Episode 123 - Passion Week: Tuesday, part 5
Hey I’m Josh Hawkins, this is Episode 123 of Opening Up the Gospels. I finished the last episode by looking at some of the final words of Jesus’ in the Temple on Tuesday of Passion Week. He had spent much of the day silencing the chief priests, elders, Pharisees, Sadducees, and Herodians. He had openly and boldly declared His identity as the long-awaited Messiah and the God of Israel to them. He sought the fruits of repentance one last time, and sadly, did not find it among the leadership, the representatives of God’s chosen nation. In today’s episode, I want to look back at Matthew’s record of the woes spoken to the scribes and Pharisees as well as Jesus’ words about the destruction of the Temple and the signs of His coming and the end of the age. Let’s read a little from Matthew 23:
"Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger. They do all their deeds to be seen by others. For they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long, and they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces and being called rabbi by others. But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers. And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. Neither be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Christ. The greatest among you shall be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted."
(Matthew 23:1–12 ESV)
After Jesus had finished debating with the Jewish authorities and the religious leaders, He turns to the crowds and to His disciples and warns them strongly about the hypocrisy demonstrated by those who claim to obey the Law and represent the people before God. He said that they “sit in Moses’ seat”, which was an actual chair in the synagogues that stood for the authority that Moses had in interpreting the Law. Even though they had this authority, Jesus is exhorting his disciples to obey what Moses said, but not all of the extra things that the Pharisees have set up for themselves and are doing. Remember what I talked about back in Episode 55 and 93 - the Pharisees had set up a “fence” around the Law - a set of new traditions and rules and regulations to ensure that they would never break the Law itself. By trying to force the people to obey their traditions and not actually helping them to obey the Law was like giving the people a heavy backpack to walk around with. The demands of the scribes and Pharisees were impossible for the people. In their boasting, they wore on their foreheads and left arms these leather pouches called phylacteries that carried strips of parchment with Old Testament verses. They made these large and noticeable so as to be seen by others. They love to be seen and they love the praise and recognition of man. But Jesus encourages His disciples to not be like them. He was the one authoritative guide for His followers. The Pharisees and those who exalt themselves would be humbled, and Jesus’ followers, as they humbled themselves in submission to Him and to His service, would be exalted on the day He returns.
Now the next part of this passage in Matthew’s Gospel, verses 13 through 36, is a severe denouncement of the Pharisees, their doctrine, and their practice. There are seven woes Matthew records here, which in Judaism was the number of completeness. These woes are strong and scathing and represent Jesus’ controversy with the religious in Israel. He exposes their hypocritical ways and leaves no stone unturned. You can read the verses in Matthew 23 on your own, but let’s take a look at each of the woes briefly. First, Jesus says that the teachers and Pharisees shut the kingdom in men’s faces. Instead of pointing the people of Israel to repentance as the means to inherit God’s promises, they point the people to themselves and their practices, which keeps them from repenting and inheriting the kingdom at all. Second, Jesus says that the Pharisees go through so much effort to get new disciples, but instead of bringing them to repentance, they make them even more evil and hypocritical than they are as they called them to obey their traditions more zealously than they. Wow. Third, Jesus begins to point out the character of the leaders and the effect that it has on themselves. He calls them “blind guides” and said that when they made oaths, they would swear by important things like the Temple or the altar of the Temple, yet the oath would mean nothing to them. Though they made an oath and outwardly it would seem like it would be binding on them, they had no real inward intention of keeping it. But then they swear by the gold of the Temple or the gift on the altar, and they say they would then be bound by the oath. Of course the gold is not greater than the Temple and the gift not greater than the altar. These distinctions were clearly deceptive and dishonest. Fourthly, the Pharisees would give back to the Temple a tithe - a percentage of all of their possessions. Though they were obeying Leviticus 27:30 in that respect, they were completely neglecting other things the Law required - like justice, mercy, and faithfulness. Fifthly, as I’ve talked about before, the Pharisees were so concerned with outward purity before God and others. However, they neglected their hearts. Jesus said that they were full of greed and self-indulgence. Sixth, Jesus calls the Pharisees and teachers of the Law “whitewashed tombs”. A custom of the day was to paint the outside of tombs white so that they would appear beautiful. But on the inside, there’s nothing but decaying flesh and bones. The Pharisees were the same way - beautiful on the outside, but corrupt and dead on the inside, full of wickedness. And the final woe also follows this same theme of tombs and graves. They often honor the righteous men throughout Israel’s history, and they say that they would never have participated in the killing of the prophets. But Jesus knew they were already in the process of planning His death. They would be just like the former generations of leadership who killed the prophets. Jesus concludes His condemnation by saying that just as the former generations in which the righteous were killed all experienced the curses of the covenant, so too would this generation. They’re no different than their ancestors were. Well, let’s read a couple of verses that conclude this section from Matthew 23:
“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you desolate. For I tell you, you will not see me again, until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’ ” Jesus left the temple and was going away, when his disciples came to point out to him the buildings of the temple. But he answered them, “You see all these, do you not? Truly, I say to you, there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.”
(Matthew 23:37–24:2 ESV)
In this final lament over the city that one day He would gloriously rule from as the Messiah, He expresses His longing for the city and the whole nation to be gathered and turn back to the Lord their God. Though they would be struck down and scattered in line with the covenantal curses, Jesus was not finished with Jerusalem and the people of Israel. One day, they will quote Psalm 118 verse 26 and say “blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord”. A yet future day is coming when the people of Israel will repent, acknowledge Jesus of Nazareth as their Messiah and their God, and walk in the role set out for them - to be the nation of servant kings through which all the other nations would be blessed.
Jesus then departs from the Temple, having completed His debates with the leaders and closing His public ministry. He’s headed to Bethany for the evening by the way of the Mount of Olives, just as He had done the previous couple of nights. And the words Jesus just spoke about the destruction of the Temple were still fresh in His disciples’ ears. So if the Temple was going to be destroyed and the nation scattered, how could Jesus be the Messiah and rule from Jerusalem as the Scriptures foretold? Well, Matthew 24, Mark 13, and Luke 21 give us a record of Jesus’ words to the disciples about what the future held for them. These chapters have been known throughout church history as “The Olivet Discourse” because Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives looking back at the Temple when He spoke these words. In the Olivet Discourse, Jesus talks about the destruction of the Temple as well as His coming and the end of the age. This passage has been the subject of much debate in the church over the years. I don’t intend to detail all of the different positions for you. But the questions that have been raised have to do with how much the destruction of the Temple in 70AD by the Romans “fulfilled” Jesus’ words. Did He “come” in 70AD? Is this only a prophecy about the future? What is the “great tribulation”? Should we interpret the signs Jesus gives literally or symbolically? I want to set all of those questions aside and make a few foundational points that I think are not considered enough when examining this passage. First, Jesus spent two years seeking the fruits of repentance from His chosen people. The majority of the nation refused to repent, especially the leadership. Jesus uncompromisingly condemns the Pharisees, teachers of the Law, and Jewish authorities for their stewardship of the Law and the Temple. Second, God had not cast off His people and abandoned His covenants with them. There were tax collectors and sinners who were actually repenting, not to mention the Twelve who would go on to become the Jewish apostles. The division Jesus brought to Israel showed that there was a small remnant who would continue to be the recipients of the promises God made to Abraham’s descendants. Also, the curses of the covenant, as set forth in Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28, would come upon the nation for their disobedience. This is why the Temple would be destroyed and the nation would be scattered. Fourthly, there would be a delay in the establishment of the Messiah’s kingdom. Jesus’ followers must be prepared for difficulty and persecution. False signs would arise to deceive people into believing that someone else besides Jesus was the Messiah and that they would bring to pass God’s promises. And finally, the Messiah’s kingdom would not be established by the strength of man. God alone would establish it from the heavens. The coming of the Messiah would not be a secret - He would come, restore his chosen people Israel back to the land as the prophets have promised, and reign gloriously.
Now all of these things that Jesus said are supported by the Law and the Prophets and His own words earlier in the Gospels. Jesus is not introducing a new story here. He’s not saying that His coming will happen in 70AD and that a new spiritual Israel would be eventually brought to a heavenly home. He’s not talking about a secret rapture of the church before a 7 year tribulation. There’s just so much baggage that’s been hanging off this passage, but I think it’s pretty easy to understand with the larger backdrop of the Gospels in view. Jesus is talking about the destruction of the Temple and the scattering of the Jewish nation in line with the covenantal curses. His coming to rule and reign from Jerusalem as they expected would be delayed, but it would still come apocalyptically - in other words, by God’s power alone and not by the strength or piety of man. The nation of Israel would undergo a final scattering before its ultimate regathering, and the word of the Messiah’s return to rule all the nations from Jerusalem would go forth as a witness before the Day of the Lord. All of this is confirmed by the Old Testament. Now I’m not saying that there aren’t some confusing points that surely warrant some attention by scholars and commentators, but I don’t think the text as a whole is that difficult to understand. I hope that makes sense. Let’s be careful not read 21st century American Christianity into this very Jewish story.
Well in the next episode we’ll continue our look at Passion Week. Find all the past episodes in this series on my website - www.joshuahawkins.com/gospels. God bless, and come back next time.