zechariah 9:9:

This took place to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet: “Say to the Daughter of Zion, ‘See, your king comes to you, [righteous and having salvation], gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’” (Matt. 21:4-5)

By omitting the words ‘righteous and having salvation’ Matthew places additional emphasis on Jesus’ gentleness. He returned to Jerusalem to bring peace rather than war.

On one level, the crowds were exactly right. They had rightly recognised the true king, the Son of David, the Messiah. Yet they missed the significance of Jesus’ actions, so caught up in their own vision of what Jesus ought to be doing that they missed what he was actually doing. They had listened selectively to what the Old Testament said about the Messiah, hearing about the king who would conquer but not the shepherd who would be struck; the judge who would deliver, but not the one who would be pierced. The difference between their expectation and reality perhaps partly accounts for the evaporation of their enthusiasm over the next week. Doubtless at least some of the same voices crying ‘Hosanna!’ would soon be crying ‘Crucify!’

Isn’t this something we are guilty of as well? We get so caught up in our plans for what God ought to be doing that we miss what God is actually doing. Take Romans 8, for example: We read promises like, ‘[I]n all things God works for the good of those who love him’ (Rom. 8:28) and ‘If God is for us, who can be against us?’ (Rom. 8:31) and ‘[I]n all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us’ (Rom. 8:37), but we skip over ‘present sufferings’ (Rom. 8:18), a creation groaning in the pains of childbirth (Rom. 8:22) and people groaning inwardly waiting for the redemption of their bodies (Rom. 8:23).

Friends, as you seek to answer the question ‘Who is this?’ take the time to read the whole of Scripture, to see the whole picture of what God is doing – lights and shades, colours and greys. Don’t try to filter out the dark bits, the bits that don’t fit with your vision of the world, that don’t match with your plans. For we find God at work just as much in the darkness as in the light. The picture of Jesus spans the whole spectrum from shadow to sunlight, and it is a glorious picture indeed. At his first coming, Jesus would be struck, he would be pierced, he would be crucified upon a Roman cross; yet in the midst of that apparent defeat he conquered sin and darkness and death.

The prophet from Galilee

Listen again to Matthew’s words:

When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred and asked, “Who is this?” (Matt. 21:10)

The whole city was ‘stirred’, just as they were ‘disturbed’ when the Magi arrived back in chapter 2. The question then was, ‘Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews?’ And the answer now ought to be, ‘This is the one born king of the Jews’. But it wasn’t.

You see, not everyone was so impressed by Jesus as the crowd from Galilee. In fact, being a Galilean followed by a bunch of Galileans was not a thing to inspire credibility when it came to religious matters. As best I can tell, it would be like a bunch of Parramatta Eels fans showing up, claiming to have a premiership team: a claim to be viewed with deep distrust! Can anything good come out of Parramatta?5 Look into it and you will find that a premiership team does not come out of Parramatta!6

So, if not the king, who did they think he was?

The crowds answered, “This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee.” (Matt 21:11)

You can almost hear the scorn: the ‘prophet’ from Nazareth. The crowds outside the gate were proclaiming him king, but in the city it was a more sophisticated, urbane, and even cynical bunch. A ‘better class of people.’ They were not going to be taken in by the claims of a back-woods rabbi claiming to be a king. They knew where true power lay, and it was not with a man on a donkey.

Friend, if you are not a Christian I know how easy it can be to do this. It is easy to allow our prejudice to make us miss the truth. Perhaps you think, ‘He’s just another religious nut, and religion is the source of trouble not the solution.’ This is one of the hallmarks of the so-called ‘New Atheism’, trying to equate science, progress, and sophistication with abandoning religion. Or perhaps you question his relevance: ‘Jesus lived 2000 years ago and a long way from here. What could he say that is relevant to me today?’ Even some apparently positive prejudices, such as ‘Jesus was a good man; a good moral teacher,’ become an excuse to relativise Jesus’ claims and treat him as just another voice among many.

But I urge you not to allow your prejudices to lead you to dismiss Jesus too quickly. No, put those things aside and take the time to consider his claims about himself, and the evidence he offers for those claims. Make sure you are engaging the real Jesus, not some stereotype or second-hand picture of him. Look carefully at what he says about the world – that it is broken and sinful, that it needs saving. Then look at the solution he offers – his own sacrificial death to endure the punishment for sin, his resurrection life as the promise of a new life and a new world for all who believe in him. With those in mind, you must then consider his call upon you – abandon your attempts to save yourself and your world (because, frankly, they are not working) and trust instead in his work on your behalf. Jesus knows what he is talking about and his invitation is sincere. And if you want more evidence of his faithfulness and ability to deliver on his promises, keep listening: again and again we will see Jesus delivering on the promises of God given through Zechariah more than 500 years before!

Put your trust in him today.

The priest who rules the courts

Well, if the ‘sophisticated’ Jerusalemites didn’t think much of him, it is clear that Jesus did not approve of their actions either.

Jesus entered the temple area and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves. “It is written,” he said to them, “‘My house will be called a house of prayer,’ but you are making it a ‘den of robbers.’” (Matt. 21:12–13)

Many who journeyed to Jerusalem would have found it more convenient to purchase livestock for sacrifice than to have to bring it on their journey. Similarly, certain types of coins were unacceptable for paying the temple tax because they bore images of other gods, so pilgrims would need to change their local currency for money that was acceptable. Arguably, these were important services; but they did not belong inside the temple courts. This is especially true insofar as they prevented people from engaging in the true purpose of the temple: prayer. Can you imagine trying to worship amidst the cooing of doves and clinking of coins, not to mention the vociferous bartering that would inevitably accompany such transactions?

Of particular note is that this was going on in the Court of the Gentiles, the only part of the temple that Gentiles were permitted to enter. It was meant to be a place for the nations to come and meet with God. Yet here it was, chock full of merchants, traders, and their customers, leaving little or no space (let alone peace!) for its intended purpose. In driving these people out, then, Jesus was beginning to fulfil the promise in Zechariah 2:11:

Many nations will be joined with the LORD in that day and will become my people.

He was also exercising the authority promised in Zechariah:

If you will walk in my ways and keep my requirements, then you will govern my house and have charge of my courts. (Zech. 3:7)

This is a conditional promise. The condition is to ‘walk in [the LORD’s] ways and keep [his] requirements’. Jesus fulfilled that condition through his life of perfect obedience to his Father, and obedience that extended all the way to death on a Roman cross and beyond. Because of that obedience, because he fulfilled the condition, God has fulfilled the promise by granting him authority over all things (cf. Eph. 1:10, 22; Phil. 2:9-11).

As Jesus heals the blind and the lame, we see that he also fulfils the requirement of Zechariah 7:9-10:

Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the alien or the poor. In your hearts do not think evil of each other.

The chief priests and teachers of the law would have excluded such people from entering the temple, assuming that their physical maladies were symptoms of a deeper spiritual malady. But Jesus’ solution is to heal them inside and out. Remember the promise in Zechariah 13 that Dr. Petterson pointed us to last week?

On that day a fountain will be opened to the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, to cleanse them from sin and impurity. (Zech. 13:1)

Jesus is, once again, the fulfilment of this promise. He fulfils it in part through physical healing; he completes it through his sacrificial death on the cross.

Friends, Jesus is committed to seeing you come to the Father in prayer and in worship. He has done everything to make it possible. He drives out those who put profit ahead of praise. He heals the broken and the sick. Ultimately he died on the cross so that you might be made cleansed and holy. And if that weren’t enough, he got up out of the grave to invite you to come. Come to the Father!

The judge who renders judgment

Matthew recounts a strange event the following morning:

Early in the morning, as he 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.

When the disciples saw this, they were amazed. “How did the fig tree wither so quickly?” they asked.

Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth, 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.” (Matt 21:18–22)

There is much that could be said about this, but we only have time to focus on one aspect. When fig trees grew leaves, it was normally a sign that their fruit was ripe. This fig tree, however, had leaves but no fruit. From a distance it looked as though it was healthy and productive, exactly what a hungry traveller needed; get up close, however, and it was a complete disappointment. So Jesus pronounces a curse upon it, with devastating results.

The disciples are fascinated by the power implicit in Jesus’ judgment; it takes effect immediately. And Jesus takes the opportunity to teach them a lesson about prayer and faith. Yet he may also hint at a larger judgment, a judgment upon the very mountain on which they stood, the Temple Mount, and by extension the temple built upon it. Herod’s temple was one of the wonders of the ancient world, much admired for its architecture and finery. If Zechariah’s contemporaries could have seen it they would have been astounded and probably thought that this was God’s promised temple, the glorious Jerusalem promised through Zechariah. But Jesus had demonstrated that it was all ‘leaf’ and no ‘fruit’ – no justice, no righteousness, no healing, no prayer.

Ultimately, by his own sacrifice in laying down his life, Jesus would destroy this temple, and replace it in three days with a new temple – his own resurrection body (John 2:18-22). And it was Jesus’ promise to do this that was quoted against him at his trial (Matt. 26:61) and mockingly hurled at him as he was dying on the cross (Matt. 27:40).

In a sense, Jesus could be seen as the exact opposite of the fig tree. He was the ‘fruit’ without the ‘leaves': the judge who submitted to false judgment; the high priest who was sacrificed rather than making sacrifice; the king who came to be executed rather than crowned. He endured all that was thrown at him for the sake of those who scorned him. He fulfilled all of the conditions so that we might receive all of the promises!

Do you remember that right at the start of Zechariah, God made a promise: ‘Return to me… and I will return to you’ (Zech. 1:3)? That is an astonishing promise; but the gospel message goes one better. The gospel says ‘I, Jesus, have returned to you so that you may return to me.’

Praise God!

The return of the king

One final thing. Many of you would have recognised the title we gave to our series in Zechariah, ‘The Return of the King’ as the title of the third volume in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. The King spoken of in that book is the mysterious ranger, Aragorn, known to some as ‘Strider’. There is a point in the novel where Aragorn’s right to be King of Gondor is made plain to everyone – by his courage, his sword, his healing, and his ability to command the loyalty even of the dead. Yet he faces opposition from the Steward of Gondor, the one supposed to be caretaker in his absence. So, rather than being crowned straight away he goes off to fight what appears a hopeless battle against the dark lord, Sauron. In the end, it is his faithfulness in the face of such impossible odds that allows his companions to destroy the source of Sauron’s power.

In Aragorn, Tolkien has gifted us with a magnificent picture of Christ. And, like Aragorn, Jesus will one day return to claim his rightful crown.

Come Lord Jesus!

Bibliography

Jeremias, Joachim. Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus; an Investigation Into Economic and Social Conditions During the New Testament Period. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1969.


Endnotes

  1. Some 37 years, 34 in Jerusalem.
  2. Joachim Jeremias, Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus; an Investigation Into Economic and Social Conditions During the New Testament Period. (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1969), 84.
  3. The word used for Solomon’s mount is pered, ‘mule’, which is the offspring of a stallion and a donkey. So, in a sense, Jesus’ ride was even humbler than Solomon’s, containing not even a trace of the warlike stallion.
  4. NIDNTT, s.v. ὡσαννά.
  5. cf. John 1:46.
  6. cf. John 7:52.
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