Deliverance from Sin Sounds Good…But Hey, What About the Romans?

Growing up in a Baptist church, I can recall that I was deeply perplexed by the sequence of events surrounding Holy Week. Perhaps my sense of confusion was amplified by the fact that Palm Sunday was always celebrated as a really big deal, complete with fresh cuttings handed out during class time, branches that we all knew would be hoisted joyfully aloft as all the kids’ classes paraded down the center aisle of the sanctuary prior to the start of the worship service. “Jesus is coming! Jesus is coming!” Quite rightly, the Palm Sunday service was always orchestrated as an upbeat, joyful time of celebration for everyone.

From a child’s perspective, then, it made absolutely no sense at all that we Christians commemorated the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and yet…within five days we were all back in church again to mark His brutal death on the cross. And while I knew, of course, that Jesus’ death on the cross was not the end of the story – and that we would be celebrating Easter within 48 hours – I still struggled to figure out how things went so incredibly wrong within such a short amount of time. Talk about a rapid reversal of fortune!

With even just a little bit of time spent in Sunday School, anyone could easily see why the religious leaders in Palestine wanted Jesus dead; He posed such an obvious (and fearless!) threat to their well-oiled system of works-based righteousness and lucrative oppression of the people of Israel (Matthew 23, especially verses 4, 13-15, 23; Mark 12:38-40; Luke 20:45-47). And it made perfect sense that the occupying Roman armies had a vested interest in keeping public order; one could appreciate that spontaneous triumphal parades had the effect of making the Jerusalem civil authorities a tad edgy. The Bible is marvelously clear that Jesus made many, many enemies in the course of His three-year public ministry (Matthew 12:14; Matthew 9:32-34; Luke 4:28-29; Luke 6:7-11; Luke 11:53-54), so it’s not surprising at all to find multiple conspiracies afoot once Jesus hit the city limits.

No, what was most shocking to me as a child – and remains so – is how quickly and savagely the crowd turned on Jesus.

“Hosanna!” on Sunday…”Crucify Him!” on Friday? And this frenzied mob was shrewd; they knew that they had real, tangible power. The Bible makes it plain that both the Romans and the Jews feared the crowd (Luke 20:19-20, 26; Luke 22:1-2; Luke 23:1-25; John 19:1-16; Matthew 26:3-5; Matthew 27:24-26), and thus the actions of the various ruling authorities were at least somewhat limited by the very real possibility of inciting yet another riot among the people. Had the crowd on Friday, for example, been consistently yelling “Release Him!” it is obvious that Pilate would have lost no time in doing so. Indeed, he had tried many times to do just that even in the face of heated opposition (John 19:4, 12; John 18:31; John 18:38-40; Matthew 27:17-18).

While it might be “oddly comforting” to read of a confrontation between the Sunday branch-wavers and Friday’s bloodthirsty mob, it completely stretches credibility to think that there were two very different factions operating in Jerusalem that week, a pro-Jesus crowd and an anti-Jesus crowd, each of which somehow failed to show up at opposite ends of the week and thereby missed out on each other’s events. No, instead it seems far more likely that many of the people calling for Christ’s blood on Friday had been waving palm branches and shouting “Hosanna!” just five days earlier. So what happened in the hearts of the crowd?

At least part of the answer is to be found in the palm branches themselves. A Jewish symbol of deliverance from oppression ever since the revolt led by Judas Maccabeus approximately 200 years earlier, the palm branch in first-century Palestine was widely interpreted as a nationalist symbol, perhaps somewhat analogous to modern-day Israel’s use of the Star of David. Given that context, it sheds a bit more light on the expectations of the crowd as Christ rode in on a donkey. (A donkey?! Yet again, a nationalistic crowd waiting for Jesus at the gates of the city may have seen this as an ill-fitting detail, an error in protocol perhaps, since the donkey was normally viewed as a symbol of peace, not conquest.)

“Hey, conquering heroes are supposed to ride in on white stallions! What’s up with the donkey?”
“Probably just a clerical error of some kind…keep waving your palm branch!”

It seems quite clear that the Jewish people were hoping for a powerful political/military figure that would 1) send the Romans packing, and 2) re-establish the kingdom of Israel as it had been in the days of David and Solomon. Completely blinded by their own expectations and ambitions, even the disciples were arguing over who would get to sit at the left and right hand of Christ as He reigned over an earthly kingdom (Matthew 18:1-4; Matthew 20:20-28; Mark 9:33-34; Luke 9:46-48). In short, the people failed to welcome in Jesus as He really was, the suffering servant prophesied 700 years earlier in Isaiah 53.

Probably the single dumbest thought I have ever had was to consider that, “had I been there,” I might have been smart enough to figure things out over the course of Holy Week; surely I never would have joined in with the bloodthirsty crowd outside Pilate’s headquarters! (Wrong…)

Time and time again, it seems like we all make the Palm Sunday mistake of welcoming in Jesus as we want Him to be, not as He really is.

For example, almost everyone will accept Jesus as Savior. We like the idea that someone is going to save us from an eternity of torment. Yet far fewer of us, if we are honest, really want Jesus as Lord over our lives. We might say we do, and yet we balk when following hard after Jesus means giving up the sins that we only half-heartedly wish to be rescued from. “Sure, I love Jesus, but I also like having a mistress.” The simple truth is that if you don’t have Jesus as Lord, then you don’t really have Him as Savior, either; Christ promises us that many people who think they are saved are in for a horrible surprise on the last day (Matthew 7:21-23).

Like you, I don’t really like to think of myself as deluded, frantically waving a palm branch because I have completely missed the point of Christ’s earthly ministry. No one enjoys thinking much about how sin and ignorance have caused all of us to miss the mark when it comes to welcoming in Jesus as He properly should be welcomed. Most of us want Jesus to solve our problems in this life simply because we have absolutely no idea of how precarious our situation really is (Romans 3:10-20; Romans 6:23), or how precipitously poised we all are for eternal destruction. This side of eternity, we tend to be totally preoccupied with things such as ongoing Roman oppression or – in 21st-century America – difficult marriages, financial insolvency, addictions, corrupt government, and so on. For all too many of us, “Deliverance from sin sounds great, but right now I’m fretting over some massive losses in my IRA.”

This Holy Week, let’s pray together that God opens our eyes fully and finally to see how our single biggest problem – eternal separation from God – has already been solved for us by the events that were set in motion with that simple ride into Jerusalem on a donkey. Let a heart of gratitude be our steady drumbeat for the next few days as we march alongside Christ to Golgotha on Friday and visit the empty tomb on Sunday. Let’s acknowledge that, at a heart level, we are absolutely no different from those who misunderstood, betrayed and ultimately murdered Jesus, and let’s pray that we would get an increased appreciation for the shocking, scandalous death that brought life to us all…as well as our part in setting the whole sequence of events in motion.

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