The Lord was journeying with the disciples toward Jerusalem. The road from Jericho climbs up into the hills - you can follow it on the map - and goes through a lonely desert country until it comes near to Jerusalem. It passes no town until it comes to the villages on the Mount of Olives. One of these villages is Bethany. It lay on a warm, sunny slope with gardens about it, and orchards of figs and olives. Do you remember people who lived in Bethany with whom the Lord used sometimes to stay? Another village, near to Bethany, was called Bethphage.
The Lord came to these villages on his way to Jerusalem.. It was the time of the great Passover feast which was kept each year in the spring. People were coming to the Passover from all parts of the land. Companies of pilgrims were meeting each other on the road and journeying on together.
Long before, one of the prophets had said that the King would come to Jerusalem, riding upon a young ass. It was the time for the prophecy to be fulfilled. The Lord sent two of His disciples into one of the villages to bring an ass's colt which they would find tied by a door, in a place where two ways met. He told them to say to anyone who asked why they loosed the colt, that the Lord had need of him. So they brought the young ass to the Lord and He rode on him. It made the people glad to see Him riding so, for in the old times, kings and judges used to ride on mules or asses. It seemed to the disciples that the Lord was now going to be their king - what they had long been hoping for.
We see them going before the Lord and following after, as He rode on over the hill to Jerusalem. Some were spreading their clothes and leafy branches as a carpet in the road. And they shouted, "Hosanna!" which means "Save now;" and they called him the son of David. Others had come from Jerusalem to meet the Lord, with palm leaves in their hands, and joined in the glad shouts. So they passed over the hill and could look down upon the city and the temple, now gaily trimmed for the feast and filled with pilgrims. They went down the hill and in at the city gate, and all the city was moved. On the Sunday before Easter every year, we remember the Lord's riding into Jerusalem; it is called Palm Sunday from the palms that the people carried.
At night the Lord went out to Bethany, and in the morning came again into the city. One day He went into the temple and drove out from the temple courts the people that were selling animals and doves for sacrifice and those that were changing money, for they ought not to be doing these things in the temple; they were thinking about getting rich themselves and not about prayer and worship. The priests were angry. The people were glad - the blind and the lame and the children.
And one morning as the disciples came over the hill from Bethany with the Lord, the Lord spoke to a fig tree that was full of leaves but had no fruit, and said, "Let no fruit grow on thee henceforward forever," and it withered away. He did this to teach a lesson. A good man is "like a tree planted by the rivers of water, that bringeth forth his fruit in his season." But this tree with no fruit was like a man that does not do good useful works. He will lose his strength and beauty - will wither away.
The chapter opens with the story of Palm Sunday, of the Lord's riding into Jerusalem. It will be interesting to compare the accounts in the four Gospels: Matthew 21:1-11; Mark 11:1-11; Luke 19:29-44; John 12:12-19. Before you read the story, remember the occasion, how the Lord was coming from the country beyond Jordan to Jerusalem, by the road that passes Jericho and Bethany. It was the time of the Passover, and many pilgrims were taking the same journey. The prophecy that the King would come riding upon an ass, you find in Zechariah 9:9. Notice the saying in John 12:16, that the disciples did not remember the prophecy at the time, but after the Lord was glorified. Kings and judges used to ride on mules and asses. See reference to the custom in Judges 5:10; 10:3, 4; 12:14, 1 Kings 1:33-45.
Now you can enjoy the story. You can feel the enthusiasm of the disciples and the people, and of those who came out from Jerusalem to meet the Lord, as they waved their palms and shouted. And you can see that it pictures an enthusiasm that we ought to feel in welcoming the Lord as our King. Every day we say, "Thy kingdom come." There ought to be a gladness in making the Lord our King, and in obeying His laws. There may be hardship in it, but never mind, there is a wonderful strength and gladness. The palms too, the great feather-shaped palm leaves, were emblems of victory - victory in the strength of our Savior and King.
This entrance into the city was on Sunday, the Sunday before Easter. It will be worth while to make a careful list of the events of this last week. The rebuking of the fig tree and the cleansing of the temple belong to Monday. Tuesday morning, coming by the same way, they saw the fig tree withered, and there followed a long day of teaching in the temple, and parables spoken in the shade of evening on the Mount of Olives. There seems to be nothing told of Wednesday. On Thursday was the making ready of the Passover, and at evening the keeping of it with the Lord. That night was the trial in the high priests' palace, and in the early morning before Pilate. On Friday was the crucifixion, on Saturday the Sabbath rest, and on Easter Sunday morning, the resurrection.
Our chapter today includes two of these events:, the rebuking of the fig tree and the cleansing of the temple. You see at once that the fig tree was made a kind of parable or object lesson to teach something of spiritual life. You recall other places where a tree is the type of a man; and in that case what do the fruits of the tree represent? See, for example, Luke 3:8, 9; Matthew 7:15-20; Psalm 1:3. The fruits are the works, and good fruits are good works. To be more particular: figs represent works of natural kindness. The foliage, whose use is to digest the juices of the tree and prepare them for the fruit, represent the thought which prepares for the doing of good works. But suppose one knows what is good and thinks and talks about it, and gets no further; what kind of a tree is he like? And knowledge that is not used is soon forgotten, in the other world if not in this. The lesson of the fig tree applies to us all, but especially to the Jewish Church of that day, which had the Scriptures and plenty of knowledge, but no good, kind works. Such a church could not endure.
This cleansing of the temple reminds you of a similar event earlier in the Lord's ministry. (John 2:12-17) What does it show about the thoughts and feelings which we should bring into the Lord's house? When you remember that the Lord called Himself the temple what does it show that He was doing to make Himself the perfect dwelling-place of God with men?
1. Where was Bethany? What road led by the village? At what season did many people pass this way? Who lived in Bethany who loved the Lord?
2. Why is a certain Sunday in the spring called Palm Sunday? What are palms? Of what were they emblems? What did the people say who waved the palms?
3. What happened to a fig tree by the roadside? Why? What lesson did this teach?
4. Who were driven out from the temple by the Lord? Who were welcomed by Him there?
When we pray, "Thy kingdom come," we ask that the Lord's truth may be received, and that its power may order and guide our lives. He comes as our King when the authority of His truth is acknowledged and its power is felt. See John 18:37. The welcome of the Lord on Palm Sunday represents this acknowledgment of Him as King. The careful discrimination in matters of natural right and justice which was exercised by kings and judges, was represented by the asses on which they rode. The Lord rode on an ass into Jerusalem - a young ass, on which no man ever had ridden - to show that He brought a new power of understanding the Divine truth of life. The spreading of garments and branches in the way represents the subjection of our thought to His instruction. The waving of palms and the Hosannas are confessions of the power of the Lord's truth to save. Palms are emblems of victory, and in their highest sense they are grateful acknowledgments of the Lord's power to save. Recall the palms in the Revelation, in the hands of those who cried, "Salvation to our God." (Revelation 7:9, 10) The whole scene describes our reception of the Lord as King; our willing and glad submission to His instruction; our rejoicing in the power of His truth. (A. 2781, 8369; E. 458; R. 367)
In contrast with the palm with its single lofty stem, we have now the low-spreading, branching fig tree. The one represents the recognition of a lofty truth in regard to the Lord, the other truth in regard to kind uses to our neighbor on every hand. The sweet figs are types of kind uses of benevolence. Perhaps someone will make for the class a more careful study of the palm and the fig tree in "The Language of Parable." See also the chapter on "Leaf, Flower, and Fruit." You will then see more exactly what is represented by a fig tree with leaves but no fruit, and by its withering away. The Lord's hunger for the figs beautifully expresses His desire to find in the Jews and in us the good works which they represent. (E. 403; A. 885)
What did the tabernacle and the temple represent? Especially the church, and the Lord's own Divine Humanity. (John 2:19-22; Revelation 21:3) The traders and money changers in the temple, whom the Lord called thieves, are selfish greed, especially the desire to use holy things for personal advantage. The Lord drove out all traces of such selfishness from Himself, and He will drive it out for us so far as we are willing. Then the blind and the lame came to the Lord in the temple, and the children rejoiced. Those who were willing to be taught (the blind), and those who desired to be strengthened (the lame), recognized the Divine power in the Lord's Humanity, as day by day He cleansed and glorified it, as the proud priests did not. And childlike innocence in every heart was made glad. (E. 220, 325, 840; A. 3183, 5236)