Don’t Join the Crowd
James C. Denison
“March Madness” has consumed the nation. When our study group left for Greece, the NCAA basketball tournament had started. When we returned, it was still going on. 64 teams began; 63 will end their season with a loss. They will learn the difference between a friend and a fan–a friend is there when we lose. A fan changes the channel.
We’ve seen Jesus with his Father and with his friends. Now let’s watch his fans, the crowds who gathered on this first Palm Sunday. And let’s learn why we must not join them, at the peril of our lives and souls.
What fans wanted God to do
By most historical reckonings, it was Sunday, April 12, in the year AD 29 when Jesus of Nazareth rode a donkey into Jerusalem.
A “great” crowd of Jews has come from all over the world for the Passover Feast; some ancient historians number them at more than two million.
Now they have “heard that Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem.” They have heard the stories–how he healed the man born blind, and the leper and the paralytic, and raised Lazarus from the dead. For generations they have been taught to pray for their Messiah, the Promised One of God who would liberate his people from their cursed oppressors and establish their nation on earth. Now they believe that their prayers have been answered.
So “they took palm branches and went out to meet him.”
Palm branches were symbols of victory in the ancient world They were printed on Roman victory coins commemorating great battlefield triumphs. They were pictured on Jewish coins during periods of rebellion against Rome. To lay palm branches before a person was the same thing as gathering for a victory parade, welcoming the conquering hero into the city.
Palm trees did not grow in Jerusalem because of the weather. When the people heard that Jesus was coming, they went out into the surrounding areas, cut palm branches, and brought them to the Holy City.
The crowds went out to meet him, shouting “Hosanna!”; “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”; “Blessed is the King of Israel!” (v. 13).
“Hosanna” means “Save us, we pray.” Here the phrase greeted Jesus as their Savior and Liberator.
“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” can be translated, “Having been blessed and now still being blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” The phrase points to the Messiah’s eternal and divine nature.
“The King of Israel” is the conquering hero, the military commander, the revisitation of King David, the ruler who would sit on the Jewish throne forever and ever.
This is the One who would overthrow Pilate and Caesar, drive the cursed Roman soldiers from their streets and cities, and establish the great Jewish nation for all time.
If we were Holocaust camp survivors being liberated by Allied soldiers, we’d be no more excited than these crowds on this day. If we were slaves being emancipated from our owners, or imprisoned East Germans watching in stunned joy as the Berlin Wall was destroyed, we’d feel what they felt.
God was finally going to answer their prayers the way they asked him to. He was finally going to give them what they wanted. He was going to meet their needs. But when he didn’t, how long did their adoration last? How long before “Hosanna” turned to Crucify!”?
What they needed God to do
Jesus knew that they had it all wrong, that the Messiah they wanted was not the Messiah they needed. So he “found a young donkey and sat upon it, as it is written, ‘Do not be afraid, O Daughter of Zion; see, your king is coming, seated on a donkey’s colt'” (vs. 14-15).
A military conqueror rode into a city on a chariot drawn by four white horses with a slave holding a crown over his head. Jesus came on a donkey.
He didn’t have to ride at all–he had just walked the 15 miles from Jericho to Jerusalem, up 3,000 feet of elevation through some of the most difficult terrain to be found in that part of the world. He could have walked into the city. But he chose a donkey, a beast of suffering, a symbol of peace.
He came to fulfill Zechariah 9, a prediction made 567 years earlier that the Messiah would come as a suffering servant and prince of peace. Zechariah’s promise ended, “I will take away the chariots from Ephraim and the war-horses from Jerusalem, and the battle bow will be broken. He will proclaim peace to the nations. His rule will extend from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth” (v. 10).
If Jesus had been the Messiah the crowds wanted, he would have set them free from Rome. But they would still have been slaves. Slaves to sin, to Satan, to death. As would we today.
So he died for them, and for each of us. Christ “died for the ungodly” (Romans 5.6).
He “died for our sins according to the Scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15.3).
He “laid down his life for the sheep” (John 10.11).
He “was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed” (Isaiah 53.5).
He “redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us” (Galatians 3.13).
He “gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father” (Galatians 1.4).
He “gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own” (Titus 2.14).
He has “freed us from our sins by his blood” (Revelation 1.5).
He “purchased men for God from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Revelation 5.9).