Triumphal Entry

Who doesn’t love a good parade? Whether it’s the oversized floats in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade trooping through New York City, the sparkling Disney characters waving in the Parade of Lights, or the local fire fighters and marching bands out for the Fourth of July in your hometown, there’s something irresistible about parades that makes the big crowds and long waits worth it.

While parades have always been celebratory, it’s only relatively recently that they’ve lost their specifically military purpose. Conquering dictators or returning military heroes would lead their troops and captives through the streets in a show of power and dominance. Napoleon Bonaparte, for example, commissioned the famous Arc de Triomphe in Paris to celebrate his military his 1806 victory at Austerlitz; while it wasn’t finished in time for him to march underneath it, the Arc has been the site of French victory marches in both World Wars. Caesar Augustus, emperor when Jesus was alive, was also famous for his victory marches: after defeating general Marc Anthony and his Egyptian queen Cleopatra in battle, he marched the couple’s children naked through the streets of Rome to demonstrate the his enemy’s total defeat and humiliation.

When Jesus’s entry to Jerusalem (found in Matthew 21:1-11; Mark 11:1-11; Luke 19:29-44; John 12:12-19) became a joyful parade, then, you can bet that people were aware of the symbolic significance. After all, prophesied Messiah – who they hoped would free them from oppressive Roman rule – was entering the capital city on Passover, the festival commemorating God’s deliverance of the Hebrew slaves from their Egyptian masters.

Not only that, but the people were yelling Hosanna – “Save!” – blanketing Jesus’ path with their coats as a symbol of deference and honor, and waving palm branches: the same thing Roman citizens waved for returning conquerors after a victory. All of the elements of Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem marked him out as a conquering king come to reclaim his rightful throne – all of the elements, that is, except one.

Jesus knew that he was extremely popular with the people. He knew that they wanted him to lead them in seizing power back from the Romans. He also knew that he was meant to fulfill the prophecy of Zechariah 9:9: “Do not be afraid, Daughter Zion; see, your king is coming, seated on a donkey’s colt.” So Jesus sent his disciples to fetch a young donkey colt for him to ride instead of a horse – a symbol of a king coming in peace instead of a conqueror. He was controlling his own PR: making the parade not the celebration of military victory achieved or to come, but rather a declaration of his mission of peace and reunification.

This gesture of peace was an echo of the message that Jesus proclaimed through his ministry: “Blessed are the peacemakers” (Matthew 5:9). It was also a call forward to the days that would follow: days in which Jesus would be humiliated, tortured, and executed via a murderer’s cross, despite the fact that he would not even allow his disciple Peter to defend him against his accusers. “Put your sword back into its place,” he said, “for all those who draw the sword will die by the sword” (Matthew 26:52 NIV).

Despite the fact that Jesus’ liberation was distinctly spiritual, not military, many Christians have claimed that God was on their side in battles. In fact, the Emperor Constantine, who converted the Roman Empire to Christianity, did so after having a vision of the cross appearing to him before a major battle. The Medieval Crusades were conceived of as holy wars, efforts to reclaim Jerusalem for Christianity no matter the cost in blood.

Wars in the name of God are certainly not unique to any one religion, and they leave victims on all sides: a point that the band Gungor illustrates in the musical fable “God and Country.”

One of the major challenges facing Jesus was the attitudes of the religious groups around him. The Sadducees were compliant collaborators, eager to work with Rome, and the Pharisees envisioned their resistance to Rome as being spiritual: God would send Messiah to deliver them from the rule of the Romans when Israel became obedient to the law. But there were other groups: the Zealots, who promoted open violence and attacks against the Romans, and the Sicarii, or "knife men", a "cloak and dagger" movement of Jews who would sneakily stab Romans and Rome-sympathizing Jews in crowded places. These more extreme groups were the pinnacle of a strongly felt Jewish sentiment that God would wipe out the enemies of his chosen people with violence and revolution. Many expected the Messiah to lead in such actions.

Today, a lot of Christians believe that love for God and fighting in war can coexist – they cite, for example, Jesus’ command in Mark 12:17 to “Give to God what is God’s and Caesar what is Caesar’s” as justification for their patriotic actions. Others, like some historical Seventh-day Adventists, are unarmed participants (like medics and chaplains) or conscientious objectors.

Can we serve both God and country? Should wars ever be fought on behalf of God? We are called to put on the full Armor of God – but can the gospel and the battlefield ever coexist?

Talk Back:

  • While Jesus is a peaceful teacher and the Lamb of God in the gospels, in Revelation 19:11-16 John depicts him as an avenging warrior slaying the enemies of his people. How might you reconcile these two images?
  • Many people are bothered by the acts of violence that God sanctions in the Old Testament. The most notable among those is the conquest of Canaan by the Israelites after their exodus from Egypt, during which they ‘wipe out’ (though not fully, see Judges 1) local nations in God’s name. It is difficult and yet important for Christians to come to terms with how the God involved in these activities in the Old Testament can be the same God who becomes incarnate in Jesus Christ.
    • Read this excerpt from Genesis. What does it tell you about the conquest of Canaan: “Then the Lord said to Abram, “Know for certain that your offspring will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs and will be servants there, and they will be afflicted for four hundred years. 14 But I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions. 15 As for you, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age. 16 And they shall come back here in the fourth generation, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.” Genesis 15:13-16 ESV
    • What does the above passage say about the Amorites? Why would there be a long delay of many generations before Israel would make war against them?
  • One of the biggest troubles people have with violence in the Bible is the understanding of the 6th commandment in Exodus 20:13 “You shall not murder”, OR as the RSV and KJV put it, “You shall not kill”. How can God issue a commandment about not killing, and then later on command the Israelites to go and kill?
    • Some people solve this by seeing the commandment as being specifically about murder - a premeditated personal action against an individual - and therefore not applying to war. This solves the contradiction in technical terms, although it might not be satisfactory for all. Others will say that the commandment is broadly “do not kill” - even in accidental ways, and that God’s commandments to Israel in war make the war God’s action and responsibility, not a human one. Still others reject these stories about war as being exaggerations which never actually came from God.
    • Where do you stand on this issue? Do you accept any of the answers above? Some other version or combination of those answers? How does your understanding of that Old Testament issue fit with your understanding of Jesus, and his offer of salvation to all people through the cross?
  • Is there such thing as a just war? Are modern countries who go to war doing so for God? Why or why not?
  • Jesus’ actions during the Triumphal Entry would ultimately be interpreted as a threat to Roman authority. The gospels have record of a conversation between Jesus and the local Roman Prefect - Pontius Pilate - about whether Jesus was promoting a kingdom alternative to Caesars. Read this conversation. What do Jesus’ words here add to our conversation about violence and God?
    • 33 So Pilate entered his headquarters again and called Jesus and said to him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” 34 Jesus answered, “Do you say this of your own accord, or did others say it to you about me?” 35 Pilate answered, “Am I a Jew? Your own nation and the chief priests have delivered you over to me. What have you done?” 36 Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.” John 18:33-36 ESV
  • Do you have a loved one who is in the military? Where do they serve? If they’re religious, how have they related their decision to serve to their religion?
  • The recent movie Hacksaw Ridge tells the story of Desmond Doss - a US Army Medic and Seventh-day Adventist Church member who famously and miraculously saved many soldiers during World War Two while not carrying a weapon. Doss believed strongly that the commandment not to kill meant that he should not personally fire a weapon at another human being. However, he also believed that the war was just and wanted to support the United States army by serving them as a medic. What do you think about Doss’ convictions? Are they contradictory? Why or why not?

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