John: Little Donkey

Sermon by Derek Thomas on March 16, 2003

John 12:12-50

Little Donkey
John 12:12-50

We continue our
studies in John’s gospel and we come now to chapter 12 and I’m going to read
from verse 12 to verse 36.

On the next day the large crowd who had come to the feast,
when they heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem, took the branches of the
palm trees and went out to meet Him, and began to shout, “Hosanna! BLESSED IS HE
WHO COMES IN THE NAME OF THE LORD, even the King of Israel.” Jesus, finding a
young donkey, sat on it; as it is written, “FEAR NOT, DAUGHTER OF ZION; BEHOLD,
YOUR KING IS COMING, SEATED ON A DONKEY’S COLT.” These things His disciples did
not understand at the first; but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered
that these things were written of Him, and that they had done these things to
Him. So the people, who were with Him when He called Lazarus out of the tomb
and raised him from the dead, continued to testify about Him. For this reason
also the people went and met Him, because they heard that He had performed this
sign. So the Pharisees said to one another, “You see that you are not doing any
good; look, the world has gone after Him.” Now there were some Greeks among
those who were going up to worship at the feast; these then came to Philip, who
was from Bethsaida of Galilee, and began to ask him, saying, “Sir, we wish to
see Jesus.” Philip came and told Andrew; Andrew and Philip came and told Jesus.
And Jesus answered them, saying, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be
glorified. “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. He who
loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it to
life eternal. “If anyone serves Me, he must follow Me; and where I am, there My
servant will be also; if anyone serves Me, the Father will honor him. “Now My
soul has become troubled; and what shall I say, ‘Father, save Me from this
hour’? But for this purpose I came to this hour.
“Father, glorify Your name.” Then a voice came out of heaven: “I have both
glorified it, and will glorify it again.” So the crowd of people who stood by
and heard it were saying that it had thundered; others were saying, “An angel
has spoken to Him.” Jesus answered and said, “This voice has not come for My
sake, but for your sakes. ” Now judgment is upon this world; now the ruler of
this world will be cast out. “And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will
draw all men to Myself.” But He was saying this to indicate the kind of death
by which He was to die. The crowd then answered Him, “We have heard out of the
Law that the Christ is to remain forever; and how can You say, ‘The Son of Man
must be lifted up’? Who is this Son of Man?” So Jesus said to them, “For a
little while longer the Light is among you. Walk while you have the Light, so
that darkness will not overtake you; he who walks in the darkness does not know
where he goes. “While you have the Light, believe in the Light, so that you may
become sons of Light.” These things Jesus spoke, and He went away and hid
Himself from them.”

Amen. May God bless to us the reading of His holy and
inerrant word. Let’s pray.

Our Father in heaven, as we come tonight to a passage of
some solemnity, we do pray for the blessing of Your Spirit. Holy Spirit, make
this truth come to life and to light in our hearts, for Jesus’ sake, Amen.

Yesterday was the Ides of March, the 15th
of March. The day on which Julius Caesar was murdered on the steps of the
Senate in Rome. He was born with an unbridled ambition, and an unsurpassed
skill in oratory. He had managed to manipulate his way to the position of the
consul of Rome by 59 BC, and after his year of service, he was sent to Gaul,
France. From here, he managed to conquer not only the Germanic tribes, but also
my own ancestors, the Celts. His popularity grew, to such an extent that the
Senate and especially, Pompey, were deeply alarmed and they issued him an edict:
that he should disband his army, lest he become an enemy of the state. In
January of 49 BC, Caesar was staying in the northern Italian city of Ravena. He
had a decision to make. Either he acquiesced to the Senate’s commands, or else
he moved southward, towards Rome, and to confront Pompey, and to start an
inevitable civil war. There was a law, that no general should cross the river
Rubicon, and no general should ever bring his army into the city of Rome, and
into Italy proper. It was said that he wavered a little when he came to the
Rubicon River, and then, all of a sudden, drawing his sword, marched into the
Rubicon River and cried, “Alea jacta est,”
the die is cast. And marched into the city of Rome. And, of course, defeated it
and became its dictator. Five years later, he was dead. Jesus is doing
something very similar here. Because here, in going into Jerusalem, the die was
being firmly cast. There would be no turning back.. It was a point of no
retreat. Time for Him had no run out. The inevitable battle was about to
begin. This passage, and I’m largely focusing on verses 12-36 that we read
together, contains a beautiful text. It comes from certain Greeks. We’re not
sure exactly who they were. And they ask Philip, who in turn asks Andrew, who
in turn goes to Jesus and the question is this: “Sir, we would see Jesus.” It’s
written on many a pulpit. It’s written on the pulpit of Reformed Theological
Seminary. Sir, we would see Jesus.

Today, I want us to see Jesus. I want us to see Him
in three different ways. I want us to see Him, first of all, tenacious. I want
to see Him, secondly, troubled. I want to see Him, thirdly, triumphant.

I. Jesus tenacious.
I want to see Him, first of all, tenacious. By that I mean
resolute. By that I mean not willing to let go, determined. Take what He says
in verse 23, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” The hour
has come. The crossing of the Rubicon, you understand. So far in John’s
gospel, in 8:20, for example, we’ve read statements like, “The hour has not yet
come.” There were certain things that He was not yet prepared to do because His
hour had not yet come, but now the hour has come. There is a sense in which
only now the real glory of the Son of Man is going to be displayed.

So far, in the miracles that we’ve seen in John’s
gospels, the miracles and the signs and the wonders, they’ve been only a
prelude. There’s something now. Did you notice in verse 31 the repetition of the
word now? Now, judgment is upon this world. Now, the ruler of this
world shall be cast out. Many of you heard the President’s words this
afternoon, I’m sure, that time was running out, that there was something
determinative about the next 24 hours. For the world, I think he said. And
Jesus is saying, “There is something determinative happening right now, as I
enter Jerusalem, as I come into this city, there is something going to happen
that is going to change, yes, the whole world. It was for this event that He
had come. That’s why it’s not the incarnation that’s the pivotal point of
Jesus’ life and ministry. It is the cross. It is the cross and the events that
followed. The burial, and resurrection, and ascension, and session at God’s
right hand. There is something about those events for which He had come.
Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains alone, Jesus
says, but if it dies it produces much fruit.”

And now, the Son of Man is going to be glorified.
Now, much fruit is going to be born as a consequence of what I do now. Let me
change the figure as Jesus Himself does here. He says, in verse 32, “When I am
lifted up,” from the earth, and He’s used those words before. Back in chapter
3, in His discourse with Nicodemus, you remember, He had reminded them that
“Just as the serpent was lifted up in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be
lifted up.” He’s referring to the cross, He’s referring to more than the cross,
He’s referring to the resurrection and the ascension, but He’s referring to
those events that will begin with Him being lifted up onto the cross.

The point is that these events must now occur. And
He’s resolute about it. He’s determined about it. He won’t let it go now.
He’s come to fulfill His role as the servant of the Lord. By entering Jerusalem
He begins a series of events that have determined, planned from the very
beginning. It was this very hour, He says in verse 27, “It was for this very
hour that I have come.” Eternal destinies are being worked out now. Jesus had
come to die. He’d come to cast out Satan. He had come to draw sinners to
Himself. “Lifted up was He to die, it is finished was His cry. Now in heaven
exalted high, hallelujah what a Savior.” Tenacious, determined, resolute.

II. Secondly,
I want us to see Him troubled.
He says, in verse 27, “Now My heart is troubled.” What an
amazing statement to come from the lips of Jesus Christ. What an amazing
statement to come from the lips of the Son of God, that He is troubled. Just in
two chapter’s time, John 14:1-2, “Let not your heart be troubled,” He said,
“Believe in God believe also in Me. In My Father’s house there are many
mansions. If it were not so I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for
you. And if I go to prepare a place for you I will come again and receive you
unto Myself that where I am there you may be also. Let not your hearts be
troubled.” And yet, here it is. Jesus is troubled. His heart is troubled.
It’s hard to reconcile it, isn’t’ it. It is hard to reconcile those two

Let me say, first of all, that what we see here is an
insight into the human soul, the human psyche, of Jesus. Jesus has a soul. A
reasonable soul, as the The Shorter Catechism defines it. In the 17th
Century, when The Shorter Catechism was written, soul and mind and
psyche, if not synonymous, were certainly related. He’s troubled, in His soul,
in His psyche, in His innermost being, in the core of His personality as the
incarnate Lord. He’s troubled.

One of the tragic figures of the early Church was a
man by the name of Apollinarius. Apollinarius was a stout defender of the deity
of Christ, but in defending the deity of Christ, he managed at the same time to
deny that Jesus had a human soul, a human psyche, a human mind. The body was
inhabited by the eternal Word, but Jesus did not have a human psychology. The
Church, at Constantinople, in 381 AD condemned it as a heresy. If Christ did
not identify with man as man, not just with our bodily nature, but with our
psychological nature, if God doesn’t identify with us as we are, as we have been
made, then we cannot be saved. That was the argument.

Isn’t it interesting, now, it’s more than
interesting, it’s wonderful, in the true sense of that word, to find in the
gospels that Jesus experiences the full range of human emotions. He is “the man
of sorrows and acquainted with grief,” Isaiah prophesied. You never read of
Jesus laughing, that’s not to say that Jesus never laughed, but He was more and
more displaying, I think, the darker side of human emotions because His mission
as the Son of Man, as the sin bearer, as the substitute, as the one who came to
die, lay heavily upon Him. And it was no laughing matter. The Greek here
reads, shaken, agitated. I find that of immense help, don’t you, that
Jesus, the Son of God, the one who sits at God’s right hand in glory, the one of
whom we are thinking this morning, who rose again from the dead and is now
sitting at the right hand of God, that Jesus was “tempted in all points like as
we are, yet without sin.” How does the hymn writer put it, “We’ve been through
no darker rooms than He went through before.” The events before Him as they
unfolded now, perhaps they lay clearer on His mind than they had ever done
before, and they shook Him to the core. His heart is troubled by it. You can
see here something of a foretaste of Gethsemane, can’t you. In the Garden of
Gethsemane, when He cries out, in the travail of His soul, “Father, if it be
possible, let this cup pass from Me.” Now, I know He goes on to say, “Not My
will but Thy will,” but there was a struggle, and He came to that resolution
through the struggle. There’s even an angel, there’s even a voice, at least,
that speaks from heaven as it did in the Garden of Gethsemane, strengthening

Let me try to speak to this tension for a moment, the
tension between what is said here about Jesus being troubled, and what He will
go on to say in John 14, in the Upper Room, “Let not your hearts be troubled.”
And I think there’s a difference between the trouble of unbelief, which is John
14, and the trouble that comes from uncertainty, about the way forward. Jesus
is struggling with what God’s will is, as it dawns upon Him, and becomes more
and more clear what the way forward for the Son of Man is going to cost Him.
As He now sees with a clear vision that He is going to die in Jerusalem, He is
troubled by it. Not for a moment did He sin. Not for a moment did He flinch.
Not for a moment did He deny His resolve to be the Son of Man who must suffer on
behalf of sinners, but He’s still troubled by it.

There is a natural fear of pain and death, but it’s
more than that here, of course. Jesus is contemplating what it means to be
abandoned by His Father in heaven, what it means for the Son of Man to identify
with sinners, the holy God to be made sin for us, and what that means, the
revulsion of it. As He thinks about what it will means when the unmitigated
wrath of God is poured upon Him, and He’s troubled by it. The impending wrath,
the darkness, a road down which He’d never been before. Look at verse 27.
“What shall I say,” He says, “Now My soul has become troubled.” Shall I say
this, or shall I say that? Now, the answer becomes clear as soon as He says it.

Isn’t it interesting that He should utter those
words, “What shall I say?” I don’t want to sentimentalize this passage. But I
think we can ask this question. Pause here for a minute and ask, have you never
been there, when the unfolding providence of God seems so dark, and so horrible,
and so frightful, and not so much what you know, but what you don’t know, what
you’ve never experienced, what you’ve never gone through, and your soul is
troubled and you’re saying words like Jesus is saying here, “What am I going to
say? What am I going to do?” Have you never been there? Have you ever sat in
that chair? What lay before Him stripped Him bear. He’s troubled by it. The
Son of God, the Lord of Glory, and His heart is troubled, shaken, for you and

There’s the beginnings of the love of Jesus for you
and me. There’s the beginnings of what it cost Him, that He was prepared to
enter that darkness, that uncertainty, that unknown, for you and me. Do you
know this hymn? “Where high the heavenly temple stands, the house of God not
made with hands? The great high priest our nature wears, the guardian of
mankind appears. He who for me their surety stood, and poured on earth His
precious blood, pursued in heaven His mighty plan, the Savior and the friend of
man. Though now ascended up on high, He bends on earth a brother’s eye,
partaking of the human name, He knows the frailty of our frame. Our fellow
suffered yet retains, a fellow feeling of our pains, and still remembers in the
skies, His tears, His agonies, and cries. In every pang that rends the heart,
the Man of Sorrows has a part. He sympathizes with our grief, and to the
suffered sends relief. With boldness therefore at the throne, let us make our
sorrows known, and ask the aid of heavenly power, to help us in the evil hour.”
He’s troubled.

III. Jesus triumphant.
But thirdly, I want us to see Jesus in another perspective.
Not only tenacious, determined, troubled, agitated, but triumphant. Because
that’s what the entry into Jerusalem is all about, this riding on a donkey into
the city of Jerusalem. Pilgrims who normally came for the feast, the Passover,
would normally walk the last few miles into the city, singing the Ascent
Psalms. He was fulfilling, of course, a prophecy of Zechariah, “Rejoice,
rejoice greatly O daughter of Jerusalem.” And the pilgrims got the message.
They took palm branches and placed them in the street before Him, and they cried
out, little children cried out, “Hosanna, hosanna, to the Son of David.”

You know what the word hosanna means. You
know where it comes from. Actually, if you go back to the Greek New Testament,
it’s the same word. The New Testament translators didn’t know what to do with
it, so they just transliterated it. It’s the same word. But actually, the
Greeks didn’t know what to do with it either, because it comes from the Hebrew,
and all they did was transliterate the Hebrew. It occurs in only one place, in
Psalm 118, and in Psalm 118:25, it means, save. It’s a cry for help.
Now something happened to the word as the centuries went by, so that by the
first century, it actually had a different meaning. It wasn’t so much a cry for
help, but they took the meaning from the second part of that verse, which says,
“Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord.” And the word hosanna
meant salvation. Salvation has come. What they saw, when Jesus rode on
this donkey, was a triumphant Savior, the deliverer of Jerusalem. How would you
expect Jesus to ride into Jerusalem? On Shadowfax? On a white charger? That
would suitable, wouldn’t it. That beautiful white horse in the movie, the best
part of the movie, that moment when Gandalf whistles and the horse comes all the
way up in one long, panoramic scene and stops right before him. It’s the most
beautiful part of the movie. Wouldn’t that be suitable? For Jesus to come
riding into Jerusalem on a white charger? But no, on a donkey. There’s
something almost ridiculous about it, isn’t there. I don’t mean to demean
donkeys, but there’s something ridiculous about it, because the Son of Man isn’t
coming as a political savior of Jerusalem, He’s coming as the divine Messiah,
He’s coming as the seed that must be cast to the ground and die, He’s coming as
the sin bearer, He’s coming as the servant of the Lord who must be obedient to
the will of God, even to the point of death. “If I be lifted up,” He says, “I
will draw all men to Myself.” That’s the measure of His triumph, that as a
consequence of His being lifted up, being crucified, and buried and resurrected,
and ascended to the right hand of God, He will draw sinners to Himself. That’s
the measure of His triumph. “But lo there breaks, a yet more glorious day, the
saints triumphant rise in bright array. The King of Glory passes on His way.
Alleluia, alleluia. Form earth’s wide bounds, and ocean’s farthest coast,
through gates of ….., stream in the countless host, singing to Father, Son and
Holy Ghost, alleluia, alleluia.”

Can you see it? And those people in Jerusalem, some
of them at least, saw that this was the prelude, this was the portent of that
great day of glorious triumph and exaltation. And just a generation from this
time, just over a generation, Emperor Titus Flavius Vespasianus, Emperor Titus,
would march four legions to surround Jerusalem. In AD 70 he would begin an
attack upon the city. Within a month the walls of the city would collapse.
Within days after that, the city was destroyed. The temple was decimated. Many
were killed and slaughtered. He took thousands of Jews as slaves and marched
them into the city of Rome itself, bearing aloft the very holy utensils of the
temple and so much gold that Josephus the historian says “that the price of gold
halved as consequence.” Tens of thousands of people came out to see, and you
can go to Rome this day and see the Arch of Titus depicting that event. You can
drive through it.

But Jesus’ triumph is of a different sort, and what
John now does at the end of this chapter is say, it calls for one of two
choices. It calls either faith or rejection. That’s the issue. Do you believe
or do you not? And there are consequences for both. Look at verse 26, “If
anyone serves Me let him follow Me, and where I am there shall My servant also
be. If anyone serves Me, the Father will honor him.” That’s John’s call to you
tonight, to follow and serve and bow the knee and acknowledge this Jesus as the
Son of God, glorious and triumphant, and ruling and reigning at His right hand.
Let’s pray together.

Our Father in heaven, we thank You for Your word,
for this beautiful passage. We too, this night, would see Jesus. We pray for
every single individual in this sanctuary this evening, that You would work a
work of faith in each one’s heart. For Jesus’ sake, draw them to Yourself, by
the power of Your Spirit, we pray and exalt and glorify Your name as a
consequence, we ask it in Jesus’ name, Amen.


A Guide to the
Evening Service

Thoughts on Worship
What is worship? Well, the Psalmist tells us succinctly. It is giving
unto the Lord the glory due His name (Psalm 29:1-2). Where do we find the
substance of and our direction for our worship? The Bible. Thus, at First
Presbyterian Church, our motto for worship is: “Sing the Bible, Pray the Bible,
Read the Bible, Preach the Bible.” So we strive to be sure that all that we sing
is scriptural, that our prayers are saturated with Scripture, that much of the
word of God is read in each public service, and that the preaching here is based
on the Bible.

The Themes of the Service
Tonight’s passage in the Gospel of John brings us back to Jerusalem and the
beginning of the section that will lead up to Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion. We
are only half way through the Gospel of John, but the rest of the book will deal
with these last few days. The first half has covered almost three years, but the
second half covers one week! That in itself tells us that this is no ordinary
biography of Jesus. There is something about this final week that is hugely

The Psalm, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs
Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise
It is often difficult to know why a certain hymn becomes popular. Is it the fact
that words speak directly to us in some way, or is it that a really memorable
tune is “married” to the hymn that is immediately recognizable? Both the hymn
and the tune of “Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise” are among the most well
known in Christendom! The hymn’s author probably did not intend the hymn for
congregational singing. As a Free Church minister (and at one time, its
Moderator), William Chalmers Smith would have been committed to unaccompanied
exclusive psalmody! His poetry now appears in the Oxford Book of English
, and this particular hymn extols the wisdom of God. Since our theme
this evening is God’s providence, the idea of wisdom plays an essential
component. Everything – yes! Everything – that God does is ordered with the
oversight of infinite wisdom. Not a detail of it is out of place. God is wise.
He established the world “by His wisdom” (Jer. 51:15). How do we know that
everything God does is wise? Because of Jesus Christ – He is the wisdom of God
(1 Cor. 1:24).

O Day of Rest
and Gladness
(RUF Tune)
This is a song of thanksgiving to God for the blessings of His special
day: the Lord’s Day, the Christian Sabbath. Wordsworth’s lyrics personify the
Sabbath and address it directly in the first three stanzas. The second stanza
ties in to the resurrection theme of this morning’s hymns.

This Is the Day the Lord
Has Made
(Psalm 118)
This Isaac Watts’ paraphrase of Psalm 118 is put to the bouncy and singable tune
“Arlington” – a melody familiar to our congregation. We sing the first stanza
tonight, before the Children’s Devotional.

All Glory, Laud, and Honor
The section of Scripture in John’s Gospel that we
consider this evening begins with an account of “Triumphal Entry” of Jesus into
Jerusalem. This hymn, written by Theodulph of Orleans, is over 1,200 years old!
It was written in prison in Angiers where Theodulph was taken and in which he
died. It speaks of the ride Jesus took on a “donkey” into the City of Jerusalem,
knowing that His life was forfeited.

The Sermon
“Little Donkey.” Jesus asks that something strange occur as He makes His way
into the City of Jerusalem (for what will be the last time). He entered on a
donkey, to the adulation of the crowds who waved palm branches in His honor. In
the middle of this story is a cameo of Philip (the bean counter! Remember, it
was Philip who calculated how much it would cost to feed the 5,000!). This time,
he seems unsure what to do when “certain Greeks” say to him, “Sir, we would see
Jesus!” This statement has been placed on many a pulpit (including the one at
RTS!). Pulpits ought to be places where Jesus is “seen.” And preachers need
constantly reminding that it Jesus and not themselves that folks want to hear
about. Philip had no protocols as to what to do when Greeks came looking for
Jesus, hence the somewhat formal way he tells the other disciples in verse 22
about them. “There are some Greeks out here looking for Jesus! What am I
supposed to do with them?” he seems to be saying. And what did Jesus do?
Preached the gospel to them (12:23-26). And invited them to become His
disciples! “If anyone serves me, let him follow me.” It is what Jesus always
says to those who inquire after Him.

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