XI. Ministry in Jerusalem (Matthew 21:1–23:39)

21:1-7 As he approached Jerusalem, Jesus sent two disciples to find a donkey and its colt, untie them, and deliver them to him (21:1-3). Matthew then tells us that this fulfilled the prophecy of Zechariah, declaring to Jerusalem that her King would come riding on a donkey (21:4-5; see Zech 9:9). His disciples obeyed, and Jesus saddled up (21:6-7).

22:29-33 They thought they’d tripped him up, but they were mistaken because they didn’t know the Scriptures or the power of God (22:29). First, Jesus explained that people don’t marry in the resurrection, but are eternal like angels (22:30). Second, Jesus quoted God’s words to Moses: I am the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob (22:32; see Exod 3:6). In other words, though Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were physically dead even back in Moses’s day, he was still their God. Spiritually speaking, they are very much alive: God is not the God of the dead, but of the living (22:32). Once again, the crowds were astonished (22:33).

22:34-36 Jesus’s opponents weren’t ready to give up yet. He had silenced the Sadducees, so the Pharisees decided to have another go (22:34). One of them who happened to be an expert in the law asked, Teacher, which command in the law is the greatest? (22:35-36).

22:37-38 Jesus wasted no time identifying the greatest and most important command by quoting from Deuteronomy 6:5: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind (22:37-38). God’s entire law, in fact, can be reduced to this. At their core, the Ten Commandments are really a command to love God. While we frequently associate love with a feeling, it must be more than that because it’s something that can be commanded.

God wants a relationship with you. He wants you to love him, to passionately and righteously pursue his glory. So what does loving God look like? It requires all of your heart, soul, and mind—in other words, your entire being. Some of us Christians love God with some rather than with all, yet we want all of God. But you can’t love God some and love the world some because these two are antithetical to one another (see 1 John 2:15). God will not share you with anyone. Your love for him must be comprehensive.

It’s easy to say, “I love God,” but words can be cheap. So remember, love for God is consistently expressed when you obey his commands (see John 14:15; 1 John 5:3). Align your decisions with his expectations.

22:39 Then Jesus answered a question the Pharisee didn’t ask. The command that ranks second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself (see Lev 19:18). Why does Jesus mention this command? Because you can’t obey number one without obeying number two and vice-versa. To love your neighbor is the decision to compassionately and righteously pursue his or her well-being. The two commands, then, are inseparable (see 1 John 4:20–5:2).

Do you want to draw closer to God? Help someone else draw closer to God. When you love others, God will boomerang it back to you and provide you with a deeper experience of him.

22:40 All the Law and the Prophets depend on these two commands means all of God’s commands are included in the first and second greatest commands. Fulfill these, through Christ, and you’ll fulfill them all.

22:41-46 After a barrage of questions from different religious leaders, Jesus had a question of his own for the Pharisees about the Messiah: Whose son is he? They rightly replied that Messiah would come from the line of David (22:41-42). However, Jesus pointed out that in Psalm 110:1 David calls the Messiah, Lord (22:43-44). If the Messiah was merely David’s descendant, why would David refer to him as his Lord—as his Master? The opposite would be expected.

Inspired by the Spirit when he wrote the Psalm (22:43), David confessed that the Messiah would be more than his son (22:45). He would be divine. Though he would be fully human, a descendant of King David, he would also be fully God. The view of the Jewish leaders, though, was that the Messiah would be merely human—not divine. It was Jesus’s claim of deity that would lead to his rejection and crucifixion (26:57-68). The Pharisees were obviously stunned by Jesus’s words, unable to understand, and unable to answer. So no one dared to question him further (22:46).

23:1-4 When all those who tried to trick him with their questions were gone, Jesus spoke to the crowds and his disciples to warn them about the scribes and the Pharisees (23:1-2). They were good at telling others what to do but not good at carrying those instructions out themselves: They don’t practice what they teach (23:3). They were hypocrites. Instead of helping to relieve the burdens of others, the Pharisees weighed them down with burdens (23:4).

23:5 Everything the Pharisees did was for show; they wanted to be seen by others. They wanted observers to see how holy they looked regardless of how dirty and ugly they were on the inside. Phylacteries were small boxes containing copies of Scripture verses that were tied to the arm or the head and were worn as reminders to pray. Tassels were on the edges of prayer shawls. The Pharisees wore supersized versions of these items to impress people. They were like walking religious billboards, proclaiming to everyone, “Look how holy I am!”

23:6-7 The Pharisees didn’t want to practice their righteous deeds (such as giving to the poor, praying, and fasting) “in secret” (6:1-6; 16-18). They wanted people to see them in action. The front seats in the synagogues allowed them to be the focus of attention at gatherings and being called, Rabbi, stroked their egos.

It’s not wrong to honor others. Paul said to give honor to whom honor is owed (Rom 13:7) and to “give recognition to those who labor among you . . . in the Lord” (1 Thess 5:12). But it’s another thing altogether to love being honored and to seek it for yourself. The scribes and Pharisees thought too highly of themselves (see Rom 12:3).

23:8-10 In light of the Pharisees’ behavior, Jesus told his followers not to get wrapped up in being called by titles of honor, for we are all brothers and sisters of one another. There is one Father and one Messiah to whom we owe all honor (23:8, 10). We have different roles and job descriptions, but we’re all equal in value before the Lord.

No matter the position a brother in Christ holds, he’s still your brother. You can take a one-hundred-dollar bill, crumple it up, and rub it in the dirt. When you’re finished, it may not look attractive but it’s still worth the same as when you started.

23:11-12 There is to be no elitism in the family of God, and the cure for elitism is servanthood (23:11). When was the last time you served someone—someone who couldn’t do anything for you in return? That’s what Jesus did. The eternal Son of God became a servant to save those who couldn’t save themselves (see Phil 2:5-8). As a result, God the Father exalted him (Phil 2:9-11). And that’s what Jesus promises his disciples: Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted (23:12).

23:13-15 In 23:13-36, Matthew presents Jesus’s declarations of judgment to the scribes and Pharisees. To say, Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees is to pronounce condemnation on them. These men had rejected the kingdom of heaven through Jesus Christ, and, as a result, they were preventing others from receiving him too (23:13). They were blocking the way of salvation. Now, that doesn’t mean they weren’t religious. In fact, they were extremely zealous about their religious practices and would travel far and wide to make Pharisee converts. But by exhorting others to practice external religion without internal spirituality, they hindered them from true salvation and simply made them fit for hell (23:15).

23:16-22 Jesus explained how the Pharisees made false distinctions between different kinds of oaths. They considered some oaths binding and some not, but any oath made before God should be kept. Whether someone swore by the sanctuary or the altar, the temple was all God’s house. The Pharisees were deceptive and served as blind guides to all who followed them (23:16).

23:23-24 The scribes and Pharisees proudly paid a tenth of their possessions—even of tiny things like spices. However, while focusing on these minute details, they would neglect the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy, and faithfulness (23:23). They would major on the minors, and minor on the majors. Jesus’s illustration is vivid: You strain out a gnat, but gulp down a camel (23:24).

23:25-26 The men were consumed with external appearances and rituals but not with the internal condition of their hearts. They cleaned their outsides, but inside they were full of greed and self-indulgence (23:25). Be warned: when your chief concern is being seen and accepted by men, you’ll concentrate on making a good outward impression while ignoring the corruption inside of you. But if you seek to please God above all by cleaning the dirt from your heart, clean actions will follow (23:26).

23:27-28 Whitewashed tombs refers to the practice of painting tombs white so that they looked beautiful. On the inside, though, pretty tombs were still full of . . . bones (23:27). No matter how much you decorate the exterior of a grave, the interior still contains death. Similarly, the Pharisees seemed righteous to people on the outside, but on the inside they had wicked motives and desires (23:28).

23:29-32 The scribes and Pharisees were hypocrites. They built tombs of the prophets and decorated the graves of the righteous (23:29), quickly claiming that they wouldn’t have joined with their forefathers who killed the Old Testament-era prophets (23:30). Yet, at the same time, they were rejecting the Messiah and planning to murder him! In truth, they were just like those who had gone before them and murdered the prophets (23:31).

23:33-36 In spite of all that he’d said against the scribes and Pharisees, Jesus wasn’t done: Snakes! Brood of vipers! How can you escape being condemned to hell? (23:33). Since the scribes and Pharisees continued to reject the truth, their destiny would be eternal judgment. Jesus predicted that they would kill those whom he would send. In the same way that Abel and Zechariah were martyred by unbelievers, so the Pharisees would martyr the righteous believers in Jesus Christ (23:34-35).

23:37-39 After his outburst of righteous anger against the religious leaders (23:13-36), Jesus lamented over Jerusalem, the capital city of Israel and home of God’s temple. Though it ought to have been a holy city devoted to the Lord, those within her gates slayed the servants of God sent to her (23:37).

Unlike chicks that naturally run to a hen during times of danger, the religious leaders were not running to their Messiah (23:37). Eventually the city and temple would be besieged and destroyed by the Romans. However, Jesus would return one day. Quoting Psalm 118:26 (23:39), Jesus announced that he would depart but promised he would come back. This moment was the time of his rejection. On that day, however, he will come to establish his millennial kingdom.

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