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.

Jewish Testimony: Was Jesus the son of a virgin from the line of David?

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In my last post I explained where the title ‘Christ’ came from, and I opened up an age-old can of worms: was Jesus of Nazareth the ‘Christ’ predicted in the Hebrew Old Testament? That’s a great question to mull over in the Christmas season.  I used Psalm 132 to show the origin of the prediction that the Christ was to come from the line of David.  You can see that it was not a Christian idea or invention since it has its source in the Hebrew/Jewish Psalms written 1000 years before Jesus was born and the controversy surrounding him exploded onto his world.

Was Jesus really from the line of David?

But the New Testament claim of ‘fulfilling’ this prophecy seems certainly suspect.  The reason that Matthew and Luke include the genealogy of Jesus in their gospel accounts is that they want us to see a fulfillment of this Jewish prophecy in Jesus.  But who is to say that they didn’t just make up their genealogies to get a ‘fulfillment’?  That would be a more natural explanation than ‘Divine’ fulfillment.  Many of us confronted with this question just leave it at that and either believe or not based on pre-existing biases.  But hold your verdict!  The case is not fully heard and the jury should still be out.

It helps when trying to find out what ‘really’ happened to seek the testimony of hostile witnesses.  A hostile witness was on-hand at the scene in question but does not agree with your overall belief or conclusion and thus has motive for contradicting or refuting the steps you take to reach your conclusion.  Suppose there has been a car accident between persons A and B.  Both blame each other for the accident.  But suppose person A says that he saw person B texting just before the accident.  Person B has no motive for agreeing with Person A on this point, and if he does admit that yes he was texting just before the accident then the judge and jury have good reason to at least bet that person B was texting since the hostile and eye-witness parties agree on this point, and person B has nothing to gain and only to lose by agreeing to this point.

In the same way, sifting through hostile historical sources can help move us much further along as to what really happened in the controversies and events of Jesus.  In that light I found it interesting when I studied the noted and distinguished scholar F.F. Bruce’s work Jesus and Christian Origins outside the New Testament. (1974  215pp.).  In that study, he identified and analyzed Jewish Rabbinical references to Jesus in the Talmud and Mishnah.  He noted the following rabbinical comments about Jesus:

Ulla said: Would you believe that any defence would have been so zealously sought for him (i.e. Jesus)?  He was a deceiver and the All-merciful says: ‘You shall not spare him neither shall you conceal him’[Deut 13:9]  It was different with Jesus for he was near to the kingship”  p. 56

FF Bruce makes this remark about that rabbinical statement

The portrayal is that they were trying to find a defence for him (an apologetic note against Christians is detected here).  Why would they try to defend one with such crimes?  Because he was ‘near to the kingship’ i.e. of David.  p. 57

In other words, the Jewish rabbis did not dispute the Gospel writers’ contention that Jesus really was in the line of David.  Though they did not accept Jesus’ overall claim to Messiah and were hostile to the Gospel claims about him, they still affirmed that Jesus was in the royal line of David.  So we know that the Gospel writers did not simply make that up to get a ‘fulfillment’.   The hostile witnesses agree on this point.

What about being born of a virgin?

Now we may not react too strongly against the claim that Jesus was from David.  After all, there is always a distinct statistical possibility of this being true ‘by chance’.  But born of a virgin?!  There is no possibility of this happening ‘by chance’.  It is one of: a misunderstanding, a made-up fraud, or a Divine Happening – no other option exists.

Luke and Matthew quite clearly state that Mary conceived Jesus while she was a virgin.  And Matthew ups the ante by quoting and claiming that this was a clear fulfillment of a prophecy from Isaiah (ca 750 BC) which said:

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel (i.e. ‘God with us’) Isaiah 7:14 (and quoted in Matthew 1:23 as a fulfillment)

Isaiah shown in historical timeline.  He lived in the period of the rule of the Davidic Kings

Isaiah shown in historical timeline. He lived in the period of the rule of the Davidic Kings

Virgin or Young Maiden

It is at this point where plausibly natural explanations come to mind.  If you dig just a little bit (as some do) you learn that the Hebrew (הָעַלְמָ֗ה transliterated haalmah) which is translated to ‘virgin’ above in English could also mean ‘young maiden’, i.e. a young unmarried woman.  Perhaps that is all that Isaiah ever meant to say, way back in 750 BC, and given some pious ‘need’ on the part of Matthew and Luke to venerate Jesus they misunderstood Isaiah to mean ‘virgin’ when he really meant ‘young woman’.  And given the untimely (yet convenient for the ‘fulfilled prophecy’ plotline) pregnancy of Mary before her marriage it neatly developed into a ‘divine fulfillment’ centerpiece in the birth story of Jesus.

Many have recounted some such explanation to me over the years, and on the one hand I can’t refute this explanation – after all proofs about being a virgin or not are difficult if not impossible to frame.  But, for a fact, the story is not this simple.  Because we saw in the last post that the Septuagint was a Jewish translation of the Hebrew into Greek that was done in 250 BC – two hundred fifty years before Jesus was born.  How did these Jewish

History of the MSSs that give us modern Bibles inc. LXX and Dead Sea Scrolls

Old Testament manuscript timeline: Septuagint (LXX) is translated ca 250 BC

rabbis translate Isaiah 7:14 from the Hebrew into the Greek?  Did they translate it as ‘young woman’ or ‘virgin’?  What amazes me is that though scores of people who I have talked to about this seem to know enough to dig into the fact that the original Hebrew can mean either ‘young woman’ or ‘virgin’, not one among these scores has ever brought up the witness of the Septuagint.  When you look there you see that it is rendered unequivocally and categorically as παρθένος  (transliterated parthenos), which means ‘virgin’.  In other words, the leading Jewish rabbis of 250 BC understood the Hebrew Isaiah prophecy to mean ‘virgin’, not ‘young woman’ – over two hundred years before Jesus came on the scene.

I find this so interesting because why would a group (seventy of them according to tradition) of leading scholars make such a seemingly ridiculous and far-fetched prediction that a virgin would have a son. If you think it is because they were superstitious and unscientific in that day then think again.  People in that era were farmers.  They knew all about how breeding worked.  Hundreds of years before the Septuagint Abraham and Sarah knew that after a certain age menopause kicked in and childbearing was impossible.  No, scholars in 250 BC did not know about the periodic table of elements or the complete electro-magnetic spectrum, but they understood how animals and people reproduced. They would have known it was out-on-a-limb, naturalistically-defying, to predict a virgin birth.  But they did not retreat, they did not hedge their bets and make it ‘young woman’ in the Septuagint.  No they inked it in black and white that a virgin would have a son.

And now consider the fulfillment part of this story.  Though it cannot be proven that Mary was a virgin, she was remarkably in the only and very brief stage of life where it could at least remain an open question.  This was an age of large families.  Families with ten children were not uncommon.  Given that, what was the chance that Jesus would be the oldest child? If he had had an older brother or sister then we would know Mary was not a virgin.  In our day when families have about 2 children it is a 50-50 chance, but back then it was closer to a 1 in 10 chance.  In other words, the chance was 9 out of 10 that the ‘fulfillment’ should just be dismissed by the simple fact that Jesus had an older sibling – but (against the odds) he didn’t.

And now layer the remarkable timing of the betrothal onto this.  If she had been married just a few days the virgin ‘fulfillment’ could again simply be dismissed.  On the other hand, if she had not yet been engaged and was found to be pregnant she would not have had a fiance to care for her.  In that culture, as a pregnant but unbetrothed woman she would have had to fend for herself – if she had been allowed to live.

Mary’s Context

It is these remarkable and unlikely set of ‘coincidences’ that make the virgin explanation impossible to disprove that strikes me. As I showed above these coincidences are not expected, but rather they exhibit that same sense of balance and timing, especially given the virgin prediction in the Septuagint, that show plan and intent – that of a Mind.

If Mary had been married for some time before Jesus was born, or if he had older siblings, then the hostile witness of his opponents would surely have brought that out.  Instead it seems that, once again, they defer to the gospel writers on this point.  FF Bruce notes this as he explains how Jesus is referred to in the rabbinical writings:

Jesus is referred to in rabbinical literature as Jesus ben Pantera or Ben Pandira.  This might mean ‘the son of the panther’.  The most probable explanation is that it is a corruption of parthenos, the Greek word for ‘virgin’ and arose from Christian references to him as a son of a virgin   (p57-58)

Today, as back in Jesus’ time, there is plenty of hostility to Jesus and the claims of the gospel.  Then, as now, there was significant animosity to him.  But the difference in hostility is that back then they were also witnesses, and as hostile witnesses they did not refute the very points that they should have been able to, had these points been made up or in error.

But the story does not even end there.  Even those hostile to the supernatural claims about Jesus admire him for the life he lived on a purely human level.  People may debate his divinity, but rarely do they argue about his morality.  And it is at this point, that once again the grudging acceptance of those hostile should cause us to pause and ask:  Where did he get this different morality from?  The acclaimed moral life lived is also a signature of that disputed Virgin Birth.

The Final Countdown – Embedded in the Beginning

In my last few posts I have looked at how mankind and Lucifer fell from their initial created state. I then used the story of Pinocchio that has helped me to visualize and understand what God was hoping for His creation. But hope is one thing, an executed plan is another.  Jepetto (the creator in Pinocchio) did not have a plan to redeem Pinocchio (it happened apart from him), and here the Pinocchio analogy falls short. In the Biblical account, God has a plan that He will execute. This plan has two parts: A Promise and a Curse. Here I look at the Promise and later I look at the Curse.

The Bible – Really a Library

To appreciate the significance of this Promise we must know some basic things about the Bible. Though it is a book, and we think of it as such, it is actually more accurate to think of it as a mobile library. This is because it is a collection of books, written by a diverse set of authors, over a time span that exceeds 1500 years, which today is bound up into one volume. This fact alone makes the Bible unique among the Great Books of the world. The different books of the Bible make statements, declarations and predictions that later books pick up on. If the Bible was written by just one author, or a group of authors that knew each other that should not cause us to take note. But the authors of the Bible are separated by hundreds and even thousands of years, writing in different civilizations, languages, social strata, and literary genres – yet their messages, allusions and predictions are picked up seamlessly by later authors or are fulfilled through facts of history verifiable outside the Bible. This makes the Bible unique on a whole different level – and knowing that we should take note. Existing manuscript copies of these books are dated to about 200 BC so the textual base of the Bible is better, by far, than all other ancient books of the world.

I gave a public presentation recently entitled Does God Exist? at McMaster University and will upload the whole presentation shortly. But I have included the first 10 minutes in the video clip below which covers the diversity of authors and the manuscript texts of the books in the Bible. View it to better appreciate the points I am making above.

The Gospel Promise in the Garden

We see this foreshadowing ability clearly in the Creation and Fall account right at the beginning of the book of Genesis in the Bible. In other words, though it is recounting the Beginning, it was written with the End in view.  Here we see a Promise when God confronts Satan (Lucifer) and speaks to him in a riddle:

“… and I (God) will put enmity between you (Satan) and the woman and between your offspring and hers. He will crush your head and you will strike his heel.” (Genesis 3:15)

This is a Promise in riddle form – but it is understandable. Reading carefully you will see that there are five different characters mentioned and that this is prophetic in that it is looking forward-in-time (seen by the repeated use of ‘will’ as in future tense). The characters are:

  1. God
  2. Satan (or Lucifer)
  3. The woman
  4. The offspring of the woman
  5. The offspring of Satan

And the riddle predicts how these characters will relate to each other in the future. This is shown below

Relationships between the characters depicted in the Promise

God will orchestrate that both Satan and the woman will have an ‘offspring’. There will be ‘enmity’ or hatred between these offspring and between the woman and Satan. Satan will ‘strike the heel’ of the offspring of the woman while the offspring of the woman will ‘crush the head’ of Satan.

Deductions on the Offspring – a ‘he’

So far we have just made observations directly from the text. Now for some reasoned deductions. Because the ‘offspring’ of the woman is referred to as a ‘he’ and a ‘his’ we know that it is a single male human – a man. With that we can discard some possible interpretations. As a ‘he’ the offspring is not a ‘she’ and thus cannot be a woman – but the ‘he’ comes from a woman. As a ‘he’ the offspring is not a ‘they’, which it could have plausibly been, perhaps a group of people, or a race, or a team, or a nation. At various times and in various ways people have thought that a ‘they’ would be the answer. But the offspring, being a ‘he’ is NOT a group of people whether that refers to a nation or those of a certain religion as in Jews, Christians or Muslims etc. As a ‘he’ the offspring is not an ‘it’ (the offspring is a person). This eliminates the possibility that the offspring is a particular philosophy, teaching, technology, political system, or religion. An ‘it’ of these kinds would probably have been, and still is, our preferred choice to fix the world. We think that what will fix our situation is some kind of ‘it’, so the best of human thinkers through the centuries have advocated different political systems, educational systems, technologies, religions etc. But in this Promise the compass is pointed in a totally different direction. God had something else in mind – a ‘he’. And this ‘he’ would crush the head of the serpent.

Another interesting observation comes from what is not said. God does not promise the man an offspring like he promises the woman (we will see further what He promises there in the Curse). This is quite extraordinary especially given the emphasis of sons coming through fathers throughout the Bible. In fact, one criticism of the genealogies in the Bible by modern Westerners is that they ignore the blood lines that go through women. It is ‘sexist’ in our eyes because it just considers sons of men. But in this case here it is different – there is no promise of an offspring (a ‘he’) coming from a man. It says only that there will be an offspring coming from the woman, without mentioning a man.

Out of all the humans that have ever existed that I can think of, historically or mythically, only two have never had a physical father (this includes the Greek demi-gods who were sired by ‘gods’ like Zeus being with mortal women). The first was Adam, created directly by God. The second was Jesus who (the New Testament claim goes) was born of a virgin – thus no human father. Is Jesus being foreshadowed here in this riddle? This fits with the observation that the offspring is a ‘he’, not a ‘she’, ‘they’ or ‘it’. With that perspective, if you read the riddle some pieces fall into place.

‘Strike his Heel’??

But what does it mean that the serpent would strike ‘his heel’? I could never see it until I worked in the jungles of Cameroon. We had to wear thick rubber boots even in the humid heat – because the snakes there lay in the long grass and would strike your foot – i.e. your heel – and that would kill you. My first day there I almost stepped on a snake, and could have died from it. The riddle made sense to me after that. The ‘he’ would destroy the serpent, but the price he would have to pay, would be that he would be killed.  That does foreshadow the victory achieved through the death of Jesus.

The offspring of the Serpent?

But who is his other protagonist, this offspring of Satan? Though we do not have space here to trace it out exhaustively, the later books speak of a coming person. Note the descriptions:

“… when their sin is at its height, a fierce king, a master of intrigue, will rise to power. He will become very strong, but not by his own power. He will cause a shocking amount of destruction and succeed in everything he does. He will destroy powerful leaders and devastate the holy people.  He will be a master of deception and will become arrogant; he will destroy many without warning. He will even take on the Prince of princes in battle, but he will be broken, though not by human power. (Daniel 8: 23-25; written by Daniel in Babylon ca 550 BC)

A man, with an invisible power behind him will challenge the ‘Prince of princes’ but his head too ‘will be crushed’.

Concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered to him … Don’t let anyone deceive you in any way, for that day will not come until the rebellion occurs and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the man doomed to destruction. He will oppose and will exalt himself over everything that is called God or is worshiped, so that he sets himself up in God’s temple, proclaiming himself to be God. (2 Thessalonians 2:1-4; written by Paul in Greece ca 50 AD)

Hmm … sounds like an echo of Lucifer’s challenge at the dawn of time. The old saying, ‘the apple does not fall far from the tree’ may apply here. And the last book in the Bible, many pages and thousands of years removed from the Promise in Genesis, predicts:

The beast, which you saw, once was, now is not, and will come up out of the Abyss and go to his destruction. The inhabitants of the earth whose names have not been written in the book of life from the creation of the world will be astonished when they see the beast, because he once was, now is not, and yet will come. This calls for a mind with wisdom. (Revelation 17:8-9; written by John on an island off Turkey ca 90 AD)

These later books (again note the diversity of authors, settings and eras they were written in) more explicitly speak of a countdown to a clash between the offspring of the woman and Satan’s offspring. But it is first mentioned in embryo-like form in this Promise of Genesis, at the very beginning of Biblical History, with details waiting to be filled in. So the climax of history, the countdown to a final contest between Satan and God, started long ago in the Garden is foreseen at that same beginning – the earliest Book.  It could almost make one think that history is really His-Story.

Click here to see & hear a video presentation on this in a Christmas context.