Now shrugging off his rags the wiliest fighter of the island leapt
and stood on the broad door sill, his own bow in his hand.
—Homer, The Odyssey (c. 8th century BC)
The king has returned!
—Rafiki, The Lion King (1994)
The Return of the True King
The exiled king story is one of the oldest narratives ever recorded. From Odysseus to Arthur, from Richard to Aragorn and Simba, these remarkable stories all ring with the hope of a returning king. There’s a reason for this, and it stands at the very center of Earth’s history and hope of redemption. It’s about an archetype. It’s about the story of Jesus the Messiah.
It was the 10th of Nisan (our March-April). Jesus had spent the previous day in the little village of Bethany, just outside Jerusalem, with His close friends, Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. There had been a lot of buzz. People coming and going busily with a big banquet to make the day complete. The word was out and spreading like wildfire. Jesus had raised Lazarus to life after he had been dead four days. People rushed to see Lazarus who was raised by Jesus. Everyone was talking. But, believe it or not, there was more going on than a man being raised from the dead. It was Passover week. Religious fervor and Messianic expectations were high. But also, a kind of desperation was in the air. And today, the 10th, a Sunday, was the day that Israel picked out her Passover lambs for slaughter.
Sometime in the morning Jesus set out on foot with His 12 disciples. But first, he sent two ahead around the Mount of Olives to another little village close by called Bethpage. Jesus gave His men some rather unusual and unexpected instructions. They were to look for a young donkey … one unbroken and never ridden. They were to bring it back to Jesus. If anyone objected, the disciples were only to say, “The Lord has need of him.” And so it happened as Jesus said. The two disciples found the colt and its mother and began to untie them. The owners, who were standing nearby, objected until the disciples spoke about Jesus needing the animals. The disciples went their way with the donkey. The owners had a “brush with celebrity” story to tell, and they told it.
When the disciples caught up with Jesus, they threw their cloaks over the donkey to make a saddle. Jesus then climbed onto the lowly creature’s back. And so, they set off. But in the rush and excitement of the moment … no one remembered the prophecies of Zechariah:
Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion; shout, O daughter of Jerusalem: behold, thy King cometh unto thee: he is just, and having salvation; lowly, and riding upon an ass, and upon a colt the foal of an ass (Zech. 9:9).
Not a warhorse. An ass. A donkey. The Messiah would come in justice and humility. He would come to save His people. But in the chaos … amid all the shouting and hubbub … no one remembered. Meanwhile, word continued to spread quickly and the frenzied crowds multiplied. Jesus was coming to Jerusalem.
The Triumphal Procession
With Passover only a few days away, throngs of Galilean pilgrims crowded the road that wound around the Mount of Olives and led on to the East Gate of Jerusalem. As the pilgrims came in, they sang the Hallel (Psalms 113-118). Traditionally, the people of Jerusalem would come out to greet the pilgrims, and together the two groups would sing the final lines of Psalm 118 antiphonally:
Save now, I beseech thee, O LORD: O LORD, I beseech thee, send now prosperity.
Blessed be he that cometh in the name of the LORD: we have blessed you out of the house of the LORD.
God is the LORD, which hath shewed us light: bind the sacrifice with cords, even unto the horns of the altar.
Thou art my God, and I will praise thee: thou art my God, I will exalt thee.
O give thanks unto the LORD; for he is good: for his mercy endureth for ever.
The Hebrew word Hosanna can be rendered “save now.” It’s a plea for divine intervention and redemption, which was an especially appropriate prayer at Passover.
Jesus and the crowds that followed Him mixed in with the excited Galilean pilgrims and were soon greeted by the expectant crowds flowing out of Jerusalem. Men and women began to lay their cloaks before the slow-moving donkey. Others cut down palm branches and waved them like flags or laid them in Jesus’ path. This was a greeting for royalty. The clothes represented the prostrate bodies of their owners. The carpet of palm leaves symbolically exalted Jesus into the heavens.
As Jesus reached the high point in the road where it began its descent around Olivet, the cries of the multitudes began to deviate from the standard psalms. Disciples, pilgrims, and citizens began to improvise on the inspired words and chant some new refrains:
Hosanna to the Son of David: Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord:
Hosanna in the highest.
Blessed be the kingdom of our father David that cometh in the name of the Lord:
Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest.
With these chants, the crowds greeted Jesus as the royal Son of David and the rightful King of Israel. This hinted at the cosmic effects of His coming reign. Some Pharisees in the crowd called out to Jesus to silence His followers, but Jesus told them, “If these should hold their peace, the stones would immediately cry out.”
But then, as Jesus looked out over the City, He halted his forward progress. He stopped, and He cried. With divine foresight He spoke to a City that couldn’t hear Him: He wept over His people’s blindness and their horrible destiny. He foresaw the Roman siege, now only 40 years away. He saw the horror, the destruction and the total desolation that Roman general Titus and his legions would bring.
And then He moved on. He passed over the Kidron Valley and through the East Gate of the City. The whole City was buzzed, and people cried out, “Who is this?”
The pilgrims answered, “This is Jesus the prophet of Nazareth of Galilee.” No mention of David or his kingdom. No more hosannas. Only an earthly Galilean prophet. Now, anticlimactic air seemed to rush out like someone took a pin to a balloon. The excitement slowed to a halt. The crowds dispersed. Those who stayed with Jesus saw Him enter the Temple precincts, look around, and do nothing of consequence. Puzzled, perhaps, the crowds went about their business, and Jesus and His disciples quietly left Jerusalem and returned to Bethany and to the home of their friends. But the countdown to the cross had begun.
Throughout His three and half years of ministry, Jesus avoided any public broadcasting of His miracles and exploits. He had refused the clamor of the crowds. In fact, He had performed His most amazing miracles privately and usually told their recipients to “tell no man.” But not just that, He normally referred to Himself as the Son of man, not the Son of David or the Son of God. He spoke the word of His Father with power and let those who could hear draw their own conclusions.
But now Jesus officially and formally “came unto His own.” He presented Himself as their Messiah and King. Even more, He seemed to have deliberately provoked the loud and enthusiastic response from the crowds. He played off of His greatest miracle. He intentionally set the rumor mill in motion by commandeering the colt. He went where the crowds were. He deliberately chose Passover season, a time of religious fervor and a kind of frenetic energy. He presented Himself “enthroned” on a donkey, like rulers of an earlier age. And when the crowds did hail Him as the Son of David … He blatantly refused to silence them. In fact, He promised another miracle if the crowds became silent saying, “The stones would immediately cry out.”
His enemies threw up their hands: “Behold, the world is gone after Him!” With each careful and deliberate choice, Jesus pushed them back into a corner. He kept upping the stakes and eventually forced their hand. He forced them onto His timetable. He marched with determination toward the cross for the sake and love of His people.
Like the teachers of the law who hated Jesus so much, many scholars and theologians today have invented their own idea of what a savior might look like. Their Jesus is an Eastern sage, a great moralist, a spiritual superstar, or even a prophet, but in all cases this false Jesus is always just a man with limited and very earthly powers. He spoke words of great wisdom, so they say, but it was wisdom with no authority. It demands nothing of those who hear it and asserts nothing that might disturb someone’s conscience or alter a lifestyle.
To keep this Christ of theirs safely intact, these scholars, theologians and pastors must misunderstand the Triumphal entry. Jesus never claimed to be a king, they say. He never claimed to be Messiah. And He certainly never claimed to be the incarnate Son of God. And so the whole thing with the donkey bordered on a mistaken identity. To these secular theologians … Jesus’ resolve simply weakened, and He gave into the crowds. He made a last desperate bid for acceptance. He deviated from His chosen mission and fell prey to the conspiracy of throne and altar. All very sad, they say, but there it is. Too bad He didn’t cope better. And think what He could have accomplished if He had lived longer.
But Scripture will have none of this. The Jesus of Scripture set His mission toward Jerusalem and the cross. He presented Himself as the saving King. He provoked an excited response from the crowds and thereby a deadly response from His enemies. He came to claim His kingdom, a claim that also meant death and resurrection. He came humbly, but with purpose. Jesus came to save His people and rightfully claim the throne of the universe. This is the Christ we celebrate and worship on Palm Sunday.