[March 28, 2010] Today is Palm Sunday, the beginning of Holy Week. Jesus enters the city of Jerusalem the Sunday before Passover, His Passover, when He would become the Lamb of God for the household of God (1 Corinthians 5:7). The Gospel according to Mark, told by the apostle Peter after the writing of Matthew and Luke, is the only gospel that provides time markers to give us a full eight-day Passion Week (day one: Mark 11:11; day two: 11:12, 19; day three: 11:20; day four: 14:1-2; day five: 14:12-21; day six: 15:1, 25, 33, 42; day seven: 15:42; day eight: 16:1-2) which might indicate that some churches at least, around the time of the Jewish Passover, already celebrated Easter and the Holy Week that precedes it. We think that they did do so—at least they celebrated Easter—in the days when the Gospel according to John was written.
On this day, the day when the lambs that were to be slaughtered on Thursday for the Passover meal were set aside (Exodus 12:3), Jesus left the village of Bethany, on the other side of the Mount of Olives from Jerusalem, along the road, and as He proceeded, the multitude of the disciples began to gather, including the people from Galilee who had also come to Jerusalem for the annual celebration of the Passover. He sent two disciples ahead to find a donkey on which no one had ever ridden, and they find it just as He predicted. When they bring it to Him, they lay their garments on it and Jesus mounted it. Then as He rode the donkey, some paved His way with their cloaks and others with leafy branches.
As Jesus rode toward the city, the crowds walking along with Him, in front and behind, shouted, “Hosanna! Blessèd is He who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessèd is the coming kingdom of our father David! Hosanna in the highest!” They are singing what is called the Hallel (Psalms 113-118). “Hosanna” is a call for salvation (from the Hebrew of Psalm 118:25). The following verse (Psalm 118:26), which says, “Blessèd is He who comes in the name of the Lord,” served to welcome Jesus as the Coming One who, from the point of view of the crowds, would reconstitute the Kingdom of David. (In the verses that preceded this, the blind man Bartimaeus had called upon Jesus as the “Son of David” and received His sight.)
Matthew points out that this fulfills the prophecy of Zechariah 9:9, when the King would come to Jerusalem “lowly and riding upon a donkey, even upon a colt, the foul of a donkey,” and later John will indicate that Jesus was anointed by Mary of Bethany the evening before. It is not said (because it would have been incendiary), but it might have been implied, that she acted as a prophetess and anointed Him as King—as Samuel had anointed David.
The Gospel according to Mark focuses on the people anticipating the glory of the coming kingdom (instead of on the fact of Jesus’ kingship: compare the wording in all four gospels). They seem to expect that the kingdom will be realized as soon as Jesus arrives (see also Luke 19:11). Indeed, the procession takes place on the slopes of the Mount of Olives where, according to Zechariah 14:4 God would vindicate the people against the nations.
The people may be mistaken about how events will unfold, but Jesus welcomes their praises (see Luke 19:40); in fact, He seems to have been fully the One in charge of the events that happened that day. He no doubt recognized Himself as the Son of David and the King of Israel. He then also recognized that He would be the One who would fulfill Israel’s destiny, that is, all the prophecies that were made with respect to Israel in the Old Testament.
But the Gospel according to Luke also tells us that as the city of Jerusalem came into view along the road, and Jesus could see the sun reflecting off the gold of the Temple columns, He wept over the city because her enemies would level her to the ground.
While we too welcome Jesus as the Coming King, and should join the crowds as they rejoiced in His coming, we need to be a little wiser. While He entered the city as its King, He also entered it as the Passover Lamb. Before the people’s expectations of the kingdom could be fulfilled, Jesus had to enter the city as Judge and become their atoning Sacrifice. In fact, knowing this, Jesus risked this procession before the eyes of the Roman authorities. In view of their ideology of empire, they would not tolerate His claim to kingship and in a few days they would have Jesus hanging from the gallows between two rebels, Himself with the placard that read, “The King of the Jews,” to let the city of Jerusalem know what the Romans thought of anyone who would make such claims.
Jesus knew this, but went through with it anyway. He entered the city as its King, but not yet to take the throne but first to render judgment; and Himself as the Savior, to take their judgment upon Himself. In the next few days He will render judgment on the Temple, on the stewards of the city, on the wealthy, and on its religious arrogance. He allowed them to expose what they were in their opposition to Him; as they judged Him He was judging them. As they passed sentence on Him, He was passing sentence on them. Their actions against Him proved their wickedness and sealed their guilt. But this did not happen by accident. It was what He intended. For only when their guilt was sealed could He then take it upon Himself as the Savior.
We would make a big mistake if we thought that His action as Judge was meant only for the guilty ones of Jerusalem. His action as Judge was the prelude to the cross and makes it meaningful, or rather, reveals its meaning. Therefore it has cosmic significance. He comes into the city as the Judge of humankind, not only the people whom He exposes in the city, just as He comes as the King not only of Jerusalem but of the whole world. This drama is played out on such a small scale, as indeed the whole drama is, whether we consider His birth in the manger of Bethlehem or the insignificant scale of His labors. What makes it so momentous is not the visible scale of things, but the reality of who He is. Because of who He is—the Son of God and not just the Messiah of Israel—His cross is God’s judgment of the whole human race, not just Jerusalem but of the entire project of Babel, and the salvation of all who believe. Because of who He is, when He acts as the King who comes in judgment, He is the King of the kingdom of God (and not just the kingdom of David) and He calls the whole human race into question.
We welcome Jesus as King, but the glory of the kingdom is not yet. He comes first in humility, to say “no” to the human race, its project of civilization and all our individual pretensions, and to suffer the death of His soul and body on our behalf.
The church still exists in this time of judgment, the time foretold by the prophets of Israel. The glory of the kingdom is not yet. We need to live in the world as subject to God’s judgment upon it, bearing the cross as we take it upon ourselves to do God’s will, and suffering persecution and opposition while remaining faithful to God. This is the subject of Peter’s first epistle, and the emphasis of the Gospel according to Mark.
Mark’s gospel has followed a certain outline. First it presents Jesus serving in humility with faithfulness even in the face of opposition (1:16—3:19). Then it shows people’s mixed reactions to Jesus (3:20—6:6). Then it shows that no one really understands Him (6:6—8:26). After that, it shows us that Jesus can only really be understood—seen—in the light of His going to the cross (8:27—10:52). Likewise, our own lives as Christians in the world can only be seen in this same light.
As believers we really do participate in the glory of the resurrection and the kingdom of God, but it is in a hidden way, as it was for Jesus apart from a few exceptional moments when the veil was lifted. We know the forgiveness of sins—inwardly and before God—but we still live under the outward judgment of God on the world. We know the Holy Spirit’s presence within us and among us in the church, but the kingdom of God is not outwardly manifested in the world around us. We are right to welcome Jesus’ first coming as our King, and to welcome the establishment of His kingdom when He comes again—when we will be changed and all nature will be transformed: when the whole scene will be transfigured as Jesus was on the Mount of Transfiguration because our very createdness will participate in the glory of God. But none of this can happen without the cross, without the cross of Jesus and the work of the cross upon ourselves, not only forgiving our sins but saving our souls (Mark 8:35; 1 Peter 1:9; Hebrews 10:39).
In the Gospel according to Mark the people (even the disciples!) fundamentally misunderstood Jesus because they could not comprehend the significance of the cross. The crowd of disciples expected Jesus to establish the kingdom of David momentarily as He entered Jerusalem. They thought it would happen on that Passover! What confusion and horror awaited them when on the morning after the Passover, when they expected Jesus to usher in the kingdom, they discovered Jesus hanging on the cross outside the walls of the city—dying! What offence, what devastating disappointment they must have experienced! Can you imagine? What must they have thought?
Yet that is the Messianic “secret.” It is the thing that cannot be understood apart from the revelation of the Holy Spirit. The secret is that God’s kingdom actually comes through such a death and the resurrection that vindicates it. The kingdom of God drew near in the Person of Jesus Himself (Mark 1:15) but it is only through His death and resurrection that it is released into the world. The “fire” is kindled (Luke 12:49?). And it is by our allowing death to work in our souls (2 Corinthians 4:12) that the life of the new creation is spread in others. The kingdom has come, but for now it is hidden, operating in secret, in the cost that the church must pay in humble faithfulness and sacrifice.
Those who imagine that the church can be triumphant in this world make a big mistake. There can be no kingdom without the cross, and the cross must not be borne by Jesus alone but by the church. The church must bear the opposition of the world in humility and sacrifice, as the way to enjoy the freedom of faithfulness. Our cross is not atoning nor is it redeeming. That place is for Jesus alone. Nor can we bear the cross, the daily dying of our soul, apart from His life within us, the power of His going to the cross Himself, in the power of His resurrection. Only then can we know “the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death” (Philippians 3:10).
This is the way of the church—the way of the cross. It is the only way of the kingdom of God in the world, until His coming again. Any other path is a delusion, the delusion that the world lives in. Let us not be fooled, but welcome our King knowing full well the price that He had to pay for us, and the far lesser price that we are called to pay for Him.