A Tense Passover
It was spring in Israel, and the crowds were flooding into Jerusalem for Passover. Passover was the biggest week of the year, an exciting time, a time where faith and family and tradition floated in the air.
But for Jesus’ disciples, it felt like a dangerous time. The religious leaders’ anger at Jesus had reached a fever pitch, and they had resolved in their council meeting to kill Him (John 11:47-53). Jesus had stopped being out in public around Jerusalem (John 11:54), and the leaders had given orders for the people to report where Jesus was if they saw Him, so that they might seize Him (John 11:57). In fact, the Jewish leaders even planned to put Jesus’ friend Lazarus to death, since stories of Jesus raising him from the dead had caused Lazarus to become a minor celebrity himself, and had resulted in even more people believing in Jesus (John 12:9-11). Some of the feast-goers arrived with stories of having just seen Jesus and Lazarus at a meal together in nearby Bethany, only heightening the anticipation of a public showdown (John 12:1-2,9).
The gossip among the incoming Passover crowds including talk of what might happen (John 11:56): Will Jesus come to the feast or not? Will He try to sneak in secretly? If He comes, what do you think the religious leaders will do? It was Passover, but the tension over Jesus could not be missed. Everyone was watching to see what He would do.
An Entrance No One Would Forget
As the Pharisees spied on those incoming Passover crowds, making sure Jesus didn’t sneak past Jesus would not sneak into Jerusalem. In fact, He would come in as public a way as He ever had:
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Jesus sat on a donkey, and slowly rode into the city, His disciples alongside Him for all to see. The people noticed Him, whispers began, then shouts, and soon crowds were running to see what was happening. The crowd had heard so many good things about Jesus – many had seen those good things with their own eyes – and so they spontaneously began taking off their coats and cutting palm branches, setting them down on the road for Jesus to enter over, an honor suggesting that Jesus deserved to enter on a carpet spread before Him rather than the dust that everyone else walked on.
Joyful delirium spread through the city. The impromptu parade gave repeated shouts of “Hosanna to the Son of David; Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord; Hosanna in the highest!” (Matthew. 21:9) Hosanna means “Save now!” It was a shout of praise, often given to God in the Psalms. The crowd, young and old, was shouting to Jesus as the Messiah to save the people.
I wish I could’ve seen the Pharisees’ faces. Jesus’ bold entrance must have surprised them. And for their part, they did not have the courage to interrupt what had instantly become a city-wide celebration. They stood in the back, complaining in frustration that they needed a different strategy, because “the world has gone after Him” (John 12:19). A few of them shouted at Jesus about the crowds saying such God-like things about Him. “Teacher, rebuke your disciples,” they said. Jesus reply was beyond priceless, a truth that must have made their mouths drop and their sinful anger rise: “I tell you,” Jesus said, “if these become silent, the stones will cry out!” (Luke 19:39-40). Who does He think He is?! The crowds knew. The stones even knew. They were the ones missing it.
It was a day I imagine the people would never forget. And I’m so happy for Jesus that He got that moment. Now, I realize that Jesus doesn’t need me to be happy for Him, but for all that He went through and was about to face – from criticisms and lies to spitting and nails, and patiently letting it all happen – I’m happy that God’s plan included this moment, where the people honored Jesus as He deserved to be honored. As the Son of David and King of Israel. As the one who alone could save, just as the term ‘Hosanna’ implies. As the one so big the Pharisees couldn’t dare touch Him. The disciples must have beamed with surprise and delight. The danger ran away to hide, at least for a few days.
A Detail We Shouldn’t Miss
But as much as I love that scene, which we often call “The Triumphal Entry,” there’s one detail that doesn’t seem very triumphant: Jesus is riding on a donkey? Not exactly the ride of a king!
Kings are supposed to at least ride on something grander, horses perhaps, animals that seem built for a parade. I read years ago in David McCullough’s book 1776 about King George III of England, who rode on a grand royal coach he had ordered to be built, 24 feet long and 13 feet high, weighing nearly four tons, “enough to make the ground tremble when under way” (4). That’s the type of thing a king rides on. More lightheartedly, you might remember the Disney animated movie Aladdin. If you’ve seen it, you remember Aladdin is trying to win the princess, and he thinks he must give the appearance of royalty, so the magic genie creates a larger-than-life spectacle of people and animals and music, with Aladdin riding above it all on a giant elephant, a picture of strength. That’s the type of thing a king deserves.
Yet Jesus comes in on a donkey. A servant animal. Why? Well, for one thing it fulfilled the prophecy of Zechariah 9:9. But it also symbolizes something we can’t miss about Jesus, and one way His kingdom is so different from our worldly way of thinking.
That difference might be summed up in what Jesus told His disciples in Matthew 20, when the disciples had been arguing over who was the greatest: “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It is not this way among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave; just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.” (Matt. 20:25-28)
Jesus didn’t come to be served, but to serve. To give His life for others. And, Jesus says, His followers must do the same. That donkey ride points us back to the humility of Jesus. A donkey’s job was to serve. And here He carried the ultimate Servant, a King with humility that we rarely see in our world.
We are used to seeing leaders serve themselves. Finding ways to get more attention, more money, more power, and trying to defeat anything that might challenge their positions of honor. People step all over each other for celebrity and wealth, desiring to be envied and adored. And here is the King of all the universe, and He’s doing the opposite. He is lowering Himself to lift others up.
Sadly, we follow the world’s way more often than we’d like to admit. We look for ways to lift ourselves up. More money. More attention. More “success.” We are tempted to pursue our own glory, to make it all about ourselves.
But Jesus comes to serve, and His servant attitude shapes His kingdom. So if I want to be in His kingdom, I need to take on that same servant attitude.
And you know what’s amazing about that? God does incredible things through those humble servant attitudes. Jesus took on the form of a servant, even dying on a cross, and God used it to bring blessings to all those who would follow Him. If we will live out the servanthood of Jesus, it will allow God to work through us as well. It will change our goals. It will change our relationships. It will change our effectiveness for God’s kingdom. As James 4:10 promises: “Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and He will lift you up.” Christian humility provides the perfect channel through which God can do great things.
Joining the Parade
When we follow Jesus, we do indeed join in a triumphal parade. There is joy in all that God is doing through Jesus Christ. But we must remember that our triumphant Savior is seated on a donkey. If we’re following Him, He expects us to stop trying to lift ourselves up and take our own seat next to Him. “Deny yourself, take up your cross and follow Me” (Matthew 16:24). That can be a hard lesson to learn.
So we shout along with that joy-filled Passover crowd from so long ago: Hosanna – save us – O God. Save us from our sins. Save us from the temptation to follow the world’s way of thinking. Save us from trying to lift ourselves up. Save us from our own pride and selfishness. Save us by making us more like you – a servant.