Why a Donkey?

Jesus and Palm Sunday

So what’s the big deal about the donkey? Why did Jesus ride a donkey into Jerusalem? Why is this such a celebrated act for Christians on Palm Sunday?

Entry into Jerusalem, Hippolyte Flandrin, 1842

It is called the triumphal entry. The scene of Jesus’ entry into the city of Jerusalem conveyed a certain anticipation that something important was happening. The details of the entrance were precisely choreographed and planned by Jesus himself.

The disciples were told to go to a precise location where they would find tied a donkey and her colt. They were instructed to “untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, you shall say, the Lord needs them, and he will send them at once” (Matthew 21:2-3)

Interestingly, the disciples seem to accept these instructions without question. No one asks Jesus, “Now why are we doing all of this? Doesn’t this seem a little strange?”

Matthew, the writer of the Gospel, anticipates that the reader hearing the story read may be more than a little puzzled.

We who have heard the story anticipate that Jesus is a great leader who will bring hope and salvation. And yet the drama of a person riding on a donkey seems a little anticlimactic, and to put it bluntly, rather normal.

People ride into Jerusalem on donkeys on a daily basis. These were beasts of burden, farm animals. They were the work vehicles of the ancient world.

But the significance of the donkey is found in the fulfillment of an ancient prophecy which provides this interpretive key to understanding Jesus instructions and actions. It reads,

Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem!

Behold, your king is coming to you;
righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey (Zechariah 9:9).

Matthew, the gospel writer, understands Jesus’ actions to be a fulfillment of a prediction made by the prophet Zechariah concerning the coming of the royal Messianic king to Jerusalem the capital city of Judah and Israel. The prophecy explicitly foretold that when the Messiah comes to usher in the age of restoration, salvation and peace he will enter the city riding on the back of a donkey and her colt.

Matthew doesn’t quote the entire reference from Zechariah. But, if we go back to the original prophecy we would have greater understanding of the reason for the donkey as opposed to some other means of transportation.

I will cut off the chariot from Ephraim
and the war horse from Jerusalem;
and the battle bow shall be cut off,
and he shall speak peace to the nations;
his rule shall be from sea to sea,
and from the River to the ends of the earth.

As for you also,
because of the blood of my covenant with you,
I will set your prisoners free from the waterless pit.

Return to your stronghold,
O prisoners of hope;
today I declare that I will restore to you double (Zechariah 9:10-12).

The donkey is a sign that the Messiah will come as an instrument of peace and restoration and not as an instrument of war and violence.

A Roman king would enter a city triumphantly riding in on chariot powered by a mighty stallion of war. His parade would be long, with battalions of troops with swords and spears, with chariots and war horses. In his train, would be the spoils of battles, trophies in the form of slaves and women captured in humiliation and defeat, treasures galore.

We still use the phrase of the hero riding in on a “white horse” to save the day or rescue the oppressed. Jesus rode in on a simple donkey to save the world.

Here we see the mystery and paradox Jesus intentionally established by his actions. Jesus would indeed ride into the city on the beast of burden enthroned on the praises of a mighty crowd of supporters. Jesus salvation comes through humility and humiliation. Yet would the crowds perceive just how low he would go for them.

The action was public and dramatic.

“Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” (Matthew 21:9).

The story describes how the “whole city was stirred up”. Those who were roused by the activity questioned others in the crowd, “Who is this?” And the crowd would respond,

“This is the prophet Jesus, from Nazareth of Galilee” (Matthew 21:10-11).

The question is left for us to answer. “Who is this?” We live in a world that marvels and celebrates the powerful and wealthy. Yes the king of the universe enters our hearts and lives, not with bravado and pomp, but through humble access.

As we embark on Holy Week, humble your heart. Jesus would gain lordship over your life. Submit pride of self to the Servant King. Walk the way of the cross with Jesus, take on his mindset, manifest his character and live his life. The path to true triumph is a humble road.

Let Brotherly Love Continue

A few things to remember these days...

Let brotherly love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares. Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them, and those who are mistreated, since you also are in the body. Hebrews 13:1-3

Abraham Entertaining the Angels

Abide in Brotherly Love

Continuous mutual love (brotherly love, Gk. phil-adelphia) anchors the heart in the life of Christ. He sacrificed for us as his brothers and sisters (Hebrews 2:11-12) therefore our continual sacrifice is to offer our lives and love to one another as the family of God. Our mutual love is an aspect of the “unshakable kingdom” which we are inheriting. As Paul reminded in 1 Corinthians 13, love is one of the three things that will “remain” after all else comes to an end. At the last hour, the only thing that will matter is our abiding relationship with God and one another. All else is secondary. Our love for one another is eternal; it continues forever; it never ends.

Do not forget to love the Stranger

There is a tension between the life of holiness and the life of love. They are not mutually exclusive; in fact, they are two sides of the same coin.  To “be holy” means to “be set apart”. Does that mean that hospitality to outsiders goes out the window? Are the boundaries to be set so strongly that the Christian should not even associate with strangers or non-believers? Xenophobia is the fear of the stranger. Often an “inside group” can be very concerned about an “outside” group or person. Their cultures and customs are often strange and perceived as a threat to identity and purity.

Quite the contrary, once we are secure in our own relationship to God through Jesus Christ, our identity in him and our manner of life, we can freely relate to the stranger with love (love for the stranger, Gk. philo-xenia). The call is to love and welcome the stranger with a posture of hospitality and grace. Inside the community of the church, the people of God are called to be holy in their relationships. However, we are to maintain a loving holiness that extends out beyond itself. In Jesus Christ, xenophobia is transfigured into philoxenia.

When we are focused on our own familiar relationships, it can be very easy to forget to look around and show care to the new person or the unknown visitor in our midst. As a pastor, I find it heartbreaking to hear from new members to the church how they visited other churches (or even ours sometimes) and no one said a word to them. They walked in and they walked out without so much as a greeting or any attempt to welcome. How do we perceive the stranger in the midst of our assemblies? What does it feel like to be the lone outsider with a group of insiders–can you relate?

The call to show hospitality runs deep in the story of Israel. Abraham is blessed by welcoming three strangers who turned out to be messengers of good news who spoke prophetically as the angels of the Lord.

The strangers and visitors in our midst may very well have been sent by God to bring some missing spiritual gift or to provide for a need where there is lacking. At one time, Jesus came as a stranger to this world, and those “who received him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God” (John 1:12). Do Christians have a unique role to play with respect to immigrants and foreigners in our country?

Remember the Prisoner and the Mistreated

If we are to not forget to show love to the stranger in our midst, we are to always remember to show love to Christian brothers and sisters out of our presence trapped in prison. In the days of the early church, one could become imprisoned for simply being a believer in Jesus Christ. Just as we see in parts of the middle east today. Christians were persecuted and mistreated for their insistence on singular personal allegiance to Jesus Christ. Many today are trapped in the persecuting prison of their own country, and they would seek refuge if they could.

The preacher exhorts that even though our Christian brothers and sisters are away from us, they are still connected to us as united parts of the body of Christ and the household of God. We must always remember them, pray for them, and if possible, help them.

In 2013 the US Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that there 2,220,300 people in state and federal prisons, and county jails.

Christian Prisoners

Chapel Service in the LA County Jail

While it difficult to be exact, researchers estimate that there are between 50-60% of this population that identifies itself as Christian (either protestant or catholic). Jesus joined us in solidarity to our prison to Satan, sin and death:

Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death. (Hebrews 2:14-15)

Our character of solidarity with brothers and sisters in Christ who are imprisoned or mistreated by persecution reflects the unity we share in Jesus Christ. He came to us when we were in prison. Jesus is the great liberator. When they are imprisoned, we are with them. When they are mistreated, so are we. We are one.

What is your experience of visiting the prisoner? How can the church more effectively care for our brothers and sisters in Christ behind bars? How can we better relate to Christian refugees and those who are persecuted for the Christian faith in other parts of the world?

Epiphany: The Big Reveal

Things into which angels long to look

William Phelps taught English literature at Yale for forty-one years until his retirement in 1933.

William Lyon Phelps.
William Vandivert—Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

Marking an examination paper shortly before Christmas one year, Phelps came across the note: “God only knows the answer to this question. Merry Christmas.” Phelps returned the paper with this note: “God gets an A. You get an F. Happy New Year.”

In the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Church in Ephesus, he marvels in what he describes as the “mystery of God’s will”. A mystery is something that “God only knows”.

We all love a good mystery. Mysteries have tremendous power; the unknowns keep us engaged and drive us to seek a resolution to the mystery. As in any good mystery, with the big reveal, we learn who did it and how.

The story of salvation is in many ways an unfolding mystery. There are certain things that we know and have clues about from God’s revelations to Abraham, Moses, David and the Prophets of the Old Testament. God gave a lot of clues.

The Apostle Peter tells us that we now know things even the prophets and angels of God longed to see:

It was revealed to them that they were serving not themselves but you, in the things that have now been announced to you through those who preached the good news to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven, things into which angels long to look (1 Peter 1:12).

The people of old knew that God had a plan to save the world. They knew that central to the plan was the nation of Israel, and specifically a Messianic king who would be in the line of King David.

But, as Paul writes, there were certain things about the story of salvation that remained hidden in the councils of God until the big moment of revelation. The big reveal is called the Epiphany!

First: who? Who will be the Messiah? We now know that Jesus Christ, the incarnate son of God, is the one who will save the world. No one would have expected that a carpenter’s son from Nazareth would amount to much. Yet everything now points to him and his birth, ministry, death and resurrection.

The big reveal is that Jesus is the Way, the Truth and the Life, and no one comes to the Father except by him ( John 14:6).

How will God save the world? We now know from the big reveal that through the proclamation of the Gospel message about Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, God will convert the hearts of the people of this world. He will liberate them from the powers of death and darkness, save their souls, and grant them eternal life.

As with any epiphany we can be surprised and shocked at the way things turn out. Who could fathom the sheer magnitude of the salvation of God as he converts the people of the world to Jesus? The Lord continues to surprise and amaze!

You and I have the tremendous privilege of knowing the big reveal to life’s most intriguing mystery. God has shown us how he will save this sinful and fallen world, and who has accomplished it. This is a revelation that is too important to keep hidden and secret. Our privilege, duty and calling is to make known the mystery of the will of God to a world that desperately needs to see the light of the Gospel.

Let your light shine!

A Hope and a Future

Thriving Amid the Exile

Several weeks ago, our church read an excerpt from Jeremiah’s letter from God to the exiled Israelites in Babylon. It struck me as I was hearing Jeremiah’s words read out loud that they were just as prescient for our day as they were then.

A People Deaf to Warnings

In 597 BC the Babylonian armies invaded Israel and Judah and eventually conquered the capital city of the Jewish people in 586 BC. The Fall of Jerusalem to Babylon is one of the great tragedies of the Bible. The walls and buildings of the city of Jerusalem were literally disassembled and the Temple built by King Solomon was destroyed to its foundations.  Many people were deported into exile, including the entire royal court.

All of the destruction and deportation was anticipated and foretold through the writings and preaching of the prophet Jeremiah. Jeremiah was not a particularly popular person in his day with the ruling class. Truth tellers are often difficult to hear.

False prophets rose up. Prior to the exile, they preached a message of denial. After the exile, they preached a “quick fix” approach, promising the exile would be a short few years, and that God would restore things back to the “good ole’ days” quickly. The truth was more severe.

The problems with the nation were deep and they went all the way to the top. Corruption existed at the highest levels—with the kings themselves, Ahab and Zedekiah. These men would ultimately be judged by God unto death for their spiritual adultery with foreign powers and gods, for their rebellion against God’s commands and for their lies.

Hope, But Not False Hope

One of the most cherished parts of Jeremiah’s writings are his promises of hope to the people of God amid their exile. As severe and devastating as the Babylonian exile was, it was not the end of the story. All hope was not lost. However, such hope should not be falsely understood; restoration would not come quickly. There would be no quick fix. The exiled Jews in Babylon needed to take a long, multi-generational view. It would take 70 long years to turn things around and for Israel to be ready to return to Jerusalem. Here is a portion of God’s letter to the exiles. It said:

Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Do not let your prophets and your diviners who are among you deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams that they dream, for it is a lie that they are prophesying to you in my name; I did not send them, declares the Lord.

For thus says the Lord: When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you, declares the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, declares the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile (Jeremiah 29:4-14).

The letter encourages the people that they need to take a long view. It is critically important that they live and even thrive during the exile. In other words, it was incumbent upon them to thrive even though the culture around them was foreign to them—not their home. They should even seek the welfare of the city in which they live so that they can thrive for the long term with the city’s good favor.

Restoration would come eventually. God promised to give them “a hope and a future”, to prosper them with good plans. But, it would take a good long while to see such blessing. By adopting a long view mindset, the Israelites would stay strong for the long haul and stay faithful to God for generations.

Our Day…

The writers of the New Testament considered the secular Roman Empire in which they lived a type of Babylon. The church is the exiled people of God. Peter called the church in the world “scattered exiles” (1 Peter 1:1). This world is not our home. Even though we are citizens of the United States from an earthly perspective, our true and lasting citizenship is in heaven, in a city whose architect and builder is God (Hebrews 11:10).  We are destined for the New Jerusalem and the heavenly city prepared for the new earth after the consummation of all things. In the meantime, what are the faithful people of God to do?

Some false voices suggest that the problems are not that severe. That one day soon, we can get things turned around. Beloved, if the election of 2016 has taught us anything, I hope that we have learned that there is not a sinless messianic presidential figure in the offing who will lead the United States of America back to the promised land that it once was.

The faithful need to be disillusioned with the pundits and the politicians who preach a message of false hope and quick fix. The problems that this nation has are deep and intractable. The truth is that it will take generations for this nation to be restored. They will not be solved in the short run with government solutions. On the contrary, national restoration of the United States will come from many generations of faithful consistent witness and discipleship by the church.

If the Foundations be Destroyed…

In Psalm 11, David asks: “If the foundations be destroyed, what shall the righteous do?” There are times when it seems as if the very ground underneath our feet is coming out from under us. This political season may have shaken our confidence in the very institutions which we rely on for stability. However, David knows that if your trust is not in earthly foundations but in the Lord’s sovereign rule, all is secure. Here is David’s answer to his own question:

The Lord is in his holy temple;
the Lord’s throne is in heaven;
his eyes see, his eyelids test the children of man.

The Lord tests the righteous,
but his soul hates the wicked and the one who loves violence.
Let him rain coals on the wicked;
fire and sulfur and a scorching wind shall be the portion of their cup.

For the Lord is righteous;
he loves righteous deeds;
the upright shall behold his face (Psalm 11).

God remains firmly in control of all events happening in the United States of America. He is sovereign over all. So, what will the righteous do?

Go on Being Righteous.

No matter how bleak the circumstances are in this land of exile, our hopeful confidence is ultimately not in the government of the United States of America or its elected leaders. As beautiful and wonderful as our nation is (God has truly shed his grace on thee) our hope and help is in the promised restoration that will only come by the sovereign hand of God and in his sovereign timing.

In the meantime, we take the long view. We go on being righteous, in season or out of season. We proclaim the good news. We plant and build churches, we do good deeds that build up the kingdom of God. We build houses and raise families. We study the scriptures together in community, and we seek the things of first importance, Jesus Christ, and him crucified and raised.

The Lord is in his Holy Temple and he calls us to live and thrive in the midst of exile. We should always seek the welfare of the nation and cities in which we live. By getting involved in the affairs of our community and being the salt and light of Jesus Christ, we manifest the kingdom of God on earth as in heaven. Elections do matter, and we are called to engage in the affairs of our communities and our nation so that the place where we live will be strong and good.

But for God’s sake take the long view, do not be discouraged or lose hope by the affairs of this world. We will remain in exile a good long while. As the Lord promised the people of God of old, his words continue to ring true:

For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart (Jeremiah 29:11-12).

Guarding the Faith

“O Timothy, guard the deposit entrusted to you. Avoid the irreverent babble and contradictions of what is falsely called ‘knowledge,’ for by professing it some have swerved from the faith. Grace be with you.” – 1 Timothy 6:20-21

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epistle_to_the_Galatians#/media/File:File%22-Saint_Paul_Writing_His_Epistles%22_by_Valentin_de_Boulogne.jpg

Paul’s final charge to Timothy is to “guard the deposit entrusted to you” (6:20). As a minister of the Gospel, Timothy is being sent into a battle on the front lines for the very Gospel itself. He needs strong encouragement to see the importance of the task and ministry with which he has been entrusted.

The need for Paul’s letter was occasioned for two main reasons: geography and time. First, Paul was simply not able to be in more than one place at a time. The delegation of leadership to others was an essential task for Paul if there was to be a geographically broad gospel movement. As Paul traveled on his missionary journeys moving from region to region, city to city, town to town, many new congregations were planted. New leadership had to be developed in each region, city, and town. Coordination and support of those various congregations also became mission-critical for the gospel.

The second issue was related to time. Paul was always keenly aware that his days of “fruitful ministry” were numbered. The issue of succession was critically important to Paul as he empowered Timothy to lead and then to identify and empower more leaders for the churches.

In this way, we see the first examples of succession and delegation at work in the church in the personal and pastoral relationship between Timothy and Paul. For Paul, the issue is not merely the passing of a torch humanly speaking, but for him it was critically important that the content and character of the gospel be guarded in order that it may be passed on faithfully to the next generation of leaders.

As each generation considers its own faith, it must also keep in mind the needs of the next generation of believers. We are given a sacred trust in the gospel of Jesus Christ, guarding the faith carefully so that it can be passed on.

In what ways are you delegating, passing on, and guarding the faith which has been entrusted to you?


This post originally appeared on The Bible Challenge here.