Matthew 21-25

Matthew 21‑25  •  17 min. read  •  grade level: 7
Matthew 21-23
This portion of our Gospel opens with the third and last presentation of Christ to Israel. It is according to the voice of the prophet Zechariah. “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion; shout, O daughter of Jerusalem: behold, thy King cometh unto thee: He is just, and having salvation; lowly, and riding upon an ass, and upon a colt the foal of an ass” (Zech. 9:99Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion; shout, O daughter of Jerusalem: behold, thy King cometh unto thee: he is just, and having salvation; lowly, and riding upon an ass, and upon a colt the foal of an ass. (Zechariah 9:9)).
All is done in full solemnity. The test of the heart of Israel shall be applied under every advantage; the way, let me say, of our God on all such occasions.
When Adam, at the beginning, was set in the garden to keep it, all was for him; there was nothing in his whole estate then which might not have pleaded with him for his Creator. So, afterwards, when Noah was set in the new world, he was there under every advantage of honor and happiness; the bow in the cloud being a ready witness to him, if needs be, that the Lord God was mindful of him, and would be faithful. Israel in the land of Canaan wanted nothing. “What could have been done more to My vineyard, that I have not done?” was the demand of the Lord in the face of His people. The hedge was raised, the tower was built, the winepress was digged, and the choicest vine was planted. And so now, in these proposals or presentations of Messiah to Israel nothing is wanting. The Bethlehemite was born according to the prophet, and He was “great to the ends of the earth,” according to the same prophet, the far Eastern Gentiles coming to Bethlehem that they might worship Him. The Light shines from Galilee, from the land of Zebulun and Naphtali, according to another prophet; and a “great Light” indeed, as he had spoken, it proves itself to be, rising as with healing in its wings upon a people that were dwelling in the land of the shadow of death. And now the King promised by a third prophet appears, according to the word which had gone before upon Him, and in full solemnity. The harmonies of many voices from Scripture may be heard now. Psalms 8, 24 and 118, as well as Zechariah 9, are in our hearing on this great occasion.
The moment was indeed full of wonders. “The earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof,” is heard; for the owner of the ass acknowledged the lordship of Jesus, and set His title paramount to his own. The ass itself, as well as its owner, was in the power of the moment; for the foal accompanied the mother, or the mother her foal; we can scarcely tell which, and it matters not; both were brought, and brought together to Jesus; for there was to be then no trespass on the sympathies of nature. The kid could not, at such a moment, be seethed in its mother’s milk. That moment was as the dawn of the millennial day, and the creation must take its part in the joy and power of it. The people, by their hosannas and their palm-branches, were telling of a happy day, a feast of tabernacles for the tribes of the Lord; and if the multitude thus exult in their hosannas, the beasts shall exult in their burdens. In the day of His temptation the wild beasts were with the Lord, to witness that Eden had not been forfeited by Him (Mark 1:1313And he was there in the wilderness forty days, tempted of Satan; and was with the wild beasts; and the angels ministered unto him. (Mark 1:13)); so here, the beasts of burden rejoice in their service, as though the kingdom were now entered by Him, and creation were delivered from its groaning.
Surely, again I may say, it was a moment full of wonders, a bright and festive hour indeed. This had not been so in the day of Samuel. The kine lowed then, as they went, for their calves were left behind, while they, the mothers, bore the ark to Beth-shemesh (1 Sam. 6). Nature might receive a wound then, and continue in her groaning; but now, in the presence of the Lord of the millennial world, nature must rejoice.
How simple, yet how grand and brilliant, all this is! It is, however, but for a moment. All this is so, that, whether they would hear or whether they would forbear, Israel should know that the shout of a King had been near them. The question was, Would they have it among them? But no; again they “would not.” If the Bethlehemite were exiled, and the Light from Zebulun shone in darkness which comprehended it not, the King shall be a disallowed, rejected King. He enters the city amid the wonder of the multitude. “Who is this?” they say. He fulfils the zeal of Messiah according to the psalmist (Psalm 69:99For the zeal of thine house hath eaten me up; and the reproaches of them that reproached thee are fallen upon me. (Psalm 69:9)). He heals, as doing the acknowledged works of the Son of David. But speedily, instead of shouts and rejoicings, insults and challenges await Him in the royal city. The enmity of the heads and representatives of Israel soon declares itself; they disallow the Shepherd, the Stone of Israel; they are sore displeased in the Son of David; and think only how they may kill the Heir of the vineyard.
What remains to Him now? What has He to do now? This is the rejection of the King who brought salvation with Him, after the rejection of the Child of Bethlehem and the Light of Galilee. What remains? “Why should ye be stricken any more? ye will revolt more and more.” “The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master’s crib; but Israel doth not know, My people doth not consider.” These voices may be heard now. “An end, the end is come,” may be heard likewise. The barren fig-tree is therefore cursed according to the parable, it is now cut down. It had been spared for three long years, and it had known the patience of the husbandman digging about it and dunging it; but it was barren still. “Let no fruit grow on thee henceforward forever,” is now said to it. The curse is pronounced, for the time of long-suffering is past; “and,” as we read, “presently the fig-tree withered away.”
Such was the solemn issue of this third and last presentation of Himself by their Messiah, Jehovah-Messiah, to Israel, and Israel’s refusal of Him.
The disciples marvel at the fig-tree, which the Lord had cursed, so speedily withering away; and He then delivers the oracle about the removal of the mountain; a symbol of something still more strange and terrible than the withering of the fig-tree. “Verily I say unto you, If ye have faith, and doubt not, ye shall not only do this which is done to the fig-tree, but also if ye shall say unto this mountain, Be thou removed, and be thou cast into the sea; it shall be done.” All must give place. The mighty barriers which men have raised against the establishing of the Lord’s power in the earth shall be set aside, and then men shall learn “that Thou, whose name alone is JEHOVAH, art the Most High over all the earth”; and “the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established in the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills.”
Bethany was His retreat at this time. Rejected, and therefore as a stranger here, He finds His place in the family of faith that loved Him in the midst of the world’s enmity. And when He comes back again, as He does, from the village to the city, from Bethany to Jerusalem, it is not, as it had hitherto been, to renew and pursue His service of love and power, but to expose and convict Israel, and leave them under condemnation. This we now further see in the course of these (Matt. 21-23).
In the parables of the Two Sons, the Wicked Husbandmen, and the Marriage of the King’s Son, which He delivers in the midst of the heads of the people, on His return to them from Bethany, He convicts Israel of disobedience to all the ways of God, whether the law, by the ministry of the Baptist, or by the grace of Jews. He is then in full, direct collision with the great representatives of the nation, Herodians, Sadducees, and Pharisees; answering them and questioning them. And having gone through all this, having exposed them and silenced them, He sums up the evidence of their guilt, and delivers the sentence of righteousness. Israel is judged and left. “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them which are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not! Behold, your house is left unto you desolate.”
He then goes out with His apostles to the Mount of Olives. In the language of the prophet Zechariah, He takes His staff “Beauty” and cuts it asunder; that is, He withdraws Himself from Israel; for He is, whether they know it or not, their beauty, their glory, their perfection.
The time had fully come for this. The Stone had been disallowed by the builders, according to the psalmist; the three shepherds, Herodians, Sadducees, and Pharisees, had been cut off as in one month, according to the prophet; the flock, therefore, the Lord would now no longer feed, according to the same prophet (Zech. 11; Psa. 118).
It was also at this moment, at the close of Matthew 23, that the Lord may be seen and heard as looking back upon Israel, and His late ministry in the midst of them, as with the language of Isaiah upon His lips: “Where is the bill of your mother’s divorcement, whom I have put away? or which of My creditors is it to whom I have sold you? Behold, for your iniquities have ye sold yourselves, and for your transgressions is your mother put away. Wherefore, when I came, was there no man? when I called, was there none to answer? Is My hand shortened at all, that it cannot redeem? or have I no power to deliver? behold, at My rebuke I dry up the sea, I make the rivers a wilderness: their fish stinketh, because there is no water, and dieth for thirst. I clothe the heavens with blackness, and I make sackcloth their covering” (Isa. 50).
What an anticipation! The Spirit in the prophet seems to breathe this very moment of Matthew 23. Jerusalem is now as a divorced wife, put away for her transgressions. Her Maker had been her Husband, the Lord of hosts. In the days before these of the Gospel by Matthew, in the days of the judges, the kings, and the prophets, she had been as a woman loved of her friend, but an adulteress. The gods of the nations had been her confidence. Now her own God was refused. He had come and called, but there was none to answer. And yet, surely, He might ask, “Is My hand shortened at all, that it cannot redeem?” Had He lost the power or forgotten the love which had delivered them in other days? Had He not been to Israel now, through their cities and villages, what of old He had been to them in Egypt, when He dried up its sea, and clothed its heavens with blackness? His healings and feedings, all His doings of grace and power, could answer for Him. It was their iniquity and unbelief that had now separated between them and their Redeemer. And He turns from them now, as this wondrous chapter of Isaiah goes on to tell us, first to speak a word in season to His elect, and then to give His back to the smiters, and His cheeks to them that pluck off the hair.
Wondrous indeed is this Isaiah 50. So is Zechariah 11. Each of them anticipates the Gospel by Matthew in its outline and structure. And now, at the opening of our Matthew 24, the Lord retires, according to Isaiah, to speak a word in season to those that are weary, His poor followers who had continued with Him in His temptations; or, according to Zechariah, as the Word of the Lord to be waited upon by the poor of the flock. (I may observe that there is, generally, through this Gospel, a great care and diligence to link with the voices of the prophets what is transpiring at the time; and this is a mark of the strong Jewish character of the whole action.)
Matthew 24-25
The disciples follow Him to the Mount of Olives. They will accompany Him to the same place again, before long; and that, too, on a more solemn occasion. Now they wait on Him there, as “the poor of the flock,” and He, as “the Word of the Lord,” instructs them (Matt. 24-25).
He discloses to them secrets of coming days, such secrets as concerned Israel. He tells them of the beginning of sorrows, of the troubles that should come on the earth, through wars, earthquakes, and pestilences. He tells them of the trials and perils of the faithful ones in Israel, whom He warns and advises and encourages, according to their circumstances. He forewarns them of the great tribulation, of the carcass and of the eagles, of the ordinances of heaven giving fearful notes of preparation; and then of the sign in heaven, the mourning of the tribes of the earth and of the coming of the Son of Man. He tells them, moreover, of the gathering of the elect from the four ends of heaven, and of the settlement of the kingdom under the throne of glory. And, by the way, He delivers, in the parables of the Ten Virgins and of the Talents, judgment upon those who had, during His absence, professed either to wait for Him or to serve Him; distinguishing between those with whom this waiting and this service had been a reality, and those with whom such things had been merely profession.
Very full indeed this prophetic word is. It carries us, in thought or in faith, through the days of the trouble and the judgment of Israel, to the settlement of the nations under the throne of the millennial kingdom where the Son of Man sits. (I read Matthew 25:3131When the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory: (Matthew 25:31) as a continuation of the history, which was interrupted by moral or parenthetic matter, from Matthew 24:3131And he shall send his angels with a great sound of a trumpet, and they shall gather together his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other. (Matthew 24:31).)
Among all this I would specify one thing, not, I believe, of such common observation as many others, but helping to maintain that character of our Gospel which we have seen it to bear from the beginning. I mean this. The leaves on the fig-tree, the Lord tells us in Matthew 24:3232Now learn a parable of the fig tree; When his branch is yet tender, and putteth forth leaves, ye know that summer is nigh: (Matthew 24:32), give notice of summer being near; and so, He says, the things which He had been detailing would give notice, when they came to pass, that the kingdom was near.
Now, the things which He had been detailing were judgments on Israel, the sorrows and visitations of that people under the hand of God.
This is solemn. In the days of Joshua and of David, victories gave notice that the inheritance and the reign of peace were at hand. One conquest after another by the sword of Joshua told the tribes that the land would soon be divided among them; and one conquest after another by the sword of David, in like manner, gave notice to the people that, shortly, no evil or enemy would be occurrent, but that peaceful glory would fill the land. But now it is not such signs that Israel is to look for. Judgments, and not victories, must now precede the kingdom or the inheritance; judgments or sorrows upon themselves, and not conquests of their enemies. For Israel has been untrue. Israel has now rejected her Lord; and, therefore, “these things,” sorrows and judgments, must come to pass, before the kingdom be theirs. Summer days are to come. The sunny season, the age of millennial brightness, will be for Israel and the earth; but sorrows and visitations are the leaves of the fig-tree which are, as its harbingers, to announce that age of glory.
The valley of Achor is now to be the door of hope. Israel has sinned, as in the day of Jericho, and cannot go forward to the inheritance, save through the purging judgments of God. All the prophets join with the Lord in pointing to these same leaves of the fig-tree as ushering in the summer. Read Moses in Deuteronomy 32; read Isaiah throughout; read Ezekiel in his twentieth chapter; Daniel at the close of his ninth; and Hosea in his first and second. These are just at present before me, as telling us the same mystery; that sorrows and judgments are Israel’s way to the kingdom.
In looking back from this point of our Gospel we see, indeed, a ministry of patient, long-suffering grace. It was a ministry, however, well known in the ways of God with Israel. The Book of Judges, yea, the earlier books of the wilderness, Exodus and Numbers, the Books also of Kings and Chronicles, show us the same ministry. All this was the dresser of the vineyard saying again and again, “Let it alone this year also, until I shall dig about it, and dung it.” It was the Lord Himself saying, “How often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wing.” But Israel “would not.” This has been likewise seen again and again.
The sign from heaven, sought as it was at His hands by Sadducees and Pharisees together—for enmity to Him was strong enough to blend elements even so mutually repulsive as these—the Lord did not and could not give. He could not make Himself acceptable to the world, or accredit Himself on the world’s principles. And the uncircumcised shall rebuke the generation that sought this. The men of Nineveh asked for no sign from heaven, neither did the queen of Sheba. They took heart and conscience to God and His word. The preaching of Jonah and the wisdom of Solomon reached them, without anything to satisfy the pride of man, or the course and spirit of the world; and they would rise in judgment with this generation, and condemn it. But in due time, though in a way they looked not for, a sign from heaven shall be given to them. They asked for it (Matt. 16:11The Pharisees also with the Sadducees came, and tempting desired him that he would show them a sign from heaven. (Matthew 16:1)), and they shall have it (Matt. 24:29-3029Immediately after the tribulation of those days shall the sun be darkened, and the moon shall not give her light, and the stars shall fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens shall be shaken: 30And then shall appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven: and then shall all the tribes of the earth mourn, and they shall see the Son of man coming in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. (Matthew 24:29‑30)); but it shall be a sign of coming judgment, a sign that the Son of Man is on His way from heaven in the clouds to execute the vengeance written. “The sun shall be darkened, and the moon shall not give her light, and the stars shall fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens shall be shaken: and then shall appear the sign of the Son of Man in heaven: and then shall all the tribes of the earth mourn, and they shall see the Son of Man coming in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.”
As yet, however, and through this long, unmeasured age of His absence, it is the Lamentations of Jeremiah that are heard by the ear of faith, amid the desolations of Zion. The weeping of Rachel, heard in the second chapter of our Gospel, rises still more full of woe and mourning upon the ear in Matthew 23. And if that be grief which, as we read of it, refuses to be comforted, was grief, I ask, ever so eloquent, ever so full of the passions of nature, as on the lips of Jeremiah? Listen to him telling out, as in the person of the daughter of Zion, the secret of a broken heart. And yet, in the deepest utterance of that heart, how is God vindicated!
“What thing shall I take to witness for thee? what thing shall I liken to thee, O daughter of Jerusalem? what shall I equal to thee, that I may comfort thee, O virgin-daughter of Zion? for thy breach is great like the sea: who can heal thee? Thy prophets have seen vain and foolish things for thee: and they have not discovered thine iniquity, to turn away thy captivity; but have seen for thee false burdens and causes of banishment” (Lam. 2:13-1413What thing shall I take to witness for thee? what thing shall I liken to thee, O daughter of Jerusalem? what shall I equal to thee, that I may comfort thee, O virgin daughter of Zion? for thy breach is great like the sea: who can heal thee? 14Thy prophets have seen vain and foolish things for thee: and they have not discovered thine iniquity, to turn away thy captivity; but have seen for thee false burdens and causes of banishment. (Lamentations 2:13‑14)).
This is indeed the utterance of a broken heart vindicating God. According to Jeremiah, Jerusalem must account to herself for her captivity and banishment. Her iniquity has been her ruin. And so with the lamentation of Jesus over her. She had killed the prophets, and stoned the messengers of God, and after all, she “would not.” Her wound is incurable, but she has done it. Her iniquity has been her captivity, says the prophet. Because she would not, therefore she is not gathered, says the Lord.