On the first day of the Feast of Passover, Jesus left the quiet of Bethany, a small village two miles east of Jerusalem, and made his way toward the city. According to his rather strange instructions, a donkey colt was brought to him and he proceeded toward the capital accompanied first by his disciples and then by an ever growing crowd of enthusiastic spectators. He wore no crown on his head; the city government made no effort to receive him, and gave his approach no attention. He came not astride a war horse but a little donkey, unarmed and harmless. He seemed to pose so little threat to the social order that Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, who was actually sensitive to anything that threatened the public tranquility, did not even post a guard to watch him.
The enthusiasm of the common people was electrifying and infectious. They saw him as the approaching King, the Messiah, coming to Jerusalem to be crowned and to begin his reign. They had heard of his miracles, the works of wonderful and terrible power that he had performed over the past three years in Galilee and recently as well in Judea. No one can tell how it began, but suddenly there developed a groundswell of praise and many voices took up the chant of the Benedictus and the Hosanna. And, as the other Gospels tell us, without orchestration or direction, in their unabashed enthusiasm, apparently virtual ecstasy really – caught up in the tremendous emotion of the moment – people began tearing branches off of the palm trees that lined the road, first waving them in the air as a salute to the King and then placing them on the road before him, along with their cloaks, to form a kind of royal red carpet.
There were great crowds of people. Scholars tell us that the population of Jerusalem in those days – ordinarily somewhere between 30,000 and 50,000 souls – would swell to as much as 150,000 during Passover. People in our day should have no great difficulty imagining the scene. We’ve witnessed – if not in person, on old newsreels or on live television – great crowds wildly chanting “Heil Hitler,” or singing “We shall overcome,” or “Allah is Great!” Here the crowd was shouting “Hosanna! Blessed be the king who comes in the name of the Lord!”
We call this the “triumphal entry” and so it was. Indeed, the Lord received the praises and the adoration of the crowd as rightfully his. He accepted that it was as they said: he was the one who came in the name of the Lord. He was the King of the Jews, indeed, the King of Kings.
But it was a triumphal entry only on the surface, only superficially. The crowds, even the Lord’s nearest disciples, were delirious with joy only because they had no understanding of what would transpire in less than a week. In the context of this history, in view of all that the Lord had repeatedly told his disciples would happen to him when he came to Jerusalem, in view of the bitter antagonism of the religious leadership, in view of what we know did happen just a few days later, the so-called “triumphal entry” takes on a completely different meaning.
And the indications of that are clearly present, both in Luke’s account of this event and in the parallel accounts in the other Gospels. This is not the Lord’s triumph; it is much more the beginning of the consummation of his sorrow, his passion. I want to elaborate that point in two respects this morning.
- First, it is clear that the Lord intended his entry into the city of Jerusalem to be a provocation to the religious leadership.
The Gospels make it very clear that the Lord himself orchestrated the events which culminated in his crucifixion. He said once that no one would take his life from him; he would lay it down of his own accord. And that is exactly what he was doing that Sunday, the first day of the Passover Feast; he was laying down his life. It is clear in the Gospel accounts that in the previous few months and, in particular, the previous few weeks, Jesus as much as threw caution to the wind. He performed acts that he knew full well could only inflame the already white hot hatred of the religious leadership. He made it clear that he was coming to Jerusalem, the center of their power, and he made no effort to hide his whereabouts.
As Klaas Schilder, the Dutch theologian and preacher beautifully put it:
“In the foregoing chapters we observed Christ as he stood in the vestibule of the house of sorrows. Now we shall see him put his own hand on the latch of the door that leads into the temple proper.” [Christ in his Sufferings, 101]
And then there are the circumstances of the Triumphal Entry itself. Jesus chose the time most favorable for creating a stir: the first day of the feast, when the main road into the city from the east would be crowded with Passover pilgrims and he came in the daylight when his coming would be noticed, not in the night when he might have got into the city unobserved.
What is more, by what was obviously his express purpose, he rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, a colt never ridden before, precisely to fulfill the prophecy of Zechariah 9:9 and so to declare publicly that he was the Messiah, the one Zechariah was referring to when he wrote:
“Rejoice greatly, 0 daughter of Zion! Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”
The modern Western reader of the Bible might miss the significance of the donkey colt; nobody outside of Jerusalem that sunny day would have.
What is more, Jesus accepted the praises of the crowds, their acknowledgement of him as the King of the Jews and, when he was criticized for it, as we read in w. 39-40, he not only refused to silence the crowd but went on to say that the praises they were giving him were the very music of the universe!
And then, finally, lest anyone miss the point, lest the religious leadership still not understand the direct challenge he was laying down – both to them and to their doctrine – he went straight to the temple area and slapped the priests, Pharisees, and Sadducees in the face, by publicly condemning their management of the people’s worship in the temple and making a spectacle of his condemnation by driving the money-changers from the temple’s outer court. This was not the action of a man anxious to keep peace between himself and the leaders of the people. He was daring them to act. He was throwing down the gauntlet. He was as much as saying to them that it was high time for them to act on the hatred and envy that had been their posture toward him over the past three years.
In verse 47 we read the predictable result but what is all important in the narrative is that this was the very result Jesus intended to achieve. He was in charge. He was – as he had been telling his disciples repeatedly over the past year – coming to Jerusalem to die for his people’s sins. He knew when and he knew how it would be done. He had long known that the religious leadership would be the instrument, but he was hanging himself on the cross. He would be a victim, to be sure, but an entirely willing victim.
It may at first appear as we visualize the scene that this was a moment of triumph for the Lord. But clearly, to him, it was the Rubicon, the point of no return, the step that made inevitable his own terrible sufferings and death that would reach their culmination a few days later. The Lord Jesus is going into the city to die. He knows that if no one else does.
- Second, it is a “triumphal” entry into Jerusalem only superficially because the Lord’s own sorrow was increased, not decreased by the circumstances of his journey into the city that long ago Sunday.
The crowds were delirious with joy at his approach. Smiles were on everyone’s face. There was singing in the air. But for Jesus, unlike his disciples and the crowds, the meaning of all this happiness and enthusiasm for him was clear. It was the miracles, as we read in verse 37. The people entertained a view of him and of his purpose in coming to Jerusalem that was fatally mistaken. Jesus was well aware of that. They saw him as coming for a completely different reason than that which drew him to the city at this moment. They thought he came to live and reign and bring them temporal and earthly prosperity. He knew that he came to suffer and to be rejected and to die. He knew that in a few days time, with a terror and a revulsion no human being – however sympathetic – has ever begun fully to understand, he was to bear the full, terrible weight of the guilt of his people. He who knew no sin, and hated sin with a perfect hatred, and had through his entire life exhausted himself keeping himself pure of sin, was to be loaded down with every conceivable sin and treated by God as if he had committed it all, in every part, and was to bear in himself the whole, eternal, divine fury against human corruption and rebellion which was not in any part his own. They wanted they expected him to dazzle them with miracles; he knew he would instead be crucified.
All of this Jesus understood. He knew the hatred of the leadership for him; he knew they would not stomach his public triumph in Jerusalem; he knew they wanted him dead and would not rest until they were rid of him. He knew that they not only wanted him dead, they wanted him thoroughly discredited and humiliated. They envied him his goodness, they envied him the adulation of the people, and they wanted not only to defeat him, they wanted to reduce him to such a pathetic figure that the people would reproach themselves for ever having admired him. A year before this, on the mount of his transfiguration, Moses and Elijah had discussed all of this with him.
And he knew what it was all to mean to his fellow countrymen. Jesus was a patriot. He was a loyal Jew. He loved his country and his people. He felt the shame and the sting of the Roman oppression of the Jews. And, as he looked over the city from the Mount of Olives, he knew both that their only hope lay in receiving him and believing in him and that they would not – at least most would not. He knew full well what would befall the Jews in punishment for the sin they were about to commit: greatest of all conceivable crimes, the murder of the Prince of Life. He knew, as we read in verses 43 and 44, he could see in his mind’s eye as he looked over the city, tranquil and beautiful in the spring sunshine, what it would soon become, first besieged by the Romans and then burned and destroyed, taken apart stone by stone until the beautiful city was nothing but rubble. It happened in A.D. 70, just as the Lord said.
All of this was in his mind, his own near fate and that of the city. Why else would he be weeping as he rode along, the thunderous welcome and cheering of the crowds washing over him? He saw what they would not. The crowd saw Jesus’ lowliness as simply a temporary, transitional phase. Soon he would be crowned and be the King they were waiting for in all his regal splendor. He would strip the treasure from Rome and use it for Israel’s glory. The tables would be turned! They had no place in their thinking for the fact that his lowliness on that donkey colt was utterly essential to his purpose; that he had to become far more lowly still, and that that lowliness was the price of man’s redemption from sin.
They were uncomprehending that their need was so great; that such a humiliation and such a suffering on the part of the Son of God would be necessary to bring them peace with God. And as soon as it was explained to them they hotly rejected the very idea that their sin should deserve or should require such suffering.
Now, I want this morning to use this contrast between what the crowd thought of this event and what Jesus understood it to mean to remind us of how hard it is for us truly to comprehend, to appreciate what our Savior suffered for our sakes. We use the words, we know the theology of the cross, and we believe it. But we barely understand even the outer edges, the periphery of the suffering our Savior endured for us.
Often in the literature of the Western world efforts have been made to trade on the sufferings of Christ, use Christ as an image of suffering that will strike deep into our hearts and minds. The hope of the author is to make us feel agony and feel tragedy by likening a character to Christ. Some of the greatest writers have done this.
One such effort, and one of the best, is Herman Melville’s great short story or novella, Billy Budd. Some of you I’m sure will remember this story from your school days. It was written in 1891 but not published until 1924. It was turned into an opera by Benjamin Britten in 1951.
Billy Budd was a fine young man and a fine sailor, a foretopman who manned the rigging high above the ship, and this though he had been forcibly pressed into the service of the British Navy during the Napoleonic wars. Suffering his cruel fate cheerfully, Billy was soon well-liked by all of his shipmates and deeply admired and appreciated by the Captain of the Ship, a moral and kindly man named Vere. But, precisely because he was so good, Billy incurred the hatred of the vicious and corrupt first mate, Claggart, whose great purpose in life seemed to be to exact vengeance upon the crew for his own personal bitterness. As the story reaches its crisis, Claggart drags Billy before Captain Vere on trumped-up charges of mutiny.
Billy, totally innocent as he was, was so astonished when he heard the charges read, so offended by Claggart’s transparent cynicism and viciousness, that, impulsively, he struck with his fist and, to his own surprise and horror, killed his accuser.
The tragedy is now compounded, however. At that moment stirrings of mutiny were widespread in the British fleet and Captain Vere was presented with a terrible dilemma. He knew that Claggart’s charges had been groundless, knew full well that he would never find a more loyal sailor than Billy Budd, but a seaman had struck and killed an officer right in front of the Captain. Vere sorrowfully concluded that he had no choice but to execute Billy Budd for the killing of the first mate, however unintended, even however justified his act may have been.
Billy, himself, magnanimous to the end, realized the terrible moral dilemma which Vere had faced and overcome and his dying words, shouted from high up on the mast from which he was hung, were “God bless Captain Vere!”
Melville has made a Christ figure of Billy Budd. His last words were like Christ’s own: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Melville has Billy hung from the central mast of three, a kind of Calvary at sea. After his death, the sailors of the fleet kept track of the spar from which Billy was hung and Melville tells us that they regarded a sliver from that spar as a sliver from the cross.
It is a moving story and it does evoke, perhaps especially in the Christian heart, a sense of the nobility of Billy’s suffering, innocent as he was, and the purity of his love, that he should submit himself so readily to the demands of justice.
But, I want you to see that, finally, Billy Budd and every other effort to evoke either the tragedy or the glory of suffering by likening it to Christ’s utterly fails to do justice to the woe he suffered for us. It fails in many ways; but I wish to draw attention to but one, the one which seems to me to be set before us so powerfully and poignantly in the account of our Savior’s entry into Jerusalem. There can be, finally, you see, no true Christ figures in literature because no author can adequately depict the sorrows of Christ, and that is because we cannot really grasp them or understand them. They certainly cannot be depicted in the circumstances of any other human being, fictional or real. And when the attempt is made, the sorrows of Christ are inevitably domesticated, lightened, and lessened. Billy Bud was no Jesus Christ!
Billy Budd was loved and admired by all around him; his death was regarded as heroic by the crew and especially by the one who actually put him to death. All recognized the sterling goodness of this young man; all marveled at his character; all grieved that such a supreme sacrifice should be required of him. Billy died valiantly, but, at least everyone understood and appreciated his valor and the nobility of his forgiving spirit. He died among admiring friends.
Not so the Lord Jesus. It was part of his suffering, a very large part of it I think, that he suffered so completely desolate of human sympathy and companionship; that it was required of him that he tread the winepress of the wrath of God alone! Throughout the week following the Triumphal Entry Jesus would be still more completely isolated, step by step, until finally all had deserted him, even his innermost circle of friends and supporters. At the end there would be no one to help or to understand or to sympathize with him. He was utterly alone; alone in the universe as no one has ever been alone before or since.
But already on this first day of the week, he was alone. He saw what no one else could see; everyone else was gleefully rejoicing for what was, for him, the beginning of his agony. They greeted him joyfully, he fully understood, only because they had no idea of what he had come to do or of what the next five days would bring. They saw Jerusalem restored to glory; he saw it a heap of rubble. They saw his lowliness the prelude to a coronation; he saw it as the prelude to his public humiliation and crucifixion. They saw him as the miracle worker; he knew himself to be the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world. The terrible contrast was utterly missed by the crowds, but it cut like a knife into his own tender heart. His weeping, as he rode along, reveals everything! He was, in the midst of the sweeping currents of those enthusiastic thousands, utterly alone, and the more terribly alone precisely because he was surrounded by such a great crowd; a crowd, he knew full well would be thirsting for his blood in a few days’ time.
George MacDonald says somewhere:
“The one principle of hell is: I am my own.”
Well, in this way also, our Savior suffered the pains of hell for us. He was his own; he was on his own; he was completely alone!
“None tread with thee the holy place, thou sufferest alone…”
Have you ever been or felt alone, really alone? Have you ever been crushed by loneliness? Alone, not because you wanted to be, but because you were, or at least felt abandoned, desolate, forsaken? Have you ever been so lonely that you could hardly think of anything else but how desperate you were to be with others, to love and to be loved, to enjoy their company and their fellowship? There is perhaps no more desolating, no more crippling human experience than that of profound loneliness.
I thank the Lord that my experiences of loneliness have been very few and comparatively mild. I remember the summer after my sophomore year of college, in a south Texas town where I had gone to work for the summer, crying myself to sleep that first night because I felt so alone and so far from home. But it was just one night and soon I was enjoying new friendships and was happily occupied with my work.
William Manchester sub-titled the second volume of his biography of Winston Churchill, Alone. That volume is devoted to the period of Churchill’s political exile, during the 1930s, when it seemed he was to be found on the unpopular side of every issue and found himself in the political wilderness. In that sense Churchill was alone. But he still had considerable political influence, was sought after as a writer, speaker, and commentator, and continued to be a member of parliament. He had a loving wife and many close friends. “Alone” for Winston Churchill was a relative condition only.
Some of you have been crushed by loneliness in a way I have not, in a way Churchill never was. I know because you have told me and wept over that loneliness in my presence. Like the author of Psalm 42 you have felt forsaken, desolate of that intimate and affectionate companionship that human beings need and were made to crave. You know, much better than I, what Elijah must have felt in his soul when he fled from Jezebel and alone in the desert cried out to God, “I, even I only am left, one prophet of the Lord.” You know better than I how Joseph must have felt, far from home and family, cast into an Egyptian jail for a crime he did not commit, finding himself among complete strangers, and no doubt the roughest sort of strangers, wondering if he would ever again see the light of day.
I do not mean at all to make light of your sorrows or the heaviness of your heart in such loneliness. But I ask you to ponder the fact – a fact you can perhaps understand and appreciate better than most – that your loneliness is not to be compared with the utter desolation experienced by the Son of God. It is interesting to me that the Gospel writers, in their account of the passion or the suffering of the Lord Jesus, concentrate much more on his isolation, his loneliness, his desertion by everyone than upon his physical sufferings. This was the loneliness of one who had lived in eternity in the perfect fellowship of the life of the Triune God. This is the loneliness of the best man who ever lived – best by far – who was now hated by most, misunderstood by the rest, and, so far from being respected for his matchless goodness, was widely thought to be very bad man, a liar, vain, consumed by self-interest, a fool who could not calculate the consequence of his actions, a danger to himself and to others.
It is one of the most sacred responsibilities of any Christian life often and seriously to ponder the sufferings of our Savior; the height from which he came to the depths to which he fell for our sake. Martin Luther is said to have once spent hours contemplating that single utterance from the cross, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” He gave up, baffled; but at least he tried to see deeper down into the suffering and the forsakenness of the Lord Christ. Luther wanted and no doubt he obtained a greater appreciation both of his own terrible sinfulness – sinfulness that required such a punishment – and of the love of God which is in
Jesus Christ our Lord.
This is the very center of human history; the greatest events that
have ever or shall ever occur. It is here that the glory of God and the love of Christ are most profoundly revealed. Your view of this – what it cost your Savior to secure your salvation – your view of his suffering, his forsakenness, his desolation, all that he endured for you will go far to determine how much you will love him. And the extent of your love for Jesus Christ will determine in very large measure what kind of person you are and how useful your life will be to God and to others. Ponder these things today and in coming days; meditate on the infinite, deathless love that caused our Savior to suffer so much for those who deserved so little.