Summary: God glorifies the Messiah through death both to give life to his people and to honor those that die.
John’s way of telling the story of Messiah has provided many opportunities to focus on him both as prophet (the very Word of God in human flesh) and as priest (the sacrifice for the sins of the people). In today’s text, Christ as King is the focus.
500 years before the events we are studying, after the exile, the Jewish people were (understandably) concerned about whether God was for them. Their flagrant rebellion had led the Lord to bring their enemies against them and to rip them from the promised land. Now they were back, but the former glory was faded, and they doubted God’s compassion. In the midst of those difficulties, the prophet Zechariah urged the people to return to the Lord and renew their covenant with him, because God is faithful and continues to provide and care. In fact, Zechariah added, “God is sending a King, righteous, bringing salvation, humble and mounted on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”
Today we hear the fulfillment of that Old Testament prophecy and of the response of the people. The crowd surely did not think of Zechariah when they saw Jesus; they simply hoped for a king who would rule well and rescue them from the pains and injustices of life. Yet God uses all things to bring his plan to completion, and they say more than they know when they shout to Jesus the words of Psalm 118: “Save us—Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” We now call this event, “Palm Sunday” because palm branches, tokens of the triumphal entry of a great king or warrior, were placed in the path of Jesus.
[Read John 12.12-26. Pray.]
I searched for John Piper and “die to self,” thinking he must have written on the subject. Sure enough, there were many hits. A page called “The Internet Monk” caught my eye. His blogings were typically trite, but I did find an interesting comment from an angry woman. She complained about the foolishness of Christianity for suggesting that we die to self. She had tried it—her husband was a louse, but she served him and sought to win him without a word. At the end all she had was pain and sorrow.
“If you love your life you will lose it; only those who hate their life, keep it.” Jesus’ intense contrast grabs the casual listener by the collar, shakes them to attention, and demands we recognize that true religion is not principally about our ease. But what does it mean to “hate your life in this world”? Hate?, as in the way those who commit suicide claim to hate themselves? Pascal believed it a universal truth that all people seek happiness: “This is the motive of every action of every man, even of those who hang themselves” (Pensees, 425).
Is “hating your life” some type of super-abundant guilt felt down in the depths of your bowels, which, if it does not incapacitate you, at least depresses you enough to damage every interaction with others? How much guilt do we need?
Or is hatred really compulsive discontent, refusing ever to be satisfied? Are the rich and healthy excluded from eternal joy? What about those raised by godly parents, who really have nothing of which to complain? How do they hate their lives?
Or, is Jesus speaking of an inner angst we all must feel, a form of psychological suicide which either makes all true Christians neurotic, or all neurotics potential converts? Were the monks right in saying that those who follow Jesus need some form of fleshly suffering for the proper hatred? A rock in the shoe, perhaps? I wonder, how big a rock? How far must we walk? Should it have sharp edges?
Is Jesus asking you to “beat yourself up” on a regular basis, not physically, but emotionally, mentally, spiritually, psychologically? Or is confession of sin enough to experience eternal rewards? How many sins? Every sin, committed every day, in every, specific way? Or will a general, “Have mercy on me, a sinner!” suffice? Or, is true Christianity revealed by weeping over sin? What amount of sorrow is sufficient for salvation?
Careful Bible students discover that there are other statements from Jesus which add nuance and depth to “hating your life.” Dr. Luke records one: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9.23). What is Jesus asking of us? How shall we live? What does it feel like to deny yourself and follow a suffering Savior? To explore these questions, first note:
1. Because Christ Died, We May Live (John 12.23-24)
At first, these verses seem unrelated to Palm Sunday, prompting many pastors preach a separate sermon about the Triumphant Entry, then the next week deal with call to die. Explaining this is further complicated by Jesus’ apparent refusal to answer the request of the Greeks who wished to see him. Here is how verses 12-26 are united: