Have you ever asked yourself the question, “Why does Jesus enter Jerusalem for the final time during his earthly ministry in the way that he does – what Christians call ‘The Triumphal Entry’ – when he knows that in a matter of days he is going to die?” We know that he knows he’s going to die. He has told his disciples so at least three times (e.g., see Mark 8, 9 and 10). So why does it make sense to enter Jerusalem in the way that he does, to the praise and accolades of the crowds? What really is going on here?
This question is pressed on us all the more when we realize that this is the first time in his entire incarnate life that he has done anything like this. In fact, this is the opposite of what he has typically done. Over and over we see Jesus instructing people not to make public proclamations of who he is or what he has done. Not to spread the news of his miracles. He has been tamping down the fervor of the crowds – not wanting scenes that are anything like this to occur. Why does he allow it – and we might say even encourage it – now?
Here are two reasons, the first of which is very clear from the Gospel accounts. Matthew and John explicitly point us back to Zechariah 9:9, written 500 years earlier: “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.”
Jesus is self-consciously fulfilling this prophecy. And by doing so he is making public claim to messianic kingship. He is the King who is righteous and humble, yet bringing salvation. If the crowds do not acclaim him as such, the very rocks would cry out (Luke 19). The praise of the crowd is both right and necessary. They receive Jesus as a king and he is a king – the King! They view him as a savior, and he is the Savior. They hope and expect him to be the one who will restore the glory of the Davidic kingdom, and he is the rightful heir to David’s throne and will sit upon it in a kingdom more glorious than any of them imagine. The Gospel writers want to make sure that we see this.
But everyone shouting his praises on this day has missed the puzzle piece that is crucial to understanding what else is going on and to solving the great mystery of the Old Testament. This King must suffer before he will reign. He must die – and be raised from the dead – in order to bring salvation. His victory will not be merely over petty tyrants, but over sin and death and the spiritual powers of darkness of this present world. That’s what everyone is missing!
And so the second thing is this, and it is surprising. It also gets much less attention than it deserves. Everything that Jesus does on this day, presenting himself as Messiah and King, is a very specific and pre-meditated provocation to the spiritual powers of darkness – a provocation that utterly outwits them, and will result – by the end of this week – in their being put to open shame. So much so that it will seal the victory of the Son of God over those powers and make their ultimate defeat and demise absolutely sure. To put it in simplest terms, this event that we call “The Triumphal Entry” is not just the public presentation of the King. It is also an ingenious trap, for which Satan and his cohorts will fall, hook, line and sinker.
Now where does that idea come from? Not just out of thin air. It comes from 1 Corinthians 2. The Apostle Paul begins that chapter talking about the Cross. And in v. 7, still speaking of the cross, he says, “…we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.”
The power of the Cross is God’s secret wisdom. If the rulers of this age had understood what the death of the King would mean, they never would have crucified him! That’s what Paul says. But who are “the rulers of this age” that Paul is talking about? The answer is that he is speaking of the spiritual powers of darkness. We see him use this sort of language over and over again in his epistles (e.g., Ephesians 1, 2, and 6, and Colossians 1 and 2).
That’s what this entry into Jerusalem is about. Yes, it is a true presentation of the King. But it is also the most ingenious stratagem of war in the history of the world. Do you see? He is provoking the spiritual powers to do the thing that will consume him. But what they don’t know is that is also the very thing necessary to liberate us – and the creation – from their power forever, and assure the accomplishment of his mission and seal their doom.
“He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame by triumphing over them in his cross” (Colossians 2:16). This is why he came into the world. To triumph over them. To free us. And he would do it through the mysterious power of his cross. As C.S. Lewis puts it, Satan and his hordes did not know the “deeper magic.” The victory of the King comes through his own death. Praise be to God for such a King.