Monday, April 28, 2014

Palm Sunday: The Reason for the Celebration

I wanted to take a brief break from the book of Exodus to write about Palm Sunday, which was celebrated several Sundays ago.  This was because I taught about it in my Sunday School class of 5th and 6th graders, and in the research leading up to that class, I found some great verses and concepts which I wanted to share with all of you.

First of all, it was interesting that our class 'landed' upon the section of material in our Sunday School curriculum which dealt with Palm Sunday.  In previous weeks, we had been going through a study of the Israelites in Old Testament times, and how they had been taken into captivity because they had not listened to God's prophets and kept worshiping other 'gods' in addition to the one true God.  Then we had continued to learn about how God graciously restored the Jewish people to their nation, and how the prophets warned the people that they should be careful to continue to only worship God.

In one week's lesson, we had dealt with the prophet Joel.  Prophets usually either preached repentance or foretold events which would take place in the future.  Joel did both.  Israel at the time was experiencing a plague of locusts so great that Joel referred to them as a 'nation'.  Joel explained that these locusts were God's judgment upon the people for their wicked ways, and he urged them to repent.  Seemingly, the people repented, for God took the locusts away.

Joel also preached about things which would come in the future.  He spoke about "the Day of the LORD".  This was a coming judgment which was far more serious than the plague of locusts.  When prophets speak of  "the Day of the LORD", or "That day" or "in the end" or "in the latter days" or similar phrases, they are usually speaking about the time of the last judgment or the end times.  The plague of locusts in Joel's day was similar to what would happen in the time of that last judgment because the sheer number of locusts darkened the skies, like the events of the last days, in which the sun, moon and stars are going to be darkened.  Also, the locusts brought destruction and terrified the people, which is also the way people will respond to the events happening during those last days.

In those last days, Joel prophesied that the LORD would gather all nations into a valley near Jerusalem called the Valley of Jehoshaphat.  "Jehoshaphat" means "the LORD judges".  The nations believe that they are actually gathering to fight against Jerusalem and destroy it once and for all.  They do not know that they are going to face their own destruction.  At that time, the sun and moon will grow dark and the stars will stop shining.  Joel also compares this valley to a winepress.  The armies gathered in the valley are like grapes in a winepress, ready to be stomped upon because of their unrepentant wickedness.

After that, the LORD restores many good things to Israel.  The land will be fertile, producing grapes and other food in abundance.  A fountain of water will spring from the temple and water the valley north of the Dead Sea.

More importantly, it is a time when God will restore spiritual blessings to Israel.  God will pour out His Spirit upon all people, and be with His people in a mighty way.  No enemy army will ever threaten Israel again.  Jesus will be recognized as Israel's Messiah, and He will rule the world from Jerusalem.  This is in fulfillment of the promises God had made to Abraham long ago, when He promised the land of Canaan to Abraham and his descendants as an everlasting possession.

What does this all have to do with Palm Sunday and why was it interesting that our class had landed upon a certain section of Scripture on that particular day?  Well, in the few months before, our class had a rather sporadic attendance.  If everyone came, there should be about 6 children present, but instead, each week only one or two had been coming.  I would teach the lesson I had prepared, but then the next week, there would also be only one or two attending, and this time it would be a different set of children who hadn't been present the last week.  Because I didn't want anyone to miss the information covered in the material, I would teach these children the prior week's lesson before moving on to new material.  It was kind of frustrating, but I figured it was best this way.  We were behind according to the curriculum, but at least I had taught them all as thoroughly as I could.  Besides, sometimes if they had missed the previous week's lesson, they would not understand the context of the new material.

On this particular Palm Sunday, we were about to study about the prophet Zechariah.  Zechariah prophesied about the first coming of the Christ/Messiah and also about his second coming.  Here was one of our passages from Zechariah 9:9:

"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."

Zechariah 9:9 (NIV)

This passage is quoted in the New Testament by Matthew in chapter 21:5.  To read the whole thing in context, let's look at Matthew 21:1-17.  Keep in mind that it occurred 550 years after Zechariah prophesied these events:

"As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage on the Mount of Olives,
Jesus sent two disciples, 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.
If anyone says anything to you,
tell him that the Lord needs them,
and he will send them right away.'

This took place to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet:

'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." '

The disciples went and did as Jesus had instructed them.
They brought the donkey and the colt,
placed their cloaks on them,
and Jesus sat on them.
A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road,
while others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road.
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!'

When Jesus entered Jerusalem,
the whole city was stirred and asked, 'Who is this?'
The crowd answered,
'This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee.'

Jesus entered the temple area
 and drove out all who were buying and selling there.
He overturned the tables of the money changers
and the benches of those selling doves.
'It is written,' he said to them, 
'My house will be called a house of prayer,'
but you are making it a 'den of robbers.'

The blind and the lame came to him at the temple,
and he healed them.
but when the chief priests and the teachers of the law
saw the wonderful things he did
and the children shouting in the temple area,
'Hosanna to the Son of David,'
they were indignant.

"Do you hear what these children are saying?" they asked him.

"Yes," replied Jesus, "have you never read,

" 'From the lips of children and infants
you have ordained praise'?"

And he left them and went out of the city to Bethany,
where he spent the night."

Matthew 21:1-17 (NIV)

So the reason it was interesting that we were studying Zechariah that morning was because we were studying a passage in Zechariah which spoke about the very events which were fulfilled when Jesus rode into Jerusalem, which we celebrate on Palm Sunday...and it was Palm Sunday.

However, a more important fact is that this passage is the fulfillment of so many prophetic passages in the Scriptures: 

Check it out: 

1.  The obvious one is that Jesus fulfilled Zechariah 9:9 as he rode into Jerusalem.  By doing this, He was saying that He was indeed Israel's Messiah.

2.  Jesus entered the temple and drove out the buyers and sellers.  That may seem rude until you realize that the sellers were occupying the space which was meant to be for Gentile worshipers of God from other nations.  The Jews were chosen to be God's people, not so that they could keep it to themselves, but so that they could bring the news about salvation through the Messiah to all the nations.  How could people from other nations draw near to hear of the true God if these merchants were selling there?  Also, at least some of the sellers were cheating the people with unfair prices and exchanges of currencies.  Most importantly, the temple was meant to be a house of prayer, not a marketplace.  When people objected to his action of clearing the temple court, Jesus reminded them that the Scriptures said that the temple was supposed to be a house of prayer for all nations (Isaiah 56:6-7), and that their dishonest actions were fulfilling what Jeremiah 7:11 said was the offense of making the temple into a den of robbers.  The 'den of robbers' imagery was not only about the cheating going on there.  The NIV Study Bible notes on this verse indicate that, just as robbers trusted in their den as a place of safety, some of the religious leaders trusted in their association with the temple to keep them safe, despite their sins.  Jesus' words are a warning to these religious leaders that since Jesus had given them ample evidence that He was the Messiah, their continued rejection of His claims and their plans to kill him (Matthew 12:14) would not be overlooked just because they had this professional connection with the temple.

3.  Jesus healed the blind and lame at the temple.  This fulfilled Psalm 103:2-3, which indicated that the LORD would bring healing:

"Praise the LORD, O my soul,
and forget not all his benefits --
who forgives all your sins
and heals all your diseases,..."

Psalm 103:2-3 (NIV)

 Jesus had also healed people at many other times in his ministry.

4.  The children shouted "Hosana to the Son of David".  They recognized Jesus as the Son of David who was to reign, the Messiah...even if the chief priests and teachers of the law didn't.  Their very praise fulfilled  Psalm 8:2, a prophecy about how God would be praised through children...and how this praise would '...silence the foe and avenger'.  Their praise was a composite of other verses as well, such as Psalm 118:25-27:
"O LORD, save us;
O LORD, grant us success.
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the LORD.
From the house of the LORD we bless you.
The LORD is God,
and he has made his light shine upon us.
With boughs in hand, join in the festal procession
up to the horns of the altar."

Psalm 118:25-27 (NIV)

The context of those verses in Psalm 118 speak of the 'cornerstone' (Psalm 118:22) which is Messianic imagery.  Also, the stone which overcame all worldly kingdoms and grew to fill the earth in Daniel's interpretation of King Nebuchadnezzar's dream (Daniel 2:27-45) was God's kingdom, which would overcome all other kingdoms.  Jesus had presented himself to Israel as God's Messiah, come to make atonement for sinners, and most of the religious leaders had rejected his offer.

The verses immediately following (Psalm 118:28) speak like this: "You are my God and I will give you thanks; you are my God and I will exalt you." -- which is why the religious leaders were indignantly asking Jesus if he had heard (i.e, understood) what these children were saying about him. When Jesus calmly referred them to Psalm 8:2,

"From the lips of children and infants you have ordained praise
because of your enemies,
to silence the foe and avenger"

Psalm 8:2 (NIV) appears that his detractors had nothing else to say.  They knew that he implied that he was the Messiah and that they were acting as foes and avengers.  They had reacted to Jesus' revelation of himself as Israel's Messiah, not with godly zeal, but, as the NIV Study Bible noted, as "one who strikes back in malicious revenge".  True to Psalm 8:2, they fell silent.  Within the week their actions would reveal their true intentions, as they arrested Jesus and sought his crucifixion.

Lest there be any misunderstanding, let me be quick to note that I am not blaming the Jews for the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.  Jesus chose to die for the sins of the world.  Jews and Gentiles alike are sinners in need of a Savior.  Several passages in Scripture make it clear that no one could force Jesus to do anything.  Some of my favorite ones are these:

"...Then the men stepped forward, seized Jesus and arrested him.
With that, one of Jesus' companions reached for his sword,
drew it out and struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his ear.

'Put your sword back in its place,' Jesus said to him,
'for all who draw the sword will die by the sword.
Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once
put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels?
But how then would the Scriptures be fulfilled
that say it must happen this way?' "

Matthew 26:51-54 (NIV)


"Jesus, knowing all that was going to happen to him,
went out and asked them, 'Who is it you want?'
"Jesus of Nazareth," they replied.

"I am he," Jesus said.
(And Judas the traitor was standing there with them.)
When Jesus said, "I am he," they drew back and fell to the ground."

John 18:4-6 (NIV)

  I especially like that last passage in John 18, because it shows who really was in charge of the events which were taking place.  The crowd was armed with swords and clubs, but Jesus was in charge of the situation.  Their falling on the ground after his announcement is a nice touch, too.  There had been a sense of  majestic dignity in his words.  In the gospel of John, there are many times where Jesus uses these words "I am." to describe himself.  (See John 6:35; John 8:12; John 9:5; John 10:7,9; John 10:11,14; John 11:25; John 14:6; John 18:4-6)  The NIV Study Bible notes that in the Greek language, these words are solemnly emphatic and echo Exodus 3:14:

"God said to Moses,
This is what you are to say to the Israelites:
"I AM has sent me to you."

Exodus 3:14 (NIV) 

I do not think that it is an accident that Jesus uses these same words here.

There is much more to be said on these matters, but these are some of the thoughts which occupied my mind during the weeks between Palm Sunday and Easter/Resurrection Sunday.

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