22. Plans Misfiring? Palm Sunday

PART THREE: The Last Week

‘Living with Uncertainty’ Meditations: 22. Plans Misfiring? Palm Sunday

Jn 12:13  They took palm branches and went out to meet him, shouting, ‘Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the king of Israel!’

Mt 21:4,5 This took place to fulfil what was spoken through the prophet:  ‘Say to Daughter Zion, “See, your king comes to you, gentle and riding on a donkey,

A Roller-Coaster Builds: The sabbath has passed. Jesus prepares to enter Jerusalem in a provocatively prophetic manner – on a donkey. The synoptics describe how he sent his disciples to procure the donkey. He then mounts it and rides from Bethany to Jerusalem. As he approaches, the crowd build: “The next day the great crowd that had come for the festival heard that Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem.” (Jn 12:12) The word has got out that Jesus is coming. Luke records, “When he came near the place where the road goes down the Mount of Olives, the whole crowd of disciples began joyfully to praise God in loud voices for all the miracles they had seen.” (Lk 19:37) The euphoria builds. John again adds, “Now the crowd that was with him when he called Lazarus from the tomb and raised him from the dead continued to spread the word. Many people, because they had heard that he had performed this sign, went out to meet him.” (Jn 12:17,18) The testimony about the raising of Lazarus inflames the excitement. Something is about to happen. Two studies back I used the modern illustration from a Crocodile Dundee film of how these crowds and the accompanying excitement built. And so it is here.

Background Prophetic Fuel: But there is an added ingredient that could act as petrol on an already burning fire – the prophetic dimension that most Jews would have been taught in Synagogue, as Matthew records what was happening, especially in the light of Jesus riding on a donkey, This took place to fulfil what was spoken through the prophet: ‘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.”’ (Mt 21:5,6 quoting Zech 9:9) Zechariah had spoken of a ‘king’ coming to deliver Israel. Thus John records the people picking up on this: “They took palm branches and went out to meet him, shouting, ‘Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the king of Israel!”  Wow! It’s happening, the Messiah is coming to deliver us! This miracle worker who has power over life and death must be the Messiah and, see, he is coming on a donkey to fulfil the prophecies. So the crowd cut palm leaves and lay a carpet for the conquering king to ride over. This surely must be it! Watch out Romans we’re coming for you!

Anti-Climax: And so he rides into Jerusalem, entering by the east gate. Views differ on the layout of Jerusalem in those days but the crowd expect him to aim for the Antonia Fortress, the barracks of the Roman forces, but instead he enters the Temple precincts.  What is happening? Is he going to call on God to come down and deliver them from Rome? The following crowd would be full of expectations, but instead, “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.” (Mk 11:11) Anti-climax!  The euphoria subsides at the end of the day. Both the Jewish and Roman authorities breathe a sigh of relief.

Uncertainties: Everything about this day has been uncertain and it all hinges on what Jesus intends to do. The way he entered the city looked like he was proclaiming himself the royal deliverer, and yet he simply goes in, looks around and then leaves. It seems like the entry was just a prophetic set-piece to set everyone thinking. His followers thought it was the time of delivery, but at the end of the day, it’s just another runup day to the feast. But again it is John who lets us in on what the disciples themselves were thinking about: “At first his disciples did not understand all this. Only after Jesus was glorified did they realize that these things had been written about him and that these things had been done to him.” (Jn 12:16) Hold onto that; they did not understand what Jesus was doing.

From our vantage point we can see that he was just stoking the fire of opposition; they had no such understanding. But what about Jesus himself? He continues to bring teaching – about a seed having to die? We see it, but they couldn’t. But Jesus is not feeling easy with it. There on this Sunday he declares,  ‘Now my soul is troubled, and what shall I say? “Father, save me from this hour”? No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour. Father, glorify your name!” (Jn 12:27,28a) The human side of Jesus echoes what he will pray later in the week, in the Garden of Gethsemane. This is not something to be relished, this thing he knows has got to happen, and because it is so difficult, the Father brings encouragement: “Then a voice came from heaven, ‘I have glorified it, and will glorify it again.’ The crowd that was there and heard it said it had thundered; others said an angel had spoken to him.” (Jn 12:28b,29) He continues teaching and then, When he had finished speaking, Jesus left and hid himself from them.” (Jn 12:36) He purposely removes himself from the stage, so to speak, and the crowd are left leaderless. Peace descends on the city at the end of the day as darkness comes, but no doubt they were many hushed and not so hushed conversations about the affairs of the day and no doubt, for the reasons we have seen, there were many speculations as to what would follow – and most of them were wrong!

And Us? If the disciples were unclear what was happening and the crowd certainly were, I am sure we would have been as well if we had been there. But we see here something that I believe comes throughout the entire Bible that might be expressed in four propositions:

i) God is an initiator; He is the one who always takes the lead.

ii) He knows everything that is going on, what could happen, and what will happen, and He has plans laid out from before the foundation for the world that will not change.

iii) Those plans involve us, even though much of the time we are uncertain or confused, not seeing the whole picture, jumping to wrong conclusions and so on, and He will use us as much as we are available to Him.

iv) Those plans also involve the rest of the world so He will even make use of the wrong attitudes and actions of unbelievers.


Get those things clearly in your mind and worship Him, especially as we approach this Easter where the certain plans of the Godhead WILL be worked out just as the Godhead agreed them even before Creation.  Rest in His sovereign knowledge and wisdom, power and authority, as well as His love, grace and mercy. These are amazing times.

14. Jesus, the Ultimate Gem

Meditating on the Gems of the Bible:  14. Jesus the ultimate gem

Mat 1:20,21  “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”

The name Jesus or Jeshua was fairly common and is akin to Joshua of the Old Testament and it means deliverer. The thing about this particular baby, this particular Jesus, was that he would not deliver people in a physical sense but in a spiritual sense. The claim of the angel speaking to Joseph in a dream was that this Jesus would come and do something that no other person on earth could do, he would deliver people from their sins. Now when we think about that we realise that it must mean that he will deliver them from the guilt and punishment that their sins deserve AND he will deliver them from the actual sins, from continuing to do them. That is what salvation through Christ does, and just in case you have never seen it like that before, let’s repeat it: he delivers form the guilt and punishment of sins AND from the ongoing having to continue to sin. The first is what puts us right with God and the second is the life we live out subsequently with Him. This, as briefly as possible, is what Jesus has come to achieve, and he has done it for millions and millions of people.

How, again as briefly as possible, did he go on to do it, this? There were two parts to his ministry. First of all, for three years he lived out a period of ministry from about the age of thirty, revealing his Heavenly Father’s nature. In the words of the apostle Peter on the Day of Pentecost, he was revealed as a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him,” (Acts 2:22)  Later on, to Cornelius and his Gentile family and friends Peter declared, “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him.” (Acts 10:38)  Jesus himself had declared to John’s disciples, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor.” (Mt 11:4,5) In the things he did he revealed Himself as a unique being.

Three times his Father testified to the wonder of who he was. First at his own baptism, “As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and lighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” (Mt 3:16,17)  The second was on the Mount of Transfiguration: “Then a cloud appeared and enveloped them, and a voice came from the cloud: “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!” (Mk 9:7) The third time appears to have been on Palm Sunday, as recorded by John, “Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and will glorify it again.” The crowd that was there and heard it said it had thundered; others said an angel had spoken to him.” (Jn 12:28,29)

The second part of his ministry was dying on the Cross to take the punishment for our sins. Jesus knew exactly what he was doing when he allowed this to happen: “From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.” (Mt 16:21) Also “We are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will turn him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified. On the third day he will be raised to life!” (Mt 20:18,19) He spelled out the purpose of this at the Last Supper: “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” (Mt 26:28) The apostle Peter also spelled this out: “The God of our fathers raised Jesus from the dead–whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him to his own right hand as Prince and Savior that he might give repentance and forgiveness of sins to Israel.” (Acts 5:30,31) God raised Jesus from the dead and then took him back to heaven with him, confirming who he was and his purpose.

This is the unique ministry of Jesus Christ, the revealed Son of God. After he ascended and returned to sit next to his Father in heaven, ruling at His side, we find there are three people who saw him there. First there was Stephen just before he was stoned to death as the first Christian martyr (see Acts 7:56). The second was Saul on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:3-6) and the third was the apostle John in his revelation on the isle of Patmos. In the first part of the vision he saw Jesus as the one holding the seven churches of Asia Minor in his hands – the Lord of the Church (Rev 1:12-18). In the next part of the vision he saw him before the throne of heaven, as the Lamb of God, the Saviour of the world (Rev 5:5-10).  In the latter part of Revelation he saw him as the returning conquering king (Rev 19:11-16).

So when Joseph gets this message from the angel in a dream, we have all this wrapped up in a short description. The wonder of the New Testament is that being opened up and revealed to us in much greater detail. Of all of the gems we might find in the Bible, this surely has to shine the brightest.

Palm Sunday

PALM SUNDAY – Heralded

Matt 21:8,9 A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and those that followed shouted, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”

David the psalmist wrote, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.” (Psa 23:4) It seems an apt description of this week ahead – the valley of the shadow of death. For Christians this week ahead is a week of mixed emotions. On Good Friday there is the awfulness of the events of that day when we rejected the Saviour of the World. Then of Easter Sunday there is the celebrating that he is alive. But as we walk through this week ahead, there is the awful shadow of death hanging over it, the death we know is coming at the end of it.

It is that, perhaps, that makes the events of ‘Palm Sunday’ so incongruous. We know, because we’ve got it in writing and we’re looking back on it, that his death is coming, but death is the last thing on the mind of the crowd who welcome Jesus into Jerusalem. Indeed this travelling preacher seems to be the master over death because it was only a few weeks back that Lazarus was raised from the dead by him and the word has spread around the area like a tsunami rushing out from an earthquake epicentre, so now here he is on his way to Jerusalem with the crowd getting bigger and bigger by the moment.

It almost seems like he inflames them for he sends some of his followers to borrow a donkey and he mounts it to ride up to and through the gates of Jerusalem. The words of the prophet Zechariah, taught in the synagogues throughout the land, are being fulfilled before their very eyes: Say to the Daughter of Zion, `See, your king comes to you, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’” (Mt 215 quoting Zech 9:9). Some who have come from the north remember the time when he had fed five thousand with virtually nothing and the word had started to spread that this was their new messiah-king, a worthy king for Israel surely!

Thus they herald him as their king, yet nevertheless for some there was this shadow of death hanging over it all. The disciples had heard their master say a number of times that they would go to Jerusalem and there he would be killed (see Mt 16:21, 17:23). They had heard it and they had grieved. Peter had even rebuked him for saying such things.

How unreal those words must have seemed now, with the crowd screaming and shouting and applauding him; yet those very shouts would have had the exact opposite effect upon the religious authorities within the city, who became more and more anxious and sought opportunities to arrest him.

God’s plan was clearly declared by the prophet Isaiah, that “he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.” (Isa 53:5)  The Cross is the necessary end of this week because of our sins; that was God’s declared plan, but it needed the work of men. The Lord knew how the crowd would react with just a little prompting, so the raising of Lazarus just a few miles and weeks away, and the riding in on a donkey were just gentle fuel to fire the passions of men of power to move against Jesus. As Peter later said to the Jewish crowd on the day of Pentecost, “This man was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross.” (Acts 2:23).

Yes, this Sunday is a terrible combination of the knowledge and plan of God, the shallow adoration of a self-seeking crowd and, eventually, the sinful scheming of powerful men. How terrible! How wonderful!