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Life of Christ (1996-1998)

Triumphal Entry

Matthew 21:1-11, Mark 11:1-11, Luke 19:29-44, John 12:12-16

One of the great difficulties for modern students of the Bible is the use of symbolism. Symbols mean different things in different times, and if we are to understand what happens in this passage we need to understand the use of symbols.


Communications before television

Carry your mind back before the advent of television. How does somebody advertise a business? Particularly in a society in which the printing press and graphic arts are not present? You create and use a symbol.

Barber poleFor example, almost anyone in our society today would still recognize this symbol as being that of a barber shop. Even though the symbol itself comes from a stylized bloody sheet – taken from the days when barbers were also surgeons, and bleeding people was considered a cure – which no longer applies (I hope!), we recognize it as a barber pole. It’s not the only such symbol. Three gilded balls hanging outside a shop signifies a pawn shop, for example. A much more common symbol is the wedding ring, which is still used (despite feminism) to indicate that a person is married.

But there is something interesting about this form of communication. When you see the barber pole, you don’t think of a hair stylist’s salon or a Supercuts store. You have in mind a picture of a particular kind of shop, one in which Vogue magazine cannot be found – but several years of National Geographic can be. The symbol is not complete without your experience.

A wedding ring has the same aspect. It means “marriage” to all of us, but each of us has our own experience of marriage. “What it means” depends upon our own individual experiences, and our learning of the experiences of others.

The importance of symbolism

The fact that symbols are not complete without our experience is what gives them their power to communicate.

·         Because they involve our own experience, the communication becomes more real, more intense. It’s “hands on,” so to speak. The barber pole conjures up a particular type of shop, for example.

·         The communication is deliberately intended to evoke the observer’s experiences. Thus, what is sent by the user of the symbol is not what is perceived by the observer – and this is deliberate. It’s close, but deliberately different.

·         Thus, symbolic communication is really a form of sharing experiences. We need to understand the basic vocabulary of symbols, but once this is done our experiences guide us.

This explains the power of symbolic communication. You are not talking at me, you are involving me in the communication. Christ, in the passages we are to read in this lesson, is communicating symbolically with the people of that time. If we can decipher the symbols, we can understand what He is saying.

The Symbols Jesus Used

First, we must see the accounts of the Triumphal Entry.

(Mat 21:1-11 NIV) As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage on the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, {2} saying to them, "Go to the village ahead of you, and at once you will find a donkey tied there, with her colt by her. Untie them and bring them to me. {3} If anyone says anything to you, tell him that the Lord needs them, and he will send them right away." {4} This took place to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet: {5} "Say to the Daughter of Zion, 'See, your king comes to you, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.'" {6} The disciples went and did as Jesus had instructed them. {7} They brought the donkey and the colt, placed their cloaks on them, and Jesus sat on them. {8} A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. {9} The crowds that went ahead of him and those that followed shouted, "Hosanna to the Son of David!" "Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!" "Hosanna in the highest!" {10} When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred and asked, "Who is this?" {11} The crowds answered, "This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee." (Mark 11:1-11 NIV) As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage and Bethany at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two of his disciples, {2} saying to them, "Go to the village ahead of you, and just as you enter it, you will find a colt tied there, which no one has ever ridden. Untie it and bring it here. {3} If anyone asks you, 'Why are you doing this?' tell him, 'The Lord needs it and will send it back here shortly.'" {4} They went and found a colt outside in the street, tied at a doorway. As they untied it, {5} some people standing there asked, "What are you doing, untying that colt?" {6} They answered as Jesus had told them to, and the people let them go. {7} When they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks over it, he sat on it. {8} Many people spread their cloaks on the road, while others spread branches they had cut in the fields. {9} Those who went ahead and those who followed shouted, "Hosanna! " "Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!" {10} "Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David!" "Hosanna in the highest!" {11} Jesus entered Jerusalem and went to the temple. He looked around at everything, but since it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the Twelve. (Luke 19:29-44 NIV) As he approached Bethphage and Bethany at the hill called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples, saying to them, {30} "Go to the village ahead of you, and as you enter it, you will find a colt tied there, which no one has ever ridden. Untie it and bring it here. {31} If anyone asks you, 'Why are you untying it?' tell him, 'The Lord needs it.'" {32} Those who were sent ahead went and found it just as he had told them. {33} As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, "Why are you untying the colt?" {34} They replied, "The Lord needs it." {35} They brought it to Jesus, threw their cloaks on the colt and put Jesus on it. {36} As he went along, people spread their cloaks on the road. {37} When he came near the place where the road goes down the Mount of Olives, the whole crowd of disciples began joyfully to praise God in loud voices for all the miracles they had seen: {38} "Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!" "Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!" {39} Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to Jesus, "Teacher, rebuke your disciples!" {40} "I tell you," he replied, "if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out." {41} As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it {42} and said, "If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace--but now it is hidden from your eyes. {43} The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. {44} They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God's coming to you." (John 12:12-16 NIV) The next day the great crowd that had come for the Feast heard that Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem. {13} They took palm branches and went out to meet him, shouting, "Hosanna! " "Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!" "Blessed is the King of Israel!" {14} Jesus found a young donkey and sat upon it, as it is written, {15} "Do not be afraid, O Daughter of Zion; see, your king is coming, seated on a donkey's colt." {16} At first his disciples did not understand all this. Only after Jesus was glorified did they realize that these things had been written about him and that they had done these things to him.

Please note, from the incident with the donkey’s colt, that Jesus has planned this entry very carefully, making arrangements beforehand.

The East Gate

It is not obvious at first, but if you will compare all these accounts and a map of Jerusalem of the time you will discover that Jesus has taken the long way around to go through a particular gate, the East Gate. (See the maps and pictures). This is the first indication that he is planning something in particular. As this gate opens onto the Temple courts (and Jesus is about to cleanse the Temple) it may be that this would be sufficient reason. But there is a symbolic reason as well. It is found in Ezekiel’s description of the Temple.

Some scholars – particularly those with a premillennialist viewpoint – insist that this is a description solely of the Millennial Temple. Whether this is so or not, the East Gate has a particular significance in that Temple. Remember that to the Jew, East is the primary direction. We still say that we “orient” ourselves, which originally meant that we would face east. This gate is mentioned several times in Ezekiel; it is the gate through which first the cherubim[1] and then the glory of God[2] come. Because of that, Ezekiel contains this instruction:

(Ezek 44:1-3 NIV) Then the man brought me back to the outer gate of the sanctuary, the one facing east, and it was shut. {2} The LORD said to me, "This gate is to remain shut. It must not be opened; no one may enter through it. It is to remain shut because the LORD, the God of Israel, has entered through it. {3} The prince himself is the only one who may sit inside the gateway to eat in the presence of the LORD. He is to enter by way of the portico of the gateway and go out the same way."

(And if you look at the pictures of the East Gate, often now called the Golden Gate, it is shut!) The East Gate is the way in which the Romans entered, bearing their idols. Even as late as 1917 when General Allenby marched triumphantly into Jerusalem as conqueror he went through the Jaffa Gate (on the western side) specifically to avoid being misinterpreted. It didn’t help; many postmillennialists interpreted this as being prophesied in Revelation.

Other Symbols

This is not the only symbol which is used in the Triumphal Entry. Here are some others:

·         He comes in riding on a donkey’s foal, an ass. This (recall Absalom) is a symbol of a king coming in peace. A king coming in war or triumph rides a horse.

·         His disciples sing the Conqueror’s Psalm, the same one sung to Judas Maccabeus as he entered the city in triumph.

·         They spread their cloaks before him – the sign of honoring a king.[3]

·         The colt had never been ridden on. If you will follow the argument found in Numbers 19:2ff, this is a prerequisite for a guilt offering. Not only had the sacrifice to be without blemish, it must be one which had not been used for agricultural labor.

Who does Jesus present himself as?

Note that up to this time Jesus has frequently commanded others – demons and people – not to reveal who He is. Now the time has come to present himself to the nation of Israel.

·         He presents himself as King (see Zechariah 9:9). He claims the throne of David as rightful King of Israel, the promised Messiah.

·         He presents himself as Savior. Indeed, the word “hosanna” means “save now.”

·         He presents himself as a Prophet, one who knows (indeed controls, as we shall see) the future. Thus we see the prophecy about the destruction of Jerusalem, which was fulfilled quite literally in those terms by Titus and his Roman legions in AD 70.

·         He presents himself as the Creator – and for whom else would the stones cry out? Only the one who by right of creation could give stones a voice.

·         He presents himself as Sacrifice. Indeed, this is the beginning of the Passover Week, and he will become our Passover lamb. (The symbolism in that will be discussed in a later lesson).

The tragedy now comes. For all the miracles, for all the teaching, for all the chance the nation of Israel had, Jesus is rejected as Messiah. Jesus weeps for Jerusalem and prophesies its destruction because they did not recognize the coming of the King. Yet – and this is an answer to much of the problem of pain – from this evil will come an even greater good. The message of salvation will be spread to all the world.

Application to our lives

All this is fine and good – but for most of us academic. “Just theology,” we say, “of no practical use.” We need to understand what makes “practical use.” If I may borrow an example (thank you, Mr. Lewis), if you want to sail a yacht around the world you cannot do it with charts alone. You need to know how to handle the yacht and the sails, and such experience cannot be obtained in a book. It is obtained at sea only. But may I point out that all that experience will do you no good if you left the charts back on shore? You need both – even though the charts are “just theory.” So then, let us examine the claims of Jesus and see how they affect our lives. Let us ask, do I see him as…?

·         Savior? Yes, most of us do. Guilt is the predominant characteristic of our time, and we need forgiveness.

·         King? No, most of us don’t. We don’t want anyone giving us orders. Why? Because we trust no one. May I submit that he is King and deserves (as no other king does) our trust. The key to obedience is trust, and obedience is the key of faith.

·         Prophet? No, we don’t even think about that. We worry to the point of hag-ridden about the future. We forget that we know the Prophet knows the future and cares for us. Are we willing to trust him in this, too?

·         Creator? This surely sounds like theory and theology. But consider how often we are tempted to treat God as our equal. How frequently we forget that we are his creation, not the other way around. Do we have the respect for our creator that even a pot should show the potter?

·         Sacrifice? Each week we celebrate Communion. I wonder how often we truly appreciate the fact that he took our place. Like the scapegoat of old, he took our sins upon himself. Is there gratitude for this?

Ultimately, the Triumphal Entry reminds us of who Jesus is. It is the basis of our relationship with God to know who “I AM” truly is.

[1] Ezekiel 10:19

[2] Ezekiel 43:4

[3] See Jehu, 2 Kings 9:13

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