The Road from Jericho to Jerusalem is just 14 miles. A half-day’s journey, uphill all the way. Bethany is just on the other side of the Mount of Olives. A natural place to stop and rest before the final ascent and panoramic view of all Jerusalem. But it is not the road that should capture our attention. Dusty roads through dramatic scenery were as common then as now, indeed little has changed. Israeli checkpoints, barbed wire, military settlements and the Separation Barrier have replaced the Roman garrisons but it is still Occupied Territory. It is ironic that if Jesus were born in Blackpool he would have no problem getting from Jericho to Jerusalem today. But because he was born in Bethlehem he would not be able to make the journey to the Mount of Olives, let alone join the Palm Sunday procession into the Old City. Like thousands of West Bank Christians he would be unable to visit Jerusalem today. He would be turned back at a military checkpoint – because he was born in Bethlehem. Pray for your brothers and sisters today in the Holy Land who are denied the most basic of human rights – freedom of movement, freedom to worship, freedom to live in the land of their birth. In March, Bethlehem Bible College is hosting an international conference called “Christ at the Checkpoint” with Lynn Hybels, Tony Campolo and many other evangelicals. Come and meet Christ’s family living at the checkpoints.
Yet its not the road or even the political situation that makes Palm Sunday such a controversial event. Its the man who walks it. For Jesus is on a journey. His final journey. If you want to know someone’s heart, observe that person’s final journey. This was no ordinary walk. No ordinary week. In the verses before us this morning in Mark 11 we learn three things about Jesus.
1. The Preparation for the King
“As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage and Bethany at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two of his disciples, 2 saying to them, “Go to the village ahead of you, and just as you enter it, you will find a colt tied there, which no one has ever ridden. Untie it and bring it here. 3 If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you doing this?” say, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here shortly.’ ” :4 They went and found a colt outside in the street, tied at a doorway. As they untied it, 5 some people standing there asked, “What are you doing, untying that colt?” 6 They answered as Jesus had told them to, and the people let them go.” (Mark 11:1-6)
We see here how Jesus acted with…..
1.1 Jesus – The Deliberate Intent
This journey on Palm Sunday was no accident or whim.
This is obvious from the clear instructions to the disciples on what to do. Jesus rode into Jerusalem by his own free will and upon His own initiative. Deliberate intent.
1.2 Jesus – The Prophetic Fulfilment
Jesus was making a statement – a deliberate claim to be the anointed One. In Matthew’s account, Matthew 21, he draws attention to a quotation from Zechariah 9. It is steeped in significance. “Say to Daughter Zion, ‘See, your king comes to you, gentle and riding on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’ ” (Matthew 21:5, Zechariah 9:9)
Zechariah is a message about a king who would be rejected, but a rejected king who would nevertheless be enthroned. We see here then how He who inspired the prophecy, came to fulfil it. Deliberate Intent and Prophetic Fulfilment.
1.3 Jesus – The Unquestioned Authority
Jesus said, “If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you doing this?” say, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here shortly.’ ” (Mark 11:3). Some commentators have suggested that Jesus had simply booked the donkey for this ride. That he’d paid a deposit the week before. No I don’t think so. Jesus spoke with unquestioned authority because He is king and everything belongs to Him. Jesus was not intimidated or afraid of what was going to happen. Jesus had every excuse to avoid Jerusalem at this time, but no. We find everything He did, especially in that last week, was done with deliberate intent, in fulfilment of the Scriptures and with unquestioned authority. The King of the Universe was in control. What does that teach us today? Are there things we are afraid about? Anxious over? Intimidated by? Decisions we would rather put off?
How should this story affect the way we act? Jesus calls us to follow Him. Here we find Jesus demonstrating deliberate intent, in fulfilment of the Scriptures and with unquestioned authority. The Preparation for the King.
2. The Presentation to the King
“When they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks over it, he sat on it. 8 Many people spread their cloaks on the road, while others spread branches they had cut in the fields. 9 Those who went ahead and those who followed shouted,
“Hosanna!” “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” 10 “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David!” “Hosanna in the highest heaven!” 11 Jesus entered Jerusalem and went into the temple courts. He looked around at everything, but since it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the Twelve.” (Matthew 11:6-11)
We know this story so well, I simply want to pick out one word to give us a different perspective. In Matthew’s account he tells us that the whole of Jerusalem was “stirred”. The Greek word is the one from which we obtain our word “seismic”. Jesus arrival in Jerusalem had the impact of an earthquake. It was as if a psychological earthquake measuring 9 on the Richter scale had hit the city. Jerusalem was the epicentre. The presence of Jesus shook the city to its very foundations. Here was their King, riding on a borrowed donkey. Mobbed by unsophisticated fishermen and country Gallileans. Defying the Church and State with palm branches and children’s choruses. Jerusalem had never seen anything like it. Within a week that earthquake would have torn the thick temple curtain from top to bottom. No longer would access to God be limited by race and ritual. This was His intention, to compel Jerusalem to recognise Him, even if only for an hour. They had heard His teaching, seen His miracles, now He had come to claim His city. He would stir her as by an earthquake. He would offer her a choice – peace and reconciliation or judgement and separation. It’s a choice we all face. Abraham Kuyper the Dutch theologian and politician put it like this,
“When principles that run against your deepest convictions begin to win the day, then battle is your calling, and peace has become sin, you must, at the price of dearest peace, lay your convictions bare before friend and enemy with all the fire of your faith.”
Jesus did so on Palm Sunday, and it led Him to the cross.
The preparation for the King, the presentation to the King.
3. The Pronouncement of the King
“The next day as they were leaving Bethany, Jesus was hungry. 13 Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to find out if it had any fruit. When he reached it, he found nothing but leaves, because it was not the season for figs. 14 Then he said to the tree, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard him say it. 15 On reaching Jerusalem, Jesus entered the temple courts and began driving out those who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves, 16 and would not allow anyone to carry merchandise through the temple courts. 17 And as he taught them, he said, “Is it not written: ‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations’ ? But you have made it ‘a den of robbers.’ ” 18 The chief priests and the teachers of the law heard this and began looking for a way to kill him, for they feared him, because the whole crowd was amazed at his teaching. “ (Mark 11:12-18)
Here again we see the King asserting His royal authority. There is a magnificence and dignity even in His anger. Why did Jesus act in this way? Notice very carefully His own words. “And as he taught them, he said, “Is it not written: ‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations’ ? But you have made it ‘a den of robbers.’ (Mark 11:17)
Two quotations from the Old Testament prophecies are brought together. Isaiah 56:7 and Jeremiah 7:11 vindicated His action, one descriptive of what the house should be – a house of prayer; the other descriptive of what the house had become – a den of robbers. The house that ought to be a house of prayer had become a den of robbers, in the area reserved for non-Jews – the Court of the Gentiles. What was it that angered Jesus so much? Was it the commercialism? The corruption? I don’t think so. His quote from Isaiah 56 suggests it was much much deeper and the cursing of the fig tree gives us a clue.
The myth of racial purity is nothing new, nor is the desire to limit or exclude those deemed inferior. This is particularly so today in Israel. It is increasingly being defined as a Jewish state rather than a State for Israeli citizens. It is becoming increasingly exclusive rather than inclusive. Surprisingly perhaps, in the Old Testament, God insists that Israel as a nation was never to be narrowly restricted to those who were the physical descendants of the twelve sons of Jacob. God’s plan was that Israel as a nation would always incorporate people of other races.
This extended not just to their identity and right of residence but also to their inheritance of the land and right to worship God in the Temple. This is because membership of the people of God was always on the basis of faith not race.
An Inclusive Israel
Moses, for example, warned the Jewish people against a racial exclusivity:
Do not abhor an Edomite, for he is your brother. Do not abhor an Egyptian, because you lived as an alien in his country. The third generation of children born to them may enter the assembly of the LORD. (Deuteronomy 23:7-8)
The Edomites, descended from Esau, lived in what is today the Negev and Southern Jordan. In Psalm 87, King David, similarly, looked forward to the day when other races – Egyptian (Rahab) Persian (Babylon), Palestinian (Philitia), Lebanese (Tyre) and African (Cush) would have the same identity and privileges as the Israelites:
“I will record Rahab and Babylon among those who acknowledge me— Philistia too, and Tyre, along with Cush — and will say, ‘This one was born in Zion.’ “ 5 Indeed, of Zion it will be said, “This one and that one were born in her, and the Most High himself will establish her.” 6 The LORD will write in the register of the peoples: “This one was born in Zion.” (Psalm 87:4-6)
Notice the only criterion for citizenship God lays down is faith. God welcomes all ‘those who acknowledge me’.
An Inclusive Inheritance
As if to emphasize that ‘citizenship’ means much more than a new passport God instructs the Israelites to share the Land and give an inheritance to all who trust in him.
“You are to allot it as an inheritance for yourselves and for the aliens who have settled among you and who have children. You are to consider them as native-born Israelites; along with you they are to be allotted an inheritance among the tribes of Israel. In whatever tribe the alien settles, there you are to give him his inheritance,” declares the Sovereign LORD.” (Ezekiel 47:22-23)
Those of other races, therefore, have the same rights as ‘native Israelites’.
An Inclusive Temple
The inclusive nature of Israel extends beyond identity and inheritance to include the right to worship God in the Temple. God declares through the prophet Isaiah his acceptance of all who come to him in faith.
“Let no foreigner who has bound himself to the LORD say, “The LORD will surely exclude me from his people.” … And foreigners who bind themselves to the LORD to serve him, to love the name of the LORD, and to worship him, all who keep the Sabbath without desecrating it and who hold fast to my covenant— these I will bring to my holy mountain and give them joy in my house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.” (Isaiah 56:3, 6-7)
As we have seen, Jesus cites Isaiah 56 to justify his actions in clearing the money changers and traders out of the Temple.
But he is saying something much more profound than merely cleaning up the corruption in the Temple.
The act of cursing the fig tree was a sign of judgement on the people of Israel who were in the act of rejecting their Messiah.
The cursing of the fig tree was an acted parable. Numerous Old Testament prophecies identify Israel as a fig tree that would be cursed. Here are two examples from Hosea 9 and Jeremiah 24.
“When I found Israel, it was like finding grapes in the desert; when I saw your ancestors, it was like seeing the early fruit on the fig tree. But when they came to Baal Peor, they consecrated themselves to that shameful idol and became as vile as the thing they loved… Ephraim is blighted, their root is withered, they yield no fruit. Even if they bear children, I will slay their cherished offspring.” (Hosea 9:10, 16)
“…the LORD showed me two baskets of figs placed in front of the temple of the LORD. 2 One basket had very good figs, like those that ripen early; the other basket had very bad figs, so bad they could not be eaten. 3 Then the LORD asked me, “What do you see, Jeremiah?’ “Figs,” I answered. “The good ones are very good, but the bad ones are so bad they cannot be eaten.” 4 Then the word of the LORD came to me: 5 “This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: ‘Like these good figs, I regard as good the exiles from Judah, whom I sent away from this place to the land of the Babylonians. 6 My eyes will watch over them for their good, and I will bring them back to this land. I will build them up and not tear them down; I will plant them and not uproot them. 7 I will give them a heart to know me, that I am the LORD. They will be my people, and I will be their God, for they will return to me with all their heart. 8 “ ‘But like the bad figs, which are so bad they cannot be eaten,’ says the LORD, ‘so will I deal with Zedekiah king of Judah, his officials and the survivors from Jerusalem, whether they remain in this land or live in Egypt. 9 I will make them abhorrent and an offense to all the kingdoms of the earth, a reproach and a byword, a curse and an object of ridicule, wherever I banish them. 10 I will send the sword, famine and plague against them until they are destroyed from the land I gave to them and their ancestors.’ ” (Jeremiah 24:1-10)
Matthew’s account of the same events makes this even clearer. After a series of parables, Jesus concludes:
“Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit.” (Matthew 21:43)
Membership of God’s people was never on the basis of hereditary and race but always on the basis of faith and fruit.
If you want to explore the relationship between Israel and the Church you may find my book Zion’s Christian Soldiers helpful. In the back it contains a previously unpublished sermon by John Stott called “The Place of Israel”
The religious leaders had turned the Temple into an ugly sight, but for one brief moment Jesus turned it into a place of beauty.
In Matthew 21:14 we read of one brief moment of restoration.
For one brief moment the house was no longer a den of robbers, but a house of prayer. “The blind and the lame came to him at the temple, and he healed them.” (Matthew 21:14)
What a picture. The Temple court was thrown into total disarray, doves, lambs, sheep and goats running loose. People scrambling for the coins amidst the upturned money tables. But here also were the blind and the lame. The face that a moment before had flamed with indignation was soft with the radiance of compassion. This is one of the most moving pictures in the Gospels. Jesus casts out but He also takes in. He overthrows but He also builds up. “for my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations… I will gather still others to them…” Jesus did not merely quote it – he fulfilled it.
He cast out and he overthrew, but then he gathered the exiles, the outcasts, the blind and the lame of all nations. This is the King in action. What a King. Thank God for this vision of the King. I could not live in a world so full of evil if it were not for my belief in a king of justice. A king who can and does overthrow and cast out. But thank God also, before everything is put straight, before the house is put in order, with the tables still upset, the money scattered, and the people still in confusion, this King gathers the outcasts and heals them. Like Jesus we must work as he gives us the opportunity. We must work even while the world is going astray, where ever there is arrogance and racism, where ever there is ethnic cleansing, where ever there are refugees and asylum seekers. It should not surprise us that much of this world is a war zone.
The events of Palm Sunday and the example of our Lord teach us to be in the business of rebuking injustice but also relieving injustice. Challenging evil and cleansing evil – and beginning with our own hearts. Worshipping the peace maker but also working at peace making. Be a servant of the Prince of Peace who rode into Jerusalem that first Palm Sunday to die to take away your sin and mine. Cross the divide. Be a bridge builder. Be a peace maker this year.