(Continued from Nov-Dec 2011 issue)

Crowds of Jews welcomed Jesus as He made His way into Jerusalem. This event, which many refer to as Jesus’ “Triumphal Entry,” instead, marked the beginning of His greatest sufferings. With shouts of praise, the people proclaimed Jesus as “the Son of David,” the King of Israel! As the Jewish rulers watched, their fears grew; it seemed like the whole “world had gone after Him” (John 12:19). Still, this did not change their resolve; these wicked men remained determined to take Jesus and put Him to death. The problem was, how could they do so without upsetting the multitudes that followed Him?

Cursing the Fig Tree

Jesus made His grand entry into Jerusalem on a Sunday. At the end of the day, He went back to Bethany to spend the night. The next day, as Jesus was returning to Jerusalem, He was hungry and saw a fig tree that had leaves but bore no fruit. Jesus said to the tree, “Let no one eat fruit from you ever again” (Mark 11:11-14).

Why did Jesus curse this particular tree? Leaves on a tree are an indication, a promise of sorts, that the tree bears fruit. This tree had leaves but no fruit, providing an obvious picture of the nation of Israel, especially their religious leaders. These people praised God with their lips and publicly appeared to be devoted to Him, but it was merely a pretense. Their hearts were far from God making them incapable of bearing any real spiritual fruit in their lives (Matt. 15:7-9). Jesus’ cursing of the fig tree foreshadowed the judgment God would soon bring upon this nation.

John the Baptist, in his ministry to Israel as the forerunner of Christ, warned the nation that God’s wrath was coming. He preached a baptism of repentance, calling on the people of Israel to change their minds, turn back to the Lord, and “bear fruits worthy of repentance.” He cautioned them that the ax “was already laid to the root of the tree” (Matt. 3:7-10). Three and a half years later, having heard the teachings and warnings of Jesus Himself, most Jews had experienced no real change in their minds and hearts; they still bore no spiritual fruit in their lives.

Cleansing the Temple

When Jesus returned to Jerusalem on Monday morning, He entered the outer court of the temple and found a frenzy of worldly business. The moneychangers were there, exchanging foreign coins so the Jewish worshippers could pay their temple tribute. The merchants were present as well, selling doves to those who needed animals to offer as a sacrifice. Jesus overturned their tables and drove them all out, saying, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer,’ but you have made it a den of thieves” (Matt. 21:13). It was bad enough these merchants had come to the temple only to make money, but they were cheating the people, particularly the poor, with exorbitant exchange rates and prices.

This is not the first time this had happened. When Jesus entered the temple at the beginning of His public ministry, He found these same conditions, and He responded the same way (John 2:13-17). Now, three and half years later, nothing had changed—Israel’s “house of prayer” remained a “den of thieves.”

Jesus’ Authority Challenged

On their way back to Jerusalem the next day, Jesus and His disciples passed by the fig tree again and found it “dried up from the roots” (Mark 11:20): a sad illustration of Israel’s spiritual condition at that time. The Jewish multitudes followed after Jesus as He miraculously healed their sick. They listened in amazement as He taught them with great authority. They acknowledged Jesus as a prophet sent from God, but only a “little flock” truly believed Jesus was “the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Luke 12:32; Matt. 16:13-16).

As soon as Jesus came into the temple, the chief priests and elders confronted Him demanding, “By what authority are You doing these things? And who gave You the authority?” (Matt. 21:23). They had asked John a similar question regarding his authority to baptize (John 1:25), not realizing that both John and Jesus had been sent from the Father. This brief exchange between the Jewish rulers and the Lord Jesus provides a sample of what is to come. We see the infinite wisdom of the Son of God set in contrast to the foolishness and ignorance of the Jewish rulers—men who were supposed to be the teachers and spiritual leaders of the nation.

In response to having His authority questioned, Jesus answered, “I will also ask you one thing, which if you tell Me, I likewise will tell you by what authority I do these things: The baptism of John—where was it from? From heaven or from men?” (Matt. 21:24-25). The rulers recognized they could not answer this question without appearing foolish: “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ He will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘From men,’ we fear the multitude, for all count John as a prophet” (Matt. 21:25-26). Therefore, they said, “We do not know,” and Jesus said, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things” (Matt. 21:27).

There were several “parties” of influence among the Jewish leaders, similar to the political parties in the United States. The Herodians were a political party who supported Herod’s appointment by the Romans to rule over Judea. The Pharisees were a religious party who were associated with the scribes. They were the “fundamentalists” in Israel. They revered the Law of Moses, stressing the importance of separation from sin, but they had corrupted the Law by their religious traditions (Matt. 15:3-9). The Sadducees were also a religious party, but were much more liberal in their beliefs—denying the existence of spirits and angels as well as rejecting the doctrine of the resurrection from the dead (Acts 23:8). This was the party of the priests. All three of these groups disliked each other and disagreed on almost everything, but they did agree on one thing—Jesus of Nazareth had to die!

The Rulers Question Jesus

The Pharisees set the stage for what was to come, plotting among themselves how they might “entangle” Jesus in His talk (Matt. 22:15). They hoped to find something to accuse Him of before the multitudes.

The Herodians were the first ones to question Jesus. “Teacher,” they asked, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” (Matt. 22:16-17). Jesus knew the wicked intentions of these hypocrites, so He said, “Show Me the tax money.” When they brought Him a denarius, Jesus said, “Whose image and inscription is this?” They answered, “Caesar’s,” so Jesus said, “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matt. 22:19-21). These powerful men were amazed at Jesus’ answer. Not knowing what to say, they “left Him and went their way” (Matt. 22:22). That last statement in verse 22 sums up the spiritual problem of, not only these men, but most people today: They “left HIM” and “went THEIR way.” They turned away from the One who could give them life and went their own way, the way that seemed right to them but was, instead, “the way of death” (Prov. 14:12).

That same day the Sadducees approached Jesus seeking to ensnare Him on the issue of the resurrection, which is ironic considering they maintained, “there is no resurrection” (Matt. 22:23). These “learned” men presented Jesus with a hypothetical situation of a woman who, in turn, was married to seven brothers in the same family. As each brother died, she would marry another, in an effort to carry on the family name of her first husband (Deut. 25:5-6). The Sadducees asked Jesus, “In the resurrection, whose wife of the seven will she be?” (Matt. 22:28). Jesus pointed out their defective reasoning, attributing it to the fact that they did not know “the Scriptures nor the power of God” (Matt. 22:29). He explained that there is no marriage in the resurrection and stressed that, “God is not the God of the dead, but of the living” (Matt. 22:30-32). The multitudes were astonished at Jesus’ teaching, for, unlike their scribes, “He taught them as one having authority” (Matt. 7:28-29).

The Pharisees, hearing how Jesus had “silenced the Sadducees,” gathered around Jesus to question Him about the Law of Moses: “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?” (Matt. 22:34-36). Jesus answered by quoting from the book of Deuteronomy: “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 22:37-40). The scribe who posed the question realized Jesus had spoken the truth: that loving the Lord God with all one’s being was worth more than “all the burnt offerings and sacrifices” of the Law (Mark 12:32-33).

What Do You Think of the Christ?

Jesus then turned the tables on the Pharisees, the ones who initiated these feeble attempts to test Him, and asked a question of His own: “What do you think of the Christ? Whose Son is He?” Jesus did not ask about “Jesus of Nazareth” but about “the Christ,” their promised Messiah. They answered correctly, “The Son of David.” Jesus followed up by quoting Psalm 110:1, where the prophet David, who spoke by the Holy Spirit, referred to Israel’s Messiah as “Lord.” Jesus asked them, “If David calls Him ‘Lord,’ how is He [the Messiah] his [David’s] Son?” (Matt. 22:43-45). The only way this could be true was that Israel’s Messiah was also the eternal Son of God who would one day be born of the seed of David. The Pharisees did not understand this, and “no one was able to answer Him a word” (Matt. 22:46).

After this last encounter, no one dared to ask Jesus any more questions (Matt. 22:46). These confrontations, initiated by the Jewish leaders, demonstrated the superiority of the mind and thoughts of the Son of God over even the most educated men, confirming the word of the Lord spoken through His prophet Isaiah:

“My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts” (Isa. 55:8-9).

Hypocrisy of the Pharisees

Having silenced the Jewish rulers, Jesus directed His words to the multitudes and to His own disciples to warn them of the hypocrisy of the scribes and Pharisees. Jesus described them as men who “cleanse the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of extortion and self-indulgence.” They were like “whitewashed tombs which indeed appear beautiful outwardly, but inside are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness” (Matt. 23:25, 27). The Pharisees paraded themselves before men asserting their superior righteousness, but their hearts were full of wickedness. Just like their fathers, who killed God’s prophets, they would soon become guilty of the murder of God’s own Son (Acts 7:52).

The Pharisees of Jesus’ day are typical of today’s “religious man.” Paul described them this way:

“They have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. For they being ignorant of God’s righteousness, and seeking to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted to the righteousness of God. For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.” (Rom. 10:2-4)

Many religious people today have a similar zeal for God, but their worship is nothing more than a “form of godliness” (2 Tim. 3:5). They put on an outward show of devotion to God, following their church traditions and faithfully practicing their religious rituals, but they deny the power of God to transform their lives. As a result, their hearts remain what they are by nature—unclean and wicked. The prophet Isaiah described the natural (unsaved) man with these words:

“We are all like an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are like filthy rags.” (Isa. 64:6)

Our feeble attempts to live righteously, whether through religious rituals or good deeds, will always fall short of God’s righteous standard (Rom. 3:23). Yet, just as the Pharisees, many religious people today insist they can somehow become righteous and please God through the works of their own hands. They refuse to acknowledge their utter sinfulness and reject Jesus Christ as the only way to come to God.

“O, Jerusalem, Jerusalem!”

After denouncing the Pharisees, Jesus mourned over the city of Jerusalem, the capital city and the heart of the Jewish people: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the one who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were NOT WILLING” (Matt. 23:37).

God has the same feelings for you as He had for Israel: He loves you and wants to gather you into His arms and make you one of His children. God desires “all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:4); and He has provided the way of salvation through the death of His beloved Son. This wonderful Person “who knew no sin” was “made sin for us” as He hung on the cross that “we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Cor. 5:21). Salvation is “not by works of righteousness which we have done” (Tit. 3:5); it is the gift of God’s grace, a gift received by simple faith in the finished work of Jesus Christ (Eph. 2:8-9). You cannot come to God on your own terms. You can only come to God through Jesus Christ (John 14:6). Just as it was with Israel, the choice is up to you. They were “not willing”—Are you?

(To be continued next issue.)