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Crowds change nothing—disciples change the world

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Topical Scripture: Matthew 21:1-11

Eugene Colvin was one of our church’s most popular members. Eugene struggled with cerebral palsy his entire life. He was in a wheelchair by the time I met him. But that chair could not contain his spirit or his joy. All of us remember his smile, his laugh, and his love for Jesus.

Eugene’s memorial service was this past Wednesday. Chris Elkins, one of Eugene’s dearest friends, delivered the message. He quoted Aaron Colvin, Eugene’s father, who once described what it was like to be the father of a son with physical challenges. Aaron said, “It’s like taking a trip to Italy and ending up in Holland. You didn’t plan to be in Holland. But you learn that there are good things about Holland, and you learn to appreciate them.”

Chris used that metaphor throughout Eugene’s service, with this point: we’re all in Holland. None of us intended the hard parts of our lives. We didn’t plan to have cancer, or financial struggles, or a divorce. We’re all in Holland, and need to make the best of it while we’re here. But one day we can live in Italy, if we have a ticket to go there.

So, how do you make the best of Holland? And how do you get to Italy? Not in the way you may think. Hold that thought, and take a trip to Holland with me.

The question of the cross

The date is Sunday, April 12, in the year AD 29. A trip which looked like it would arrive in Italy ended in Holland. Jesus could have entered Jerusalem unnoticed, mingling with the more than two million who jammed the city streets for the Passover. Better yet, he could have stayed in Galilee where the authorities would neither notice him nor care.

But he didn’t. His Triumphal Entry was the very best way to ensure that he enraged the religious leaders with the “blasphemy” of the adoring crowds; that he frightened the Roman authorities into thinking he would start an insurrection, and made himself a marked man. Palm Sunday forced Good Friday. In fact, it guaranteed it. So, why did Jesus do it?

Why did the Son of God exchange heaven for earth, a throne for thorns, a crown for a cross? Why did he ride a donkey to his death? You know the conventional answer: to pay for our sins. But why? Why did he have to pay for our sins?

Last week, a reader of my daily e-mail essays replied with this question: “Why the blood? Why didn’t our loving Father in heaven just forgive us? Why did he require a sacrifice? Why can’t we just pray to God and ask for forgiveness, and as our loving Creator, he grants it.

The requirement for blood sacrifice is his. I just don’t understand why an all-powerful God can’t directly forgive us. This is a question I have had for twenty-five years.” It’s an excellent question, indeed.

If I back into your car leaving church today, you can forgive me without requiring that someone die. If my children disobey me, I can forgive them without requiring a blood sacrifice. Why cannot the God who is love (1 John 4:8) do the same? Why did Jesus choose to ride into Jerusalem in a way which ensured that the authorities would arrest and execute him? Why did he have to die? Let’s work on this very important question for a moment.

Understand God’s dilemma

Since God is love, he wants a loving and personal relationship with us. But love is a choice, a decision. So God had to give us freedom of choice, so we could choose to love and worship him. Of course, we inevitably misuse this freedom, and sin results. Why is this such a problem?

Because God is also holy. In fact, the Bible calls him “holy, holy, holy” (Isaiah 6:3; Revelation 4:8). And a holy God simply cannot allow my sin into his perfect paradise.

One germ contaminates a sterile hospital room and threatens the patient. One speck of dirt is enough to infect a surgical wound; one malignant cell is enough to produce terminal cancer.

Sin separates us from a holy God, leading to spiritual death now, physical death eventually, and eternal death separated from God in hell. That’s why the Bible teaches that “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). Death, separation from God, is the inevitable consequence of sin, since God is holy.

So the sin which results from my misused free will must be removed before I can enter God’s perfect presence in paradise. But why cannot God simply do this for me, as a mother pulls muddy shoes off her toddler’s feet before letting him into the house?

Because God faces a dilemma you and I do not share. Since God is holy, he must also be just.

You and I can forgive those who injure us without requiring that the law be kept, its consequences fulfilled. I can back into your car, and you can choose not to call the police, fill out an accident report, and see to it that I receive a ticket and have to pay a fine. Such is the demand of justice, but you can choose to waive the law and simply forgive me.

God does not have that luxury. He cannot be completely holy without being also completely just. And justice requires that the law be kept, that its consequences be enforced. For him to be holy and just, the consequence of sin must be fulfilled. And that consequence, that result, is death–spiritual, physical, and eternal death. Complete separation from a holy God who lives in a perfect paradise.

There is seemingly no way out of this dilemma. God could remove our freedom, so we cannot sin; but then we could not worship and love him, defeating our purpose and reason for being. God could choose to allow us into paradise with our sins, but then he could not be holy. God could choose not to enforce the consequences of our sin, but then he could not be just.

That’s the problem God solved on Palm Sunday.

Accept God’s answer

There was only one possible, logical way out of this dilemma.

If God is holy, he must find a way to remove our sin before we can enter his paradise.

If he is love, he must find a way to remove our sin which does not cost our death.

If he is just, he must find someone to remove our sin who has not sinned himself. If the person who pays the penalty for our sin is himself a sinner, he can pay only for himself. Only a person who has been given complete freedom, and yet has never sinned, can pay the consequences of sin for the rest of us.

As you know, there has been only one person in all of human history who met the necessary qualifications.

Jesus was “tempted in every way, just as we are” (Hebrews 4:15a). He faced Satan himself, and endured the worst temptations known to humanity.

Yet he was “without sin” (Hebrews 4:15b). He never failed his Father, not even once.

As a result, he could die in our place: “God made him who knew no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). Now God’s justice is satisfied, for the consequence of sin has been paid. His holiness is satisfied, for our sins can be removed from us. And his love is satisfied, for we can be forgiven.

And that is why Jesus chose to ride a Messianic donkey into Jerusalem, stirring the crowds, offending the religious authorities, and frightening the Roman officials. That is why he chose to parade publicly into the one city where his enemies were waiting to arrest and execute him. That is why he rode a donkey to a cross. Because there was no other way. Because that is what it took for us to be in heaven with his Father and ours.

Conclusion

How do we respond to such love?

Louis Slotin was working on a uranium experiment at Los Alamos, New Mexico when the uranium came together, filling the room with a dazzling blue light. He tore it apart with his bare hands, saving the lives of seven other people in the room. He died in agony nine days later.

When the Chernobyl nuclear plant melted down, one helicopter pilot made dozens of flights to dump sand and concrete over the reactor. He helped saved the lives of millions, but died of radiation sickness.

The Nazis were murdering Jews in their gas chambers. One distraught mother refused to part with her baby. A simple woman known as Mother Maria pushed the mother aside and took her place.

Father Maximillian Kolbe was a Polish priest imprisoned at Auschwitz. When a prisoner was sentenced to the starvation bunker, the priest died in his place.

You and I are those scientists, those Chernobyl residents, that imprisoned woman and that condemned man. Jesus’ death has given us life. How do we respond to such love?

We accept it. That’s how you get from Holland to Italy, from death to life, from earth to heaven. Join the crowds who celebrated the coming of the King. Welcome him into your city and your heart. Salvation cost God his Son, and that Son his life. Would you accept such a gift as this? Do you have your ticket to Italy?

Accept his love, and then share his love. That’s how you make the best of Holland while you’re here. Step from the worshiping crowd to the serving disciples. Tell the story you have heard this day. Invite someone to the Easter celebration next week, and the week after. Tell the story of such amazing grace. Show a hurting person that grace in yours. Share his love. Make the best of Holland, every day that you’re here.

But be warned: stepping from the crowd to the disciples, responding to such sacrificial love may cost you. In fact, it should. Giving a donkey, a robe, a palm branch is enough, if it is your best. Give him your time, your tithe, your talents. Give more than you can spare. Return his sacrifice with your own. Not so he will love you, but because he does. Not so you can be forgiven, but because you are. Not so you will matter to God, but because you do.

And the more you give, the more you receive. The greater the risk, the greater the reward. The greater the joy, the peace, the purpose of your life. The more it costs you to serve Jesus in Holland, the more your life counts while you’re here. Crowds change nothing; disciples change the world. Which will you be this week?

On Monday I was privileged to eat lunch with Ron Scates and Skip Ryan, my dear pastor friends from Highland Park Presbyterian and Park Cities Presbyterian. We were discussing the persecuted Church around the world, and the joy which believers experience when they suffer for Jesus. And Ron made a profound point which I must share with you today: “When Christianity is easy, it is hard. When Christianity is hard, it is easy.” Hear it again: crowds change nothing; disciples change the world.

What will Palm Sunday cost you tomorrow?