Setting Captives Free

Setting Captives Free

Matthew 21:1-11

Dr. Jim Denison

This week has brought great victory to our coalition forces in Iraq. You’ll always remember the Saddam statue’s fall in Baghdad on Wednesday. Now we begin the process of rebuilding that nation. In that light, this story may be of interest to you.

When in England at a conference, Colin Powell was asked by the former Archbishop of Canterbury if our plans for Iraq were an example of empire-building by President Bush and America.

The Secretary of State replied, “We have gone forth from our shores repeatedly over the last hundred years, as recently as the last year in Afghanistan, and put wonderful young men and women at risk, many of whom have lost their lives, and we have asked for nothing except enough ground to bury them in.”

For instance, 65,000 young Americans were killed liberating France from Hitler, and lie buried in French soil. It is the same around the world.

With such courage, Americans and others have set captives free again this week in Iraq. You have watched the Iraqi people on television, as I have. So many are responding in joy, welcoming our troops with gratitude. Some reject our presence, and some are apathetic. These either don’t want to be free, or don’t know that they are.

Hold that thought, and join the crowds with me at the first Palm Sunday.

Join the crowd

The Israel of Jesus’ day was an occupied country, under the heel of their Roman oppressors. Caesar could be as despotic as Saddam Hussein, his troops as cruel. So when Jesus of Nazareth came to Jerusalem on Sunday, April 12, in the year A.D. 29, the crowds went wild with joy. They believed their Messiah had come—the one sent from God to liberate them from the evil Romans and set them free.

Had there been no joy that day, it would have been for one of two reasons. Either they didn’t want to be freed from Rome—thus the religious authorities’ rejection of Jesus. Or they didn’t believe they were—thus the apathy of those who watched this parade but refused its joy.

They missed the only One who could fulfill God’s plan for their freedom.

Matthew shows us that Palm Sunday “took place to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet” (v. 4), Zechariah’s prediction, made 567 years earlier.

Jesus made preparations for this event before it occurred, sending his disciples ahead to find the donkey he would ride into the Holy City. Jesus prepared on that day, but he began before the first day was created—he is “the Lamb that was slain from the creation of the world” (Revelation 13:8).

This fact proves that he is “the Lord” (v. 3), the only time in Matthew’s gospel where this title is applied to Jesus. Those who missed the joy of Palm Sunday missed the only One who could fulfill God’s plan for their freedom.

They missed the only One who would die for that freedom.

A Roman conqueror rode into a city in a chariot drawn by four horses, with a slave holding his crown above his head.—on white horses.

Jesus came on a donkey. He chose to. He had just walked the 15 miles from Jericho to Jerusalem, up an elevation of some 3,000 feet, through some of the most difficult landscape to be found anywhere in the world. He could have walked into the city. But he rode a donkey, a beast of suffering, a symbol of peace. He came as one “gentle” (v. 5)—the word means strength under submission. He came humbled before the Lord, and those he had been sent to save.

These crowds wanted a military ruler. If Jesus had been the Messiah they wanted, he would have set them free from Rome. But they would still have been slaves. Slaves to sin, to Satan, to death. So would we be.

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).

He “died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God” (1 Peter 3:18).

The word of God is true: “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).

Some were overjoyed at his coming. Some were apathetic. Some rejected him. It is still the same today. We are each one in one of those crowds, this moment.

Choose your crowd

Which is yours? Let’s find out.

How did you feel about coming to worship today? As you got up this morning, what if your Sunday school teacher or a staff member had called your house to say that worship was cancelled. A water main broke, flooding the Sanctuary, and the service was impossible. How would you have felt—one less thing to do? Or a joyous opportunity missed?

How do you feel about the Christian faith in general this morning?

Many in the Arab world interpret America’s war in Iraq as another Christian crusade against Muslims.

Last Sunday’s “High Profile” in the Dallas Morning News profiled a lawyer who built a successful AIDS housing program. The column always asks among other questions, “If I could change one thing about myself, I’d ….” The man being profiled answered, “I’d rid myself of the Judeo-Christian and Western hang-ups that stunted my growth as a human being.”

How do you feel about the faith? About prayer, Bible study, ministry? Is yours routine, habitual, even boring? Or filled with excitement and joy?

How do you feel about the cross, the subject of this week in church life?

An ornament? Jewelry? Church architecture?

Perhaps this will help. I’m holding a crown of thorns from Israel. These are the thorns which grow in that region of the world. As you can see, some are four inches long, and all are razor sharp. This is the way we crowned the King of Kings and Lord of Lords when he came to Jerusalem for us.

A medical doctor described crucifixion in physical terms. This is not for the faint of heart: “The cross is placed on the ground and the victim is thrown backwards with his shoulders against the wood. The legionnaire feels for the depression at the front of the wrist. He drives a heavy, square wrought-iron nail through the wrist deep into the wood. Quickly he moves to the other side and repeats the action. The left foot is pressed backward against the right foot, and with both feet extended, toes down, a nail is driven through the arch of each, leaving the knees flexed. The victim is now crucified.

“As he sags with his weight on the nails in the wrists, excruciating fiery pain shoots along the fingers and up the arms as the nails press on the median nerves. He pushes upward to avoid this stretching torment, placing full weight on the nail through his feet. Again he feels the searing agony of the nail.

“As the arms fatigue, cramps sweep through his muscles, filling them with deep and throbbing pain. With these cramps comes the inability to push himself upward to breathe. Finally carbon dioxide builds up in the lungs and in the blood stream, and the cramps partially subside. Spasmodically he is able to push himself upward to exhale and bring in life-giving oxygen. This goes on for hours.

“Then another pain begins: a deep, rushing pain deep in the chest as the pericardium slowly fills with serum and begins to compress the heart. It is now almost over. The loss of tissue fluids has reached a critical level. The compressed heart struggles to pump heavy, sluggish blood through the tissues. The tortured lungs make frantic effort to gasp in small gulps of air. Finally the victim dies.

How do you feel about the hell from which that cross saves you?

Only 60% of Americans even believe that hell exists, and only 2% are afraid they might go there. Most see hell in cartoon terms, with Satan in red tights and a pitchfork.

The Bible doesn’t: “Each person was judged according to what he had done. Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire” (Revelation 20:13-15).

That’s where you and I would spend eternity, except that Jesus died in our place, paid for our sins, purchased our salvation, freed us from hell for heaven.

If you’re a bit apathetic on this Palm Sunday, or even worse, opposed to the message of this day, it’s for one of two reasons. Either you have not been saved from hell by the Lord Jesus, or you’ve forgotten that you have been.

This week I needed a brief diversion, so I went to see the movie The Core. A long story made short: the earth’s core has become dysfunctional, and all life on the planet will die. A brave group of “terranauts” travels to the core and restarts it. Most lose their lives to save ours. If this were really true, how grateful we would be for them today?

Someone did just that for us. How will you respond to him this morning?


Will you accept his gift, with joy? If the Iraqis would greet our soldiers this week with celebration, pulling down Saddam’s statues and welcoming our liberation, how will you welcome the Savior of your soul? Do you remember the time you asked him to forgive your sins and be your Lord? Have you met him personally? When? Will you today?

Will you tell his story? The crowds paved the path to Jerusalem with their palm branches—we pave it with our witness and ministry. Are you using your Impact card to pray for lost friends? Are you willing to find your spiritual gifts and discover your ministry? When we find joy we want to share it—it’s just that simple.

Do you have the joy of your faith this morning?

If you traveled to Hong Kong, contracted Sudden Acute Respiratory Syndrome, but have been cured, you’ll be the most joyous person in the room. If you’ve heard this week the words, “Your cancer is in remission,” or even better, “The tests were wrong—there was no tumor at all,” your joy knows no bounds.

If you’ve been spared from death for life, you’re grateful to the one who saved you. If you’re not, it’s because you haven’t been saved, or have forgotten that you are. There is no third option.

C. S. Lewis was clear about our choices, in the most famous words he ever wrote: “I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: ‘I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God.’ That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic—on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg—or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God; or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”

On this Palm Sunday morning we must each give Jesus either a crown of thorns or a crown of joy. Which will he receive from you?