Today is Palm Sunday—the day we commemorate Jesus triumphal entry into Jerusalem where he was hailed by crowds of people from the city as the King of the Jews. As we remember this remarkable occasion, I want to continue with our series that compares conventional wisdom with what Jesus actually said.
Today, we consider the popular expression: “You’ve got to fight fire with fire.” When someone says you have to fight fire with fire, it means to fight against an opponent by using the same methods or weapons that they use. Fighting fire with fire is an actual fire fighting technique that started in the 19th century to combat forest fires. A controlled burn of a strip of forest will create a barrier to an oncoming forest fire because it uses up all the available fuel. There is, however, always the risk that the "controlled burn" goes out of control and starts a new inferno. The technique works for forest fires and is still used to this day. It has its place.
Usually when people say, “You’ve got to fight fire with fire,” they’re not talking about forest fires. What they mean is if someone is rude to you, you be rude right back to them. If someone starts a nasty rumor about you, you start a nasty rumor about them. In a larger communal context it means if another nation sinks one of your ships, you sink one of theirs (better yet, sink 3!). If they drop a bomb on your territory, you drop a bomb on them?
Fighting fire with fire in these contexts seems natural. “Do unto others what they have done to you.” But what did Jesus say? Quoting Leviticus 19:18 (and what has become known as the “Golden Rule”), Jesus said: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” It’s a subtle difference that makes a world of difference. The world says treat others the way they have treated you, but Jesus says treat people the way your want them to treat you. That’s the way he lived.
Jesus had the opportunity to fight fire with fire. As He entered Jerusalem on that first Palm Sunday, crowds of people were shouting his praises. They’d heard of his wonderful miracles and powerful teaching. They were looking for a king who would free them from Roman oppression and restore the power and dignity of Israel’s glory days. Could this Jesus who did so many wonderful things—driving out demons, healing the blind, feeding the multitudes, and even raising Lazarus from the dead—could Jesus be the long-awaited Messiah who would fight fire with fire for Israel against her enemies?
Jesus had the popular support of the people. He could have used it to start an uprising, but he didn't. Let’s look at the story.
36 As he rode along, the crowds spread out their garments on the road ahead of him. 37 When he reached the place where the road started down the Mount of Olives, all of his followers began to shout and sing as they walked along, praising God for all the wonderful miracles they had seen.
on the King who comes in the name of the Lord!
Peace in heaven, and glory in highest heaven!”
39 But some of the Pharisees among the crowd said, “Teacher, rebuke your followers for saying things like that!”
40 He replied, “If they kept quiet, the stones along the road would burst into cheers!”
41 But as he came closer to Jerusalem and saw the city ahead, he began to weep. 42 “How I wish today that you of all people would understand the way to peace. But now it is too late, and peace is hidden from your eyes. 43 Before long your enemies will build ramparts against your walls and encircle you and close in on you from every side. 44 They will crush you into the ground, and your children with you. Your enemies will not leave a single stone in place, because you did not recognize it when God visited you.”
This is a patriotic scene. The people of Jerusalem loved their country—just like many people love America. They were waving their palm branches like many Americans wave the American flag at a Fourth of July parade. Palm branches were a national symbol for Israel and were carved on Jerusalem’s Temple walls and doors. Kings and conquerors were welcomed home with palm branches strewn before them and waved in the air. So as people waved their palm branches for Jesus, they were waving their national symbol of victory. They were saying, “He’s the one! He’s the one who will save us from the Romans!” And they even shouted Hosanna, which originally translated something like: “Please! Save us now!”
How does one save a nation like Israel? Well, one way would be to fight fire with
fire. You could raise an army to fight the Romans in open battle. This was nearly impossible. Rome was the most powerful empire in the world. They always won their wars. They were too powerful, too well organized, and too learned in the strategies of war. No one could defeat them. Even if they lost a battle, they would eventually win the war. Israel was a small territory with no organized army and no allies to help fight against Rome. And outright war would be suicide.
There was always the possibility of guerrilla warfare, where individuals or small cells of freedom fighters ambushed Roman soldiers or assassinated pro-Roman leaders. There were many who were already doing this in Jesus' day. One person mentioned in the Bible--Barabbas--many scholars believe was a freedom fighter. You may recall that when Jesus was on trial, Pilate tried to release Jesus but the crowd chose Barabbas instead of Jesus. Guerrilla warfare is brutal and takes a long, long time to wear down the enemy.
Many of the political leaders in Jerusalem--like the Pharisees and Sadducees--begrudgingly worked with the Romans and bided their time until the day they felt it was possible to break free. These were the people who felt especially threatened by Jesus' popularity and wanted him killed. They were afraid he would upset the delicate balance of power in their world.
Jesus had a different plan. He said, "My Kingdom is not of this world." Even though Jesus had the unlimited power and resources of God at his disposal, he chose not to fight the Romans. He could have defeated them, but what would that accomplish? It would just set up another earthly kingdom by earthly means with all the same problems that plague all the earth. There would still be corruption, abuse of power, injustice and oppression, and we would still have the core problem of sin that separates us from God.
Jesus wanted something better and He offered Jerusalem a better choice. He said, "Repent of your sin and turn to God because the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!" He said, "Deny yourself and take up your cross and follow me!" because chasing after our own selfish ambitions is what leads to all the world's problems. He preached, "Love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you!" because His Kingdom is not just for the Israelites, it's for the Romans too (and for Americans and Russians and Egyptians and Koreans and everybody everywhere). Jesus said, "If a Roman soldier demands you carry his pack one mile, carry it a second mile without even being asked. And if someone demands you coat from you, give them your shirt too." And then Jesus commissioned all His followers to "Go into all the world and encourage everyone to live this way." For when the whole world finally lives by Jesus' principles, their peaceful Kingdom of Heaven will finally come upon the earth.
I want to share with you the story of how Jerusalem won independence from the Roman empire. You probably don’t know this story, but it’s true. In 66 AD (about 30 years after Christ came to Jerusalem and was crucified), religious tensions worsened in Jerusalem and lead to open rebellion. After Jewish worshippers witnessed Greek civilians sacrificing birds in front of a local synagogue, they were incensed and complain to the Roman authorities. Their complaints were ignored, which led to am uprising. Roman soldiers tried to put down the riot, but there were too many people. Civillians joined with the rioters and attacked and killed the soldiers. Surviving soldiers fled the city along with the pro-Roman King Agrippa II.
Jerusalem was free! But for how long? A Roman legion soon arrived from Syria to restore order, but was somehow defeated and Jerusalem remained free! Jerusalem’s success inspired many other towns in Judea to throw their lot in with the rebels. There was growing sense that finally the Jewish people would restore their nation to its former glory.
In 66 AD, the Judean Provisional Government was formed and Ananus ben Ananus, the former High Priest of Israel, was appointed one of the heads of the government. They even minted their own coins, an important symbol of freedom because the money no longer bore the image of a Roman emperor. On the coins were inscribed in Hebrew “the Shekel of Israel” and “the Freedom of Zion”.
Jerusalem was ruled by the Judean Provisional Government from 66 – 68 AD. Unfortunately, infighting led to the killing of most of its members as all the different factions fought against each other and vied for power. From 68-70 AD, various despots rose to power, but there was no attempt to restore civil government.
On April 14 in 70 AD, three days before the beginning of Passover, the Roman army arrived and laid siege to Jerusalem. The city was bloated with Jews from all over who had come to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover. Three Roman legions surrounded the city—allowing no one in or out.
The Jerusalem defenders, made up of vicious gangs and factions who had been at war with each other for years, now found themselves surrounded by an overwhelming and organized Roman force. They had no idea how to work together to defend Jerusalem. Among one of their ludicrous plans was to destroy all the food stored in the city, "a drastic measure thought to have been undertaken perhaps in order to enlist a merciful God's intervention on behalf of the besieged Jews, or as a stratagem to make the defenders more desperate, supposing that was necessary in order to repel the Roman army.”[i]
The Romans lay siege to Jerusalem for 5 months, hoping to starve the inhabitants of Jerusalem into submission. Inevitably, the Romans built siege works and breached the city walls. Soldiers swarmed the city and destroyed everything—included the sacred Temple--fulfilling Jesus' prophecy, in Luke 19:44, "They will crush you into the ground, and your children with you. Your enemies will not leave a single stone in place, because you did not recognize it when God visited you.”
Jewish historian, Josephus, claimed that 1.1 million people died in the siege—either by famine, disease, or sword. After the Romans killed all the armed men, they also murdered the elderly becuase they had no use for them. Jerusalem’s remaining citizens--91,000 people--became Roman slaves. Thousands were forced to become gladiators and eventually expired in the arena. The Romans celebrated by parading the sacred Menorah and Table of the Bread of God's Presence through the streets of Rome. Up until then, these items had only ever been seen by Jerusalem's High Priest in the Holy Temple.
Jesus has a better way. He offered Jerusalem his better way. They refused it. Instead, they chose Barabbas and crucified Jesus. History shows what came of their decision to try and fight fire with fire.
How about you? What will you choose? Will you choose what seems most natural to sinful human nature—to fight fire with fire? Or would you instead choose the narrow path—the one few take, but the only one that leads to life, to healing, to peace, and to eternal salvation?
Jesus pleads for you today as he pleaded for Jerusalem on Palm Sunday 2,000 years ago. Luke 19:41 – “How I wish today that you of all people would understand the way to peace.”
You can. You can turn away from the fire to Jesus today. You can choose His way over the ways of the world.