It’s a few days before the Passover—the beginning of the final, climactic week of Jesus’ life and ministry.
He is ready to enter Jerusalem, and he sends two disciples ahead to Bethphage, about halfway between Bethany and Jerusalem. He tells them you’ll find an ass with her colt. “Bring them. If anyone stops you and asks what you’re doing, tell them, ‘The Lord needs them.’”
Matthew says this was done to fulfill the prophecy in Zechariah 9:9
“Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion; shout, O daughter of Jerusalem: behold, thy King cometh unto thee: he is just, and having salvation; lowly, and riding upon an ass, and upon a colt the foal of an ass.”
As Jesus made his way toward Jerusalem, the crowd threw their coats on the ground in front of him, and cut branches from palm trees and waved them, and threw them on the road, crying out:
“Hosanna to the Son of David! ‘ Blessed is He who comes in the name of the LORD!’ Hosanna in the highest!”
Jesus accepts their praise—they’ve rightly identified who he is, even if they’re not sure what it means. They expect a king, and his first actions in the city seem to confirm their hopes—he goes to the temple, confronts the priests, and with a whip drives out the moneychangers.
But he’s not there to cast Pilate and Herod and Caesar from their thrones.
He hasn’t come to bask in glory.
He’s come to embrace the cross.
That Thursday night Jesus ate his last supper with his disciples. After supper was ended, we read in John 13, Jesus rose from the table, laid aside his garments, and took a towel, and wrapped it around himself. He poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet, and to wipe them with the towel.
Afterwards, he said to them, “Do you know what I’ve done? You call me Master and Lord, and that’s good—I am. If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet; you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done to you.”
In the hours to come, this humility leads him to accept humiliation. He’s betrayed by a friend—betrayed with a kiss—arrested, whipped, beaten, cursed and spat upon. He’s forced to carry a cross through the streets of Jerusalem to the jeers of the crowd. He’s stripped naked, nailed to the cross, and lifted up for the world to see.
And after hours hanging there exposed and mocked, he cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” And then, “Father, into they hands I commit my spirit. It is finished.” And so he dies.
In the book, Desire of Ages, we find this exhortation:
It would be well for us to spend a thoughtful hour each day in contemplation of the life of Christ. We should take it point by point, and let the imagination grasp each scene, especially the closing ones. As we thus dwell upon His great sacrifice for us, our confidence in Him will be more constant, our love will be quickened, and we shall be more deeply imbued with His spirit. If we would be saved at last, we must learn the lesson of penitence and humiliation at the foot of the cross.
Here, at the foot of the cross, we see what it means to be a Christian. Here, in these final scenes of humility and humiliation, we see the image we are meant to reflect.
Paul tells us the same thing in Philippians 2, starting with the third verse:
Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves. Look not every man on his own things, but every man also on the things of others.
Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.
Paul’s counsel suggests that he knows this isn’t how we normally act towards one another.
No, too often we bicker and squabble, insistent on getting our own way.
We jockey for position, like James and John, wanting to sit closest to Jesus.
We can be like Judas, grumbling at the generosity of others
We’re like the Corinthians, thinking that our gifts or talents somehow make us better than others—supposing that we have a blessing from God that someone else is missing.
Too often we pray like the Pharisee, “Thank you, God, that I’m not like them.”
Jesus says, Don’t play those games. Learn from me. Do as I do. Treat others as I treat you. Humble yourselves.
He has further warnings for his disciples, who would lead the community after his ascension, as we see in Matthew 23:8ff:
Don’t let people call you Rabbi: for one is your Master, even Christ; and all of you are brethren. And call no man your father upon the earth: for one is your Father, which is in heaven. Don’t be called masters: for one is your Master, even Christ. But he that is greatest among you shall be your servant. And whosoever shall exalt himself shall be abased; and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted.
When we look at the church in the Acts of the Apostles, it seems at first that it learned the lesson. We see a community where all are equal, where all share, where no one has too much and no one goes hungry. They are united, and devote themselves to prayer.
But it doesn’t last. One group stops passing out food to the other group’s widows. Ananias and Sapphira are overcome by greed, and don’t give what they promised. Simon Magus tries to buy the power of the Holy Spirit. The church in Corinth is torn by sexual scandal and disputes over gifts.
It’s within this context that John identifies the spirit of antichrist, opposed to the spirit of Christ, as already at work (1 John chapters 2 and 4). And Paul warns in 2 Thessalonians 2 of a “mystery of iniquity” at work in the church, and says it will increase until the “man of sin” is revealed, who opposes and exalts himself above God.
This man of sin, this spirit of antichrist, doesn’t come from outside. It bubbles up from within. It is the spirit of exaltation of self. It is the spirit that wants recognition. It is the spirit that says I’m different from you, and you better affirm it. It is too proud to stoop and wash feet. It wants glory, not the cross.
And it isn’t, first and foremost, something in some other person or some other church.
It’s in each one of us, eager to pop out. It is the essence of the sin that mars us.
It lies at the heart of the great controversy between Christ and Satan that has played itself out through the history of this world. It was exaltation of self that led to Satan’s rebellion, as we read in Isaiah 42:
Thou hast said in thine heart, I will ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God: I will sit also upon the mount of the congregation, in the sides of the north: I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will be like the most High.
This is the same temptation he offered to Eve: You shall not surely die if you disobey God; rather, you will become like God, knowing good and evil.
And God’s answer to this grasping desire to be like God is its opposite … renunciation. His own Son, equal to him in glory and majesty, does not think this equality something to grasp at. Rather, he empties himself. He humbles himself. He embraces our weakness and shame. He washes our feet, and submits to our death.
This is the struggle within our hearts. Will we grasp at heaven, or will we kneel at the foot of the cross? The first is the mystery of iniquity, the second, the mystery of the kingdom of God.
And this struggle plays itself out in our interactions with one another in the life of the church through the ages. As we look at that history, we see times when that “mystery of iniquity” has grasped the stage for itself. While insisting it is the Church that Christ has founded, it acted in opposition to the principles he taught. It exchanged the shame of the cross for worldly glory. Instead of kneeling to wash feet, it set some men up as lords over others, demanding obedience without question. It granted them lofty titles, dressed them in fancy robes, sat them on great thrones, and commanded others to kneel before them. It made its own words and traditions equal to the Bible, and said it alone could interpret the Bible.
In the 1500s there was a great revolt against this system, rooted in a rediscovery of the Gospel. A German monk, Martin Luther, saw that the church had traveled far from the foot of the cross. He said it had embraced a “theology of glory” instead of the true gospel, which he called a “theology of the cross.” He said that the true theologian is not the one who figures everything out through reason and observation of what is, but the one who recognizes God’s presence in suffering and the cross.
And yet Luther himself couldn’t completely break away from that theology of glory. When the peasants of Germany rebelled, he called on the princes, Catholic and Protestant, to cut them down with the sword.
We see the same thing in the Swiss Reformation. Ulrich Zwingli and John Calvin did a great work of reform, but they, too, couldn’t let go of that theology of glory, and called upon the power of the state to punish those who saw more light in Scripture. Felix Mantz, for example, was an Anabaptist leader in Zurich; he said only believers should be baptized, not babies, and they should be immersed—Zwingli said, “Fine. We’ll immerse you”—and he had him held underwater until he drowned. Michael Sattler, another Anabaptist leader, renounced violence, and said Christians should follow the teaching of Jesus and not resist evil, but turn the other cheek. Both Catholics and Protestants branded him an outlaw; he was tried and convicted, his tongue ripped out, and he was burned at the stake.
Luther and Calvin and Zwingli did a good work—but they didn’t go far enough. They took some important steps toward purifying the church from error, but they still held on to some human traditions. They lifted up the Bible, and called men to the cross, but they stopped short in obeying it fully. They kept self in the picture. They pulled down the pope only to raise up themselves. God used the Anabaptists to take the reform a little further, and he has used others since.
Each man, even with the best intentions, only sees so far, only grasps so much. That’s why our only standard of truth must be the Bible; to it we each must submit. We must come to it humbly, not assuming we have it figured out, but with our mind open to what God may yet have to teach us.
Let’s take to heart the lessons of this Passion Week.
Jesus came not in the pomp and glory of a king, but as a servant, humble, riding upon an ass. He was crowned not with gold, but with a crown of thorns. He was robed in purple only in mockery. And Scripture says, “Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus.”
That’s something we each need to grapple with.
The central theme of the great controversy is this: Will we humble ourselves like Christ, or exalt ourselves like Lucifer?
Will we kneel before our brothers and sisters, washing their feet, or will we demand they kneel before us?
Will we submit to the teaching of the Word of God, or will we insist on having our own way?
Will we accept the free gift of God, or will we suppose that we can save ourselves?
Will we robe ourselves in human glory, or will we kneel at the feet of the cross?