You may have noticed that in the great creeds of the Christian church the entire ministry of the Lord Jesus is skipped over without so much as a word. The Apostles’ Creed, after the brief article on God the Father, continues: “…and in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried.” The Nicene Creed is like the Apostles’ Creed in this way. The emphasis falls upon the passion – that is, the suffering and death of the Savior – and upon his resurrection. These are the most important events in his life and our salvation rests principally upon them: his death on the cross and his resurrection from the dead. Well, that fact is reflected in the Gospels themselves. We begin Mark’s account of the final days of the Lord’s ministry, the days leading up to his death, here in verse one of chapter 11. That means that Mark devotes fully one-third of his Gospel to the last six days of Jesus’ life.
Bethany is mentioned because it will be the place where Jesus will spend at least some of his nights during the passion week (cf. e.g. v. 11).
The “many” who welcomed him were no doubt principally folk who were on their way to Jerusalem, Passover pilgrims themselves. The road from Jericho over the Mount of Olives would have been crowded with them on this, the first day of the week of Passover. The population of the city of Jerusalem swelled to between 2 and 3 times its normal size at Passover.
The citation of Psalm 118:25-26 by the crowd certainly did not mean for them what it has meant for Christians since. It is not obviously a messianic text in Psalm 118 but its being coupled with the next statement makes it clear what the crowds thought they were saying about Jesus. They were welcoming a royal personage as the following verse makes even clearer.
The reference to the coming kingdom of our father David is not a citation of any text of Holy Scripture. It suggests precisely the same confusion that has been in the mind of the people from the beginning of their enthusiasm over Jesus. Such a worker of miracles would be a Messiah who would lead them to victory against the Romans and restore Israel’s glory in the world. The crowds had the same political and militaristic idea of Jesus as the messiah that he has sought to repudiate throughout his ministry. They saw him as a coming king; they got the point about the donkey; they put their cloaks before him for the very reason that they saw themselves as welcoming a king. Remember, it would be precisely the claim that Jesus made himself out to be the “King of the Jews” that would figure prominently at his trial, held just a few days later.
The Lord obviously came into Jerusalem in a way bound to attract notice. He was throwing down the gauntlet to the religious authorities and provoking their reaction. That, however, makes only the more striking the remarkable anti-climax with which the account of Palm Sunday ends. The crowds disappeared and the Lord, finding it late in the day, returned to Bethany. Once again, things do not develop as we expect. But notice that he went to the temple. The temple was the focus of the Old Testament doctrine of the presence of the Lord with his people and the temple will be featured prominently in the events of the coming days. That temple, particularly as the embodiment of the Lord’s presence was the focus of the people and spiritual rebellion and so of the confrontation between Israel and the Son of God.
In any case, in his account of what the church has long called the Triumphal Entry Mark makes a point of noting how misunderstood Jesus continued to be – the enthusiasm of the crowds did not reflect true understanding or faith – and how unrecognized he remained as the Son of God and the Savior.
Now, we know more about the event described in these verses than Mark tells us. No doubt most of Mark’s readers were familiar with other parts of the story. They recognized Bethany as the home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. They knew that a few days before this the Lord had raised Lazarus from the dead, a miracle so dramatic and so public that it created an immense stir and a very hostile reaction on the part of the religious authorities. They knew full well that by this time the Jewish leadership was determined to rid themselves of Jesus of Nazareth. They knew that messianic fervor, the patriotic expectation of the coming of the long-promised Messiah had reached a fever pitch both because it was Passover, the most patriotic time of the year for Jews, and because of the very public approach to Jerusalem of Jesus and his entourage. The welcome afforded Jesus on that Sunday morning was a sudden but predictable explosion of the crowd’s pent-up enthusiasm, however misplaced, however based on a complete misunderstanding of Jesus’ mission. They wanted more miracles and he came to suffer and die for sinners.
Mark’s readers knew very well that the enthusiasm of the crowd would turn into a savage bloodlust just a few days later when it became clear that Jesus had no intention of meeting their expectations. They knew that in entering the city as he did, accepting the applause of the people as he did, allowing them to greet him as virtually a king, as he did, he was, as the great Dutch preacher Klaas Schilder put it, “putting his hand on the latch of the door of the house of sorrows.” He was orchestrating the events that would lead to his crucifixion four days later.
All of that would have been known to any early reader of the Gospel of Mark. But there is something very interesting in this narrative that we are too likely to pass over without giving it much thought. It is this interesting episode recorded in vv. 1-6.
There is something odd about all of this and it inevitably causes us to ask why did the Lord give these strange instructions to his disciples and why was the colt he was to ride into the city secured in this way. Why did he send his disciples to the village ahead and tell them to untie a colt without anyone’s permission? Why did he tell them that if they were asked what they were doing – a perfectly reasonable expectation, given that they, perfect strangers, would be untying and leading away someone else’s property – they were to say “the Lord has need of it” as if somehow this would be sufficient? Imagine someone you don’t know opening the door of your car to get in. You ask him what he is doing and he says, “Well I need it and I’ll return it.” Would you say, “Oh, okay,” and toss him your keys? Had it all been arranged? If arranged earlier, why the odd instructions? Why didn’t Jesus simply say, “I’ve arranged for a colt to ride on into the city? You’ll find him at such and such a person’s home. Just tell him that you are there to pick up the colt I ordered.” It all seems quite strange and unnecessary. Klaas Schilder, in a great sermon on this text, refers to the Lord’s instructions as a “circumlocution,” an unnecessary digression, and spends a long sermon examining the reason for it.
Indeed, why is any of this included at all in the narrative of the Lord’s entry into Jerusalem? Who cares where he got the colt or from whom? The important thing is that he rode into Jerusalem on an unbroken donkey colt, something that amounted for several reasons, to a claim to royalty and to his rightful status as the Messiah. Riding in procession in to the capital on an unbroken colt was what a king would do and what the Scripture prophesied he would do (Zech. 9:9; 2 Kings 9:13). But why do we need to know where the colt came from and how it was secured for the Lord’s use?
Everything draws attention to these unusual arrangements. The disciples must fetch the colt. They are asked to do it in a way that is bound to arouse the curiosity, if not the alarm or outrage, of anyone watching them untie the animal. They are asked to do what would look to anyone standing there like robbery. But then they are told what to say when they are challenged. And once again the instructions are strange. They are to say “The Lord needs it and will return it.” That is all. That is bound to create curiosity among those who hear them. What is more the man will agree to let them lead his animal away.
Why this beating around the bush? Why all these unanswered questions? Why this strange set of instructions? Why this way to find the colt?
There is an answer to these questions. I think the reason both for these unusual arrangements and for Mark’s reporting of them is clear. What is being revealed here is the divine control over all that is happening. The Lord’s entry into the city of Jerusalem that fateful day, the reaction of the crowd, the events as they will unfold in the days that follow: all of this is from God; all of it is taking place as intended, all is happening according to a script written in heaven.
This little incident along the way is, as it were, a brief pulling back of the veil that hides the hand of God from our view. The Lord directed matters in such a way as to call our attention to what he was doing. The colt is precisely where he says it will be, tied up as he said it would be. The owner is there; others are there to witness the exchange. The disciples are interrogated as he said they would be, say what they are supposed to say, and the owner let’s them take his colt.
What is on display and what Mark’s narrative draws our attention to is the orchestration of events. Nothing is happening by accident. There is a divine power in control and overruling events; a divine knowledge perfectly secure in predicting what is to come to pass.
I don’t say that this is the only reason for these strange instructions. The Lord may have been intentionally drawing attention to his arrival in the city. He may have been provoking interest and drawing a crowd. I wonder how many people witnessed all of this in the village that morning and followed the disciples just to see what on earth was going on. I wonder how many of them told others and how many people, by this means, became part of the large crowd of people on the road that morning.
But that is not the main thing. The main thing is the demonstration of the Lord’s sovereignty over these events. Nothing is happening by accident and nothing will. Quite the contrary, the eternal plan of our salvation is unfolding in every detail. The Lord’s instructions to his disciples disclose that fact in an arresting and memorable way.
Three times in the last few chapters of the Gospel of Mark we have read of the Lord telling his disciples that he was going to Jerusalem, that he would be arrested by the scribes and the priests, put to death, and that he would rise again on the third day. There was all along a plan. Jesus came into the world to fulfill a mission. That mission included many things, but principally it was to suffer and die for the sins of his people and to rise for their salvation. The culmination of that mission was always to be in Jerusalem, at Passover. The suffering, of course, began at the very beginning.
The circumstances of his birth and infancy were themselves a humiliation for God the Son, the creator of heaven and earth. Milton draws attention to the suffering of his circumcision on the eighth day after his birth.
He who with all Heaven’s heraldry whilere
Entered this world, now bleeds to give us ease.
Alas! How soon our sin
sore doth begin
his infancy to seize.
But, oh! ere long
Huge pangs and strong
Will pierce more near his heart.
And so it happened. All his life he lived under the dark shadow of his great errand in this world. He lived under the approaching specter of his cruel death. All his life he was the Man of Sorrows and acquainted with grief that Isaiah said he would be. To fulfill his mission he worked harder than any man has ever worked, stealing from his sleep to pray – and prayer is the hardest work of all – praying that he might manage to preach his sermons, and heal the sick, and withstand the hatred and opposition and willful misunderstanding of others with a pure and sinless heart. All his life he was the best man who ever lived – by far! – and the most misunderstood: a combination that must have been impossibly difficult to bear.
I have long been intrigued by a detail of the Gospel history that is recorded in John 8:57. You may remember the occasion. Jesus had made the astonishing statement: “Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day; he saw it, and was glad.” The Jews completely misunderstanding, or, perhaps, understanding all to well, replied, “You are not fifty years old, and you have seen Abraham!” No one has proposed a really convincing answer as to why they said “You are not fifty years of age…” There can often be something of great importance hidden in the details of the Gospel story. As a matter of fact, the Lord was about 30 years of age and hardly any older. Thirty year old men look considerably younger than fifty year old men. Why was the age they proposed for him so wide of the mark? Was it because, could it have been because he looked to be closer to fifty when, in fact, he was chronologically speaking only thirty years of age? The prophets predicted that the Messiah would be marred and disfigured by the work he came to do and that there would be no beauty to attract men to him. Is it possible that he looked twenty years older than he was because of the toll that his mission had taken upon his body? For all of those thirty years and a few more he had been bearing our sins and carrying our sorrows. And, then, in order not to stagger under the awful load of all that he was bearing, he had to seek his father’s help and reassurance in prayer, even though the only time left to him for prayer was the latest night and the earliest morning. He was working himself to exhaustion throughout the years of his ministry. You know the pallor that exhaustion causes in a person’s appearance. Jesus was a true man, as susceptible to exhaustion as any other human being. Perhaps that is why the Jews thought to say that he was nearly fifty when he was nearly thirty.
The point again is that Jesus came into the world for this. He had an assignment from his father that he had willingly undertaken. And he was now nearing the climax of the entire work that he had come into the world to do. And to remind us all that what was about to happen was nothing other than what had been planned for him to suffer and to do from before the foundation of the world, that Palm Sunday morning the Lord opened a window so that we could see a page of the script written in heaven before it was acted out on earth.
Today America’s most famous auto race is being run, the Daytona 500. It has replaced the Indianapolis 500 as the signature event in American car racing. I hadn’t known this but auto racing is the most difficult sport to bet on because there are so many variables. So many things can go wrong and affect the outcome of a race. The best car and the best driver so often do not win and for what often seem to be the most inconsequential reasons. One of the most famous of American drivers, Dale Earnhardt Sr., who would later be killed at Daytona, lost the 1990 Daytona 500, a race he had dominated from the beginning because, while cruising to apparent victory in the last lap, with a large lead over the second place car, he ran over a small piece of metal that had fallen off another car; it punctured his right rear tire, causing a blowout. A journeyman driver from nearby Spanaway, Washington sped by him to victory.
But there were to be no accidents, no surprising and unforeseen developments in the progress of the Lord Jesus to the cross. No small, insignificant something, nor the power and might of the Roman Empire could interfere with the step by step progress of the Lord Jesus to the end and the fulfillment of his work as the Savior of the world. All would unfold precisely according to plan. And the strange way of providing the Lord a donkey is intended to remind us that nothing that happened to the Lord Jesus, nothing that he did was anything else but the plan of God. The salvation of the world was not left to chance. The terrible suffering the Lord was about to undergo was what he came into the world to endure and it was the Father’s love and his own love for the Father and for his people that took him inexorably to Jerusalem, exactly the right place, at Passover, exactly the right time, to die on the cross, exactly the death the servant of the Lord must die.
But, you see turning to the Lord Jesus himself, to his mind and heart, that means, that must mean that Jesus went to his terrible agony, the horrible suffering and death on purpose. We know that, as Christians, but I doubt very much we ponder the fact as we should. It is one thing to be overtaken by events. It is another thing altogether to give oneself to a terrible fate – worse than we know how to describe – because it is what your mission and what the salvation of others require. These instructions about the donkey prove that Jesus was the master of his own destiny. He had a long time to think about what he was going to do. He had a long time to consider what it would mean for him. He was a man of his day. He knew how horrible a death crucifixion was. He knew what we do not and cannot know: something of how impossibly terrible it would be to bear the wrath of God against the sin of man, the holiest man who ever lived was to be treated as if he were the most wicked man of all. And day after day he pointed himself without hesitation to that terrible conclusion because in no other way could he deliver us from our sins and the judgment that was due them.
We all fail to appreciate this because our Christology is defective. We tend to think that Jesus could handle this suffering because, after all, he was God as well as man. But the suffering he faced and to which he set his face like flint was the suffering of a true man. He could only imagine what crucifixion felt like; he could only do his best to enter into the experience that would overtake him when the wrath of God befell him. His terror in Gethsemane, the night before his crucifixion, is proof enough of that.
Men will sometimes die for others, especially others that they love. A soldier will fall on a grenade to protect his comrades. A prisoner of war will offer to endure punishment in another’s place that he might live. On Valentine’s Day last week, our Dr. Paul Darby sent around to some friends a short account of his Christian life because it happened to be the 30th anniversary of a commitment he made to Christ during his college years. But he added this:
The story goes that when I was less than a year old, my mother “happened” to wake up in the middle of the night and found that I was not breathing. I don’t whether she gave me CPR or even if I was taken to the hospital, but I do know that my father, immediately dropped to his knees and pleaded with God to spare my life, saying [to the Lord] “take [me] and use him.”
I suppose it has occurred to some of the parents here this morning that if somehow it were possible by your suffering or your death to guarantee the happiness and holiness of your children you would willingly make the exchange. These are the supremely wonderful sentiments and acts of human life. “Greater love hath no man than that he lay down his life for his friends.”
But here we encounter something very different, much higher, impossibly more wonderful. Here is a man who is dying not for his friends but his enemies; here is a man walking resolutely to a judgment so terrible that no human being has yet begun to understand its enormity and probably never will. What Jesus had set his face to endure was the moral equivalent of hell and to endure it for the undeserving, the ungrateful and the selfish.
And yet, no matter the terrors to come, there was a calculation to his every step. He knew what he was doing and where he was going and what it would mean for him. Compared to this moment in the history of the world, all of even the noblest sacrifices that have been made by one human being for another are just so many stage plays, full of sound and fury, signifying next to nothing, compared, say, to this titanic catastrophe, scripted from eternity past in heaven: the headlong plunge into hell that Jesus Christ made in obedience to his Father for the sake of our salvation. I am utterly failing here as a preacher. Only the Spirit of God can make you realize – and with feeling – how great was this suffering and so how great was his love for us.
At this point in the Gospel of Mark we are entering the most sacred precincts of the history of salvation. And the first thing Mark wants us to know is that Jesus did all of this on purpose. Long before it was determined that his death in Jerusalem would be required for the salvation of the world and so to that death he went. The world, of course, does not believe that anything so terrible, so remarkable, so impossible would be necessary to save it from its sins. Surely a good deed here or being nice there ought to suffice.
But see the Christ make arrangements for his donkey and learn the lesson of that: salvation took the Son of God’s humiliation, suffering, and death and for love’s sake he gave himself to that fate. What had to be done was being done! There is the proof that Jesus is the savior and the only savior of sinners. There is the proof that sin is a great offense to God and must be punished by a just and holy God. There is the proof that a great love lies in the heart of this universe; that God is love. And there is the proof that every human being must turn to Jesus and trust him for salvation. And there is the proof that anyone who trust in Jesus shall be saved. What God had long before determined that his son must and should do; it was that and that alone that Christ did. What had to be done for us was precisely what was done.
Jesus showed us that so that we would not miss the point: he is the provision that God, the living God, has provided for our eternal life.