Once and Future King

Triumphal Entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, medieval fresco in the David Gareja monastery complex, Kakheti region, Georgia

     Remember the excitement over Barrack Obama’s candidacy in 2008? His cult-like following. Huge crowds shouting, “Yes, we can!” Now imagine if after winning the Democratic nomination he had said, “Actually I’m not interested in becoming president. I just want to be a motivational speaker and travel around the country, helping people improve their lives and realize their full potential.” Can you imagine the disappointment and anger of his followers at that point? If so, you get an idea of why the Jewish crowds who cheered Jesus at his Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem, turned on him within a week and called for his crucifixion.The problem was caused by a misunderstanding of Jesus’ identity. Like the crowds in that first Palm Sunday celebration, I want us to ask the question, Who is this?

Our text for this Palm Sunday comes from Matthew 21:1-11, though the story of Jesus’ Triumphal Entry can be found in the other three canonical gospels as well (Mark 11:1-11, Luke 19:29-44, John 12:12-19).

     Messiah means “annointed one” because in biblical times kings were not crowned; they were annointed with olive oil. (It is perhaps more than a coincidence that Jesus has this coming out party of sorts on the Mount of Olives.) The Greek word for annointed one is christos, where we get “Christ.” Let’s remember that Christ is not Jesus’ last name; it’s his title. When we call Jesus, “Christ,” we’re confessing that we believe he is the Messiah, the annointed king of Israel.

     In Jewish prophecy Messiah is the decendant of David and future king of Israel who will rule over a time of universal peace. This idea of a promised savior was powerful in Jesus day,  because the Holy Land was occupied by the Romans. While Roman rule was nothing like the oppression of the Israelites in Egypt centuries earlier, it wasn’t fun either. No one wants the their country ruled by a foreign power. The Jewish people chaffed under the heavy hand of the Roman Empire, and this little strip of land on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean became a hotbed of unrest. To the Romans it was like the wild west of the nineteenth century or Afghanistan today. Do something to offend these people’s religion and they’ll start a riot and begin killing people.

     First-century Jews in Israel wanted the Messiah to come, and that’s what they thought Jesus was signaling when he rode into town on a donkey. It was a deliberate claim to be the fulfillment of prophecy concerning the coming Davidic King. In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus even quotes a specific Old Testament prediction: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion; shout, O daughter of Jerusalem: behold, thy King cometh unto thee: he is just, and having salvation; lowly, and riding upon an ass, and upon a colt the foal of an ass” (Zech. 9:9). The last “and” here is probably best translated “even,” since parallelism is a common feature of Hebrew poetry and one animal is intended, not two. Mark’s Gospel mentions only “a colt,” but Matthew’s account has both “an ass and … a colt.” While it’s possible that Matthew adjusted his account to fit a misunderstanding of the verse in Zechariah, I think it’s more likely there were two animals but Mark mentioned only the one Jesus actually rode on.

     The symbolism of riding in on a donkey was unmistakable. In ancient Israel kings rode horses in battle, they rode donkeys if they came in peace. When Jesus came to Jeruslem the Jewish authorities had alredy planned to arrest him (John 11:57); nevertheless, he came in peace. Isaiah called him the “prince of peace” and he brings spiritual peace above all. At his Second Coming Jesus will not ride a doney but a white horse when he comes to “judge and make war” (Rev. 19:11). It is significant that when he quoted Zechariah Jesus stopped quoting just before the following words: “And I will cut off the chariot from Ephraim, and the horse from Jerusalem, and the battle bow shall be cut off: and he shall speak peace unto the heathen: and his dominion shall be from sea even to sea, and from the river even to the ends of the earth” (Zech. 9:10). This part of the prophecy is better suited to the events surrounding his Second Coming than his Incarnation.

     Now back to Jesus’ Triumphal Entry. . . . Can you imagine the scene? Noisy crowds gather on a hillside, overlooking Jerusalem,  gleaming in the midmorning sun. The smell of olivewood mixes with dust. Young women try to quiet their crying babies. Someone shouts, “Here he comes!” Heads turn and children, trying to see, stand on their toes. A roar goes up from the crowd as a bearded man, riding sidesaddle, trotts in on a donkey. People are waving branches and shouting, “Hossanah! Save us!” Now they’re laying down the branches and even their coats, lining the path in front of him. Smiling, Jesus rides on toward Jerusalem, surrounded by a crowd cheering him on. Then someone turns to his neighbor and asks, “Who is this?”

     It’s surprising to me that Jesus let the people honor him in this manner, even though they didn’t understand who he was. Why did he allow this? I think he allowed it because it was fitting; it was the right thing to do. Consider a different scene: a group of sailors are standing around, and a man in a dark business suit approaches. One of them calls out “attention on deck.” Everybody stands up and salutes. After the man passes someone says, “Who was that guy?” The sailor who called the group to attention replies, “The Secretary of the Navy.” All gave the SECNAV the honor he deserved, even though only one knew who he was was. Do you think the Secretary of the Navy would disapprove if he realized what had happened? I don’t think so, though I’m sure he’d prefer it if all his sailors knew him well enough to recognize him on sight. It’s the same way with Jesus. He deserves praise from everyone and everything (even rocks!), but it’s better when those who are celebrating his prescence know who he really is.

     Indeed there are different kinds of knowledge. There’s intellectual knowledge and personal (sometimes called “mystical”) knowledge. It’s good for us to know who Jesus is in our minds, to get our doctrine about who he is correct. It’s even better for us to know him personally, to get our hearts right with him. The bystanders on the first Palm Sunday asked, Who is this? It’s still an important question today: Who is this man called Jesus? And what is he to you?

     It’s good to know Jesus as Messiah and King, but it’s even better if you also know him as your personal Savior and Lord.

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