Oh, Save!

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,

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

Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it, as it is written:

“Do not be afraid, Daughter Zion;
see, your king is coming,
seated on a donkey’s colt.”

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 12:12-16

This account of Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem quotes Zechariah 9.9. The Septuagint, a Greek Bible translation that was common in Jesus’ day, says, “Behold, a King is coming to you, Just, and a Savior. He is meek and riding on an ass, and a young foal.”

People who knew the details of this prophecy surely understood the details. Zechariah was written during the many battles of Alexander the Great. This was the fall of the Holy Land to what would become the Greek Empire, later to be taken over by the Romans. The King’s entry on a donkey was appropriate. The very next verse refers to the war-horses, but entry on a donkey was a sign of a peaceful entry.

“Your king is just (or righteous),” unlike many of the traditional kings of Israel, and he was a Savior (or “having salvation” NIV). The very phrase “Jesus Saves” originates from verses like this. The word “Hosanna” is Hebrew for “save”. The cry of “Hosanna” was like crying, “Save us!” In Zechariah’s time, the King would save the people from the bloodshed so common under Alexander the Great. In the New Testament, people likely considered this salvation as liberation from Roman occupation.

After Jesus was glorified, the disciples understood this and other prophesies. But given that the Roman occupation continued and grew worse, they must also have understood that this salvation was spiritual, not political. Jesus saved them not from the troubles of this world, but from the troubling sins and doubt that curse every human.

For the most part, the New Testament writers are giving account of a journey, in which Jesus’ companions change and His nature is revealed in people and events He encounters along the way. Jesus goes from Bethelehem to Egypt to Nazareth to Capernaum through Samaria to Jerusalem and ultimately to Galgotha. We see the journey from infancy to childhood to submission to John, then on to His ministry as Messiah and Savior of the world. And in these encounters, as Jesus blesses a Gentile leper, a Roman centurion, a Samaritan adulteress and a condemned thief, we learn that Jesus came to fulfill the prophesies of Israel, but to bless and save all of humankind. Or, as Zechariah 9:10 proclaims, “He will proclaim peace to the nations.”

We shouldn’t get too cocky about those in history who expected Jesus to be a warrior or a literal king. Jesus enters our lives on a donkey, low and humble, with more fanfare than force. We have our own expectations of Jesus. We may expect Him to grant us riches, or perfect health, or some advantage over nonbelievers. We expect Jesus to make a path for us, when scripture says instead we should be clearing the path for Him.

So what good is peace in the midst of war and conflict? What is healing in a body that remains vulnerable to disease and age? How are our enemies defeated when to the naked eye they appear to remain in power? What is salvation, anyway?

In Romans, Paul had much to say about this “body of death” in which we live. We sin against our own better judgment. We are easily led astray. We fail to follow Jesus then cry that we are lost. Most of our wounds are self-inflicted, the result of a flawed human nature straying from God’s will for our lives and our world. It does little good to save us from war, poverty and suffering if we continue to harm ourselves and others by taking the wrong path and making bad decisions.

It is from that Body of Death that we are saved. We are saved from our own tendency to make wrong choices that hurt us and others. We are saved from the condemnation that we deserve for making those choices. In short, we are saved from ourselves. We die to self and live for Christ, and in doing so, we follow the only One who was without sin.

As we understand the humility of Christ, the peace of His reign and the nature of His kingdom, we start to lose our expectations of comfort in this life. The mature Christian is revealed not in our freedom from suffering, but in our integrity and faith in the midst of suffering. If we expect a material advantage from the Lordship of Jesus, we are as wrong as those who expected Him to conquer the Romans and drive them out of the Promised Land.

Once, when a brother asked Jesus to tell his brother to divide the inheritance, Jesus said, “Who made me judge over you?” Jesus did not come to mediate between fallen people – for all of us have fallen short. Rather, Jesus came to make us new creatures, and in doing so to make us a new family in God through Jesus.

The followers of Jesus are not divinely blessed with an advantage in this world. The advantage comes from Jesus saving us from the Body of Death, inspiring us to die to self and live for Him. These advantages are freely offered to everyone.

A caged bird might still be a bird, but it does not fly. When we clip its wings, we remove a part of its essence. Some of us see Christianity as a cage, a set of rules telling us, “Don’t fly. Don’t taste. Don’t touch.” But what if the cage is our own fallen selves, our tendencies to face the bars when we could as easily turn and fly through the door? Jesus came to set the captives free! We are held captive to our own appetites, misunderstandings, temptations and greed. If the Son has set you free from these, from that cage that we build around ourselves, then you are free indeed.

Jesus descends from the Mount of Olives, meeting us where we are in this dark valley of death and sin. He is humble, riding on a donkey, but He is righteous, and His offering to us is salvation. Jesus weeps over our stubborn Jerusalem hearts when we fail to see the great gift He offers. He also rejoices with all of Heaven over each sinner who accepts the gift with repentance and thanksgiving.

Save us from what? You know from what! From ourselves, and from the lie we have learned from this fallen world. As we enter Holy Week and march to Resurrection Sunday, I pray that we might all die with Christ and rise with Him into that newness of life He came to provide.

From Out of Nowhere

Jesus is the ultimate outsider – adapted by foreign cultures, rejected by His own, at conflict in His day with Pharisees, Sadducees and Zealots – translate as the radical, establishment and rebellious branches of Judaism. And with every new generation, Jesus is adopted by traditionalists and progressives alike, each convinced that His true teaching agrees with theirs.

Jesus is a religious outsider. According to Hebrews 5, Jesus is “a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek.” The first mention of any priest in scripture is a reference to Melchizedek, King of Salem (“peace”) and Priest of the Most High God (“Elyon El”). Melchizedek came from out of nowhere. “Without father or mother, without genealogy, without beginning of days or end of life, resembling the Son of God, [Melchizedek] remains a priest forever.” (Hebrews 7:3)

The people of His day expected the Messiah to be a King, not a Priest. Melchizedek was both, the first of his kind and honored by Abraham, father of Israel and many other nations. Through Joseph, Jesus’ lineage was accepted as in the house of David. With the virgin birth, that lineage is cast into doubt. And Jesus could not be a traditional priest because he was not a Levite, the priestly tribe. “For it is clear that our Lord descended from Judah, and in regard to that tribe Moses said nothing about priests.” (Hebrew 7:14)

Wrong place, wrong time, wrong people, friend of sinners and the outcast. In Him the Gentiles place their hope. Jesus was, and still is, the ultimate outsider.

In the late 1960s and 1970s, boys could be expelled from school for wearing their hair too long or growing facial hair. In response, we all pointed to Warren Sallman’s “Head of Christ”, the iconic Jesus image with shoulder-length hair and that perfect beard. The painting sold more than 500 million copies, and that Jesus was also featured in other Sallman paintings. With that, our parents were forced to admit that “we don’t actually know what Jesus looked like”. That, in turn, opened the door to even the even more radical possibility that Jesus was more Middle Eastern than White.

Still, each generation tends to see Jesus as looking like themselves – in opinion and morality, if not physically. In 1939, German theologians established the Institute for the Study and Eradication of Jewish Influence on German Religious Life. It’s purpose was to remake Jesus in the Nazi image, the perfect Aryan who started Christianity to oppose Judaism. The notion turns history on its head, and yet it isn’t so different from many anti-Semitic, Aryan groups that exist even today.

In Matthew, Jesus sent out the twelve disciples, saying, “Do not go among the Gentiles or enter any town of the Samaritans. Go rather to the lost sheep of Israel.” (Matt. 10:5-6) But the people Jesus healed were largely Gentiles and Samaritans. And at John 12:21, the Greek visitors seeking Jesus during the festival was taken as a sign that Jesus’ ministry was nearly done. (“The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” 12:23)

This outsider status of Jesus has spiritual significance. None of us can claim to possess Jesus; we are either grafted-in Gentiles to a Jewish Rabbi or descendants of His people who rejected Him. Jesus does not mimick our looks, our politics, our morality, nor anything else about us. He possesses us, not vice versa, and He is the cornerstone to which we must square our lives – not vice versa.

It is tempting to remake Jesus into our image. But Jesus knows no political party, because the parties hold the moral high ground like the gambler holds cards – some good, some not so much. All have sinned and fallen short of the Glory of God – and Jesus is the standard by which that is determined.

This outsider status is also a tool for evangelism. “But you were raised Christian; I wasn’t.” Jesus was not raised Christian! “If I was blessed like you, I’d be a Christian, too.” Jesus was a blessing, but few people would describe Jesus as “blessed.” “I just don’t fit in; I’m not like you.” Jesus was not like anybody. He was unique, from out of nowhere, after the order of Melchizedek.

In short, Jesus comes from somewhere else, from outside of our world, our opinions, our viewpoints. We are equally challenged by the life of Jesus, and we all fall short. We can’t use Jesus to control others – indeed, we can’t use Jesus at all! Rather, Jesus uses us to forward His kingdom. We pray for God’s will, not our own, and we see Jesus as the ultimate example of one putting God’s will above His own.

Jesus comes from out of nowhere. When we embrace that concept, we empower the Gospel story to bring eternal life to whoever believes, from all nations, cultures and generations. Remake Him like us, and we take Him away from those who are different. A Jesus who is more like us is less like Jesus. God forbid that we should compromise the Gospel to fit our agenda, regardless of which direction it leans.