The Triumphal Entry
1. And when they drew near unto Jerusalem, unto Bethphage and Bethany, at the Mount of Olives, He sends out two of His disciples,
2. And says to them, “Go into the village opposite you; and straightway going into it, you shall find a colt tied, on which no man has sat; having loosed him, bring [him].
3. And if anyone say to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ say ye that the Lord has need of him; and straightway he will send him here.”
4. And they went and found the colt tied at the door outside, where two ways met; and they loose him.
5. And some of those that stood there said to them, “What do you do, loosing the colt?”
6. And they said to them as Jesus had commanded; and they let them go.
7. And they led the colt to Jesus and cast their garments on it; and He sat upon it.
8. And many spread their garments in the way; and others cut branches from the trees, and spread [them] in the way.
9. And they that went before, and they that followed, cried, saying, “Hosanna! Blessed [is] He that comes in the name of the Lord!
10. Blessed [is] the kingdom of our father David, that comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!”
11. And Jesus entered into Jerusalem, and into the temple; and when He had looked around at all [things], and already the eventide was come, He went out to Bethany with the twelve.
It has been three years since Jesus first gathered together His disciples. During that time Jesus has traveled throughout Israel and the surrounding lands, preaching the gospel, opening blind eyes, healing diseases, casting out demons, feeding multitudes, and inspiring people with hope. No one in world history had ever caused such a sensation or worked so many miracles. Wherever He went, the people were amazed and astonished, grateful that Jesus had come to them.
Everyone, that is, except the religious leaders who resented Jesus’ growing popularity with the people. As their resentment grew into hatred, they became determined to put Him to death. As long as Jesus and His disciples stayed clear of Jerusalem, confining their ministry to other areas, they had been reasonably safe. But now, as Jesus enters Jerusalem at the cusp of His popularity, the religious leaders take it as a blatant challenge to their authority. Jesus knows what the result will be. He has already told His disciples on three occasions. He will be mocked, scourged, spit upon, and finally crucified.
So why is He going there? And what about the disciples? Are they merely going along for the ride, dreaming of high positions and honor for themselves when Jesus becomes king? After all, the ancient prophecies speak of a Messiah, one who will become a mighty king of Israel. The Hebrew scriptures, for example, prophesied that the Messiah would be called a great and wonderful ruler who would not only protect the meek and the poor but would also “strike the earth with the rod of His mouth, and slay the wicked with the breath of His lips” (Isaiah 11:4). And in another place it is written that “There shall be no end to the increase of His government” (Isaiah 9:7).
The disciples do not interpret these prophecies spiritually; they do not understand that the power of truth, spoken through the lips of Jesus, will overcome the power of hell, conquering evil and falsity. Rather, they take it all literally, fully expecting that Jesus, as the promised Messiah, will take up His power and reign, as prophesied by Zechariah: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your King is coming to you; He is just and having salvation, lowly and riding on a donkey, a colt the foal of a donkey” (Zechariah 9:9).
This is the dramatic background as Jesus and His disciples enter Jerusalem. Imagine the breathless anticipation. The people are wondering, Will this be the moment when Jesus announces before the people that He is the Messiah? It certainly looks that way, especially when He tells two disciples to “Go into the village … find a colt on which no one has sat, loose it, and bring it to Me” (Mark 11:2). Five hundred years earlier, Zechariah had prophesied that a King — a Messiah — would come riding into Jerusalem “on a colt, the foal of a donkey” (Zechariah 9:9). And now, on this day, as ancient prophecy becomes contemporary reality, “they went their way and found the colt . . . and they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their garments on it, and He sat on it” (Mark 11:4, 7).
The image of the Jesus sitting on the garments while riding on the back of a colt is deeply symbolic. On one level it is the literal fulfillment of Zechariah’s prophecy. But on a deeper level it pictures three levels of spiritual order. The highest level is the realm of love. This is Jesus, the very incarnation of divine love. Secondly, Jesus is sitting upon the garments of the disciples. Just as garments protect the body, truth protects the soul. Even so, our rational understanding of truth (the garments of the disciples) must always be subordinated to the rule of love (Jesus sitting on the garments). This is because truth serves as a vehicle through which love can express itself. On the lowest level is the colt, a simple beast of burden who represents our natural actions — those things that we do from love (highest level) through truth (middle level) so as to be useful in the world (lowest level). 1
And so, Jesus makes His triumphal entry into Jerusalem riding upon a colt. Even though these more interior meanings are far from the understanding of the people, they could still sense that something momentous was taking place. Following the ancient protocol, which was to hail the coming king, they spread their garments on the road, along with leafy branches so that Jesus could ride His colt over them. These actions continue the imagery of subordination, representing the desire to lay everything we have before the Lord, even our very lives.
It should be pointed out, however, that subordination to God is not groveling submission. Rather, it should be done with the greatest willingness and joy. In subordinating ourselves to the rule of God, we are hailing a King who will wisely reign over us and lead us to victory over our spiritual enemies. Jesus’ triumphal entry, therefore, represents the moment when true believers welcome “King Jesus” into their life, shouting with the people of Jerusalem, “Hosanna! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!” (Mark 11:9).
This is the triumphal entry of Jesus, not only into the city of Jerusalem, but into the inner recesses of the human mind. We read, therefore, that “Jesus went into Jerusalem and into the temple” (Mark 11:11). As Jesus comes into our mind (our spiritual “temple”) with the truths of His Word, He gives us the ability to see through His eyes so that we might carefully examine our thoughts and intentions. In fact, He gives us a thorough opportunity to look around at everything. As it is written, “After He looked around at all things, as it was evening, He went out to Bethany with the twelve” (Mark 11:11).
Not the Season for Figs
12. And on the next day, when they were coming out from Bethany, He was hungry;
13. And seeing a fig tree far off having leaves, He came, if perhaps He might find anything on it; and coming to it, He found nothing except leaves; for it was not the time of figs.
14. And Jesus answering said to it, “Let no one eat fruit of thee hereafter for an age.” And His disciples heard.
On the next day, Jesus and His disciples left Bethany and began their trip back to Jerusalem. But along the way Jesus “was hungry” (Mark 11:12). Jesus’ hunger symbolizes His desire to see people living useful, productive lives. The story continues: “And seeing afar a fig tree having leaves, He went to see if perhaps He would find something on it” (Mark 11:13).
In the previous episode we noted that when Jesus came into Jerusalem, and especially “into the temple,” it corresponds to the way He comes into our minds to “look around and see all things.” Similarly, we are invited to use the truths of His Word to “look around at all things” in our mind, to explore our thoughts and intentions and be willing to root out anything contrary to the Lord’s will. Otherwise, we are like fruit trees that produce leaves, perhaps many beautiful leaves, but no fruit. 2
When Jesus gets closer to the tree, He finds that it has “nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs.” In response, He says, “Let no one eat fruit from you ever again” (Mark 11:13-14).
At first glance, Jesus’ curse on the fig-tree seems impetuous and unfair. If it is “not the season for figs,” it is understandable that no figs would be on the tree. Why would Jesus curse a tree before it even had the chance to blossom and bear fruit? Taken literally, this part of the episode is difficult to understand. But when we look more interiorly, we come to realize that Jesus is not talking about fig trees, but rather about human lives. He is using the fig tree as an image of what it looks like when people know the truth, but do not live accordingly. This is particularly important for people who might tend to get caught up in the “leaves” — learning truth — without producing fruit in their own lives. We all need to practice what we preach. Life is not just about leaves. Leaves are important, even essential, but the goal is the fruit — a useful life.
In terms of the historical context, the image of the fruitless tree is a picture of the religious establishment in Jesus’ day. In Jerusalem, and especially in the temple, the chief priests and scribes knew religious truths, but did not use them to improve their own lives or to help others.
Instead, they used their knowledge of truth to enhance their status, wield power over others, and acquire worldly wealth. Although the scriptures taught them to give glory to God in all things, they selfishly arrogated that glory to themselves, while living in luxury and enjoying their positions of honor. Even if they gave credit to God with their lips, their hearts were set on their own glory.
In brief, the religious leaders had stolen from God what belongs to Him alone. In this context, the assertion in the divine narrative that “It was not the season for figs” takes on new meaning. The religious leaders of that day had become so corrupt, so wholly focused on themselves and their own glory, that God could no longer work through them. They had descended to such a low level that they felt no shame, made no excuses for their corrupt practices, and were even proud of themselves. As it is written in the Hebrew scriptures, “They felt no shame at all, even when they did abominable things. Therefore, I will utterly destroy them…. There will be no figs on the fig tree, and the leaves will fall off” (Jeremiah 8:12-13). Because things could not get any worse, the religious leaders of the day and the organization they represented were finished. The only hope for the human race was to establish a new way of loving God and serving the neighbor — a way that would indeed bear fruit. That new way — or new church — had not yet commenced. It was not yet the season for figs. But that time, and that church, were coming. It would be a new religious era. 3
The Beginning of the End
15. And they came into Jerusalem; and Jesus having entered into the temple began to cast out those that sold and bought in the temple, and overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those that sold doves;
16. And would not let anyone carry a vessel through the temple.
17. And He taught, saying to them, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called the house of prayer for all nations?’ But you have made it a cave of robbers.”
18. And the scribes and the chief priests heard, and sought how they might destroy Him; for they feared Him, for all the crowd wondered over His teaching.
19. And when it was evening, He went out of the city.
The title of this section, “The beginning of the end,” may sound rather ominous. It is true that endings are often sad occasions, whether they are the end of a friendship, or the end of a life. But endings can also be occasions for celebration, as, for example, when we come to the end of an illness, or the end of suffering. As we continue to unfold the internal sense of these perfectly connected gospel episodes, it becomes clear that “a season for figs” was about to commence — but not before the old, corrupt tree — the self-serving religious establishment of Jesus’ day — was exposed for what it was, uprooted, and then allowed to wither away.
Before we get too carried away with this interpretation, showering contempt on a self-serving religious organization that existed in history, we need to remember that the Word of God is not about history — it is about eternity. Every incident in the Word mirrors some aspect of our own lives. If we feel incensed about the corruption of religious leaders who do not practice what they preach, we need to look at ourselves to see if we are behaving similarly. For example, if we do not use truth to first examine our own lives and then do good for others, we are no better than the religious leaders of Jesus’ day, who merely symbolize this tendency in ourselves.
The purpose of revelation, therefore, is not to increase our contempt for historical personages or institutions, but to utilize these stories as precious tools for rooting out similar tendencies in ourselves. It is to lead us to become the people God intends us to be. When we come to the end of all of our selfishness, something new begins to dawn: a new church arises within us.
The first step in this process is to examine whatever might be false and corrupt in our own minds. This is illustrated the next day when Jesus “went into the temple and began to drive out those who bought and sold in the temple and overturned the tables of the moneychangers and the seats of those who sold doves” (Mark 11:15). Our minds can be compared to sacred temples; they are designed to be “houses of prayer” where we can dedicate our lives to the service of God, thinking continually about how we can best serve others and thereby glorify God without taking credit for our actions.
But what actually goes on in our minds? What takes place in what should be our “house of prayer”? Are these “houses of prayer” sometimes filled with cunning thieves who steal our joy and take away our trust in God? How long do we allow these thieves and robbers to desecrate our temples before we cast them out? These are the kinds of questions we must ask ourselves when we engage in the self-examination that Jesus invites us to practice. And when we do, He is right there beside us, overturning the tables of the money changers, chasing out those who sell doves, and not allowing anyone to sell merchandise in our temple (Mark 11:16). To each of these secret invaders He says, “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations. But you have made it a den of thieves” (Mark 11:17).
The battle to clear our mind of thieves and robbers is not won in a day. There will be times when our attempts to “cleanse the temple” will be met with hostility and resistance. The demons of our inner world do not give up without a fight. As it is written, “And the scribes and the chief priests heard it and sought how they might destroy Him; for they feared Him, because all the people were astonished at His teaching” (Mark 11:18).
It is indeed the beginning of the end: “And when evening had come, He went out of the city” (Mark 11:19).
A New Day
20. And in the morning, as they went by, they saw the fig tree dried up from the roots.
21. And Peter remembering says to Him, “Rabbi, see, the fig tree which Thou didst curse is dried up.”
22. And Jesus answering says to them, “Have the faith of God.
23. For amen I say to you, that whoever shall say to this mountain, Be thou taken up, and be thou cast into the sea, and shall not doubt in his heart, but shall believe that those things which he says shall come to pass, he shall have whatever he says.
24. Therefore I say to you, All [things] whatever you ask for, having prayed, believe that you shall receive, and it shall be [done] to you.
25. And when you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, that your Father also who is in the heavens may forgive you your trespasses.
26. But if you forgive not, neither will your Father who is in the heavens forgive your trespasses.”
While the previous episode ends with the words, “when evening had come,” the next episode begins with the words, “Now in the morning” (Mark 11:20). As we shall see, the end of one state in us is also the beginning of a new one. As we have mentioned, the lessons of the fig tree without leaves and the temple filled with robbers both refer to the end of a corrupt religious organization that served itself rather than others and glorified itself rather than God. But we also noted that we should use this historical imagery to look at ways in which we are self-serving, seeking our own glory rather than glorifying God. To the extent that we acknowledge and desist from selfish thoughts and behaviors, it is the end of the “old church” in us and the beginning of a “new church.” In the language of the Hebrew scriptures, we have “ceased to do evil” and we are “learning to do good” (Isaiah 1:16). It is the dawn of a new day.
This idea, that the end of the old precedes the beginning of the new is beautifully captured in this next episode. As the story continues, Jesus and His disciples pass by the place where the fig tree was uprooted. Peter, noticing that the fig tree has now dried up from the roots, says to Jesus, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree which You cursed has withered away” (Mark 11:21). The withered fig tree is a powerful symbol of what Jesus can do within us, rooting out our negative thought patterns and destructive desires to the point where they seem to wither away and die — from the roots. This marks the end of the old self — the person we used to be, and the beginning the new self — the person we are becoming.
Mountain moving faith
Jesus now describes the power that can be done through this new self. “Have faith in God,” says Jesus. “For assuredly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be removed and cast into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that those things he says will come to pass, he will have whatever he says” (Mark 11:23). In other words, Jesus is saying that faith in God will give us tremendous spiritual power. It will not just be the power to remove minor irritations (uproot fig trees), but also the power to remove the major character defects that are as large and seemingly immoveable as mountains. In fact, Jesus promises that such mountains will not only be uprooted from their places like the fig tree, but they will be “cast into the sea.”
This kind of teaching heralds a new day for each of us, but we will not get there on our own. In order to uproot fig trees, cleanse temples, and cast mountains into the sea, we will need to turn to God in prayer, having faith in Him who alone can do these things for us and through us. Therefore, Jesus says, “Whatever things you ask when you pray, believe that you receive them, and you will have them” (Mark 11:24).
Among the many things that we can ask for, believing, is the willingness to let go of all the grudges and grievances we have accumulated in a lifetime. When memories of past hurts arise and refuse to be moved, it is as though a mountain of unforgiveness stands in the way of our new life. Knowing this, Jesus says: “And whenever you stand praying, if you have anything against anyone, forgive him, that your Father in heaven may also forgive your trespasses. But if you do not forgive, neither will your Father in heaven forgive your trespasses” (Mark 11:25-26).
This brief lesson on forgiveness reminds us that Jesus has never departed from His central message to His disciples. If they are truly to proclaim the gospel in His name, they will need to send the mountains of pride and self-love back into the sea, back to the hell from which they came. If they can only do this, they will receive that which flows in from heaven: humility, tender-heartedness, a child-like willingness to be taught and led, and, of course, forgiveness. “If you have anything against anyone” says Jesus, “forgive him.”
Jesus also adds a warning: “If you do not forgive, neither will your Father in heaven forgive you.” Jesus is speaking to the limited understanding of His disciples, using an explanation that they can grasp. They did not yet understand that God is forgiveness itself and that the forgiveness of God is unconditional. They did not know, because they had not been taught, that the only thing that prevents the reception of God’s forgiveness is an unrepentant, unforgiving heart. In other words, it’s not a question of God withholding forgiveness; rather, it’s a question of our not being able to receive God’s forgiveness because our heart remains hardened against it. 4
In Jesus’ day, this was a revolutionary teaching. At that time, God was seen as vengeful and angry; the breaking of any commandment was punishable by death, and God was seen as a stern parent who would never forgive his stubborn children. As it is written in the Hebrew scriptures, “The Lord will never be willing to forgive them; His wrath and zeal will burn against them. All the curses written in this book will fall on them, and the Lord will blot out their names from under heaven” (Deuteronomy 29:20). People believed that they had to beg for the Lord’s forgiveness and mercy. As it is written, “Lord, do not withhold your mercy from me” (Psalms 40:11).
Teachings like these helped to solidify the idea that anger and wrath, not forgiveness and mercy, were defining characteristics of God. But everything was beginning to change as the old way of understanding was dying out and a new day was dawning. Jesus was bringing forgiveness from heaven to earth, and with it a new and truer idea of God. Jesus said to His disciples, “If you have anything against anyone, forgive him.” Surely, a new day was beginning.
A Question of Authority
27. And they come again to Jerusalem; and as He is walking in the temple, there come to Him the chief priests, and the scribes, and the elders,
28. And say to Him, “By what authority doest Thou these things? And who gave Thee this authority to do these things?”
29. But Jesus answering said to them, “I will also ask you one thing, and answer Me, and I will tell you by what authority I do these things.
30. The baptism of John, was [it] from heaven, or from men? Answer Me.”
31. And they reasoned with themselves, saying, “If we shall say, ‘From heaven,’ He will say, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’
32. But if we shall say, ‘From men’” — they feared the people, for all held that John was truly a prophet.
33. And they answering said to Jesus, “We know not.” And Jesus answering says to them, “Neither do I say to you with what authority I do these things.”
A house of prayer for all nations
As we have seen, Jesus teaches many things that seemed to contradict the orthodox understanding of religion in biblical times. He gave a new way of understanding marriage and divorce, a new way of understanding wealth and riches, and in the previous episode, He taught a new way of understanding the central importance of forgiveness in religious life. Jesus was indeed introducing the teachings that would help to usher in a new religious era.
One of the most distinctive aspects of these new teachings was a new attituded towards people of other faiths. At that time, the temple in Jerusalem was exclusively for people of the Jewish faith, even though the Lord had said through Jeremiah, “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations” (Isaiah, 56:7; emphasis added). People did not take this to mean that the temple would be open for people of every nation and every religious persuasion. Instead, they took it to mean that all people would eventually convert to the one true religion — the religion that was practiced by the religious leaders in Jerusalem.
In this regard, it’s interesting that although both Matthew and Mark repeat the words of Isaiah, in Matthew it is simply “My house shall be called a house of prayer” (Matthew 21:13), while in Mark it is written that “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations”(11:17; emphasis added). What might be the reason for this difference? It could be that in Matthew, the words “for all nations” are omitted because Matthew focuses more on the gradual realization of the Jesus’ divinity in one’s life. In Mark, however, there is a movement from the individual’s reception of Jesus’ divinity to making this truth known to everyone who will receive. It is a proclamation “for all nations” — not just for one group of people.
Whether Jesus was speaking about a new approach to marriage, a new approach to wealth, or a new approach to worship, He was continually providing new ways to look at the spiritual dimension of religious life. Just as He overturned the tables of the money changers, He was also overturning the way people were thinking about religion. All of this, was met with fierce hostility from the religious leaders who were determined to destroy Jesus and curtail His rising influence. Therefore, as this next episode begins, the religious leaders approach Jesus as He is walking in the temple and say, “By what authority are You doing these things? And who gave You the authority to do these things?” (Mark 11:28).
Dealing with doubt
As we have mentioned, the temple signifies the human mind. In a previous episode Jesus was re-ordering the temple, casting things out that didn’t belong there. This is an image of how He re-orders our minds through the process of repentance, casting out self-love, arrogance, resentment, and hatred while flowing in with the desire to serve others, humility, and — as we just saw in the previous episode — forgiveness. This is when the religious leaders arise in our minds; these are the doubts about the authority and divinity of Jesus’ message. “By what authority are You doing these things?” they say.
This is a key moment in our spiritual development. Jesus has just told His disciples that if they had faith in God and did not doubt they would be able to move mountains. But the key was to have faith in God and not doubt. In this next episode, however, the religious leaders enter with their doubts. “By what authority do you do this?” they say. It’s an old question — one that arises to keep us questioning our faith. In this regard, the religious leaders represent the messages that seek to enter our mind insinuating doubts. “Is Jesus really divine?” they ask. “Is Jesus really the incarnation of God in human form?” “Are the words that Jesus speaks holy and divine?” And even if we answer, “Yes, I believe so,” the doubts and questions continue. “Who says so?” they ask. “How do you know?” and “What makes Jesus your authority?”
Jesus, however, refuses to answer them directly. Instead, He responds with a question of His own: “I also ask you one question; then answer Me, and I will tell you by what authority I do these things: the baptism of John — was it from heaven. Or from men? Answer Me” (Mark 11:29-30). The religious leaders do not dare say “from heaven,” for then they would be admitting that what John said about Jesus is true — that Jesus is, indeed, the Messiah. On the other hand, they don’t dare to say that John’s baptism is “from men” because they fear the people who regard John as an inspired prophet. Therefore, they simply say, “We do not know” (Mark 11:33).
At a more interior level, the “baptism of John” refers to the letter of the Word. The question that Jesus raises, then, is about the divinity of the letter of the Word. Is it divine, or is it merely a product of human imagination? This becomes a crucial consideration when dealing with literal statements in the Word that reveal more about the nature of the people of that time than they do about God. One does not have to read too far to see that the scriptures are filled with statements about the “wrath” and "anger” of God, even though we know that God is never angry or wrathful. For example, the Hebrew scriptures say that “The wrath of the Lord will scorch the earth and the people will be fuel for the fire” (Isaiah 9:19). Are these words from heaven or are they from men?
This is a vital question, for it involves deep issues of faith. It is true that there are many stories and statements in the Word that cannot be taken literally, but this does not make the Word less holy. In fact, every story, every parable, and every teaching in the Word is holy because it contains divine wisdom in finite form. It is similar to what it means to be human. We are human not because we have an earthly covering of flesh, but because we have a human soul. Similarly, the Word of God is from heaven, not because it has an earthly covering of human language, but because this covering contains the infinite love and wisdom of God accommodated to human minds. 5
“The baptism of John,” says Jesus. “Was it from heaven or from men?” In other words, do we believe that the truths contained in the letter of the Word are from heaven or are they from men? Our answer will determine everything. If we believe that they are “from men,” it will raise doubts in our mind, and along with the doubts the words of scripture will have little power to influence our lives. If, however, we believe that these truths are from heaven, and do not doubt, we will have the power to move mountains. The religious leaders who raise doubts in our minds will no longer have an authority over us. Instead our only authority will be the one who enters our life, as He entered Jerusalem, speaking words that are from heaven — words that can become our ultimate authority on earth. 6