This week’s section in our Matthew series on Life. on Purpose is Matthew chapters 21-25.
These 5 chapters show the clash of the kingdoms: the true qualities of Kingdom citizens and values of the Kingdom of God vs. the false religious system set up by the Pharisees to control people and assert their power over them. Jesus’ teaching and example challenge and criticize the religious leaders and the counterfeit systems they had set up to lord their power, as doorkeepers to God, over people. Jesus calls people out of oppressive religion and external rule following, and invites us into relationship with God that gives us identity and purpose.
More so than in the other 3 gospel accounts (Mark, Luke and John), Matthew ties Old Testament events and prophesy to the life of Jesus, to show that he is the fulfillment and culmination of what the Jewish people expected concerning Messiah. He uses events in their history, prophecy and their Scriptures to authenticate Jesus as the awaited Messiah.
This 5-chapter section begins in c21v1 with the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem on a donkey to the shouts of praise of the crowds.
To understand the significance of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, we have to go back to the “Passover” in Exodus 12 and see that historical event as a foreshadowing of the ultimate “passing over” of sin, once and for all through Messiah.
In this Exodus passage, God initiates a new beginning for Israel as a free nation. The context is that the Jewish people had been enslaved in Egypt under the Pharaoh. God called Moses to lead them out of slavery, but Pharaoh refused to let them go. In an effort to “persuade” Pharaoh to let them go, God sent a series of plagues to inflict the nation of Egypt, yet Pharaoh dug in, stubbornly refusing to free the Jews. God then told Moses to warn Pharaoh that he was going to send an angel of destruction to kill all the first born males (both human and animal) in the nation.
God had a plan to protect the Jews from this plague. His instruction was that on the tenth day of the month, the month of Nisan, their new year, each Jewish family was to choose a male lamb one year old that was unblemished. They were to take the lamb into their house for four days, until the fourteenth of the month. On that evening, each family would then take their lamb, kill it and wipe the blood on the tops and sides of the doorposts of their house. The lamb was then to be roasted and eaten with unleavened bread and bitter herbs and none was to be left until morning.
Those who followed the command would be protected and the angel of the Lord would “pass over” them and only inflict the last plague (death of the firstborn) on those without the blood stained doorpost. The lamb provided a substitute death for the first born, and those covered by the blood would be spared. As a result of this last plague, the Israelites were set free from slavery to the Egyptians.
This Passover event then became a yearly observance and celebration of the redemption of the Israelites from slavery. Thereafter, annually, the 10th of the month of Nisan, was the day the unblemished, male lambs were brought into Jerusalem to be chosen by each family and taken into their home for the Passover sacrifice and celebration.
It was on the 10th day of the month of Nisan that Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey while the crowd cheered. In doing this, Jesus was announcing himself as the awaited Messiah, the unblemished Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world, once and for all.
During Biblical times, the way a king entered a city was representative of why and how he came. If a king came ready for war, then he would enter on a horse. But if a king came in peace, he would enter on a donkey. Jesus coming into Jerusalem riding a donkey was a symbol of peace, not only peace from war, but a peace between God and man to be accomplished by His life, death and resurrection.
Jesus coming on a donkey colt also exemplified humility, redefining power as getting under and lifting up, and set straight the expectation that Messiah would come as a warrior.
After Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, symbolically announcing himself as the humble servant-king, the next scene recorded in Matthew is him passionately overturning the tables of the money changers, rejecting the systems that had developed to make money from the Passover requirements.
The practice of the annual Passover celebration required every person to make the journey to the Temple in Jerusalem and make their animal sacrifice and pay a “Temple tax” of ½ a shekel in the local currency. The pilgrims brought with them the coinage of their own country—Syrian, Egyptian, Greek, as the case might be, so the practice evolved that people would have to go to the money changers to exchange their currency for the currency required for the tax. Those who had to travel from far would also have to purchase their animal for sacrifice. These men charged higher-than-market interest rates on the exchange and exorbitant prices for the animals to take advantage of the pilgrims for their own profit.
They set up their stalls in one of the outer courts of the Temple, a court designated for those who were not Jewish, to worship and pray. The Gentiles (non-Jewish people) were not allowed to enter the sanctuary of the Temple.
Since this was an established practice, it is thought that the priests were likely also benefitting by charging rent for the use of the Temple court.
Picture this market scene with the sounds of all the animals and the loud voices of people negotiating the exchange of their money and the purchase of their required sacrifice, and in the Temple court, no less. No wonder Jesus called it a den of robbers! Not only were they taking advantage of the pilgrims, but they had taken over and violated the place of worship for the non-Jewish seekers of God.
This scene of Jesus’ anger and violence stands in surprising contrast to the picture of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem as a humble sacrificial lamb. It is his passionate declaration of his authority over the Temple and what it stood for: the place in which people would seek, pray and gain access to God. This is him expressing his total rejection of the abuse of power being practiced by the religious leaders and denouncing the false, deceptive and abusive way they were purporting to lead people to God for their own profit and aggrandizement.
Putting these two powerful and highly symbolic scenes side by side sets the stage for Jesus’ teaching on the identifying marks of a true citizen of the kingdom of God and those being demonstrated by the religious leaders. Through the parables and discourse and quotes from prophecy about the coming Messiah that follow in chapters 21-25, he exposes the Pharisees as frauds and he turns the definition and expression of power upside down for all of those who heard him then, and for all of us, until now.
Parable is defined as:
1.a short allegorical story designed to illustrate or teach some truth, religious principle, or moral lesson.
2.a statement or comment that conveys a meaning indirectly by the use of comparison, analogy, or the like.
Now that he has the attention of the Pharisees, he shares parables that expose them for who they really are and what they are doing and tells them that they are so far off the mark, that they are going to miss the Kingdom of God altogether.
Jesus is publicly calling them out and threatening their position and power. His shockingly direct truth telling stirs them to ugly self-protection which provokes them to plots and schemes to shut him up and take him down.
The context of the teaching in these chapters is “the kingdom of God” or the “kingdom of heaven”. These terms can be understood as the “rule or reign of God” in contrast to the rule and reign the Pharisees have been perpetuating.
Jesus is re-defining what access to God looks like, who gains it, and how.
After this teaching in the temple, he sat on the Mount of Olives to teach his disciples and foretell the future. The disciples knew from Scripture prophecy that Jesus would come a second time and they asked: “What sign will signal your return and the end of the world?”
In chapter 24, Jesus talks about some signs of the approach of his return a second time, and then at the end of that chapter, beginning v36, he says: “Concerning that day and exact hour, no one knows when it will arrive, not even the angels of heaven—only the Father knows… this is why you must stay alert. His advice to his followers here is to be alert, ready and prepared because at an hour when you are not expecting him, the Son of Man will come.
What will the Master look for when he returns? What do you want to be found doing when the Master returns?
Jesus gives some insight into the qualities that matter to him in 24:45-25:46
...He will be a reliable servant who is wise and faithful and sensible, ones he can depend on. He will lead well and be found serving with excellence. He will care for the ones he was appointed to serve. He will not be abusive. He will not be selfish. He will be prepared and ready. He will be awake, alert and waiting expectantly.
He then tells two parables to reinforce the warning to be responsible, accountable and prepared and to embrace kingdom identity and invest well in kingdom purpose.
To further help the disciples understand their true identity and purpose, he describes what the Final Judgment will be like: the sheep and the goats will be separated. Then he will say to the sheep “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the creation of the world.”
So we won’t mistake this as salvation by works, Jesus is identifying the “sheep” as those already blessed by the Father with their salvation in and through Jesus.
Those who are truly sheep will express their love for Jesus through a servant life that proclaims the Good News that the Lamb of God takes away the sins of the world.
I was hungry, you fed me; I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink; I was a stranger and you invited me into your home. I was naked and you gave me clothing; I was sick and you cared for me. I was in prison and you visited me.
This is not “salvation by works”, nor is it a “measuring up stick”, nor a social justice gospel.
It helps to look at the prophecy concerning the purpose for the coming of Messiah in Isaiah 61:1-3 (NLT)
61 The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is upon me,
for the Lord has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to comfort the broken hearted
and to proclaim that captives will be released
and prisoners will be freed.
2 He has sent me to tell those who mourn
that the time of the Lord’s favor has come,
and with it, the day of God’s anger against their enemies.
3 To all who mourn in Israel,
he will give a crown of beauty for ashes,
a joyous blessing instead of mourning,
festive praise instead of despair.
In their righteousness, they will be like great oaks
that the Lord has planted for his own glory.
Jesus welcomes those who recognize and acknowledge their spiritual poverty, their spiritual thirst, their broken heartedness over their separation from God, that they are captive and imprisoned by their determination to see themselves as “good people” with the final authority over their lives. They humbly acknowledge that no matter how good they try to be, they cannot access the Presence of God on their own merit. They accept and welcome Jesus to bridge the gap blocking their access to relationship with God. They gladly accept an exchange: beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning and the spirit of praise and thankfulness instead of despair. The sheep are those who humbly accept Jesus, and abandon themselves to God the father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit, giving him unfettered access to their lives.
That we have come to this place of abandon will be evidenced not only in the way we treat and view ourselves and the less privileged, the vulnerable and those who have made a lot of mistakes, but also in the way we lead.
We see in this week’s verses that Jesus turned the definition of power on its head. By his life and example and teaching, he ushered in what the “reign of God” looks like. As you study, you will discover how the values and goals of God’s kingdom clash with the top-down leadership his listeners had been experiencing.
Jesus put the spot light on the corruption, hypocrisy and deception of the Pharisees and threatened their position and control, and instead of recognizing their spiritual poverty and their imprisonment to their power and responding with humility and sorrow, they hated him for it.
In the historical context, people thought of the Temple building as containing the Presence of God and the place where they could gain access to God. Jesus reveals Himself as the “new Temple” through whom all people are invited and can find their way into the Presence of the forgiving Father to be lavishly loved. In relationship with God, they will receive their identity and learn to live on purpose as citizens of the Kingdom of God.
Day 1: Matthew 21
Day 2: Matthew 22
Day 3: Matthew 23
Day 4: Matthew 24
Day 5: Matthew 25
As you read each chapter, use the following questions to guide your study:
1. What are the identifying marks of those who are citizens of the Kingdom of God you can learn from Jesus’ example, his parables, his teaching and his criticisms of the Pharisees
2. Who are the people Jesus welcomed as he taught? What do they have in common—physically, spiritually? What can you learn about the qualities Jesus values in his followers from the ones He welcomed?
3. Compare and contrast these to the qualities and values being attributed to and demonstrated by the Pharisees? What attitudes and actions did the Pharisees resort to when their position and power was threatened? What do you conclude was motivating the Pharisees to the way they were representing the kingdom of God?
4. When you reflect on these 5 chapters, how do you now define “righteousness”?
5. Do you recognize any Pharisaical tendencies in yourself, especially in leadership roles or areas where you have power? What brings that out in you?
6. How will you respond to Jesus’ invitation to step into the power and reality of your identity as a citizen of the Kingdom of God today? Make your response practical, specific, realistic and measurable.