The Triumphal Tinderbox
Preached at Cornerstone Church in Cascade, IA on October 9, 2016
Open your bibles to John 12:12-26. Today we turn our attention to a very familiar set of events, Palm Sunday. Today however, we will potentially see another angel to this story that we have failed to see in times past. In fact, the relevance of this passage to the Church today is quite strong. So with that, let us read our text, pray, and devote ourselves to the teaching of our Lord.
John 12:12-26 “The next day the large crowd that had come to the feast heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. 13So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, crying out, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!” 14And Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it, just as it is written, 15“Fear not, daughter of Zion; behold, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt!” 16His disciples did not understand these things at first, but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written about him and had been done to him. 17The crowd that had been with him when he called Lazarus out of the tomb and raised him from the dead continued to bear witness. 18The reason why the crowd went to meet him was that they heard he had done this sign. 19So the Pharisees said to one another, “You see that you are gaining nothing. Look, the world has gone after him. 20Now among those who went up to worship at the feast were some Greeks. 21So these came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and asked him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” 22Philip went and told Andrew; Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. 23And Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 24Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. 25Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 26If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also. If anyone serves me, the Father will honor him.”
The Feast of the Passover
The scene of our story this morning opens with the words, “the next day.” This day was Sunday, just five days away from the crucifixion of Christ, and still within the wake of the resurrection of Lazarus.
The feast that is mentioned is the Passover Feast. This is the largest celebration of the year for the nation of Israel. The purpose of the Passover feast was to remember the liberation of Israel that took place around 1500 B.C. If you recall, around 1900 B.C. Jacob’s family, which numbered about 70 people moved into Egypt due to the great famine that had struck the land.
Initially the relationship between the Hebrews and Egypt was a good one, but over the span of 400 years it became extremely oppressive towards the Jews. This oppression caused them to cry out for the Lord to deliver them. We are told in Exodus 2 that God remembered His covenant with Abraham and acted based on that covenant. God says to Moses in Exodus 3:7, “I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters. I know their sufferings, 8 and I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians…10Come, I will send you to Pharaoh that you may bring my people, the children of Israel, out of Egypt.”
Moses, upon the hearing this commission from the Lord, was instantly consumed by anxiety and doubted that Pharaoh would listen to him. God’s reply was that he would provide Moses with signs to display that he truly comes in the name of the Lord. Moses displayed these signs, but Pharaoh did not listen for his heart was hardened. Following this rejection, God poured out ten plagues upon the nation of Egypt. They included water turning into blood, frogs, gnats, flies, the livestock dying, boils, hail, locusts, darkness, and then the final plague was the death of every first born male in Egypt. This last plague was the event the set the captives free, if you will.
For the Jews, they would not lose any of their first born, but instead they were to take a male lamb without blemish and kill it, and take the blood of the lamb and spread it on the door of each of their homes. And God says in Exodus 12:13, “The blood shall be a sign for you, on the houses where you are. And when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague will befall you to destroy you, when I strike the land of Egypt.”
And this was what the feast was all about that is mentioned in John 12. It is about God breaking the chains of Egypt and freeing the Israelites to be a free nation, as I have said before, this was, in a way, there Independence Day.
And to say that this feast was popular would be an understatement. In our text this morning it merely says “large” crowd. How many are we talking? No one knows for sure, but as I mentioned back in February of this year, there are some that estimate that Jerusalem swelled to nearly 3 million people. Therefore, picture the entire state of Iowa making a pilgrimage to Des Moines at the same time.
The Pinnacle of Popularity
The events of John 12 come at the end of Jesus' three year ministry and his popularity had reached an all time high. He had spent three years in the rural areas of Israel healing the sick, the lame, and the blind; casting out demons; providing bread for thousands; and preaching with an authority that was unparalleled in the World. However his popularity went through the roof at the raising of Lazarus from the dead. This miracle was the tipping point. All of Israel was a buzz over this 30 year old carpenter from Nazareth, including the Sandedrin.
Once again, if you recall from previously, the Sanhedrin had made the decision to put Jesus to death. The reason for this is because they believed that if people continued to follow Jesus, Rome would hear of it and come and destroy Israel and take away the Sanhedrin's precious power. Therefore to say that their was electricity in the air at this particular Passover, would be an understatement. I have chosen the word tinderbox for the sake of alliteration, but explosive is perhaps a better description.
The Impromptu Parade
Jesus, as he came from Bethany to Jerusalem for the Passover feast did not come alone. He of course had with him his disciples, but he also had with him the people who were with him at the resurrection of Lazarus. These people had been busy over the last several days. We are told in verse 17, “The crowd that had been with him when he called Lazarus out of the tomb and raised him from the dead continued to bear witness.” As I mentioned several weeks ago, we do not know how large this crowd was, for the text in John 11:19 only says “many of the Jews from Jerusalem.” But I believe it is possible that perhaps thousands witnessed the resurrection of Lazarus, and instead of Jesus telling them to keep this quiet, which was his custom with other healings, he allowed them to spread the word. Why? Because as Jesus says in verse 23, “ The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.”
Bethany was about two miles away from Jerusalem, and as he walked they would have met others who were likewise walking towards Jerusalem for the Passover. Over this two mile stretch it is likely that Jesus started to amass a great deal of people who had either experienced the miracles of Christ, seen the miracles of Christ, or heard of the miracles of Christ. So picture a swarm of thousands of people surrounding Jesus making their way to Jerusalem with energetic anticipation.
Somehow, the word got out that Jesus was on his way into town. How this happened, I am not sure. In John 11:56 we are told that the Sanhedrin was “looking for Jesus and saying to one another as they stood in the temple, “What do you think? That he will not come to the feast at all?” Perhaps it was one of the Sanhedrin spies that proclaimed that Jesus was coming. However it occurred, the result was exactly what the Sanhedrin was afraid of. The 2-3 million people who were already in Jerusalem streamed out of the gates that surrounded the city to welcome Jesus. The temple, the marketplace, homes emptied so that they could watch as Jesus made his way into the City of David. This was an impromptu parade that began a Passover like no other.
Now what is interesting is what they grabbed on their way. Verse 13 says, “they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him.” What is that all about? I think we take this action for granted. I don't know about you, but when I go to a parade I do not think to myself to rip off a limb on my maple tree to wave it around. Yet this is what all of Jerusalem was doing. So what is going on with the Palm branches?
In the day of Jesus, palm branches were more than just something to wave. They were a known national symbol, and they had their beginning as this national symbol during the time of Maccabean revolt around 160 B.C. And they were explicitly used to celebrate the security that Simon the Maccabee brought to the nation of Israel. After this, the palm branch found itself on coins and were a very familiar symbol celebrating the nation of Israel. The palm branch became, in a way, the flag of Israel. So as you picture the people streaming out of Jerusalem with palm branches in their hand, think nationalistic pride. Perhaps similar to what you may have seen during the Republican convention, flags galore, energetic anticipation, American pride.
This leads to the question, why? Why did the Jews, upon hearing of the coming of Jesus feel compelled to grab a flag and waive it? To steal a phrase from Donald Trump, it was because they wanted to “make Israel Great again.”
The people of Israel were in a like situation to their forefathers in the time of Moses. They were under the control of the greatest empire in the World, Rome. And just like their forefathers, they wanted their independence. They wanted their freedom. And Jesus shows up on the scene and misplays miraculous signs, just like Moses. Proving that he comes in the name of the Lord. So they wave their Israeli flags and proclaim, ““Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!” What the Jews wanted in this moment was not the Lamb who came to take away the sins of the world, instead what they wanted was a stronger Herod, who could stand up to the Pharaoh of their day, Caesar. What their hearts longed for was a revolution.
Jesus could have easily done what so many populists had done in the past and tapped into this Jewish anger towards the institution. He could have leveraged it for his worldly advantage. He could have rode into Jerusalem on a white stallion, with trumpets blaring, feeding into the cry for revolution. However, he didn't because he had a different liberation in mind. And because of that he didn't find himself a war horse, he found himself a donkey. Verse 14, “And Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it, just as it is written, 15“Fear not, daughter of Zion; behold, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt!”
This action by Christ is a fulfillment of Zechariah 9:9. The prophet predicted and wrote these words approximately 500 years earlier. This morning, I want to read more than what John provides. This is Zechariah 9:9-10, “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. 10I will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall speak peace to the nations; his rule shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth.”
As the crowds of Jerusalem erupts with Jesus' coming, he strikes a posture of humility. As verse 10 says, the war horse is cut off. Instead of a war horse, this King rides a lowly donkey. Not a symbol of revolution, but a symbol of peace. Which leads to the question, what peace does Jesus bring with him? Peace with Rome? No peace with God. And they way that Jesus would achieve this peace was not by way of revolution, but instead by the way of crucifixion.
And we see Jesus speak of this to the Greeks in verse 24, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” This is the truth that the masses did not understand. The Kingdom of Christ is not of this world. The overthrowing of Rome was peanuts compared to what Christ would achieve on the cross. This week I was reminded of this quote from Napolean that I may have shared with you before:
“I will tell you. Alexander, Caesar, Charlemagne, and myself have founded great empires. But our empires were founded on force. Jesus alone founded His empire on love, and to this day millions would die for Him. I think I understand something of human nature, and I tell you, all these were men, and I am a man. Jesus Christ was more than man.” - Napolean
The millions of Jews were blind to the eternal realities of Christ. Instead of setting their minds on the things of God they had set their minds on the things of man. They had become drunk on the fleeting power of this world.
A People for His Possession
So how is this relevant? Yesterday, in our men's study we examined Mark 8, and in Mark 8:15 Jesus tells his disciples to beware of the leaven of Herod. What is the leaven of Herod? I believe it is seeing Christ through the lens of nationalism. I believe it is the religious right waiving their Bibles and their American flags and taking out of context passages like 2 Chronicles 7:14, “if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land.”
Jesus did not ride into Jerusalem to make Israel great again. In fact, 40 years later, God utterly destroyed Jerusalem, obliterating their precious temple, and the fleeting comforts of this world. And likewise, Christ did not die on the cross to make America Great Again. The United States of America is not our home. Our citizenship is in Heaven, and from it we await the return of our Savior.
I believe too many of us, think wrongly about our existence. Instead of seeing the world through the lens of Christ, we see it through the lens of our flesh. We are more concerned about the presidential election than we are about our neighbor's salvation. WE care more about taxes then we do about tithing. We will spend hours listening to foxnews, Rush Limbaugh, or watching the debates, but won't give up 3 hours a month to participate in a men's study. The leaven of Herod has infected the Church, and we have placed our hope in man not in God. Christ did not die so that you can live your America Dream.
As Christians, Christ calls us not to cling to our nationalistic palm branches, he calls us to cling to the cross. Jesus says it himself in verse 25 “Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 26If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also. If anyone serves me, the Father will honor him.” Christ did not die for us so that we can serve our nation. He died for us that we may serve him.
Just last night I read this quote from John Piper on the Gospel Coalition facebook page, ““One day America and all its presidents will be a footnote in history, but the kingdom of Jesus will never end.” Let us live today as if we truly believe this.
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