Reflections for Holy Week (This first appeared in the Anglican Compass.)
“Then the devil took Jesus to the holy city. (Matthew 4:5)
[All verses come from the esv.org/verses/Matthew]
As I have written previously in this series, it was only a few decades ago that I started to see Jesus as a Jew. For the decades before that time, I was convinced by what Jesus told the Samaritan woman that Jerusalem was no longer important to him.
Believe me, woman, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. (John 4:21)
It made sense. If Jesus came to shift focus away from the narrow-minded Judaism of his day—which most scholars had assumed—and redirect eyes to the whole world, then the Jerusalem-focus of the Old Testament was obsolete. And if Jesus told the Samaritan woman that future worship would not be centered on Jerusalem, then he too appeared to relativize the OT attention to Jerusalem.
The holy city
But then I was surprised—and humbled—once again (as on other issues in this series). I was shocked to discover that this same Jesus whom I loved inspired New Testament authors to write about Jerusalem with reverence. Could they have been wrong?
Four times in the NT Jerusalem is called the holy city. As we see above toward the beginning of Matthew, the devil took Jesus to the holy city to tempt him to jump off the top of the temple (Matthew 4:5). Near the end of Matthew we are told that after the resurrection of Jesus, many bodies of the saints came out of their tombs, came into the holy city, and appeared to many (Matthew 27:53). We read from John in Revelation that the gentiles will trample the holy city for 42 months (Revelation 11:2), and God will bring down from heaven the holy city Jerusalem (Revelation 21:10).
Why had I never noticed this startling phrase mentioned not just once but three times? And in books that orthodox Christians have said for two thousand years were inspired by the Holy Spirit in every verse and word?
Jerusalem welcoming Jesus
Then I was startled yet again to see that Jesus not only spoke of a future for Jerusalem (in those verses from Revelation) but prophesied that there would be a time after his death and resurrection when the residents of Jerusalem would welcome him.
Jerusalem, Jerusalem . . . you will not see me until you say, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the LORD” (Matthew 23:37, 39).
Jesus was prophesying that someday in the future Jews in the holy city would recognize him as Messiah and greet him joyously with open arms.
Jesus prophesies the destruction of the temple
Jesus prophesied not only the distant future of Jerusalem but also its near future. With great grief, he told his disciples that his beloved Jerusalem would be destroyed, and the temple leveled.
Jerusalem . . . how many times I wanted to gather together your children, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you did not want to. Look, your house is going to be be left desolate . . . Do you see all these [buildings]? Not one stone upon the other will escape being torn down (Matthew 23:37; 24:2).
Jesus did not welcome Jerusalem’s destruction but lamented it as a tragic necessity. God would uphold his covenant, disciplining his people and beloved city while promising future restoration—as he had done after their previous two exiles. And most scholars look to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD, by the Roman legions under General Titus and Emperor Vespasian, as the fulfillment of Jesus’ prophecy.
Jerusalem no longer trodden down by Gentiles
Jesus hinted that future restoration in yet another prophecy about Jerusalem, this one implied but equally remarkable, and one that has relevance for our day.
Jerusalem will be trodden down by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are completed (Luke 21:24).
“Trodden down” was a Hebraic term for political control. Jerusalem, Jesus said, would be controlled by the Gentiles until the end of the “times of the Gentiles.” Jesus made this prediction after about ninety years of Gentile control of Jerusalem, which started in 63 BC when the Roman general Pompey conquered Judea. Jesus was prophesying that someday in the future Jews would regain control of Jerusalem.
Could this have been fulfilled in 1967 when Israeli paratroopers captured East Jerusalem? This eastern sector had been controlled by Jordan since shortly after the 1948 war that started as soon as Israel declared itself a new state. This took place roughly 1937 years after Jesus made this remarkable prediction.
If the retaking of the whole city in 1967 was a fulfillment of Jesus’ prophecy, then you might guess the intriguing implication—that we are in the beginning of the end of “the times of the gentiles.” Which means that we are on the cusp of a change in the history of redemption. These are exciting times.
True worship everywhere and in Jerusalem
The hour is coming, and now is, when true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth (John 4:23).
Doesn’t this show all the more that Jerusalem was no longer important for Jesus?
The great NT scholar Richard Hays does not think so. He has argued at length that we should think of the gospels as speaking on different levels. For, he points out, Mark’s Jesus declares of the Jerusalem temple, My house shall be a house of prayer for all the nations (Mark 11:17), affirming Isaiah’s vision of an eschatologically restored Jerusalem and temple. In Matthew Jesus surprises Christians (most have never seen this) by saying that God still dwells in the Jerusalem temple of his day (Matthew 23:21).
So the NT composite picture of Jesus on Jerusalem is that its temple is both God’s house and the symbol of Jesus’ body as God’s house. True worship, for Jesus, will be everywhere in spirit and in truth, and centered in Jerusalem in the eschaton (see Revelation 21).
In sum, Jesus showed that Jerusalem was important to him in the first century and will be important to him in the future when he returns. We might want to follow the NT writers in calling it the holy city.