The sun rises just before 6:30 A.M. in Bethany, the small village on the southeastern slope of the Mount of Olives, just a mile and a half east of Jerusalem. It is Monday morning, March 30, A.D. 33. Jesus of Nazareth is staying in the humble home of his friends Martha (whose anxiety-driven hospitality had received his gentle rebuke), Mary (who chose the good portion), and Lazarus (whose body would still be in the grave apart from the wonder-working of the Christ).
Just the day before — the first day of the last week of his life — Jesus had made his Triumphal Entry into the Holy City, riding on a donkey over a royal “red carpet” of palm branches and cloaks, hailed by his disciples and the Galilean pilgrims as the messianic king.
But Monday would be different than Sunday. Jesus knew the heart of man (John 2:24–25). He knew the acclaim of the disciples and the crowd was built on a messiah of their own imagination. Despite his many efforts at teaching them otherwise, they couldn’t shake their wrong expectations. They were excited about a national savior who would overthrow the despised Romans once and for all. They had no categories for the idea that victory would come through experiencing, rather than inflicting, wrath and degrading shame.
Judgment Begins at Home
As Jesus and the Twelve awoke the next day, gathering at their appointed meeting place in Bethany to make their short trek back to Jerusalem, Jesus’s agenda was the same as it remains today: to strip away misunderstandings of who he was and what he was going to accomplish so that our expectations could be confounded. This was not going to be a meek and mild Monday. Jesus was about to show them that judgment begins at home, with Israel.
As they walked together over the rocky terrain of the Mount of Olives, and as the hunger in Jesus’s stomach grew, he spotted a fig tree off in the distance. From external appearances, it looked healthy, the perfect place to grab some fruit and to meet his need. But on closer inspection, the tree was barren of fruit, with nothing on it but inedible leaves.
The disciples could not have expected what Jesus did next. He called down a curse on the fig tree, declaring that it would never bear fruit again (Matthew 21:18–19; Mark 11:12–14). Jesus would expound on this visual parable tomorrow. But if the disciples were viewing the tree through spiritual eyes, they would remember that in the Old Testament Israel was often referred to as a “fig tree” (Jeremiah 8:13; Hosea 9:10, 16; Joel 1:7). Judgment must begin at home.
Cleansing the Temple
They continued walking, the disciples undoubtedly unnerved by this unexpected behavior. But Jesus was just beginning.
When Jesus entered the Temple Mount later that day, he was surrounded by pious Jews who had made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem for Passover. Not only would they have to pay the Temple tax (a Tyrian shekel), but they would also have to purchase an unblemished sacrificial animal in the Court of the Gentiles. As Jesus looked at the moneychangers and merchants, a holy zeal and righteous indignation welled up within him. They were turning his Father’s house of prayer for the nations (Isaiah 56:7) into a den of thieves to prey upon the poor Passover pilgrims and to pervert true worship (Jeremiah 7:11). Jesus began overturning the tables and chairs of the moneychangers, throwing out the merchants and their scurrying customers, refusing entrance to any who carry goods for sale.
Face Like Flint
From the perspective of the chief priests, scribes, and Jewish leaders, it was one thing for this teacher from the backwaters of Nazareth to share his stories and make his claims and do his miracles with his followers. But now he was inside the Holy City. He had entered the gates like he was the new David or the new Solomon. And now he has the audacity to declare that the Temple in essence belongs to him and his Father? Who is he to suggest that the Jewish system was enabling sin rather than worship? And how dare he argue that the Jewish authorities were ignorant of true godliness and piety?
From this point forward, there would be no turning back. Jesus is not shrinking back. In fact, he is accelerating the sentence of death.
Evening approaches. The sun will set around 7:00 P.M., beginning the new day according to the Jewish calendar. Jesus and his disciples make their return to Bethany. Tomorrow will be a new day to confound, to turn things upside down, as Jesus continues to fulfill the eternal plan that will take him to Calvary.
This is the second post in Desiring God’s 2014 Holy Week series “The Final Days of Jesus,” inspired by the new book of the same title by Justin Taylor and Andreas Kostenberger. Holy Week illustrations provided in partnership with Crossway Books and Adam Greene.