Title: Jesus & The Temple
Date: 20 Mar 2016 (Palm Sunday)
Well here we are again on Palm Sunday, the first day of the week that we now know as Holy Week; the day that saw the beginning of the end and the end of the beginning of the gospel story. The events of that first Palm Sunday were quite amazing with a lot happening in a seemingly short space of time. To get the full picture of all these events we need to look at quite a few passages of scripture in all four gospels together with a few verses in Isaiah. Over the next few minutes I propose to do just that, to look at what each of the gospel writers can add to the story and what they can tell us about another momentous day in Christian history.
No one tells us the precise timing of the various events of the day and so we have to work things out for ourselves. Given all that happened I would suggest that their day started shortly after sunrise with Jesus and His disciples walking into Jerusalem. As they approached the Mount of Olives somewhere near Bethphage and Bethany, Jesus sent two of the disciples on ahead to collect the colt for Him to ride on as He made His auspicious entry into Jerusalem. At first the disciples seemed sceptical that there would be a colt waiting for them as Jesus told them; however they were prepared to trust Him and do as He had told them. Sure enough; and no doubt much to their surprise, they found the colt and when challenged, the explanation that they were able to give satisfied the owner. God always has everything planned and is able to arrange things without our fully realising or understanding.
Having found the colt the disciples threw their cloaks over the colt’s back for Jesus to use as a makeshift saddle. As Jesus made His way down into Jerusalem crowds gathered to acclaim Him and as they did so some threw their cloaks onto the ground for the colt to walk over. Some cut or pulled down palm leaves from the nearby trees and used them as flags and banners to wave as Jesus approached. This must have been one amazing scene especially as the crowds praised God in loud voices when they all shouted and sang in unison. Luke reports the crowd as shouting, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” (Luke 19:38a); which is actually a quote from Psalm 118:26; before adding “Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!” (Luke 19:38b) which is similar to the words used by the heavenly host in Luke 2:14 after the birth of Jesus. Matthew reports similar words but adds that they also shouted, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” (Matthew 21:9a). That was quite a significant thing for them to shout since it indicated that they had come to believe that this Man Jesus was indeed the Messiah.
The crowd was excited and overjoyed at the prospect that Jesus might well be the long awaited and much needed Messiah. They had seen similar triumphant processions before when conquering Roman Generals returned from a victorious battle riding on great white chargers and led by proud soldiers. This event was similar only in that it was a procession with someone riding on an animal! Jesus came in on a colt not a charger; he was led by His disciples and the crowds; and He had not come in triumph in the way that Roman Generals generally did. This was a victory parade of a different hue.
Whilst the crowds may well have been excited and joyful, there was a group who didn’t share that joy. Luke tells us that the Pharisees were far from pleased hence their words to Jesus, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples!” (Luke 19:39). They felt that the crowds were being sacrilegious and blasphemous in the way that they behaved and greeted Jesus. They neither wanted nor liked someone challenging their position and authority. They were also worried that the actions of the crowds could lead to a revolt which was something that they were anxious to avoid since it could lead to the Roman army coming down on them. Notice Jesus’ response though to these increasingly angry Pharisees; “I tell you, if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out” (Luke 19:40). Jesus’ point being that there was no way that the Pharisees, or anyone else for that matter, could stop people from proclaiming Christ as King. Down the centuries there have been many attempts to silence Christians, something that is on the increase once again. All have failed just as any new attempts will also fail. The message of Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour will continue to ring out until He comes again.
Then there were those who had no idea just Who this person was. That frequently happens today when a so-called celebrity arrives somewhere surrounded by a huge entourage and crowds of photographers and journalists, and someone pipes up, “who’s that?” Matthew reports that that is exactly what happened with Jesus. He tells us that when Jesus entered Jerusalem, “the whole city was stirred up and asked, ‘Who is this?’” Others in the crowd answered that question for them, probably quite loudly, when they said “This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee” (Matthew 21:10-11).
As Jesus approached the city He looked down on Jerusalem in despair and wept at the sight of a grim and desolate city. He went on to prophesy the complete destruction of Jerusalem, something which did actually happen in 70 AD when, following a rebellion by the Jews, Roman soldiers laid siege to the city and burned it almost to the ground. As had happened in earlier times, and as we have seen in Nehemiah, this all happened because, as Jesus Himself said, “you did not recognise the time of God’s coming to you” (Luke 19:44b).
In The Temple
I’ve no doubt that the time between the end of the triumphant procession and arriving at the Temple was very short. However, the gospels seem to move a bit abruptly between the different parts of the story and it is now that we see three slightly different versions of the events in the Temple, although Luke and Matthew are quite similar. Mark gives us the impression that after the amazing entry, the day seems to have fizzled out a bit. He then adds the curious detail that Jesus entered the Temple, took a look around before leaving “since it was already late, He went out to Bethany with the Twelve” (Mark 11:11b). Luke goes into a bit more detail and tells us that Jesus entered the Temple area known as the court of the Gentiles which was the only place that non-Jews could go; and was upset at the site of all the traders going about their daily business in the temple area as if it was a market. Interestingly, and perhaps strangely for Jesus, He got angry and drove them out. As He did so He quoted Jeremiah 7:11 when He told them, “It is written, ‘My house will be a house of prayer’; but you have made it ‘a den of robbers’” (Luke 20:46). It is Matthew who gives us the most detail since he adds that Jesus “overturned the tables of the money-changers and the benches of those selling doves” (Matthew 21:12b). Just imagine the scene as He did that. There would have been money all over the floor and being blown in the wind; there would have been birds and feathers everywhere; and whilst we aren’t exactly told I’m sure that there would also have been livestock loose and running around. It would have been complete pandemonium with the traders wondering what on earth was going on. Again, we aren’t told in so many words but I’ve no doubt that they were there with the express permission and blessing of the Pharisees and Temple authorities. Jesus viewed things differently to them and He saw the Temple as a place of worship; however, true worship had obviously disappeared which is why Jesus showed His anger at religion without substance.
In his account of events, Matthew helpfully tells us that following this outburst, “The blind and the lame came to Him at the Temple, and he healed them.” (Matthew 21:14). This really displeased the Pharisees and their cohorts since Matthew also tells us that when they saw all this happening and heard what the people were saying, “They were indignant” (Matthew 21:15b), something which gives us a bit of a clue as to what was to come.
However, it is Luke’s account that I want to concentrate on for a few minutes because the events that he tells us of lead on to the growing plot against Jesus. Luke’s account seems to spread over more than one day, i.e. not just Palm Sunday. He tells us that “Every day he was teaching at the Temple” (Luke 19:47a). We know that this too angered the Pharisees and their colleagues since Luke adds in 20:1-2, “One day as he was teaching the people in the temple courts and preaching the gospel, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, together with the elders, came up to him. ‘Tell us by what authority you are doing these things," they said. "Who gave you this authority?’” Jesus always preached with an authority that the Pharisees and teachers of the law lacked and were probably envious of. This wasn’t simply because He was the Son of God but also because He preached the coming kingdom of heaven and His preaching favoured the poor and downtrodden. In preaching that way He fulfilled the prophecy that Isaiah made in Isaiah 61:1-3 when he said, God “has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favour and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion...” This was not what the Pharisees preached and it seems that in many ways they could be seen to be preaching a prosperity gospel, something which we hear all too often in today’s world. Their primary concerns were the wealthy and those who could provide the funds that they needed to maintain their own lifestyle.
All that Jesus said and did meant that “the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the leaders among the people” were far from happy, in fact they were “among the people [who] were trying to kill him” (Luke 20:1-2). They were no doubt worried about being usurped by this upstart preacher from Nazareth. Not only that, but, as I mentioned earlier, they were concerned that if a rebellion started as a result of Jesus’ preaching it would lead to the involvement of Rome, something which they were anxious to avoid at all costs. The question is though, who were these “leaders among the people”? Well, the group may have included the wealthy leaders in politics, commerce, and law, all of whom had a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. Luke had already told us that they “were trying to kill him”. This wasn’t a sudden desire; it was something that had been building up over quite a period of time. Matthew tells us of an incident on a Sabbath when Jesus and His disciples had been out and about. They were hungry and so picked ears of corn as they walked through a field. This offended the rule-laden Jews as it counted as work. Shortly after that Jesus went to the synagogue where He met and healed a man with a withered hand. The Pharisees were appalled by this and after a short, and no doubt heated conversation with Jesus, “...the Pharisees went out and plotted how they might kill Jesus.” (Matthew 12:14). In the passage in Luke 11 known as the six woes, Jesus attacked the experts in the law, “because you load people down with burdens they can hardly carry, and you yourselves will not lift one finger to help them” (Luke 11:46). Jesus’ comment may well have related to the purity laws which governed the synagogue and the Temple. These laws contained a long list of things that made people impure and therefore unable to enter their place of worship. In the main the only people who could afford to adhere to this multitude of rules and regulations were the wealthy. Food, accommodation, clothing, cooking utensils and bathing were all covered by these rules, which was why only the wealthy could afford to comply with them. I should also point out that so strict were these rules that the impure were not only prohibited from touching the Temple utensils but also from looking at them. As a result of all this we can see in Luke 11:53 the beginnings of the plot against Jesus when we read, “When Jesus went outside, the Pharisees and the teachers of the law began to oppose him fiercely...”
Palm Sunday was quite a busy day with a whole series of seemingly disconnected events taking place. Slowly but surely though everything would come together and reach a crescendo on Good Friday. For the rest of the week though Jesus continued teaching, preaching and upsetting the Pharisees to such an extent that their hatred of Him reached its dreadful conclusion. I mentioned a moment ago a verse in Luke 11 that talks of the Pharisees beginning their plot against Jesus. In his gospel Matthew also talks of that plot in Matthew 12:14 when he writes, “...the Pharisees went out and plotted how they might kill Jesus.” That plotting grew and grew until we read later in Matthew 26:3-4, “Then the chief priests and the elders of the people assembled in the palace of the high priest, whose name was Caiaphas, and they schemed to arrest Jesus secretly and kill him.” It was this plot that led to the events late in the evening on the Thursday, then through the night and on to Friday morning. We will consider some of those events on Friday.
Whilst the incredible events of Palm Sunday didn’t directly lead to the Pharisees’ plot against Jesus, they did oil the wheels and increase the pace at which the Pharisees stirred up the previously pro Jesus crowds to turn against Him and call for His crucifixion.
The amazing thing is that through all this turmoil, Jesus knew what was coming; He knew what was going to happen and yet still went ahead with what His heavenly Father had planned for Him. It is good to enjoy the wonderful reception that Jesus had on that first Palm Sunday but we also need to be mindful of the activities of the Pharisees and others as they plotted against Jesus, the Son of God. It would be good if we could all meditate on these thoughts.