April 13, 2003
As we survey the scene of Christ’s dramatic entry into Jerusalem, it’s important that we ask ourselves, “What does this mean, and why does any of it matter?” Alistair Begg brings into focus the unfolding of God’s plan and converging lines of prophecy regarding the sufferings of Christ and the glories that will follow. This Christ is a most approachable King, and we desperately need Him to rule in our hearts and lives.
Sermon Transcript: Print
Now, let’s read the Bible again, and we’ll read the record from John chapter 12, shall we? It’s the briefest of the Gospel writers’ record of the material that we began to look at this morning in Mark chapter 11. This is one of the sections of the New Testament that is covered by all four Gospel writers, Matthew, Mark, and Luke—the Synoptics, as they’re known—and then John himself addresses it. And this is John’s record. It’s like newspaper reporters covering certain angles. For example, you may notice in the reading of this that John is covering it from Jerusalem out to the crowd as they arrive. Mark is covering it from Bethany following the crowd up to Jerusalem as they go.
“The next day the great crowd that had come for the Feast heard that Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem. They took palm branches and went out.” Do you see that? They made their way out of Jerusalem “to meet him, shouting, ‘Hosanna!’ ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!’ ‘Blessed is the King of Israel!’ Jesus found a young donkey and sat upon it, as it is written, ‘Do not be afraid, O Daughter of Zion; see, your king is coming, seated on a donkey’s colt.’
“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 they had done these things to him.
“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 given this miraculous sign, went out to meet him. So the Pharisees said to one another, ‘See, this is getting us nowhere. Look how the whole world has gone after him!’”
Just with your Bible open, just look back, actually, to verse 9. You see how dreadful were these religious leaders: “A large crowd of Jews found out that Jesus was there and came, not only because of him but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead.” Lazarus was now something of a spectacle in the community, as you can imagine. His body had begun to smell as a result of him having been entombed. And “so the chief priests made plans to kill Lazarus as well, for on account of him many of the Jews were going over to Jesus.” “We don’t want anyone going over to Jesus.” Quite a group of people, wouldn’t you say? The poor guy’s been dead once, and now they want him dead a second time, and within only a matter of days. It’s a reminder to us of how opposed hell is to the work of God and to the revelation of his Son in Christ.
Now, before we turn again to this, let’s just pause for a moment in prayer:
Father, help us now, as we have these moments together, to finish up where we left off this morning. We pray that you would give to us clarity of thought and, as we understand the Bible, that you would then grant us the grace to do what it says, calling us both to repentance and to faith to trust in your Son, Christ, and to follow him and to tell others the wonderful news about him. For we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Well, we’ll just turn back to Mark 11, although we could really stay in John or go to Matthew or even Luke if we chose, because they all are correlative passages concerning the dramatic approach of Jesus into the city. Now, we tried to cover that this morning, and we said that it remained for us only to address two questions. And I’m not going to take a long time on them—at least, it’s not my plan to. Question number one was: What does all this mean? And question number two was: Why should any of this matter? What does all this mean, and why should any of this matter?
Now, you’ll notice from our reading that Jesus had arrived in Jerusalem from the east. He had come down the Jericho Road. He’d come in a fairly substantial crowd, it would seem. There were some who were moving in front and some who were bringing up the rear, and it would have been relatively easy for Jesus, as we said this morning in passing, to have arrived in Jerusalem at least somewhat unheralded. It was possible for him to slip out through the crowd. He was able to make his way into various places undetected. We read that in the Gospels in various parts. And so the very fact that he comes as he comes to Jerusalem tells us something very important—namely, that on this occasion, he planned to be noticed. If you like, in every sensible way, he staged a deliberately dramatic entry to the city. When I say “staged,” I mean simply that: that he staged it; he planned it; he had conceived of it, and he determined that this would be the way to go, albeit with his awareness of the Old Testament Scriptures in mind. But nevertheless, as he thought about his final approach to Jerusalem, he must have sat down and said, “Now, this is exactly what I’m going to do.”
Nowhere else in the Gospels that I’ve been able to find can I read of Jesus riding on anything. And you may be able to go home and make me research it all over again, but I don’t think so. However, I offer you the challenge. I can’t find anywhere else in which Jesus is described as riding. Furthermore, when you read some of the parallel passages—that is, extrabiblical material—you discover that in the Jewish records, there is some evidence that it was expected that Passover pilgrims who were physically able should walk into the city of Jerusalem. In fact, there was an exclusion clause which was granted to those who were in some way impaired, were disabled, that if they were unable to walk into the city, that they then in turn did not need to present themselves. But everybody who was physically healthy was expected to make their arrival on foot.
Now, to the extent that that is true—and I believe that it is accurate—there can be no doubt, then, that on this one occasion in his public life, Jesus chooses to ride into Jerusalem, and in doing so, he’s making a point. He is aiming to be noticed. He is in some senses throwing down the gauntlet. He is making it perfectly clear to the crowds by his actions that all that he has been teaching them in these previous three years is now coming to one great and dramatic conclusion. And in Matthew’s account, he tells us that Jesus acted this way in fulfillment of the ancient prophecy of Zechariah. And again, I’m not going to be tedious and take you through a lot of cross-references, but maybe you’ll turn to Zechariah just to notice this so that you can fix it in your mind. You say, “Well, maybe I can turn to Zechariah, but maybe not. Where in the world is it?” Well, if you go to Matthew and start reversing, you’ll come to it very quickly. In fact, you’ll come to it within a book. Malachi—it goes Matthew backwards to Malachi and then back again to Zechariah. And if you’re using the NIV, you will be helped by the heading here that comes at the ninth verse, “The Coming of Zion’s King.” And we read these words:
Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion!
Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem!
See, your king comes to you,
righteous and having salvation,
gentle and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
And we won’t read on, but I want you just to notice verse 10:
I will take away the chariots from Ephraim
and the war-horses from Jerusalem,
and the battle bow will be broken.
He will proclaim peace to the nations.
[And] his rule will extend from sea to sea
and from the River to the ends of the earth.
And this, of course, points to the multiple fulfillments that so often exist in prophetic words, not least of all in the Old Testament. When you read Old Testament prophecy, your experience so often will be that of a hill walker. And if you’ve done any hill walking at all in—well, my only experience is in Scotland or in the North of England—you may think that when you crest the next hill, you’ve actually reached the summit, only to discover within a few steps of what you think is the summit, a vista has opened beyond you, and there is yet another level of fulfillment. And that can go on for some considerable distance.
Well, that is often the case in reading Old Testament prophecy, because even as you look at this—and it’s not my purpose to delay on this tonight—but you’ll notice that this prophetic statement in verse 9 finds its fulfillment here in the arrival of Jesus in Jerusalem; the prophetic statement in verse 10 still awaits the totality of its fulfillment. For he who is the Prince of Peace has not ushered in a peace that is the Pax Romana or is the present experience of men and women on earth, but his peace, the peace that he longed for Jerusalem to know, was going to be the peace that comes about through his blood shed on the cross.
And John is very honest, as we noted this morning, in John 12:16, to tell us that the disciples weren’t getting this, and it was only when they were able to look back over their shoulders that they understood exactly what Jesus had been saying and what he was actually doing. Peter acknowledges this as well when he writes to the scattered Christians in his first letter. And I’ll just read this for you. First Peter 1:10: “Concerning this salvation, the prophets”—including Zechariah here in chapter 9—“the prophets, who spoke of the grace that was to come to you…” That’s what Zechariah is doing. He’s speaking of the grace that is going to come: “See, your king comes to you.” When “the prophets … spoke of the grace that was to come to you,” they “searched intently and with the greatest care.” And what they were doing—verse 11—is they were “trying to find out the time and [the] circumstances to which the Spirit of Christ in them was pointing when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow.” And “it was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves.”
This is so helpful, isn’t it? ’Cause you say, “Well, how does Zechariah feel about this? When he penned the words, ‘See, your king comes to you, … riding … on a colt, [on] the foal of a donkey,’ what did he think when he went to his bed at night?” Well, the Spirit of Christ was at work within him, enabling him to write as he did in the awareness of all of his understanding of the unfolding platform and plan of God. But it was also made clear to him in his spirit as he settled his head on his pillow at night—somehow the Spirit of God said to him, “Zechariah, you don’t need to get too perplexed about this, because the things that you’ve been writing down today you haven’t been writing down for yourself; you’ve been writing down for generations still to come.” And that must have been a great encouragement to him, because he must have said to himself, “Well, I’m so relieved to have that sense before I go to bed, because for the life of me, I hadn’t a clue what I was on about when I was writing that.” “… when they spoke of the things that have now been told you by those who have preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent [down] from heaven.” And these are even the things that angels from the ramparts of heaven are looking down over the ramparts, trying to make sense of the unfolding panorama of redemption. Now, all of that—all of that—is wrapped up in what is taking place here.
Now, this morning, we made something of Jesus sitting on this unridden donkey, and we need just to come back to it for a moment and ask the question—because we’re asking, “What does this mean?”—we must ask the question: Was there any significance in the fact that the donkey had never been ridden upon? And I think the answer must definitely be yes, given that Jesus was moving with such precision and care in the awareness of Old Testament prophecy. And I’m not going to take you back through the portions of Scripture; you can trust me and get a concordance and verify what I’m saying. But you will discover when you go back into the Old Testament that the beasts of consecration to God were always unyoked or unridden. God, when he selected the heifer or when he selected a beast to be used in a consecrated dimension, always asked that this beast of burden or beast of sacrifice would be one that was in its purity. You see that in terms of a lamb without spot and without blemish and so on in terms of the Passover lamb. And so Jesus clearly intends, in a deliberate way, by his entry into Jerusalem to declare that he, as he rides upon this donkey, is fulfilling the words of the prophet from hundreds of years before—as he rides into town in this “lowly pomp,” as the hymn writer puts it.
Tremendous paradox, isn’t it? Riding in as a King on a donkey but doing so purposefully. James Denny—I was just looking at Denny this afternoon on the atonement, and he has this wonderful sentence, or two sentences. He says, “Christ’s death is not an incident of His life, it is the aim of it. The laying down of His life is not an accident in His career, [but] his vocation; [in it] the divine purpose of His life is revealed.” So as he sits upon this donkey and moves up into the city, he knows exactly what he’s doing, and the discerning in the crowd know what he’s doing, and some who are as yet wondering what he’s doing, finally, when the jigsaw pieces fall into place and the picture becomes apparent, they, too, will trust in Christ; they, too, will benefit from his sacrifice; and they, too, will rejoice to call him Savior.
I wonder: Has it occurred to you? Perhaps you’ve thought about it during the day. Perhaps you’ve asked yourself the question, “I wonder why the Roman authorities never stepped in?” After all, they were very concerned, weren’t they, about the possibilities of insurrection, of uprising, at these times of festivals? The Jews, with nationalistic fervor, with political interest, could so easily form themselves into a riotous mob and make the time of celebration far more difficult for their Roman overlords. But there is no indication whatsoever of the Roman authorities stepping in. If, perhaps, one was speaking to one of the generals, who’s speaking to one of his captains or sergeants, asking him, “Have you been down in the road to Jerusalem, Brutus?”
“Oh, yes,” he said. “I have.”
“What sort of report are you able to bring?”
“Well, it’s the usual sort of thing. It’s not a lot different from last year,” he might have said. “They’re out, although this year they’ve taken to waving branches in the air, and they are chanting various sort of baseball slogans it would seem. They’re going back and forth like crowds at a sporting fixture, like the kind of thing that sometimes happens in the Colosseum, but nothing alarming.”
“Well, who’s the catalyst for this?” the general may have asked.
“Well, the central figure is apparently this carpenter from Nazareth, Jesus of Nazareth.”
“And, well, what is he doing?”
“Well, he’s been riding on a donkey.”
“Ah, I see. Well, probably nothing to worry about then, Brutus?”
“No, nothing at all, sir. No, I don’t think so.”
“Is he stirring up the crowd?”
“Oh, no, sir, I don’t think he’s stirring up the crowd. I think the crowd are agitated. I think they’re stirring themselves up. Indeed, at one point on his way in, one of the sergeants at arms announced the fact that he stopped and burst into uncontrollable tears. It kind of put a damper on the celebrations for a moment or two. The people with all those branches, they didn’t know quite what to say or what to do, and his disciples looked absolutely befuddled. But he was there for some considerable time, gazing out over Jerusalem, and he seemed to be concerned that they did not know what the source of peace actually was. So there’s no uprising. There’s nothing to be worried about at all, you see.”
Apparently. The kingdom of God has never come, and never will come, by political intrigue and by the marching of army boots. How would you expect the Prince of Peace to come? By his actions, Jesus is outlining a kingdom that isn’t brought about by routine warfare, but rather, it is a kingdom that is going to come as a result of weakness conquering apparent strength.
So what does all of this mean, then? Well, it simply means that the lines of prophecy are converging as Jesus moves towards the very reason for his life. In Ephesians chapter 1… I never thought of Ephesians 1 in these terms, but I’ll finish here and move to my second question so we can conclude. In Ephesians 1:9, in this wonderfully purple passage concerning the nature of salvation, Paul says, “And he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times will have reached their fulfillment—to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ.” And part of what Paul is referring to there is finding its fulfillment in the events that are transpiring.
So, what does it mean? Well, it means that Christ is coming in the fulfillment of prophecy. Christ is coming not trapped in some mechanistic plan that has been created by men. Christ, who has the power to take his life—to lay it down and to take it again—is moving now in a quite unashamed way, directly confronting all of the authorities and all of the crowds, and even the Roman authorities themself.
Finally, why should any of this matter? Why should any of this matter? Well, there are many reasons why it should matter, and we can’t go into all of them. But let me just make a couple of points by way of application.
You remember that the crowds were calling out from Psalm 118, don’t you? And you perhaps recall that they had petitions as well as exclamations in their cries. You can go back and check it for yourselves. And their petitions were essentially two: number one, “O Lord, save us,” and number two, “O Lord, grant [to] us success.” “We want to be safe, and we want to be successful.” Now, what did that mean for many of them as they cried those words?
Well, we can’t say with conviction, but there is every indication that many of them were not thinking beyond the jurisdiction of their family life, the framework of their economic circumstances, certainly their existence as being occupied by the forces of Rome. And the expectation was that in this messianic figure, perhaps now, finally, they would know the kind of safety for which they had longed—no longer the oppressor there—and they would know the kind of success that they believed themselves very capable of. “O Lord, we want you to save us. O Lord, we want you to grant us success.”
Well, not a lot has changed, has it? You don’t have to be particularly perceptive today to listen to men and women talk. And we could, of course, summarize their expectations in other phrases—summary phrases. But routinely I hear people say, “Well, we really would like to be safe, and we would like to be successful.”
“What do you want out of life?”
“Well, I want to know that my family’s safe. I want to know that we’re safe—that our borders are safe. I want to know that my money is safe. I want to know that my health is not jeopardized by SARS or by any invasion of that over which I have no control. I just want to be safe, really.”
“Well, yes. And I would actually just—I’d like to put in a second request if I may, and I would like to be successful. I’d like to be successful.”
“And how would you judge your success?”
“Well, I’d like to be a successful spouse, and I’d like to be a successful parent,” or “I’d like to be an eminently successful single. I’d like to show the world that I’ve actually conquered this opportunity, and I’m able to establish it in a way that is really quite desirable. I’d like to be successful financially too. I have to be honest and tell you,” says someone. “And I’d just basically like to be successful.”
Isn’t that what people say? Oh, they might say, “I’d like to be happy,” but if you ask them to unpack “happy,” you’ll find that in happiness is safety, and in happiness is success.
So in other words, the cries of the crowd were contemporary cries. They’re the cries of men and women here in 2003 in America. They’d like to be free of oppressors. Their oppressor may be their boss in the office. Their oppressor may be their spouse, and they’re trying to find a way to wiggle out of their convictions and their responsibilities and their fidelities—whatever it may be. In other words, they had a felt need. Their felt need was obvious: “I need safety, and I need success.” So if we could only marshal our message, right? If we could only pitch Christianity to these great needs, then presumably we can begin to pack this place—build an auditorium three times this size, and we’ll simply go out into the community and let them know, “Jesus came to make you safe and to make you successful. Why don’t you come and be a follower of Jesus?”
Well, in fact, he did come to make them safe, and he did come to make them successful, but not in the way they’re thinking—at least not first of all. You remember earlier in Mark, when the man is brought by his friends, and he’s let down through the roof? The man who has been paralyzed for all these years, and they break open the roof, and they let him down? And Jesus, in a quite dramatic statement, after the Bible study has been broken up by the strange arrival of this character—a character that would’ve been known to the people in the group. They would’ve known that he was a cripple. They would have known that he was unable to remedy himself. And when he finally presents himself down into the middle of the throng, remember what Jesus says to him? “Your sins are forgiven.” “Your sins are forgiven”!
Now, the man might legitimately have said, “My sins are forgiven? Do you think these fellows hauled me along here, went up on the roof, broke the roof, dropped me down on the bed in my paralyzed state in order to have my sins forgiven, Jesus? Don’t you realize what I really need? I can’t be successful lying on this bed. My life is jeopardized on this bed. I need to be safe! I need to be successful.” No, he didn’t. He needed to be saved from his predicament as a sinner in the sight of a holy God. What will it profit a man to be very, very successful and lose his own soul? What will it profit a man or a woman to be exemplary in the community, knowing safety and success in the borders of their family, or their business, or their lifestyle, or their finances, or their respectability? What a false gospel that is that Jesus showed up, making an entry into Jerusalem, to grant that kind of superficial stuff.
No, you see, you will never cry out for the safety that he comes to bring by way of the cross unless God is at work within you. You will never cry out for the success that may come as a result of losing yourself in consecration to Jesus unless God is at work within you. Because in our natural state, all of these superficial things are the things that make sense of our existence. They are the things we long for, and they are the things that in our foolishness we believe represent security and stability to us. But they don’t! Well, sometimes it takes dramatic illness, or it takes the loss of a friend, or it takes some circumstance crushing in upon us to point to the eventual futility of it all, and then we have an insight into eternity. Have you ever cried, “O God, save me! O God, grant to me the success which will come as a result of losing my life in you, sublimating my desires and my dreams, my small ambitions, in order that my life might be unreservedly yours to do with as you choose, to take me where you desire, to use me as you intend.” Doubtless there were some in the crowd who would cry in that way. Perhaps there are some this evening who will do the same.
Why does it matter? It matters because eternity is in focus. And it matters because it is just as easy today as it was then to lose oneself in the crowd—albeit an enthusiastic crowd; albeit a crowd that is able to quote the Bible, sing the Bible, read the Bible, and proclaim the Bible—to be lost in that crowd, to employ our voices in what are essentially empty chants, the empty chants of religious orthodoxy, without ever knowing the reality of that to which they point.
Well, just a final thought: I find it interesting in this to realize that when Jesus decides to be noticed, he decides to be noticed in this particular way.
I’ve read enough history. I’ve read enough old books, and certainly in Britain, to know that when it comes to pageantry, we’ve got it down. I’d be prepared to argue that out of all the world, the British Empire put pageantry on the map. I know some of my Hungarian friends will fight with this notion, and some of the Germans and the Dutch that are here and so on, so I don’t want to start some kind of international brouhaha, but let’s just say that at least we’re in the top five. And you read, for example, the stories or you look at the old pictures from your grandmother’s house of the arrival of George VI, or certainly the early days of the coronation of the present queen, and you say to yourself, “This is… I mean, this is unbelievable, being able to come into town in this way, in a golden carriage with these dramatic soldiers and accompanying riders and horses and trumpets and paraphernalia that just literally stops the world.”
That’s what you expect with a king. Not a donkey. “If you’re a king, Jesus, why a donkey?” Well, the answer is so clear, isn’t it? You’ll have to check this as well, but I think that the only characteristic in Christ to which he is prepared to draw attention is this characteristic of his meekness. You remember, he says, “Come to me, all you who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest. And take my yoke upon you, and learn of me.” Why? “Because I’m meek, and I’m lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” This is no unapproachable king. This is an amazingly approachable King.
Just go back through these four sections—in Matthew 21, in Mark 11, in John 12 and Luke 19—and just circle all the doing words as they relate to Christ. I just wrote these down in my notes, just the first four that came to me. How approachable is this Jesus? Sitting on a donkey, weeping over the city, looking round the temple, seeking those who will admit their lostness, their need of a prophet to speak to them, their need of a priest to offer sacrifice on their behalf, their need of a king to rule in the topsy-turvy world of their lives.
Do you have a king whom you have invited to rule in the topsy-turvy world of your life? Are you relying on an earthly priest to pronounce your absolution? It cannot be done. And here, as he makes his dramatic approach to the city, he is moving towards the events to which we will come on Good Friday evening. But you don’t need to wait until then to cry out from the reality of your heart, “O Lord Jesus Christ, save me. O Lord Jesus Christ, grant to me true success.”
Father, we want to hear your voice beyond the mere voice of a mere man. We are earnestly concerned that our songs and our praises should not be the empty chants of those who take comfort just from being gathered up in the throng. And so we do pray that you will come and visit us and show us that we do need you as our Prophet to speak truth to us, as our Priest to bear our sin, and as our King to rules our lives. We bring to you our offerings tonight, and we do so with glad and thankful hearts. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
 See m. Hagigah 1:1.
 See Matthew 21:5.
 Zechariah 9:9–10 (NIV 1984). Emphasis added.
 1 Peter 1:12 (NIV 1984).
 See 1 Peter 1:12.
 See Exodus 12:5.
 Henry Hart Milman, “Ride On! Ride On in Majesty!” (1827).
 James Denney, The Death of Christ: Its Place and Interpretation in the New Testament (1902), chap. 5.
 See Luke 19:41–42.
 See John 10:18.
 Psalm 118:25 (NIV 1984).
 Mark 2:5 (NIV 1984).
 See Matthew 16:26; Mark 8:36; Luke 9:25.
 Matthew 11:28–29 (paraphrased).
Copyright © 2023, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.