Triumph and Tragedy


Luke 19:28-48

Technically, Luke does not tell of the Lord’s entry into Jerusalem, only what happened as he drew near to the city, but as the end of the chapter makes clear, he did enter the city, so the editors are not incorrect to entitle this paragraph “The Triumphal Entry.”

Now Luke hasn’t given us all the detail that is provided in the other Gospels and, especially, the Gospel of John. The raising of Lazarus from the dead in nearby Bethany, just days before, had not only stirred the anticipation of the Lord’s arrival to a fever pitch among the people but had hardened the religious leadership in their determination to be rid of Jesus. They were looking for an opportunity to seize him. They had already begun to spread the word that a reward would be available to the man who helped them apprehend Jesus of Nazareth. The situation had not only become more dangerous for him but was known by everyone to be more dangerous. So a public procession into the capital on Jesus’ part was more than slightly audacious!

Text Comment



v.29

“Olivet” is used here instead of Mount of Olives. Olivet is from the Latin olivetum which means “olive orchard.”


v.34

The odd instructions serve to draw everyone’s attention to what was happening and to make it memorable. Everything happened just as Jesus said it would. He was a prophet, just like Samuel, who had also known precisely where donkeys were to be found! [1 Sam. 10:2-9; Caird, 216]


v.36

The verb translated “rode along” is the 10th occurrence of its use since 9:51 when Luke returned to the general outline of the narrative of the Lord’s ministry as we have it in Mark and Matthew. In other words, from that point on Luke was emphasizing the fact that the Lord was on his way to Jerusalem. This is the tenth and last use of this verb as he has now reached Jerusalem. The verb means “to walk” or “to travel”, not specifically “to ride,” but riding was how he was traveling along.

Spreading their cloaks on the road, together with the palm branches that Luke does not mention but the other Gospel writers do, make this an explicitly triumphal entry, royal honors being paid to the man riding the donkey colt.


v.37

That procession had become larger. Many Passover pilgrims were on that road on their way into Jerusalem after the Sabbath for the first day of the feast. Many people from Galilee who would have considered themselves in some sense followers of Jesus were in the procession. The several years of pent-up enthusiasm — stoked by the Lord’s breathtaking miracles — broke loose as they saw Jesus fulfilling the prophecy of Zechariah 9:9: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Should aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, you king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” Surely this man was the Messiah, Israel’s long promised king. Imagine being a Jew that day, among a people who had waited for generations for this very day!

But even here the Lord is signaling a different understanding of his mission. A warrior king would be expected to appear on a war horse, a steed, not a donkey. No one can see a donkey, still less a full grown man riding a donkey and think grand thoughts of the conquering hero. The animal is too small, the man too large. It is for peace that such a man comes; not for war!


v.38

There it is: “King!” The people called him “the King.” The Pharisees were not pleased.


v.40

The Lord’s reply means that his arrival in Jerusalem is the event to which the entire course of biblical prophecy and Israel’s history has been pointing. There is no way for him to make this moment less significant than it is.


v.44

As we learned at the beginning of the Gospel, God has visited his people in Jesus either for salvation or for judgment. If Jerusalem will not have Jesus as her savior — and she was not welcoming him as a savior from sin and death but as a king who would lead her to freedom from the Roman yoke and to earthly prosperity once again — she must have him as her judge. [Caird, 217]

The spiritual blindness of the people, a reality Jesus had addressed many times before, their inability and unwillingness to grasp who Jesus was and why he had come into the world was now irreversible. God’s judgment must come and, of course, did come, in the total destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, the finale of the ferocious Roman response to the Jewish rebellion that began in A.D. 66.


v.45

From Mark we learn that this incident in the temple happened on Monday of the Passion Week. He returned to Bethany each evening and returned to the city, certainly with less fanfare, each morning.


v.46

These were money changers and sellers of sacrificial animals, necessary services to be sure, though no doubt many of these men padded their bills. But they were plying their trade in the Court of the Gentiles, an outer court of the temple that was to have been a place of worship, indeed the only place of worship accessible to Gentiles. It was their indifference to that worship, demonstrated by the place they chose to ply their trade, that Jesus objected to.

Given what the Lord has already said of Jerusalem’s coming judgment, he can hardly have expected his act to serve to reform temple practice. It had more the character of a protest.


v.48

For a time the leadership was prevented from taking action because of the enthusiasm of the people, enflamed by the stories of his miracles everyone was hearing from folk who had come to the capital from Galilee, by his triumphal entry into the city, and by his arresting teaching.


On the morning of the first day of the Feast of Passover, the Sunday of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, Jesus left the quiet of Bethany, where he had stayed the night with his friends Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, three people still basking in the wonder of Lazarus’ having been brought back to life. (Just imagine the dinner table conversations in that home those days!) Jesus and his entourage — the twelve, some of his loyal women followers, perhaps Mary, Martha, and Lazarus and some others — made their way to the main road and turned toward the capital, just two miles away. The road ascended from Bethany to the crest of the Mount of Olives, and from there one could see below and to the west the great city and its temple, gleaming in the morning sun. Jerusalem was one of the great cities of the world in those days.

He gave his disciples some strange instructions which, by now, they had learned to follow to the letter. Soon, sitting astride the colt and clopping along in the middle of a crowd of enthusiastic people, he proceeded along the road. As the little procession made its way westward, it grew larger and larger as ever increasing numbers of Passover pilgrims joined themselves to the group when they realized who it was who was causing the stir. He wore no crown on his head; the city government made no effort to receive him as a visiting dignitary; he came not astride a war horse but a little donkey, unarmed and harmless. He posed so little a threat that Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, always sensitive to anything that threatened the public tranquility, did not even post a guard to watch him.

But the enthusiasm of the crowd was electrifying and contagious. After all that they had either seen him do or heard of his doing, after the several years of public conversation about Jesus of Nazareth, suddenly here he is, moving toward Jerusalem, at the most patriotic time of the year. It was no great stretch for the disciples and then ever growing numbers of people to realize that what they were witnessing was precisely what Zechariah had long ago prophesied would come to pass: Israel’s king had finally appeared.

Perhaps no one could remember precisely who first began it, but suddenly there was a groundswell of praise as many voices took up the chant of the Benedictus and the Hosanna. People were laying their cloaks on the road before the Lord’s donkey because they wanted to be among those welcoming the king. Others, we learn from the other Gospels, tore branches from palm trees, first waving them in the air as a salute to royalty and then placing them on the road before him. We do the same thing today, though we are more likely to use a red carpet than palm fronds or cloaks.

We call this the triumphal entry and no doubt it was. There had been nothing like this in Jerusalem literally for centuries! No Jewish crowd was going to cheer and lay palm fronds before a Roman general or governor; not if they could help it. But Jewish hearts were not just happy that day; they were ecstatic! What is more the Lord Jesus accepted the praise he was being given. He was, after all, the king they were welcoming, indeed the king of kings. He explicitly refused to silence the crowd when asked to do so.

But it was a triumphal entry only on the surface, only superficially. The crowds, for that matter even the Lord’s closest disciples, were delirious with excitement only because they completely misunderstood what Jesus had come to Jerusalem to do. There is a deeply tragic aspect of this history as well and Luke makes a point of reminding us of this fact by the way in which he narrates the event.

  1. First, in the context of Luke’s narrative it is clear that the Lord intended his entry into the capital to be a provocation to the religious leadership.

We have spoken before of the way in which the Lord orchestrated the events that culminated in his crucifixion. He himself, on several occasions, and probably more often than Luke has given us a record of, told his disciples that he was going to Jerusalem to die, even to be crucified. The fact that they didn’t understand what he was talking about doesn’t mean that he didn’t!

Jesus knew he was going to his death and by entering the city in the public, triumphant way he did, he was daring the authorities to arrest and execute him. He had once said that no one would take his life from him, he would lay it down of his own accord. And that is precisely what he was doing that spring Sunday; he was laying down his life.

Klaas Schilder, the Dutch theologian and preacher, whose three large volumes of sermons on the suffering and death of the Lord contain some of the deepest and most thoughtful reflection on the Lord’s passion ever published, described the triumphal entry this memorable way:

“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]

How precisely did he do that? Well, in the first place, he chose the most favorable time for creating a stir, the first day of the feast when the road would be crammed with pilgrims on the move again after the Sabbath. He came in the daylight, when his coming would be noticed, not in the night when his coming might have been unobserved.  In the second place, he rode on a donkey, a colt of donkey, fulfilling the prophecy of Zechariah 9:9. We might miss the significance of that; but no Jew on the road that day would have. They knew their Bibles! “Behold your king cometh to thee. On a colt of a donkey.” In the third place, he accepted the praises of the crowds, even their welcoming him as a king, and when asked to silence what the Pharisees thought was blasphemy, he went on to say that the praises of the people that day were the very music of the universe.

And, then, lest anyone miss the point, lest the religious leadership still not fully appreciate the direct challenge he was offering to their viewpoint and their leadership of the people, he went to the temple and publicly condemned their management of temple worship, made a spectacle of his disapproval of how they were doing their job. These were not the actions of a man anxious to keep the peace between himself and the leaders of the people. If they wanted him, here he was; if they wanted to execute him on trumped up charges, well he was providing them the material.

Verse 47 reports the outcome, but it is important for us to remember that this was the very result the Lord intended to achieve. He was in charge. He was to be a victim only because he had always intended to be a victim. He had come to die for his people’s sins and it was to die that he had come to Jerusalem. How little did anyone, certainly the religious leadership, understand that he was orchestrating events, not they. The triumphal entry was the Lord’s crossing of the Rubicon, the point of no return. He was throwing down the gauntlet in a fashion the priests and elders could not and would not ignore.

  1. Luke accents the tragic aspect of this event further by emphasizing the Lord’s sorrow at the moment everyone else was delirious with joy. It is a striking counterpoint we are meant to notice.

The crowd was imagining what Jesus could do as the king of the Jews with all of that power that he had at his disposal; power to heal the sick, to give sight to the blind, to cure leprosy, to raise the dead. Believe me, the news about Lazarus was on everyone’s lips by this time! What could the Romans do in the face of such supernatural power? The Jews remembered their history and how Israel, by the power of God, had so often conquered armies far larger than their own, how God had delivered his people from slavery before by works of such terrible power. That is what the disciples and the crowd were thinking.

Jesus was thinking about what actually lay before him, the terror and revulsion was no doubt beginning to surface in his heart, the cold sweat at night, the shiver of fear again and again through the day. He was soon to bear the entire weight of the divine wrath against human sin. We can say the words, but don’t have the foggiest idea what that means; he did. We don’t understand that, but he did. Jesus knew very well that the crowd’s enthusiasm was misplaced, that their loyalty to him would evaporate when it became clear that he was not the king they imagined him to be. And he knew full well — he was after all a prophet of Godwhat awaited Jerusalem in a few short years because of what his own countrymen were about to do to him. Remember, a year before, on that mountain top in Galilee, Moses and Elijah had appeared and discussed all of this with him. How many times do you suppose he recalled that conversation over these last days? How many times do you suppose — true man that he was — that he recalled what those two great men had said to him, took a deep breath, and then his next step toward Jerusalem and his horrible death?

On top of all of this, Jesus was a Jew, a patriot. He loved his country and his people. He felt the sting, the shame of their oppression. He was proud of Jerusalem, as any Jewish patriot would be, spread before his view, a jewel in the morning sun from the crest of the Mount of Olives, one of the greatest cities of the world, dominated by its great temple. But Jesus knew what was to become of that city; how not one stone would be left upon another as the Romans vented their fury over the futile but terribly costly resistance of the Jews. Fully one tenth of the Roman treasury was being spent those years on keeping the peace in Palestine and when the Jews rebelled in 66 A.D. the Romans figured they would put an end to this nuisance once and for all. And they did! The carnage and human suffering was horrible and Jesus could see the horror.

All of this was in his mind, his own fate and that of the city, when he entered the city that Sunday, surrounded by smiling people, singing people, excitedly cheering people, eager to see what was to come. And as they smiled and laughed and clapped one another on the back, once they crested the hill and saw the city spread out before them, he began to weep. In his mind’s eye he could see it as it would be not many years later, reduced to rubble, is population dead or dispersed, its treasures stripped and carried off to Rome, precisely the opposite of what the crowds were thinking was soon to happen.

They had an eye to their political oppression, Jesus was seeing everything in terms of their sin and guilt, their need for forgiveness, and their unwillingness to seek it. They were uncomprehending of their true need. Deliverance from Roman oppression wouldn’t heal the breach between them and God! At every point in which the Lord had raised the issue in those terms he had been firmly rebuffed. They wouldn’t hear it. So far as they were concerned, he would be a king such as they wanted, or no king at all.

What is most dramatic in the scene that Luke has painted for us is the Lord’s isolation. He is surrounded by people but he is utterly alone; there is none who understands. Their delight is the measure of their complete ignorance. They have no sympathy for what he is feeling. Don’t you wonder what they thought if they thought at all about the tears they saw running down his cheeks? Did they imagine looking at his face that they were tears of joy? They were clueless.

What we have here is the first scene in the final act of a drama in which Jesus is increasingly isolated until finally all have deserted him, even his innermost circle of friends and supporters. Finally, on Thursday night and Friday morning he stands utterly alone: no one to assist him, no one even to sympathize or understand. Alone as no man has ever been alone before or since.

Efforts have been made throughout the ages, often in art, sometimes in literature to depict or explain the Lord’s sorrows, but invariably they fall short. Such an effort was Herman Melville’s great short story, Billy Budd. Do you remember it? Billy had been forcibly pressed into service in the British Navy, a fine young man who bore his misfortune with grace and fortitude. He was well-liked by his fellow sailors, admired by his Captain, a man named Vere, and hated only by the one misanthrope on the ship, the wicked and vicious first mate, Claggart, who hated Billy Budd primarily because of his goodness. Accused by Claggart of a crime he did not commit, Billy, angered by the transparent falsehood of Claggart’s accusations, struck him with his fist, and, to his own horror, killed him. The tragedy was then compounded. Captain Vere knew that Billy was innocent and that Claggart deserved to die, but stirrings of mutiny were abroad in the fleet at that moment and a sailor had struck and killed an officer in the presence of the Captain. The good captain had no choice but to condemn his virtuous sailor to death.

Billy, the innocent victim of circumstance, condemned to be executed for the sake of principles and interests far larger than himself, is Herman Melville’s Christ figure and lest we had any doubt of that he was eventually hung from the ship’s central mast of three, a kind of Calvary at sea. But everyone loved Billy, they understood why he had to die and sympathized with him in the tragedy of the event. What is more, they knew that he was innocent of the crime for which he was hung. Billy was a man everyone on board admired. Melville intended to make Billy Budd his Christ figure and so his last words were “God bless Captain Vere,” a version of the Lord’s “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

But that story, fine as it is, evocative of deep and pure emotion as it is does not help us understand or appreciate what our Savior did or experienced. Billy died basking in the admiration of everyone; died with all fully aware of his innocence; died in the company of many friends. Not so our Lord. He died alone in every sense. No one understood what he was dying for; no one was willing to identify with him as he suffered the ignominy of his trial and execution. He trod the winepress of the wrath of God alone! And we see him, Luke makes us to see him, descending into that isolation here, at the very moment of what seemed to others to be his triumph.

This, I think is a particularly important insight into our Lord’s suffering for our sins, one we ought all attempt to grasp and take to heart. Loneliness, real loneliness, the kind of loneliness that some of you have never experienced in your life, is one of the most bitter and heavy afflictions of human life and our Savior was more alone than anyone has ever been. He was finally deserted even by his heavenly Father, with whom he had an unprecedentedly close and affectionate relationship. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” When you feel lonely, the first thing you ought to do is remember how much more lonely your Savior became for you.

George MacDonald says somewhere, “The one principle of hell is: I am my own.” He meant: in hell I am on my own; I am alone. There is no one to help me or to love me. No one even to be interested in me. And for a human being made in the image of God, made for relationship, that is bitterness indeed. Well, in this way the Lord suffered the pains of hell on our behalf. He became utterly alone for us.

And here already we see his isolation descending upon him and encircling him. The crowd greeted him joyfully, because they had no idea of what he had come to do or what he would suffer in five days. They saw Jerusalem covered with glory; he saw it a ruin. They saw his entrance into the capital the prelude to his coronation; he saw it as the beginning of his humiliation the prelude to his 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 crowd missed all the facts that cut his heart like a knife.

It is one of the most sacred responsibilities of any Christian to ponder, seriously to ponder the suffering of our Lord. The Gospels make perfectly clear in their teaching and in their very structure that the suffering and death of the Lord Jesus is not just the conclusion of the story but is the center of the history they are telling. The crucifixion with its attendant resurrection is the center of human history, the foundation of everything in human life and human salvation. Nothing is as important as this in your life or in the life of the world. The cross, together with its counter-point, the resurrection, is the greatest single event in history. From the beginning of the Gospels Jesus was going to the cross. We are coming, therefore, in the Gospel of Luke, to the climax of the story of mankind, of the history of salvation, and to the foundation of the church of God. Nothing is as important as this!

And what is this? It is the story of the ignominy, the horrible disgrace, and the unimaginable suffering of the creator of heaven and earth, now a man precisely so he could suffer all that he suffered for us and in our place.

It is the striking paradox of the triumphal entry that forces this truth upon the willing heart and makes us to see our salvation in the difference between the crowd’s enthusiasm and the Savior’s tears. A foolish people who would not believe that their salvation would require the righteous one to give himself for the unrighteous, happily, smilingly surrounding a weeping man who knew only too well what pains he had to bear.

What is our response to be? Apart from a mighty love and an undying gratitude? How about this? Seeing ourselves in those thick-headed and self-absorbed Jews, finding ourselves in that crowd of the clueless surrounding the Lord that day, detecting in our hearts the same indifference to the holiness of God or our own sin or our Savior’s sorrows, and then from our hearts saying to Jesus:

Hosanna! Welcome to our hearts! For here
Thou hast a temple too, as Sion dear;
Yes, dear as Sion — and as full of sin;
How long shall thieves and robbers dwell therein?

Enter and chase them forth, and cleanse the floor;
O’erthrow them all, that they may never more
Profane with traffic vile that holy place,
Where thou hast chosen, Lord, to set thy face.
            Jeremy Taylor (1613-1667)