The following is an unedited sermon manuscript; for an explanation of my sermon manuscripts, click here.
*Originally preached February 14th, 2021*
Sermon Audio: Jesus and Mistaken Praise (Mark 11:1-11)
People have always liked Jesus.
Charles Templeton, in his own words, “adored” Jesus. Templeton professed faith when he was 21 years old and was full of fire and passion for the Lord. That same year he began speaking to large crowds of people about the gospel, starting his own evangelistic rallies. 9 years later he met another young, zealous evangelist while on a Youth For Christ evangelism tour in Europe named Billy Graham. Billy and Charles became fast friends and often worked together in great crusades. But, by 1948 Charles began to have doubts about the reliability of the Bible. He entered Princeton Theological Seminary where his doubts only festered and grew. In less than a decade he publicly declared that he was now an agnostic. In 1996 he wrote a memoir titled Farewell to God: My Reasons for Rejecting the Christian Faith. In that book he recounts a conversation with Billy Graham where he tries to press Billy to abandon the Bible, but Billy simply and humbly admits that the Bible is God’s Word, so he cannot reject it.
A few years later, journalist Lee Strobel interviewed Templeton about his life and religious journey. “And how do you assess this Jesus?” It seemed like the next logical question—but I wasn’t ready for the response it would evoke…Templeton’s body language softened. It was as if he suddenly felt relaxed and comfortable in talking about an old and dear friend… “He was,” Templeton began, “the greatest human being who has ever lived. He was a moral genius. His ethical sense was unique. He was the intrinsically wisest person that I’ve ever encountered in my life or in my readings. His commitment was total and led to his own death, much to the detriment of the world. What could one say about him except that this was a form of greatness?” All of this, of course, said by an avowed agnostic.
Jesus is a strange character of history, an odd mixture of magnetism and polarity. There are always droves of people who are attracted to Jesus, but there are also people who are strongly repelled by Jesus. We have seen this throughout Mark’s gospel thus far. Jesus begins His ministry by inviting the weak, the poor, and the wayward into His circle. His teaching bears a sensational kind of authority that sucks people in. Like a steel axe biting into a dead tree, his sermons sink into the religious teachers of the day, accusing and assaulting their pride and religious hypocrisy. He speaks in enigmatic parables that baffle the elite, but slowly explains them to His followers. He heals the sick, casts out demons, and proclaims that He can provide forgiveness of sins.
He proclaims that He is in fact the long awaited for King of Israel, the Messiah whom the prophets have foretold about who will rescue Israel from her oppressors. And yet, He raises no armies and plans not violent upheavals. But He feeds thousands, and heals the blind, and raises the dead. He teaches that the kingdom of God is demonstrated through meekness and service. He takes time to spend with little children, with social outcasts, and notorious sinners, while often snubbing or offended the rich and influential. All of this creates massive crowds who adore Jesus, even while there are some who are left confused, offended, and even repulsed by Him—to the degree that they are currently plotting his assassination.
How could someone be so loved and so hated at the same time? What’s even more surprising: Jesus has been teaching His small band of disciples secretly that the crowds have, in many ways, not understood the purpose of His arrival. In other words, for many in the crowds, what they love about Jesus is mistaken. And even more shocking, Jesus reveals that He is aware that He will be put to death once He arrives at Jerusalem. Our text today opens with Jesus taking His first step in Jerusalem since predicting this, starting the countdown to His gruesome death. Today is Sunday, but Friday is coming.
1 Now when they drew near to Jerusalem, to Bethphage and Bethany, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two of his disciples 2 and said to them, “Go into the village in front of you, and immediately as you enter it you will find a colt tied, on which no one has ever sat. Untie it and bring it. 3 If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ say, ‘The Lord has need of it and will send it back here immediately.’” 4 And they went away and found a colt tied at a door outside in the street, and they untied it. 5 And some of those standing there said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” 6 And they told them what Jesus had said, and they let them go. 7 And they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it, and he sat on it. 8 And many spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut from the fields. 9 And those who went before and those who followed were shouting, “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 And he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple. And when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve. – Mark 11:1-11
The colt (donkey)
The scene opens with Jesus cresting the hill to the east of Jerusalem, the Mount of Olives. As He surveys the city of David, Jesus turns to two of His disciples and sends them to go fetch a “colt” or a “young donkey” (cf. Matt 21:2; John 12:14-15) from a nearby village. Jesus has either set up an arrangement ahead of time for the donkey to be prepared or, more likely, it is simply another display of His divine omniscience peeking out in the text. His disciples bring back this donkey “on which no one has ever sat” (Mark 11:2) and create a makeshift saddle out of their cloaks for Jesus to ride upon.
Now, why did Mark think this was important to tell us? Surely, there was a great deal that occurred in the life of Jesus that we were not told about. The amount of biographical details that we are given about Jesus are remarkably slim. Mark’s gospel isn’t detailing for us everything that happened in the life of Jesus. Rather, there is an intentionality in what is included, a purpose to convey. So, Mark determined that this was something that was necessary to be included in his gospel account of Jesus. But why? Jesus’ riding on a donkey into Jerusalem is a fulfillment of Zechariah 9:9, which opens up with, “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” Zech 9:9 (cf. Matt 21:5; John 12:15).
This prophecy is written over 500 years before Jesus walks the earth and is recorded after Israel has been taken away as prisoners by Babylon and had no king sitting on the throne for quite some time. Zechariah encourages the downtrodden in Israel: Rejoice! The King is coming and he brings salvation with him—he comes not on a war horse, but on a donkey. What’s of even more significance is the specific phrase used here “foal of a donkey” (בֵּן אָתוֹן) The only other place in the Hebrew Bible that phrase is used is in Genesis 49:11, where God promises that there will arise a ruler from Judah, one of the earliest prophecies of the coming Messiah: “The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until tribute comes to him; and to him shall be the obedience of the peoples. Binding his foal to the vine and his donkey’s colt (בֵּן אָתוֹן) to the choice vine,” Gen 49:10-11.
Do you see the importance here? Jesus is arriving as the promised King, the Messiah of the line of Judah, marching into Jerusalem. The boulder of expectation that has been tumbling through the pages of the Old Testament has now crashed onto the scene in the person of Jesus.
Now, we don’t want to make too much out of a donkey. It can sometimes be imagined that by Jesus riding a donkey itself He demonstrated the humility that Zechariah speaks of. While it would be silly to imagine a king riding a donkey into battle (it is not a warrior’s animal), it was actually common for kings to ride donkeys in the ancient world. Famously, during the coronation of King Solomon, the dying King David explains that Solomon is to be placed upon his donkey and to be marched to Jerusalem to be enthroned as king (1 Kings 1:33-37). Interestingly, Solomon is ordered to march into the western side of Jerusalem (Gihon), the same direction that Jesus marches into Jerusalem; when Solomon arrives in Jerusalem there is an explosion of praise and celebration at the coming king (1 Kings 1:40), and when Jesus enters Jerusalem people explode in praise and jubilation. What am I getting at? The gospel authors are wanting you to see Jesus like a king of Israel, like a son of David. Remember, it was only a few verses earlier that Jesus is explicitly and repeatedly called “Son of David” by Bartimaeus (Mark 10:47-48). In fact, this is how the crowds themselves respond.
As Jesus begins to enter Jerusalem we are told that crowds begin throwing their cloaks down in front of them (cf. 2 Kings 9:13), pulling down palm branches and placing them before Jesus. Palm branches (identified in John 12:13) are significant because they had in the past few hundred years become a national symbol of Israel, popularized by the Maccabees in their political revolt after they fought off their foreign oppressors over 150 years ago. Don Carson comments, “In this instance [the waving of palm branches] may well have signaled nationalist hope that a messianic liberator was arriving on the scene (cf. John 6:14-15).” Mark is typically concise and does not give us a great deal of details, but Matthew tells us that at the triumphal entry “the whole city” of Jerusalem “is stirred up,” (Matt 21:10). The crowds begin to cry out as Jesus enters, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David! Hosanna in the highest!” Mark 11:9-10. “Hosanna” is Hebrew for “Save us now!” and is from a psalm that was said to every Jew who were making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem as they entered the temple (Ps 118). The Psalm is a prayer of thanksgiving and a plea for God to intervene and save His people from the violent nations who have cut them off (Ps 118:10-13). But, the phrase, “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David,” is not in Psalm 118. This is something that the crowds are creating themselves. Where are they getting this?
One thing we have been saying repeatedly while in the gospel of Mark is that the political climate that Jesus is living in is fraught with Messianic expectations. People are eager for a coming King who will arrive, fulfill the promises of God, and get rid of the Romans. Nearly a thousand years ago, God had made a promise to King David that David would always have a descendant of his to sit on the throne in Jerusalem (2 Sam 7). But it had been almost six hundred years since any descendant of David sat on the throne and the land that they were supposed to have as a divine right had been stripped from them and they had been dominated by numerous pagan nations. They have heard of Jesus’ popularity, His miracles, His authority over demonic powers, He has even been identified as a descendant of David—could this be the one? Now here he comes, riding on a donkey(!) from the Mount of Olives (where the Messiah was supposed to show up, Zech 14:4-5) and is headed to the temple where the Messiah was thought to arrive and establish His throne and the kingdom would be restored! Luke’s gospel makes the crowds chants more explicit: ““Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord!” Luke 19:38.
Now, with all of this fanfare, all of these expectations that have created this moment of great import and gravity, what does Jesus do? “And he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple. And when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve,” Mark 11:11.
Well, that’s a tad underwhelming.
A key literary technique Mark has used throughout his gospel has been that of irony. It is the outsiders who are claimed to be the real insiders; it is the blind who really see spiritually better than anyone else. Here we see a moment that is loaded with an ironic twist. Jesus really is the Messiah. He has gone out of His way to make that evident and wants the crowd to know that He is the coming King. So, when the crowds are praising and celebrating the arrival of Jesus, they are correct in what they are doing. But, at the same time, they have profoundly misunderstood Jesus—so profoundly that these crowds only five days later will be crying out “crucify Him!” Jesus’ arrival in the temple, only to walk away and leave it, is the first taste that the crowds have misunderstood that nature of the Messiah’s mission. Even more jarring, the following day Jesus is going to arrive at the temple and instead of establishing the kingdom like they though He is going to turn around and curse the temple! (Mark 11:15-19). That would be like someone going through all of the motions to be nominated as president only to arrive at the inauguration to kick the podium over and begin cursing the American government.
If we return to Zechariah we get a clue that the popular conception of the Messiah was mistaken: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. 10 I will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall speak peace to the nations; his rule shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth. 11 As for you also, because of the blood of my covenant with you, I will set your prisoners free from the waterless pit,” Zech 9:9-11. So, in other words, the King is coming bringing salvation—but this salvation isn’t a political salvation. Jesus is arriving on a donkey, not a war horse—in fact, He is going to cut off the war horses in Jerusalem! He is coming to establish a global domination, but not through war, not through violence, not through a political upheaval! But through proclaiming peace. Through the “blood of my covenant with you.” Of course, in four short days Jesus will lift up the cup and explain, “This is the blood of the covenant.” The victory, the salvation that Jesus has come to bring is a salvation from Israel’s great spiritual oppression—their sin. Sin’s consequence is death. Jesus has come to take that consequence on Himself and so free His people from this bondage that is far, far more deadly than Roman overlords. And now, He has come to remake the people of Israel into the global, multi-ethnic people of God: the Church, who will march forth throughout the globe proclaiming peace and good news to the nations. The Kingdom will stretch “from sea to sea,” but will be carried by the missionaries, the disciples of Jesus who will spread the message and so spread the Kingdom. But they will extend the borders of this Kingdom not by taking lives, but by laying down theirs.
– Someone may be really excited about Jesus, but not know him. Sincerity alone does not make worship acceptable. Nadab and Abihu’s sincerity in offering strange fire to God that He had not commanded did not prevent them from being consumed (Lev 10). Someone may be able to cite Scripture and appear pious and have passionate, heartfelt worship to God, but be worshipping an entirely different god than Jesus Christ.
– To guard ourselves from this danger we must first and foremost be a people who listen. Our God is a God who speaks; we should be a people who listen. Perhaps you have heard of the parable of the blind men and the elephant? Six blind men happen upon an elephant. Having never encountered an elephant before they begin reaching out to figure out what an elephant is like. One man grabs the leg of an elephant and says, “Ah, elephants are round and stout, like a tree trunk.” But another, grasping the tail of the elephant, explains, “No, elephants are thin and whispy, like a rope.” Another, feeling the side of the elephant, exclaims, “You both are wrong; elephants are broad and flat, like a wall.” And on and on it goes. The point of the parable, of course, is that each one of them is right and wrong at the same time; they each have a partial grasp of the truth, but not the whole truth. And if you’re in “World Religions 101” your professor will explain that this is something like what all of the religions are like: each grasping part of the truth, each missing the whole, and each accusing the others of being incorrect. The “Truth” is simply too expansive for any one religion to fully grasp. How do we respond to that?
Well, first off, this parable is self-contradictory–the parable is told from the vantage point of a person who can see the whole elephant and can confirm that all of the blind men are incorrect, a vantage point that the parable intends to say does not exist. Thus, for one person to say that they know definitively that all religions or worldviews only have a partial grip on the truth they are then claiming that they know for certain that all religions are incorrect in part. But to claim this, they must have a vantage point of total knowledge that they are simultaneously claiming doesn’t exist. Kevin DeYoung notes: “For the story to make its point, the narrator has to have clear and accurate knowledge of the elephant.” But DeYoung goes on to point a far more serious second flaw to this parable, “The story is a perfectly good description of human inability in matters of the divine. We are blind and unable to know God by our own devices. But the story never considers this paradigm-shattering question: What if the elephant talks? What if he tells the blind me, ‘That wall-like structure is my side. That fan is really my ear. And that’s not a rope; it’s a tail.’ If the elephant were to say all this, would the six blind men be considered humble for ignoring his word?” (DeYoung, Taking God at His Word, 69).
– The thing we are most prone to misunderstand is the gospel. This was what the crowds did not understand. They assumed that the Roman oppressors were their biggest problems. Their sin before a holy God? Not as vital. But the gospel speaks a sobering word to us all: there is nothing more dire, more serious, and more terrifying than the reality of our unforgiven sin before a holy God. And until we see that the gospel will seem nice, but not critical. And when the gospel is seen as simply a nice “add on” to our life, we will be prone to misunderstand it. We will assume that the gospel is a way we can augment our life with God, deal with our anxieties, and add a sense of religious mysticism to our lives. But the gospel assaults us with this arresting and wonderful truth: the daintiest and most unassuming of our sins have incurred the wrath of the omnipotent God, and this wrath will soon be discharged on all who disobey God. But this holy, wrathful God is not comprised of holiness and wrath alone; mingled with justice is mercy; coupled with anger is love. Our God sends His own Son to take on our own punishment that our sins have deserved. Jesus bears our guilt on the cross and stands before this holy God and absorbs the full venting of His wrath and anger for our unrighteousness and offers a full atonement, full payment of our debts. And three days later, He resurrects to newness of life and then ascends back to Heaven by the Father’s side! Now, He gives this offer: all who will turn from their sins and put their faith in Him can be united to Him and His life can become theirs. The death He died on the cross, can take the place of the death their sins had earned. The resurrection He experienced emerging from the tomb, can become their resurrection to a new life. And His ascension to Heaven can become their way to the Father.
That is the gospel and that is what we are most prone to misunderstand. We misunderstand this because we are, honestly, self-righteous, proud people. It is somewhat humiliating to acknowledge our total need, our absolute dependence on God. To admit that we are not just “a little bad” but wholly depraved and in need of radical mercy confronts the nice, air-brushed image of ourselves we carry around in our mind. But when see and believe the full-throated nature of the stunning grace of God towards wretches like us, we will fall on our knees before Jesus our King and say: “command me.” Then, when we come across challenging passages of Scripture that confront us, that we would prefer to twist to mean something else, we will remember Peter’s words, “Where else will we go, you alone have the Words of the eternal life.” (John 6:68). Friend, believe the gospel, heed the gospel. Mere admiration of Jesus alone will not save you. A respectful acknowledgment of Jesus will not get rid of your guilt.
In Strobel’s interview with Templeton, Templeton goes on for some time about his admiration for Jesus. Eventually he explains, “And if I may put it this way,” he said as his voice began to crack, ‘I . . . miss . . . him!” With that tears flooded his eyes. He turned his head and looked downward, raising his left hand to shield his face from me. His shoulders bobbed as he wept. . . .”
“The unique nature of the colt (never before ridden) indicates that it was a special animal qualified for the sacred task of carrying Israel’s king (cf. Num. 19:2; Deut. 21:3; 1 Sam. 6:7; also m. Sanh. 2.5).” Stein, BECNT
From about two centuries earlier, palm branches had already become a national (not to say nationalist) symbol. When Simon the Maccabee drove the Syrian forces out of the Jerusalem citadel he was met with music and the waving of palm branches (cf. 1 Macc. 13:51, 141 BC), which had also been prominent at the rededication of the temple (2 Macc. 10:7, 164 BC). Apocalyptic visions of the end utilize palm branches (Testament of Naphtali 5). Palms appear on the coins struck by the insurgents during the Jewish wars against Rome (AD 66-70, 132-135); indeed, the use of the palm as a symbol for Judea was sufficiently well established that the coins struck by the Romans to celebrate their victory also sported it.– Carson, PNTC, on John 12:13