Matthew 21:1–11, 27:39–46
What were they thinking? What would you have been thinking if you had been there, two thousand years ago, in Jerusalem at the Passover festival when Jesus arrived?
The news that Jesus was on the way to Jerusalem swept through the city. A large crowd of Passover visitors took palm branches and went down the road to meet him.
Jesus wasn’t arriving alone. He was travelling with fellow pilgrims and with his own band of followers. When Jesus reached the place where the road started down the Mount of Olives, all of his followers began to shout and sing as they walked along, praising God for all the wonderful miracles they had seen.
They made a procession. Jesus was in the centre of the procession, and the people all around him were shouting. He was riding on a donkey. As Jesus rode along, the crowds spread out their garments on the road ahead of him.
The entire city of Jerusalem was in an uproar as he entered. “Who is this?” they asked.
Many in the crowd had seen Jesus call Lazarus from the tomb, raising him from the dead, and they were telling others about it. That was the reason so many went out to meet him – because they had heard about this miraculous sign.
There are at this stage in the story two groups of excited people. One group is made up of people who have been gathering around Jesus on the journey down from Galilee. Many of them must have seen him or talked to him. They have shared excited stories about Jesus. Maybe Jesus has performed miracles or given some talks on the journey. Another group is local people who have heard about him or heard him on previous visits, especially people from the village of Bethany.
There is a third group of people who observe the procession as it makes its way along the dusty road into Jerusalem. These are the people who don’t like what they’ve seen. In their eyes Jesus is a rival for power, a political enemy, and they are seeking ways to defeat him.
Some of the Pharisees among the crowd said, “Teacher, rebuke your followers for saying things like that!” Then the Pharisees said to each other, “There’s nothing we can do. Look, everyone has gone after him!”
As Jesus came closer to Jerusalem and saw the city ahead, he began to weep.
This was not the only procession arriving in Jerusalem for the Passover feast. There were faithful Jews from all over the Roman Empire coming to worship.
The arrival of many foreigners added to the sense of excitement. Perhaps there had been another procession not long before, with a great dignitary such as King Herod arriving on a beautiful warhorse with a grand retinue. Or maybe several grand entries.
When the crowds lined the road and cheered Jesus, what were they thinking. Perhaps some of them were imagining that they would soon see Herod toppled from his big white stallion. They might have imagined that soon Jesus would be sitting in Herod’s place. They could almost see him riding on Herod’s majestic stallion as king of Israel and leader of a victorious army that had defeated the hated Romans.
This is the kind of thinking people have often had about their leaders. It’s the almost messianic hope that was put in guerilla fighters such as Che Guevara and Kim Il Sung.
We cannot look directly into the minds of people who lived 2,000 years ago and see what they were thinking, but we can look indirectly. Here are a few things we do know from historic records.
The Pharisees, Essenes, and Zealots, for sometimes differing and sometimes overlapping reasons, tended to believe the Messiah would arise around when Jesus did. Many Jews believed that the Messiah would come during the time of the Roman occupation, which began in 40 B.C. They were looking for him, and several possible messiahs arose at this time.
Belief in the eventual coming of the messiah is a basic and fundamental part of traditional Judaism. Messiah is a term that literally means ‘the anointed one’. It refers to the ancient practice of anointing kings with oil when they took the throne. According to Jewish teaching, the messiah is the one who will be anointed as king in the End of Days. They say ‘will be’ because of course they don’t accept that Jesus was the messiah. The messiah will be a great political leader descended from King David (Jeremiah 23:5). The messiah is often referred to as ‘messiah ben David’ (messiah, son of David). He will be well-versed in Jewish law, and observant of its commandments (Isaiah 11:2-5). He will be a charismatic leader, inspiring others to follow his example. He will be a great military leader, who will win battles for Israel. He will be a great judge, who makes righteous decisions (Jeremiah 33:15). But above all, he will be a human being, not a god, demi-god or other supernatural being.
Even though there were many Jews singing his praises and hailing him as the messiah, Jesus wasn’t smiling and pleased. He knew their faith was based on erroneous expectations and superficial. He knew that the messiah they expected was nothing like him. In fact, Luke 19:41 says Jesus wept because of this.
We find in John 12:20 that not only Jews but also Gentiles were coming to see Jesus as the messiah. “Some Greeks who had come to Jerusalem for the Passover celebration paid a visit to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee. They said, ‘Sir, we want to meet Jesus’.”
Jesus defied everybody’s expectations at every turn. He was never the person that they thought the messiah would be, nor how he should be.
Jesus’ concern went way beyond his own ethnic group. They expected the messiah to share their hatred of the goyim (gentiles) and care only about ‘our people’, but Jesus had come to save the whole world. They wanted him to shatter the Gentiles so they could rule over them – but Jesus had come to save them!
All the different groups had a similar wrong expectation of the messiah. The leaders saw such a person as a threat to their power. And they didn’t see Jesus as filling the criteria that they had. So they rejected him.
The people wanted a human messiah who would take up a sword and kill their enemies, and be the ruler of the world. The people wanted a kingly messiah who would raise them up as the most powerful nation, to rule over other nations.
Jesus came to die instead of kill. He came to take the place of those who should die. He came to love God’s enemies and rescue them. Jesus came to lead a nation of people who would serve the world, lay down their lives for non-believers, and love their enemies.
There was a widely held belief among the Jewish people that in every generation a person is born with the potential to become the messiah. If the time is right for the messianic age within that person’s lifetime, then that person will be the messiah. But if that person dies before he completes the mission of the messiah, then that person is not the messiah.
They thought therefore that if Jesus could be killed on a cross then he wasn’t the messiah.
What is ironic is that the only kind of people that found this kind of messiah appealing were the “sinners” themselves. When the prostitutes and tax collectors heard about this messiah that wasn’t coming to proclaim judgment, but rather forgiveness for sins, it was the greatest news in the world to them. Everyone was suffering, and anyone who considered himself somewhat righteous would have felt the opposite way. They would rather have had a messiah who judged and defeated their enemies, as opposed to one who would forgive their sins, and then demand that they forgive those who brought such suffering.
If you had been in Jerusalem, what would you have thought of Jesus? Here today, what do you think of Jesus.
We face the same challenge as the first century people, to see Jesus for who he is and not for who we want him to be. Easter is a good time to examine your own understanding of the messiah and compare it with Jesus’ understanding of himself.