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Following Jesus into Jerusalem

When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples and said to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.’” They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, some of the bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it. Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting,
    Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
10     Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
11 Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve. (Mark 11:1-11)
In this passage, I think we can see at least three important things about Jesus and three important things about the crowd on that first Palm Sunday. First, let’s look at the three things we can learn here about Jesus.
First, Jesus planned his own parade. Why do I say that? Well, it can appear, on a surface reading of this passage, as though Jesus has some supernatural knowledge about the colt he wants to ride into Jerusalem. Part of the reason it seems that way is because in Mark’s Gospel this is the first time that Jesus enters Jerusalem. However, when we read Luke’s Gospel and John’s Gospel (John 2:13; 5:1; 7:10) it becomes clear that this is not Jesus’ first time visiting Jerusalem. He was there many times before this. In fact, Jesus probably went regularly to Jerusalem for the great festivals. When we take that fact into account, along with the fact that the text does not tell us that Jesus has supernatural knowledge in this instance, then it becomes clearer what is going on.
Jesus apparently knew someone in the village of Bethphage, which was closer to Jerusalem than Bethany, and he arranged with them ahead of time to borrow their colt. Bethphage was one of the circle of villages that marked the limit of a Sabbath day’s journey from Jerusalem. That means it was less than one mile away. It was also one of the places where pilgrims would commonly stay during the Passover when Jerusalem was full.
Now, the Jewish prophets of old had a special way of getting their message across when the people would not heed mere words. The prophets, in these cases, would do something dramatic; they would enact their message. (See 1 Kings 11:30-32.) Jesus does the same thing here. He does something dramatic to make his messianic claim clear.
Jesus did not leave this to the last moment. He knew exactly what he wanted to do and made arrangements with a friend ahead of time. That’s why he sends the disciples into Bethphage with a sort of password: “The Lord needs it.” It was not a sudden or reckless decision on Jesus’ part to go up to Jerusalem at this time; it was what he was preparing for all along. Jesus planned his own parade.
And that leads to the second thing we see Jesus doing in this passage. Jesus fulfilled Scripture. Mark does not quote here the Scripture that Jesus fulfilled, but Matthew and John do. The Scripture is Zechariah 9:9 which says:
Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you;
triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

Mark doesn’t spell out that the colt is the foal of a donkey; for all that Mark tells us, it could have been a horse. But Matthew, John, and Zechariah make clear that it is a donkey. Now, this is important because among the Jewish people of that time, a donkey was not looked down upon. Rather, the donkey was a noble animal, a royal mount. When kings went to war, they rode on horses, but when they came in peace, they rode on donkeys.

There were other Scriptures Jesus fulfilled without trying, like being born in Bethlehem. Jesus did not have any control over that, just like none of us determine where we are born. But Jesus took control of this situation, to fulfill Zechariah 9:9 and to send a message to his people.

What was that message? The message was that he was coming as King of Peace. But this was not what the Jewish people were expecting of their Messiah, their King. The Psalms of Solomon, which were written about this time, show us what they were expecting….

Behold, O Lord, and raise up unto them their king, the son of David, at the time known to you, O God, in order that he may reign over Israel your servant. And gird him with strength, that he may shatter unrighteous rulers, and that he may purge Jerusalem from gentiles who trample (her) down to destruction. Wisely, righteously he shall thrust out sinners from (the) inheritance; he shall destroy the arrogance of the sinner as a potter’s jar. With a rod of iron he shall shatter all their substance; he shall destroy the godless nations with the word of his mouth. At his rebuke nations shall flee before him, and he shall reprove sinners for the thoughts of their heart….

He shall be compassionate to all nations who (shall be) in fear before him. He will smite the earth with the word of his mouth forever. (Psalms of Solomon 17:21-25, 35)

This was the kind of literature that was feeding the peoples’ imagination at the time of Jesus. They wanted a king who would shatter the power of the Romans and deliver their homeland back to their control. Jesus knew this, but he came with a different agenda. He came as King of peace. His actions, on Palm Sunday especially, went against the grain of all that his people hoped for and expected in a Messiah.

Now let’s look at the crowd and how they responded to Jesus.

They responded in a way reminiscent of 1 Maccabees 13:51, one of the apocryphal books that is contained in some Bibles. Let me give you some background, then I will read the verse.

There was a Hellenistic Greek king of the Seleucid Empire who reigned from 175 to 164 BC. His name was Antiochus IV. He had a title that he inscribed on coins, “Theos Epiphanes”, which means “God manifest”. Thus, he wanted people to worship him as divine.

Another one of his goals was to spread Greek culture everywhere he went and thus unite people under his leadership. When he tried to do this in Judea, he did so by setting up an altar to Zeus, and also probably an image of Zeus, in the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, and he offered pig’s flesh on the altar. This was the “abomination of desolation” spoken of by the prophet Daniel.

In the town of Modein, there lived a Jewish priest named Mattathias, who had five sons: John, Simon, Judas, Eleazar, and Jonathan. When Antiochus’ officer arrived in Modein to enforce the royal decree, he asked Mattathias to take the lead in offering a sacrifice to a pagan god. Mattathias refused and when another Jew offered to obey, Mattathias cut him down beside the pagan altar, along with Antiochus’ officer. Mattathias then fled with his sons and invited all the Jewish people who were zealous for the law to follow him. Together they launched a guerrilla war against the Seleucids. Mattathias died within a few months and leadership of this warring band passed to his third son Judas, who was nicknamed “Maccabeus”, which means “the hammer”.

Judas launched a full-scale struggle for Jewish independence. Eventually, Judas marched triumphantly into Jerusalem, bottled the Seleucid garrison up in the citadel, and proceeded to cleanse the desecrated Temple. In December 164 BC, three years to the month after its profanation, the Temple was rededicated with feasting and great joy. The Jews have celebrated the Feast of Hanukkah ever since in commemoration of this glad event.[1]

That brings us to 1 Maccabees 13:51. Judas’ actions did not bring about the end of war. There continued to be various skirmishes. At a later time, Judas’ brother Simon entered Jerusalem. We read the context beginning in 1 Maccabees 13:49….

Those who were in the citadel at Jerusalem were prevented from going in and out to buy and sell in the country. So they were very hungry, and many of them perished from famine. 50 Then they cried to Simon to make peace with them, and he did so. But he expelled them from there and cleansed the citadel from its pollutions. 51 On the twenty-third day of the second month, in the one hundred seventy-first year, the Jews entered it with praise and palm branches, and with harps and cymbals and stringed instruments, and with hymns and songs, because a great enemy had been crushed and removed from Israel. 52 Simon decreed that every year they should celebrate this day with rejoicing. He strengthened the fortifications of the temple hill alongside the citadel, and he and his men lived there. 53 Simon saw that his son John had reached manhood, and so he made him commander of all the forces; and he lived at Gazara.

So when Jesus entered Jerusalem as he did, it reminded the people of what Judas and Simon had done more than 160 years before him and they greeted him in the same way they had greeted them, with palm branches.

The crowd’s response is also reminiscent of how they greeted another one of the bloody kings of Israel, Jehu. We read in 2 Kings 9:13, “Then hurriedly they all took their cloaks and spread them for him on the bare steps; and they blew the trumpet, and proclaimed, ‘Jehu is king.’”

So when we put all this together, it becomes clear that the Jewish people wanted Jesus to become their king. However, they wanted him to become the kind of king who would drive the Romans out of Palestine and give them their independence.

This becomes even clearer when we look at what the people shouted to Jesus on Palm Sunday. They shouted a quote from Psalm 118:26, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”

This was the regular greeting with which pilgrims were addressed when they reached the Temple during the great feasts. In that sense, this shout was perfectly ordinary. But the shout had a double meaning in this case. “He who comes” was another name for the Messiah. Psalm 118 was probably composed around 164 BC after Judas Maccabeus drove Antiochus Epiphanes out of Jerusalem and the people cleansed the Temple.

Is it not fascinating that Jesus also cleansed the Temple? After entering Jerusalem on what we know as Palm Sunday, Jesus went into the Temple on Monday and drove out the buyers and the sellers and overturned the tables of the money changers. Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple was seen as a revolutionary act. It got him into such trouble that the Jewish authorities called for his execution by the Romans.

Now let’s look at one final thing the crowd shouted to Jesus. They shouted “Hosanna” which means save now. The crowd was asking Jesus to save them now from the Romans. The same word is used in 2 Samuel 14:4 and 2 Kings 6:26.

Let me close by asking some important questions. First, do we understand why Jesus came? The people living in first century Jerusalem did not. They wanted Jesus to be a conquering king who would free them from Roman rule. Instead, Jesus came as the King of peace who wanted to free people from the domination of sin.

Secondly, are we asking Jesus to save us now? What do we want Jesus to save us from? What do we want him to save us to? Jesus does not simply offer to save us from the penalty for our sin, which is death. He offers to save us to an abundant life, full of meaning and purpose.

[1] John Bright, A History of Israel, Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1981, pp. 422-427.


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