For three years, Jesus had taught his disciples incredible truths. Dispelling falsehoods found in the manufactured faith of the religious elite in Jerusalem, Jesus instructed his chosen men in the matters they would take to others after his death. Now, this hour—the hour of his death—had drawn near. With all the determination of a Hebrew prophet of old, Jesus turned toward Jerusalem one week before the Passover feast.
Approaching the ancient city, Jesus sent two disciples to commandeer a steed from a nearby village. Those standing nearby watched the disciples untie a donkey and questioned the pair about their activities. The disciples responded as instructed, stating that the Lord needed it. The response seemed to satisfy the villagers, and the disciples took the animal to Jesus. He mounted the beast and rode into Jerusalem to an exuberant celebration. The enthusiastic crowd cheered and spread cloaks and palm branches across his path.
This king, unlike any other in human history, rode into the city once ruled by his ancestor David. Unlike his more militant forebear, this modest king would come in peace. But fascinatingly enough, he would capture by surrendering and conquer through his own death.
The Triumphal Entry
The first day of Passion Week included a dramatic arrival filled with messianic meaning. More than five centuries before, the prophet Zechariah foretold a time when a conquering king would ride into Jerusalem on a colt (Zechariah 9:9; see Genesis 49:10,11). Those present understood this as the arrival of the long-anticipated descendant of David. Contrary to the expectations of the crowd, the donkey communicated the idea of peace rather than conquest. Only later would the disciples understand that Jesus established his kingdom not by slaughtering his enemies, but by dying for them (Romans 5:10).
Jesus had kept his messianic status a carefully guarded secret during his ministry, at least while he was traveling through areas where his religious opponents had authority. Jesus often swore to secrecy those who had benefitted from his miraculous powers, although not everyone complied with his wishes. At times, Jesus instructed his disciples to tell no one about him (Mark 8:30). In areas occupied primarily by Gentiles, Jesus often openly revealed his identity.
When riding into Jerusalem, the people cried out “Hosanna,” meaning “Save us!” or “Please save!” They celebrated the coming kingdom of David. The crowds rightly expected Jesus as a conqueror, but almost certainly anticipated him defeating the wrong opponent. Passover celebrated God’s liberation of the Hebrews from Egyptian bondage; likely the crowd gathered around Jesus expected him to liberate Israel from Roman rule as so many other would-be deliverers had attempted before.
The actions of the crowd indicated they viewed Jesus as an earthly figure. A similar entrance had been made by Simon Maccabeus more than a century before in 142 BC, when praises and palm branches awaited victorious Jews who entered Jerusalem after defeating their enemies (see the apocryphal account of 1 Maccabees 13:51(Good News Translation) and also 2 Kings 9:13). Misinterpreting him as so many others did, the crowd expected Jesus to establish the kingdom of David rather than the kingdom of God.
It should intrigue us that Jesus presented himself as a modest king. Jesus chose a donkey as his mode of transportation. Not only is it a lowly animal, but Jesus also sent his disciples to select one to borrow. Further, he never called himself the Son of David even though others did in Matthew’s account. This Emmanuel, “God with us” (Matthew 1:23), did not seek to impress others, but instead gave us a model of modesty and humility to imitate.
Worship Worthy of the King of Kings
People are nothing if not fickle. The people gathered to revere Jesus and celebrate his arrival in Jerusalem during what we call the Triumphal Entry. Only a few days later, another crowd demanded his execution. During his ministry, Jesus often found himself misunderstood by others, which included his opponents, friends and family, and even his disciples. Sadly, that persists to the present.
We cannot shape Jesus into what we want him to be. Many have tried and have succeeded in fashioning counterfeit Christs for themselves. Some of these pseudo-saviors endorse various political positions, while others crusade for whatever social issues their followers deem important. Others select a spiritually amorphous Jesus who would instead offer encouragement, inspiration, or sage advice than exercise any kind of divine authority. One Christ is draped in an American flag while another burns it. We cannot put God’s Son in a box of our choosing because he transcends our petty, self-centered concerns. Our worship must mirror this fact.
Christ deserves full submission and total adoration. If he does not stand supreme in the center of our lives, then he is nothing more than a spiritual accessory, like a Bible brought to church but rarely opened. He is king, and he deserves glory and honor of the highest magnitude. We have two courses of action open to us: crown him or quit him. There is no other option.
Like the crowd gathered around Jesus, we too can say the right things without having the right hearts. Anyone can use theological jargon to make themselves sound like a faithful Christian. Yet theological acuity does not guarantee that we have committed ourselves fully to Christ. Religious behavior and pious language can disguise partial sincerity so cleverly that we might even succeed in fooling ourselves.
A Marriage of Suffering and Glory
A curious feature about Jesus’ gentle entrance is that it excluded all the pomp and circumstance we human beings desire. Pharaoh and Nebuchadnezzar glorified themselves and shook their fists in the face of God. Julius Caesar led his army across the Rubicon and entered Rome in a declaration of war on the Roman Senate. Napoleon staged a coup d’état when he became the Consul for Life and later crowned himself as emperor of France. Usurpers throughout history have committed regicide to take the thrones of their predecessors. Many of these stories involve intrigue, secrecy, and murder most foul.
Jesus serves as a different kind of king. He rode toward his destiny, fully intending to submit himself to his opponents. In only a few days’ time, the Romans would give him a horrific coronation whose symbolism would express more than they knew. His captors would hand him a scepter and lay a royal robe across his mutilated shoulders while bowing down in mock homage. Although he would be adorned with jeers, crowned with thorns, enthroned on a cross, and treated as a fool, this King would accomplish more than all of the other monarchs in history combined.
The King of kings needed no vulgar display of power. The apex of his work would come a few days later when he would forever destroy the rule of sin and death. Unaided, he would vanquish the very enemies no human being can escape. This victory did not begin with plots and schemes. It required neither army nor invasion. It all began with a modest king riding a lowly steed who had more power than it seemed and more love than we can comprehend.
Dewayne Bryant has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Amridge University and preaches at the New York Avenue Church of Christ in Arlington, Texas.