************ Sermon on John 12:15 ************
By: Rev. Adrian Dieleman
This sermon was preached on March 16, 2008
"The Messiah is Coming"
Lazarus. Lazarus. Lazarus. Everything in our Scripture reading has to do with Lazarus. You remember Lazarus. He was the friend of Jesus who was sick, the friend of Jesus who died, the friend of Jesus whom Jesus raised from the grave.
We cannot understand our passage and its setting without the story of Lazarus. In fact, we cannot understand the Jesus of Palm Sunday without the story of Lazarus.
John tells us four reactions to the Lazarus story. First, many of the Jews put their faith in Jesus when they saw what He did (Jn 11:45). Second, when the Sanhedrin saw so many people believing in Jesus because of the Lazarus miracle they decided Jesus must die (Jn 11:50). Third, Mary, the sister of Lazarus, took a jar of expensive perfume and, out of gratitude, anointed Jesus with it (Jn 12:3). Fourth, the crowds of Palm Sunday believed that the Lazarus miracle showed Jesus to be the Messiah; so they enthusiastically welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem as the King of Israel (Jn 12:12-13,17-18).
I How the Crowds see Jesus
A When I was studying John's story of Palm Sunday I realized there were three different crowds. The three crowds all have one thing in common: Lazarus. I've mentioned before that the raising of Lazarus plays a central role in John's Gospel. After this miracle or sign people can no longer remain neutral about Jesus. Either they accept Him as the Christ, the Son of God, and by believing have life in His name (Jn 20:31), or they reject Him, despise Him, and seek to kill Him (Jn 11:53).
The first crowd is made up of those that are with Jesus when He calls Lazarus from the tomb and raises him from the dead (Jn 12:17). When these see what Jesus does, they put their faith in Him (Jn 11:45). When Jesus leaves Bethany for His entry into Jerusalem, many or most of these people travel along with Him.
The second crowd travels the 2-3 miles from Jerusalem to Bethany. This crowd comes to Bethany to see Jesus and Lazarus. Lazarus they want to see because he was raised from the dead; Jesus they want to see because He raised Lazarus from the dead. When Jesus leaves Bethany for His entry into Jerusalem, many or most of these people also travel along with Him. This second crowd is identified by John as a "crowd of Jews" (Jn 12:9). In John's Gospel this is an expression that applies to Jesus' enemies. Because of the resurrection of Lazarus many of these Jews "were going over to Jesus and putting their faith in him" (Jn 12:11). Imagine that: because of Lazarus, opponents become disciples; because of Lazarus, people change their allegiance from the Pharisees or Sadducees to Jesus. On the surface, at least, it seems these people genuinely believe in Jesus.
The third crowd is composed of those pilgrims from Galilee who have come to Jerusalem for the Passover. John tells us that they are looking for Jesus, and as they stand in the temple area they ask one another, "What do you think? Isn't He coming to the Feast at all?" (Jn 11:56). When they hear that Jesus is on His way to Jerusalem, they go out to meet Him (Jn 12:12). John tells us they go out to meet Jesus because they too have heard about the raising of Lazarus (Jn 12:18).
B The three crowds see or hear about the raising of Lazarus and look how they respond: they wave palm branches, they yell "Hosanna," and they triumphantly escort Jesus into Jerusalem like He is a King. Why? Why does the raising of Lazarus provoke such a response?
In raising Lazarus from the grave Jesus has shown Himself to be the longed-for, prayed-for, hoped-for Messiah. We can never underestimate the place of the Messiah in Jewish hearts and minds. Every Jewish child of God was waiting for His appearance. For centuries they dreamed and spoke with longing of His coming. When the Messiah comes all that is wrong in our world will be set right. God's people will be set free from oppressors. The rich will no longer tyrannize the poor. The lame will begin to leap and jump and dance. The blind will see a world of vivid color. The deaf will listen to the songs of birds and the music of harps. The deserts of Israel will be turned into fragrant gardens. Swords and spears will be hammered into plows and hoes. Enemies will become friends. Jerusalem will be at the center of the world, and all the kings and rulers of the earth will come there to worship Israel's God.
Let's put this into today's language. Can you imagine a perfect world? a world without pollution, toxic wastes, global warming? a world without war, struggle, crime, injustice? a world without the threat of a nuclear holocaust or terrorist attacks? a world without floods, hurricanes, droughts, famines, earthquakes? a world without surgery, cancer, heart attack, AIDS? a world without poverty, hardship, hunger? a world of love, peace, joy, hope? That's the kind of world the Messiah will bring. His coming heralds the beginning of a glorious, wondrous, beautiful time for the people of the Lord. No wonder the Jews can hardly wait for His appearance.
Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead so the crowd greets Him as the Messiah. "Hosanna!" they yell. Hosanna is a word used in addressing kings (2 Sam 14:4; 2 K 6:26); it means "help us, save us." They yell, "Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!" – this is a quote from Psalm 118 which mentions the eventual triumph of the Messiah. They yell, "Blessed is the King of Israel" (Jn 12:13) – these words are added by the people so everyone will know why they are so excited.
C In taking a close look at what the crowd does we begin to understand what kind of Messiah they understand Jesus to be. John tells us they greet Jesus with palm branches in their hands. The palm branch was the national symbol of Israel at that time just like the stars and stripes are the national symbol here or the maple leaf is the national symbol of Canada. When Judas Maccabeus rededicated the temple altar after the Syrians profaned it in 164 B.C., the Jews brought palms to the Temple. When Simon Maccabeus conquered the Jerusalem castle in 142 B.C., the Jews took possession of it carrying palm branches. When Palestine revolted against Rome in A.D. 132-135, the palm became a symbol for resistance and was found on the currency. Against this background, we can only see political and national overtones in the palm branches waved by the crowds of John 12.
It is obvious, isn't it, how the crowds understand the Messiahship of Jesus? He is a man of war, the king of Israel, a Jewish Caesar. He will lead Israel in triumph against the Romans. He will reestablish Israel as a free and sovereign nation. So Jesus is being welcomed into Jerusalem like Charles De Gaulle was welcomed into Paris after World War II – as a liberator who has freed the land from a dark and cruel presence.
II How the Authorities see Jesus
A In contrast to the excitement and enthusiasm of the crowd is the fear of the leaders. They see and hear the crowds of people acclaiming Jesus as Messiah, the King of the Jews:
(Jn 12:19) So the Pharisees said to one another, "See, this is getting us nowhere. Look how the whole world has gone after him!"
To the Pharisees it must have seemed that all the people have gone after Jesus. We think of the huge crowds of Palm Sunday, some of whom used to be followers of the Pharisees. We think of the Greeks in the very next verses. They come to Philip with a request. "Sir," they said, "we would like to see Jesus" (Jn 12:21).
B The Pharisees feel threatened and become insecure because of the crowds following after Jesus. Why? On Palm Sunday they see happening the very thing they warned each other about at a meeting of the Sanhedrin right after the resurrection of Lazarus:
(Jn 11:48) If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.The worst fears of the Pharisees was that the people would be so inflamed by and so excited about Messiah Jesus that they rise up in rebellion against the Romans. If that's the case – and it certainly looks like it will be – then Caesar's armies will have to come marching in. The nation will be destroyed. Homes and businesses will be confiscated. And the Pharisees will lose their positions of leadership and authority.
C So the Pharisees made a decision. Jesus has to be stopped. He has to be killed, one man has to die, lest "the whole nation perish" (Jn 11:50).
The chief priests and Pharisees tried to stop Jesus before. One time, temple guards were sent to arrest Jesus but they came back to the Pharisees empty-handed (Jn 7:32;45). A couple of times, they tried to seize Jesus but God prevented them from succeeding (Jn 7:30; 10:39). And another time, they picked up stones to stone Jesus, and again God intervened (Jn 10:31). Every time they try something, their plans come to nought. And now, on Palm Sunday, it looks like their plans are being thwarted again: "Look how the whole world has gone after him!" (Jn 12:19).
D It isn't only Jesus Who has to be killed. Lazarus has to die too, "for on account of him," says John, "many of the Jews were going over to Jesus and putting their faith in him" (Jn 12:11). "So the chief priests made plans to kill Lazarus as well" (Jn 12:10). This seems a strange desire since death was not able to hold Lazarus the first time. Caiaphas had said it was necessary for one man to die to save the nation. But one is no longer enough. Now it has to be two. That's the way it is with evil: it grows and grows and never stops growing once you give it a little bit of room.
III How Jesus Understands His Messiahship
A The traditional understanding of Palm Sunday is that Jesus got caught up in a crowd that spontaneously began to wave palm branches and yell their "Hosannas!"
A careful reading of all four Gospels indicates that what happened on Palm Sunday was a carefully planned demonstration, orchestrated by none other than Jesus himself! He was the one Who was timing events according to His schedule. The other gospels indicate that He had made arrangements weeks in advance for a donkey to be available to Him. He had also arranged for a room in which He and His disciples would celebrate the Passover together. Jesus deliberately went from Bethany to Jerusalem knowing how people would react because of Lazarus. Jesus was in control!
How complete was Jesus' control? John tells us that Jesus rode into the city on a young donkey, a colt upon which no man had ever ridden (Jn 12:14). That is a remarkable feat in itself. You don't just simply sit on and ride a colt upon which no man has ever ridden. An untrained animal tries to buck a rider off and most riders are able to hang on for only 2 or 3 seconds. But so complete was our Lord's control that this unridden colt behaved as meekly as if it was fully trained.
There was nothing spontaneous or unplanned about what happened on Palm Sunday.
B Both the leaders and the people think of Messiah Jesus as a man of war, the King of Israel, a Jewish Caesar. This fills the people with excitement and the leaders with dread. They are all wrong. They all misunderstand the kind of Messiah Jesus is. They all make the mistake of another crowd at another time. After Jesus multiplied the fish and loaves and fed the five thousand, the people intended to make Jesus king by force. Jesus was forced to leave them and go into "hiding" (Jn 6:15). As Jesus said to Pilate, "My kingdom is not of this world ..." (Jn 18:36).
What kind of Messiah is Jesus? If He is not a man of war, the King of Israel, how is He to be seen? Jesus Himself shows us when He finds a young donkey and rides upon it into Jerusalem in fulfillment of the words of the prophet Zechariah:
(Jn 12:15) "Do not be afraid, O Daughter of Zion; see, your king is coming, seated on a donkey's colt."
C In this verse, we – with the crowds – are being told two things about Jesus as Messiah. First of all, He is not a man of war; rather, He is a king of peace. A military king rides into a city on a war horse, or perhaps marches in on foot at the head of his troops. Jesus, however, enters Jerusalem on the back of a donkey. In that place and time a donkey was the animal of a man of peace – like a priest or a merchant.
Scholars have known for quite some time that when the New Testament quotes an Old Testament passage, the whole passage – and not just the quoted words – is in mind. Listen to all that Zechariah says:
(Zech 9:9-10) Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion! Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. (10) I will take away the chariots from Ephraim and the war-horses from Jerusalem, and the battle bow will be broken. He will proclaim peace to the nations.The king is gentle, not violent, not war-like. He takes away chariots, war-horses, bows, and all the other tools of war; and, of course, without weapons no war is possible. He proclaims peace, real peace, lasting peace.
The kings and kingdoms of this world are established by force and held together by force. When that force disappears, as with Iraq or the U.S.S.R., the kingdom disappears.
Title: Building an Empire
Napoleon thought he could be great because he founded a kingdom on force. Perhaps it's worth listening to his words of warning at the end of his life. Napoleon said, "Alexander, Caesar, Charlemagne, and myself founded empires. But on what did we rest the creations of our genius? Upon force. Jesus Christ alone founded his empire upon love and peace. And at this hour millions of men would die for him."
Secondly, we are being told that Messiah Jesus is not the King of Israel, a national king. The crowds were excited and the Pharisees were scared because they thought Jesus would lead and rule them. But they thought on far too small a scale. As Messiah, Jesus is not just a national king, the King of Israel. He is far, far more than that! Again I think of what Zechariah says:
(Zech 9:10) His rule will extend from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth. Jesus is King of all, Lord of all, Master of all. Under His rule is Jerusalem and Rome, Israel and Syria, and the farthest corners of the earth. He demands the hearts of all, the service of all, the obedience of all. He is the king of everything (cf Jn 11:52; 12:19; 12:20; 12:32) and no one can claim Him as their King alone!
D The crowds are excited and the Pharisees are scared because Jesus is the Messiah, the King. But the only anointing that Jesus receives is an anointing for death (Jn 12:7). The only crown He will wear is the crown of thorns (Jn 19:2). The only robe He will wear is the cloak of mockery (Mk 15:17). And, when He stands before the people, thus anointed and robed and is presented as their king, the crowd will shout, "Take him away! Take him away! Crucify him!" (Jn 19:14-15).
I don't know if you caught this or not, but our Bible reading starts with a very important time-line: "The next day ..." (Jn 12:12). What next day? The day after being anointed by Mary. We are told that Mary anointed Jesus "six days before the Passover" (Jn 12:1). Which means that Jesus entered Jerusalem five days before the Passover. Do you know what happened in Israel five days before the Passover? Each household selected the lamb to be sacrificed for the Passover. Palm Sunday was Lamb Selection Sunday. Remember what John said about Jesus? He called Jesus "the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world" (Jn 1:29,36). With this in mind, do you hear what Jesus is saying on Lamb Selection Sunday? Jesus is saying, "God has chosen me to be the Passover Lamb." As proof of this, do you know when Jesus died? Jesus died, He gave up His Spirit, He breathed His last, at 3 PM – the very moment the high priest slaughtered the Passover lamb in the Temple courts.
Jesus is King. But He had to go through the suffering and the cross to get His crown and His throne. Jesus is King. But He gets His Kingdom only by way of the cross.
What does Palm Sunday tell us? Palm Sunday speaks more about a cross than a crown. It speaks more about suffering and death then a throne and a scepter. It tells us Jesus is Messiah. It tells us His is a crown and a throne but only because He is the Lamb of God.
You can e-mail our pastor at: Pastor, Trinity United Reformed Church
Back to Index of Sermons Page