If you were President of the United States, how would you choose to travel? In the official limousine, surrounded by dozens of armed Secret Service officers, and with a fleet of security and police vehicles leading the way, their blaring sirens and flashing lights signalling your importance? Or would you rather be carried through the streets in a beat-up 1980 Ford Pinto, a moving wreck that belches smoke, is rustier than an old shovel, and is kept intact mainly with duct tape? You’d choose the limo, of course. Why not? You’re the President – you’re entitled to some pomp and circumstance; you have a right to all the glory that comes with being the leader of the world’s most powerful nation.
When Jesus rode into Jerusalem just days before his death, he was rightly hailed by the people as the King of Israel. And by rights he was entitled to all the earthly glory of a king. For this reason, he should have mounted a warhorse, a majestic steed, a creature with a magnificence befitting the King of Israel. That was his rightful presidential limo. But Jesus chose the rusty old Ford instead – he rode atop a lowly donkey, and on that humble beast he made his entrance into the Holy City.
Why did Jesus ride a donkey in his Triumphal Entry? He did so to fulfill prophecy: “… 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,…” (Zechariah 3:9). The key word here is “humble”: the Lord sat astride a donkey to signify that, though he was the Almighty Son of God, he entered our world in complete humility, meekness, and lowliness. Just as he was born to a no-name family from backwater Galilee, Jesus shunned earthly glory when he rode to Jerusalem. Unlike every king and ruler before and since, he sought a different kind of glory.
Not long after his ride to Jerusalem, Jesus said, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified” (John 12:23). You might imagine his disciples thinking, “Finally, our teacher will take the throne of Israel, defeat the Romans, and reign in splendor over our people – Messiah’s glory is near!” But Jesus uttered next these seemingly incoherent words: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (v.24). A grain of wheat dying? Death? What does this have to do with glory?
Everything. When Christ proclaimed “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified,” he was talking about his death. And not just any death, but crucifixion. There was nothing so shameful as to spend your last wretched hours nailed to a Roman cross. You hang there in unspeakable agony while onlookers cast their scornful gaze on your naked and bleeding body. On the cross you are a public reproach, an abomination to every decent and honorable human being. The Romans didn’t crucify every offender they executed, only the worst. But that’s how the sinless Son of God was put to death.
What’s more, according to the Scriptures, a crucified man was not just a reproach in the eyes of humanity, he was cursed by God. Galatians 3:13, citing the Old Testament, says, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree.” This means when Jesus hung on the cross, he was God-cursed. Shame, disgrace, abject humiliation, a curse. And this is “glory”?
Mark carefully these words, because here is the heart of the Christian message: Jesus suffered the reproach and the curse of the cross in the place of sinners. Have you ever considered how truly heinous your sin is the sight of God? Look to the cross and measure, if you’re able, the evil of your sin. You see, as a sinner, it is you who deserves to bear that awful judgment: the shame and disgrace, and yes, even the curse of God.
But look again at the cross and measure, if you’re able, the unsearchable riches of God’s love for sinners. Jesus endured that judgment on behalf of sinners, so that all who believe in him might be freed forever from condemnation, forgiven of their sin, and given eternal life. These wonderful realities belong to everyone who believes in Jesus Christ.
But here is the glory – when the Son of God endured the pain and curse of the cross as a vicarious sacrifice for a lost people, he defeated for all time Satan, sin, and death, and he established an eternal Kingdom of redeemed sinners. Everything is backward and upside-down with the cross: it is power in weakness, victory in death, glory in shame.
And the same goes for the true Christian life. The Christian faith is not about victory in this world over suffering. God may allow you to get sick, to suffer financially, to lose a loved one, to endure persecution. But the Christian life is walking by faith in, and in the steps of, a Savior whose glory was his cross. Therefore the true Christian life is triumph in defeat, joy in sorrow, life in death, freedom in obedience, hope in despair, and comfort in suffering.
Here is the secret to Christ’s lowering himself in his incarnation, suffering, and death: he sought no earthly glory, but rather he set his heart on an infinitely greater glory. That is, the glory of an eternal kingdom, and of a new heavens and earth in which there is only righteousness, joy, peace, and life. Do you have your heart set on this glory, too? Then take up the cross of Christ and follow him in the path of obedience and suffering. “For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” (2 Cor. 4:17).