To better understand Palm Sunday’s stark contrast—Jesus the King riding through the streets of Jerusalem on a lowly donkey—we look to Revelation. In Revelation 5, John dictates a dramatic scene where God presents a scroll that cannot be opened due to the fact that no one is found worthy. The apostle is overcome with emotion at the impossibility of the situation and the inability to break the seven seals. Then an elder instructs John to stop weeping: “Behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals” (v. 5, ESV). I picture the elder making this declaration with a booming voice and a sweeping gesture toward the throne—every eye in heaven expecting to see a roaring, flaming lion burst forth in a display of tremendous power. I imagine eyes scanning back and forth, bright and expectant, initially unaware of the creature that has stepped forward from the throne. Then they see him, the worthy one—not a lion, but a sacrificial lamb, whose throat has been slit, blood pouring down his chest, staining the pure white wool a deep crimson red.
It would have been accurate for Jesus to show himself as the lion of the tribe of Judah, in keeping with the way the elder announced his coming, but he doesn’t. Instead, he appears as one of the most non-threatening creatures on earth. He is approachable. Humble. Meek.
This motif of power demonstrated through restraint and sacrifice spans the pages of Scripture. Jesus Christ continually reveals the majesty in humility: The King of Kings comes to the world not in a palace but in a barn reeking of animal waste. His glory is first made manifest not to Herod the Great but to lowly shepherds. He does not choose to mentor the academic elite but the commoner. He affixes himself not to the upper echelons of society but to the homeless, as he demonstrates the nature of an upside-down kingdom to his bewildered disciples.
This is the Messiah who rides into Jerusalem on a donkey to the sight of palm fronds laid before him. He proceeds not to the halls of power to topple Rome and satisfy the crowd’s expectation of military victory, but to the center of Jewish worship to confront misguided notions of what it means to serve God. Jesus did not succumb to the accolades of the crowd and seek an earthly throne. Rather, he was enthroned on a Roman instrument of torture and execution, in obedience to the Father, and that we might be forgiven, cleansed, and reconciled to God.
Jesus embodied God’s original intent from Genesis chapters 1 and 2: that mankind would exercise a dominion of stewardship over the earth to bring about life, as a gardener endeavors to cultivate fruitfulness and beauty through their efforts. Adam and Eve failed in this task, so a new kind of human needed to emerge—one who would crush the head of the Serpent, but who would also be bruised in the process. Jesus was a suffering servant; a lion who was also a lamb. He is the God of unmatched authority who would don the garment of a servant and wash the very feet of those who would abandon him. One who would ride into Jerusalem on the week of his execution to the acclaim of one crowd, days later to face another that would demand his crucifixion. We see him weeping over the crowds immediately after the triumphal entry, concerned for those around him even as his own life became cloaked in peril (Luke 19:41). Jesus was completely secure in the affection and provision of the Father. He saw beyond the veil of death to the Resurrection, and was, therefore, able to endure betrayal, scourging, and the horror of the cross.
As imperfect humans who are drawn in by applause and fearful of pain, we often seek to embody the power of the lion—but we follow a lion who became a lamb. May we follow in the footsteps of our master this Palm Sunday, pursuing the sacrificial way of the cross so that others may encounter the life found in the blood of our Savior.
Mick Murray has worked in pastoral ministry for over 15 years with Antioch Community Church in Waco, Texas.
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