When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.” 4 This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying,
“Tell the daughter of Zion,
Look, your king is coming to you,
humble, and mounted on a donkey,
and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”
The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. A very large crowd[b] spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting,
“Hosanna to the Son of David!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”
“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you, desolate. For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’”
Today we enter into Passion Week, and we draw near to the end of Lent. Ahead of us lies the Last Supper, the crucifixion, the silence of the tomb, and God’s resounding vindication of Jesus in the Resurrection.
But today is Palm Sunday, where we reflect on the tumultuous swirl of events near the end of Jesus’ life, before the Last Supper. These events are summed up in Matthew chapters 21 through 24.
Jesus enters into the city of Jerusalem on a donkey, to a chorus of hosannas and raised palm leaves. Jesus had spent the previous three years of his life announcing, enacting, and embodying the nearness of the kingdom of God; he had planted small pockets of “Jesus-communities” all over Galilee and Judea, and he traveled with a band of 12 disciples to symbolize the constitution of a new Israel around his own person.
The 100 years before and after Jesus are marked by a number of messianic insurrections–people who claimed to be the Son of David, the Son of God, the Christ who would restore Israel to greatness and get God’s project to bring Justice to the world back on track again. These periodic revolutions would reach their climax in the year 70 AD, when the Zealots succeeded in repelling many Roman forces through various assassinations, sieges, and battles, and eventually assumed control over the city of Jerusalem.
As the Jewish historian Josephus recounts, the Romans reacted decisively to the Jewish rebellion with overwhelming force. Titus, the son of the Roman emperor Vespasian, who would later become a future emperor himself, led Roman forces to retake the city. Meanwhile, the Zealots were dividing into factions against themselves inside the city walls.
Titus eventually built a large wall encircling the city of Jerusalem to starve out its inhabitants. They broke through into the city proper, and burned Jerusalem’s Temple down to the ground. Josephus describes the resulting scene:
As the legions charged in, neither persuasion nor threat could check their impetuosity: passion alone was in command. Crowded together around the entrances many were trampled by their friends, many fell among the still hot and smoking ruins of the colonnades and died as miserably as the defeated. As they neared the Sanctuary they pretended not even to hear Caesar’s commands and urged the men in front to throw in more firebrands. The partisans were no longer in a position to help; everywhere was slaughter and flight. Most of the victims were peaceful citizens, weak and unarmed, butchered wherever they were caught. Round the Altar the heaps of corpses grew higher and higher, while down the Sanctuary steps poured a river of blood and the bodies of those killed at the top slithered to the bottom. —The History of the Jews in Antiquity.
1,100,000 people were killed. About 100,000 Jews were taken as captives to Rome, where to this day the Arch of Titus still stands, with depictions of Jewish slaves in chains.
When Jesus entered Jerusalem as a newly hailed King, this was the type of King the Jewish people were expecting: A Zealot king, a Joshua who would cleanse the land of pagan pollution, a David who would restore and expand an Israelite empire. Surely the amazing signs he was able to do showed that God was with him.
But the Jewish people had little regard for Jesus’ actual message, and this proved out over and over again in the days that followed his triumphal entry into Jerusalem. He upsets the Pharisees with his cleansing of the Temple and his repeated parables on what the Kingdom of God is like. He confuses his disciples when he curses the fig tree. When his authority is challenged, Jesus sums up his teaching by saying, ““Therefore I say to you, the Kingdom of Heaven will be taken from you and given to a nation bearing the fruits of it.”
Desperate to undermine his growing popularity with the people and the chance that he will seize political power, the Pharisees try to trap Jesus with a political question regarding paying taxes to Caesar. The Sadducees try to trap Jesus with a theological question concerning the resurrection of the dead. Jesus is able to sidestep these controversial issues with a few words that showed that the Kingdom of God cannot be reduced to petty human agendas.
This is all brought beautifully to a head when, in Matthew 22, Jesus answers a question regarding the commandments by summarizing all the Law and the Prophets with this saying, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. And love your neighbor as yourself.”
It was exactly this law that the kingdom of God was set to accomplish and fulfill, and it was exactly this law that the Zealots, the Pharisees, the Sadducess, and the Jewish people themselves were not fulfilling. Through their idolatry of national greatness, they had lost sight of their very purpose as a nation: To glorify God by showcasing His character to all the world.
And finally, in Matthew 23 and 24, Jesus lashes out in frustration and agony against the Jews who refused to hear his message, and who were subverting the message of God. The Jewish elites said that they loved the law, but was that what they were truly motivated by? No, they were motivated by the same power politics, prestige, and ambition that motivated other peoples and other nations throughout history.
And just as the fruit of that has always been rivalry, violence, and destruction, so too would it be the case with Jerusalem. This is why Jesus cries out in lament:
“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you, desolate. For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’” —Matthew 23:37-39.
Jesus then goes on to predict the destruction of Jerusalem by the Roman armies in Matthew 24. And he warns his disciples to keep watch of signs and portents that signal the destruction of the end of the Temple age, and the rise of a new age in Redemptive History. In this new age, a new nation, his Church, would bear the fruits of Justice, Healing, and Mercy that testify to the world what God is truly like.
In fact, this is exactly what happened. Amazingly, despite the wholesale slaughter of the Jewish population in 70 AD–37 years after Jesus’ prediction–the Jewish Christian population had been spared. The Christian leaders in Jerusalem were constantly scanning the horizon for signs of the coming destruction of Jerusalem, though they understood much of Jesus’ apocalyptic language of suns darkening and moons bleeding as symbolic. As the early Christian scholar Eusebius recounts, because of their constant vigilance, they were spared:
“[When] Vespasian was approaching with his army, all who believed in Christ left Jerusalem and fled to Pella, and other places beyond the river Jordan; and so they all marvellously escaped the general shipwreck of their country: not one of them perished.”
Pella was a mountainous area near Jerusalem–this fulfilled Jesus’ warning in Matthew 24:15-18:
“So when you see the desolating sacrilege standing in the holy place, as was spoken of by the prophet Daniel (let the reader understand), then those in Judea must flee to the mountains; the one on the housetop must not go down to take what is in the house; the one in the field must not turn back to get a coat.”
Because Jesus’ church in Jerusalem heeded his warnings and escaped the destruction of Jerusalem, they were able to escape into Pella and from there spread on into Syria and Asia and Africa and Europe and spread the word of his Supremacy and Lordship over all the earth. A new age truly began; a new world was birthed–one founded not on the rule of the strong, but on love for the weak.
Jesus’ triumphant entry to Jerusalem was welcomed by the Jewish people for the wrong reasons: This was indeed their divine king, but his agenda was wholly other from their own. While they wanted to continue the wheel of accusation, rivalry, violence, and empire, Jesus did not–Jesus came to break the wheel.
On the Cross, Jesus revealed the Divine Agenda was for Everlasting Peace–Peace that he would accomplish with his blood, Peace that he would fight for to destroy the works of the Devil, Peace that would shatter every system, structure, and heart that resisted and corrupted the Fiery, Loving, Just Rule of the Holy God.
Before he went to the Cross, Jesus wept for his beloved city of Jerusalem. But, beautifully, even as he foretells the coming doom, he holds out hope for ultimate redemption:
“For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’” —Matthew 23:39.
The Jews had cried out “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord” for the wrong reasons, and they would quickly turn on their Messiah and shout for his crucifixion when he would not fit into their neat theological and political boxes.
Though Jesus foretells the destruction and doom Jerusalem would suffer for this rejection, he also holds out the promise that one day Jerusalem will again greet him with shouts of hosanna. Because of his work and person, this time they will have new hearts. This time they will not be slaves to sin. This time they will not be grasping and clinging, but surrendering and serving.
This time they will be able to cry out, with full understanding and adoration, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!”