The crucifixion of Christ looms large in our mind and our art, but how did it actually happen?  How did the Romans carry out their work?  Where did it come from?  Yet despite the historical details, the fact remains that the cross was the most fitting way for Christ to die, because God chose it from before the foundation of the world.  Join us for a discussion on the details, the stigma, and the glory of the cross of Christ.

Hosts: Rev. Willie Grills and Rev. Zelwyn Heide

Regular Guest: Rev. David Appold

Episode: 96

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The choice of Matthew 21:1-9 for the First Sunday in Advent emphasizes the royal coming of Christ. As such, it is a choice driven by the demands of the season more than the text itself. Jesus entering Jerusalem figures prominently in the upcoming passion. The Son of David, humble and lowly, comes into His own. By extension, this can also be applied to His present reign, though it is important to remember that Christ sends His Holy Spirit among us now (John 16:7).

Christ began His final journey toward Jerusalem beginning at the Jordan (Matthew 19:1). Jericho lay a short distance to the east (Matthew 20:29), and a road going uphill in a southeasterly fashion went toward Jerusalem. Perhaps not incidentally, this eastward movement away from the Jordan River by way of Jericho happens often in the Scriptures (Two examples are Joshua 3, where Israel enters the Promised Land; and 2 Kings 2, where Elijah is translated opposite Jericho and then Elisha returns.). Even in His movement, the Lord fulfills the Scriptures.

Bethphage, literally “house of unripe figs,” appears to be a small village on or near the Mount of Olives. Christ would have been following the road heading southward into Jerusalem, suggesting that Bethphage lay somewhere nearby to the north or northeast. Jesus exercises His omnipotence by telling two of His disciples how and where to find a donkey in front of them.

Matthew clearly demonstrates how Jesus fulfills prophecy through this by citing Zechariah 9:9. In its original context, Zechariah prophesies against the nations which oppressed Israel. Tyre and Sidon, Philistia, Damascus—all will suffer the judgment when the King of Zion comes. His reign will be one of peace and “his rule shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth” (Zechariah 9:10). Such a prophecy connects Him closely to Solomon. Solomon was a king of peace, since the Lord gave him rest on every side during the length of his reign (1 Kings 5:3-4). Solomon also ruled over Israel at its greatest extent (1 Kings 4:21), though not the fullest promised (Exodus 23:31; the second half of Joshua). Solomon’s apostasy showed that the Lord’s purposes had not yet come to their end, but now Jesus, riding as the Son of David, comes into the City of David to claim the throne.

Everything about this scene, however, shows how far the house of David had fallen. Christ is not a king who was rich like Solomon, but poor and lowly. A donkey, found in a common village, is His mount. As Isaiah prophesied about Immanuel, the boy born of a Virgin would eat curds and honey (much like the poor diet of John the Baptist), and not the sumptuous feasts of His royal predecessors (Isaiah 7:15).

The crowd which gathers about Him on the road north of Jerusalem, however, seems to look past His lowly state. Just as people laid their garments on the ground at the proclamation of Jehu as king, whom the Lord raised up to chastise the house of Ahab (2 Kings 9:13), so they also laid their garments before Christ, who would go on to chastise the money-changers in the temple (Matthew 21:12). Then with the words of Psalm 118 in their mouths, they cried out before Him.

“Hosanna” is a Hebrew word, meaning “save us.” (This makes it, as a side note, related to the name Jesus, which in Hebrew is more like Joshua, “the Lord saves.”) Its usage here as “Hosanna to” suggests it had become a liturgical word much like “amen.” However, the crowd addresses this cry to the “Son of David” here rather than to the “Lord” as in Psalm 118:25. The substitution is not an accident. The Son of David, as Christ so frequently points out to His opponents, is the rejected stone which becomes the cornerstone (Psalm 118:22; Matthew 22:41-45).

With that being said, however, I wonder whether the crowd fully recognized the import of what it was saying. Not only would they bay for His blood not a few days later, but they also tell the bewildered people in Jerusalem itself that Jesus is a prophet (Matthew 21:11). The King of King has come to His own, and His own knew Him not (John 1:11).

Leviticus 12 outlines the ritual of purification, which differs between a male and a female child, as well as making provisions for poverty. Immediately following the birth is a period of ritual impurity, identical in length to her regular menstrual impurity (Leviticus 15:19). Since childbirth is therefore connected to a general emission of blood, the purpose of such purification is to “keep the people of Israel separate from their uncleanness, lest they die in their uncleanness by defiling my tabernacle that is in their midst” (Leviticus 15:31). A woman could not approach the holy things of God “nor come into the sanctuary” (Leviticus 12:4). The Lord’s blessing of fruitfulness in the original creation (Genesis 1:28) as well as the promised blessings of fruitfulness (as in Deuteronomy 28:11) show that childbirth itself was not sinful. Rather, the shedding of blood involved in bearing a child made her ritually impure, as Leviticus 12:7 implies: “then she shall be clean from the flow of her blood.”

In the case of a male child, her normal period of uncleanness, seven days, preceded the circumcision on the eighth day. She would then persist thirty-three days until she could present her offering. (The doubling of this period for a female child is outside the scope of this study, though it is worth noting that such distinctions between male and female exist elsewhere in Scripture.) Once the period of her cleansing ended, she presented a lamb and a bird as a sin offering in order to make atonement. The Law also mercifully allows for the substitution of two birds in the case of poverty, which was the case for Mary when she presented Jesus at the temple. Given the seven day period, if the eighth day is part of the thirty-three, this event occurs forty days after the birth of Christ.

Because Jesus was Mary’s firstborn son, Luke also includes a note regarding the unique character of such a child. During the original Passover, the Lord struck down the firstborn of Egypt (Exodus 12:29-30). In so doing, He redeemed the firstborn of Israel, giving Egypt as their ransom (Isaiah 43:3; Numbers 3:13; 8:17). Therefore, from that point forward, the firstborn was uniquely consecrated to the Lord (Exodus 13:2, 12, 15). However, because of the sin of Israel with the golden calf and the faithfulness of Levi on that day (Exodus 32:26), the Levites were substituted for the firstborn in general (Numbers 3:40-51). It may be, therefore, that Luke means to identify Jesus not only as the firstborn of Israel in this way, but also as the Levite par excellance, being our great High Priest.

During the purification of Mary, Simeon sees the Lord’s Christ and blesses the Lord with a unique song of thanksgiving. Mary’s song in Luke 1:46-55 finds some parallels with the song of Hannah in 1 Samuel 2:1-10, and Zechariah’s song in Luke 1:68-79, emphasizing the Lord’s faithfulness and redemption, finds many parallels in the Old Testament (such as Exodus 15). However, since Simeon saw with his own eyes the promised consolation of Israel, his song has no real parallel. Here was the promised salvation! Here was the light of revelation to the Gentiles! Here was the glory of Israel! How many eyes longed to see what he saw, yet did not see it (Matthew 13:17)!

But Simeon also recognizes that this Christ will also be a stumbling block to Israel. Since Israel according to the flesh sought a righteousness based on works (Romans 9:32), the coming of Christ would reveal their distortion of the Law for what it was. Simeon therefore not only anticipates the continual struggle between hard hearted Israel and Christ, but also that they would crucify the Lord of Glory, even to the point of denying the plain reality of the resurrection with the least ridiculous lie they could get away with (Matthew 28:13).

Anna here seems to appear as a second witness to Christ, suggesting the twofold testimony required for establishing a claim (though usually stated negatively as a charge for a crime, such as Deuteronomy 17:6, 19:15). Her descent from Asher is unique, since Asher never usually features prominently in the Old Testament. The second son of Zilpah, Asher means something like “happy” (Genesis 30:13). Jacob and Moses both bless Asher with richness and favor (Genesis 49:20; Deuteronomy 33:24). However, Asher failed to fulfill the conquest of Canaan (Judges 1:31-32), leading them to be grouped into the Northern Kingdom with Ephraim and exposing them to all kinds of idolatry and apostasy. However, in the days of Hezekiah, some of the tribe of Asher “humbled themselves and came to Jerusalem” (2 Chronicles 30:11), because there were still some who held to the Lord. Thus, happy indeed this faithful daughter of Asher who saw the redemption of Jerusalem!

Finally, Luke’s purpose in relating this event is to emphasize that Christ fulfilled the Law of the Lord, even when He had to rely on His mother and Joseph to do so! For “when they had performed everything according to the Law of the Lord, they returned into Galilee” (Luke 2:39). After this event, Jesus would begin to fulfill the Law Himself, but Mary feared the Lord and kept the Law regarding her purification. It was, of course, Christ’s own righteousness at work, even in the purification of Mary, for the uncircumcised child was guilty of breaking the covenant (Genesis 17:14). Infancy was not a valid defense in this case, even if it happened because of the negligence, willful or otherwise, of someone else. However, Christ, in the hands of Mary and Joseph, kept the Law even from birth, so as to be the perfect substitute.

The prophet Micah was more or less a contemporary of Isaiah.  Micah 1:1 notes that his ministry stretched from the reign of Jotham to Hezekiah in Judah.  His time was a turbulent one.  While Jotham and Hezekiah were both good kings in the sight of the Lord (2 Kings 15:32-38 and 18:1-8), Ahaz was not (2 Kings 16).  If things had been improving when Micah began, they certainly took a hard turn not long after.  On top of that, the northern kingdom of Israel fell during his days (2 Kings 17:6).  It is a period of turbulence and upheaval everywhere.

Micah initially directs his rebuke against the people in general, warning them of their coming destruction because of their sins.  The people were complacent and distorted the promises of God to mean something entirely different.  “’Do not preach’—thus they preach— ‘one should not preach of such things; disgrace will not overtake us’” (Micah 2:6).  God will surely not destroy His chosen people, right?  But they were carnally secure, thinking that the promises applied to them even if they did not walk in the ways of the Lord.  “If a man should go about and utter wind and lies, saying, ‘I will preach to you of wine and strong drink,’ he would be the preacher for this people” (Micah 2:11)!  The Lord does not promise to save the faithless or the rebellious.  Was that the case, who would ever be condemned?

Micah also rebukes those in command, because they in particular were “eating up” the people through their sins (Micah 3).  The prophets were preaching lies and crying “peace” when there was no peace.  They were promising that the sinful people would remain in the land, though in our own day many say that God does not actually hate sin.  Manifest sinners are part of the Church, right?  Nor is it right to say that we are all sinners, which is true enough in itself.  No one deserves grace.  But to say that someone who refuses to repent of a sin, declaring it to be natural or that God has made them this way, is to declare peace when there is no peace.  “Therefore it shall be night to you, without vision, and darkness to you, without divination. The sun shall go down on the prophets, and the day shall be black over them; the seers shall be disgraced, and the diviners put to shame; they shall all cover their lips, for there is no answer from God” (Micah 3:6-7).

But the Lord promises to His faithful remnant that “out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the Word of the Lord from Jerusalem” (Micah 4:2).  If the day of destruction is surely coming, then the day of peace is also coming in Jesus Christ.  Bethlehem Ephrathah, being too small to supply men for military service, will be the place from whom the Ruler shall come (Micah 5:2).  Jesus, born in Bethlehem, will be the one to bring peace to the land.  There will be no more war or idolatry in the land anymore.

Micah 6-7 forms the final section of the book.  The Lord brings an indictment against His people:  why have they turned away when He has done so much for them (Micah 6:1-5)?  It will not do to offer thanksgiving without atonement, so to speak.  Sin must be atoned for, and rivers of oil will not cover over it (Micah 6:6-8).  The wicked will come to an end for their sins, especially seen in the sins against their own brothers (Micah 6:9-16).

Yet even though the righteous man suffers much, especially at the hands of the wicked, the Lord will not fail him.  He is not righteous because of anything he has done, but because the Lord “pleads my cause and executes judgment for me.  He will bring me out to the light; I shall look upon His vindication” (Micah 7:9).  After all, God pardons iniquity and passes over transgression for His faithful remnant.  Casting our sins into the depths of the seas, the Lord shows that promised faithfulness.  Abraham and our fathers have not been cast off, and God does not cast us off because of His Son.