March 16, 2008
When Christ entered the gates of Jerusalem, He did so with authority, amidst confusion, and at the perfect time. From a twenty-first-century perspective, Alistair Begg helps us see the big picture of God’s plan within the context of that first-century crowd. As we think about Christ’s triumphal entry, we must refocus our lives in light of this King coming on a donkey, asking if we are ready to devote ourselves in service to Him.
Sermon Transcript: Print
O God our Father, as we come now to read your Word and to study it together, we pray for your help—that you will open up our hearts to its truth, that you will enable our often-foggy minds to think with clarity, and that our wills, which are by nature rebellious and disinterested in you, may be brought into subjection to your kingly rule so that you might reign in our hearts even as you reign upon your throne in heaven. For we ask it in Christ’s name. Amen.
Please be seated. And to John, the Gospel of John, and chapter 12 I invite you to turn—page 762, if you are using one of our church Bibles, which you will find around you there in the seats. We will continue our studies in James this evening, in James chapter 5, when we come to the issue of prayer and healing. And we divert from that momentarily this morning in light of this day in the Christian calendar. John 12:12:
“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 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!’”
The entry of Jesus into Jerusalem appears not only in this passage in John 12 but also in each of the other Gospels. Matthew, Mark, and Luke, along with John, cover this event in the life of Jesus. That is worth pointing out because it is not true in every instance. Indeed, the majority of the material concerning the life and ministry of Jesus is scattered throughout the four Gospels. And when we find that each Gospel carries the same record, albeit with different details, we’re obviously being reminded of the importance of it. And therefore, it is important for us to think, before we come to Good Friday and then to Easter Sunday, just what it is that is taking place here.
It is familiar territory for many of us. Some of us, growing up in church as children, were able to identify with this particular Sunday because of the palm branches that we were given to wave. But as time has gone by and as we’ve grown up and grown older, we may actually have lost sight of what it was we were doing, if we had ever known. And the fact is that if some of us were honest, we are no clearer about the relevance of these singing crowds in Jerusalem than we are about the significance of the Saint Patrick’s Day Parade: we know that there are a lot of people who were excited by it; it had something to do with a man who came from Wales; but we do not understand just exactly what is going on. And if you are in the group of those with unanswered questions concerning this event, then you will notice from verse 16 that you’re actually in good company, because John is honest enough to tell us that at first his disciples did not understand all this.
One of the greatest dangers in coming to study the Bible is to come to it with the notion that we understand it, or to come saying we know it. And I find that when I study my Bible with a spirit of agnosticism, with questions, leaving aside many of my preconceived notions, then I do far better in investigating it than if I come assuming that because I have preached many, many sermons on the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, that really, I know everything about it. And the process for me this week is to try to unlearn it so that I could think in a way that would help others to think, especially those who are saying, “Frankly, I haven’t got a clue what this is all about.” And if you find yourself in that category, then I, for one, am very glad you’re here, because we can think this through together.
I have four headings. I’ll tell you what they are so that you can at least have some sense of progress. First of all, we’ll consider the big picture, then we’ll look at the immediate context, then we’ll consider the actual event, and then we will have some closing observations.
First of all, then, getting the big picture. We use the analogy frequently of standing far enough back from a painting in a gallery to make sure that we see what’s going on. If we stand up too close to it, we may see certain details, we may become preoccupied with certain pieces of the painting but never grasp the scope of what the artist has provided for us.
It is therefore imperative that we who now live in the twenty-first century and are largely gentiles recognize that those who lived in the first century and who were largely Jewish viewed things in an entirely different way. And unless we grasp this, then we will very quickly go wrong in trying to understand the events that we have just read.
The Jewish hope—the Jewish hope—which gained momentum through the years was really very straightforward. They were looking for a new day. They were waiting for the dawning of a new age. They were expecting that one day, a great event would take place that would absolutely transform everything. They didn’t expect it in simply general terms. They were very specific about what they expected to take place: that wrong would be punished; that wicked people would no longer be able to get away with it; that justice would not only be done, but it would be seen to be done; and that all the warring factions of the universe would be brought into the realm of peace, so that the darkness and the deadness of sin and suffering and sorrow would all of a sudden disappear, like a very prolonged and bad winter, and usher in a new and endless spring. And if we had been in the company of these individuals as they sang their songs, even as we’ve been singing songs this morning, their songs would have told the story, would have revealed their expectations concerning this large picture.
For example, in Psalm 125, which is one of the psalms that the pilgrims would sing on their way to Jerusalem, they sing as follows:
The scepter of the wicked will not remain
over the land allotted to the righteous,
for then the righteous might use
their hands to do evil.
Do good, O Lord, to those who are good,
to those who are upright in heart.
But those who turn to crooked ways
the Lord will banish with the evildoers.
Peace be upon Israel.
In other words, they looked for a day when what they had lost would be recovered and what they longed for would be revealed.
In that sense, they’re not dissimilar to contemporary dwellers, are they? Men and women, if you talk to them, are often trying to make sense of the present in light of the future. If you’re a golfer and you just took an eight on a hole, if it’s not the eighteenth hole, at least you’ve got one more to look forward to. Things might be different when you go to the next tee. We will view where we are now in light what still is ahead. And many of us make sense of our lives in the same way: “Well, this is where I am now, but it isn’t where I’m always going to be,” and so on.
Well, to a great extent, that was the Jewish mindset. They were focusing on liberation, justice, prosperity, and the establishment of a world that made sense, where the jigsaw pieces of the puzzle all came together and formed up for them in a way that made sense of their existence. What they were anticipating in the dawn of this new age was a kingdom, and what they required was a king. They had had kings in the past. Some were good, some not so good, but none were good enough to reign and to rule forever. And so, as time passed, and as families grew, and as they attended the various celebrations, the big picture in their mind was that someday this event would happen, and the king would come.
Now, when you have that in mind, you realize that for Jesus of Nazareth to do what he did, to say what he said, to proclaim the reign and the rule of God, touched the very nerve center of Jewish expectation—made them say to one another, “Could this be the one? Do you think this is it? Do you think the day is dawning?” Now, you have to have that in mind as the big picture in coming to these verses.
Secondly, it is imperative that we recognize the immediate context in which this entry takes place. This is not merely a filler; this is essential. It takes place, you will notice, if your Bible is open in chapter 11, in the context of Lazarus being raised to life.
Lazarus, who had been dead—his sisters had sent for Jesus, saying, “My brother is sick. If you would come, that would be terrific.” He came, but he didn’t come before Lazarus had died. Jesus said, “It’s not a problem. I’m the resurrection and the life, and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.” And he said to her, “Do you believe this?” And she said, “Yes, I do believe this.” Martha believed in a resurrection at the last day, but she had no thought of her brother being resurrected on that day. And that was exactly what was taking place. And Lazarus comes out, miraculously, and Jesus says, “Take off the grave clothes, and let him go.” And off he goes.
And as a result—John 11:45—“therefore many of the Jews who had come to visit Mary, and had seen what Jesus did, put their faith in him.” They said, “Anybody that can do this is worth following. We know that Lazarus was dead. It was very obvious that he was dead. But now he’s walking around.” Everybody knew. Nobody could deny it. That led, you will notice, to the frustration of the Pharisees. Because the Pharisees were told that this is what had happened, so they have a meeting—verse 47. And at their meeting, they are rather bemused. Look at what they say: “What are we accomplishing? … Here is this man performing many miraculous signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.” They are moved and motivated by self-preservation. And so, because they see things turning out in a way that they don’t like and doesn’t fit their plans and their expectations, they decide, “The only thing we can do with him is kill him. This Jesus is proving to be more than a nuisance. This is not the kind of thing that we were expecting. We were not looking for a king that would operate in this way.”
Perhaps you’re looking for somebody to come and make sense of your topsy-turvy life, but you’ve already rejected Jesus because you frankly don’t like what he does, you don’t like what he says, and you’re not ready for him to come and reign in your heart. In that sense, you find yourself in the company of quite a crowd here in this chapter. And “so”—11:53—“from that day on, they plotted to take his life.” “They plotted to take his life.” So Jesus, quite sensibly—verse 54—“no longer moved about publicly among the Jews. Instead he” went off into a desert region near Ephraim.
You see, Jesus was absolutely certain that no human court, no devious plan, was going to precipitate the issue of the cross. When Jesus went to the cross, he would go to the cross in his own good time. If you read John’s Gospel, you will find that that is then a recurring phrase: “The time had not yet come.” “My time is not yet come.” And Jesus is moving, if you like, according to a divine calendar. You may recall that on one occasion, after the feeding of the five thousand, the hopes of people were once again tremendously high. “They began to say” to each other, “‘Surely this is the Prophet who[’s] … come into the world.’” And then we read, “Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew … to a mountain by himself.” So the first time they’re going to come and make him a king by force and champion their nationalistic hopes and dreams, Jesus disappears. Secondly, now, they’re going to come and precipitate the crisis, and in verse 54, Jesus disappears once again.
But his disappearance only leads to a growing interest. And at verse 55—we’re coming to the end of chapter 11 now—“when it was almost time for the … Passover, many went up from the country to Jerusalem for [the] ceremonial cleansing before the Passover.” And notice verse 56: “They kept looking for Jesus, and as they stood in the temple area, they asked one another, ‘What do you think? Isn’t he coming to the Feast at all?’” You just imagine all of these people around there and all of the expectation that is in their thinking: “Will this Jesus come? Will this prophet come?” Now, the question is obviously significant in light of what we know. We know that they were plotting to kill Jesus. And verse 57, which ends chapter 11, tells us that “the chief priests and [the] Pharisees had given orders that if anyone found out where Jesus was, he should report it so that they might arrest him.”
And the crowd begins to grow—12:9—and when the “Jews found out that Jesus was there,” they “came, not only because of him but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead.” And if you doubt that Lazarus was raised from the dead, then the people who would be prepared to deny it would be those who were opposed to the very notion. But those people—the religious leaders—decided with one another that they would make plans to kill Lazarus as well. “We’re going to have to destroy the evidence. This Lazarus is a real problem to us. He’s walking up and down the street all the time, and the people are going around, going, ‘Hey, what was it like to be dead?’ and he’s answering all their questions.”
Incidentally, questions that I wish were written in here, don’t you? I mean, I wish we had a section, a chapter, of Lazarus explaining what it was like to be dead and then what it was like to come back again. ’Cause that would answer a lot of questions we have. But obviously, we’re not supposed to know. But it was enough that he was walking around. And so the Pharisees said, “Well, we’ll kill Jesus, and we’ll kill Lazarus too.”
You see what unbelief is prepared to do? People like to talk about how open-minded they are—open-minded to everything except the possibility that Jesus is King of the universe. And anybody who stands up and makes such pompous claims, then we’re going to have to silence that: “Sit down at the back of the bus and be quiet.” We want to keep our minds open to everything but closed to the possibility that Jesus is actually the person he claims to be.
Now, that brings us, then, to the actual event. Here we are at the event. And we won’t spend very long on the event, because I think that the big picture and the immediate context is vital to understanding this and to making sure that we don’t go completely wrong. I think many of us have wandered out of these Palm Sunday services holding a palm—many embarrassed fathers holding this thing and just going, “I don’t know what that was about, but let’s go for lunch. And here, Tommy, you take care of this thing. I’m not holding it. This is embarrassing enough just being here without holding this thing.” That’s often because no one explained just how amazing the actual event is.
“The next day”—verse 12—“the great crowd that had come for the Feast heard that Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem.” Now, if you’ve been to Jerusalem, you know how exciting it is to go there—especially if you go from Jericho up to Jerusalem, because the distance of some twenty miles or so covers an elevation of about three thousand feet in a relatively short distance. And just the vista of Jerusalem, just the expectation of going up there, is enough to create excitement in itself. And the closer that one gets, the more the anticipation rises, just geographically.
But for these folks, there was so much more wrapped up in it: all of their celebration of God’s intervention in their past. They were going up there to say, “This is freedom time, ’cause this is the Passover time. This is when we go up there and remember that God, for our forefathers, came in a mighty display of his power and set them free from the oppression of Egypt. And on this feast we remember that, and we sing praise to the God who brings freedom, and we look forward to his coming into this present age to establish the beginning of a new age, which will be brought to completion when he finally wraps the whole thing up.”
And so, from their songs, we get this sense. Psalm 125. Or Psalm 122 is actually even better. And some of you will recognize this:
I rejoiced with those who said to me,
“Let us go to the house of the Lord.”
Our feet are standing
in your gates, O Jerusalem.
That gives rise to the paraphrase of Psalm 122 which we sing here from time to time at Parkside:
How pleased and blest was I
To hear the people cry,
“Come, let us seek our God today!”
Yes, with a cheerful zeal,
We haste to Zion’s hill,
And there our vows and [our homage] pay.
Last evening, Sue and I watched Wales winning the Grand Slam in international rugby by roundly defeating France in Wales. And what an event it was as it ended and the seventy-five thousand people in the stadium never left. They just stayed, singing, singing, singing—crowds and crowds of people just singing. And a similar scene is here. These people did not have to be geed up for this. They didn’t have to be invoked, provoked. These people sang out of their hearts, and they sang these songs. They were in to celebrate God’s intervention. And the palm branches were significant in this respect. We don’t need to spend a lot of time thinking about palm branches. The fact of the matter is that in the Feast of Tabernacles, the fathers and the sons wove together these things with willow and with myrtle, and when the choir on the Feast of the Tabernacles reached the point where they sang, “Hosanna! Hosanna!” then all these men and the boys, they waved these branches in the air. And anyone looking on would say, “Oh, what’s up with those guys?” And by the time we reach this point in history, these palm branches have become a symbol of nationalistic fervor.
And what of this donkey? Much more is made of it in the Synoptic Gospels than we have here. John decides just to go with the phrase “Jesus found a young donkey.” And many of you have listened to tedious sermons on Palm Sunday about the way in which the donkey was discovered and how they went for it and everything else. It goes on for about twenty-five minutes, and frankly, John just covers it. He says, “He found a donkey.” That’s how concerned he is about it. That ought to tell us how to translate the rest of the New Testament, you know? To make sure that we compare with what we have.
No, he makes the point very clearly: “Jesus found a young donkey and sat upon it, as it is written…” And then he quotes from the Old Testament prophet, from Zechariah. And in Zechariah 9:9 we read, “Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion!” That’s simply a synonym for the people of God—the “Daughter of Zion” or the “Daughter of Jerusalem.” “Shout, daughter of Jerusalem!” Why? Well,
your king comes to you,
righteous and having salvation,
gentle and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
Then he goes on to say what will happen:
He will proclaim peace to the nations.
His rule will extend from sea to sea
and from the River to the ends of the earth.
And he will restore and establish his covenant with his people and so on.
Now, the significance of this is pretty straightforward. It was customary for people to walk as pilgrims into the Passover celebrations. When they made their aliyah, their ascent up to Jerusalem, even if they rode part of the way, in the final approach they would dismount, and they would walk in as a crowd, singing. Jesus, now, chooses not to walk in, but he chooses to ride in. He chooses to ride in knowing that he is a marked man, knowing that there is a death sentence on him, knowing that the Pharisees are plotting to take him out.
Well, what would you do, putting yourself up as a target in the middle of that? Why would you sit up on a donkey? You’re like a sitting duck for anybody who wants to take you out. But why does he do so? He does so because his time has now come. He’s already made it clear that no one can take his life from him. He has the power to lay it down, and he has the power to take it up again. When they come, finally, in the garden of Gethsemane, looking for him, you’ll remember Jesus steps forward and says, “Is it me you’re looking for?” Or “Looking for someone?” Kind of draws the sting a little, doesn’t it? And on a donkey, of all things! A king on a donkey. What a paradox!
And how these expectant Jews must have wondered at this. This was the first indication that things were maybe just not going the way they hoped. All of their dreams of justice prevailing, and peace being established, and righteousness ruling, and their nation being able to vanquish the power of Rome—looks like it’s taking a turn in a different direction. After all, he’s on a donkey.
Even the disciples themselves were presumably bemused by this. Jesus must have said, “And I am going to ride into Jerusalem.”
“Well, on what?”
“Well, I’m going to ride in on a donkey.”
“Well, okay. You know, fine. I mean, it’s not exactly dramatic, is it, riding in on a… Couldn’t we come up with something else?”
“No. We’re going to ride on a donkey.”
What kind of king rides on a donkey? This King. The Romans didn’t get this.
They clearly didn’t get the idea of insurrection, if it had been an insurrection, because if they had, they would have come and immediately dealt with it—if the word came back through the community up to the Roman precincts, and they said, “We’ve got a big crowd in Jerusalem at the moment.”
“What’s going on? Do we need any soldiers?”
“No, you won’t need any soldiers.”
“Well, they’re just throwing blankets around, waving branches…”
“Is there a ringleader?”
“Well, it’s not so much a ringleader. There’s a fellow on a donkey.”
“A fellow on a donkey? Is he armed?”
“No, he isn’t armed.”
“What’s he doing?”
“He’s just sitting there.”
“And what are they doing?”
“They’re just singing.”
“Oh, forget it. It doesn’t matter. He’ll go away. It’ll end sooner or later. It’ll come to nothing. It doesn’t matter. Look at this. This is an indication of abject weakness.”
That’s exactly what some people think when they read this Palm Sunday story. You come into church this morning, and you read this, and you say, “What has this got to do with me in the twenty-first century? What has this got to do with me? I’m a sensible individual, and you’ve got the story about a man on a donkey.”
Well, as we noted in verse 16, the disciples didn’t get it either. Because what had happened was this (and you must notice this): the hope that God would come and seize control—which was the hope, the big picture—that God would come and seize control is redirected or refocused by Jesus. And in actual fact, what we have here is an occasion not only of confusion but of considerable disappointment. I found myself asking the question this week: Why in the world do we call this the triumphal entry? It doesn’t really look triumphant. It looks anything but triumphant. I mean, there’s some people singing, but they quit. It gets to the end of the day, and in one of the Gospels, the Synoptics—I think it’s probably Mark—it simply says that Jesus went into the temple area, he had a look round, and then he went home. So you imagine that it all is sort of dissipating—people going off to get spaghetti and go out for a meal and everything else—and the big hullabaloo that had started the day just dribbled away to nothing. And Jesus, the man on the donkey, he’s gone again. “Where has he gone now?” “I don’t know where he’s gone, but he’s not around anymore.” And people say to one another, “What kind of king is this? What kind of kingdom is this? A king on a donkey, singing a few songs, throwing blankets around?” No, it doesn’t make any sense at all, does it? Doesn’t make any better sense than a King dying on a cross. What kind of story is Christianity? A King on a donkey. A King on a cross.
You know, that thread actually runs all the way through. I don’t have time to develop it. But even those who were closest to Jesus were mystified by this approach. You can research this on your own. You need to go to the early chapters of Luke’s Gospel, but at one occasion, John the Baptist, who, you’ll remember, was a pretty fierce preacher… One of his famous sermons began with the encouraging words “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?” You can just imagine how good it was listening to John, and how he would use pictures like “The ax is already at the root of the tree; the fire is already kindled,” you know? It’s like, “Whoa, okay! Fine!”
So, at one point a little later on, John starts to get cold feet about Jesus. And he sends a couple of his disciples to Jesus to ask a question. This is the question he asks them to ask Jesus: “Are you the one who was to come?” “Are you the one who was to come?” Because remember, John the Baptist had stood up on the stage of human history and said, “I am not the one who was to come. I am the one who goes in front of the one who comes. I am not the groom. I’m just the best man. I am a voice crying in the wilderness. I’m a finger pointing. I’m a light flickering. But he’s going to be the light of the world. He is going to be the salvation of Israel.” And now he sends somebody to say, “Are you going to be? Or is there another one?” Why did he ask that? Why did he ask that? Because he expected that the intervention of God would come in such a way as to chop down the trees of rebellion, to set fire to the wicked and so on, and it would happen right there and then. He understood that justice would be executed, but he didn’t fully understand the way in which it would prevail. He didn’t get it.
And Jesus says to the two fellows who come to his door asking the question, “Go back and tell John the Baptist that the blind see, that the lame walk, that the gospel is proclaimed to the poor.” “And if he’s thinking”—this is not what Jesus said, but this is the inference—“and if he’s thinking, then he will remember that when I stood in the synagogue in Nazareth and I read from the scroll of Isaiah, I read concerning the fulfillment found in the Messiah regarding these very things.”
You know, this misunderstanding about the kingdom of God we don’t have time to develop, but it is a misunderstanding that lingers, especially in nations. Jesus comes on a donkey, outlining a kingdom that isn’t ushered in by warfare, isn’t ushered in by domination, but actually is coming about as a result of apparent weakness overcoming power—weakness overcoming power, foolishness overcoming wisdom, light penetrating darkness. And we may stand back from this and say, “I can’t believe that these Jewish people thought in such nationalistic terms,” but I haven’t lived for a quarter of a century in America, and I haven’t been brought up in Great Britain, not to understand how easy and how quickly we turn our gospel into a nationalistic story. We want a Jesus and we want a King who will do for us nationally what we think ought to happen. And that’s not the point. The point is he is the King, and it’s his kingdom, and his kingdom is universal and international and spans the globe. And every time we take our eyes off the King on the donkey and seek to make a king of our own contriving, we go wrong.
That brings me, finally, to concluding observations. You say, “Well, that was an observation.” Yes, it was, but it wasn’t a concluding one. It was a pre-concluding one. I’ve got these quickly now.
Number one: the miraculous does not compel belief. Miracles do not compel belief. If they did, the Pharisees would have said, “That’s it. Lazarus is alive. Jesus is King. Let’s go. We’re in your group. Start the songs; we’re on our way.” But what happened? They came to him, many of them put their faith in Jesus, and they went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus has done, and the Pharisees called a meeting of the Sanhedrin and said, “We’re going to have to kill this guy.”
Now, you may know somebody who’s been radically changed by the power of the gospel, but you refuse to bow down before the one who has changed them. This person was spiritually dead. They may have been emotionally dead. They may have been held in the grip of all kinds of things, and now they’re radically different. And when they tell you that Jesus has changed them, you just flat-out—it just convinces you that you want to disbelieve more and more and more. Blind unbelief. No reassessment of their position in light of the evidence; just a hardening of their hearts. Because the miracle does not compel belief.
Secondly, we find in this account a reminder of the importance of reading the Bible backwards. Of reading the Bible backwards. That’s the significance of verse 16: “At first his disciples did[n’t] understand all this. Only after Jesus was glorified did they realize that these things had been written about him.” You’ll find this through the whole of the Gospel records. It’s not the first occasion that John makes this point. He does the same back in the very beginning of the Gospel, in chapter 2—yeah, where Jesus says, you know, “Destroy this temple, and I will rebuild it,” and so on, and they say, “It took forty-six years to build this temple. You’re going to raise it in three days?” They didn’t understand what this was about, but “after he was raised from the dead, his disciples recalled what he had said,” and “then they believed the Scripture and the words that Jesus had spoken.” In other words, it was in light of the resurrection that they were able to look back and see the significance of him riding on a donkey. It was in light of the fact that he had gone through the cross and he was now the ascended King that everything looking back the way made sense. And some of us, if we would start from the back and read forward in our Bibles, may actually reach the point more quickly.
Thirdly, the cries of these people may seem strange to us because of the way in which they’re framed, but I want to suggest to you that they’re contemporary cries. The cries of the people were simple: “Hosanna!” “O Lord, save us; O Lord, grant us success.” “Save us. Make us successful.” Do you find anything strange about that? I find people concerned about that every day I live. The only question is: What am I going to be saved from? Am I going to be saved from this political eventuality? Am I going to be saved from this predicament that is before me? Am I going to be saved from my health situation? What am I going to be saved from? And the story of the gospel is that Jesus comes to save us from ourselves—that we are less than what we were made to be when we turn our back on God and when we just go our own way. It’s representative of what the Bible calls sin. And there is no success and there is no salvation except that which comes from bowing before this King.
Fourthly, and penultimately, I can encourage you to come to this King because he is so wonderfully approachable. So wonderfully approachable. You’re not supposed to talk to kings. I mean, that’s not a problem here in America, but if you go back to Great Britain and you happen to be around… I don’t suggest that you go, you know, knocking on the door of Balmoral up in Royal Deeside, say, “Hello! I just came to have a cup of tea with the Queen.” Because you’re not allowed to do that. The Queen is allowed to come and knock your door and have a cup of tea with you, but not you her. And if you’re in the room, you don’t speak first; she speaks first. That’s what kings and queens do, I guess.
But this King on a donkey—what a fantastic King! First of all, a donkey’s a lot lower to the ground, isn’t it, than a big white horse? Certainly than a carriage. What a tragedy that two thousand years of church history have put Jesus in a carriage, have put Jesus on a horse, have put Jesus somewhere other than he is, which is down amongst humanity, which is amongst those who didn’t believe and didn’t care. All of his stinging rebukes were for the religious hypocrites, for the people who had a big mouth and no heart. But for those who were messed up and fouled up and confused and disappointed, Jesus was there for them! And he is still there for them.
He’s an approachable King: sitting on a donkey, weeping over Jerusalem, looking round at the temple. And when he issues his invitation, it’s a wonderful invitation. He says, “Why don’t you come to me, all of you who are heavy laden and weary and burdened and just struggling? Why don’t you just come to me?” And then he says, “And I’ll tell you why: because I’m gentle, and I’m lowly, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
See, the lies that fill our minds when we wrestle with the possibilities of bowing before Jesus as King are lies that go along the lines of “You know, if you were ever prepared to accept that story, your life would be so spoiled. You would be thwarted in your dreams and in your hopes and so on.” It’s just not true. What is true is that our lives will be turned upside down. But since they’re already upside down, that means that we’re going to be the right side up.
Finally, if Jesus is such an approachable King, surely his followers ought to be approachable too. Surely his followers ought to be approachable too. Isn’t it terrible when we hear people described as ugly Christians? Isn’t it terrible when we know that that description fits us? See, people think that if you’re a Christian, somehow or another, you don’t sin anymore, or you’ve moved into perfection land. But no! We’re sinners. That’s why there are non-Christian people who are actually nicer than some Christian people. Shouldn’t be, but it is. But we can at least admit that. We don’t have to go, “Oh, no, no, no, he’s a much nicer person.” No, he isn’t! Why? Because he is in Christ, but he’s got a long way to go to look like him.
And I find myself most challenged by this: that the ultimate call of the King to his followers is to throw our cloaks, as it were, on the road, is to take our place behind him. It is to be prepared to enjoy the freedom of knowing that we’re not the center of the universe, that we’re not even the center of our own little universe.
I can imagine the disciples going around, going, “Hey, I was at the feeding of the five thousand.”
“Oh, very good. How was it?”
“Oh, it was terrific.”
“Oh, five loaves and two fish and—whew! Just amazing!”
“Did you have a part in it?”
“What did you do?”
“I picked up the leftovers.”
“You think that’s significant.”
“Because Jesus wanted them picked up. And anything that Jesus wants, I want.”
Servitude and servanthood and core-level humility are to be the marks of the followers, of the subjects, of a King who rides a donkey. And when some of us—me first—get off our high horses and down to where Jesus lived and lives and get honest, then we will have a far greater opportunity to introduce people to the wonder of waving in his welcome and of taking off their coats and throwing them at his feet in recognition of his kingship. He is the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords.
Father, we thank you for the Bible. We pray that the consideration of Jesus and his coming may cause us to think about where we are in relationship to you. And I pray today that there will be some who find their whole orientation completely redirected and refocused in light of the coming of this King on a donkey. Thank you that you don’t expect us to be good so that you might accept us, but you expect us to acknowledge that we’re bad so that we might wonder that you would accept us—and then that our obedience flows from our acceptance, not that our obedience creates it. Indeed, we come in all of our dirty stuff, all of our best endeavors, all of our righteous deeds, all of the things that make us smug and self-sufficient, and we take them off as dirty, filthy things. And we accept by your grace, unearned, unaided, the robe of righteousness which Jesus gives, entirely undeserved.
Fulfill your purposes from this hour, we pray, O gracious God. In Christ’s name. Amen.
 Psalm 125:3–5 (NIV 1984).
 John 11:1–27, 43–44 (paraphrased).
 See John 11:53.
 See John 2:4; 7:6, 8, 30; 8:20. See also John 13:1; 17:1.
 John 6:14–15 (NIV 1984).
 See John 11:54.
 Psalm 122:1–2 (NIV 1984).
 Isaac Watts, “How Pleased and Blest Was I” (1719).
 Zechariah 9:9–10 (NIV 1984).
 See John 10:18.
 John 18:4, 7 (paraphrased).
 See Mark 11:11.
 Matthew 3:7; Luke 3:7 (NIV 1984).
 Matthew 3:10; Luke 3:9 (paraphrased).
 Matthew 11:3; Luke 7:20 (NIV 1984).
 John 1:23; 3:29 (paraphrased).
 Matthew 11:4–5; Luke 7:22 (paraphrased).
 See Luke 4:16–20.
 John 2:19–20 (paraphrased).
 John 2:22 (NIV 1984).
 Psalm 118:25 (NIV 1984).
 Matthew 11:28–30 (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.