Misunderstood

Day 35

Palm Sunday

Misunderstood

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,

    neither are your ways my ways,”

declares the Lord.’

Isaiah 55:8 

“Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion!

    Shout, Daughter Jerusalem!

See, your king comes to you,

    righteous and victorious,

lowly and riding on a donkey,

    on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

Zechariah 9: 9-10

The story of Palm Sunday found in Matthew 21:1-11, Mark 11:1-11, Luke 19:29-44 and John 12:12-19

Our lives are all part a story, folded into time, a longer story, a larger story. A story stretching from the beginning of time and reaching through to the end of it; the story of God’s long walk with human beings; the long story of His grace journeying to find us. The story we human beings miss, miss-shape and misunderstand, most of the days of our lives. 

“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, say that the Lord needs them, and he will send them right away.” Matthew 21:1-3

“Those who were sent ahead went and found it just as he had told them. As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, “Why are you untying the colt?”

They replied, “The Lord needs it.”

They brought it to Jesus, threw their cloaks on the colt and put Jesus on it.”     Luke 19:32-35

The donkey. It was there. The one with the colt. It was waiting for Him from before time began. 

He had likely traveled this way to Bethlehem before His birth, hidden safe within the folds of Mary’s quiet anticipation. He had journeyed then to Bethlehem, the city of kings, to be born the one true King of Heaven and Earth. And from the moment He breathed His first breath through burning infant lungs He was hated and hunted and misunderstood.

Now He prepares to ride again astride this humble beast. A King, about to inherit His Kingdom. 

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And everything Jesus did this day spoke, even when He didn’t. When He sent His disciples to commandeer the donkey, with the four words ‘the lord needs them’ there was no other way to understand it: it was the act of a King. 

And this choice of a colt, the not-yet-ridden foal of a donkey, It wasn’t about transportation. It was an unmistakeable, unmissable message sent directly to all Jewish hearts. A message planted centuries before this moment, deep within their national story in writings of the prophet Zechariah. 

“Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion!

    Shout, Daughter Jerusalem!

See, your king comes to you,

    righteous and victorious,

lowly and riding on a donkey,

    on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

 I will take away the chariots from Ephraim

    and the warhorses from Jerusalem,

    and the battle bow will be broken.

He will proclaim peace to the nations.

    His rule will extend from sea to sea”

Zechariah 9:9-10

This song pinned into the folds of time had woven within Jewish culture a clear understanding that the Messiah, the true King of Israel would one day arrive this way. On a donkey. Righteous. Victorious. Lowly. Proclaiming peace. 

There is no other way to understand this. He rode that day as a King. Because He was one.

It’s strange though how we can read the same words on a page but completely miss the author’s intent (that author being God Himself).  It’s mysterious how we can be so close to God in the words we speak, and so far from Him in our living of those words.

Jesus didn’t choose a war horse or chariot. He didn’t choose power or show. Centuries before this day His choice was made. He chose this lowly donkey. He chose humility and peace. He chose the large and long and wide and deep story that God had been writing from before time began. About Him. 

The Prince of Peace.

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The author of the book of Matthew captures this true message years after the dust had settled on this day.

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

 “Say to Daughter Zion,

    ‘See, your king comes to you,

gentle and riding on a donkey,

    and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’”

The disciples went and did as Jesus had instructed them.” 

Matthew 21:4-6

Matthew omits two words in his quote: ‘righteous and victorious’, choosing instead to emphasise instead Jesus’ humility and gentleness, perhaps because he, by the time he wrote this story down, finally understood. This was the message Jesus was trying to send that was forever falling on deaf ears. A message He’d planted centuries before in the writings of Zechariah and of Isaiah (Isaiah 9:5-7). 

But eyes see what they want to see and ears hear what they long to hear. These prophecies had been read through lenses skewed by hearts thirsty for national redemption and freedom from political oppression. 

Israel’s desires read “See, your king comes to you righteous and victorious”

overlooking everything else, especially “He will proclaim peace to the nations” 

They wanted the victorious warrior-King, not a lowly Prince of Peace. They didn’t want Jesus to be a King proclaiming peace to all the nations. Not the nations who had oppressed them. They wanted vengeance and victory. Not peace.

Jesus, in just a few days will describe to His disciples the peace He gives…

“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” John 14:27

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But Israel this day, they didn’t want the kind of peace Jesus was offering. They wanted peace from oppression and a bigger piece of their own pie, the kind of worldly peace and national freedom that success and victory provides. 

Now, to be clear, it is never God’s intention for human beings to live under oppression and violence. God wants good, wants peace for His people. For all people. Genuine peace.

But the root cause of oppression and violence on the earth is not a lack of victorious military might or skilled and successful leadership. The root cause of oppression and violence on the earth is a lack of true peace and wholeness beating within every human heart. Peace in the world will never come to pass until true peace within every human heart is achieved. 

Paul of Tarsus, years later, grasped this peace and then grasped his pen, scribbling it down in his letter to the Ephesians imploring For he himself is our peace”. He then went on to describe how Jesus dissolves the hostile barrier between people of different cultures, unifying them through His peace. Through Him. 

For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility” (Ephesians 2:14)

This was Jesus’ mission, the mission of Israel’s true King, the true Messiah: Not peace in the form of national equilibrium for Israel, but peace on earth across every national boundary and within every beating human heart.

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But this true Messiah was not the King the people of Israel expected or wanted that day. As He approached Jerusalem Jesus recognises this with grief…

“As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it and said, “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes. The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you.” Luke 19:41-44 (emphasise added)

God was right there with them, standing in their midst, feeling the same breeze on His face, the same grit in His sandals and the same iron fist oppression of Rome. And they did not recognise Him. Blinded by their idea of who God should be and who they had decided God’s Messiah would be, they could not see Him standing right there among them. They missed Him. And they would go on missing Him. Because they did not want this Prince of Peace. They did not want the kind of peace He offered, the peace that was not “as the world gives”. 

All they could see was the national victory and worldly freedom they longed for.  But the worldly victory they longed for would be their undoing. Within 40 years their nationalistic ‘freedom’ movement would ignite a bloody rebellion that would eventually lead to the complete destruction of their small nation¹. 

All along, there have been two stories at work. The large story of all God has been doing and the smaller story of all that human beings hoped and assumed He will do. And these stories clash more often than they correlate.

“They brought the donkey and the colt and placed their cloaks on them for Jesus to sit on. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road.” Matthew 21:7-8

“Many people spread their cloaks on the road, while others spread branches they had cut in the fields.” Mark 11:8

“The next day the great crowd that had come for the festival heard that Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem. They took palm branches and went out to meet him, shouting,“Hosanna!” John 12:12-13

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There is no other way to understand it. He rode that day like a King. Because He was one. Their actions and His proclaimed it.

Triumphant entries were not uncommon in the ancient world. This phrase the crowds “went out to meet him” is a commonplace expression used to describe a city greeting their triumphant King returning victorious after battle². And when they “spread their cloaks on the road” they are reliving their past glory days, reenacting the fervent welcome long ago given for the newly anointed King Jehu (2 Kings 9:13).

And the palms they waved spoke loudest of all. Israel had waved palm branches nearly two centuries before, welcoming the triumphant Judas Maccabaeus and His men as he rode into Jerusalem, victorious against the Syrian King Antiochus Epiphanies in 164 BC³. Images of palm branches had then been imprinted on coins by rebels during the later wars with Rome4.

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Palms weren’t just symbols of joy. They were symbols of national pride. They were symbols of revolution. Israel this day was reliving the story of their glory days and enacting their fervent desires for the story they wanted God to write for them.

There is no other way to understand it. He rode that day like a King. Because He was one. Their actions and His proclaimed it.

“When he came near the place where the road goes down the Mount of Olives, the whole crowd of disciples began joyfully to praise God in loud voices for all the miracles they had seen..” Luke 19:37

The disciples, elated and overjoyed, believe they have backed the winner; acclaim, glory, popularity, success, it’s all within reach! They’ve seen miracles, they’ve drawn crowds. The throng of it all intoxicates their senses, they are winning, they are right! All along they’d had their doubts but now this confirms it all. They are travelling with Israel’s Messiah! Israel’s true king! All their hopes are being fulfilled. 

“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 heaven!’”

Matthew 21:9

“Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!”

“Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!”

Luke 19:38

“Those who went ahead and those who followed shouted,

“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 heaven!”

Mark 11:8-10

“They took palm branches and went out to meet him, shouting,

“Hosanna!”

“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”

“Blessed is the king of Israel!”

John 12:13b

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Their thronging cries, their joyous songs, are mostly taken from Psalm 118, a pilgrimage song belonging to the Hallel, a fitting and traditional psalm to be singing on their way into Jerusalem for Passover this day. 

“Lord, save us!
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 on us.
With boughs in hand, join in the festal procession
up to the horns of the altar.” 

Psalm 118: 25-27

But what sounds like spirit filled, joy filled praise to our ears, also holds another layered message. A message not from the Hallel, but from the hearts of those who were singing it. A motivation rewriting the very words of the ancient psalm they sang. They had gone off script. What begins as a joyful rendition of this Psalm, becomes interwoven with their nationalistic hopes and worldly desire for liberation. They add to psalm 118 Messianic titles and triumphant proclamations announcing the arrival of a King.

A Royal Messianic title is added…

 “Hosanna to the Son of David!” Matthew 21:9

‘King’ replaces ‘he’ in the original scripture…

“Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” Luke 19:38

And references to Israel’s royal line of David are added, (the line though which the true King and Messiah would arrive):

 “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David!” Mark 11:10

“Blessed is the king of Israel!” John 12:13

They go out to meet Him like a triumphant returning King, and they shout Messianic titles and nationalistic rallying cries with wild abandon, announcing revolution.

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“Hosanna!” Hosanna is a Hebrew term which translates as ‘save’ calling on God for the manifestation of their longed for deliverance6.

There is no other way to understand it. He rode that day like a King. Because He was one. Their actions and His proclaim it.

Israel’s national stage was set, all the props were arranged, this pageant was unfolding vividly naming and proclaiming their fervent desire for freedom. Everyone was playing their part, just as their lines directed; the people, the palms, the donkey and the throng. 

Everyone was playing their part. They thought.

“When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred and asked, “Who is this?”

The crowds answered, “This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee.’”

Matthew 21:10-11

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But this was not a play. It was a story. And the Author of this story was not man but God, and Israel’s aim and His this day were worlds apart.

Every story, every song, every prophecy and every event in the life of Israel had been leading up to this moment, pointing to this person. Jesus had come into a story that was already being told. About Him. 

But Jesus didn’t come into the culture and history of Israel to participate in it, replay it or even rewrite it. He came to fulfil it. And not in the ways they were assuming He would.

There was an older, larger, longer story at work here than their cultural assumptions and nationalistic hopes could grasp. It had been written down by God over centuries. And misread and misunderstood by humans for almost as long.

“At first his disciples did not understand all this. Only after Jesus was glorified did they realize that these things had been written about him and that these things had been done to him.” John 12:16

There is no other way to understand this. He rode into Jerusalem that day as a King. Because He was one. His actions and theirs proclaimed it. The dislocation occurred not with this title ‘King’ but within their very definition of this title. 

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It’s strange how we can read the same words on a page but completely miss the author’s intent (that author being God Himself).  It’s mysterious how we can be so close to God in the words we speak, and so far from Him in our living of these words.

We humans, we often misunderstand. We speak Scripture into the air laced with our own ambitions, hopes and assumptions, but we fail to see and hear and understand what God means by these very same words; the large, long, wide and deep story He has filled them with, and the promises He plans to fulfil and fully fill through them.

Words like: King, Messiah, blessing, prosperity, victory, success, love. How we so often bend  them around our own desires rather than letting them speak truth into our desires, and bend our will towards God’s.

It is a strange truth that in order to grasp we need to let go. In order to understand God’s heart, we need to tread lightly and hold loosely all we assume, presume and suppose He is doing. Then maybe, we will discern, maybe we will hear, maybe we will catch a glimpse of the larger, deeper, wider story of His Kingdom come on earth as it is in Heaven. 

There was no other way to understand it. He rode that day like a King. Because He was one. 

But His crown would be a crown of thorns and His throne a cross.

And no one that day would have seen that coming. 

No one understood.

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Everyone there that day, within a week they would be deeply disappointed, disillusioned and lost. Because they had all been hoping in the wrong thing.

They hoped for a worldly Kingdom to overthrow Rome. Jesus was bringing an eternal Kingdom to overthrow the world. A Kingdom that comes not through acclaim, but through a cross.

Our minds sometimes are too sure, too set, too certain in our assumptions to glimpse God’s plans unfolding all around us and through us. One thing we can be certain of though is that what we grasp, we grasp only in part, and what we know we know only incompletely. His story is always larger, longer and deeper than we can ever see; richer, fuller, and wider than anything our minds can hold; more expansive than all the swirling galaxies of light, more abundant than the spinning Universe of stars. 

Think big. Bigger. And it will not be big enough.

The problem wasn’t that the battle they wanted Jesus to fight for them was too big. It wasn’t big enough. The Kingdom they wanted Him to install was way too small. One nation. One people. His mandate was much wider, His vision broader and His war stretched deep into eternal realms.

They had no idea.

Their story was too small.

They completely misunderstood.

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,

    neither are your ways my ways,”

declares the Lord.’

Isaiah 55:8

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As He sat on that donkey, surrounded by acclaim, bathed in worldly success, He alone had the vantage point that no-one else could see. Looking down on the back of this young animal, the mane on its neck forming the mark of a cross, etched into its hair, engraved upon its skin7. 

The donkey. It was there. The one with the foal. The one with the cross marked on its back. It was waiting for Him from before time began. Just like the cross He would bear on His own back within a week.

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This choice of this colt spoke, even when He didn’t. I am the King of Heaven and Earth, the one true King in God’s long, old and deep story, of God’s longer, older, deeper love for humankind.

I wonder on that day long ago, the day we now call Palm Sunday, the day most of us (had we been onlookers in the crowd) would have deemed the most successful of His career. The day when everyone else was cheering His name, proclaiming His victory, but no-one truly understood His path. Was it perhaps the day that represented His heart, His character, His journey the least? 

I wonder. Did He feel lonelier that day than ever yet before? 

More misunderstood?

Because there was always a bigger story at work. An older story. A story stretching from the beginning of time and reaching through to the end of it. The story of God’s long walk with human beings. With Israel. With us. The story of His long walk towards the cross, the story of His grace journeying through all time to find us. Here, Now.

The story we human beings miss, miss-shape and misunderstand, most of the days of our lives. 

He did not come for our success, to make our lives easy or our hearts happy. He didn’t come to win our arguments, make us look good or prove our points. It was not worldly success He came for, ours or His. 

He didn’t come to be victorious. Not as we understand victory. 

He came to be King. 

The King who wears a crown of thorns.

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Journey Further 

Take a moment to consider each of the words below. What meanings do you ascribe to them? 

Love. Prosperity. Success. Victory. Peace. Blessing. 

How might you be limiting God by misunderstanding His definitions of these words? Listen to the Holy Spirit. Ask Him if He is prompting you to investigate any of these words and His meaning for them further.

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References, Notes and Credits 

1 The sacking of Jerusalem AD70 took place also at Passover, almost exactly forty years after Jesus Death during Passover. As described by the Historian, Josephus in ‘The Works of Josephus’  translated by William Whiston, Hendrickson Publishers, 1987

2 Gary M. Burge, ‘The NIV Application Commentary; John’, Zondervan 2000, pg 341

3 Tom Wright, ‘The For Everyone Series: Matthew’  SPCK Publishing 2002

4 Gary M. Burge, ‘The NIV Application Commentary; John’, Zondervan 2000, pg 341

5 Hallel-(psalms 113-118) the Jewish liturgical psalms  read in synagogues on festive occasions including Passover. 

6 NIV Cultural Background study Bible, Zondervan, 2016, notes on John 12

7 ‘Donkeys where science religion and pop-culture collide’ ABC News, October 11th, 2018, www.abc.net.au

All Biblical quotations are from the NIV Bible UK version (NIVUK) unless otherwise stated. Holy Bible, New International Version® Anglicized, NIV® Copyright © 1979, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

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