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Seven Challenges

The rulers of Jerusalem tested Yahweh and refused to enter into His rest. In Matthew 21-22, Jesus is challenged by the authorities five times. The sixth challenge comes from Jesus, who then pronounces their doom.

The seven conflicts appear to reflect the pattern of the “heptateuch,” that is, Genesis to Judges. The first five challenges – from the Pharisees and scribes – represent their authority as those who sat “in the seat of Moses” (the Pentateuch). Jesus then challenges their abuse of that authority as Joshua, Moses’ successor, the one who “circumcised” the first city of the Land and set it apart as an offering to God.

Creation

Transcendence – Light – Genesis – Initiation – Sabbath
Jesus Cleanses the Temple (Matthew 21:12-17)

TRANSCENDENCE
Creation:
And Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who sold and bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons.
HIERARCHY
Division:
He said to them, “It is written, My house shall be called a house of prayer,’ but you make it a den of robbers.”
ETHICS: Priesthood
Ascension:
And the blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he healed them.
ETHICS: Kingdom
Testing:
But when the chief priests and the scribes saw the wonderful things that he did, and the children crying out in the temple, “Hosanna to the Son of David!”
ETHICS: Prophecy
Maturity:
they were indignant, and they said to him, “Do you hear what these are saying?”
OATH/SANCTIONS
Conquest:
And Jesus said to them, “Yes; have you never read, “‘Out of the mouth of infants and nursing babies you have prepared praise’?”
SUCCESSION
Glorification:
And leaving them, he went out of the city to Bethany and lodged there.

  • Although the first five challenges originate with the Jews, it is actually Jesus who initiates the entire sequence by overturning the tables of the money-changers, challenging the authority of the corrupted priesthood.
  • The focus in this first challenge is Sanctuary access, and the reference to robbers is an allusion to Adam and every subsequent Man who attempted to usurp the Transcendent authority of God by seizing it.
  • At Ascension, Jesus’ miraculous priesthood highlights the hypocrisy of those who used the ministry of the Temple for their own gain. Jesus reverses physical defects that disqualified Israelites from Tabernacle service, since under Levitical law, every Israelite was to be a living sacrifice, pictured in physical perfections. Here, those who had suffered from physical defects are represented by the most helpless of all, the blind and the lame. Of course, Jesus could heal them because He Himself was a sacrifice without blemish in the ultimate sense – He was sinless. Perhaps the author’s intention is to underscore the fact that the helpless were the true victims of those who ruled the Temple and were charged with ministry to sinners. The imperfect were disqualified from service, but not from Israel, which is how they were viewed by the Pharisees, who despised even the common people, let alone the blind and the lame.
  • At Testing, a reference to David highlights the coming kingdom. At Maturity, the rulers are false prophets speaking out of their satanic sanctimony, and at Conquest, the “Covenant Oath” comes from the children, those reciting the Scriptures by rote, serving as a condemnation of their own unfaithful shepherds.1For more discussion of this reference, see Psalm 8: How Noble is Your Name. Finally, Jesus finds rest in the house of His friends at Bethany.

Division

Hierarchy – Firmament – Exodus – Delegation – Passover
The Authority of Jesus Challenged (Matthew 21:23-27)

TRANSCENDENCE
Creation: And when he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came up to him as he was teaching, and said,
HIERARCHY
Division: “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?”
ETHICS
Ascension:
Jesus answered them, “I also will ask you one question, and if you tell me the answer, then I also will tell you by what authority I do these things.
Testing: The baptism of John, from where did it come? From heaven or from man?”
Maturity: And they discussed it among themselves, saying, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, Why then did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘From man,’ we are afraid of the crowd, for they all hold that John was a prophet.”
OATH/SANCTIONS
Conquest:
So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.”
SUCCESSION
Glorification:
And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.”

  • The focus in the second challenge is the authority of John and Jesus, related to the theme of Hierarchy.
  • The placement of “heaven” and “man” at the center of the pattern (Testing) relates to the submission required by God’s true representatives. In the festal pattern, this is Pentecost, the union of heaven and man by the Spirit.
  • The disingenuous reasoning of the rulers at Maturity relates to their role as false prophets among the people, those who fear man rather than God. Their testimony at Oath/Sanctions is serpentine.
  • Instead of enlightenment in the final line, the darkness is compounded for these blind leaders of the blind. They loved darkness rather than light.

Ascension

Ethics-Priesthood – Land & Primary Fruit Bearers – Leviticus – Presentation – Firstfruits
Paying Taxes to Caesar (Matthew 22:15-22)

Initiation: Then the Pharisees went and plotted how to entangle him in his words.
Delegation: And they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying,
Presentation: “Teacher, we know that you are true and teach the way of God truthfully, and you do not care about anyone’s opinion, for you are not swayed by appearances.
Purification: Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?”
Transformation: But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why put me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius.
Vindication: And Jesus said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They said, “Caesar’s.” Then he said to them, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
Representation: When they heard it, they marveled. And they left him and went away.

  • Identifying this encounter as the “Firstfruits” challenge sheds some light on its meaning. The question concerns the fact that the Jews desired their own kingdom, like that of David and Solomon, rather than being subject to a Gentile power. But their ministry among the Gentiles for five centuries was divinely sanctioned. The rise of the Herods on the coattails of Rome was merely another attempt to grasp kingdom before God’s time. The Herodian dynasty, referred to by Paul as “the man of sin,” was the ultimate expression not only of the sin of Israel in 1 Samuel 8, but also of Adam’s theft from the tree of “kingdom” in Genesis 3. If the Jews had humbled themselves before God, they would have been exalted, just as Daniel was at the beginning of this oikoumene era. Instead, through the Herods, they attempted to exalt themselves, putting kingdom before priesthood. Jesus’ answer is thus related to the cost of having a king, as described by the prophet Samuel. Not only would the tribes be obligated to support the priesthood with their substance (the things belonging to God), but also the kingdom which they desired (the things belonging to the king).
  • The careful ordering of the subject matter to fit the theme of each of the seven steps is brilliant. The Pharisees are the false authority who send their hellbent delegation – notably a contingent of priestly disciples and kingly patriots – and their “sermon” begins with serpentine flattery. The trap concerns the Ethics of the Covenant (Testing/Purification) and at Maturity, where plunder and plagues are common symbols, Jesus calls for a coin. At Vindication, Priesthood and Kingdom are united in the Prophetic pronouncement of Jesus, the Triune Man.

Testing

Ethics-Kingdom – Governing Lights – Numbers – Purification – Pentecost
Marriage and the Resurrection (Matthew 22:23-33)

Creation: The same day Sadducees came to him, who say that there is no resurrection, and they asked him a question, saying, (Sabbath)
Division: “Teacher, Moses said, If a man dies having no children, his brother must marry the widow and raise up offspring for his brother.’ (Passover)
Ascension: Now there were seven brothers among us. The first married and died, and having no offspring left his wife to his brother. So too the second and third, down to the seventh. After them all, the woman died. (Firstfruits)
Testing: In the resurrection, therefore, of the seven, whose wife will she be? For they all had her.” (Pentecost)
Maturity: But Jesus answered them, “You are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God. For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven. (Trumpets)
Conquest: And as for the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was said to you by God: I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not God of the dead, but of the living.” (Atonement)
Glorification: And when the crowd heard it, they were astonished at his teaching. (Booths)

  • Just like the Ten Words, the central challenge concerns death and sex, issues of the flesh.
  • The underlying theme here seems to be Israel’s festal calendar, with the Sadducees questioning God’s words concerning death and entering into God’s rest (Sabbath). The Passover line concerns offspring between rival brothers and at Firstfruits we find the barrenness of womb which plagued Israel on behalf of all nations (the “woman” often appears at Ascension as a promise of fruitfulness to be inherited at Glorification).
  • After the central challenge, where the seven men are the “governing lights” in the sky, starry sons of Abraham who share in his curse, Jesus invokes the heavenly hosts at Trumpets, those who serve God in Spirit. The cycles of earthly succession – like those of the Aaronic Priesthood – will give way to eternal realities in the ascended Christ, a better High Priest.
  • Identification of the Covenant-literary structure explains Jesus’ answer. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob all faced challenges and rivals concerning the fruit of the land and the womb, that is, the inheritance promised by God to Israel of which they were only given a foretaste. The writer of Hebrews tells us that these believers understood that even the inheritance of Canaan was only a foretaste of a greater and ultimate glory, and Revelation describes the Old Testament saints and first century martyrs inheriting that blessed state.

Maturity

Ethics-Prophecy – Swarms/Hosts/Clouds – Deuteronomy – Transformation – Trumpets
The Great Commandment (Matthew 22:34-40)

TRANSCENDENCE
Genesis:
But when the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together. (Creation)
HIERARCHY
Exodus:
And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. (Division)
ETHICS
Leviticus:
“Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” (Ascension)
Numbers: And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. (Testing)
Deuteronomy: This is the great and first commandment. (Maturity)
OATH/SANCTIONS
Joshua:
And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. (Conquest)
SUCCESSION
Judges:
On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” (Glorification)

  • “Deuteronomy” means “second law,” referring to Moses repeating the Law to a new generation of Israel: a second chance to take possession of the Land. This was a wider “fractal” iteration of the giving of a second set of tablets at Sinai. In the largest iteration, it is the contrast between the “external” law of the Old Covenant and the “internal” law of the Spirit of the New, illustrated most obviously in the contrast between the first and last Pentecosts. That is the background of the question from the lawyer and the response of Jesus: the purpose of the Law of God is always to circumcise and soften the heart towards God and our fellow men. Thus, the mention of love for God is at the center of the pattern (corresponding to Pentecost), and love for our neighbours appears at Atonement. Interestingly, the sixth letter in Revelation was address to the saints in Philadelphia, which means “brotherly love.”2See Living Menora.
  • The symmetry of the question from the lawyer (Division) and Jesus’ mention of brotherly love (Conquest) highlights this response as a rebuke of the hateful intent of the challenge.
  • The placement of the Law and the Prophets in the final line (Representation) speaks of Jesus superseding Moses and Elijah as the legal representative of God.

Conquest

Oath/Sanctions – Animals and Man – Joshua – Vindication – Atonement
Whose Son is the Christ? (Matthew 22:41-45)

TRANSCENDENCE
Initiation: Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them a question, saying,
HIERARCHY
Delegation: “What do you think about the Christ? Whose son is he?” They said to him, “The son of David.”
ETHICS: Priesthood
Presentation: He said to them, “How is it then that David, in the Spirit, calls him Lord, saying,
ETHICS: Kingdom
Purification: “‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet”’?
ETHICS: Prophecy
Transformation: If then David calls him Lord, how is he his son?”
OATH/SANCTIONS
Vindication: And no one was able to answer him a word,
SUCCESSION
Representation: nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.

  • Once again, the first line mentions a gathering together but in the sense of “ganging up” on Jesus, just as Joseph’s brothers united against him. The word is sunagó, the root of synagogue. Of course, this pictures the Jews as a synagogue of Satan, a nest of vipers, the seed of the serpent confronting the Seed of the Woman.
  • Placing the “sacrificial” matrix sequence (Initiation, etc.) alongside the text highlights some wonderful ironies in this “Atonement” challenge. At Initiation, Jesus is the “silent” lamb, a son from the herd whose question concerning His qualification as Messiah silences His enemies. At Delegation, Jesus leads them into a logical trap concerning His lineage (and “son” in the Passover line is also sacrificial). At Presentation, David, under inspiration, “opens the scroll” concerning the mystery, and describes the authority of the true King under God at Purification. Mentioning David again (symmetrically), Jesus highlights not only the role of the prophets as spiritual “fathers,” those who represented the Father in heaven, to kings and other prophets – notably Joseph (Genesis 45:8), Samuel (1 Samuel 10:11-12; 1 Samuel 17:55-58) and Elijah (2 Kings 2:12), but also David in a more literal sense, both Word and flesh. The incarnation and ascension of Christ brought an end to the need for earthly “fathers” (Matthew 23:9) since the Spirit now empowers all the Lord’s people to be prophets (Numbers 11:29). At Vindication, those under the Mosaic Oath are silenced while Jesus in vindicated. At Representation, Jesus is clearly the true legal representative of God, and successor to Moses and Elijah, just as the Father announced at His transfiguration (Matthew 17:5).

Glorification

Succession – Rest and Rule – Judges – Representation – Booths
Condemnation of Unjust Judges (Matthew 23:1-36)

TRANSCENDENCE
DAY 1 – Light and Darkness: “But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in.” (Sabbath)
HIERARCHY
DAY 2 – Firmament: “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you devour widows’ houses, even while for a pretence you make long prayers: therefore you shall receive greater condemnation.” (Passover)
ETHICS: Priesthood
DAY 3 – Land & Sea, Fruitbearers: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.” (Firstfruits)
ETHICS: Kingdom
DAY 4 – Governing Lights: “Woe to you, blind guides, who say, If anyone swears by the temple, it is nothing, but if anyone swears by the gold of the temple, he is bound by his oath.’ You blind fools!…” (Pentecost)
ETHICS: Prophecy
DAY 5 – Swarms/Hosts: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness…”
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence…” (Trumpets)
OATH/SANCTIONS
DAY 6 – Animals & Man (Mediators): “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness.” (Atonement)
SUCCESSION
DAY 7 – Rest and Rule: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the monuments of the righteous… (Booths)

  • Although some manuscripts omit the second woe listed here, not only is it found in Mark 12:40 and Luke 20:47 but it is necessary for the complete “festal” sequence in this condemnation of the scribes and Pharisees. Indeed, Luke also mentions their desire for the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honour at feasts. The idea is that these men were not “open doors” to the kingdom but a veil of darkness to the people whom they were commissioned to serve.
  • Since there are actually eight woes, we would expect there to be two placed at Ascension, since that is a common occurrence. The first would represent the Altar (Land) and the Table (its fruits), but here those are combined in a single woe at the land and see and the children of hell, a terrifying condemnation of Jewish proselytes as sons of Pharaoh, or “child sacrifices” in a spiritual sense. The extra woe appears instead in the Trumpets slot (which is not uncommon), speaking of two legal witnesses. Here they seem to allude once more to the ministries of Moses (justice and mercy and faithfulness) and Elijah (witness to Israel’s kings). You might also notice that the herbs allude to the Altar-Land and the cup and plate allude to the Table. The message is that the Jews considered themselves to be dining in heaven (at the Altar of Incense) without prior submission to God on earth (the Bronze Altar).
  • In the final woe, Jesus condemns them as “sons” of those who murdered the prophets, and His words would be vindicated in the slaughter of the Firstfruits (Apostolic) Church. He states that that generation would be held accountable for all the righteous blood shed upon the land, beginning with Abel, since shedding innocent human blood was always a rejection of substitutionary atonement. Jesus weeps over Jerusalem, and this gives us the context of the events He prophesies in Matthew 24 and 25. To claim otherwise, even partially, is not only illogical but also demonstrates an ignorance of the Old Testament and the role of the prophet as one sent to “repossess” the gifts of God through “plunder and plagues.”

If you are new to this method of interpretation, please visit the Welcome page for some help to get you up to speed.

References   [ + ]

1. For more discussion of this reference, see Psalm 8: How Noble is Your Name.
2. See Living Menora.

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