(Delivered Sunday, April 4, 2004 at Bethany Bible Church. Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture is taken from the New King James Version, unles.)
Traditionally, Palm Sunday is a great day of celebration for Christians. It's the time we commemorate the 'triumphal entry' of our Savior into Jerusalem - just a week before His glorious resurrection from the dead. We rightly celebrate it as a triumphal day because we know the end of the story.
But if we had viewed the events of this day strictly through the eyes of the flesh - without knowing the fact of the resurrection, and seeing only the dark crucifixion of Good Friday - we would have hardly viewed this day as "triumphant". Rather, we would have viewed it as a dismal failure.
As Jesus rode into Jerusalem on that day long ago, He was being celebrated as the fulfillment of the hopes of His people. They longed for liberation - being under the bondage of Roman rule. They hoped for the Deliverer to come - the Messiah, of whom the prophet Zechariah wrote when he said,
"Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion!
The people of Jerusalem were right to rejoice as Jesus rode in, because He was indeed God's answer to their cry and the fulfillment of their hopes. Jesus was fulfilling the prophecy of Zechariah before their very eyes. And yet, only a few days after the celebration, they were crying out "Crucify Him, crucify Him!" (Luke 23:20). They mocked and sneered at Him as He hung on the cross; and all of His followers were scattered from Him. What a dismal failure this 'triumphal' day must have seemed then!
And yet, the seeming failure was in God's plan all along. It would have only looked like a failure to the people then beholding the cross, because they didn't understand that another prophecy had to be fulfilled first before all that Zechariah spoke of the Messiah could occur. It's the prophecy He came to Jerusalem to fulfill, before the other could be fully realized. It's the prophecy from Isaiah that says,
Surely He has borne our griefs And carried our sorrows;
This One who came riding into town on a donkey's colt, in such startling fulfillment of Zechariah's prophecy, first came to be the suffering Sacrifice for sin before He could come to be the conquering King that the people were expecting Him to be. That sacrifice is what Good Friday is all about. And isn't it a wonder that the very reason that they rejected Him is now, because of Easter, the very same reason that we can today celebrate Palm Sunday as a truly triumphant day!
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In thinking about our celebration of this day, and of the way Jesus was received when He rode into Jerusalem to die for our sins, I was drawn to the introductory words of John's Gospel. John, who was a simple fisherman, had a great gift for putting enormous theological truths into a few simple words. John speaks, in that introduction, of the great truths that stand behind Jesus' entry into Jerusalem; and I thought it would be a good thing this morning for us to consider them together.
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. This man came for a witness, to bear witness of the Light, that all through him might believe. He was not that Light, but was sent to bear witness of that Light. That was the true Light which gives light to every man coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, and the world did not know Him. He came to His own, and His own did not receive Him. But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name: who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God (John 1:6-13).
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The message of this passage - and indeed, the message of Palm Sunday - is a simple but wondrous one: He who is our Savior came to die for us. To help us appreciate the reason we celebrate this day, please consider with me . . .
1. WHO IT IS THAT CAME (v. 9).
Many at the time thought that John the Baptist was the one who was to come. But the apostle John, the writer of this Gospel, makes it very clear to us that this is not the case. In verses 19-28, we read:
Clearly John the Baptist was only the herald of the One who was to come. His ministry was all about the testimony of another. This is what is being told to us in verses 6-9 - that John the Baptist himself was not the Light, but was only the witness of that Light.
But it's then that we're told that the One John bore witness of was the Light - indeed, "the true Light". As it says in verse 9, "That was the true Light which gives light to every man coming into the world." To which "That" does the verse speak? The "That" is that One whom John the Baptist bore witness of. In verses 29-34, we're told;
The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, "Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is He of whom I said, 'After me comes a Man who is preferred before me, for He was before me.' I did not know Him; but that He should be revealed to Israel, therefore I came baptizing with water." And John bore witness, saying, "I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and He remained upon Him. I did not know Him, but He who sent me to baptize with water said to me, 'Upon whom you see the Spirit descending, and remaining on Him, this is He who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.' And I have seen and testified that this is the Son of God" (John 1:29-34).
John came to bear witness to "the Light". Jesus is that "Light" - the Son of God come into the world. He is a Light that illuminates spiritually. Several things happen when the spiritual Light shines upon this world:
1. It leads people out of spiritual darkness. Have you ever tried to find your way in the pitch dark? You know how it is when you go camping, and try to walk from your tent to the campsite washroom building at night without a flashlight, don't you? You know how easy it is to stumble and fall - and perhaps even get hurt. And you know how hard it is to find your way back. Well, spiritual darkness is an even more dreadful thing; to be in that darkness is to be lost from God; and fallen women and men have no way to find life in the midst of such darkness. Jesus said, ". . . He who walks in darkness does not know where he is going" (John 12:35). But He also said, "I am the light of the world. He who follows Me shall not walk in darkness, but have the light of life" (John 8:12). He affirmed, "I have come as a light into the world, that whoever believes in Me should not abide in darkness" (John 12:46). That, by the way, is how you follow the Light - by believing in Jesus. If you know Him, and trust Him, and cling to Him, you no longer stumble around in spiritual darkness, but walk in light.
2. The Light reveals God. Fallen people couldn't possibly know the truth about God if were all up to their own resources. Instead, they end up following their own speculations and philosophies. They create and worship idols - gods of their own making. Apart from the Light, fallen people live in dark ignorance of the God who made them. As it says in John 1:18, "No one has seen God at any time . . ." But it also says, "The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him." Jesus Himself told His disciples, "He who has seen Me has seen the Father" (John 14:9). As the Apostle Paul wrote, "For it is the God who commanded light to shine out of darkness, who has shown in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ" (2 Cor. 4:6).
3. The Light shows us the truth about ourselves. I spent a summer in the midwest when I was young; and while there, I had my first encounter with cockroaches. You didn't even know they were there until you turned on the light; and once you did, they scurried away to hide in the shadows. Big ones, too! And ugly!! No wonder they hide!! Similarly, Jesus is the Light that shines on sinful people and reveals the truth about their sin. When the light shines on those who are committed to their sin, they become like those cockroaches - wanting to scurry away and hide in the shadows. As it says in John 3:18-21; "He who believes in Him is not condemned; but he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. And this is the condemnation, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For everyone practicing evil hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. But he who does the truth comes to the light, that his deeds may be clearly seen, that they have been done in God." Jesus shows us the truth about our sin by the fact that He came to die for them on the cross! We step into the truth - and into life itself - when we step into the Light! That's when we finally step out of spiritual 'cockroach-mode'. "If we say that we have fellowship with Him, and walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin" (1 John 1:6-7).
No wonder we should remember this day! The one who came riding into Jerusalem was none other than the true Light which gives light to every man. As is said in John 1:4-5, "In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it" - or, perhaps better, "did not overcome it"!
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But the fact is that the Light wasn't welcomed. There was a television show years ago that had scenes that took place in a dark, dingy bar; and whenever the door to the bar opened up, everyone complained because the daylight came piercing through. Darkness doesn't welcome light; and likewise, those committed to spiritual darkness don't welcome the Light of life. This leads us, next, to consider . . .
2. HOW IT WAS THAT HE WAS REJECTED (vv. 10-11).
We were told that the Light has come into the world. But we need to understand that by "world" John doesn't mean that evil system of values and priorities that sets itself up against God; as when we're told "Do not love the world or the things in the world" (1 John 2:13). Rather, what John means here is simply the realm of fallen humanity - the place in which fallen humanity lives.
It was into this world that Jesus - the Son of God - came. We're told three things about Jesus' relationship to this world - this realm in which fallen humanity lives:
1. We're told that He was "in" the world. He didn't hold Himself off at a distance from fallen humanity, as He most certainly could have. Rather, He stooped down in condescending love to the world of fallen humanity. We were fallen because we failed to achieve the righteousness that was required of us by God's law. Our first parents fell, and we fell in them and display that fallenness every day. But the Bible tells us that, ". . . what the law could not do in that it was weak through the flesh, God did by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, on account of sin: He condemned sin in the flesh, that the righteous requirements of the law might be fulfilled in us who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit" (Rom. 8:3-4). What a condescending love this is!! He didn't simply come alongside the world of fallen humanity, but He actually stepped "in" and took all the sins of the world upon Himself on the cross!!
2. This is all the more amazing because, as we're told, "the world was made through Him." As John says in verse 3, "All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made." As Paul told the Colossian believers, "For by Him all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers. All things were created through Him and for Him. And He is before all things, and in Him all things consist" (Col. 1:16-17). As someone once wrote, "He died upon a cross of wood, yet made the hill on which it stood."
3. You would think that such a One as made this world and all things in it would have been welcomed in it when He came. But instead we read that, when He came, "the world did not know Him." And it wasn't that the world didn't know about Him. Jesus once told the Jewish people, "While you have the light, believe in the light, that you may become sons of light" (John 12:36). And we're told, "These things Jesus spoke, and departed, and was hidden from them. but although He had done so many signs before them, they did not believe in Him" (v. 37). It wasn't that the world could not know Him - it was that it would not know Him. It was that the world would not recognize Him for who He is, acknowledge Him as the Light of life, and place their trust in Him by stepping into the light.
This leads us to the terrible verdict of verse 11: "He came to His own, and His own did not receive Him." He made this world; and so, surely this whole world was "His own". But I believe that John is referring, even more particularly, to the Jewish people. They, of all people, should have been most ready to receive Him because they had the Scriptural promises about Him - and, of course, the testimony of John the Baptist about Him. But when He finally came to Jerusalem on that first Palm Sunday, they only welcomed Him for a short while . . . and were soon crying out for His crucifixion. But the Jewish people are not alone in this. Even today, many people who have an even greater reason to recognize Him for who He is, and acknowledge and trust Him, still will not "know" Him.
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But not all have rejected Him. And this is a reason why we celebrate this day. I think that it's very interesting that, in verse 9, Jesus is described as the Light . . . "coming into the world". It's stated in the present tense - as if His "coming" into the world as "Light" is still occurring. And truly the Light is still coming in that the Good News about Him is still being preached. It was preached to me only a few decades ago; and when the Light shined on me - by God's grace - I believed. I received Him; and so have many of you. Perhaps today, for some of you, the Light is coming upon you for the first time.
This leads us, finally, to notice . . .
3. WHAT HAPPENS WHEN HE IS RECEIVED (vv. 12-13).
John tells us, "But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name . . ." This is describing salvation - or "life" as it says in verse 3; "In Him was life . . ." And notice the wonderful details:
1. Note the condition of obtaining this life; merely that He is "received". Another way of saying that is that He is "welcomed" for Who He truly is. He is Light; and we receive life when we receive Him as the Light of the world. John also describes this as believing "in His name". To speak of Jesus' "name" in this way is to speak of all that is true of Him. His name is a symbolic way of expressing the totality of His person and His works. And to "believe" in His name is to put one's faith in all that He is and that He has done for us. That's the condition of obtaining eternal life - to "receive" Him; to "believe in His name".
2. Then note the recipients of this life: as many as receive Him in this way. There is no difference. There is no limitation on His grace. The very worst sinner - the man or woman who has the most reason to hide from the light - can receive life. We've talked often about the Bible's doctrine of election; but here, we're told the other truth that we must keep in tandem with it - that eternal life is given to "as many as receive Him".
3. Also note the reception of this life: it is a gift of God's grace. To as many as received Jesus God "gave" . . . No one earns eternal life. It is completely a gift of God's free and unmerited grace. It cannot be earned by the most moral law-keeper; and - praise God - it can't be lost by the weakest and frailest believer.
4. Finally, note John's description of this life: it is the "right" or "authorization" to become children of God. Being a child of God is not a benefit that we're all automatically born with. Rather, it's a "right" that is granted to us by a higher authority. Many people claim to be the child of God who do not have a right to that claim. Being a child of God - which is another way of saying that we possess eternal life - is a "right" that is only granted to those who have fulfilled the condition of "receiving" Jesus Christ - that is, who have trusted in Him. We don't earn this right through our faith; but it is by faith that we reach out and grasp this right.
Now that's the human dimension of our having received Him. But look next at how John describes those who believe and are thereby given the right to become "children of God": ". . . who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God." This shows that our salvation is - above all else - a work of God.
Those who are God's children are born into the family. But not as others who are born in other families. These children are not born of "blood". They aren't automatically "children of God" because of their heritage or ethnicity or background. Nor are they born of "the will of the flesh". Even though a choice is made to "receive" Jesus, the ability to make that choice doesn't come from the one making it. We don't earn our right to become children of God by the fact that we believe. Nor are they born of "the will of man" - or literally, "a man". I was born into this world by the will of a man - my earthly father. But no one was ever born into the family of God on the basis of the will of a man.
Rather, anyone who is born into the family of God as His children are born into it by the will of God. And what a wonderful thing that is! I heard the Gospel message once upon a time, and I believed on Jesus and became God's child by faith; but ultimately - in eternity past - it wasn't me who chose God, but God who chose me! And I'll never be lost to Him, because I'm His child by His own will!
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I'd like to close with a story of something that happened to me last week. It was one of those little things that happens that gives you a flash of deep insight into spiritual truth. I believe it helps illustrate why we should be so glad for this day that we celebrate.
I was singing the other day with our Easter choir as we performed some of our songs at a local nursing home. We were singing the great hymn, "Where You There When They Crucified My Lord"; and my hand dropped into my pocket and I felt a little cross that I often carry with me. I have this cross in my pocket for this very reason - to remind me of what Jesus did for me, and of who I now am in Him.
As we sang that song, I found that my hand was tightly wrapped around that little cross. You see; in all honesty, I had just had a very difficult week. One of the things that had made it difficult was my own sense of the fallenness of humanity. I was painfully aware last week of the sinfulness of sin - not only the sin of this sinful world, but my own sins as well. This world is so fallen, and we are so weak and frail in it, I wondered how we could ever survive in it. And as we sang, I found myself gripping that cross like it was an anchor - feeling like it was my only hope in the midst of the storm of all this fallenness and sin.
And it occurred to me that that's truly what the cross of Jesus is. It's my anchor. I know that - no matter how many times I may fail, and no matter how often the sinfulness of this world thrashes about me - I will be safe and secure. I will be in heaven, if I cling faithfully to the cross of Jesus where He died for me.
I suggest to you that that's why Palm Sunday is such a great day. Jesus - the Light of the world - came! But He came to die - which is why He was rejected of men and crucified. And I'm so very glad that, from a human standpoint, that day appeared to be a failure and He as crucified; because He came to die for me - and I have received Him!! And He is alive! I am safe so long as I cling to Him! And so are you! What a reason to celebrate!
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