A TALE OF TWO CROWDS (REVISITED)
Matthew 21, 27
Dr. Chuck DeVane, Pastor
Lake Hamilton Baptist Church
Hot Springs, Arkansas
April 5, 2020
8 Most of the crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 9 And the crowds that went before him and that followed him were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!”
— Matthew 21:8-9, ESV
20 Now the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowd to ask for Barabbas and destroy Jesus. 21 The governor again said to them, “Which of the two do you want me to release for you?” And they said, “Barabbas.” 22 Pilate said to them, “Then what shall I do with Jesus who is called Christ?” They all said, “Let him be crucified!” 23 And he said, “Why? What evil has he done?” But they shouted all the more, “Let him be crucified!”
— Matthew 27:20-23, ESV
46 And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
— Matthew 27:46, ESV
I approach Holy Week with two books in my hands, the good book and a good book. The good book, of course, is the Holy Bible, especially the Gospel accounts of the last week of Jesus’ life. A good book, which is an understatement for one of the finest novels every written, is A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens.
To understand how one is illustrated by the other, you’d have to look at two crowds’ reaction Jesus Christ, one on Palm Sunday (Matthew 21) and the other on Good Friday (Matthew 27). Then, turn to the opening words of Dickens’ novel:
It was the best of times, It was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.
The two crowds which surrounded Jesus during the original holy week were not one and the same, as many sermons suggest. On Palm Sunday, Jesus was heralded by an influx of Galilean pilgrims arriving in Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover. On Maundy Thursday at twilight, they would share the seder, then pack up early Friday morning and return home. Most of them would not learn of Jesus’ arrest, trials, and crucifixion until much later.
The only crowd left standing on Good Friday was composed of religious zealots stirred up by the hypocritical leaders who had long opposed the Lord Jesus Christ. Their conspiracy was complete, the Roman governor complicit, and at their voices and hands Christ would be crucified. They would not learn until the third day that their plan did not work.
I have shared this scenario of a tale of two crowds at many Holy Week services over the years. This year I want to revisit the theme and share some thoughts, old and new. Crowds, whether cheering or cruel, are usually wrong. Jesus Christ is always right, and the only one who can give us a right standing with God.
The Crowd on Palm Sunday
It was the best of times on Palm Sunday, or so it seemed. A million or so were said to be streaming into the city of Jerusalem. Many of them were from the farming and fishing villages of Galilee. They typically camped out northeast of the city on the Mount of Olives. That’s where Jesus stayed with His disciples.
When the Son of God gave the go to enter the city, a big crowd formed around Him. They gave, the very shirts off their backs, to Jesus, and giving to Jesus is always a good thing. They praised the Lord with loud hosannas, and praising Jesus is always a good thing. They professed faith in Jesus as the Messiah, and professing faith in Jesus is always a good thing. All of these things are always good things, unless like most good things, they come to an end.
Now as the dark gathers into the sky,
And legions of might go thundering by;
Regions of light grow dim and then die,
And we with our wings wait for morning to fly.
— Jackson Browne
As the week wore on the excitement did not last. Arguments ensued between the Messiah and the men at the top of the religious Jewish pyramid. The scene grew tense as Roman soldiers appeared everywhere to enforce the Pax Romana. Popular opinion turned against Jesus and by Friday, this crowd was gone.
Andrea and I watched Spartacus on the night Kirk Douglas died. The ending is painful and dramatic as Spartacus’ wife and child are ushered safely out of Rome, while the man who made them free is dying on, of all things, a cross. The best of times ended for the Palm Sunday crowd when they snuck out of the city on Good Friday morning, just as three crosses were being raised outside the city gates.
The Crowd on Good Friday
It was the worst of times to be involved with the crowd that gathered on Good Friday. The rural Galileans were gone and the religious Jerusalem Jews remained, as did the Roman soldiers and Imperial governor, Pontius Pilate. They would have their way with Jesus.
They made a bad bargain, setting free Barabbas instead of Jesus. The world will always choose the sinful and scandalous over the godly and God. They displayed bad faith, obeying the religious rules of the Pharisees and Sadducees rather than the grace and mercy of God. They created bad blood, for themselves, when they ordered Christ’s crucifixion then boasted, “His blood be on us.”
There is no excuse whatsoever for the antisemitism that has existed in this world for centuries. Shame on the Egyptians for enslaving the Jews for four hundred years. Shame on General Titus and the Roman soldiers who destroyed the city and Jerusalem and massacred their citizens in AD 70. Shame on Adolf Hitler and the Nazis of Germany for the six million Jews murdered in the Holocaust. But shame on the Jewish people for what they did to Jesus on this day, this worst of times, that we ironically call Good Friday.
This is how I spend my days,
I came to bury, not to raise;
I'll drink my fill and sleep alone,
I play in blood, but not my own.
— Bob Dylan
No Crowd at the Cross
When the crowds were gone, save the small group at His feet and the two thieves on His right and left, Jesus uttered seven last sayings from the cross. The one that is the most lonesome is the fourth.
“Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani.”
A cross holds only one. On one cross, Jesus died. When Jesus died, He died alone, no crowd was with Him. He was forsaken by His disciples, though the Apostle John was near. He was forsaken by His family, though mother Mary was near. He was forsaken by the Heavenly Father, though paradoxically God is always near. But God the Father did forsake God the Son, pointedly parting the precept of omnipresence in order to make propitiation for the sin and salvation of God’s people.
Our sin is paid by Christ. Christ’s death opens the curtain to our salvation. One Savior saves one person at a time. No crowd is required.
The final words for us are to flee from the crowds for the one true Savior. Flee from the crowds of the megachurch which offers non-biblical excitement instead of biblical doctrine and worship. Flee from the crowds of self-righteous and Pelagian religions who think the cross is superfluous for good people saved by good works. Flee the crowds and go to the one, the one true person at the one true place where wrath and mercy meet, and by grace alone be saved through faith alone in the person and work of Jesus Christ, who died, alone, for you.
It was the worst of times for Jesus. It can be the best of times for you. Trust in the Lord Jesus Christ and accept the reward and rest that only He can give. Think of Jesus on the cross, then consider the final words of Dickens’ hero Sydney Carton, who quoted John 11:25 and then said this to close the book:
“It is a far, far better thing that I do than I have ever done;
it is a far, far better rest I go to than I have ever known.”
Dr. Charles F. "Chuck" DeVane, Jr., is the Pastor of Lake Hamilton Baptist Church in Hot Springs, Arkansas. His weekly sermon article, "The Gospel Truth," has been published in newspapers in Arkansas and Georgia. Dr. DeVane is a graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and has served in the pastorate for over 20 years. Contact Pastor Chuck at PastorChuck@lakehamiltonbaptistchurch.org