Biblical Theology Weekly Bible Study AJBT. Matthew 21:1-27. The Arrival of the Messiah.

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Subject: Biblical Theology Weekly Bible Study AJBT. Matthew 21:1-27. The Arrival of the Messiah.
Date: March 24th 2017

Matthew 21:1-27. 
The Arrival of the Messiah.

American Journal of Biblical Theology,
Copyright © 2017, Dr. John W. (Jack) Carter     Scripture quotes from KJV

The twenty-first chapter of the Gospel of Matthew brings us to the end the Galilean ministry of Jesus Christ that started with His baptism by John and ends with His triumphal entry into Jerusalem.  During this time, Jesus taught many disciples about God’s purpose for mankind and His plan for their salvation.  He also invested a significant amount of teaching for the benefit of many disciples and for the eleven Apostles who he prepared to lead the church after His death, resurrection, and ascension.  As Jesus traveled among the people He also brought miraculous healing to many people, and it was for this that He became best known to the general population. 

There were many of the disciples, including the Apostles, who sincerely believed that Jesus is the Messiah of Old Testament prophesy.  However, there were very few who understood what the mission of the True Messiah would be.  When they studied the prophecies, they found those passages that referred to the Messiah’s purpose as one of relieving them from bondage, and applied it to the only bondage that they perceived: their subservience to Rome.  Consequently, the Israelites were fully expecting that, if Jesus is truly the Messiah, He will usher in a new, independent Israelite national government, free from Roman interference.

Even at the end of Jesus’ teaching ministry the disciples and Apostles still struggled with their understanding of the purpose of the Messiah, though Peter, James, and John may have had the best understanding after they witnessed Jesus’ transfiguration. Though Jesus had been teaching them that He would be killed by the Jerusalem Jewish leadership, they were still not prepared for the actual event, and at this point in their experience, it is likely that they had no idea that Jesus’ prophecy would come true within a week’s time.  Some still seemed to believe that Jesus would “ascend” to the throne of the King of Israel.

This one week that Jesus spent in Jerusalem would see the most important event to take place in the history of the world: the crucifixion of the Son of God by evil and hateful religious leaders, wherein He served as a vicarious sacrifice for those who place their faith and trust in God; and His resurrection that demonstrated both His true nature as the eternal Messiah, YAHWEH, and the victory over death that is found in Him.

Matthew 21:1a.  And when they drew nigh unto Jerusalem, and were come to Bethphage, unto the mount of Olives,

Immediately prior to Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, Jesus was staying with Mary, Martha, and Lazarus in the village of Bethany, which is located a few miles south of Jerusalem.  His miraculous raising of Lazarus from the dead was witnessed by many people of the small village.  As word quickly spread of the raising of this highly respected man, the people began to rally around Jesus.  It was now time for the people of Bethany to go up to Jerusalem for the Passover celebration, so as Jesus was traveling with them He was surrounded by a very excited and vocal community.  As Jesus walked that relatively short journey, He was surrounded by the Apostles, Mary, Martha, Lazarus, many disciples, and virtually the entire village of Bethany.  This was no small procession.  Nor was it a quiet one.

It is evident that Bethphage was located on the road from Bethany to Jerusalem as one would pass by the Mount of Olives.  Little is known about Bethphage since the only biblical reference to the place is in the synoptic descriptions of this one event.  Bethphage is likely no more than a cluster of houses or businesses along the road.

Matthew 21:1b-3.  …then sent Jesus two disciples, 2Saying unto them, Go into the village over against you, and straightway ye shall find an ass tied, and a colt with her: loose them, and bring them unto me. 3And if any man say ought unto you, ye shall say, The Lord hath need of them; and straightway he will send them.

Jesus, knowing of the expectations of the people, and the adulation that He was receiving from the disciples and the people of Bethany, planned the details of His entry into the city of Jerusalem with care.  The manner of His entry into the city was of no little import.  With titles like Messiah, LORD, and King, the people would expect Him to enter the city in the manner of a conquering king, coming in using a demonstration of power that is bold and big.  When a king would enter a conquered city, he would be riding on a big horse or on a grand chariot led by a team of horses.  Jesus had an entirely different plan in mind.

Jesus instructed two of his disciples to go ahead of Him, locate a female donkey and its colt, and bring them to Him.  Matthew omits from his testimony a fact that is recorded in the accounts written by both Mark and Luke: the colt that is to be brought to Jesus had never been mounted and rode by anyone.  This description of the colt clearly indicates Jesus’ intention to ride on it as He enters the city.

There has been no little controversy over the differences in the synoptic narratives concerning the identity and use of these animals.  However, when we find differences in multiple parallel passages, a wise way to approach the study is to add together the details of the varying accounts to obtain a more complete description.  When we do this, we find that a yearling donkey is to be brought to Jesus along with its mother.  There are clearly two animals involved.  It was a normal practice to keep a mother close to a colt when it is carrying a rider for the first time.  To take the colt away from its mother, or to ride the colt without the mother nearby would put the colt under stress, causing it to be uncooperative.

There has also been some controversy over Jesus’ command to obtain the animals, implying that He sent the disciples ahead to “steal” them.  Any time we encounter an interpretation that is contrary to the nature of God, we can be assured that there is an error in the interpretation.  Whether Jesus “foreknew” the availability of the animals or if He had already arranged with the owner, His direction to the disciples was to tell the owner that the “LORD” needs them.  This implies that the owner of the animals has already met and trusted the LORD and will gladly allow them to be used.  There is no thievery taking place here.

Matthew 21:4-5.  All this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet, saying, 5Tell ye the daughter of Sion, Behold, thy King cometh unto thee, meek, and sitting upon an ass, and a colt the foal of an ass.

Jesus’ intent was to enter the city riding a donkey colt.  Rather than riding on a big horse or on a grand chariot, Jesus chose to enter the city in the humblest of means possible.  A donkey colt would typically be ridden by the poorest people or by a child.  This would put him very close to the ground, near the people rather than towering over them.  This would make Jesus’ entry meek and non-threatening.  It would also provide a dramatic contrast to the manner of entry that the people would be expecting.  Jesus’ choice to ride a colt was also consistent with the prophecy of Zechariah 6:6 which is quoted quite literally in all three of the synoptic passages.

Matthew 21:6.  And the disciples went, and did as Jesus commanded them, 7And brought the ass, and the colt, and put on them their clothes, and they set him thereon.

After bringing the animals to Jesus, the disciples put their “clothes,” meaning their outer garments, on the backs of both the mother and the colt.  Again, this would be a normal practice to help the colt learn this new behavior.  They would put a garment on the mother, allow the colt to observe, and then place a garment on the colt until a satisfactory saddle was constructed on the back of the colt.  Jesus then, gently, sat on the colt.  One can probably envision this process that was intended to train the colt for its new experience.  There were probably soft words spoken, and gentle actions taken to assure the cooperation of an otherwise frightened colt.

Once on the colt, the disciples would lead the mother and colt together, with the mother in front.  Some have over-analyzed the English word “them” and came up with the absurdity of Jesus riding both animals at the same time, or switching back and forth between them.  Such an interpretation is not necessary since the Greek text makes no such assertion.

Matthew 21:8.  And a very great multitude spread their garments in the way; others cut down branches from the trees, and strawed them in the way.

The Passover celebration was the most important holy day in the Jewish tradition, and many people had come from the surrounding cities, villages, and camps to take part in it.  As Jesus entered the city He was accompanied by the jubilant community from Bethany and its surrounding area.  It is evident that as they came to Jerusalem the crowds that were already there joined in the amazing event that was taking place:  Jesus, to many the miracle worker, and o others the Messiah who would become king, was coming to Jerusalem!

To demonstrate their excitement of the celebrity of Jesus, they performed a mock preparation of His path, paving it with blankets, their clothes, and branches they cut from the trees.  This would be analogous to “rolling out the red carpet” in western culture.

Matthew 21:9.  And the multitudes that went before, and that followed, cried, saying, Hosanna to the Son of David: Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord; Hosanna in the highest.

As the people shouted the identity of Jesus, the animation of the crowd would only grow.  Their loud proclamations of praise to the “Son of David” was a clear and unambiguous reference to the promised Messiah.  They were proclaiming that this is the fulfilment of all the prophecies concerning He who would come in the name of the LORD.

Matthew 21:10-11.  And when he was come into Jerusalem, all the city was moved, saying, Who is this? 11And the multitude said, This is Jesus the prophet of Nazareth of Galilee.

It is likely that nothing like this has been experienced by anyone in the City of Jerusalem.  The uproar was heard throughout the city, and likely drew people to the plaza inside the southern Gate who were more than curious.  When people asked who this was that was causing all of the commotion, the people said that this is Jesus, the “prophet” of Nazareth.  Jesus was well-known for his teaching and his miracles of healing.  Declared the Messiah who would free Israel by the crowd accompanying him, and declared the prophet by the people in the Jerusalem crowd, none understood Jesus’ true identity or His purpose.

Matthew 21:12-13.  And Jesus went into the temple of God, and cast out all them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the moneychangers, and the seats of them that sold doves, 13And said unto them, It is written, My house shall be called the house of prayer; but ye have made it a den of thieves.

The Temple was divided into three parts, the outer Court of the Gentiles, the Holy Place, and the Holy of Holies.  There were merchants who sold cheap animals at inflated prices to those who were traveling to Jerusalem and would purchase them for sacrifices.  Purchases required the use of Temple money, so money changers profited from selling Temple money at deflated prices.  The Court of the Gentiles is the only place that non-Jews could come for teaching and to worship the LORD, and this was its primary purpose.  However, the merchants and money changers had moved their businesses into the Court, displacing its use for teaching and worship.  The Temple had become a commercial center. 

Citing Old Testament scriptures, Jesus’ removing the merchants and money changers from the court was an appropriate way to restore the court to its intended purpose.  However, Jesus was also attacking the current state of the sacrificial system.  The purpose of the Old Testament rules on sacrifice was twofold: 

First, the sacrificial system was intended to remind people of their sin guilt and the cost in blood that was required for its atonement.  Such a realization would inspire worshipers to seek forgiveness as they honor the LORD as sovereign and worthy of their worship and obedience.  It has been over a millennium since the sacrificial system was established, and by now it had lost virtually all of its spiritual overtones, being reduced to a simple legalistic system of rites and procedures that were fueled and fueling a lively commercial business.  The current system made a mockery of its intents and purposes.

Second, the sacrificial system served as an archetype, a model of Jesus’ purpose in coming to His people.  The people were to learn that there is no forgiveness without the shedding of blood.  Jesus came to Jerusalem to shed His own blood as the final sacrifice for the atonement of all sins of those who place their faith and trust in the LORD, YAHWEH.  If people were cognizant of the true purpose and intent of the sacrificial system that they only mimicked, they would recognize the purpose of atonement that would be evident at the Cross of Calvary.

“The problem of replacing worship with commerce remained a crucial threat to the life of God’s people.”  The restoration of the Court of the Gentiles was necessary to restore the purpose of the Passover, to restore teaching and prayer for all people to the court, and to prepare the city for what would take place at the end of the week.  It is evident from the following passages, both here and in the synoptic parallels, that Jesus’ arguments for the restoration of the Court to its original purpose was compelling enough that the Court remained free of commercial interference for the remainder of the week.  This provided a short period where people could come to the Temple to pray and seek to hear teachers of the Law.  And come, they did.

Matthew 21:14.  And the blind and the lame came to him in the temple; and he healed them.

It might be surprising to read that the blind and lame were coming into the Temple.  Much of biblical narrative, both in the Old Testament and the New, illustrate that the sick and infirmed were not allowed in the Temple.  Their free access to the Court (as well as the presence of the merchants) serves to illustrate the hypocrisy of first-century Judaism that held so firmly to some Mosaic Laws and ignored others, since the rule was one of tradition, not law.  If one who is infirmed desires to enter the Temple, they must first go to a priest and show themselves free of the infirmity.  Then, the priest will allow them access.  In this instance, the sick and infirmed came to the Priest, Jesus Christ, who had the power to both heal them and restore them to Temple access.  They may have come to the Temple infirmed, but they left with free access.  This aptly illustrates God’s purpose as people come to Him suffering from the ravages and consequences of their sin that serve to prevent them from gaining access to the LORD, upon turning to Him in faith, they find full and unimpeded access to His throne.  Jesus serves to restore people of the ravages of this world and bring them to Himself.  He also restored the Court to its intended purpose.

Matthew 21:15.  And when the chief priests and scribes saw the wonderful things that he did, and the children crying in the temple, and saying, Hosanna to the Son of David; they were sore displeased,

There were at least two things happening here that enraged the religious elite.  First, Jesus had literally taken over the Court of the Gentiles, a place that was supposed to be the domain of the religious leadership.  If the merchants and money changers were here, they were here at the blessing of the religious elite who probably profited from their enterprise.  Jesus, this itinerant, “uneducated” carpenter from Nazareth of Galilee was sitting in the place of the respected Rabbis, taking for himself their authority.  However, it was impossible for them to take any action against Him because of the “wonderful things that He did.”  Any action against Jesus at this point would bring upon them an outcry from the people.

A second issue here is of great importance.  The children, which of course make a wonderful example of faith, much to the contrast of the religious leadership, were repeating the shouts of acclamation that they had heard from the crowds, crying out words of praise, “Hosanna to the Son of David.”  As much as the religious elite would enjoy hearing shouts of praise from anyone, even children, none would ever accept the praise that was being raised to Jesus.  These children, in copying the crowds, were not voicing praises to a prophet, a teacher, or a rabbi.  These were words that were lifted as praises to the LORD, the Messiah, Himself.  By accepting these words of praise from the crowd and from the children, Jesus was implying to them and to the religious elite His declaration of agreement with them, that He is, indeed, the Messiah.  To them, this was the worst form of blasphemy that one could express.

There was nothing about this situation that was liked or appreciated by the religious leadership in Jerusalem.  They only experienced hatred and rage toward Jesus, and they actively sought to devise a way to get rid of Him.

Matthew 21:16.   And said unto him, Hearest thou what these say? And Jesus saith unto them, Yea; have ye never read, Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings thou hast perfected praise?

Jesus made it clear that He understood what was meant by the praises of the people that was echoed through the children.  He also made it certain that the religious leadership understood His claim to be the Messiah, driving it home with a quote from Psalm 8:2.  Instead of deflecting the praise of the children as the leadership would expect any Rabbi to do, Jesus clearly accepts for Himself praise that is to be received only by God, Himself.    

Matthew 21:17.  And he left them, and went out of the city into Bethany; and he lodged there.

When Jesus completed His work in the Court of the Gentiles, He returned to Bethany, likely to the home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus where He had been staying prior to this Passion week.  There would be no place that was safe for Him in the City of Jerusalem as He was surrounded by quite a mix of people who were seeking Him.  Some sought Him for His teaching and healing ministry.  Some sought to raise Him up to be King of Jerusalem.  Others sought to kill him.  It is likely that just about everyone had an opinion of this Jesus of Nazareth, and the variety of opinions was as wide as the variety of the people groups in the City of Jerusalem.  Not much has changed over the years.

Matthew 21:18-20.  Now in the morning as he returned into the city, he hungered. 19And when he saw a fig tree in the way, he came to it, and found nothing thereon, but leaves only, and said unto it, Let no fruit grow on thee henceforward for ever. And presently the fig tree withered away. 20And when the disciples saw it, they marvelled, saying, How soon is the fig tree withered away!

If all of the events of the previous verses took place on Sunday, this event would have begun on Monday morning.  When the scriptures describe something in the ministry of Jesus in this form of detail, we can always expect that there may be more going on than the text literally implies.  This passage is one of these.  It would seem that Jesus often took advantage of circumstances to create a teaching moment.  It was early in the morning, and Jesus and his disciples were traveling on the same road to Jerusalem that they have used the previous day when they were accompanied by the people of Bethany.

Upon coming to a fig tree, Jesus found no figs among its branches and cursed it.  As the Creator of the universe, the LORD has the power to execute any blessing or curse that He desires.  This is demonstrated by the withering of the tree.  We might note that there are at least two points that are omitted by Matthew, but included by Mark.  First, the gospel of Mark reveals that this is not the season to find figs on the tree, consistent with the time of the year: the Passover is held after the spring solstice on the 15th day of Nisan, usually coming sometime in April.  One would not expect to find edible figs on the tree until late May or early June.  However, as usual, there is something significant going on in the text that would have been understood by ancient readers.

Fig trees leaf out in March, and shortly after the leaves appear, there are small, edible knobs or berries that appear on the newly formed branches.  These would often be picked and eaten by passersby if they were sufficiently hungry.  These berries, referred to as taqsh by the arabs, were a staple of the poorer class of people.  An absence of taqsh on the branches would indicate that the fig tree will not be bearing fruit in the coming season.  The absence of taqsh was a cultural omen that indicated a fruitless future.

If we place Jesus’ illustration into the context of the passage, we can easily equate the conflict of the fig tree with the conflict of the Jerusalem Jews.  It is God’s purpose that Jerusalem would be focal point of His revelation of Himself to man.  The fulfilment of that revelation will take place in a few short days.  However, the interim period from the Exodus of Israel to the events of this week were far from God’s desire for Israel.  Called to be a nation of priests, Israel rejected that call and turned away from God in their apostasy as a nation.  Israel had failed to bear the fruit that God prepared them for.  The berries on the fig tree were a form of promise of coming fruition.  Jerusalem, and the nation of Israel is like that fig tree.  The LORD planted it, watered it, and gave it every resource it needed to be obedient to Him and produce fruit yet here, at this seminal point in Israel’s history there was no evidence of future fruition to be found.  By cursing the tree and causing it to wither, Jesus was illustrating the immediate demise of the Temple and its influence.  Having rejected its calling to bear fruit, it will soon wither and die because it failed to produce as the LORD had given it opportunity.  The Jerusalem Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 A.D., and the sacrificial system ended.  There was no longer a need for it because of Jesus’ sacrifice on the Cross.

Matthew 21:21-22.  Jesus answered and said unto them, Verily I say unto you, If ye have faith, and doubt not, ye shall not only do this which is done to the fig tree, but also if ye shall say unto this mountain, Be thou removed, and be thou cast into the sea; it shall be done. 22And all things, whatsoever ye shall ask in prayer, believing, ye shall receive.

There has been much misunderstanding of this verse, particularly by those who think this passage is about a fig tree.  The fruitless fig tree is simply a metaphor for something real that is taking place: the fruitlessness of Israel.  Jesus’ act on the fig tree was an illustration of His authority to judge an apostate Israel.  It was not a demonstration of His ability to kill a tree.  Likewise, a time is coming when the disciples, particularly eleven of the Apostles, will also have the authority to make judgments concerning the spiritual condition of those they engage in their coming ministry.  They will encounter obstacles that seem like mountains, but because of their faith the power of those mountains to overwhelm them will be removed.  “Cast into the sea,” was a common idiom for the permanent removal of something that is undesired.  Paul referred to this power when He wrote, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”

Consequently, Jesus is not saying that all we need to do is pray and believe and our prayers will be miraculously answered in the manner of our choice.  Such a doctrine is bereft of God’s purpose.   Jesus is speaking to the Apostles, and to the faithful, teaching them that sincere prayer that is founded on the wisdom and power of the Holy Spirit will have power to accomplish God’s purpose in their lives.  The Apostles will be encountering many challenges in the coming years that will seem to be mighty mountains, but when they are obedient to the LORD, listen to the Holy Spirit, and prayerfully follow His lead, the mountains will be removed from their path.

Matthew 21:23.  And when he was come into the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came unto him as he was teaching, and said, By what authority doest thou these things? and who gave thee this authority?

Upon returning to Jerusalem, Jesus reentered the Temple Court to continue His ministry, returning the Court to the purpose intended by God.  There He would be teaching of the coming Kingdom, the necessity of faith, the task of the Messiah, etc.  He would also be enjoying a ministry of counseling and healing, bring much of the benefit to Jerusalem that the people of Galilee had been receiving for the last few years.

However, Jesus’ popularity with the religious leadership has not improved in the last day.  Seeking to remove Jesus from the Temple, the religious leadership challenged Him with a question that they could bring to Him in front of the people.  Thinking themselves wise, they hoped to destroy Jesus’ influence in the presence of the people by demonstrating that He lacks the authority that He claims.

The leadership asked a simple question:  by what and who’s authority are you doing these things?  Authority was everything to the religious leadership, and they believed that when it came to the Temple, all the authority over it was given to them.  Consequently, they believed that Jesus had no answer for them, and their question would serve as a trap.

Matthew 21:24-27.  And Jesus answered and said unto them, I also will ask you one thing, which if ye tell me, I in like wise will tell you by what authority I do these things. 25The baptism of John, whence was it? from heaven, or of men? And they reasoned with themselves, saying, If we shall say, From heaven; he will say unto us, Why did ye not then believe him? 26But if we shall say, Of men; we fear the people; for all hold John as a prophet. 27And they answered Jesus, and said, We cannot tell. And he said unto them, Neither tell I you by what authority I do these things.

Jesus disarmed the religious leadership with His wisdom, exposing their religious hypocrisy.  Of course, Jesus had already told them during their previous encounter that He was there on His own authority, and this only served to further infuriate the leadership.  They saw a challenge to their authority over the Temple that they could not answer.  The only solution would be to kill Jesus.

Like the religious leadership in ancient Jerusalem, many today reject the person, purpose, and authority of Jesus Christ.  But, before another week would pass, Jesus would demonstrate the truth of His authority to the whole world when He would return from the grave of Joseph of Arimathea, continue His teaching among the Apostles and disciples, and then ascent to Heaven with a promise to return.

The crowds proclaimed that Jesus was a great prophet, and many will agree with this today.  However, Jesus claimed to be the Messiah, LORD and YAHWEH, proving it through His death and resurrection, fulfilling God’s plan for the redemption of a sinful people.  The religious people were blinded by their religious doctrine and dogma and refused to believe in Jesus.  The same is true today of all of our world religions that are also blinded by their religious doctrine and dogma, refusing to believe in the person, purpose, and nature Jesus.

However, a remnant believed, and that remnant still believes today, and all who have placed their faith and trust in Him can trust in the promise of the LORD, even when He hung on the cross when He said, “Today, you shall be with me in paradise.”

Matthew, Chapter 17.

Matthew 21:1; Mark 11:1; Luke 19:29.

Luke 13:35.

Mark 11:7.

Isaiah 56:7; Jeremiah 7:11.

Zechariah 14:21.

Hebrews 9:22.

Blomberg, Craig L.  Matthew.  The New American Commentary.  Nashville, TN:  Broadman Press.  1992. p 317.

1 Samuel 5:8.

Luke 5:14, e.g.

Bruce, F. F. Are the New Testament Documents Reliable? Intervarsity Press: Downers Grove, Ill, fifth revised edition. 1992, p. 73-74

Exodus 19:6.

Exodus 10:19, 15:4; Jonah 1:12; Micah 7:19; Mark 9:42; Mark 11:23; Luke 17:2; Revelation 8:8.

Philippians 4:13.

James 5:16.


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Written each week by our publisher and editor, John W. (Jack) Carter, these are original, researched, commentaries that may be used for individual study or small-group discussion.
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