I remember many years ago watching a scientist explain biology. He was making a point about how a giraffe’s lungs work while they run. When they push forward on from their back two legs, their lungs expand thanks to the change in momentum to help them breathe in, and when they land on their front two legs, their lungs compress like a piston to help them breathe out. The scientist was marveling at this and said, “It is just absolutely beautifully designed, er, evolved.” and then giggles at the implications of his mistake. That video made the rounds on the internet because it is amusing to see people dead set against a particular idea, say things that prove said idea. What we are going to be looking at today in John’s gospel is a little bit like that.
What struck me this time, as I studied for our fourth Palm Sunday together looking at this story, with the help of D.A. Carson, is how much of the theological climaxes of the story are told by people who were totally unaware of what they were saying in the fullest sense. We will see that the theological point that Jesus is dying as our substitutionary sacrifice comes from an enemy of Jesus, namely the High Priest! We will see that Mary proclaims that Jesus is going to die and be buried in her lavish pouring out of perfume on Jesus while He yet lived. Finally, we will hear from the Pharisees themselves that Jesus is going to be bringing salvation to the entire world (not just the Jews)! What I am hoping you hear today is the gospel, but hearing it from an unlikely source: Jesus’ enemies. Our two points today from Jesus’ enemies are Jesus has taken your place in His death and He offers salvation to the world freely.
Jesus has taken your place in His death
Way before Jesus is about to enter Jerusalem triumphantly as prophesied, there is a meeting of the religious leaders about how to destroy Jesus. What has Jesus done to deserve this kind of treatment? He raised Lazarus from the dead. Was this because the leaders hated Lazarus? No! It was because it was getting harder and harder to make the case to the people that Jesus wasn’t the Messiah. This is so concerning, that the Pharisees and Sadducees (lay teachers and priestly class, respectively according to Carson, 420), usually at odds with each other (Acts 23), are united in this purpose to destroy Jesus.
Why was this so concerning to them? They were afraid of Rome. Let’s follow their logic: if the people think Jesus is the Messiah, all Jesus has to do is say, “Let’s overthrow Rome!” and they will! In fact, Jesus may not even have to say that! The people may just decide that this is the time to overthrow Rome, and Rome will crush us back!” They say that this will cost them their place and their nation! “Place” here likely refers to the Temple, but the way that it is phrased still has their sense of place in the temple and nation at the forefront of their minds (Carson 420-1).
They obviously don’t believe that Jesus is the messiah, so despite the fact that He has raised the dead does very little to convince them otherwise. As Leon Morris comments, ““In the spirit these men recognize the miracles have taken place, but find in this reason for more wholehearted opposition, not for faith. In their hardness of heart they continue on their own chosen line and refused to consider the evidence before their eyes.” (565) I remember once as a child being sick and having to take some cold medicine. I fell asleep in the middle of the day and woke up at 6 pm that night. I was convinced that it was 6 am, and there was nothing, including my own mother whom I trust with everything, to convince me otherwise! It was only when the moon was finally visible a full hour later was I finally convinced. When you don’t want to hear the truth, or think you already know it, it can be very hard to convince. This is what these men were doing with Jesus, and it should prompt us to be careful not to make assumptions. Rather, we should be constantly going back to the Scriptures to see and learn what is true instead of just assuming truth based on our own intuition.
These leaders didn’t approach the Scriptures carefully so Ciaphas speaks forth a plan: we kill Jesus. It is interesting how He frames this in that Jesus is going to be a sacrificial murder. It is the oldest recorded trolly problem: sacrifice Jesus or the nation. Ciaphas says that it is better that one die to save the many. John goes on to record that though Ciaphas meant one thing when He said it, God meant it for quite another. Ciaphas’ move didn't accomplish what he wanted. As it turns out, taking this move doesn’t save Jerusalem, as it will get sacked about 40 years later. Carson comments: “And so [Jesus] died - but the nation perished anyway, not because of Jesus’ activity but because of the constant mad search for political solutions where there was little spiritual renewal. Justice is sacrificed to expediency.” (422) Jesus isn’t bringing a political solution, because the people don’t actually have a political problem as their deepest need. The same is true today. IF our biggest problem is a political one, then we don’t need a savior to die for us. We wouldn’t need Jesus if our problem was political. Our problem is we have rebelled against the King. And we need someone to make peace with God for us, and that is exactly what Jesus is projecting here. He is the bringer of peace! He is announcing that through Him God has extended amnesty to all who would turn to Him and receive it!
Jesus’ death is going to be a substitute, as Caiaphas plans, but it isn’t going to be limited to Israel, as the Sanhedrin thought of it. Jesus’ substitution will protect from wrath against sin for all of His elect. Jesus died in your place! These guys were afraid of Rome, yet Jesus was defending against the just wrath of God! And Jesus proclaims that through the very guy who hates Jesus! Never think that God isn’t in control of your situation.
So the decision being made, Jesus is informed of it and avoids Jerusalem. In doing so, Jesus is making a point though. As Carson comments, ““[Jesus] was making a theological statement: no human court could force him to the cross.” (423) Jesus is going to go to the cross when HE chooses to. He is going to make His appearance when He chooses to. Your salvation wasn’t secured because the Sanhedrin got the drop on Jesus. He was working even in and through them the whole time.
Jesus doesn’t just speak through His enemies. He also speaks through His friends. We will move more quickly through this section. Jesus is at a dinner with Lazarus and his sisters, Mary and Martha. The sisters are in their expected places: Martha is serving and Mary is at Jesus’ feet once again. But this time, she is doing more than listening. She is showing a lovely display of devotion to her Lord. She gets out a very expensive and massive bottle of nard, an oil from a plant in India (Carson, 428). This bottle is worth a year’s wage for a common worker, so imagine a bottle of perfume worth around $30,000 in today’s money. She breaks this open and annoints Jesus’ feet. The other gospel accounts note that she annoints his head, so it is likely that she anoints His whole body, as this was nearly a pound of perfume she is pouring out here! What is this all about? Well, whether Mary realizes it or not, Jesus says that this is for His burial, a symbol of what is yet to come. In that time, you would put spices or sweet smelling perfumes on a dead body to cover up the smell. According to Carson, “She meant this to be an act of costly, humble devotion, but like Caiaphas (11:49-52) she signaled more than she knew. In the culture of the day, it was not thought inappropriate to spend lavish sums at a funeral, including the cost of the perfumes that were designed to stifle the smell of decay...But here was Mary, lavishly pouring out perfume on Jesus while he was yet alive. Small wonder Jesus sees it as a prefiguring of the anointing that Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus performed (19:38-42).” (430)
Judas isn’t happy about this. He pretends that he is concerned about the poor, but really he is just hoping to spend it on himself. As FF Bruce points out: ““Devotion cannot be measured in terms of pounds and pence, although some people think it can.” (256)
He offers peace with God to you freely.
We move on to the day itself, the triumphal entry. Here Jesus is entering Jerusalem and the people are absolutely crazy with excitement over what they think Jesus entering Jerusalem means. Everybody starts cutting down and waving palm branches, which to us might seem strange. This doesn’t have anything to do with the Passover celebration! But at that time, the palm branch had become a national symbol. In the decades earlier, when there was an important military victory, they would wave palm branches. It became such a symbol that coins from that time period depicted the palm branch (FF Bruce, 259). They are also reciting Psalm 118 which the Israelites all expected to have a messianic meaning to them. This isn’t any old blessed one. This is THE blessed one!
But Jesus does something unexpected. If you wanted to kick off a revolution at this point, the way to do this is to climb onto a large steed, a war horse! This will let the population know that you mean business and that you are taking the throne. Jesus had every right to that throne. But instead, He sits on a donkey, the vehicle of one who comes in peace, not revolution. Bruce comments, ““they had their own clear ideas of what the king of Israel would do; Jesus, without repudiating the title which they gave him, repudiated the military and political ideas which they associate with it by his [sitting on the donkey].” (259) Jesus is going to solve the problem they all actually have, rather than the problem they just think they have.
But let’s check in with the Pharisees. Here they are, rather disappointed I would imagine. Here they have planned to get the people to turn Him over if they saw Him at the feast of Passover. Well, they saw Him alright and proclaimed that He is the King of Israel! What a backfire! Indeed, they throw up their hands in frustration and say, “The whole world has gone after Him!” Now, they obviously meant this in hyperbole, but John is quick to point out to us in the very next verse that some Greeks are wanting some time with Jesus. Here we see the first crop of Gentiles making a concerted effort to get to know this Savior. It is just a foretaste of what is to come. Can you imagine what the Pharisees would have thought to see that this gospel message has traveled all the way to Alabama? Oh, can you imagine what it would be like for one of them to see what it will be like in heaven! Representatives from every nation, tribe, and tongue are there praising God for the peace that He brought them through the substitutionary death of Jesus—a death that they helped facilitate!
Of course, the disciples didn’t get all of this at the time. It was going to have to wait until after Jesus ascended into heaven for them to see the whole picture, but they did get it eventually, thanks to the ministry of the Holy Spirit (Carson, 434). Imagine what John was thinking as He was writing all of this down, reliving these experiences with the light of insight he has now.
It will be the same for us one day, too, you know. One day, Jesus is coming back, and not on a donkey. He is coming on that warhorse to step onto the throne of the world. One day King Jesus will return and take His rightful place on the throne. And we will look back over our lives and everything that has led up to that moment and we will say, “Of course!” It is always driving in that direction. It doesn’t matter what is happening in the world out there or what is happening in your home, Jesus’ advance to the Kingship of the world is unstoppable. That is what we can always rest in when we get to Palm Sunday. Jesus’ march to the throne is constant, and even Jesus’ enemies are paving the way to make that happen.
So in the meantime, let’s worship and enjoy Christ. We know far more about the future than Mary did. Mary poured out that perfume when she wasn’t sure what was coming. We know exactly what is coming, and it will be glorious.
Bruce, F.F. The Gospel and Epistles of John
Carson, D.A. John, Pillar
Morris, Leon, John, New International Commentary