Christ the King, Priest, and Judge: Matthew 21:1-22


Matthew’s account of the incarnate birth of our Lord opens with a series of fulfilled prophecies intended to convey one message: this is the child Son of God. In the same way Christ enters Jerusalem and approaches his crucifixion and resurrection replete with prophetic fulfillments of Scripture testifying that Jesus is the King of the Jews.

These three events set up the events that lead up to the cross:

  1. Jesus enters Jerusalem on a donkey as her King
  2. Jesus cleanses the temple as the High-Priestly Messenger of the New Covenant
  3. Jesus pronounces judgment upon disobedient and wicked Jerusalem as her Judge

Jesus Enters Jerusalem

Jesus enters Jerusalem as a king unlike any other king; gentle and humble.

Verses 1-3: The King’s Authority

Matthew 21:1-5 (CSB) When they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage at the Mount of Olives, Jesus then sent two disciples, telling them, “Go into the village ahead of you. At once you will find a donkey tied there with her foal. Untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, say that the Lord needs them, and he will send them at once.”

John’s gospel (12:1-10) tells us that Jesus sent his disciples into Bethany to find the donkey that he would ride into Jerusalem.

Jesus exercises his right and authority as King to demand the donkey from the villageman from Bethany in a way that strikes me as a reminder of who Jesus is:

Psalm 24:1 (CSB) The earth and everything in it, the world and its inhabitants, belong to the Lord

This simple demand suddenly confronts us with two realities:

  1. The earth and everything in it belong to God
  2. The Lord has the right to require even our essential possessions from us

Verses 4-7: See Your King

This took place so that what was spoken through the prophet might be fulfilled: Tell Daughter Zion, “See, your King is coming to you, gentle, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” 6 The disciples went and did just as Jesus directed them. They brought the donkey and its foal; then they laid their clothes on them, and he sat on them

By entering Jerusalem on the donkey – having performed so many accompanying signs and wonders – Jesus is telling Israel plainly that he is their King using a prophecy that they knew well and had accepted as Messianic:

Zechariah 9:9 (NASB) Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion!  Shout in triumph, O daughter of Jerusalem!  Behold, your king is coming to you; He is just and endowed with salvation, Humble, and mounted on a donkey, Even on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

There is meaning in the manner of Christ’s entrance into Jerusalem:

  1. In Palestine, donkeys were sometimes ridden by rulers in times of peace (Judges 5:10; 1st Kings 1:33; contrast Jesus riding the white horse in Revelation 19:11).
  2. Jesus was showing himself as their Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6; Romans 5:1-2)

There is also meaning in Matthew omitting the words “righteous and having salvation” from the prophecy; he is stressing to those who wanted the conquering King to deliver them from Rome that he is coming in humility as the suffering servant to deliver them from their sins.

Verses 8-9: Hosanna in the Highest

A very large crowd spread their clothes on the road; others were cutting branches from the trees and spreading them on the road. Then the crowds who went ahead of him and those who followed shouted: Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!

There seem to be two crowds:

  • The Galilean pilgrims entering Jerusalem began to follow behind Christ
  • The Jerusalem crowd that came out to meet Christ in front (John 12:12)

Their shouts made no secret of their belief that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah, now coming to set up his reign in Israel’s capital.

Their words of praise come primarily from Psalm 118:25–26, which had become a liturgical invocation of blessing used in Israel during the Feast of Tabernacles and the Passover:

Psalm 118:25-26 (CSB) Lord, save us! Lord, please grant us success! 26 He who comes in the name of the Lord is blessed. From the house of the Lord we bless you.

“Hosanna” transliterates the Hebrew expression that was originally a cry for salvation, meaning “Save, Please!

This may be heard as:

  • “Salvation belongs to the Son of David”
  • “Salvation comes from the highest heaven”

The crowd saw Jesus as their messiah-figure and expected him to become their conquering king (cf. John 6:15); they wanted him to deliver them from the oppression of Rome and renew the kingdom of Israel, but it was far harder for them to grasp that his mission was to deliver them from their sins:

Matthew 1:21 (CSB) She will give birth to a son, and you are to name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.

Matthew 20:28 (CSB) just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.

This is always our greatest struggle when King Jesus comes into our heart: we always want him to deliver us from some external enemy like “disease”, “poverty”, or “suffering”, but Jesus came to deliver us from our bondage to sin and redeem us as the royal priesthood of God!

They could not foresee the mission of the Son of Man; we also sometimes struggle to see this mission.

Luke offers us an important insight into Christ’s entrance into Jerusalem:

Luke 19:41-44 (CSB) As he approached and saw the city, he wept for it, 42 saying, “If you knew this day what would bring peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes. 43 For the days will come on you when your enemies will build a barricade around you, surround you, and hem you in on every side. 44 They will crush you and your children among you to the ground, and they will not leave one stone on another in your midst, because you did not recognize the time when God visited you.”

Jesus is entering Jerusalem as their Prince of Peace to answer their Hosanna-cries, but they do not understand the cost of their peace, nor what they really need to be saved from.

Verses 10-11: Who is This?

When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in an uproar, saying, “Who is this?” 11 The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”

They did not understand Zechariah’s message because what they expected of their king was not what their King came to give.

Cleansing the Temple

The temple was viewed as the gracious gift of God’s presence and the center of all religious life and worship: it was holy.

The temple was composed of inner and outer courts that were appointed for various services of worship; the merchants and tradesmen, who were providing a vital service to the temple by selling animals for the sacrifices to the Jewish pilgrims making their pilgrimages to Jerusalem, were setting themselves up in the outer courts called the “Courts of the Gentiles”.

Verse 12: Jesus Enters the Temple

Jesus went into the temple, and threw out all those buying and selling. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the chairs of those selling doves.

The temple was to be “a house of prayer for all nations”:

Isaiah 56:7-8 (CSB) I will bring them to my holy mountain and let them rejoice in my house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be acceptable on my altar, for my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.” This is the declaration of the Lord God, who gathers the dispersed of Israel: “I will gather to them still others besides those already gathered.”

Yet the one place reserved for Gentiles was being taken from them and used for profit as a marketplace to sell the sacrifices.

We must note that their sin was not that they were selling sacrifices to the pilgrims coming to Jerusalem for the Passover; these pilgrims often could not bring their own animals for sacrifice and needed to buy the proper sacrifices from somewhere.  Their sin was that they turned the Court of the Gentiles into a marketplace and crowded out the gentiles from “the house of prayer” in order to facilitate commerce, which should have been done in the markets and not the temple.

Jesus enters the temple in judgment against what the priests had done:

Malachi 3:1-3a, 5 (CSB) “See, I am going to send my messenger, and he will clear the way before me. Then the Lord you seek will suddenly come to his temple, the Messenger of the covenant you delight in—see, he is coming,” says the Lord of Armies. But who can endure the day of his coming? And who will be able to stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire and like launderer’s bleach. He will be like a refiner and purifier of silver…

“I will come to you in judgment, and I will be ready to witness against sorcerers and adulterers; against those who swear falsely; against those who oppress the hired worker, the widow, and the fatherless; and against those who deny justice to the resident alien. They do not fear me,” says the Lord of Armies.

When Jesus enters his temple, he enters as a judge and refiner to establish holiness in the temple.

We are the Lord’s temple in which the Holy Spirit dwells:

1st Corinthians 6:19-20 (CSB) Don’t you know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, 20 for you were bought at a price. So glorify God with your body.

Therefore, Peter warns:

1st Peter 4:17 (CSB) For the time has come for judgment to begin with God’s household, and if it begins with us, what will the outcome be for those who disobey the gospel of God?

When Jesus enters his temple, he judges it and drives out every impurity that defiles his temple.  We who call upon the name of the Lord are his temple and we must be prepared for Christ to overturn the defilements of our heart when he enters and not be offended when he disrupts our temple!

Verses 13-14: The House of Prayer

He said to them, “It is written, my house will be called a house of prayer, but you are making it a den of thieves!” 14 The blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he healed them.

The temple was the dwelling place of God and the gracious gift of his presence among his people, yet the people had disregarded the holiness of the temple and were bringing the common-place market into the temple, crowding out the place of worship that God had given to the gentiles.

Jesus draws his rebuke from the prophet Jeremiah:

Jeremiah 7:1-11 (CSB) This is the word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: “Stand in the gate of the house of the Lord and there call out this word: ‘Hear the word of the Lord, all you people of Judah who enter through these gates to worship the Lord.

“‘This is what the Lord of Armies, the God of Israel, says: Correct your ways and your actions, and I will allow you to live in this place. Do not trust deceitful words, chanting, “This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.” Instead, if you really correct your ways and your actions, if you act justly toward one another,, if you no longer oppress the resident alien, the fatherless, and the widow and no longer shed innocent blood in this place or follow other gods, bringing harm on yourselves, I will allow you to live in this place, the land I gave to your ancestors long ago and forever. But look, you keep trusting in deceitful words that cannot help.

“‘Do you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, burn incense to Baal, and follow other gods that you have not known? 10 Then do you come and stand before me in this house that bears my name and say, “We are rescued, so we can continue doing all these detestable acts”? 11 Has this house, which bears my name, become a den of robbers in your view? Yes, I too have seen it.

This is the Lord’s declaration.

What were they robbing by continuing to do all these detestable acts?

Romans 12:1 (CSB) Therefore, brothers and sisters, in view of the mercies of God, I urge you to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God; this is your true worship.

They were robbing God of the honor and holiness due his name that dwells in his temple.

They thought they were free to practice all these kinds of abominable acts and still enter Yahweh’s temple to worship his name there because they had trusted in deceitful words that gave them false confidence.

Likewise in our day, many deceitful words have led us to imagine that we are free to continue to practice sin and still worship the Lord as the dwelling place of his holy name. This is not so, and Jesus enters the temple to restore holiness and honor to God:

Leviticus 10:3 (CSB) Then Moses said to Aaron, “It is what the Lord spoke, saying, ‘By those who come near Me I will be treated as holy, and before all the people I will be honored.’”

Verses 15-17: They Were Indignant

When the chief priests and the scribes saw the wonders that he did and the children shouting in the temple, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” they were indignant 16 and said to him, “Do you hear what these children are saying?” Jesus replied, “Yes, have you never read: You have prepared praise from the mouths of infants and nursing babies?” 17 Then he left them, went out of the city to Bethany, and spent the night there.

The chief priests and scribes saw Jesus healing the blind and lame, and became indignant:

  • ἀγανακτέω (aganakteō): “to have much grief”; primarily meaning “to feel a violent irritation, physically”

They were filled with great grief and visceral irritation because they felt like they were losing control; the crowds were “buying into” someone who they were adamantly opposed to, and they probably felt helpless and didn’t know how to stop him.

The crowd’s words fulfilled the testimony of Scripture regarding him:

Psalm 8:2 (NET) From the mouths of children and nursing babies you have ordained praise on account of your adversaries, so that you might put an end to the vindictive enemy.

The Barren Fig Tree

The disciples stayed in Bethany and traveled each day back to Jerusalem, and as they were traveling back to Jerusalem in the morning, Jesus enacts a parable for the disciples.

We should note that this narrative follows the same pattern as Jesus’ other verbal parables:

  • Story
  • Explanation

This is a visible-parable:

  • Action
  • Explanation

Jesus is not exercising a pointless act of power in frustration, but rather, he is demonstrating a parable to them that is meant to explain the events that are about to unfold in Jerusalem.

Verses 18-19: A Parable Enacted

Early in the morning, as he was returning to the city, he was hungry. 19 Seeing a lone fig tree by the road, he went up to it and found nothing on it except leaves. And he said to it, “May no fruit ever come from you again!” At once the fig tree withered.

In Mark’s gospel we find out that the tree was barren because it was not the season for figs (Mark 11:13).

Jesus’ actions here are meant to be surprising because he knew it was not fig-season; he is taking advantage of the shock to communicate a point.

Luke provides us the verbal form of this parable:

Luke 13:6-9 (CSB) And he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree that was planted in his vineyard. He came looking for fruit on it and found none. He told the vineyard worker, ‘Listen, for three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree and haven’t found any. Cut it down! Why should it even waste the soil?’ “But he replied to him, ‘Sir, leave it this year also, until I dig around it and fertilize it. Perhaps it will produce fruit next year, but if not, you can cut it down.’”

Israel has not borne the fruit of righteousness for her King as she ought.  Therefore, Jesus is coming to Israel, God’s fig-tree, according to the word of the prophet Jeremiah:

Jeremiah 8:13 (CSB) I will gather them and bring them to an end. This is the Lord’s declaration. There will be no grapes on the vine, no figs on the fig tree, and even the leaf will wither. Whatever I have given them will be lost to them.

He is announcing according to John the Baptist’s word that he is laying the ax to Israel because they have not bore the fruit of righteousness:

Matthew 3:10 (CSB) The ax is already at the root of the trees. Therefore, every tree that doesn’t produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.

Matthew’s gospel account of the barren fig tree both heralds the coming destruction of Jerusalem for her stubborn rebellion against God and forecasts deep into Church history that God will destroy the barren tree:

John 15:1-2 (CSB) I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. 2 Every branch in me that does not produce fruit he removes, and he prunes every branch that produces fruit so that it will produce more fruit.

Abide in Christ and we will bare fruit, but anyone who does not bare fruit will be cut off from the vine because they are not abiding in Christ.

Verses 20-22: The Fruitfulness of Faith

When the disciples saw it, they were amazed and said, “How did the fig tree wither so quickly?” 21 Jesus answered them, “Truly I tell you, if you have faith and do not doubt, you will not only do what was done to the fig tree, but even if you tell this mountain, ‘Be lifted up and thrown into the sea,’ it will be done. 22 And if you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.”

The cure for fruitlessness is faith.

Saint Augustine wrote the following:

Augustine: Now in order to convey this truth the Lord acted prophetically. By this I mean that in reference to the fig tree, it was not his will merely to exhibit a miracle but rather through this sign to convey an intimation of that which was to come. He often taught and persuaded us by such means. So even when our wills resist, he persuades us and brings us to faith.

Jesus’ lesson to us is that fruitlessness is the result of faithlessness:

2nd Timothy 4:2-5 (CSB) Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; rebuke, correct, and encourage with great patience and teaching. For the time will come when people will not tolerate sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, will multiply teachers for themselves because they have an itch to hear what they want to hear. They will turn away from hearing the truth and will turn aside to myths. But as for you, exercise self-control in everything, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.

Therefore, regardless of the season, Jesus expects his Church to bear fruit by faith.

  • We may be small, but we will bear fruit by faith
  • We may be in an oppressed nation, but we will bear fruit by faith
  • We may be in a godless nation, but we will bear fruit by faith

Even when the time comes when people refuse to tolerate sound doctrine – a time that I feel is fast-approaching – we are called on to fulfill our ministry and bear fruit in Christ by faith.


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