Reference

Matthew 21:1-19
10. The King in the Kingdom

Kingdom People
10. The King in the Kingdom Dan Bidwell, Senior Pastor Matthew 21:1-19 

Symbols

I want to start with a little game – guess the movie. Give you 30 seconds with the person beside you to name whichever movies you can based on the symbols... Then we’ll check the answers together.

Just so you know, this came from a survey of 1000 people in the US. The percentages are the percentage of people who recognised each symbol.

(Reveal movies on click)

Anybody get 100%? Anybody on 0%? Anybody else who’s never seen Dodgeball??? Or Watchmen?

When I see the Ghostbusters icon, and it takes me back to 1984 when I was 9 years old, and I went to see Ghostbusters in the movies with my friend Damien. No parents, just two 9 year olds at the movies on their own. Do you remember the opening scene in the library with the ghost librarian? We were terrified... for about 2 minutes anyway. The rest of the movie was hilarious! (at least according to 1984 standards, as reported by a 9 year old! )

Anyway, we have minds that quickly recognise symbols like these. And even simple symbols like these, simple graphics, can evoke the entire plotline of a movie, or a series of movies.

Of course you need to have been exposed to these symbols to recognise them. And so when they collated the results of the study by when participants were born,

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They found that people born in the 70s recognised the most symbols – that’s to do with which movies they chose for the study – whereas the next generation above that recognised less. If they were icons from older movies I’m sure the stats would be reversed.

The point I’m trying to get at is, in every culture there are icons or symbols that are immediately recognisable. And if you’ve been brought up with those stories, then an image, a word, a line from a movie, even a misquoted line from a movie is immediately recognisable as part of a bigger plotline.

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Well in our Bible passage today, Jesus performs three symbolic acts. Symbols that would have been immediately recognisable to the people around him, the people who had grown up with the OT scriptures and prophecies as their popular culture.

For us, though, we’re a bit like people born in the 60s or earlier (at least the ones in the film study we looked at). We’ll probably recognise a few of the OT symbols and symbolism, but not 100%. But I’m hoping today we can come closer to seeing the triumphal entry through the eyes of those who were there, to see it in the bigger plotline of the Bible, and to understand how Jesus wanted people to respond to him.

So why don’t we pray that God will help us see Jesus clearly and in the larger Biblical context this morning/evening:

Dear Father, as we read this passage today, will you help us to see the symbolism, to recognise Jesus (as the promised King), and to respond with faith and fruitful lives as his followers. We pray this for the glory of the King who died for us, amen.

The three symbolic acts are not surprisingly – the colt, the courtyard and the curse.

The Colt

Let’s start with the colt.

You’ll remember that Jesus has been travelling deliberately towards Jerusalem ever since he was revealed as the Messiah, back in chapter 16. That was in Caesarea Philippi in the very north of Galilee, the very north of Israel.

And as we start ch21 Jesus has travelled all the way south to Jerusalem in Judea, a journey of 100 miles. Which he would have travelled on foot.

With him are crowds of people. Some are there for his healing and teaching. Others are making their way to Jerusalem for the Passover festival. Passover was one of the three festivals where Jewish males were expected to go up to the Temple in Jerusalem (along with Weeks & Tabernacles1).

During Passover, the population of Jerusalem could swell from 30,000 to perhaps 180,000 people, with pilgrims coming from not only Galilee and other parts of Israel, but from all over the Mediterranean. You can imagine how busy it would have been, how many people would

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have been camped all over the hills around Jerusalem, because there was no way the city could accommodate them all.

And this is the scene into which Jesus makes his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, his first symbolic action.

So we pick up the action at 21:1

As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage on the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, 2 saying to them, “Go to the village ahead of you, and at once you will find a donkey tied there, with her colt by her. Untie them and bring them to me. 3 If anyone says anything to you, say that the Lord needs them, and he will send them right away.”

Now the commentators assume this is something that Jesus has pre-arranged. It’s not a Jedi mind trick (these are not the droids you are looking for... the Lord needs them... ;-) (Had to be from the 70s...)

No, Jesus has pre-arranged this moment for exactly the reason that Matthew gives in v4 – Jesus is planning to ride into the city on a donkey in fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy, prophecies that paints him as the King.

5 “Say to Daughter Zion,
‘See, your king comes to you,

gentle and riding on a donkey,
and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’”

BTW this quote is actually a mashup of Isaiah 62.11 and Zechariah 9:9. Isaiah and Zechariah are two prophets who wrote 700 and 500 years before Christ respectively. But both are written out of the context of God’s people living under foreign rule.

If you’ll allow me a quick history lesson of the Israelites.

David’s kingdom had been split into two after Solomon’s death, the northern tribes had been destroyed by Assyria in 722BC. The southern tribes had been taken into exile by the Babylonians in the 586BC. After 70 years, the southern tribes were allowed to return Jerusalem when Persia conquered Babylon, but God’s people were still under foreign rule in their own country, in the Promised Land. After the Persians, it would be Alexander the Great, and then the Roman Empire up to the time of Jesus, ruling over God’s people.

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God’s people were waiting for a king. A Messiah. A savior. A king to bring God’s people under God’s rule.

And so Zechariah, in 500BC, imagines the day when God’s king will ride into Jerusalem, and assume the throne, establish the kingdom, restore Israel’s fortunes. Listen to Zechariah 9:9, and read along with v5 on the passage from Matthew:

9 Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion! Shout, Daughter Jerusalem!

See, your king comes to you,
righteous and victorious (Zechariah 9:9)

A righteous and victorious king... In the two centuries before Christ, there had been a number of Jewish rebellions against the occupying Roman armies. Men who claimed to be the righteous and victorious king. The messiah. But they were swiftly and brutally put down by the Roman rulers.

And now we have Jesus ready to ride into Jerusalem as the promised king. The messiah. You can only imagine the tension in the air... Will he the king they were expecting?

Did you notice the difference between Zechariah and what is written in Matthew 21:5? Righteous and victorious. They are missing from Matthew.

You see, God’s people had majored on the victorious aspect of Zechariah’s prophecy. This king is going to come and he is going to conquer and rule and get trid of the Romans.

But they were focusing on the wrong part of the prophecy.

Actually, the king in Zechariah’s prophecy is not a warrior king. He’s gentle. Lowly. He comes to bring peace.

In Zechariah, God says the king will remove the warhorses from Jerusalem. And that’s why Jesus is there on this little donkey.

It’s just like Jesus told the disciples in the last chapter – Jesus hadn’t come to lord his rule over people like the Gentiles did, instead he taught them that the Son of Man came to serve others. Whoever wants to be first must be a slave.

Jesus is a very different kind of king. PAUSE

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But the crowds, they get the image – the Zechariah prophecy is being fulfilled before their eyes. There’s no missing this famous teacher, the one who everyone had been talking about on the road, the one who had been healing and teaching. And now as they arrive in Jerusalem, there he is. Sitting above the crowd, riding on a donkey.

So they roll out the red carpet for the king. Palm fronds and clothing anyway.

It was part of the festival tradition for people to carry palm fronds or tree branches on their way up to the altar – it’s part of Psalm 118 which is a traditional Passover psalm... A song that the pilgrims would always sing on their way into Jerusalem.

But now Psalm 118 (which is where the Hosanna quote comes from) all of it sudden takes on a different meaning when the actual Son of David, the promised King, the Messiah is there in front of them.

“Hosanna to the Son of David!”
“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” “Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

Hosanna literally means, Save us. But they would have said ‘hosanna’ a bit like we say ‘hallelujah’ – that is, a term of praise, more than a literal plea to be saved.

But here when they’re singing Hosanna and Jesus is right there in front of them, there’s this beautiful double meaning when you know that just a week later, he would literally save them by dying on a cross...

So that’s the first symbolic act, laden with Old Testament symbols and imagery and fulfilment of prophecy. It’s Jesus painted unmistakeably as the Messiah.

So what are we supposed to take from these verses?

I think we’re meant to see Jesus as he’s portrayed, and see him as the centre of God’s plan to bring peace, the centre of God’s plan to restore his people, the centre of God’s plan to restore his rule over a rebellious world.

That’s certainly the wider Zechariah context, and the wider context of all the OT prophecies about the Messiah. So that’s the first idea – kind of simple – recognise Jesus as the Messiah.

The Courtyard

The next part of the passage teaches us that not everybody will recognise Jesus as Messiah. 5

And that tension begins in v10, when Jesus enters the city. We read that the whole city was stirred – that is shaken up. And not stirred with positive emotion, but instead with the first seeds of opposition that will eventually lead to Jesus’ crucifixion.

The Jerusalemites want to know who this is making an entrance as a king. Another Jewish wannabe-Messiah would be bad for them. It would bring political tension with the Roman governor, perhaps jeopardise their way of life, their relative peace.

So you have the crowds who had been following Jesus from Galilee who are proclaiming him as Messiah, contrasted with the people of Jerusalem who are questioning Jesus’ identity.

That’s when Jesus performs his second symbolic act – and the scene for this is the temple court.

[Slide – Temple]

Just to help you picture it, this is a reconstruction of the Temple in the Israel Museum. In real life the Temple in Jerusalem was huge, the size of 29 football fields. And it was imposing, built on top of a hill so that if you looked up it would fill your vision. A symbol of God’s presence with his people, looming large over the city.

It was the place for symbolically drawing near to God, the place where God’s people offered sacrifices of blood to remind themselves of the seriousness of sin. A place to find forgiveness.

And a place to remember God’s promises to his people, God’s rescue of his people. That’s why so many had come to Jerusalem, to remember the way God had rescued Israel from slavery in Egypt, the miraculous saving of his people when they painted blood on their doors and the angel of death passed over them, passed them by.

But you can imagine the hubbub, the commotion, of 180,000 people arriving and crowding into the Temple precinct. Because they wouldn’t have brought their sacrifices with them, all the way from Galilee or further afield. No, they had to buy animals when they arrived.

And so there were the merchants selling lambs and goats, and doves and other birds for sacrifices. There were the money changers, who you needed so that you could pay your temple tax in the temple’s currency. There must also have been food for sale, to feed so many people. You could imagine those tables and stalls and markets all around Jerusalem in the surrounding villages and just outside the temple walls.

But in Jesus’ time, the sellers had taken their trade inside the temple walls, into the Court of the Gentiles – the very large courtyard that you can see surrounding the smaller walled area in the centre.

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Any person could go into the court of the Gentiles – but only Jews could go into that inner walled area, and then only certain people could go so far – Jewish women to the first part, then Jewish men, then priests into the part where they performed the sacrifices, and then into the most holy place, the Holy of Holies, only the High Priest could go in, and even then only once a year.

[Slide off]

But now, the outer Court of the Gentiles was filled with merchants and money changers.

Jesus is furious. He goes in (v12) and he drives them all out – the money changers, the dove sellers. He turns over their tables and he yells at them a mashup of Isaiah 56 and Jeremiah 7 – prophecies about keeping the temple holy.

13 “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.’(Matthew 21:7)

I read that it was perhaps Caiaphas the High Priest who had allowed the merchants into the temple courtyard, and maybe only a year or two earlier. It puts an interesting spin on Caiaphas’ role in the trial of Jesus before the Sanhedrin – you could see this symbolic act in the Temple as Jesus condemning Caiaphas personally and deliberately, then just a few days later Caiaphas getting his revenge on Jesus.

An interesting theory, but Matthew doesn’t make it explicit, so we can speculate, but I wouldn’t stake my career on it.

What we do see, though, is Jesus condemning hollow religion.

Jesus was condemning the priests and teachers of the law for failing to treat the temple as the holy place it should have been. The same way they failed to treat God as they should have. It’s a complaint against many of the priests throughout the OT, and it makes me think seriously about my own heart as someone who works in the church...

Because this is the problem I think. Jesus comes into the temple, and he sees all these people who are close to God, living right under the shadow of God’s presence, yet they fail to follow him properly. It’s exactly the same as many of the crowds who had followed Jesus – they were close to him, they heard his teachings, but they never followed him fully. Never really gave up their lives, never really changed their allegiance towards Jesus. They were close to God, but not really changed.

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And I think there’s a warning for us here in church about that. A warning not to live our lives close to following Jesus, close to knowing him, close but no cigar.

That was the rich young man back in chapter 19 wasn’t it. From external appearances he looked so close to God, but in the end his heart was far away. His heart was consumed by his stuff, instead of being consumed by God.

So what about your heart?
Because Jesus’ third symbolic act tells us that this is a life or death decision.
The Curse

After the episode in the temple court, Matthew contrasts two very different reactions to Jesus in just one verse (v15): there are the little children who keep shouting what the pilgrims outside the city had shouted – Hosanna to the Son of David! Remember all through ch18-20 the little children have popped up as models of dependent faith. Well, here they’re contrasted with the chief priests and teachers of the law who are indignant about what Jesus had done, indignant that anyone should identify him as the messiah.

One is a model of faith, the other a model of false religion.

To make the point clear, the next day Jesus enacts a parable about the consequences of false religion, the consequence of living a fruitless “religious” life.

Verse 19: he sees a fig tree without any fruit on it, and he curses it, and it withers straight away. The image comes from the OT again – the fig is a symbol of the good life that God promises his people, but also something he threatens to take away when his people fail to take him seriously, when they stray to sin and other gods (Jeremiah 8:13).

And so here Jesus pronounces judgment on the fruitlessness of the chief priests and teachers of the law. Like the fig tree, God removes his blessing from them. He curses them and they will wither eternally...

Again, this is a stark warning for us.
Our hearts matter to God, our genuine faith matters... PAUSE
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That’s a heavy message, I know.

We normally read this passage at the beginning of Easter week. Because this passage begins the last week of Jesus’ life... a week that would end with Jesus dying on the cross, then rising to new life on the third day.

And that Easter story reminds us that what we just read is not a fairy tale. It’s history. And a part of history that hasn’t yet been completed.

Because Jesus the King will return one day to his kingdom. Just like that day in Jerusalem, he will come back to earth, and he’ll turn over the tables of hollow religion. He will ask us about the state of our hearts. He’ll look for the fruit of faith growing in our lives. And many will be shown to be pretenders.

But not those who have cried out Hosanna – save us. There is something so beautiful about faith in Jesus. He knows we could never save ourselves. We could never do enough religious ceremonies to save ourselves. We could never do enough penance to earn his forgiveness. We could never outweigh our mistakes with good deeds. There is nothing we could do to stand before God on our own merits. It would be hopeless.

And so we need a king who rides into our lives, with the promise of mercy and peace. A king who forgives. A king who saves...

Shall we pray?

Our loving heavenly Father, help us to draw near to you with all our hearts. Hosanna, save us. Sometimes it is so easy to forget you, or not to take you seriously, or to get caught up with other things. Hosanna, forgive us, and restore us, and save us we pray. Give us hearts to serve you only. And we pray this week that many in the Napa Valley and beyond would hear the news of your love for us in Jesus Christ. We pray that many would recognise Jesus as King, and give their lives to him. And we pray in his saving name, Jesus our Lord and savior. Hosanna and amen.

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