The Triumphal Entry (Matthew 21:1-11)
The so-called triumphant entry of our Lord into Jerusalem took place at the beginning of the last week of His earthly ministry, which culminated in His death and burial, followed by a glorious resurrection. This triumphal procession was in partial fulfillment of Psalm 118, where He is presented as the rejected stone, eventually to be made the head of the corner. He is first accepted by a few who cry, “Hosanna” (“save now”) and “Blessed be he that cometh in the name of the Lord” (Psalm 118:25-26). But instead of the kingdom being set up then, the next thing was His crucifixion, when He was bound, as it were, like the sacrificial animals to the horns of the altar (Psalm 118:27).
How His heart must have been stirred as He drew near to the city. Once called holy, it was now polluted by sin and characterized by a form of godliness without power. The hour had come when He was to present Himself as King, and in preparation for it He sent two of His disciples into a nearby village to procure a donkey and her colt. Evidently the owners of these beasts were among those who knew Jesus and recognized His claims, for they acknowledged immediately His right to take the animals for His use at this time.
Zechariah had prophesied that the King would come into His royal city “riding upon an ass, and upon a colt the foal of an ass” (Zechariah 9:9). All this was fulfilled literally as Jesus came down the slope of Olivet and into Jerusalem riding on the unbroken colt. The disciples spread some of their garments on it as a saddle and seated the Lord Jesus Christ upon them. It is significant that this humble creature was more subject to Him—its Creator—than men whom He had come to save.
Doubtless those who welcomed Him into Jerusalem as He rode on the donkey into the holy city thought the hour of His triumph had come. They believed that He was about to assert His royal authority and begin His beneficent reign over Israel and the subjected nations, making Jerusalem the capital of a regenerated world. All this will indeed be in God’s appointed time, but He had other work to accomplish first. So the entrance into the city amid the plaudits of the populace was but preliminary to His death on a Roman cross, where He was to make propitiation (rather than reconciliation) for the sins of the people (Hebrews 2:17, rv). For Him there could be no kingdom without the cross.
We need not question that the welcome He received was sincere. His own words in answer to the criticism of the chief priests and scribes make that clear (Matthew 21:16). But those who thus rejoiced in His coming to them little realized the true state of affairs, nor did they understand the predictions of the prophets: how Christ must first be rejected and suffer many things before He could enter His glory (Luke 24:25-27).
Every move that the Lord Jesus Christ made as He went through this world was in exact accord with the prophetic Word and therefore in obedience to the Father’s will. As He entered Jerusalem, He knew that crucifixion, not the kingdom, was to be His portion in the immediate future. But nothing turned Him aside from His path of perfect submission to the One who had sent Him. He adorned every position that He took. His matchless perfections were revealed in everything He did. He accepted the praise of the children and of the older ones, who hailed Him as David’s Son, with the same grace that enabled Him to endure the cold, cutting criticism of His enemies. The one paramount object of His life was to glorify the Father.
“A very great multitude spread their garments in the way.” It was a truly oriental setting. Part of the throng carpeted the road before Him with their robes, and others cut down palm branches and strewed them on the path He was to take, thus acclaiming Him as their rightful King.
“Hosanna to the son of David.” This and the words following, as we have noted already, were quotations from the Psalm of triumph (Psalm 118) in which His royal subjects acclaim their King, “Great David’s greater Son.” The complete fulfillment of the Psalm awaits His second advent, as He Himself predicted later (Matthew 23:39).
The singing and rejoicing were heard throughout all Jerusalem, and the populace, stirred with wonder, inquired as to who it was whose entrance to their city had caused such an ovation. It was a repetition of what had taken place centuries before when Solomon was welcomed as king (1 Kings 1:38-40). He of whom Solomon was but a type was now among them; yet many knew Him not. With fervent faith, the rejoicing multitude declared Jesus to be a prophet. They were doubtless, for the most part, Galileans themselves who had become convinced that He was all that He claimed to be.
The children and others who welcomed Jesus so vociferously were acting according to the Word of God when they acclaimed Him as the true Son of David, who is yet to reign in Zion. As on so many other occasions, the chief priests and scribes, though familiar with the letter of the Word, proved themselves altogether out of touch with this momentous occasion.
Zechariah’s Prophecy. It is interesting to note how the two advents of our Lord are linked together in Zechariah 9:9-10. In verse 9 we see the King riding into His earthly capital, presenting Himself to the people as their rightful ruler. But although verse 10 follows this so closely, the events depicted in it will not be completely fulfilled until He comes again. It is then that He will speak peace to the nations, and His dominion will be set up over all the earth.
Psalm 118. This Psalm deals largely with the time when the Lord will arise for the deliverance of Israel. At that time all their trials will be ended and they will enter into the blessedness of that rejoicing and salvation that will then be found in the tabernacles of the righteous (118:15). But all this blessing depends on the One who was first to be bound as a sacrifice to the horns of the altar. It was settled in the purpose of God from eternity that there could be no kingdom till after the work of the cross was accomplished. While the welcome that Jesus received was quite in keeping with the divine plans, those who would have crowned Him as king at that time had to learn that He must first suffer many things, be crucified, and rise from the dead. In God’s due time the remainder of the prophecy will have a glorious fulfillment.
The Cleansing of the Temple (Matthew 21:12-16)
Upon entering the city Jesus proceeded to visit the center of all Jewish worship and to exercise His authority there as He had done on an earlier occasion, as related in John 2:13-17.
The cleansing of the temple was Christ’s assertion of His authority as the Son of the Father, whose house had been so grossly defiled. That temple was the place where, of old, Jehovah had set His name, but it had become defiled and polluted. It had been turned into a place of merchandise under the guise of assisting the many pilgrims who came from all parts of the world to keep the annual feasts, or set times, of Jehovah (see Leviticus 23).
“My house shall be called the house of prayer.” This was the divine purpose, as declared by Isaiah the prophet (Isaiah 56:7). In the coming day of the kingdom, when Jerusalem becomes in truth the worship center of the world, a new temple will arise, to which all nations shall resort. The one which then stood on mount Moriah had become “a den of thieves,” dishonoring to God and a stumbling block to men.
He who was the Lord of the temple was there to reveal His delivering power. Those who were suffering from various physical infirmities sought Him out, “and he healed them” in His grace and compassion.
“The chief priests and scribes…were sore displeased.” These proud, haughty legalists were scandalized by the very goodness and lovingkindness of Jesus. The plaudits of the grateful populace were as gall and bitterness to these religious leaders. When they heard the people crying, “Hosanna to the son of David,” they were indignant that such honor should be paid Him. They had no thought of joining in this glad recognition of Him whose words of power bore witness to the divinity and authority of His message (John 5:30).
They blamed Jesus for permitting the people to address Him as the Son of David, which was equivalent to acknowledging Him as their Messiah, and called on Him to rebuke the multitude. But Jesus refused to heed their angry criticisms and referred them to a passage in the Psalms that exactly fitted the case: “Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings thou hast perfected praise” (Psalm 8:2). In their honesty and simplicity, the children and the common people, whom the self-righteous leaders despised, proved they had been taught of God. They honored Jesus Christ as the sent One of the Father, who had come into the world to be the Redeemer of Israel.
The Fig Tree Cursed (Matthew 21:17-22)
As the evening drew on, Jesus left the city and went out to Bethany. So far as the record goes He did not spend a night in Jerusalem until He was arrested and taken to the house of Caiaphas. He may have found lodging with His friends, Lazarus, Martha, and Mary, or in some other convenient place. The home of Lazarus in Bethany was very dear to the heart of Jesus. We may well imagine that He was in close touch with the little family there during these closing nights of His stay upon earth.
Each morning He wended His way with His disciples to the city. As they went in on the second morning Jesus saw the fruitless fig tree and pronounced a solemn judgment on it. The fig tree is the well-known symbol of Israel (or rather Judah) nationally: a fig tree planted in a vineyard. When Jesus came to Israel there were the leaves of religious ceremony but no fruit for God. So the Israelites were given up to judicial barrenness for all the present age.
The fact that this tree was covered with leaves would naturally imply fruit, for the figs appear before the leaves in most varieties of fig trees. Jesus knew well the facts of the case, but He chose to go to the tree to search for fruit in order to make of it an acted parable. There are three fig tree passages that are definitely linked together and give us a dispensational picture of God’s dealings with the Jews: Luke 13:6-9; Matthew 21:17-20; Matthew 24:32-33.
“And presently the fig tree withered away.” The disciples noted with wonder that this fruitless tree, which had been so verdant and fair to look upon, was dried up and withered. Noticing their amazement, Jesus took occasion once more to impress on them a lesson as to the importance of faith. He used the same illustration as before (Matthew 17:20) of the mountain being cast into the sea in response to faith as a grain of mustard seed. This time He added the definite and soul-heartening declaration that “all things, whatsoever ye shall ask in prayer, believing, ye shall receive.”
This is not to be understood as an assurance that God will grant every request we make, or give us whatever we ask. To pray believingly implies that we pray in accordance with the revealed will of God, and that we do not regard iniquity in our hearts (Psalm 66:18). But where one is right with God and his prayer is in faith because it is in harmony with the known will of God, the divine response is sure.
The Authority of Jesus (Matthew 21:23-27)
While teaching in the temple Jesus was challenged by the religious leaders regarding His authority to act as He did. These priests and elders acted often on very dubious authority, but they questioned the right of Jesus to cleanse the temple of those who had made it a “den of thieves” and to teach the people as He did.
Following the custom He had so often used in dealing with cavilers such as these priests, Jesus replied by putting a leading question to them. What about John’s baptism? Was it of divine origin or was John acting from a purely human standpoint?
Realizing they were trapped in their own crookedness and dishonesty, they replied by saying, “We cannot tell.” They knew that if they admitted John was sent by God, they would be unable to explain why they had not believed him. Believing John would have involved receiving Jesus, whom John had declared was the promised Messiah. On the other hand, if they dared to deny John’s heavenly commission, it would stir the ire of the populace against them, and they would lose their influence over the people, who generally believed John was a prophet of the Lord.
When they admitted their ignorance or inability to answer, Jesus calmly replied, “Neither tell I you by what authority I do these things.” To attempt to convince them would be but wasted time, for as we often say, “There are none so blind as those who will not see.”
The Parable of the Two Sons (Matthew 21:28-32)
Matthew 21 closes with two parables, both designed to show the seriousness of refusing immediate compliance with the testimony and the demands of the Lord.
The first of the two closing parables concerns a man and his two sons. The two sons portray two types of men: those who give lip-service, and those who are genuine in their interest in spiritual realities. In the first lad we see the willful son, persisting in disobedience until subdued and brought to repentance by divine grace. In the second son we see the legalists in Israel. At the base of Sinai they said, “All that the Lord hath said will we do, and be obedient” (Exodus 24:7), but their history was one of insubjection to God (Romans 2:24).
“The publicans and the harlots go into the kingdom of God before you.” It is the self-confessed sinners who feel their need of grace, turn to God in repentance, and enter through new birth into the kingdom (John 3:3, 5).
John came proclaiming the righteous demands of God upon His creatures and calling to repentance those who had failed to attain this standard. The legalists turned indifferently away, but needy sinners obeyed.
It is a terribly dangerous thing to trifle with the mercy of God. Little did the Jewish leaders realize that they were sealing their own doom in rejecting Jesus, the One sent of God to bring them into fullness of blessing if they received Him. They lost their opportunity because they were blinded by self-interest. They failed to recognize their Messiah when He came in exact accord with the Scriptures of the prophets whom they professed to reverence. Mere knowledge of the letter of the Word saves no one. It is those who believe in the Christ of whom the Book of God speaks who are made wise unto salvation (2 Timothy 3:15). To reject Him is fatal.
This is a solemn theme. Who can portray adequately the perils of rejecting Christ? God has used some of the most striking figures imaginable to warn us of the dire fate that awaits the one who spurns His grace and refuses the Savior.
The fruitless fig tree, cursed by Jesus, represents the religious nation that bore no fruit for God and so was rejected and has ever since been dried up, as it were, from the roots. The parable of the two sons contrasts the legalistic self-righteous leaders of the Jews, who pretended to an obedience they did not execute, with poor sinners, both Jews and Gentiles, who have heard and obeyed the truth of the gospel. The parable of the vineyard (Matthew 21:33-46) tells of God’s care for and patience with His earthly people until they fulfilled their own Scriptures in rejecting His Son. The story of the marriage feast (Matthew 22:1-14) emphasizes the same truth; the parable shows how the door of faith was to be opened to the Gentiles and warns against mere profession, which can mean only judgment at last, as in the case of the man who refused the wedding garment.
The Parable of the Vineyard (Matthew 21:33-46)
The second of the two closing parables in Matthew 21—the parable of the vineyard—had both a backward and a forward application. It traced God’s ways with Israel in the past and their rejection of His messengers. It also looked on prophetically to what was to be accomplished in the next few days when Jesus Himself was to be repudiated by His own people and delivered up to death.
The householder was God Himself. The vineyard was Israel (Isaiah 5:1-7). The husbandmen were the leaders in Judah who were responsible to guide the people aright. The servants were the prophets who came from time to time as Jehovah’s representatives to press His claims upon the people.
“Beat one, and killed another, and stoned another.” Thus had Israel and Judah treated those who came to them in the name of the Lord (Acts 7:52).
“He sent unto them his son.” How vividly does this portray the grace of God in sending the Lord Jesus! He was in Palestine as the representative of the Father (John 6:38; 7:28-29). Christ was the heir sent by the Father in grace to call the leaders in Israel to a path of obedience and responsibility. But He knew they would spurn Him as they had persecuted the prophets that went before. The rejection of Christ by His own people was the fullest possible expression of the hatred of the natural heart, moved by Satanic malignancy, toward the God of all grace (Acts 2:23).
It is useless to try to absolve the leaders in Jewry of the crime of delivering our Lord up to death (1 Thessalonians 2:14-15). Actually it was the Gentiles who crucified Him, but potentially it was the Jews who killed Him. Both are implicated in the greatest crime in all history, the murder of the Christ of God (Acts 4:26-27).
“What will he do unto those husbandmen?” Foreseeing their treatment of Himself, Jesus put the question directly to those who had followed the parable thus far. He would have them pronounce their own condemnation.
“He will miserably destroy those wicked men.” Without realizing it, they declared what God was about to do. Their words were fulfilled in the destruction of Jerusalem and the setting aside of the Jew in favor of the nations of the Gentiles.
“The stone which the builders rejected.” Jesus called their attention to the definite prophecy of Psalm 118:22. He Himself was the rejected stone. But in His resurrection God was to make Him the head of the corner in the new temple of living stones He was about to erect.
A Jewish legend explained this verse by declaring that at the building of Solomon’s temple a stone was sent up from the quarries at the very beginning for which the workmen could find no place, so it was thrown down into the valley below mount Moriah. Later they sent word that they were ready for the cornerstone, but the masons declared it had been sent up already. Finally someone recalled the disallowed stone, and a search in the valley brought it to light, and it was hoisted up to the mount again, and made the head of the corner.
“The kingdom of God shall be taken from you, and given to a nation bringing forth the fruits thereof.” Israel after the flesh was to be put aside. The kingdom for which they had waited so long was to be lost to them forever. A new and elect nation, a regenerated Israel, will possess the kingdom eventually. Meantime the grace of God is going out to the Gentiles.
Christ is the stone of salvation; He is also the stone of judgment. The Jews stumbled over Him and were broken (Isaiah 8:14). Some day He will come again, as the stone falling on the image of Gentile power to grind it to powder (Daniel 2:34-35).
There could be no doubt in the minds of our Lord’s hearers as to the application of the parable. Recognizing a picture of themselves in the unfaithful husbandmen, the Pharisees gave no evidence of repentance, nor of a desire to obey the Word of God. Instead, they seemed to become even more determined in their opposition to Jesus, God’s anointed One. Had they dared they would have laid hands on Him and endeavored at once to put Him out of the way, but again they were deterred by their fear of the multitude who believed Him to be a prophet. Such is the incorrigible evil of the natural heart unless subdued by divine grace!