Matthew 21:1-11 records Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, ‘the city of the great king’, the holy city, the city where the worship of God was centred – the place of sacrifice, of priesthood, of prayer.
The scene that Matthew records was anticipated in Zechariah 9:9:
‘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.’
And in Psalm 118:26-27:
‘Blessed is he who comes
in the name of the Lord.
From the house of the Lord
we bless you...
With boughs in hand,
join in the festal procession
up to the horns of the altar.’
Jesus, the King, rides into Jerusalem. The people recognise him as the one who fulfils these prophecies. They see that he is a king, but their thoughts are full of the tyranny of Rome and the expected Davidic king who will re-establish the nation of Israel, rescuing them from their oppressors. Beyond this they do not see. They do not perceive that this king whom they acclaim with shouts and with praises is far more than an earthly king. They do not connect this man with another prophecy from the Psalms:
‘Lift up your heads, O you gates;
be lifted up, you ancient doors,
that the King of glory may come in.
Who is this King of glory?
The LORD strong and mighty,
the LORD mighty in battle.
Lift up your heads, O you gates;
lift them up, you ancient doors,
that the King of glory may come in.
Who is he, this King of glory?
The LORD Almighty-
he is the King of glory.’ Psalm 24:7-10.
Jesus came as king. Not as a national king to rescue the Jews from Rome, but as the King of glory, the Lord Almighty.
He entered through the gates of Jerusalem, the City of God. He entered through the gates of the Temple, the House of God, the house of prayer. But even there, there in the Temple, where everything from the splendour of the High Priest to the repulsion of the blood-stained altar speaks of who he is and what he does, even there he is not recognised, even there where everything was at the same time both a prophecy and a prayer for his coming. There in the Temple he exercises his divine authority, and there in the Temple he and his authority are rejected. The teachers of the law and the priests do not see that there, standing among them, is the King of glory.
• He is the ultimate King with the ultimate authority
• He is the ultimate Priest, whose priestly mediation makes all the priests who serve in the temple redundant
• He is the ultimate sacrifice whose offering of himself is the one true and final sacrifice to which all others pointed and from which all others took their power. By his one once-for-all sacrifice he does away with all temple sacrifices.
• He is the ultimate and final self-revelation of God: he is God with us. By his presence the temple, that earthly symbol of his presence, likewise becomes redundant.
Here is Jesus, the ultimate reality, the ultimate truth, the ultimate God, standing in and beside these lesser things that are mere copies and symbols of his presence and his grace, and he is not recognized, he is not known.
Matthew places an incident involving a fig tree between his records of two visits Jesus made to the temple (Matthew 21:18-22). In both of these visits Jesus is rejected by those who are supposed to be God’s people, by those from whom it would have been reasonable to have expected the fruit of acceptance and faith. The fig tree incident speaks of this rejection of the King. This is confirmed by his teaching in the two parables recorded in Matthew 21:28-46. It is also the focus of the parable in Matthew 22:1-14.
The King came.
But he didn’t fit the limited perceptions of who the King would be. He didn’t fit the false expectations of what the King would do.
And so we rejected him. In our ignorance, in our self-centred, man-focused, earth-bound perceptions and expectations we humans cast aside the Lord of glory, we humans despised the one true God, we humans trampled underfoot the One on whom our every physical breath and our eternal destiny depends.
The ultimate tragedy has here taken place and is about to unfold in a dreadful and dramatic way.
But God is at work even here, even in this tragedy, transcending it, transforming it, bringing to fulfilment his eternal purpose, placarding before us the ultimate manifestation of his love and his grace.