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encouragement theology

The Rejected Capstone

Thoughts from Matthew 21…

There is an ancient story about building the first Jewish temple. King Solomon started work on the temple at about 1,000 BC and took nearly seven years to complete. The building stones were cut at the quarry, and then sent to the temple site for construction. The story tells that the builders discovered one of the early stones with no markings and an unusual shape. Unsure what to do with this unusual stone, they set it aside and forgot about it. Years later, the temple was almost finished, except that the builders could not find the capstone, which would hold together the final corner of the building. They sent to the quarry for this final stone, only to receive back word that it had been delivered long ago. No one could find it! Finally, after much searching, they located this critical stone, buried underneath the bushes and rubble nearby. It had been set aside and forgotten, yet it was the final piece of the construction.

The facts of this story may have been distorted over the years, but it had become an illustration to the ancient Israelites about forgetting what is most important. This lesson even made it into Scripture, as part of the Messianic Psalm 118: “the stone which the builders rejected, has become the head of the corner.”a This entire Psalm was a celebration of the Messiah, who was the rejected stone, yet will be their coming king!

Jesus had come to Jerusalem on Sunday, amidst the shouts and praise of the people. He drove the moneychangers from the temple on Monday, and now, on Tuesday, the city leaders finally have the courage to confront Him. How dare He come into town the way He did! How dare He drive away their merchants from the temple! Who does He think He is?

And so they came to Jesus, demanding to see His credentials. What authority does he have to teach the people, to drive out to merchants, and to accept their praise! The reply from Jesus Christ was stunning and abrupt. Was John the Baptist’s ministry from heaven or from earth? These men were now in a dilemma: they didn’t believe John, yet they were afraid of the crowds if they publicly denounced him. They didn’t dare own up to their own unbelief, yet they feared a riot if they said anything. Yet that is the point from The Lord. The same authority that enabled John to teach and to baptize is the same authority that led Jesus to Jerusalem. This is the authority that drove out the money changers and taught the people.

The leading priests and elders of the city were left with nothing else to say but, “We don’t know!”

But what about these priests and religious leaders? Jesus then used a parable to reveal their true hearts. Two sons were asked by their father to work in the field. One made a show of refusal but then worked for his father, while the other made a show of acceptance but then refused to work. Which one was the obedient son? The obvious answer was that the obedient son was the one who worked, despite his initial refusal. He was the one who ultimately did what his father asked. 

But these priests and religious leaders were like the disobedient son who, though he made a show of listening to his father, refused to obey. Therefore, the prostitutes, tax collectors, and other dregs of society would be better off than them because they repented at John’s teaching while these religious men refused.

They were like the evil farmers, who thought they could steal the vineyard by killing the master’s servants and his only son. Therefore, they would be killed and excluded from His kingdom because they rejected His prophets and chose to kill the Messiah, God‘s only son!

They were like the invited guests to the wedding feast who refused the king’s summons. Some replied with apathy while others replied with hostility. Even worse, some answered the call but only on their own terms. As a result they will meet judgment and death, and their city will be destroyed.

What can we learn from this passage? First, it reminds us of God‘s sovereignty. He is in charge, even when everything looks like it is against Him. Even when all of the world leaders seem to be moving against Him, He is still in control, waiting for His time. The Jewish leaders had not yet killed the Son of God, yet He knew that it would happen. But He also knew that He would ultimately emerge triumphant!

Secondly, it reminds us of God’s patience. God calls us repeatedly, urging us to come to him. Just because we don’t see a visible response or hear audible words, it does not mean that He has forgotten. God is only waiting His time for His ultimate response. 

If you are disobeying God, don’t mistake His silence for ignoring you. God is waiting his time, giving you one more opportunity to repent and come to him. But judgment is coming for those who will not repent! I urge you to turn to him before it is too late!

If you follow God, remember that it is on His terms, not yours. Like the wedding guest who refused to take up the king’s clothing, judgment awaits those who think they can force their way into God’s presence.

But finally, when you are obeying God and it seems like He is silent, don’t give up! God may be waiting for His timing but He is always watching and will never forget. He will come back to judge those who have refused Him and to save those who are truly His own. Don’t give up!

Previous study: The Barren Tree

Categories
encouragement theology

The Barren Tree

Thoughts from Matthew 21…

This is a very simple story. Jesus was returning to Jerusalem on Monday morning when He saw a fig tree full of leaves. It was early in the season, but the leaves indicated that the tree must have figs (the fruit forms before the leaves).2 5 He went to the tree in hunger, only to find that there was no fruit. He then responded by cursing the tree, saying, “May no fruit ever come from you again!

The next morning, the disciples noticed that the tree had withered completely. Jesus then used the dead tree as a teaching point to demonstrate the power of prayer. You can move a mountain into the sea if you have faith without doubting.

Some have seen this passage as an example of Jesus reacting in anger, cursing out at the fruitless tree that failed to feed Him, and killing it for its failure. But if this is the case, was this the tree’s fault? Did the fig tree make a conscious decision to not bear fruit?

But Jesus’ response regarding the dead tree shows that this was not a reaction of anger but a lesson for His disciples. There were only two recorded events in the life of Christ where he destroyed nature: this scene with the fig tree, and the earlier scene in Gadara, where He healed the demon-possessed men and allowed the demons to drown the herd of pigs.

This scene with the fig tree shows three teaching points: The first point is the illustration of the fig tree itself. It was full of leaves and looked very healthy, but it was fruitless. It had more leaves than would be expected for that time of the year, yet it didn’t have any fruit. Many Bible scholars understand the fig tree to be an illustration of Israel, with the fruitless tree representing the fruitless nation.1 a The people of Israel had a great show of good deeds and religious fervor, but without any real fruit of repentance. Like the fig tree, they were all green and healthy looking, but without any substance. And just like the fig tree, they were doomed to destruction because of their fruitlessness. The nation of Israel would ultimately die, culminating in the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70.

The second point is that Jesus used the fig tree to teach the power of prayer. He repeated the earlier promise that only a small amount of faith can cause great things to happen. It is important to note that the prayer is for judgement this time. God hears our prayers for a blessing, but He also honors our prayers when we ask judgment for those who are rebelling against Him. This is the same prayer that Elijah prayed for his unbelieving nation, when He prayed for drought (see here). This is not a prayer for vengeance, but that the people would be moved to repentance. God promises to hear us when we seek to advance His agenda — even when it is against those who oppose him.

The final point is an application that each of us needs to consider. We may not be as wicked as the Jews of that day, when they were conspiring to kill the Lord Jesus Christ, but we can all fall into the same trap of becoming leafy without any fruit. We show all forms of good deeds on the outside, but there is no Godly fruit from our actions. There is no repentance from our disobedience, nor is there any work of the Holy Spirit in our lives. When you see this happening, it is an immediate time to check yourself with God. Have you really received Him into your life? If not, all of your good deeds are worthless to Him (Isaiah 64:6). But even when you know Jesus Christ as your Savior, we can still lapse into times of fruitlessness. We need to continually repent, turn away from our disobedience, and come back to Him. Only then will our lives be fruitful, and only then will we not be like the barren fig tree.

Previous post: Don’t Ignore Him!

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encouragement theology

Don’t Ignore Him!

Model of the Temple in Jerusalem, from Wikimedia Commons

Thoughts from Matthew 21…

This is a popular scene in art and literature. Jesus came to the temple, turned over the merchant tables, spilled the money boxes, and chased away the animals! People love to see how He reacted violently against the hypocrites of His day!

There are actually two parts to this passage in Matthew. The scene opens with the familiar scene of Jesus cleansing the temple. He threw out the corrupt money-changers and animal sellers and took possession of the temple. For two days, He stopped commerce through the temple property and restored it to its place of worship, prayer, and teaching. 

Jesus had cleansed the temple one time before. Exactly three years earlier, He had also entered the temple during Passover and drove out the animals and the money-changers. As shown in the study here, Jesus had dramatically entered the temple at the start of His ministry, showing that He was the coming Messiah by coming suddenly and purifying the temple (see Malachi 3:1-2). But now, three years have passed, and Jesus is at the conclusion of His earthly ministry. He cleansed the temple one final time to show what temple worship will be like under the rule of the Messiah.a b 

The second part of this passage is a contrast among those who heard Him. The blind and the lame came to Him to be healed and the children sang His praises. But the religious leaders — those who should have known the most about Him — were indignant! How dare the people praise this man! Instead of listening to Him, they started plotting His destruction. 

The priests should have been leading the worship of their coming King. The scribes had spent their lives studying God’s word, and should have been the first to identify their Promised Messiah. The city leaders should have been directing the people in recognizing their coming Lord. But instead, they were too caught up in their own agendas. Instead of coming to the One God as He walked on the earth, they chose to be His enemy and made plans to destroy Him.

The Bible talks often about the danger of “hardening your hearts” (see here). Every time we refuse God, or say “No” to Him, we lose some of our sensitivity toward Him. Like a slowly drying glue, each step away from Him makes us less able hear Him and to listen for His voice. We no longer care about what God wants as we fixate on our own agendas.

The priests and scribes had hardened themselves to the point that they had drawn clear battle lines against Jesus Christ. As their actions unfold across the next few days, they show the absolute worst of cruelty, ignorance, and bottomless wickedness. These are the ones who will ultimately contrive to betray, arrest, torture, and execute the Lord Jesus Christ. 

But the failure for these men happened long before this scene. As they learned about Jesus Christ and heard His claims, they were confronted with the truth. Every single one of them had a choice — would they believe Him, or would they hold on to their sin and reject Him? There were a few who chose to believe (see here), but most of them refused. They never doubted His signs and miracles, but they would never accept Him as their Lord.

It is easy to despise these wicked men from the Bible, but we must be careful that we don’t have the same hardness in our own hearts. Each one of us is given the same choice — will we believe His words and obey Him as our Lord, or will we stubbornly shake our heads and explain Him away? God will not continue to call us when we refuse Him, and each rejection brings us down the same path as these priests and scribes of Jesus’ day. These men knew their Bibles, were deeply religious, but were planning to kill the Son of God! May we listen to Him and obey Him when He calls!

Hebrews 3:12-13
Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.

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