Sermon Notes: Palm Sunday and Superlatives
A commonplace in Christian circles understands the events surrounding the first Palm Sunday to be a clear demonstration of the “fickleness of crowds.” But there are good reasons for questioning this common assumption.
On the next day much people that were come to the feast, when they heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem, Took branches of palm trees, and went forth to meet him, and cried, Hosanna: Blessed is the King of Israel that cometh in the name of the Lord (John 12:12-13).
But the chief priests and elders persuaded the multitude that they should ask Barabbas, and destroy Jesus. The governor answered and said unto them, Whether of the twain will ye that I release unto you? They said, Barabbas. Pilate saith unto them, What shall I do then with Jesus which is called Christ? They all say unto him, Let him be crucified. And the governor said, Why, what evil hath he done? But they cried out the more, saying, Let him be crucified (Matt. 27:20-23).
When Jesus entered into Jerusalem riding on a donkey, in fulfillment of prophecy, a great multitude gathered around and received Him as their king, as one who was coming in the name of the Lord. There is nothing in the account to suggest that the acclaim and joy were not genuine.
And yet, a very short time later, a multitude before Pilate was persuaded by the chief priests and elders to clamor for the destruction of Jesus. There is nothing in this to suggest that the composition of the crowd was largely the same as before, or that the crucifixion of Jesus was the result of everybody suddenly changing their minds. Rather, the facts recorded for us appear to suggest that Jerusalem was divided over the identity of Christ, and that those who loved Him were (temporarily) out-maneuvered.
Jesus was arrested at night, and was examined by Annas in a secret proceeding at night, in full contradiction to Jewish law. By the time they showed up before Pilate, it was still early (John 18:28). From the time of the Lord’s arrest to the time when the first nails went in, about nine hours elapsed. The whole thing was an iniquitous rush job. For about half that time, while all this was going on, the godly from the Triumphal Entry, those yearning for the redemption of Israel, were sound asleep in their beds.
We have a marked tendency to go on the basis of appearances. Even Elijah once fell victim to this mistake. “God hath not cast away his people which he foreknew. Wot ye not what the scripture saith of Elias? how he maketh intercession to God against Israel, saying, Lord, they have killed thy prophets, and digged down thine altars; and I am left alone, and they seek my life. But what saith the answer of God unto him? I have reserved to myself seven thousand men, who have not bowed the knee to the image of Baal. Even so then at this present time also there is a remnant according to the election of
grace” (Rom. 11:2-5).
Momentum is truly a mysterious thing. Ability to speak and to be heard is also mysterious, and often has little to do with actual numbers. This means that it is often the case that things can look far worse than they actually are.
The crowds on Palm Sunday were not silent in their reception of Christ. They dutifully responded just as they ought to have done, and if they had not, the stones would have cried out. But their joy was short-lived and was replaced by black despair when Jesus was arrested, tried and executed. But their faithfulness was still a seed which bore fruit soon enough.
God gave to His faithful a moment of great glory when they received Christ in His triumphal entry. But this glory was still early, and not near glorious enough. It was premature by design, a proleptic glory. Hopes were raised high, just to be dashed to earth again. But this was a necessary part of God’s good purposes. “For of a truth against thy holy child Jesus, whom thou hast anointed, both Herod, and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles, and the people of Israel, were gathered together, For to do whatsoever thy hand and thy counsel determined before to be done” (Acts 4:27-28).
The plan of God involved far more than a parade into Jerusalem, a parade to warm the heart. God’s purpose was the redemption of the cosmos, the creation of a new heaven and a new earth. This means that sometimes the ungodly appear to outnumber the godly because God wants to make it apparent that the power is His, and not ours. We serve a God who raises the dead.
At the same time, 6,999 faithful but silent ones can indicate a separate set of problems. It may not be utter and complete faithlessness—as it appeared to be to Elijah—but among the faithful we still might find a distinct range of problems. One of the most common is ungodly silence. As with all things, this sin can be used by the hand of God, but we are still responsible for it.
Remember the antithesis—there were two crowds in the Jerusalem of that day. Because of God’s purposes in the world, there are always two crowds—the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent. Where is your allegiance?
Remember your loyalties—the saints received Christ into Jerusalem loudly. Have you ever stood by silent when others were not being shy about their allegiances at all?
Remember God’s priorities—the general consensus was that the Messiah would come to Jerusalem and kick out the Romans. What He actually did was come to Jerusalem and kick out the moneychangers. Sometimes we are “silent” because we showed up at the wrong place.
Jesus set His face in order to go to Jerusalem. He did this because He set His mind on the joy that was set before Him. His entry into Jerusalem was an early step—and we have yet come close to completely the journey that He began. We are still in the shallows of that joy.
As believers in the Lord Jesus, we have to learn how to see Him as our substitute in all things, and not just in His death on the cross. Jesus did not just die in our place (although He did do that), He also lived in our place. The sacrifice of Jesus was for us, but so was the obedience of Jesus for us. The blood of Jesus was for us, but so was His courage.
“And it came to pass, when the time was come that he should be received up, he stedfastly set his face to go to Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51).
“I gave My back to those who struck Me, And My cheeks to those who plucked out the beard; I did not hide My face from shame and spitting. For the Lord God will help Me; Therefore I will not be disgraced; Therefore I have set My face like a flint, and I know that I will not be ashamed” (Is. 50:6-7).
As we consider this text, and the courage of the Lord Jesus, there are four events we should keep in mind together. The first occurred earlier in this chapter (Luke 9:31), when the Lord was transfigured and met with Moses and Elijah. One of the things they discussed on that mountain was the “exodus” that Jesus was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. The second event is this one—the Lord, when it was time for Him to be “received up,” set His face steadfastly in the direction of Jerusalem, which was to be the place of His passion. The third event is His triumphal entry to Jerusalem, the event that we are marking on the church calendar today (John 12:13). The fourth event was His agonized prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane (Mark 14:32). The Lord knew what the Scriptures had prophesied, He knew the Father’s will, He had set His face already to do that will, and He was willing to go. Our passage from Isaiah concerns the suffering servant, who is the Lord Jesus. He knew the abuse He would receive from the authorities in Jerusalem. His face would be abused—beard plucked out. But He refused to hide His face, and in His courage He set His face like flint in order to pay the price for your salvation and mine.
The Lord Jesus had a sense of His calling from the time He was twelve (at least). This was confirmed to Him at His baptism, when God spoke from Heaven, and the Spirit descended upon Him like a dove. But remember that we confess that He was not only fully God but also a true man. Indeed, He was the true man. This meant that He felt and fully experienced the gradual approach of a day of dread. He knew what was coming, but when it was a week away instead of years away the burden was much greater. The Lord Jesus required courage, which He displayed, and the Lord Jesus had to carry the burden, which He did.
He spoke with Elijah and Moses about the great exodus He would accomplish. He resolved to do it, setting His face toward the cross at Jerusalem. He empathized with the rejoicing at His triumphal entry—He supported it and did not think it out of place. Incidentally, it always bears repeating that we have no biblical basis for supposing that the crowd with the palms and the crowd crying out crucify Him! were the same crowds. This was not about the fickleness of the masses.
Christ is everything to us. He lived His entire life as a public person, as the last and final Adam. Everything He did was for us and to us, and God imputes to us all of His obedience, and not just His obedience of suffering on the cross. Theologians distinguish this by calling one His passive obedience (His suffering obedience on the cross) and His active obedience (His entire life of faithfulness to God). All of this is imputed to us, credited to us.
It was not just necessary for the people of God to pay for their sins. It was equally necessary for them to fulfill the vocation that God assigned to us. This is why Jesus identified with us from the first moment of His ministry (in His baptism). This is why He fasted forty days in the wilderness (remember forty years in the wilderness?). This is why He was tempted there. Who else was tempted there? This is why He invaded Canaan as the greater Joshua, and undertook a great warfare there, expelling demons. Christ is Israel, and Christ is Israel, finally doing it right. Let him who boasts, boast in the Lord.
Let us bring this down to particulars. Every Christian is called to take up the cross daily (Luke 9:23). But this is not a solitary cross (although it will often feel solitary enough). It is not solitary because Jesus invites us to take up the cross in order to follow Him with it. He promises, in the next breath, that whoever loses his life for the sake of Christ will save it (Luke 9:24).
If we are believers, we are in Christ. If we are in Christ, then our crosses are within His cross. We are never alone in what God has apportioned to us. If we are called upon to show courage, then our courage is located where it must be located—inside His courage.
Courage is needed when you don’t think you can do the work anymore. Courage is required when the pain continues to go on and on, and you don’t know what to do with it, or where to put it. Courage is required in the face of uncertainty—perhaps you are threatened by a diagnosed illness, or financial troubles. Courage is required when your reputation is threatened by those who would slander you—not because your work is deficient, or because you have been dishonest in any way, but because you identify with Jesus Christ. Now identifying with Jesus does bring this kind of hostility. But identifying with Him also brings a great and glorious blessing. Why is that? Because His courage is given as a gift to you. The one who gives you this blessing of high-heartedness is the one who set His face like flint in order to go to Jerusalem to purchase you out of the slave market of sin.
The triumphal entry of Christ into Jerusalem is the prelude to His crucifixion, and so it is odd that it has come to be called the triumphal entry. But it actually reveals a good understanding of what was actually happening there. The right hand of the Lord does valiantly (Ps. 118:16), but it turns out to have been the left hand. That it was a left-handed triumph did not keep it from being a triumph. No one thinks that the Greeks lost the Trojan War because the Trojans hauled what they thought to be a trophy of their victory inside the city walls.
“The chariots of God are twenty thousand, even thousands of angels: the Lord is among them, as in Sinai, in the holy place. Thou hast ascended on high, thou hast led captivity captive: thou hast received gifts for men; yea, for the rebellious also, that the LORD God might dwell among them. Blessed be the Lord, who daily loadeth us with benefits, even the God of our salvation. Selah. He that is our God is the God of salvation; and unto GOD the Lord belong the issues from death. But God shall wound the head of his enemies, and the hairy scalp of such an one as goeth on still in his trespasses” (Psalm 68:17-21).
The Bible is filled with many descriptions of triumph. Many of them are of the straight up the middle kind, as here. But when God overcame the rulers of that age, who did not know what He was doing (1 Cor. 2:8), the language of these right-handed triumphs is applied straight across. The psalmist pleads with God to arise and scatter His enemies (v. 1), which the Lord then proceeds to do. The Lord is among myriads of angels, in the holy place (v. 17). He then ascended on high, prefiguring the ascension of the Lord Jesus into Heaven (v. 18; Eph. 4:8). The Ascension looks like a triumph ought to look, but it was prefigured (accurately) by a march of death in faith. God is the God of our salvation, and He daily loads us with benefits (v. 19). The God of our salvation holds all the issues of death in His hand (v. 20). God shall win a complete victory, wounding the head of his enemies (v. 21).
Christ entered the conquered city in triumph before He had conquered it. Usually you have the battle and after that the victory parade. Jesus, the model of all faith, reversed the order. He held a triumphant procession before the battle. This had all been laid out in Scripture beforehand, and Scripture cannot be broken. Jesus knew that, because He saw Scripture rightly. And it did not matter how explicitly He spoke of this plan, spiritual blindness— attached as it is to the wisdom of the world—cannot comprehend it, and cannot overcome it (Jn. 1:5).
But we can understand how it is that they could not understand. Not only did Jesus conduct the victory parade before the victory, but His victory, when He came to it, was accomplished by dying, and not by killing. He crushed the serpent’s head by allowing Himself to be bruised by a crushing blow (Is. 53:5). And so being crushed was actually the crushing blow.
But the lack of spiritual understanding was not because the words were unclear.
“From that time forth began Jesus to shew unto his disciples, how that he must go unto Jerusalem, and suffer many things of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised again the third day” (Matt. 16:21)
As Christ entered into His victory, so should we. We are Christians, imitators of Him. What then is your triumphal entry? Have you been demoted, insulted, wronged, or badly handled? Has the Lord of all affliction assigned a portion of that peculiar blessing to you? Do you chafe because Lot pushed ahead of you and chose the choice portion, right next to Sodom? Are you mystified because after Samuel anointed you the next king, all the promotion memos resulted in you hiding from Saul in the wilderness? Why does God persist in thinking that down is the way up?
“Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you” (Matt. 5:11-12).
This is how God speaks in code; this is how He hides the purloined letter. He says what we would rather not hear, and does so bluntly, overtly, plainly, and with all clarity. If we receive it in faith, the promise is apportioned to us in accordance with our faith. If we say, sorry, we “can’t do that, not after what they did to” us, then the first thing we ought to do is consider the possibility that what they are saying is not false. The promise does not belong to those who reject the terms of it. When we take up our cross to follow Jesus, as He required of us, the process includes exulting in a great victory by faith beforehand.
But Christ is righteous, and we are not. Of course He knows how to do this kind of thing. But how can we approach the “gate of the LORD, into which the righteous shall enter” (Ps. 118:20)? “Open ye the gates, that the righteous nation which keepeth the truth may enter in” (Is. 26:2). How do we enter those gates? Because Christ defeated the devil in this “upside down” fashion, it is possible for sinners to respond to His invitation. Left to our own devices, we would have entered the wrong gate, taken the wrong entry ramp. We would have done the obvious thing. He made it possible for us not to.
“Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat” (Matt 7:13).
In order to do this right, we have to stop thinking like scholars, and start thinking more like little kids.
“And said, Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 18:3).
“Blessed are they that do his commandments, that they may have right to the tree of life, and may enter in through the gates into the city” (Rev. 22:14).
In the verses immediately prior to our text, we see the Lord’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem. The people received Him gladly in the name of the Lord (vv. 12-13). It is common for preachers to expand on the fickleness of crowds by contrasting this reception with the mob yelling “crucify Him” just a few days later, but we really have no reason for thinking that these were the same people.
Jesus entered Jerusalem on the back of a donkey, fulfilling the word of the prophet (vv. 14-15). The disciples did not understand the import of all this until later, until after Christ’s glorification (v. 16). The word about Lazarus was being spread around (v. 17), and the crowd received Him because of this (v. 18). The Pharisees then said, “Look, this is worthless. The world loves this man” (v. 19). This is how John sets up the episode with the Greeks.
“And there were certain Greeks among them that came up to worship at the feast: The same came therefore to Philip, which was of Bethsaida of Galilee, and desired him, saying, Sir, we would see Jesus. Philip cometh and telleth Andrew: and again Andrew and Philip tell Jesus. And Jesus answered them, saying, The hour is come, that the Son of man should be glorified. Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit. He that loveth his life shall lose it; and he that hateth his life in this world shall keep it unto life eternal. If any man serve me, let him follow me; and where I am, there shall also my servant be: if any man serve me, him will my Father honour” (John 12: 20-26).
It is possible that these were Jews of the Dispersion, but in this context, it is much more likely that they were Gentile Greeks. They were there to worship at the feast, which was Passover (v. 20). They came to Philip, who was from (John makes a point of telling us here) the town of Bethsaida in Galilee. Galilee was “of” the Gentiles (Matt. 4:15), and Bethsaida meant “House of Fish.” Jesus had promised Peter that the disciples would be fishers of men, and He was not talking about a cane pole and a quiet trout stream. He was talking about bursting nets and a fishing industry. So these men came to Philip and said they wanted to see Jesus (v. 21). Philip tells his brother Andrew about it, and they both tell Jesus (v. 22). We are not explicitly told whether these Greeks ever met Jesus, but Christ’s cryptic answer tells us what the conditions would have been if they did. This seems to hint at a positive response, however stringent the conditions. The hour was approaching for Christ’s glorification (v. 23), and in this regard He was here talking about the cross (vv. 27-28). A grain of seed that does not die “abideth alone,” but if it goes in the ground and dies, it brings forth much fruit (v. 24). This pattern of “much fruit” is generational. It multiplies because the seed corn that is produced will itself die, and be fruitful as well (v. 25). Christ then closes the loop on the request of the Greeks. They wanted to see Him (v. 21), but Jesus slides right into “serve me” (v. 26). He who would serve must follow (v. 26). Follow where? To death and fruitfulness. For, Jesus says, where I am (in the ground and in the heavens), there also will His servant be (v. 26). If a man does this, the Father will honor him as well (v. 26). As Christ rose, so shall we. If we die as Jesus did, we are glorified in the dying. If we die with Him we will also rise with Him (Rom. 6:5). And if we rise with Him, then we are honored as He was—and this is the place where the fruit is harvested.
Jesus came into the world to confront the world, and to subvert its entire system. Worldliness and godliness therefore represent two different approaches to the questions about life and living. The world is dedicated to a life that is based on not dying. Given our sinfulness and the curse that God laid on the world, this is a futile and vain endeavor, an impossible standard. This is the core of worldliness—don’t let go, don’t give up, don’t surrender, keep whatever you have in that death grip. And that is just what it is—a death grip. Once matured, this worldliness is the beating heart of Hell.
The core of godliness is this—Jesus came so that we might have life, and have it more abundantly (John 10:10). Who would shy away from abundant life? Well, everyone, just as soon as they discover that this abundant life is on the other side of death. As the old Albert King blues song puts it, “everybody wants to go to Heaven, but nobody wants to die.” As that song also notes, everybody wants to hear the truth, but everybody wants to tell a lie.
Now this is not just worldliness as opposed to godliness on the grand scale—dealing with actual death, for example. It is not just the day before you physically die that the contrast between the two kinds of living is made. Jesus said we were to take up our cross daily (Luke 9:23), which means that these issues are present every day, all day long.
Once the teaching of Jesus at this point is made clear, it would be easy to believe that throughout the course of human history, we might be able to come up with three Christians tops, if that. But the cross is not the ultimate test that we must pass. It is the ultimate test that the Lord Jesus passed, and because He was glorified in passing it, that glorification draws men inexorably to their fruitful deaths.
“Now is the judgment of this world: now shall the prince of this world be cast out. And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me. This he said, signifying what death he should die” (John 12:31-32).
We have been contrasting this fruitful death and resurrection with the way of the world. Here it is explicitly. How did Jesus save the world? He did it by judging the world. Now is the judgment of the world, and all its clinging-to-life ways (v. 31). Now the prince of the world was to be cast out—and we are to have a new prince, one who died and rose, not one who clung to everything. And Jesus, lifted up in agony and death, would be glorified, and would draw all men to Him. And this He is in the process of doing, even down to the present hour.