Palm Sunday: Passover Plot or Providence Program?

Jesus arriving on a donkey - Palm Sunday

Jesus entering on a donkey – Palm Sunday

People around the globe today are commemorating Palm Sunday – the Sunday before Jesus was crucified when he rode into Jerusalem on the foal of a donkey as the long promised Coming King.  It is recorded in all of the Gospels as a watershed event which set in motion the crisis of that Passover Week.

I believe the Gospel for several reasons, but very high up on the list are the widespread, diverse and testable prophecies that, in spite of the vanishingly impossible odds, are fulfilled sometimes hundreds of years after the prophecies were first written down.  I had shown how Daniel (ca 550 BC) had predicted the interval of time to the coming of this awaited King.  This was fulfilled precisely on that Palm Sunday when Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey.  Because of the long time span involved – over 500 years – this meant that the chance that his birth would even just fall in the proper time frame for there to be a chance that he could be around to ride into Jerusalem would itself be startlingly improbable.   Jesus could not have humanly engineered the timing of such a scope.

But the gospel writers do not focus on this timing when they record the events of that Sunday.  Instead they direct our attention to the book of Zechariah (ca 520 BC) and explicitly tell us that when Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey he was fulfilling the prophecy given in Zechariah that:

Look, your king is coming to you.
He is righteous and victorious,
yet he is humble, riding on a donkey—
riding on a donkey’s colt.  (Zechariah 9:9)

Now this fulfillment that the Gospel writers trumpet had never really impressed me for the simple reason that it seemed too easy to plot a ‘fulfillment’.  All that Jesus needed to do was to read Zechariah and recognize that to get a ‘fulfillment’ he would need to ride into Jerusalem on a donkey.  The timing of his entrance aside (which I think is impossible to explain naturally), it would be a simple matter for Jesus to plot his entrance into Jerusalem for the Passover festival and make sure he came in on the donkey as per Zechariah’s script.  And being a lowly peasant it would be easier for Jesus to hatch such a plot than for him to procure a war horse – the steed of choice when kings make their entrances.  So could that entry simply be explained as the plotting of a man using an ancient script to ride a Passover exuberance?

Zechariah’s Prophecy in context

So let’s take the trouble to read the original Zechariah prophecy in its full context and consider such a ‘Passover Plot’ conspiracy.  Here it is:

9 Rejoice, O people of Zion!
Shout in triumph, O people of Jerusalem!
Look, your king is coming to you.
He is righteous and victorious,
yet he is humble, riding on a donkey—
riding on a donkey’s colt.

10 I will remove the battle chariots from Israel
and the warhorses from Jerusalem.
I will destroy all the weapons used in battle,
and your king will bring peace to the nations.
His realm will stretch from sea to sea
and from the Euphrates River to the ends of the earth.
11 Because of the covenant I made with you,
sealed with blood,
I will free your prisoners
from death in a waterless dungeon.
12 Come back to the place of safety,
all you prisoners who still have hope!
I promise this very day
that I will repay two blessings for each of your troubles. (Zechariah 9:9-12)

What jumps out is the bizarre change of scope that spans these few sentences.  The king enters Jerusalem on a donkey (v9) and then his rule will extend to ‘the ends of the earth’ (v10).  And God will seal a covenant ‘with blood’ such that prisoners of death will be freed (v11).  Zechariah saw and predicted something of far greater scope than just an entry to a city on a donkey.  According to Zechariah, tied with this entry would be a new worldwide program as well as a new destiny for ‘prisoners of death’.

And who might that be?

Today, the news outlets across Canada are reporting on the sudden and unexpected death of the recent Canadian Finance Minister Jim Flaherty.  He was considered one of the most successful and influential finance ministers in Canadian history.  He retired three weeks ago in the media spotlight to transition his career.  Today he is dead and his sudden and abrupt death has shocked and saddened everyone.  I submit that he is a ‘prisoner of death’.  Though he had been chief of the finance department, his success and prominence there gave him no advantage in this department of death.   And we too are all following along right behind him – not knowing when or how we will die.  We all are ‘prisoners of death’!  Zechariah was writing this 2500 years ago for you and me.  He was telling us that someone was going to come who would free us from this prison.  But how?  Zechariah explained long before Jesus rode the donkey into Jerusalem that it would be done by God making a covenant ‘sealed with blood’ (v11) – echoing the sign of the Passover Blood and the release from death that Isaac experienced in Abraham’s sacrifice.  A few short days after Jesus rode into Jerusalem atop his donkey on Palm Sunday he did indeed inaugurate a new covenant and then literally sealed it with his blood.  And three days after that he rose from the dead.  The doors of that prison which holds us all busted open.  The fact that Zechariah could see it so long before it happened indicates that the entry of Jesus on the donkey was not the desperate plot of a pitiful man, but rather it was a key sign marking a Providential Program for the largest jailbreak imaginable – to spring all of humanity from the prison of death.  The entry of Jesus into Jerusalem on a donkey was prominent for the gospel writers precisely because they saw it as a key sign marking that larger Providential Program that Zechariah had sketched out 500 years earlier.

But what about this rule that Zechariah wrote would go to the ‘ends of the earth’?  Jesus never ruled – the prophecy is in error, critics will charge.  But to think of ‘ruling’ solely in political or military terms is to miss the most powerful rule of all – the personal allegiance of a one’s heart freely given in worship.  Though Jim Flaherty was a senior member of the party that ‘rules’ in Canada, he never had that kind of rule over one single person in the entire country.  But Jesus at his trial calmly claimed that he would one day get this rule – worship – from people around the world.  Here we are two thousand years later with Palm Sunday inaugurating Passion Week which will be celebrated in worship by people around the world, in all nations, in a multitude of languages.  From that point of view Zechariah’s prediction of a rule ‘to the ends of the earth’ was indeed fulfilled by that peasant carpenter who rode into Jerusalem on a lowly donkey so many Sundays ago.

But what about the removal of all weapons of war from Israel (v10)?  That certainly has not happened. In fact today Israel is one of the most weaponized countries in the world!  True enough.  But that prediction is anticipating the conclusion in this Providential Program.  We are not there yet.  We are now at the stage exemplified in v12 where the plea and offer is going out to all us prisoners of death to come to his place of safety.  The news and offer of the ‘jailbreak’ is going around the world and many are choosing to take it.

In the context of this larger Program, Zechariah predicted that this King would make another entrance.  He wrote

“Then I will pour out a spirit of grace and prayer on the family of David and on the people of Jerusalem. They will look on me whom they have pierced and mourn for him as for an only son. They will grieve bitterly for him as for a firstborn son who has died.  (Zechariah 13:10)

The one that had been pierced and had died, and in so doing had sealed that covenant with his blood, will come back!  It is a hope I have, and some may charge me with naïvity for keeping it.  But given that Zechariah was bang on with both the details and the outworkings of that entrance on a donkey, it is simply a reasoned leap to trust that this Second Entrance in this greater Program of Providence will also one day come about.  And when it does, I want to be part of the jailbreak.

An evening at the University of Wyoming – on the historical case for the resurrection of Jesus

In late October I had the privilege to visit the University of Wyoming and give a public presentation on the historical case for the resurrection of Jesus.  This was followed by some Q&A time.  The presentation and the Q&A was captured on video.  Grab a coffee and engage in on this most vital of topics and invite your friends to e-join as well.

Resurrection Presentation

Q&A time

The Heart that Changed History – Did it Beat Again?

Last Easter weekend I had the privilege to share some brief overview thoughts on the question of the Resurrection of Jesus at a community brunch in Hamilton.  Entitled “The Heart that Changed History – Did it Beat Again?”, it was recorded on video by a friend.  This 17 minute video summarizes the case for the resurrection of Jesus using non-biblical historical sources and highlights the relevance of this event for everybody by showcasing lives of some famous people.

 

Considering the Resurrection: From the eyes of Bishop Spong – Part 4

In my series of posts (Parts 1, 2, 3) on the question of the resurrection of Jesus I have looked at its impact on Peter, the other disciples, and on James the brother of Jesus, all through the eyes of a prominent denier of the resurrection – Bishop John Shelby Spong. Because he denies the resurrection he has to develop alternative scenarios for the changes we know from history that took place in these men. Now we turn to consider Paul. What would make Saul, chief persecutor of the followers of Jesus, change into Paul, the chief apologist and evangelist of Jesus in the first century – if there had been no resurrection? Spong tells us:

“There is no sense at all in Paul of a physical resurrection of Jesus back into the life of this world. God did not, for this apostle, raise Jesus from the grave back to life on this earth. Rather, for Paul, God raised Jesus from death into God’s presence, from the grave to God’s right hand… For Paul there were no empty tombs, no disappearance from the grave of the physical body, no physical resurrection, no physical appearance of a Christ who would eat fish, offer his wounds for inspection, or rise physically into the sky after an appropriate length of time. None of these ideas can be found in reading Paul.”  (Resurrection: Myth or Reality pg 50-51)

Spong’s previous scenarios for Peter, the disciples and for James have been ludicrous at best. But in this statement concerning Paul, Spong sinks to outright error and deception. Which Paul has Spong been reading?  If anything, it is obvious that Paul himself believed and emphasized the resurrection. Why he is the very one writing about the physical resurrection appearances of 1 Corinthians 15:3-8, assessing the issue as of ‘first importance’, that we looked at in Part 3. I quote it again so you can see for yourself whether Paul taught ‘no physical appearance of a Christ’ as Spong wishes us to believe:

“For what I received I passed onto you as of first importance: That Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. After that he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born” (1 Corinthians 15: 3-8)

Paul, as you can see, certainly believed in the physical resurrection of Jesus. What many of us do not realize is that the message that the disciples, and especially Paul, preached was not ‘love’ so much as it was the resurrection of Jesus. And from their own words everything stood or fell on the resurrection of Jesus. Notice how Paul continues:

“If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that we are found to be false witnesses about God for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead … If Christ has not been raised your faith is futile…But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead… If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men….Why do we endanger ourselves every day – I mean that brothers – …If I fought wild beasts in Ephesus for merely human reasons, what have I gained? If the dead are not raised – ‘Let us eat and drink for tomorrow we die’…” (1 Corinthians 15:14-34)

Spong, unsurprisingly, skips over this part of Paul’s writing because it flatly contradicts him. In trying to make his case that Paul did not believe in the empty tomb, he maintains that Paul taught a spiritual resurrection of Jesus’ spirit straight to God. He believes that this is because Paul did not hold a distinction between the resurrection of Jesus from the grave to life on earth and the ascension of Jesus to God, since he never mentions the ascension separately from the resurrection. But Luke does; Luke clearly separates the two because he places the resurrection appearances in The Gospel of Luke and then places the ascension in his 2nd volume – Acts of the Apostles.  Luke and Paul were ministry and travelling companions.   In their respective writings both of them write as being with the other as part of a travelling team.  In fact, it is because of Luke’s association with Paul that his two books, Luke and Acts, were accepted as authoritative.  So it would have been impossible for Luke to have a different view of the resurrection/ascension of Jesus than Paul had. Spong just ignores this, disregards Paul’s statements in 1 Corinthians, and then deceptively fabricates an imaginary Paul to fit his theory. I can only conclude that Spong is deliberately misleading his readers in what he writes about Paul.

One reason Spong feels he can do so is because he thinks that the evidence in support of the resurrection is solely in the accounts of his appearances at the end of the gospels. And since (in his mind) they are written late they do not carry much weight. I built the broad outline of the case for the resurrection in the videos in Session 7. You, I and Spong should all take note that the case there and in subsequent posts was developed without any recourse to any of the Gospel statements of Jesus’ resurrection. In Session 7 I used some of the Gospel accounts to obtain details of his death and then I used some passages in Acts to help us understand the extent of the opposition that this new movement faced in Jerusalem. That was it!  After that I used only extra-biblical sources to show that it is precisely the broad outlines of the verifiable facts outside of the Biblical testimony that argues so strongly for the resurrection of Jesus.

Paul viewed the resurrection and ascension of Jesus as distinct and real events. In the same way he viewed the resurrection of Jesus as an event distinct from, but also as a prefiguring for our eventual resurrection. Here is how he puts it:

Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed — in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.” (1 Corinthians 15:51-54)

The resurrection of Jesus is not only news pregnant with Hope, a potent simplicity, but is also news so firmly anchored in the verifiable facts of history that open-minded faith as small as a mustard seed could live and grow if but placed in the rich soil of its rationale.

Considering the Resurrection: From the eyes of Bishop Spong – Part 3

In my previous two posts (1 and 2) I had been looking at Bishop Shelby Spong’s view of the events surrounding the resurrection of Jesus. He is correct in that ‘something’ happened that demands an explanation. But he does not believe in the resurrection and so we have been following his scenario of Peter and the other disciples about-face.  Yet though he claims to be driven by reason, his scenario flies in the face of common-sense.

But the fact that you and I are sitting here contemplating this question probably comes from the influence of Paul as well as Peter. Paul was the one who first brought this message to Europe and hence the West. But Paul had originally been Saul – a violent opponent of the gospel. And while Peter and Paul were travelling the world with this message who was holding ‘the fort’ back in Jerusalem? It was James, the brother of Jesus who became the leader of the Gospel followers in Jerusalem. But when Jesus was alive and ministering publicly his brother James had little to do with him. The Gospel of John records a sarcastic exchange that his brothers gave him with this concluding comment ‘For even his own brothers did not believe in him’ (John 7:5). But we know about James’ subsequent life from many sources, including his own letter (‘James’) in the New Testament and also, outside the Bible, from the Jewish historian Josephus. Josephus says about James:

“Ananus [the high priest] was rash and followed the Sadducees, who are heartless when they sit in judgment. Ananus thought that with Festus dead and Albinus still on the way, he would have the opportunity. Convening the judges of the Sanhedrin [the Jewish ruling council] he brought before them a man named James, the brother of Jesus who was called the Christ, and certain others. He accused them of having transgressed the law, and condemned them to be stoned to death”[1]

Josephus is explaining that Ananus had just been made high priest and there was a bit of a power vacuum. Ananus used the opportunity to sentence James to death. He must have done this quickly since he was only high priest for 3 months in 62 AD. His father (also called Ananus) had sentenced Jesus to death about 30 years previously and Ananus Jr. quickly took the opportunity to do the same with James, Jesus’ brother. So James was a target for his years of leadership with the Jewish church in Jerusalem. This is an extra-biblical fact of history. So what caused James to go from mocker to leader of the gospel? Spong is ready with an answer.

One reason Spong believes he has the freedom to come up with a ‘new’ scenario is that he puts no weight on the testimony of the gospel accounts because he feels that they are written too late. So he dismisses their eyewitness statements on the resurrection of Jesus as pious fable. For the sake of argument let’s give him the benefit of his doubt. But Spong recognizes a problem in his rejection of the testimony of these ‘late’ gospels. There are other early-dated New Testament writings concerning the resurrection. What to do with this testimony? For example there is the passage in 1 Corinthians 15:1-8. This is a letter written by Paul about 55 AD, just 25 years after the death of Jesus. In these verses, Paul goes on to list the people that the risen Jesus appeared to. Paul writes:

“For what I received I passed onto you as of first importance: That Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. After that he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born” (1 Corinthians 15: 3-8)

So what does Spong do with this very early resurrection testimony? It lists in detail the people that saw Jesus raised – including James.

“The same is true of Paul’s reference to James…there was no record in the Christian writing of any role of discipleship during Jesus’ earthly life for anyone identified as a brother of Jesus, nor any appearance to James of the risen Lord, save for this single reference. The fact remains that James, the brother of Jesus, was a leader of the Christian church who exercised great authority. So the authority exercised demands some kind of explanation. Paul thus listed James as one who had seen Jesus”[2]

Spong recognizes the issue: that during the life of Jesus, his brother James was not a follower but afterwards the ‘fact remains’ that he became a ‘leader’ with ‘great authority’. How to account for the change? Spong’s ‘solution’ is simply to have Paul make up an appearance of Jesus to James, thus explaining his authority in the church. But this explains nothing. It is not James’ authority in the church that needs explaining; it is the fact that James even wanted to be part of the fledgling church that needs explaining. If the appearance to James is just made up, then it never happened. And if it never happened what on earth would cause James to go from a mocking, disbeliever when Jesus was alive to a leader and martyr in the movement with only the grisly resurrection-less crucifixion of Jesus for motivation? James would have had all the same questions that Peter would have had that we went over in the previous post. History shows that something happened to change James’ mind. If not the resurrection then what could it have been? Inserting an ‘appearance’ does not solve the problem. For some reason Spong thinks he has a solution but really he has ‘solved’ the wrong problem.

And it is not just James. What about the ‘five hundred’ that Paul mentions who saw Jesus at the same time, and many of whom were still alive at the time of writing of 1 Corinthians in 55 AD? Spong argues that:

“… who were the 500 brethren… it was not picked up and described in any recognizable form in any of the later gospels… it is enough now to acknowledge that Paul’s reference to Jesus’ appearance to 500 people at once is found nowhere in the gospel tradition”[3]

Earlier he had indicated that any resurrection testimony in the gospels was not really reliable because they were written so late. We gave him the benefit of his doubt. So then you would think he would take ‘early’ testimony seriously. But now he dismisses this early testimony of resurrection appearances precisely because it is not also mentioned in any of the ‘later’ gospels. For him it is ‘heads I win, tails you lose’.

And what about Paul himself? We continue following Spong’s analysis in our next post.

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[1] Josephus. 93 AD. Antiquities xx 197

[2] Resurrection: Myth or Reality? p. 52

[3] Ibid p. 52