What is So Triumphal About the Triumphal Entry?
I have been stuck in traffic many times in my life. Once I was even an hour and a half late for church when I was commuting to Toronto. But there is one traffic jam that sticks in my mind, and not just for the exotic locale. Amanda and I had taken a Mediterranean cruise and the trip finished with a tour of Rome. Of course there is much to see in Rome and we were looking forward to all the sights. But then the tour bus got bogged down in traffic. At first I thought it was just because Rome is a very busy city. We soon found out what was going on.
Everything was stopped because the Russian president was visiting and there is no rushing (no pun intended) his entourage of security and other personnel. Being that close to the Russian president (which really was not that close at all), made me think about how powerful this person was. This was not just another guy holding up traffic. This was one of the most powerful men in the world, one who could actually end all life on earth if he chose. A rather sobering thought.
This is as close as I can get to imagining what was happening with the triumphal entry and Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. Yes it is a fun scene in passion plays with children in bath robes waving palm branches. But to get back into the actual event and understand what was really taking place, not just on a local scale but on a cosmic scale.
This was very important for Jesus’ ministry, in fact it is one of the most important events. Of course everything in Jesus’ life and ministry was important, every sermon and miracle. We dare not neglect anything about Jesus. But there is a sense, even as Jesus travels through Galilee, that he must come to Jerusalem to fulfill his destiny. Jesus was called by some the Son of David, that is the promised descendant of King David who would save his people. Jesus had been born in Bethlehem, the birthplace of David. But with the journey to Jerusalem, the Son of David enters into the City of David. If we imagine the Gospel as a movie, the pace is about to be turned up and it is time for us sit on the edge of our seat. Something big is about to happen. But what is it and what will it look like?
What People Saw
Let us try and transport ourselves back to that day almost two thousand years ago. Not as Christians who know the details and come from an Easter perspective but as observers on the road to Jerusalem.
It was not unusual that Jesus was going to Jerusalem, even though he was from Galilee and not Judea. It was time for the Passover and there were Jews from much farther away than Galilee who were making the pilgrimage for the feast.
How did Jesus make this journey? If we were thinking of Jesus as the Davidic messiah, the Saviour of the Jews, you might think that he might enter on a might warhorse or a chariot. But Jesus does not do that. Jesus enters on a colt, which is a young donkey. But it was not just any donkey, it was a borrowed donkey. Jesus could not even afford his own ride into Jerusalem. Notice that in this passage, Mark spends more verses discussing the arrangements for the donkey than anything else in the story. That seems strange. It would be like someone asking me about my recent induction service here at the church and me spending most of the time talking about the Mazda 5 that we drove to get to the church. Very strange but we will need to hold on to that thought.
So Jesus enters into Jerusalem. People seem to know that he is a descendant of David. A blind man had identified Jesus as such. But in what way was the Son of David entering into the City of David? It was not with an army. Even the disciples who were committed to Jesus were not armed with weapons. Instead of putting on armour, they took of their cloaks and put them on the colt or the ground. People took up palm branches and waved them. There was nothing very intimidating about this crowd.
What about the chanting of Psalms that accompanied Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem? This was of course very important but it was also not that unusual. One of the Psalms that is quoted is Psalm 118. It was customary for the Jews to sing Psalms 113-118, what are known as the Hallel Psalms at Passover. People would have sang these Psalms even if Jesus was not there. Even the call of Hosanna or save us was something Jewish people would call out aside from any faith in Jesus. Again these things are important but their meaning is not so obvious to the casual observer.
I mentioned that it was strange that Mark spends so much time on the colt. There is something else that is strange about this story. There is all this build up for what we call the triumphal entry and then what happens? Jesus enters into Jerusalem, takes a look around and then leaves the city to go back to Bethany for the night. Very anti-climatic.
This shows us that we are dealing with history here and not fiction. If I was writing this story, I would have had Jesus enter the gates of Jerusalem and head directly to the Temple, knock over the table and do some damage. It would have been a lot more exciting my way. But Mark tells it as it was and the triumphal entry ends with some looking about and a retreat to Bethany. Very strange.
To demonstrate what a non-event this was on the outside, the Romans were ready and watching for anything out of the ordinary. They knew this was a dangerous time filled with religious fervour. Even a half competent religious zealot could cause problems if left alone. The Romans were there when Jesus entered Jerusalem and they saw nothing that concerned them. Nothing at all.
What Really Happened
Now lets go back with the eyes of faith and the knowledge of revelation to see what really happened. Let’s start back with that donkey that Jesus rode into. We already said that Mark spends much of his time on describing Jesus’ ride. He must have had a reason. We find that reason in an Old Testament prophecy: “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.” (Zechariah 9:9) This is the way that messianic King was to enter Jerusalem. Jesus was poor and did not look particularly kingly but he was indeed the King. The King was coming not with outward power and intimidation, but with righteousness and humility. The King was coming not to bring destruction and conquest but salvation.
What I want you to notice is that Mark knew that this was fulfillment of prophecy, but he didn’t quote it. Mark wants us to think of Zechariah 9:9 but he won’t push it in our face. The reason being is that there are certain truths that are for the eyes that will see and the ears that would hear. For some people, Jesus was going to be just another pilgrim on a donkey, for others he was going to be the fulfillment of prophecy.
Before leaving the donkey, it is significant that it was a colt. A colt was a young donkey that had not yet been broken in. No one would attempt to ride such an untested animal at such a busy event. No one but Jesus. The colt, never having been ridden before was sacred for this specific task. And Jesus is the only who can keep control in the most hectic situations, something we will see on the cross.
Hosanna. Hosanna in the highest. Hosanna is Hebrew for “Save, I pray” or “Help please.” It is the Hebrew for the what we read in Psalm 118:25, “Lord, save us!” It is not very often that Hebrew words are given to us in the New Testament and so Mark is doing this for a reason. Mark wants us to be thinking about salvation.
Hosanna is not just an acknowledgment that salvation is important. It is a plea for salvation. Save now please! The question is about what we need saving from. I have known Christians who walk up to strangers and ask them if they are saved. Saved? Saved from what? There needs to be content to the salvation.
The Jews who were shouting Hosanna knew exactly what they wanted. They wanted salvation from the Romans. They want salvation from foreign occupation and taxes. They wanted salvation from all those who oppressed them and took advantage. of them. How do I know this? Because within a hundred years of this triumphant entry, the Jews would rise in revolt against the Romans, sacrificing thousands and thousands of Jewish lives, risking and losing the little freedom that they had. By the time they were done, no Jewish person was allowed within the city of Jerusalem.
But Jesus was still the King of Zechariah’s prophecy and he was still bringing salvation. The people were correct to call Hosanna, whether or not they understood God’s plan for salvation.
Jesus came in to Jerusalem exactly the way he was supposed to. He came in righteousness and humility. He came in weakness and not strength. He came not to overthrow the political and religious authorities but to suffer under them. Jesus came not for a golden crown or a Roman laurel wreathe, he came for thorns. Jesus would not be lifted up on a thrown for people to praise (at least not yet) but would be lifted on a cross to be pitied at best and mocked at worst.
Jesus would do all these things because he understood what the real need for salvation was. The real problem was not the Romans but rather the sin that separated us from God and also separated us from each other. Jesus knew that repairing a broken political system does no good if the should of the person is broken.
This would be a triumphal entry because Jesus was choosing to suffer the worst so that he could offer us the best.
I want to conclude with something practical. I believe that just about everyone here has come with a Hosanna prayer. Some are ready to shout Hosanna and others can only get it out under our breath. Remember that Hosanna is a plea for rescue. Hosanna is like those whistles that are on life preservers when a ship or plane goes down in the ocean. You whistle to let the rescuers know that you are there and that you need help. You blow the whistle hard and long because you need help now.
Hosanna. You may be here and you know that you are not yet right with God. You have been to church and know some Bible stories but you have not put your faith in Jesus Christ yet. Salvation is available. Jesus comes to you not in judgment but humbly on a donkey, offering life to you.
If you have been a Christian for years or decades, Jesus is not finished with you. You likely still have a Hosanna prayer. Maybe it is broken or breaking relationships. Maybe it is fear over health concerns. Maybe is the burden of past hurts. It could be anything. No need in your life is too big or too small.
I wish that I could offer a simple prayer and make the healing come instantly. If I could, I would do that in my own life. But what I find is that the triumphant entry is repeated in our own experiences. Sometimes Jesus rushes through the gates, takes a look around and then retires for the evening. But what we need to remember is that Jesus did return to Jerusalem, that he did come in and do what he needed to do, the surprising actions that brought the victory. It is not how we would write the story but we are not the author. Jesus has already won the victory on the cross. Let us open our hearts that he may bring victory in our lives in his own timing and his own way.