…and thus the drama begins

Matthew 21:1-11

Jesus makes the first move in the rising conflict, actually He makes three moves, two of which are in public, and one in private. All three moves have something in common; He is answering the question “Who do you say that I am?” His identity as the son of David comes to the fore first here and in the next section, as though He were saying to Jerusalem, “Here I am, the son of David, Messiah!”

The people seem to be delighted, at least those who were present, yet there is an undertone, a very dark undertone. What we have in this entire section is the outward and physical manifestation of the ultimate spiritual conflict, for the thing we need to recognize is this: Jesus’ actions here are the first shots in a war, a showdown with eternity itself as the prize for the victor.

In this passage, Jesus gives instructions to the disciples to obtain the donkey on which He would enter the city, and as was his custom, Matthew ties that into Israel’s prophetic history (21:4-5). As I have mentioned in other posts here, in the ancient near east, a king arriving in peace rode a donkey, a king arriving to conquer rode a war horse. Jesus, the Prince of Peace, comes to town on a donkey, for the battle He was fighting was not a clash of arms between battalions of mortal men, but a spiritual battle between good and evil in the hearts of men; make no mistake, Jesus knew exactly who the real Enemy was.

Along His path, He was greeted by the crowds as a king would be greeted as He arrived in the city in peace. In the eyes of the crowds, He was the new Davidic King come to claim His throne and overturn the Roman occupation with the power of God, restoring Israel to its rightful place among the Nations of the earth. In the eyes of the Jewish religious authorities, He was trouble. Yet in the eyes of Satan, this was what he had been waiting for, in both dread and anticipation. Dread because Jesus could utterly destroy him, anticipation because if he could manipulate the Jewish authorities, already in a state of rebellion against God and hardness of heart, he could destroy Jesus by an assault upon His body, killing Him before He could destroy the Devil, and thus our drama, the greatest drama of all time begins.

In the next post, we will see Jesus make His second move, in which He takes His Davidic identity a step further− see you then!

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Photo of the Week: December 5, 2019

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The Rising Conflict

Matthew 21-25

With the end of chapter 20, we have concluded the section that spans from 16:21-20:34 in which Jesus tries to reveal His true messianic mission to the disciples. With the end of the section, we have come to realize that they had not yet understood adequately what He was teaching, although the time would soon come when they would understand it. Now, in this new section, we will see the rising conflict between Jesus and Jewish officialdom that will ultimately result in all of Jesus’ predictions concerning His fate to come to pass.

As He arrives in the city, Jesus begins a series of provocative actions (cf. 21:12, 14-15, 23; 24:1) in the area of the Temple which result in the “chief priests and teachers of the law” becoming “indignant” (21:15). There has been conflict before, but with the conflict over His “authority” (21:24-27) followed by three parables that expose their rebellion and hardness of heart, they resolve to silence Him for good (21:45).

The initial strategy of the leaders was a purely political one; they would try to bring public condemnation upon Jesus by forcing Him to take unpopular stands on controversial issues of the day, just as politicians try to do with their opponents in our time (cf. 21:46; 22:15-48). As all of them would discover, you simply cannot “trap” Jesus, and by the time He has finished with their attacks, they are reduced to plotting in secret.

From the very beginning of this narrative, the battle will rage over the leaders’ response to the demonstration of Jesus’ messianic credentials (21:1-17), and His authoritative teaching and affirmations concerning His identity that follow (21:23-22:46). The refusal of the Jewish leaders to recognize His identity results in Jesus seizing the initiative and denouncing the hypocrisy of the Pharisees (23:1-39), and pronouncing apocalyptic doom on the city (24:1-34) and finally, giving exhortation to the people of the New Kingdom (24:36-25:46).

We will jump into the fray with Jesus when we get together next time; you won’t want to miss this!

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Travelling on the Roman Road

As Jesus and his disciples were leaving Jericho, a large crowd followed him. Two blind men were sitting by the roadside, and when they heard that Jesus was going by, they shouted, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on us!”

The crowd rebuked them and told them to be quiet, but they shouted all the louder, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on us!”

Jesus stopped and called them. “What do you want me to do for you?” he asked.

“Lord,” they answered, “we want our sight.”

Jesus had compassion on them and touched their eyes. Immediately they received their sight and followed him.

Matthew 20:29-34

The old Roman road, which was almost certainly the route Jesus took from Jericho to Jerusalem, would have been a tough climb for anyone going up to Jerusalem as it winds its way through a steep canyon, climbing several thousand feet in elevation as it goes. I’ve been up that road in a bus, and I can tell you that many on the bus were afraid as we crept along, many looked away from their windows; even our driver who had taken this route many times before was visibly nervous. As for me, being a little crazy as I am, I moved up to the front of the bus and sat on the step next to the driver for a better view; there are points along the way where the road is so narrow, and turns are so sharp that it appeared as though the front of the bus was protruding out over the edge of the cliff (with a direct drop of several hundred feet) as we slowly negotiated hairpin turns. Oh did I have fun on that trip!

As much fun as I had in a bus that day, I wouldn’t really want to hike up that road, even though the scenery is spectacular, for that would be a hard climb for anyone: This is the setting in which our story takes place. Jesus, the disciples and a large crowd are heading up into the mountains from one of the lowest points on earth, interesting to keep this in mind.

Right away, we have a contrast between the crowd, the blind men and Jesus; the crowd treats the blind men like outcasts, and by the standards of the times, they were outcasts since the prevailing thinking of that time would have been that they must have been serious sinners for God to have made them blind. Thus, the crowd rebukes them for trying to approach Jesus, but Jesus takes compassion on them. The contrast here is greater than just the crowd’s attitude as opposed to Jesus’ attitude, for there is also a distinction between the blind men’s attitude toward Jesus, and the way the crowd viewed Him, for the crowd was excited by the sight of the son of David going up to Jerusalem, for like so many others, they were expecting Him to restore old Israel and destroy the Roman occupation, while the blind men saw Jesus and His ability to give them sight so they might see His truth. Thus, we have two entirely different views of Jesus’ Messianic mission in Jerusalem, views that will come into sharp and definite conflict in the next section starting in chapter 21.

Jesus gives sight to these two, and as the scene closes, what is their response to this? They followed Him, and when we receive our sight, what do we do? We follow Him: “He, who has ears, let him hear; he who has sight let him see.”

As we will shortly discover, when Jesus arrives in Jerusalem, He will encounter many who have ears but do not hear, and many who have sight, but do not see.

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The Interruption

Matthew 20:20-28

Jesus took the disciples aside on the road to Jerusalem to tell them in very explicit terms what would happen when they arrived in the city, and before we could hear their reaction, the mother of James and John, the sons of Zebedee, comes up to plead for her sons’ position around the glorious throne of Jesus in “your kingdom”.

Can you believe her timing?!

In the last post I mentioned the contrast between the earlier discussion of the disciples’ rewards in the Kingdom, and the real mission of Jesus in Jerusalem; immediately this woman interrupts the conversation for this. It is simply too much, that is unless we remember what is going on in this section, in which the dialogue in every scene is for the instruction of the disciples concerning the real messianic mission of Jesus. No, the messianic purpose of Jesus was not to re-establish the glory days of old Israel as an earthly Nation, nor is it the purpose of God to do so in the future, for the Kingdom of heaven is not of this world.

Jesus makes this clear in His answer, telling the woman that she doesn’t know what she is asking. Then He counters with a question to the disciples, asking if they can “drink the cup I am going to drink.”  Naturally, thinking that their position in the new Israel is on the line, they say they can. I must say that I wonder if they were even listening to what Jesus was telling them before the interruption. Jesus tells them that they will indeed drink from His cup, and that drinking of it won’t determine their position at His table, for His Father would make the seating chart.

Hearing this, they were indignant, for even now they seem to have been clueless about His real mission. It was at this point that the crux of His teaching comes to the fore; it would do us well to pay attention too:

Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (20:25-28)

Notice how Jesus taught them, using the Gentiles as the example to show them what they were looking like at this juncture, demanding to have high positions. The Kingdom of heaven is not of this world, and thus, the way to be great in the Kingdom of heaven is not a worldly journey, but a journey of service and putting others first, which is the exact opposite of what is considered great in this world. Jesus’ mission as Messiah was not to be hailed as a conquering hero, as it would be in this world for a great King, for He had come to be humiliated and tortured for the sake of all humanity; such was the degree to which His service would go in the service not only of Mankind, but of His Father. Implicit within these verses is something Jesus would say elsewhere, that the servant is not greater than the Master, and if the Master is Himself a servant, then so shall His disciples be servants. Sadly, not everyone who considers himself as a Christ follower today has learned this lesson, for if we are to follow Christ, we are to be servants, and if we are to be leaders in the congregation of followers of Christ, then we are to be the servants of all.

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His Third Prediction

Now Jesus was going up to Jerusalem. On the way, he took the Twelve aside and said to them, “We are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death  and will hand him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified. On the third day he will be raised to life!”

Matthew 20:17-19

In the last few posts, the scenes have taken place on the road to Jerusalem; this scene takes place in the final stages of their journey. It would probably have been a festive atmosphere on the road with the pilgrims headed for Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover, as Jesus takes the disciples aside to have a serious conversation. In looking at it, please notice the stark contrast between this, and their previous discussion about rewards; ask yourself about the frame of mind of the disciples… Interestingly, the next scene is also about rewards; why is everybody thinking about their rewards?

The text doesn’t explicitly answer that question, but a safe guess would be that they still haven’t quite grasped His messianic mission in Jerusalem, for it would appear that everyone is thinking that He will go into the City, step up as the new Davidic king, and boot the Romans out, restoring Israel to its former glory… and the disciples would have the inside track to positions in the new kingdom of Israel. In our text, Jesus is trying for the third time to correct this error in their thinking.

Unlike the first two predictions of His death in 16:21 and 17:22, this time Jesus speaks in the first person, in fact, in the first person plural “we” bringing the disciples into the picture themselves. Even more ominous is His explicitness in the prediction: He will be condemned by official Jerusalem and handed over to the Gentiles, mocked, flogged and crucified; this is not at all abstract or requiring interpretation or discernment on the part of the disciples, it is as direct as it could be. They are certainly not heading into the city for a party!

Notice that once again, the prediction ends on a hopeful note, for Jesus is there to do the Father’s will, and will not be gone forever, instead being raised from the dead on the third day.

Interestingly, this time Matthew doesn’t comment on their reaction; there seems to have been an interruption…

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Another Parable

Matthew 20:1-16

In looking at this very well known parable, the first thing I would like to call your attention to is the fact that it isn’t here in Matthew’s narrative standing all on its own; it is a continuation of the discussion we covered last time in 19:23-30, and there is no scene shift of any kind, in spite of the chapter division. Remember, the chapters and verses are arbitrary human devices for reference purposes only, and sometimes we must wonder why they put them where they did. We can be certain of this because of the way this passage begins: “For the kingdom of heaven is like…” Notice that Jesus is still speaking, so after He said “But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first” in 19:30, He said, “For the kingdom of heaven is like…” in 20:1. Got it? Good!

Thus, in chapter 19 we have the whole discussion with the rich young man about entering the kingdom, his possessions and all of that, followed by the explanation with the disciples, and moving beyond this world’s priorities to follow Jesus, in which the first (rich, powerful or well off in whatever way) end up as the last, and those who are less fortunate in whatever way being the first − and now Jesus is amplifying the “first and last” statement.

In the parable, we have the owner of a vineyard who is hiring day labor to work the vineyard. He hires workers several times during the day so that each group works a different amount of time in the vineyard, and when the end of the day comes, they all receive the same pay, to the annoyance of the first group who worked all day long. The owner of the vineyard pointed out that he paid them what they agreed to work for, and if that meant that he might seem to be overpaying the ones who worked a shorter time, that was his business; he chose to be generous to them.

Just as with His explanation of the conversation with the rich young man, Jesus is teaching that God’s grace is not something we can earn, and that it is not an entitlement, it stems entirely from God’s graciousness… could it be that’s why it is called “grace”?

The bottom line is really quite simple: When considering the things of God, we cannot understand them by the values and wisdom of Man, for instead we must take a heavenly view. As the chapter moves forward, we will see more of this new Kingdom view of things.

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