The Road to the Cross

Standing at the top of the Mount of Olives is a bittersweet experience. It’s the last place that the feet of Jesus the Messiah stood. It’s the next place that those same feet will touch on earth. That’s an amazing and powerful experience.

At the same time, looking westward toward Jerusalem can cause the worshiper of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to feel a sense of disquiet.  Directly above the Eastern Gate of the Old City of Jerusalem currently stands Qubbat As-Sakhrah – the Dome of the Rock.

This is Islam’s third holiest site. It rests atop of a stone that according to Muslim tradition is the location that the Prophet Muhammad made his night journey to Heaven. According to Jewish tradition, it is the location of the Holy of Holies from the first and second Temple, as well as the stone where Abraham offered up Isaac before the Angel replaced his son with the ram substitute. From my perspective, it is a symbol of the war between YHWH and Satan.

Looking at the Mount of Olives brings a myriad of emotions.

It’s the hill that Jesus peaked in His journey from Jericho to Jerusalem as He set His “face like a flint” to the cross. On the tenth day of the first month of the religious calendar of Israel, Jesus came up the east side of the mountain and entered the small village of Bethpage. it is there that He did something that took on unbelievable significance to all those watching Him.

And many were watching Him. Just a month or so earlier Jesus had raised one of His closest friends, Lazarus, from the dead in the small village just over the summit of the Mount of Olives, Bethany. He’d done so many things that could only be explained if He were the highly anticipated Messiah. And being able to raise the dead was the climax of His display of supernatural power. Being able to raise the dead would definitely come in handy in a war against the Roman empire. All Jesus needed to do was say the word, and the people were ready to crown Him “King.”

We’ve got some really screwed up assumptions about the culture of Jesus day. These assumptions start with our traditional telling of the story of Jesus’ birth. Every Nativity story includes a donkey as the carrier of the pregnant Mary as she journeys from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Imagine my surprise when I decided to read the story from the Bible without this presupposition, only to find that this element isn’t listed anywhere in the text. It’s tradition; that’s all.

Then, as I began to study the historical evidence of the culture of Jesus’ time, I was even more surprised to discover that donkeys were rarely used for travel in Jesus’ day. They were used for farming, but only the richest of the richest ever traveled on a donkey. Most scholars who understand the socio-economic realities of Jesus’ day believe that it is most likely that the only time Jesus ever sat on a donkey was when He made His “Triumphal Entry” into Jerusalem.

And if Jesus wanted to, he only needed to ride it for about five minutes to make his point.

Most of us in the Christian tradition realize that Jesus rode into Jerusalem that day in fulfillment of the prophecy by Zechariah:

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 ESV

What we don’t realize is that the people were waiting with bated breath to see if Jesus would make His move on this day.  The anticipation was palpable. Historical records are clear that this Passover was one in which both the Romans and the Sanhedrin were trepidatious that an uprising was imminent. In an effort to put the fires of rebellion out before they got burning, the Romans had begun rounding up any potential insurrectionists. One in particular that had gotten their attention and been arrested was a man named Barabbas.

Over the decades since the miracle of Hanukkah, the palm branch had become the national symbol of freedom – much like the Liberty Bell or bald eagle in America. The people had been cutting them down for Passover this year – even though the palm branch wasn’t a part of the festival. They were ready to rise up.  All it would take was a small spark, and revolution would spread like a fire throughout the land.

Jesus walked the narrow road from Jericho to Jerusalem with the throngs coming to the city for the festival. Every move He made was watched; every word He spoke was heard. And as they entered Bethpage, Jesus turned to a couple of His talmidim (disciples) and gave them the instructions that all in Israel were longing for:

Now when they drew near to Jerusalem and came to Bethphage, to the Mount of Olives, then Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village in front of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her. 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 21:1-3 ESV

My “sanctified imagination” conjures up a scenario where Jesus had been through the village before, and knew that there was a rich family there who owned a donkey. Jesus had seen this man and his family in the crowds as He taught. He knew they believed He was the promised Son of David. So, when the man asked Jesus’ talmidim what they were doing with the donkey, the answer that they would give the man was sure to be sufficient.

There’s evidence that suggests that Bethany was considered the “entry to Jerusalem” at the time of Jesus. Bethany was less than a half a mile away from Bethpage. As Jesus’ disciples were retrieving the aforementioned donkey, Jesus continue to make His way to Jerusalem.  As he cleared the crest of the Mount of Olives and began His descent, his talmidim brought it to Him. Jesus climbed on top of it. And all it took was one step into the village of Bethany – the outer limit of Jerusalem – for the spark to be lit.

The people recognized the fulfillment of Zechariah’s prophecy. They began shouting, “Hosanna! Hosanna to the Son of David! Save us! Blessed is He who comes in the Name of YHWH!”

And Jesus wept.

And when he drew near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, “Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. For the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up a barricade around you and surround you and hem you in on every side and tear you down to the ground, you and your children within you. And they will not leave one stone upon another in you, because you did not know the time of your visitation.” – Luke 19:41-44 ESV

They were celebrating Jesus’ arrival as the conquering Messiah who would free them from the oppression of the hated Romans. This obsession with political freedom had obscured from their vision their need for freedom from the bondage of their own sin and the judgment required because of it.

And as He would later tell Peter, those who live by the sword will die by the sword. Israel was seeking a sword. That’s what they would get. Jesus wouldn’t be accepting the throne that was awaiting Him.

As He made His way down the Mount of Olives, he passed through a grove of olive trees. In it, was a place that He would often gather for prayer with His talmidim when He was in Jerusalem for the Feasts. An olive press was located there. Gethsemane. In just a few short nights, He would be betrayed in that very garden.

The people continued to shout in celebration. The religious leaders tried to quiet everyone down. And Jesus – as He so often did – surprised everyone.

All that was left before the coronation was for Jesus to enter through the Eastern Gate. Instead, as He entered the Kidron Valley, he turned to the north and entered through the Sheep Gate – the gate through which the Passover lambs were brought in preparation for the sacrifice.

The Lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world…

If you’re interested in walking this very road from the Mount of Olives to the Garden of Gethsemane, register for the Maximum CONTEXT Tour this November 3-14! For all the details, CLICK HERE!

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