February 5, 2017
In the spring of 336 BC, Philip II of Macedon was assassinated. His son, only 20 years old, ascended the throne. In short order, Alexander became one of the greatest military geniuses the world has ever known. He took his army, united all Greece, and in the ensuing years, conquered Asia Minor, Persia, India, Syria, Palestine, and Egypt. He did all that by the time he was 33 years old. This world conquest by Alexander the Great was prophesied by Daniel, some 200 years before Alexander was even born.
Then in Zechariah 9, we have recorded another prophecy of Alexander’s exploits. The passage, written 150 years before, tells of some of those conquests. We’re told he would take such cities as Damascus, Tyre and Sidon. Tyre was almost impregnable. It’s fortress was located on a little island off the coast of the main city. Previous to Alexander, both the Assyrians and the Babylonians had unsuccessfully tried to take the fortress. The Assyrians had laid siege to the city for 5 years. Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon laid siege for almost 14 years. Alexander, however, as prophesied, took the city in only 7 months. How? Apparently, he destroyed the city on the mainland, and then used the rubble to build a bridge to the fortress in the sea.
From there, he conquered Egypt which liberated the Egyptians from the hated Persians. He was named honorary Pharaoh, and founded the city which bore his name, Alexandria. It was on his way back that he made his way to Jerusalem, intent to conquer that city as well. However, there was a problem. That prophecy in Zechariah 9 said God would camp around His house, and the Jews would be protected from Alexander’s siege. And indeed, they were. You see, as Alexander approached the city, rather than being met by soldiers, he was met by priests dressed in their royal priestly attire. It apparently shocked Alexander, for it matched a vision he had had years before. So, rather than conquer the city, he marched into the city as a welcome guest.
This is the description of his entry into the city that day: He was 23, at the peak of his physical prime. Long before he arrived, the stage was set. First, 2,000 mounted lancers rode in, their lances pointing to the sky. The thunder of their hooves shook the ground. Then, 2,000 trumpeters followed. Row after row, their mighty blasts bounced off the stone walls and streets of the city, echoing back even from the Mount of Olives. Next came 500 shiny chariots, polished to reflect the noon-day sun. The choking dust and the rumble of their wheels only accentuated their power. Then hundreds of swordsmen with weapons raised marched along followed by 39,000 regular foot-soldiers with spears and bows. Dressed in crimson suits, the heavy tramp of their boots vibrated the ground.
Another large group of trumpets heralded the king himself. In rode Alexander the Great on his great white stallion named Bacephalus, the most famous of ancient steeds. The white-plumed brass helmet on his head sat like a crown. A red cape hung from his shoulders. It was a dazzling display of pageantry and power. Alexander set the standard for every conqueror to follow.
Talk about a triumphal entry. In fact, we borrow the word triumph from the Greek which means to lead in triumph. Later, during Roman times, the Latin word triumph would describe a public celebration to welcome home a victorious general. The general would enter the city preceded by the Roman senate. Following would be his armies, decked out for the occasion. Bringing up the rear would be the captives and prisoners of war in chains, displayed as the spoils of victory. Crowds would line the streets, giving ovations, shouts of acclaim, throwing flowers, and burning incense. When Julius Caesar returned to Rome from Gaul, the parade lasted three full days. Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, those were triumphal entries.
Today in our study of Mark is, in a sense, Palm Sunday. I suppose that name is fine – most of us know it refers to the day Jesus entered Jerusalem near the end of His ministry. As He neared the city that day, according to the gospel of John, the crowds cut down palm leaves to spread before Him. As I did some reading, I found the name Palm Sunday was used as early as the 4th Century. In fact, by then and even earlier, Christians would gather on the Mount of Olives outside Jerusalem, and make their way in procession, to commemorate the event.
But, what event do we commemorate on Palm Sunday? It’s the so-called, Triumphal Entry. That’s right, the name used to refer to Alexander’s grand entrance into the city some 360 years before. Now here’s another question, who called Jesus riding on a donkey the Triumphal Entry? You say, well, the heading in my Bible, right before the story, does. Of course, you understand the titles and notes in your Bible aren’t inspired – they’re just there to help us understand as we make our way through the Scripture, what we’re reading.
But Triumphal Entry? Who named it that? It’s not in the biblical text. Where did it come from? Try as I might, I couldn’t find when that name first started being used. It wasn’t in any of my many church history books. The earliest I could find it called Triumphal Entry was in the 1880’s. Triumphal entry. Let’s read the event, and compare it the triumphal entries of Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar. The story is recorded in all four gospels – but let’s look at in Mark 11:1-11 in our continuing study of the book.
Does that sound like a triumphal entry to you? The heading in my Bible names it so, but why? Let me remind you of the context. Some six months before, Jesus had finished His Galilean ministry, and begun to make His way to Jerusalem. Along the way, He continued to heal people, and teach His disciples. But, He also began to tell them what awaited Him once He got to Jerusalem. There, He would be handed over the elders, chief priests and scribes; He would suffer, and be put to death. All along, the disciples have to be asking, “Well, if that’s the case, why go? Things are going great in Galilee – large crowds are following – let’s go back there.” But, His face was set resolutely toward Jerusalem, there was no turning back. He walked ahead with purpose. It was the reason for which He’d come.
Now, as they arrived, they were coming with the throngs of people making their way to Jerusalem for the Passover. The Jews were required to present themselves at the Temple at least once a year, and the Passover was a favorite festival to do that. In fact, Josephus, tells us that during a Passover about this time, 260,000 lambs were sacrificed. One lamb was enough for ten people. If that number was even close to right, it’s possible Jerusalem swelled to over 2 million people when Jesus arrived. It was literally an ocean of people. Jesus was one of thousands walking in that day – meaning, He could have just slipped in incognito.
It was Passover. At the beginning of that week, as the pilgrims made their way to Jerusalem, one of the first things they did was to present their lambs to a priest for approval. Ten of them would select a lamb, without spot or blemish. It seldom met muster, but no problem, the priests had other lambs, approved lambs for sale. The pilgrims would then keep the lamb until Passover – at which time it would be sacrificed, in commemoration of their deliverance from Egypt.
On this day, on the day Jesus was riding into Jerusalem, when people all over the city were presenting their Passover lambs, Jesus was presenting Himself to God, as the Passover Lamb –who would take away the sin of the world. While they were crowning Jesus king, even for just a few days, they were actually choosing their Passover Lamb.
As Jesus and His disciples approached Jerusalem, Jesus instructed two of His unnamed disciples to go into Bethphage, a small village at the foot of the Mount of Olives, and get a colt – Matthew tells us a colt of a donkey. Now, some want to say Jesus was just a good man who got carried away. He was doing some good things, and then one day, He went to Jerusalem like every good Jew, and the crowds got carried away, and before you knew it, He was swept away in a drama – with a part He didn’t really want to play. He never intended for everything to happen the way it did that week.
But please notice it was Jesus who sent His disciples to the village to get the colt. He was aware of the prophecy of Zechariah 9 which said the Messiah would ride into town on the colt of a donkey. Which means, Jesus chose all this. He knocked over the domino that would begin the chain of events of Passion week. This didn’t catch Him by surprise – He chose it. He started it – and it led to His crucifixion.
You see, the first two things Jesus does upon arriving city are very public, with messianic overtones and authority. The time for the messianic secret is over. So, He’ll ride into Jerusalem per Zechariah 9 on the colt of a donkey with Galilean crowds proclaiming Him to be Son of David. Then, second, He’ll go to the Temple – the heart of Jewish worship and priestly function – and make a mess. Quite public. Jesus knew what He was doing. He was throwing down the gauntlet, and challenging the religious leadership that had opposed Him to respond.
As the disciples returned with the animals, they spread coats on them, and Jesus road the colt into town. Mark says there were crowds with Him, before and after. Likely the same crowd from Jericho – who’d seen Bartimaeus healed, and perhaps Lazarus raised. That’s important – they were coming with Him – these were Galilean Jews. And as He came, they spread out their cloaks before Him – symbolic of sovereignty – His right to rule. They cut leafy branches from fields, John tells us branches from palm trees, to make a path for Him.
They started crying out, “Hosanna! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord. Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David.” Much of this is a quote of Psalm 118, one of the Hallel Psalms, which was a psalm of deliverance. In fact, Psalm 118 was often called the conqueror’s psalm. It probably started with just a few people, but it soon caught on, and many were chanting. We read the crowd was shouting, so that, Matthew tells us, all the city was stirred. In Luke, we read the Pharisees were indignant, and told Jesus to command His disciples to be quiet. To which Jesus responded, if they stop, even the stones will cry out.
Now, you have to figure at this point the disciples were looking at each other thinking, maybe Jesus was wrong. Maybe it isn’t going to be suffering and death after all. Maybe He’s going to be crowned king after all. Maybe they were even secretly bumping fists. This could be better than Galilee. It was really quite the display, wasn’t it? But really, let’s compare it with a real triumphal entry, shall we?
Alexander rode into Jerusalem on a white stallion named Bacephalus, meaning “Oxhead.” Symbolizing strength and dignity, it was the most famous of ancient steeds, you know, “Hi ho, Silver, away.” Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a donkey. Not even really a donkey – the colt, the baby of a donkey. I can see His feet dragging the ground on each side. I’m not trying to be disrespectful here – I just want you to get the picture. It was just a baby donkey – a menial beast of burden, no dignity, not much of a symbol of majestic royalty. Oh, but, then we remember the kingdom Jesus came to bring.
Alexander is dressed in a brass helmet, white plume, red cape, big red S on his chest. Jesus comes in, helmet-less, dressed in the clothes of a Galilean peasant – an itinerant preacher, who, remember, had no place to lay His head. Alexander follows an impressive army. Lances, swords, bows and arrows. Chariots, cavalry, soldiers, trumpeters. Who accompanies Jesus?
Well, as He made His way to Jerusalem, He was no doubt accompanied by the Twelve. Remember them? Valiant soldiers, they were. In a few days, one of the most valiant of them is going to take a sword and with a mighty flurry, cut off someone’s ear. Valiant soldiers indeed – former fishermen, tax collectors and a Zealot. There was even a thief among them. They were Galileans, so they wouldn’t be respected by the Jews of Jerusalem.
His entourage was completed by formerly blind, maimed, crippled, leprous, dead people. Bartimaeus would have been there – Jesus had just healed him in Jericho. Zaccheus would have been there – he was the little tax collector who had just decided to follow Jesus days before. Lazarus would have been there, since Jesus had just raised him from the dead. In fact, John 12 tells that’s why many of the people were coming out to meet Jesus – they wanted to see Lazarus – they had never seen a dead man walking. That’s very important in understanding what’s going on here. Yeah, there were thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of people there that day. But they weren’t impressed with Jesus – they were just impressed with His tricks. That’s the picture – former prostitutes, sinners, tax collectors – not much of a processional.
Instead of flowers and incense, there were only the cloaks of peasants and branches cut from nearby trees. Instead of the sounding of trumpets, there was only the sound of common people, crying out, “Hosanna! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!”
And finally, it was obvious to everyone who Alexander was when He rode in. That’s what the parade was about – to set the stage for the entrance of the king. When Jesus rode in, while the crowd began shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord,” some didn’t even know who Jesus was. In Matthew’s account, they ask, “Who is this?” You almost get the idea the crowd was caught away in the excitement of the moment. Everyone had gathered for the Passover, which celebrated the exodus – their deliverance from Egypt. They were looking for a Messiah. They were in a deliverance mood. “Hosanna, blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord.” Hey, did you hear? Cool – the Messiah might be riding into town. Here He comes. “Hosanna in the highest!” By the way, who is it?
Triumphal entry? If this is truly the triumphal entry, a coronation, as some call it, of the King of kings, it has to be the most pathetic triumphal entry, the most pathetic coronation on record. As one commentator said, this is almost like a K-mart style coronation, a blue light special.
What’s going on? There were crowds yelling, “Crown Him!” but by the end of the week, another crowd would be yelling “Crucify Him!” A crowd claiming Him as their King, at the end of the week, another would be saying, “We have no king but Caesar.” A crowd proclaiming “Hosanna!” which means “Save us now!”, another would be saying, “You who saved others, why don’t you come down off the cross and save yourself.”
Triumphal entry? You bet it was. How so? Because in entering Jerusalem, He set in motion the events that would culminate in the events of Good Friday – His death and burial; leading to the event of all time three days later – His Resurrection.
You see, Jesus came as a victorious conqueror, but not like the ones the world was used to, not like the one the Jews expected. Triumphal entry? Yes. He came as a conqueror, in fulfillment of the prophecy in Zechariah 9:9, “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout in triumph, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; He is just and endowed with salvation, Humble, and mounted on a donkey, Even on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” Now, why did He have to fulfill this particular prophecy? Why couldn’t Jesus have come on a mighty white horse, regally dressed, with a mighty army?
Well, while the first 8 verses of Zechariah 9 talked about the mighty conquests of Alexander the Great, the verses which follow talk about a different kind of conqueror. Their king would come riding on a colt of a donkey. Rather than a beast of conquest, the one bearing Him was a beast of humility and peace. It spoke of the nature of the kingdom He came to bring. He would come in gentle, not crushing; gentle, not cruel. And that is a picture of the kingdom He offers. If you’re looking for a different kind of king, you’ll miss Him. He came on a donkey, and went straight to the cross. Behold your Conqueror King, church.
I know as I describe that, some of you are thinking not of the past, but of the future – when Jesus returns to earth. This time, Revelation 19 says, He won’t be on a donkey. He will be on a white horse. He won’t come in peasant clothing, but in a robe dipped in blood. His eyes will be a flame of fire, and on His head will be a crown of many diadems. And following Him will be the armies of heaven, clothed in fine linen, white and clean, riding on white horses. And on His thigh will be a name written: King of kings, and Lord of lords. There will be no confusion then. He will come as a warrior king.
But…not the first time. And yet, even the first time, He came as a conqueror, but what did Jesus come to conquer? He came to conquer His old foe, Satan. While Satan would bruise His heel on the Good Friday to follow that first Palm Sunday, Jesus would rise from the dead on that first Easter, thus crushing Satan’s head. He came to conquer death. He came to conquer sin. He came to conquer sickness and disease. He came, not to take life, but to give life.
You see, the Jews thought their Messiah, when He came, would be a military conqueror. They much preferred an Alexander-type Messiah – one who would throw off the tyranny of Rome. But when Jesus came, He was not so much concerned with Rome – He was concerned with the tyranny of sin. He came, not to free people from slavery to Rome, but from slavery to sin. Yes, this was a triumphal entry, but not one they expected. This King came to give His life a ransom for many. His kingdom was not like the kingdoms of this world. His was an eternal, spiritual kingdom. And as we’ve seen, it was not made up of the mighty, the strong, the noble. It was made up of the poor, the broken, the mourning, the gentle, the hungry, the thirsty.
Let me close with this thought. When you think of the triumphal entry, I want you to know, it’s still going on. The parade is still happening. Not only that, if you are a believer in Jesus Christ, you are a part of that triumphal procession. Look at II Corinthians 2:14-16:
14 But thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumph in Christ, and manifests through us the sweet aroma of the knowledge of Him in every place.
15 For we are a fragrance of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing;
16 to the one an aroma from death to death, to the other an aroma from life to life.
Do you see that? Paul is describing a triumphal procession. This one is led by God Himself, who is the conquering King. We are the soldiers who follow. And we become an aroma to those watching. What does that mean? Remember, when the victorious army came marching into town the crowds would burn incense and throw flowers in the way of the soldiers. As the army marched over the flowers, the fragrance released with the burning incense would waft through the entire city. It was a celebration – it was the smell of victory.
We, too, as we make our way, provide an aroma of God through Christ to those watching. To those who are being saved – that is, to those who will identify with the Victor, King Jesus, we are an aroma of life. To those who say, no thanks, we become an aroma of death, to those who are perishing.
We are an aroma to people today. You may be here this morning, and you’ve never made a commitment of your life to Jesus Christ. You’re just like those people in Jerusalem, perhaps, who know something’s up. And like the first Palm Sunday, you may be asking, “Who is this?” I want you to know today that He is the King of kings, and Lord of lords. Of all the triumphal entries that have ever been, all the armies that have ever marched, all the kings that have ever been crowned, none is as important as this One. And I would invite you this morning to know this King. He came to conquer your sin, and your death, and to give you eternal life. The church around you wants to be the aroma of life to you.
Triumphal entries. Jesus and Alexander. Both rode triumphantly into Jerusalem. Both died at age 33. However, that’s where the similarities end. One lived for himself, the other died for all. The Macedonian died on a throne, the Jew on a cross. One led vast armies, the other walked alone. The Macedonian shed blood. The Jew gave His blood. Greater love has no man than this, that one lay down His life for His friends. One made slaves, the other set people free. The Macedonian conquered every throne, the Jew every grave. Alexander won the world in life, but lost it in eternity. Jesus gave His life, but won it for us for eternity. Alexander, the conqueror is dead, but through Jesus, death is conquered.
Triumphal entry? You bet. Behold your King, church. And there is coming a day when the cries of “Hosanna, Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord” will be changed to, “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain.”