Palm Sunday Matthew 21:1-21
10 When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred and asked, “Who is this?”
Good question, and Matthew wants to make sure we can get the right answer; that we can give a fuller answer than the crowds on Palm Sunday, that we can see Jesus as more than a prophet from Nazareth. That’s why when he is telling the story of Jesus entering Jerusalem, he peppers it with quotations from the Old Testament: Zechariah 9, Psalm 118, Isaiah 56, Jeremiah 7 and Psalm 8 at the very least.
These quotations act as a ‘red button’ service to the passage. When you watch TV, you might be invited to press the Red Button in the corner of the screen should you wish to see more, or discover more about the programme. Likewise if we want to see more, to find out what is going on beneath the surface, we need check out these Old Testament verses. Then we have a better answer to the question: Who is this?
Jesus is King
It is a very different picture from the scenes at Windsor Castle this week: fine horses, coaches, attendants and all the pageantry of an official state visit. Of course the crowds are there, and palms waved instead of flags, but look at the mode of transport. Imagine a head of state trailing through the crowds on a humble donkey. There’s not a lot of dignity in that; it doesn’t appear powerful or statesmanlike.
But to those with eyes to see, looking through the lenses of the Old Testament: Jesus is King. See, your king comes to you, gentle and riding on a donkey, (5) He comes as King to his city, he has the right to rule, to judge and to save. As he enters the city on a donkey, so he will exit it on a cross; but make no mistake he is in control, he is King throughout, ruling and saving his people from a cross.
Jesus is Saviour
Hosanna (9) means ‘Save now!’ From Psalm 118:25-26 “Lord, save us! Lord, grant us success! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. From the house of the Lord we bless you.”
No wonder the blind and the lame came to him (14), blessing from the house of the Lord. His healing is a sign of God’s rule, restoring order to a world of malice, disorder, sin and suffering, and of God’s rescue to those who are hopeless. In spiritual terms that is how we stand before God, blind to the reality of his love and helpless without his forgiveness and Spirit.
That’s why he came to Jerusalem that day, that week. He came in the name of the Lord to bring blessing to all who would trust in him as their rescuer.
Jesus is God
“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.’”
Two quotations for the price of one here. Isaiah looked forward to the day when all nations would come to meet the Lord, but the moneychangers in the temple courts were a big obstacle. Instead of a place of prayer any foreigner coming to the place reserved for them would find a market yard. What does that say about the God of Israel? His desire is to reach out to the Gentiles, but their desire is to rip them off.
Yes, money had to be changed – it could be seen as a graven image, with the Emperor’s head on it, and you need the temple money to buy a sacrifice. But the human heart cannot be changed. Someone somewhere was making a buck or two out of this business, and Jesus is indignant. Does you see how he refers to the temple “My house”? He has the right to judge and direct what goes on in his name.
They have turned it into a den of robbers. That’s not just talking about sharp practices. If you look at Jeremiah 7, you’ll see that the people of Jerusalem were trusting in the building as their defence. They reason: “because the temple is in our city, and God will never let the temple fall, we are safe as well, so it doesn’t matter what we do.”
Jeremiah 7:9-11 “‘Will you steal and murder, commit adultery and perjury, burn incense to Baal and follow other gods you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which bears my Name, and say, “We are safe”—safe to do all these detestable things? Has this house, which bears my Name, become a den of robbers to you? But I have been watching! declares the Lord.
The people were like that in Jeremiah’s day; they were like that in Jesus’ day. Are we like that today? Trusting in religious things rather than the Lord as Saviour? Do we think a religious building, or a religious symbol or affiliation is all that we need to see us right: a text on the wall, a Bible on the shelf, a dog collar, our Sunday best, a lovely church building. What good is a lovely building if our heart is not right with God?
The Gentiles could come to this courtyard in the temple, but no further; they were seen as unclean. But Jesus is actually calling his own people the unclean ones; they are contaminating the Court of the Gentiles. As God he has the right to clean out the poison.
But the poison is also in the religious leaders, they cannot bear to hear children singing these unauthorised songs of praise (15-16). Jesus says, Let them! And quotes Psalm 8. But in this passage the praises are being sung to God. Jesus is quite happy to take the praise of God to himself.
He cleans up religious activity and hypocrisy, and he receives the pure praise of faithful people. Matthew is giving us some powerful clues about Jesus’ identity here. King and Saviour and God.
Jesus is judge
(19) A fig tree with no fruit. That’s what Jesus found on the roadside, but in truth that is what he had found in his city. Hypocrisy in the temple courts, priests who refused to honour him, a city that would not recognise their King. (33-34)
What happened to the fig tree is a symbolic action, reminding us of what will happen at the end of time. Will we stand before God with lives that are empty in terms of love and praise for him, barren and without faith in Jesus as Saviour, hearts that remain hard and unresponsive to his love and mercy?
Does that mean there is no hope? For us, if we have not yet trusted in Jesus as Saviour and submitted to Jesus as King, or for those we know who remain stubborn and fruitless? 21-22 are great word of hope; they encourage us to pray the obstacles and the hardness away.
These verse are not about botany (fig tree), or geography (mountain), but about the spiritual barrenness that is a mountain like obstacle to Jesus and his kind. When people seem so hard in their opposition to the gospel, that it seems like you have to scale Everest before they would come to Christ. Pray – to the God who can cast these obstacles into the sea, the God who opened the eyes of the blind and restored the helpless to fullness of life.
What is the big obstacle in your life? What stops you submitting your life to Jesus Christ? Pray – have your eyes opened to the wonder of Jesus who comes as King to rule, and Saviour to rescue, as God to be praised that we don’t have to face him as the judge who passes sentence.