True praise - Matthew 21:1-17
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On December 4th, 1977, in Bangui, in what was then known as the Central African Empire, the world's press witnessed the coronation of his Imperial Majesty, Bokassa I. The price tag for that single event, designed and choreographed by French designer Olivier Brice, was $25 million. At 10.10am, the blare of trumpets and the roll of drums announced the arrival of his majesty. The emperor arrived in an imperial coach bedecked with gold eagles and drawn by six matching English horses. As the trumpets blared out, his highness strode forward, cloaked in a robe weighing 32 pounds, decorated with 785,000 strewn pearls and gold embroidery. He wore white gloves on his hands, and pearl slippers on his feet. On his brow he wore a crown of golden laurel wreathes like those worn by the Roman Emperors of old. As he completed his long procession, he seated himself on his $2.5 million eagle throne, took off his golden wreath, and, as Napoleon had done 173 years before him, he took his $2.5 million crown topped off with an 80 carat diamond, and placed it on his head. At 10.43am, December 4th 1977 the world had a new emperor.
I wonder how you measure power. Maybe it is in the number of people you command. Maybe it's in the amount of wealth you have at your disposal. Maybe it's the ability to say something and for immediate action to be taken. Well if we were making up a story about a king coming in power to his city for the finale of his life, then I doubt very much you would have dreamt up Matthew 21. Matthew 21 explains what happened when Jesus entered Jerusalem just a week before he died. It's the events of the first Palm Sunday, and very apt that we should be studying this passage today which is Palm Sunday. But at first sight there seems very little to do with kingly power or great authority about this whole episode. In fact, if you were Jesus' Publicity Manager I think you'd be pulling your hair out. First he rides into town on a donkey. Then he puts the Jewish authorities' noses totally out of joint by causing chaos in the Temple and finally he finds that his best followers are kids! Hardly a king to be in awe of is it?
But as we come to look in greater depth at this remarkable passage, we see that in each of those events, his entry into Jerusalem, his actions in the Temple, and his run in with the local children, there is deep significance. In fact, each of these events reveals something about this king which is totally unexpected. You see in Jesus we meet a king who is not a patch on an Emperor like Emperor Bokassa. Because this King Jesus is just infinitely more powerful and awe-inspiring. And that is the lesson Matthew wants us to understand from this passage. Since the beginning of his gospel he's been explaining that Jesus is God's promised King, come to rescue us and who demands a response of humble obedience from us. And now King Jesus is drawing near to the end. And Matthew wants us to be in no doubt who this King is and why he has come. And that is a lesson that every one of us here needs to take to heart, whether we are have been a Christian for years, or if we have never really come to put our faith in Jesus Christ. Because each one of us can forget or misunderstand the person of Jesus Christ. It's so easy in the melee of every day to forget how great this King is, or to grow complacent about the things he has done for us. We can begin to treat him simply as a talisman to get us through the week, a guru to go back to when things get tricky, a crutch for a troubled soul. But King Jesus is no talisman. He is no comfort blanket in times of difficulty. He is far, far greater than that! No he is the one before whom one day every knee will bow. And time and again, no matter how long we have been following him, we need to be reminded of those amazing truths about this King Jesus. So come with me on this journey up to Jerusalem, and we'll find out three things about this King Jesus.
1) The Gentle King (Vv 1-11)
2) The Just King (Vv 12-13)
3) The Divine King (Vv 14-17)
And we'll see as we look at each of these three incidents involving this King, that each one is in fulfilment of an OT promise. For this is no flash in the pan reign, no temporary coup to be quashed by the Americans. No this King is the one whose coming had been planned for all eternity, and whose reign will last for ever.
1) The Gentle King (Vv 1-11)
So the first thing we learn about this king Jesus is that he is a gentle king in verses 1-11. Now we need to be aware that the whole of the gospel of Matthew has moving to this point in Jesus' life, his entry into Jerusalem and his subsequent death and resurrection. Matthew has been showing us since verse 1 of his gospel that Jesus is the Messiah, the promised rescuer King from David's line. And since 16 v 21, Jesus has specifically made it clear to his disciples that he is heading for Jerusalem. And now at last that time has come. Verse 1, they are approaching Jerusalem. And the expectation surrounding Jesus has reached fever pitch. His fame has ballooned all across the land. David Beckham could only have dreamed of publicity like this. Jesus was big. And as he prepares to enter Jerusalem, the fever is red hot. It's Passover time, when traditionally nationalistic fervour in the land was very high. The Romans would have gone from yellow to red alert. And everyone is expectant. So what would you be looking for if you were one of Jesus' followers? At last the Messiah is coming to his city, to claim his throne, the throne of David. At last freedom was coming for the poor oppressed Jews. The boot of the Roman army was about to be lifted and defeated. That's what many would have been thinking. And if you were Jesus' Campaign Manager you would have been licking your lips. You'd have lines and lines of adoring fans. You'd have Jesus dressed in a royal robe and a crown, riding into the city on a war horse followed by chariots and soldiers. What a procession that would be. That would be a show of kingship wouldn't it Jesus, he'd say. He's just itching to get on his phone and sort it all out for his master. The modern equivalent would be the military parade we used to see on our TV screens in Red Square in the old Soviet Union, as miles and miles of Soviet nuclear armoury was paraded as a show of power. That's what kingship is all about isn't it?
But not Jesus. Not that Palm Sunday. Jesus does something totally amazing. He comes into the city, not on a war horse, but on humble donkey. And what is even more bizarre is that it wasn't that all the horses were booked out at Rent a Horse that day. No, Jesus specifically planned it that way. Have a look at verse 1: "As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethpage on the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, 'Go to the village ahead of you, and at once you will find a donkey tied there, with her colt by her. Untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, tell him that the Lord needs them, and he will send them right away.'" Now we're not told how Jesus knew this. Maybe it was some prearranged plan. But what is clear is that Jesus knows exactly what he is doing. It's as if he is planning a deliberate and specific act the meaning of which is clear for those with eyes to see. So why does he do it this way? Why not ride on a war horse? Why not just walk into town? Why the donkey? Because he's making a bold statement about himself and his claims to kingship. And the clue is the verse he quotes from the prophet Zechariah. Verse 4: "This took place to fulfil what was spoken through the prophet: 'Say to the Daughter of Zion, 'See, your king comes to you, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.''"
So what does he mean? Well to us this quote from the OT prophet Zechariah seems totally obscure. But to the Jews it would have been very familiar. Because it was a verse which taught them about the Messiah, God's rescuer King who they were looking forward to. Every Jew would know this verse. They would have learnt it at Holiday Sunday School and Saturday Junior Synagogue. And whenever we read verses from the OT in the NT we're to treat them like Hyperlinks. For those who aren't computer literate let me explain. Imagine that I receive an email from a friend and it says: "Dear Nathan, I've just found this amazing website which you must look at. Here's the address. And in the email he gives me the address. And if I click on the address I go straight to the website, TinkerMinistries.com or whatever it is. And OT quotes in the NT are hyperlinks to send us back to the original passage. The authors want us to check out their context back in the original place. So let's just spend a few moments flicking back to Zechariah 9 vv 9-10 to see what Zechariah had prophesied. "Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion! Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. I will take away the chariots from Ephraim and the war-horses from Jerusalem, and the battle bow will be broken. He will proclaim peace to the nations. His rule will extend from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth." So here is a prophecy about God's king coming to Jerusalem riding on a donkey. And what is he bringing? Salvation. He comes to bring rescue and verse 10 peace to the nations, that's people like you and me, non Jews. Now let's go back to Matthew 21. And if you'd been brought up on your mother's mil to know that verses and many others which prophesied the coming of the Messiah, then when Jesus turns up riding into Jerusalem, what are you going to think? Well like the crowds in verse 9, you'll cry out that the Messiah, the king from David's line has come. And that's why the crowds greeted him as they did.
But notice what kind of king Jesus is. He's a gentle king. Zechariah says that he is a gentle king who brings salvation and peace. And that is why he has come. He's not going to be the great political Messiah the Jews wanted. No, this King, the true promised King of the OT comes in humility and in a few days time will give himself up to death, even death on a cross. You see what the Jews failed to do is to put together all the different prophecies about the king and see that whilst one day he will come in judgement, first he has come in peace to save. Do you remember what we learnt last week from chapter 20? That the mark of true greatness is to serve. Jesus came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many. And that is all the more staggering when you consider just what awesome power and authority he has. As a the hymn writer puts it: "Hands that flung stars into space, to cruel nails surrendered.
I wonder if you have truly grasped that incredible truth for yourself, that Jesus is first and foremost a gentle king who gave his life for you. Emperor Bokassa was a tyrant who ruled the Central African Empire by fear. He once murdered two hundred school children because they complained about their uniforms. He was man who had his enemies murdered and then, so the story goes, he actually ate them. Is that power and true kingship? No, true kingship is the willingness to lay aside a crown of gold and put on a crown of thorns. This is a king who does not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but makes himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant. This king will not crush a bruised reed or snuff out a flickering wick. This king is the one who cares for his spiritual children as a father cares for his children. This is a king who will not punish cruelly, but with endless patience will have his wayward children back time and again. Perhaps sometimes we fall into the mistake of thinking that when we do let God down, when we do muck up, then this king will frown and say: "Well you've blown it now. You've had your last chance!" But not this king. This king is the king who longs for us to come back to him time and again, no matter what we've done. He'll always have us back if we will humble ourselves before him. And that is a message we need to hear time and again. What does this king say? "Come unto me all who are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest." Is that the Jesus you know? Is that the Jesus you love, the gentle king who gave up everything for you? "See, says Zechariah, your king comes to you gentle and riding on a donkey." He is truly a gentle king.
2) The Just King (Vv 12-13)
But secondly, this king is the just king in verses 12-13. For gentleness does not mean wet and wimpy. No, whilst this king is gentle is he also just. And once again Jesus was fulfilling OT prophecy. The prophet Malachi spoke of the coming of the Lord and that when he came he would go straight to his Temple. And so it is here. The king goes to the Temple. So what happens? Verse 12: "Jesus entered the temple area and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves."
Now at first sight this looks as if Jesus is having a fit of righteous anger against the buying and selling that is taking place in the Temple. He's enraged that God's house is being used as a cattle market. But there is more to it than that. Yes, the place was a place of economic hustle and bustle, and yes there was a possibility of extorting visitors who were just there for the festival. But once again we are driven back to the OT for our answer as to why Jesus did what he did. Once again we are given some hyperlinks. And the first quote comes from Isaiah 56. Have a look at what Jesus says in the first half of verse 13: "'It is written', he said to them, 'My house will be called a house of prayer.'" Now in Isaiah 56, God is speaking to the people of Israel and saying that non Jews will be able to worship him at his Temple. Listen to what is said in Isaiah 56 vv 6-7: "Foreigners who bind themselves to the Lord to serve him, to love the name of the Lord, and to worship him, all who keep the Sabbath without desecrating it and who hold fast to my covenant - these I will bring to my holy mountain and give them joy in my house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations." Israel was always meant to be a light to the nations. Her very destiny was to be a blessing to all the world. And the Temple was to be a place where everyone could come and pray to the true and living God. But that wasn't happening. Instead, Jesus says "it has become a den of robbers." And here is where he really puts the knife in. And again there is a hyperlink back to an OT prophecy.
Let's turn to Jeremiah 7 vv 9-11 to see what Jesus is getting at. "Will you steal and murder, commit adultery and perjury, burn incense to Baal and follow other gods you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which bears my Name, and say, 'We are safe' - safe to do all these detestable things? Has this house, which bears my Name, become a den of robbers to you? But I have been watching! declares the Lord." You see through the prophet Jeremiah God is saying to his people that there is a fundamental problem with their religion. And the problem is it's a sham. They are a bunch of hypocrites. They say one thing on a Sunday and do another on a Monday, and then they run back to the Temple and think they are safe because they are in God's house, as if they are in some protective bubble which totally ignores their hearts. Can you see what they are doing? They are going through the religious motions on a Sunday and then living life how they wan the rest of the week, stealing, murdering, committing adultery and worshipping other gods. And God promises through Jeremiah that judgement will come.
And that is precisely what Jesus is doing. He's exposing the sham religiosity of the Temple and revealing the hearts of the people. You see they might queue up to buy their goats and pigeons to hand to the priests to sacrifice, they might put on that holy smug face when they turn up to the Temple, but behind it all are hearts which are hard and which are inwardly rejecting the very God they profess to worship. And that is why Jesus gets so irate. It all looks so religious and cosy. But it's just rank hypocrisy, and a hollow sham.
And so Jesus' overturning of the tables is an acted parable showing that the time of the Temple is over. God's judgement will come, as Jesus will make clear in a few chapters, and as history records. For in AD 70 the Temple was destroyed never to regain its status. So how then can we know God? Through Jesus, who is the Temple of God for us. He is the meeting point between us and God. And so when he died on the cross, the curtain in the Temple separating us from God was torn down. A new era had come. The old had gone and the new has come in, and we can know God personally in Jesus.
And yet Jesus' challenge to those who profess to follow him still stands. I wonder what he would say to us if he were to come to St. John's. Are we a den of robbers, robbing God of his dues, when outwardly we are professing to follow him. Jesus sees straight through false religion, and that is why the NT is so concerned to get us to examine ourselves with healthy humility to see that we do not fall into this trap. For sham religion is a killer. We kid ourselves we are pleasing God, when all along we're living a double life. On the outside, no-one would ever know. We're keen and zealous for God. Yet on the inside we're seething mass of jealousy, rage and self centeredness. Let us constantly humble ourselves before this king and admit our sins and our need of his grace, for he is a just King who will judge our hearts. For whilst we can rejoice and rightly so in gentle and gracious character. Yet on the other he is a King who will not treat sin lightly. Instead it must be confessed and dealt with lest we too fall in to the same trap as the people of Jeremiah's day.
CS Lewis in his Chronicles of Narnia, puts together these two pictures of Jesus as the gentle and just king in a very beautiful way. The passage comes in the Voyage of the Dawn Treader, and at one point two of the children Lucy and Edmund are off on an adventure. They come to a grassy area, and the green of the grass stretches off into the blue horizon. But in the middle of this green blanket there is a white dot, and something is there which they cannot make out. So they go further forward until they can see what the white dot is, and they find it is a lamb, cooking a breakfast of fish. The lamb gives Edmund and Lucy the most delicious meal they have ever had, and as they are eating the children talk about how they can get to the land of Aslan, which in CS Lewis' imagery is heaven. And as the lamb explains the way, a wonderful thing happens. The white fleece of the lamb gradually turns golden and his size changes until he towers over the children as a huge lion, Aslan himself. It was Lewis' way of saying that the same gentle king who went to the cross as a lamb is the same one who is the just and victorious king, the one who will bring every knee to bow before him. We cannot treat this king lightly, nor can we treat our sin lightly. For Jesus hates sham religion, but he delights in humble service. So don't underestimate this king. He's the just king.
3) The Divine King (Vv 14-17)
But finally and briefly, Jesus is the divine king. Because we might be tempted to ask of Jesus: Jesus, where is your authority? What right do you have to come into Jerusalem on a donkey claiming to be the Messiah? What right do you have to overturn the tables in the Temple? Where's your authority?" Certainly it was a question the religious leaders wanted to ask him later in chapter 21. But actually Jesus gives the answer in the final verses of our passage. The children are crying out the song that the crowds have been singing: "Hosanna to the Son of David!" And the authorities are indignant. "Do you hear what these children are saying?" they ask Jesus in verse 16. The implication is: "Aren't you going to stop them, Jesus? Can't you hear they are chanting Messianic slogans about you, Jesus?" So how does he reply? Verse 16: "'Yes,' replied Jesus, 'have you never read, 'From the lips of children and infants you have ordained praise'?" It's a staggering enough reply as it is. Jesus is saying: "Oh, yes I can hear it! Let them praise all they want!" But the even more staggering thing is where Jesus quotes from. Again it's another hyperlink sending us back into the OT, this time to Psalm 8. And the staggering thing is that it is a Psalm about God himself. Jesus is applying language spoken of God to himself. Listen to what the psalmist writes: "O Lord, our God, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens. From the lips of children and infants you have ordained praise because of your enemies, to silence the foe and the avenger." Can you see what Jesus is saying? He's saying that he has the right to do these things, he has the right to receive such praise because he is actually God himself. He is the divine king. That's why he can ride into Jerusalem on a donkey, because it's his throne and his city and he is the rightful king. He is the divine King come to rule his world. That's why he can overturn tables in the Temple because he has come to his house. He is Lord of the Temple. As he says elsewhere, "One greater than the Temple is here!" That's where his authority comes from. He's not given it by God as if he's some under manager. No, he is the Lord himself in person in the flesh.
And such a staggering revelation can only mean one of two reactions. Either unholy indignation on the part of the leaders in verse 15. Or humble and joyful praise and adoration, like the children in verse 15. You can either turn from him in distaste, repulsed by his extraordinary claims to exclusive glory and honour and praise. Or you can bow at his feet and call him Lord. And those are the only two options the NT gives us. So which will it be? You see human Emperors and kings come and go. Bokassa I was eventually overturned in a coup, arrested, tried and found guilty of war crimes. He died a lonely, pitiful old man. Jesus is the King forever. For he alone is the gentle, just and divine king. And he is the one before whom we must bow the knee and say to him "my Lord and my God".
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