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Matthew 21:12-22

Text Comment

v.12     We need to remember the context fully to appreciate this event.  Jesus had just entered the city virtually as a king.  He now lays claim to the sanctuary and demonstrates his rule over the spiritual life of the nation.  He is a prophet, critiquing the false worship of the temple, and a king, imposing his will upon his subjects.  It was widely understood by the Jews that the Messiah would purify the worship of the temple.  All of this served, of course, as another deliberate challenge to the authority of the religious leadership.

We should be careful not to exaggerate the Lord’s action.  Early in his ministry, perhaps almost three years before this, Jesus had done the same thing.  On that occasion, we read in John 2:15, he actually made a whip and used it to drive out the merchants and money changers from the temple porticoes.  Perhaps he did the same on this occasion, though the Gospel writers don’t say so.  But it never says that he whipped people.  He could not have created too much of a stir or it would have come to the attention of the Roman authorities who were very stern with anyone who disturbed the public tranquility and who garrisoned troops very near the temple area.  Malcolm Muggeridge, in his autobiography, Chronicles of Wasted Time, recollects a Christian he knew when Muggeridge himself was a young man and decidedly not a Christian.  He was, in fact, like his father, at that time a socialist and committed to class warfare and the uprising of the masses against the capitalists.  “I regret to say,” Muggeridge later writes, “[I] mocked at his pieties, and tried to shock him whenever I could.  I can only now remember one single remark he made to me; apropos Jesus driving the money-changers out of the Temple (a favorite episode, for obvious reasons, in my father’s circle), Lester said with great earnestness and, for him, emphasis, that he was quite sure that the rope Jesus took up never touched anyone.”  [116]  Well, I don’t know that that is so, but we shouldn’t imagine the Lord with eyes bulging, drawing blood whenever he could.  Nothing like that is said here.  Nevertheless we can see the merchants running from him and see Him overturning their tables and scattering their merchandise.

v.13     In the outer court of the temple were set up a variety of merchants who provided the animals necessary to offer sacrifices and the moneychangers from whom one could buy the particular and not generally circulated coins that were required for the payment of temple dues.  All of this took place in what was called the Court of the Gentiles, the only part of the temple where Gentile believers could come to pray.  So all of the noise and activity of the place virtually ruined that part of the temple as a place of prayer.  What Jesus was rejecting was not the selling of animals or the changing of money per se, but the entire attitude that lay behind the worship of the temple being turned into big business and the lack of reverence that allowed such commerce to be transacted within the temple itself.

v.16     The children said nothing, of course, that the crowds had not already shouted, as we read last Lord’s Day in v. 9.  But now the priests and scribes challenge the Lord on this point.  By quoting Psalm 8:2 the Lord says that the children are right to praise him so.

v.17     Most Passover pilgrims had to find lodging outside the city as there simply weren’t enough beds within the walls to accommodate a population perhaps three times as large as normal.  Jesus did this throughout the week, returning each night to Bethany and to the home of Lazarus, Mary, and Martha.

v.18     Apparently they had left Bethany before breakfast.

v.19     It would be unusual to find a fig tree with leaves but with no figs.  If the tree is in leaf it is expected that it will be bearing fruit.  This tree advertised itself as a fruit-bearing tree by its leaves but the advertisement was false.  [Carson in Morris, 530-531]

Mark tells us that in fact the withering of the fig tree took place over two days, the Lord’s command on one day and the disciples’ discovery that the tree had withered on the next.  Matthew’s immediately is still entirely fair as the tree’s withering was noticed not 24 hours later.  By condensing the account Matthew connects the episode of the fig tree more directly to what has gone before.  A major study of this section of Matthew 21 published in 1980 was entitled The Barren Temple and the Withered Tree.  [France, 303]  In Micah 7:1 Israel’s moral and spiritual barrenness is depicted with the image of a fruitless fig tree.  Perhaps the Lord got the idea of doing this to this fig tree from that text.  A tree that promises fruit but does not provide it is an apt image of a spiritual system that is not producing faith or godliness among its people.  The withering of the fig tree is a warning against an unfruitful religious life.

If we had any doubt about that interpretation it is removed when we notice that in the following teaching the same point is made and more explicitly.  For example, at the end of the parable of the tenants in 21:43 the Lord says to his contemporaries, “I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit.”

v.20     It is worth our pondering that three years into a ministry that was marked by signs and wonders from beginning to end, these men are still flummoxed by the stupendous power that Jesus exercised.  We really have no idea how breathtaking it must have been to witness the Lord’s works, how awe-inspiring, and how wonderful.  When we have seen the glory of God for 10,000 years, we will not have begun to take it for granted.  It will drink up all our powers as marvelously as it did at the moment we beheld it for the first time.

v.22     The Lord takes the opportunity to repeat a lesson he had given before (17:20).  With faith even things that would otherwise be impossible become possible.  And Christians, by faith in the Lord expressed through prayer, have been moving mountains ever since.

Probably the most famous sermon ever preached on American soil was that preached by Jonathan Edwards at Enfield, Connecticut, July 8, 1741.  The impact of that sermon was startling to say the least.  Many in the congregation were so deeply stirred and so profoundly upset that, staid New Englanders though they were, they began to weep and wail in the middle of the church service.  The uproar was such that Edwards never finished the sermon.  He had to stop to attend to the many who were so distressed that they couldn’t listen any longer. It was as unexpected, unanticipated a reaction in that congregation as it would be if some of you began to do the same thing right now.  Many of the folk who were there – church goers from birth – became genuine believers in Christ that day and a spiritual awakening was begun in the town that was to last for several years.

Now pastors and churches nowadays are eager to find ways to attract people, to evangelize the lost, to build the church.  In a success oriented culture, pastors are judged by how well they build the church and make it grow.  There are more books about how to do that, more teachers offering seminars on how to do that than you can shake a stick at.  But among all the suggestions you will hear, among all the strategies proposed, there is one that is conspicuous by its absence. Almost no one thinks that we should do today what Jonathan Edwards did in Enfield in 1741.  Hardly a soul thinks that a sermon such as Edwards preached that day is the way to save the lost or revive the church.  It was mightily effective in the 1740s, but no one thinks it would work today.  Quite the contrary.  They think, and I have little doubt that they are right, the same sermon, or even a like sermon preached in a modern idiom would be more likely to offend people than convert them, more likely to empty the church than renew it.

That sermon Edwards preached, as many of you know, was entitled Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God and its subject was the reality and the ferocity of the wrath of God that is stored up for all those who are not saved by faith in Jesus Christ.  His appeal – a summation of the sermon – was put this way:

            “Therefore, let everyone that is out of Christ now awake and fly

from the wrath to come.  The wrath of Almighty God is now

undoubtedly hanging over a great part of this congregation.”

The congregations of Christian churches in the 18th century would not have been surprised to hear their ministers preach on the wrath of God.  Indeed, in their day and for generations before, the reality of judgment and of hell was a staple of Christian preaching.  It was not the major emphasis, to be sure, but because it was a central teaching of the Bible, preachers attended to it and congregations heard it.

But today this is no longer the case.  Even in churches where the reality of divine wrath is still believed absolutely it is rarely preached.  Our age does not approve of the idea of a wrathful God, offended and angered by human sin, and, what is more, many in the church do not either.  Even among those who know it to be the doctrine of Holy Scripture and, therefore, believe it to be true, there is a strong tendency to play this down, to mention it only in passing.  We concentrate on the happier side of the Bible’s teaching and speak about God’s holy anger against sin as little as possible.

We should not suppose that this aversion to divine judgment is a unique feature of our age.  Tertullian in the 3rd century admitted, “We get ourselves laughed at for proclaiming that God will one day judge the world.”  There is nothing unusual in people deploring the doctrine of divine wrath or in their disgust at hearing it preached.  What is more unusual is for Bible-believing Christians to be so hesitant to confess their faith in a doctrine so fundamental to our entire philosophy of life.

After all, if we believe Christ is our Savior, we must believe there was something he saved us from.

Now, that being said, there are reasons why believers should be very careful, even cautious, to broach this subject.  It makes demands on us that few other doctrines do.  Rabbi Duncan, that uniquely insightful and deeply emotional 18th century Scottish Presbyterian missionary and professor, once said that he could never preach about hell because he would turn sick if he did.  Well, whether a Christian minister can claim that liberty or not, we can certainly admire Duncan’s spirit and wish for ourselves a double portion of it.  Surely nothing has done more damage to the biblical doctrine of divine judgment than Christians speaking about it whose hearts were not exercised by the reality of divine wrath, who did not feel deeply the horror of it, and did not communicate to others a genuine fear for them that was rooted in love.  No doubt many of you have cringed reading Tom Sawyer and Mark Twain’s account of a Sunday service in Hannibal in which the minister preached hellfire and damnation and thinned the predestined elect to a company hardly worth saving and managed to do that in such a boring, soporific way that most of the congregation was barely awake and Tom himself whiled away the time by playing with a beetle.  Shame on that preacher!   And yet every experienced, long-standing Christian in this room knows how easily he or she has spoken of hell without emotion, without evidence of the deadly seriousness of the subject, without obvious compassion for those already there or likely to go there, and without a living impression of God’s splendid holiness obviously upon his heart.

When we read that “Napoleon had no religion since (so he said), at the age of nine he heard a preacher insist that his hero, Julius Caesar, was burning in hell,” [Paul Johnson, Napoleon, 30] we shudder to think of what that sermon may very well have sounded like and in what spirit it may very well have been preached, and how cruel it may have sounded to a nine year old boy.

What is more the Bible’s doctrine of God’s wrath and divine judgment is not altogether simple.  One reason the biblical doctrine is so often caricatured by its despisers is that Christians and Christian ministers have so often spoken of hell in a way so easy to caricature.  The Hell, the judgment preached by too many Christian ministers through the years is not worthy of God or the bible.  Holy Scripture’s doctrine is careful, sophisticated, and rooted in the reality of human experience.  It connects divine judgment in the future to the tragedies of human life in this world.  It reminds us that hell is not simply a problem of the future; it is with us already.  And it is important to point out to people in our time that while modern folk may still laugh at hell, and Gary Larsen draw funny cartoons about it, but Gary Larsen doesn’t draw and nobody laughs about Auschwitz, or AIDS, or the Sudan. The Bible describes the effect of God’s wrath largely in metaphors, it gives very little detail, it discriminates between various levels and degrees of punishment to be apportioned by perfect justice to the unbelieving and impenitent, all of which requires consideration and thoughtful engagement with the entire range of biblical teaching if one is to represent this truth wisely and well to unbelievers.

Still, it is a doctrine that, as C.S. Lewis reminds us, however unwelcome, it has the full support of Scripture and, especially, of our Lord’s own words; it has always been held by Christendom; and has the support of reason.  I want to pick up on that one phrase, “especially, of our Lord’s own words…”

We are coming into that section of the Gospel of Matthew in which is to be found some of the most solemn teaching on the subject of divine wrath and judgment in all of Holy Scripture.  And it is delivered, like hammer blows, by none other than Jesus himself.  For example, we have the solemn parables of the tenants and the wedding banquet, heavy with portents of divine judgment; the terrible woes that the Lord Jesus pronounced on the religious leaders in chapter 22 – “…how will you escape being condemned to hell?” he told them – and the parables of the second coming in chapter 25 with their stern and uncompromising promise of doom for those who are not in Christ.  And all of this from the Lord Jesus himself.  These episodes in the temple and with the fig tree serve as an introduction to all this solemn material.

A.W. Pink wrote that “a study of the concordance will show that there are more references in Scripture to the anger, fury, and wrath of God, than there are to his love and tenderness.”  The late Dr. Gerstner said once in my hearing that he had friend who actually devoted a master’s thesis (more statistical than theological) to the demonstration that for every reference to God’s mercy and grace in the Bible there are three references to his wrath…”  Now, I haven’t checked the figures but, if true, it is likely that the reason for the disparity is simply that we have such a hard time accepting uncomfortable and unwelcome reality and need to have it emphasized and constantly repeated.

Again, I have never checked to see whether that general proportion or 3 to 1 would be true of the teaching of the Lord Jesus himself, but there is no doubt that he often spoke directly, sternly, emphatically about God’s wrath and judgment, what the prophet Isaiah calls the Lord’s “strange” and “alien” work.  [Isa. 28:21]  Indeed, it has often been pointed out that no biblical author said so much about God’s wrath as did Jesus himself.  No one spoke so pointedly or in such detail about the fate of the unbelieving and the impenitent as did the Savior of the world. It was after all from Jesus himself that we learn about the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels, of the worm that does not die and the fire that does not go out, of the wailing and gnashing of teeth on the part of those who fall under God’s wrath because they would not entrust themselves to the Son of God.

But not only did he speak about it.  He acted it out.  All the great prophets before Jesus not only preached the truth, they illustrated it by their behavior.  And in this Jesus was no different.  He not only preached about the judgment of sinners, he practiced it, he showed it to others so that there would be no mistaking his meaning.  And in the Passion week, Jesus showed the divine wrath and displayed portents of God’s judgment before he spoke so solemnly of these things.

He did that at the beginning week in two dramatic and memorable ways.  First, he entered the temple itself, the center of Israel’s religious life, and, angered by what he saw there, he drove the merchants from the temple court and overturned the tables of the money-changers.  He rebuked them for violating the sanctity of the temple and its worship and accused them of turning the temple into a “den of robbers.”  That phrase is interesting and important because it is taken from Jeremiah’s great temple sermon, the sermon we find in Jer. 7, in which Jeremiah accuses his contemporaries of bringing into the temple all of their sins – their adulteries, their dishonesty, their idolatry, their maltreatment of the poor. Though they are behaving this way, they come into the temple as if all were right between themselves and God.  They expected God to defend them from their enemies (Babylon was threatening) and to make them prosperous and happy because they were going through motions at the temple eventually they were ignoring God’s commandments and flaunting his will.  The Lord’s point was precisely the same.  What was happening in the temple courts was a grand demonstration of a false faith, a false hope, and a false spirit.  It was an offense against the holy God.  It was unbelief in the church itself.  And Jesus let them know in unmistakable terms that God would not stand for it.

And then he withered the fruitless fig tree.   He made it a picture of the church of his day, of multitudes of people who took pains to look pious but were not in fact pious or faithful or motivated in their daily lives by living faith and true love for God and man.  And he shriveled that tree as a picture of what must become of such people when they come to God’s judgment, Christ’s own judgment as we have already read in Matthew and will again in chapter 25.  He himself will be the judge of the living and the dead and it is he who withered the fruitless tree.  Who better to know the standard of God’s judgment than the one who will be pronouncing it!  If there is no fruit in the life it can only be because there is no living faith in the heart.

How unlike the Jesus of popular imagination:  this Jesus driving out religious people from their temple and withering a tree to illustrate the fate of those who think themselves good – the leaves – but do not bear the fruit that God is looking for: a life of faith in Jesus, hope in his eventual return, and love for God and man.

So many today are inclined to say, if only there were not this alien element in Jesus’ teaching; if only he were not so adamant about this repugnant doctrine of divine wrath, of divine judgment, of the punishment of sinners.  If only there were not in his teaching and his ministry this element of anger and of threat.  They imagine that somehow this could be removed and what would left would be an improved, more attractive, more influential Jesus.  But it is not only a serious error to ignore what we are taught in Holy Scripture, it is unchristian.  I mean, it is untrue to Jesus himself, to his teaching, to his living, to his heart and mind.  The Jesus who had unending compassion on the sick, the outcast, the troubled; who was ready to receive and forgive every sinner – no matter how abject a sinner – ; the Jesus who came into the world willingly to suffer, to lay down his life for his friends, to save his people from their sins no matter how clueless and how thankless they would be; this Jesus is the same Jesus who drove the merchants and moneychangers from the temple.

It is the same zeal in Jesus that made him search for and save lost souls that made him clear the temple.  It was the same love of men that made Jesus call sinners to himself that he might give them eternal life that also made him warn them of the peril of pretending to love God while living in indifference to his will, of being all leaves and no fruit.

If we think about it I think it will become clear that, difficult as this doctrine is in many ways, unwelcome as we find it, we cannot really have a Savior who is all love and no wrath, all gentleness and no anger, all acceptance and no judgment.  For, fact is, the Lord’s wrath, his anger, the threat of his judgment is just another expression of his love and the power of his love.  The Lord loves his Father and so his Father’s house and so he must take umbrage when it is corrupted.  He loves people and so he must be offended by and determined to put right behavior that leads them astray and places obstacles in the way of their salvation.  This is what we see here in these two connected episodes.  A zealous love expressing itself toward rebel hearts.

Sometime ago I spent several hours with a mother from Seattle – a mother of three children, a thirteen year old girl, a seven year old girl and a one year old son.  She is a solid and committed Christian and thought for years that she had a solid and secure marriage to a Christian man, an officer in the church they attended.  But he had just a few weeks before announced to her that he was seeing and sleeping with another woman and didn’t love her anymore.  Her life, which she had thought secure was now in ruins and her two daughters were going through a trial and a terror that we adults, I’m sure, can scarcely begin to imagine.

Now, look again at the Lord Jesus overturning those temple tables, scattering merchandise, animals, and coin everywhere.  Listen to the sharp, hard edge in his voice as he shouts to the retreating merchants and bankers, “You’ve made my Father’s house a den of robbers!”  And you tell me what the Lord Jesus thinks of this man – I use the term loosely – this man in Seattle who deserted his wife and children to chase after some other woman.  And what do you expect will happen on the day of judgment when they finally come face to face:  Christ who angrily drove merchants from the temple porticoes for doing what almost everybody found acceptable but God!?  What will he say to and do to a husband who cheated on his wife and betrayed his children?  What will he say and do, this Savior who so loves honesty and faithfulness and the fear of God, to a man who so harmed people Christ so deeply loves?

This is what makes the prospect of Christ’s judgment and wrath so appalling, so deadly.  It is this that makes his wrath so unquenchable.  His wrath is only his love, his love for his Father, for his people, for the temple of God expressing itself toward those who despise his holiness and make nothing of his grace.

After all, when did these things happen?  When did he drive out the merchants and angrily overturn their tables?  It was soon after his arriving in Jerusalem at Passover season.  It was a few days before he would be arrested, tried, and executed for the sins of his people.  It was right before he loved us and gave himself for us.

Can we possibly think that this Jesus has not done and has not said the truly loving thing as well as the honest thing.  Would this Jesus deceive us?  Could this Jesus, who died and then rose again and now sits at the Right Hand and is soon coming again, could this Jesus have been mistaken on such a fundamental point?  No, it is impossible.

But if impossible, then you and I must ponder what Jesus did in the temple and that withered fig tree and think, think hard.  Some of us for the first time, many others once again.  Jesus took life and salvation very seriously.  He never let anyone think that nothing was at stake, that those who made little of him and his salvation had nothing to fear, that those who went through this world pleasing themselves and ignoring their Creator had no cause to worry about the day of judgment.  Jesus didn’t think so; neither should we.