Two thousand years ago Jerusalem was under a siege. One man set out on a lonely road to do something about it. Only 14 miles long. A day’s journey, up-hill, Jericho to Jerusalem. A one way ticket. Jesus is out in front leading the way, setting the pace.
“They were on their way up to Jerusalem, with Jesus leading the way, and the disciples were astonished, while those who followed were afraid. Again he took the Twelve aside and told them what was going to happen to him. “We are going up to Jerusalem,” he said, “and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will hand him over to the Gentiles, who will mock him and spit on him, flog him and kill him. Three days later he will rise.” (Mark 10:32-34)
If you want to know someone’s heart, observe their final journey. As Jesus and his disciples enter Bethany just over the Mount of Olives from Jerusalem, the props and players for Friday’s drama are already in position. Six inch iron nails lie in a bucket. A wooden cross-beam leans against a wall.
Thorn branches dangle from a trellis. Pilate is having sleepless nights. A centurion is signing in for the week’s duty, awaiting the next round of crucifixions. Players and props. Only this isn’t a play. It is a divine plan. A plan begun even before Adam drew his first breath. The journey to Jerusalem didn’t begin in Jericho. It didn’t begin in Galilee, Nazareth or Bethlehem.
The journey to the cross began long before. At the sound of the first bite of the apple in the garden, Jesus was leaving for Calvary. Jesus is on a journey. His final journey. The angels are holding their breath. For hinged on this week is the door of eternity. Let’s walk with Him. Let’s see how Jesus spent his final days. Let’s see what mattered to God. If you would know Christ, ponder His final days. The Apostles give over between one quarter and a third of their gospels to tell what happened that final week. Jesus knew the finality of Friday. He had read the last chapter before it was written. He heard the final chorus before it was sung. As a result we have here distilled truths, deliberate deeds. Each step calculated. Every act premeditated.
Knowing Jesus had just one more week with His disciples, what did he tell them? Knowing this would be his last visit to the Temple, how did he act? Enter holy week and observe. Feel His passion. Laughing as children sing. Weeping as Jerusalem ignores. Scorning as priests accuse. Pleading as disciples snore. Feel His passion. Sense His power. Blind eyes… seeing. Fruitless tree… withering. Money changers… scampering. Religious leaders… cowering. Cross … beckoning. Tomb… opening. Feel his passion. Sense his power. Hear his promise. For God has come to take you home. Let’s follow Jesus this week on His final journey. For by observing His, we may learn to be ready to make ours. Today we begin with Palm Sunday.
1. The Guy with the Donkey – Preparation for the King
“And when they had approached Jerusalem and had come to Bethphage, to the Mount of Olives then Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village opposite you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied there and a colt with her; untie them, and bring them to Me. And if anyone says something to you, you shall say, ‘The Lord has need of them,’ and immediately he will send them….. (Matthew 21:1–7)
The instruction to the disciples is quite plain. The language is of a royal levy. It was an ancient law. Citizen must render to the king any item or service he or one of his emissaries might need. In making such a demand, Jesus is claiming to be King. One with authority – with the unconditional right to the possessions of His subjects. Do you see Jesus in that way?
Perhaps Jesus is asking for whatever is your donkey to enter another nation, another city, another heart. Will you let Him? Will you give it or will you hesitate? Sometimes when God wants something of mine, I act like I don’t know He needs it. Someone else can give it. Sometimes I don’t give because I don’t know for sure, and then I feel bad because I’ve missed my chance. Other times I know he wants something but I don’t give because I am selfish. And other times, too few times, I hear Him, obey Him and feel honoured that a gift of mine was useful to carry Jesus into another place. Sometimes though I wonder if my little deeds today will make a blind bit of difference in the long run. Maybe you have these questions too. All of us have a donkey. We have many things, which, if given back to God,
like the donkey, will help Jesus accomplish his purpose. Maybe you can sing, or play a musical instrument, or manage a database or speak Swahili or write a cheque. Whatever it is, that’s your donkey. Some see it as a gift, others as a talent, a privilege, a trust. Whichever it is, and it may be all of these, your donkey belongs to Him. It really does belong to Him. It belonged to him before he gave it to you and it remains his until the day he asks for it back, with interest. It is on donkeys that He rides – not steeds or chariots – just simple donkeys. Jesus did not come in wealth but in poverty; He did not come in grandeur but in meekness; and He did not come to slay Israel’s enemies but to save mankind. Nothing could have been more appropriate than that the Bearer of the world’s sin burden would enter God’s holy city riding on a lowly beast of burden. The guy with the Donkey – The preparation for the King.
2. The Crowd with their Cloaks: Presentation to the King
“And most of the multitude spread their garments in the road, and others were cutting branches from the trees, and spreading them in the road. And the multitudes going before Him, and those who followed after were crying out, saying, “Hosanna to the Son of David; blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord; hosanna in the highest!” (Matthew 21:8–9)
It was an ancient custom (2 Kings 9:13) for citizens to throw their garments in the road for their monarch to ride over. It symbolised their respect for him, their submission to him.
It was as if to say, “We place ourselves at your feet, even to walk over if necessary.” The Hebrew word ‘hosanna’ is a plea meaning “save now.” But the crowd that day wasn’t interested in Jesus saving their souls but only in His saving their nation. They were quoting from Psalm 118, a Psalm of deliverance. It was sometimes called the conqueror’s Psalm. More than a hundred years earlier, the Jews had hailed Jonathan Maccabeus with the same psalm after he delivered Acre from Syrian domination.
Now they were about to celebrate Passover. It commemorated the Lord’s miraculous deliverance of Israel from Egyptian bondage. What better occasion than for the Messiah to make the ultimate and final deliverance of His people from tyranny? But Jesus did not come to conquer Rome but to conquer sin. He did not come to destroy Rome but to destroy death. He did not come to make war with Rome but to make peace with God. They proclaimed Jesus a king, but they did not understand what kind of kingdom. They did not realise any more than Pilate or many today that his kingdom was not of this world (John 18:36). That is why, when they realised a few days later, they turned against Jesus. The people wanted Jesus on their own terms, and they would not bow to a King who was not of their liking. But Jesus would not deliver them on their terms, and so they would not be delivered on His.
Many today are open to a Jesus who they think will give them what they want – insulation from life’s storms – material security, personal peace, affluence, health and a long life – we have almost made these our rights. As on that first Palm Sunday, many will acclaim Jesus as long as He performs to their expectation. But they will deny Him when tragedy strikes, when unemployment or redundancy, divorce, a premature death, a national tragedy reveals their shallow roots. They did not understand that Jesus had not come to be crowned but to be crucified.
One day “every knee [will] bow, of those who are in heaven, and on earth, and under the earth, and … every tongue [will] confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:10–11). For now it is our privilege to do so freely and without compulsion, in adoration, thanks and praise. The guy with the donkey. The crowd with their cloaks,
3. Hypocrites in the Temple: Pronouncement of the King
It was Passover week. The highlight of the Jewish calendar. People came from many countries to participate. On arrival they were obliged to meet two requirements. First, an animal sacrifice – usually a dove. A perfect dove, without blemish. The birds could be brought anywhere, but odds were it would be declared substandard by the Temple authorities. Under the guise of keeping the sacrifice pure, they fleeced the flock – at their inflated price. Second, the people had to pay a tax, a temple tax. Due every year. During Passover, the tax had to be rendered in local currency. Knowing many foreigners would be in Jerusalem, moneychangers were sanctioned to exchange foreign money in the temple itself. It is not difficult to see what angered Jesus. Pilgrims journeyed days to meet with God, to witness the Holy, to worship His Majesty. But before they were taken into the presence of God, they were taken to the cleaners. Want to anger God? Get in the way of people who want to meet Him. In this demonstration of divine anger,
3.1 Jesus Asserted Divine Authority
“and cast out all those who were buying and selling in the temple, and overturned the tables of the moneychangers and the seats of those who were selling doves.” (Matthew 21:12b)
“I’ve had enough” was written all over the Messiah’s face. In he stormed. Doves flapped and tables flew. People scampered and traders scattered. Without warning and without resistance, Jesus cast out both the traders. He overturned the tables of the moneychangers. The whole Temple was in confusion and disarray, animals running loose, doves flying around, money rolling across the courtyard. This was no impulsive temper tantrum. It was a deliberate act. “Cash in on my people and you answer to me”. God will never hold guiltless those who exploit the freedom of worship. Jesus asserted His divine authority. In doing so,
3.2 Jesus Fulfilled Divine Scripture
“And He said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’; but you are making it a robbers’ den.” (Matthew 21:13)
As He so often did, Jesus vindicated what He was doing from Scripture. Isaiah 56 and Jeremiah 7, “My house shall be called a house of prayer.” “for all the nations” (Mark 11:17).
Perhaps you’ve seen them. Their talk is smooth. The vocabulary eloquent. The appearance genuine. They are on satellite television. They are appearing at a stadium near you. They stain the reputation of Christianity. They manipulate the easily deceived. And our Lord unmasks them here. How do we recognise them? Two trademarks give them away. First, they are not governed by God but by greed. They work independently of His Church. Listen carefully to the television evangelist, analyse the words of the radio preacher. Note the emphasis of the message. What is their burden? Your salvation or your donation? Are you promised health if you give and hell if you don’t? If so, ignore them. A second characteristic of religious con men is that they want to build their own empires. The most blatant ones do so in their own names. They are God’s anointed. Only they can give you what you need. They promise of the inside track on guidance, a short cut to success, the tantalising promise of healing, for a price. Just as the dove-sellers were intolerant of imported birds, so charlatans today cultivate an exclusive clientèle. Remember why Jesus purged the Temple. Those closest to it may be furthest from it. Jesus asserted divine authority; Jesus fulfilled divine Scripture.
3.3 Jesus Demonstrated Divine Power
And the blind and the lame came to Him in the temple, and He healed them. (Matthew 21:14)
Just as the wicked and unrepentant can expect God’s anger, those who humbly seek His help can expect His compassion. The diseased and the crippled, most of whom were beggars, continually gathered at the Temple, hoping for the gift of a few denarii. They were despised, suffering as a result of sin – either theirs or their parents (see John 9:2). The Temple leaders had little time for them either (see Matt. 23:4). Jesus, however, healed those who came to Him. He never turned them away. Like the blind and the lame who came to Jesus in the Temple, we may come to Him now with perfect confidence.
He will never turn us away, if we admit our poverty and seek His grace. Jesus asserted divine authority, he fulfilled divine scripture, he demonstrated divine power, and lastly,
3.4 Jesus Accepted Divine Worship
“But when the chief priests and the scribes saw the wonderful things that He had done, and the children who were crying out in the temple and saying, “Hosanna to the Son of David,” they became indignant, and said to Him, “Do You hear what these are saying?” And Jesus said to them, “Yes; have you never read, ‘Out of the mouth of infants and nursing babes you have ordained praise for Yourself’?” And He left them and went out of the city to Bethany, and lodged there. (Matthew 21:15–17):
The chief priests and scribes saw all the wonderful things that Jesus had done. They heard the children crying out in the temple, just as their parents had done the day before. They well knew that “Son of David” was a Messianic title. But their reaction was so different. Jesus silenced the Jewish leaders by quoting the Bible once again. You know, the saddest thing I learn from this passage is this. Jesus will not remain where He is unwanted. The greatest indictment of this passage comes in verse 17. “and he left them…” Although every person is accountable to God, He forces Himself on no one. And although salvation is first of all by God’s sovereign initiative and power, no person is saved unwillingly. Because the unbelieving priests and scribes would not receive Him, He left them and went out of the city to Bethany, and lodged there, to be with His dear friends Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, and the other disciples who trusted in and loved Him. And that is where He dwells today. If you want to know someone’s heart observe that person’s final journey. Is there a Jerusalem on your horizon? Are you a brief journey away from painful encounters? Are you experiencing what another disciple John called “The dark night of the soul”? Learn a lesson from your master.
Don’t try and follow Jesus without trusting in Him. Draw His strength from the same promises of God He trusted in.
When you are confused remember God said “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” (Jeremiah 29:11).
If you feel crushed by the weight of yesterday’s failures remember “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1)
On those nights when you wonder where God is remember He said, “I will be with you; I will never leave you nor forsake you.” (Joshua 1:5).
If you think you can fall beyond God’s love, understand you can only fall into His grace, “grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ… know this love that surpasses knowledge–that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.” (Ephesians 3:18-19).
When you next find yourself on a Jericho road marching toward Jerusalem, put the promises of God on your lips. Let us pray.
I am grateful to Max Lucado for much of the inspiration for this sermon.