A Portrait of Jesus Painted By His Best Friend: His Position
When Jesus rode into the city of Jerusalem on that first Palm Sunday, because of the way He entered the city and because of the response He received, He knew that He was signing His own death warrant. Let me explain…
By choosing to ride on a donkey, He was fulfilling the Old Testament prophecy that the Messiah would come riding on a donkey and thus He was challenging the power of the religious leaders of the day. The custom of spreading one’s outer garments in the path of a procession was reserved for royalty, thus the people were creating a royal welcome for Jesus as their king. By shouting “Hosanna”, which literally means “save us”, they were calling on Jesus to save them not from their sins, but from the hated Romans. Thus, Jesus was openly challenging the authority of Rome. The palm branch was the symbol of Jewish nationalism- it was the equivalent of today’s Israeli flag- and thus the waving palm branches were an affront to the political leaders of that time. So Jesus rode into Jerusalem in such a way as to claim Himself to be both King and Messiah, knowing full well that all of the earthly powers of the day would then be turned against Him. In other words, the way He entered Jerusalem guaranteed that He would die in Jerusalem- and He knew it and He chose it- and we must never forget that.
Will you grant me the privilege of a brief sidebar at this point? For many years the church taught erroneously that the Jews put Jesus to death. That errant teaching spawned centuries of anti-Semitic practices culminating in the unspeakable horrors of the Holocaust. But Jesus chose the cross by declaring Himself to be King over both Jew and Gentile alike. No individual or group or people can be held responsible for putting Jesus to death. He chose it Himself. He says it quite plainly in John 10: “I lay down my life for my sheep. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord.” Therefore, let me say as clearly as I know how that anti-Semitic thought or practice is an abomination to God and anathema to our Christ. Therefore, if you hold discriminatory thoughts toward our Jewish sisters and brothers, if you are going to call yourself Christian, then you must purge your mind and heart of such thoughts. For Jesus laid down His life for Jew and Gentile alike.
So Palm Sunday was not so much a celebration as it was a confrontation, and you begin to see the significance of it all in a conversation which Jesus had later on with Pontius Pilate. It is recorded for us in John 18. Pilate asked Jesus point blank: “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus answered: “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” Pilate asked Him: “So you are a king?” Jesus answered: “For this I was bom and for this I came into the world to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to My voice.” With those words Jesus confirmed what had happened on Palm Sunday. He declared Himself to be King and Savior of the whole world.
He was declaring that His position is secured by who He is.
He said to Pilate: “For this I was bom.” There are two Latin words which may help us catch hold of Jesus’ meaning at this point. First there is the word “autoritas” which is the source of our word “authority.” It was used in reference to an office, a position, which was conferred upon a person by virtue of achievement, or by being elected or by scheming and scrambling to gain the position. Pontius Pilate had that kind of authority. The other Latin word is “potestas” from which we derive our word “power”. It refers to the kind of power which belongs to a person not because it was earned or seized but because the person was born into it. That’s the power Jesus had. So He said to Pilate: “I was born to be King. It is not something I sought or seized or gained by my own efforts. It is something which belongs to Me simply because of who I am- the only begotten Son of Almighty God!” And Pilate said: “Away with Him. I don’t want such a king.”
We say the same thing. As I look at the way we are, here in America, I see us putting our trust in the authority which comes from political or military or economic strength. Are you aware of the fact that we spend more than twenty million dollars a year providing personal services to the President of the United States? We provide him all his living facilities, his own place and helicopter, his own hideaway, a phalanx of servants and security personnel, the red carpet, the 21-gun salute, the bands which play when he steps off his plane or back onto it. Ours is a government of, by, and for the people, but our President is treated like a king because of our regard for political power. Our military forces are the most powerful the world has ever seen- and when we flex even just a bit of that muscle as we are doing now in Yugoslavia, it is overwhelming in its impact. And, of course, we pay homage to economic power as well. In America, as the saying goes, business is king and our economic machinery has produced an almost unimaginable affluence.
Yet today, I must remind us of the word of Jesus to Pontius Pilate. Jesus said: “My kingship does not rest on popular votes or troop counts or bank balances. It is not built upon the way the world works. It is not founded upon earthly authority. I was born to be King!” The implication of Jesus’ words is clear: if we do not bring our political, military and economic strength under the Lordship of Jesus Christ then we are bound for disaster.
That’s what happened to Rome. At the time of Jesus, Rome was the most powerful political, military, and economic force in the world. I remember one glorious September day a couple of years ago when a group of us from this church went to visit the colosseum in Rome. I remember thinking to myself that day that more than any other structure, the colosseum was the symbol of Rome’s earthly power and authority. It was the focal point of the Roman society. In that arena, they killed hundreds of the disciples of King Jesus. Yet for more than 1800 years now, that colosseum has stood empty and unused. Why? Because in the end the power of King Jesus was stronger than the power of Rome. The tremendous political, military and economic force of the empire could not stand in the face of this One who was born to be King. Before Him, that empire crumbled.
So I ask: Why, oh why, oh why, do we seem determined to make the same mistake the Romans made? When, oh when, oh when will we ever learn that there is only one power on earth which shall last, only one power which shall guarantee us life now and life forever. It is the power of Jesus Christ- the One born to be our King and the world’s King.
Of course Jesus was declaring also that His position was secure by what He says and what He does.
Jesus said to Pilate: “ I have come to speak the truth and everyone who knows the truth hears my voice.” And Pilate said: “What is truth?” Imagine that. Pilate, of all people, asking: “What is truth?” He knew the truth about Jesus and he knew it only too well. Five different times he declared that Jesus was guilty of no crime. Five times- count them! But then he caved in to the pressure of public opinion. He knew the truth; he just wasn’t willing to live it. Truth became relative. “There’s no such thing as absolutes”, he said, in essence- and so he proceeded to condemn King Jesus to death.
Hear this, my friends, the Kingship of Jesus is not built on falsehood and it cannot be conquered by lies. It is built upon truth. Jesus always spoke the truth and lived the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help Him God. He said: “This is what is true- all of you, like sheep, have gone astray into sin. And this is what is true- the justice of God is offended by your sinfulness. And this is what is true- the justice of God will be satisfied by My death on the cross. And this is what is true- through Me you can have life, life now, life forever.” Jesus’ Kingship cannot be stopped. It cannot even be stalled. In the words of James Stewart, Jesus is “King forever!” That’s the Gospel and that’s the only Gospel there is. Jesus is King, King forever!
Arnold Toynbee has written what is regarded as the greatest history of civilization produced in this country. In the fifth volume of that massive study, Toynbee considers the world’s savior. Some eras of history, he says, have regarded creative geniuses as saviors, but while creative geniuses have their day, inevitably new ideas come along and their genius is eclipsed and they are shunted aside. And then there have been those who would save the world by military might. But, Toynbee says, the testimony of history is that violence begets violence and the sword which has tasted blood can never be satisfied until it drinks of blood again, and so ultimately, military saviors have meant nothing in history. Then Toynbee says that there have been philosophers- kings who have thought to redeem the world by intellectual power, but eventually such leaders make the mistake of trying to force their philosophy upon the people which is just a more subtle form of violence- consequently, these would-be saviors have disappeared into the midst of history. And finally, Toynbee says, there have been those whom various civilizations have regarded as gods. But Toynbee notes that all of these so-called gods were fictitious, nothing more than the stuff of which dreams are made. They were never real, historical people who lived and walked on this earth. That is, all but One. And then, Arnold Toynbee, considered by many to be the greatest historian of our time wrote these words. Listen: “When we set out on this quest for a savior, we were confronted by a mighty host of candidates! All but one have fallen out of the race. Only one of the would-be saviors of the world has dared to put this title to the test by plunging into death’s icy river. Only one. But not, as we stand and gaze with our eyes fixed upon the farther shore, that one solitary figure rises up out of the flood of history, and out of the icy grip of death, and straightaway He fills the whole horizon! He is the Savior and He alone. Jesus is His name.”
On Palm Sunday, Jesus declared Himself to be King and Savior of the world. His position rests on who He is, what He says, and what He does. He is the King. He is the Savior of the world and of your life and mine. For this He was bom. For this He came. King forever. Jesus is His name…