The next day the large crowd that had come to the feast heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, crying out, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!” And Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it, just as it is written, “Fear not, daughter of Zion; behold, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey's colt!” His disciples did not understand these things at first, but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written about him and had been done to him. The crowd that had been with him when he called Lazarus out of the tomb and raised him from the dead continued to bear witness. The reason why the crowd went to meet him was that they heard he had done this sign.
JOHN 12:12-18 (ESV)
It isn’t difficult to see why Jews would gather to celebrate Jesus’ arrival. Just as the Israelites did in the Old Testament, the people coming to greet their rescuer in this moment in John were homeless and powerless. The Jews of the New Testament were living mostly within the oppressive Roman Empire, and they were held captive within it, subjected to Roman leaders and constantly reminded of Israel’s defeat. Still, while the situation was overwhelmingly bleak, they held out hope for the national restoration and salvation prophesied in the Old Testament. God certainly seemed pretty clear in Amos 9, for example, when He said, “I will restore the fortunes of my people Israel, and they shall rebuild the ruined cities and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and drink their wine, and they shall make gardens and eat their fruit. I will plant them on their land, and they shall never again be uprooted out of the land that I have given them.” Though they were surrounded by evil, they continued to trust that God always keeps His promise.
But even within that common faith, there was confusion about the nature of the coming savior. In their book The Drama of Scripture, Craig Bartholomew and Michael Goheen identify some factions among the Jewish people, each with specific ideas for what the Messiah would do. The Pharisees wanted separatism. They held strictly to the Law and very clearly valued God’s transcendence above His immanence. To them, the Jewish people needed to be totally separate, and though holiness is certainly God’s desire, the Pharisees let outward requirements overtake inward motivations in the priorities of worship. They lost sight of the outsider and the widow and the orphan, and in their legalism they ultimately lost sight of their own foreignness. The Messiah for them would simply come to take them away from all this mess, so they lived ready to leave it all behind.
The Sadducees and priests had no desire to change the status quo. They valued above all status and inclusion. There was provision and privilege to be enjoyed even under Roman occupation. In tasting this earthly power, the Sadducees lost sight of their homelessness. They certainly desired and wanted a Messiah, but their picture of life under him might not have been such a drastic change from their present reality.
The final group was known at the time as Zealots, though they were not necessarily organized like the first two groups. These Jews craved revenge against their captors. The Zealots sought after a future of triumphant conflict, and they were known for their violence, both against Romans and “traitorous” Jews. The Zealots lost sight of their powerlessness, and in their physical acts of rebellion, they betrayed a view of Messiah-as-war-hero.
There were nuances to the beliefs of these groups, of course, but for the most part these were the prevailing influences on the common people caught between these factions. All Jews – including Samaritans, as evidenced by the words of the woman at the well – held out hope for a coming Messiah. The prevailing question became What would he be like?
That question surely filled the minds of the crowd that day, even as they stared at the person they called savior. Convinced from his miracles that he was the one, they cast their ideas upon him and expected him to follow. The problem is hope that lasts must be open to the possibilities we can’t see. If your rescue is just your exact vision of events, you’re really only hoping in yourself. Until you can let go of control, you will never have a savior.
Though he welcomed the crowd’s adoration (Luke 19:40), Jesus would not be boxed in by their expectations. Immediately after this celebration welcoming him to Jerusalem, Jesus moves to calling out false piety and cleansing the temple. The savior had come, and there was work to be done. With each hour between his arrival to the city and his death on the cross, that work would continue to break apart the boxes set aside for Israel’s future Messiah.
Jesus was not the king the Jews expected, just the one they needed. He came to show us holiness and draw us close in fulfilling the Law and walking us to the Father (Matthew 5). He came to ordain a royal priesthood and welcome foreigners to its ranks, as Isaiah 56 prophesied. He came to be made powerless that we might be lifted up (Philippians 2). He came to lose his life so that he might win our war (John 16:33). Every faction among the Jews would be turned over when the dust settled and the savior was risen.
No doubt some of the same people who proclaimed Jesus’ coming this day in the temple would come later to mock him as he carried his cross to Calvary. Their hope was never in a transcendent God. It was in a domesticated Messiah, a savior bound by human imagination. I am sure this grieved Jesus immensely. How could it not? He came to give them everything they needed, and though so many drew to Jerusalem for a king’s welcome, few would let him rule in their hearts.
For today’s prayer, I’ve adapted another one of Malcolm Guite’s sonnets.
Now to the gate of my Jerusalem,
The seething holy city of my heart,
The savior comes. But will I welcome you?
Oh crowds of easy feelings make a start;
They raise their hands, get caught up in the singing,
And think the battle won. Too soon they’ll find
The challenge, the reversal you are bringing
Changes their tune. I know what lies behind
The surface flourish that so quickly fades;
Self-interest, and fearful guardedness,
The hardness of the heart, its barricades,
And at the core, the dreadful emptiness
Of a perverted temple. Jesus come
Break my resistance and make me your home.
Is your Jesus “easy?” Does he seem to fit every compartment and category you set for him? Think about the ways Jesus unsettles you or conflicts with your presuppositions. Knowing that he is the way and the truth should lead us to reconsider our way and our truth when we experience friction with holiness. We cannot welcome Jesus in our hearts and expect him to be silent and still in our lives.