I want to tell you that I personally prefer strength to weakness. I have enjoyed exotic food while on a fabulous cruise and I have had to get food from a food bank. I have been in good enough shape to make it through military basic training and have been weak enough to require a cane. I have received a scholarship for high marks and have gotten as low as 33% on university tests. In all of my experiences, I much prefer strength to weakness, abundance to want. But if there is one thing I have learned over the years it is that life doesn’t really care about my preferences.
What about you? Have you had times of both prosperity and desperation? Are you in a time of difficulty right now? Is it your health, your finances, your relationships? Are you longing for the good old days when everything seemed to come together?
I want you to think about the triumphal entry of Jesus. Jesus, the great teacher and miracle worker. The one who wasn’t afraid of the Herods, the religious teachers or the Romans. Jesus was a man of power and he was entering into Jerusalem. Some were saying that he was the promised messiah. Was this the moment? Was Jesus coming into Jerusalem to finally overthrow the Romans? Try to imagine the hopes and dreams of the Jews that knew something about Jesus. What were they expecting Jesus to do? Do you think they were hoping for strength or power?
What were the Jews expecting for the messiah? The words messiah and Christ mean anointed one and it is a reference to God’s chosen person to bring deliverance to his people. There is a problem with explaining what the Jewish hope for the messiah was. The problem was that there were many different interpretations. Some Jews even looked for two messiahs, a priestly messiah and a warrior messiah. There were many ways to look at the Old Testament prophecies. However, often our interpretations are based upon our circumstances.
Israel was in a difficult position. They were occupied by the Romans and forced to be a part of their empire. They had to pay taxes to the Romans. Although the Romans allowed the Jews to practice their religion, that could change at any moment. There were constant tensions. Just to give you an idea of how bad things were, within a hundred years of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, there were three major revolts against Rome, with the leader of the last of these being proclaimed messiah. It was rare for people within the Roman Empire to revolt, unheard of that anyone would do it three times. The reason for this was that the Jewish people had a hope that God would be with them. God didn’t seem to come through on their hopes. It seems that he might have had another plan.
But before getting to that, let’s return to ideas about the messiah. If there had been a golden age for Israel, it was during the time of King David. David had expanded the borders and built a mini-empire. He earned the respect of the surrounding nations through his military might. It was fitting that the capital of Israel would not be one of cities traditionally inhabited by the Hebrews but the freshly conquered Jebus, now renamed as Jerusalem. Jerusalem was a symbol of Israel’s might. That is why centuries later, after the Jewish exile, the first thing that Nehemiah and his associates did was to rebuild the walls.
The davidic line of kings had come to an end with the exile. But there was a hope that one of David’s descendants would rise up and with God’s power, restore Israel to its former glory. There definitely were descendants of David around and Jesus was one of them. A number of times people from the crowd would call him “Son of David” and so his ancestry was not a complete secret. Plus Jesus demonstrated that he had immense power. Casting out demons, healing the sick and even raising the dead. If Jesus could defeat demons and death, surely the Romans would be an easy foe to defeat. The people were ready. They were just waiting for Jesus to give the word and the revolt could begin.
A Different Kind of Messiah
There were Old Testament hopes of a descendant of David sent by God and Jesus was that son of David. But that is not the full picture. There were other pictures of the messiah that were not quite so inspiring, at least from a strength perspective.
In the book of Isaiah, there are some passages that speak of a suffering servant. Isaiah lived in a world just as uncertain as that of the Jews in the time of Jesus. The northern kingdom of Israel had just been conquered and exiles by the Assyrians. The southern kingdom of Judah was in a precarious position, surrounded by enemies. The people of Judah needed hope and encouragement. In response to this, Isaiah prophesied about a suffering servant.
This was no mighty warrior overthrowing his foes. It was exactly what the people of Judah didn’t want. There was nothing about him that was attractive, in fact he was repulsive. He was despised and hated. He was afflicted and punished. Eventually he is killed and tossed in a grave. If we were given the choice of a life from the Bible to experience, none of this would want this one. There is no strength, there is only weakness. You can see why this individual is called the suffering servant.
This is what Jesus was entering Jerusalem to fulfil. He was not coming to overthrow the Romans, he was coming to be executed by them. Jesus would be put on trial and mocked. They would beat him to the point that when it came time to carry his cross, he would be too weak. When Pontius Pilate gave the crowd the opportunity o free him, they would turn their backs on him. Jesus was condemned and crucified on a Roman cross. Where is the hope in all of that?
Going back to Isaiah’s prophecy, it was never just about suffering. It wasn’t as if God appointed someone to suffer and that was it. The prophecy ends on a note of victory. Something will take place after death that will not just benefit the servant but his people as well. There was a victory that was coming that was going to change everything.
When Jesus entered into Jerusalem, he was not going there just to suffer. He had his eye on the cross but he also was looking beyond the cross. His death was not just a terrible injustice. Something good was going to come from it. The details were not given to Isaiah, but we can look back and see what happened. Jesus would rise from the dead. Not only that, his death and resurrection were victories over sin and death. And Jesus was going to share his victory with his people. By placing our faith in Jesus Christ, we can experience eternal life. This is why the Friday that Jesus dies on is called Good Friday. Through natural eyes it was a horrible death but through the eyes of faith, it is a necessary step toward victory.
There have been times in my life where I wondered where God was. Not to go into details, but there have been circumstances that have been very difficult. I tried to serve God the best I could and not only was I suffering, people who were not even interested in God were living the easy life. What was I doing wrong?
This passage about the suffering servant completely overturns the idea that God’s people can expect a life of ease and comfort and that suffering is a punishment for being unfaithful. The Old Testament spends more time talking about the suffering of the messiah than it does about his victories. God’s way of doing things is not to work through strength but to work through weakness. That was true for Jesus and it is true for you.
Where are you at today? Are there parts of your life that are falling apart? Are you struggling with finances or health or relationships? Have you been overwhelmed with disappointments? I don’t want to minimize your suffering or cover it over with a Christian platitude. But I do want to point to hope. Suffering doesn’t mean that God has abandoned us, it means that he is closer to us than ever. Hope can be defined as assurance that what we are experiencing now is not the final chapter and that there is something better coming. Jesus had his cross but he also had his empty tomb. That victory should give us assurance that we can make it to the other side of what we are going through now.