Today we remember how Jesus was welcomed as Messiah by a crowd singing and waving palm branches. In the old days kings went into battle riding a horse, but the Messiah entered Jerusalem riding a donkey. The word "Messiah" means anointed king, and riding a donkey was a sign of the peace he intended to bring. But the peace first required going into a very fierce battle. He was going to attack and defeat five religions which hold people in their grip.
But you can't defeat a religion by swords and spears. After the time of Muhammad Muslim armies swept across North Africa and into Spain. They were only stopped in France at the Battle of tours (732 AD) just before taking Paris. Three hundred years later Christians in Europe thought it was time to mount crusades to push the Muslims back and retake Jerusalem. But the crusades were a terrible disaster and did no good to anyone. Jesus won his battle with no weapons but the power of love.
So let me begin by listing the five religions that the Messiah attacked and defeated during that awesome Holy Week. :
1 Sadducee Religion The Sadducees ganged up with the Pharisees (Matthew 16:1) to have Jesus crucified. They did not believe in life after death (Matthew 22:23), so for them religion had to do with this life only. It was a department of the Jewish state. Common people might have all sorts of superstitions, but the one aim was to use the Jewish religion to extract as much freedom as possible from the Roman Empire. Their religion was salvation by political power.
2 Priestly Religion The animal sacrifices of the Jerusalem temple were performed by the Aaronic priests under their High Priest (see Mark 2:26, 14:53-55, Luke 1:5, 8) of the Jewish people. Like the Brahmin priests of India their chief concern was that the rituals were performed exactly according to their rules (see Leviticus 1:1-7:38). Their religion was salvation by correct rituals.
3 Pharisee Religion As opposed to the Sadducees, the Pharisees believed in life after death, but they told people that those who obeyed the law could make it with God. To set out what was require they had deduced 613 rules from the Books of Moses. These were divided into 248 positive commands and 365 negative commands, and these 39 things which were forbidden on the Sabbath day. And you can imagine that ordinary people found these rules very burdensome. And when Jesus said we were free of these rules the Pharisees began plotting to have him killed. We might call their religion salvation by legalism. And they also have their followers in our churches to this day.
4 Fear of Death Religion Instead of recognizing that death was lovingly designed by God to give us a doorway into heaven, people viewed death as the worst thing that could happen to us. As Christians we feel for those who are bereaved, and we understand the terrible long pain of mourning. But as a result of Jesus's death and resurrection death is no longer the end.
5 Guilt Religion All false religions are propagated as lies by Satan. But he does terrible damage to human happiness by getting us riddled with guilt. But if he cannot persuade us that death is the end his next line of attack is to make us feel guilty that we are guilty and unfit for heaven. Most people are gripped by guilt until they realize that through Jesus's death on the cross we are indeed forgiven
Now let us take these in reverse order and see how the very basis of each of these five religions was invalidated by Jesus during the Holy Week which ends next Sunday with the joy of Easter.
On the cross Jesus absorbed in his body the worst kind of sin and injustice that this world can imagine. And when people had done their worst, he said "Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing" (Luke 23:34). The two robbers crucified on each side of him had both lived by robbery, and violence, and been convicted or murder. They were as bad as you make them. But when one of them turned to Jesus, he was assured "today you will be with me in Paradise" (Luke 23:43). Even Peter who denied he had ever known his Lord was restored and forgiven. If God can forgive the worst sins of the world, there is no need for us to live riddled with guilt.
Next Sunday we will rejoice in the fact that death is defeated. The Messiah did not merely say that as a theory to be believed, but he went right into death and came out again the other side. That means the religion of death is defeated by the religion of life.
Legalistic religion was exposed by the fact that, in spite of the Pharisees' 613 rules to obey the law of Moses, they were the ones who most opposed their own Messiah, the Son of God, and demanded his death. Fifty days after Easter on the Day of Pentecost we will remind ourselves that we are not made right by obeying rules but by looking to the Holy Spirit to change us.
The religion of Ritualism became obsolete when Jesus the Son of God died as our perfect sacrifice on the cross. The termination of the animal sacrifices of the temple is explained in the Epistle to the Hebrews. And within a few years Paul and other apostles were involved in planting temples of the Holy Spirit all over the Roman Empire and far to the east. We know from Jewish history that the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed within forty years in AD 70, and the Aaronic priesthood was wiped out by the Roman legions that took the city.
The religion of political expediency had made people willing to have their Messiah crucified in the hope of maintaining the Jewish state (John 18:13-14). This policy not only resulted in the greatest injustice our world has ever known, but in AD 70 the Jewish state was terminated by the Romans and Jewish people were exiled without a country for 1900 years till 1948 when the State of Israel was established.
On this Palm Sunday we rejoice with the children who welcomed Jesus
with palms and singing. But we also unite ourselves with Jesus in his battle
against those five false religions. He was totally victorious against them
in that first Holy Week. But Satan keeps trying to promote the religions
of salvation by politics, observing rituals, legalism, making people feel
guilty, and the fear of death. Having understood why none of these religions
can help us, we can point our families and our neighbors and friends to
the Son of God who has already won the victory but relies on us to make
it known. .