You may have heard someone, maybe a preacher, ask on Palm Sunday, “What did the crowds waving palm branches and laying coats on the ground expect?” And you may have heard a dozen different answers.
What, in fact, did the crowds expect?
Well, one answer occurs in the Dead Sea Scrolls, discovered just a few miles from where Jesus entered Jerusalem on a donkey, along the shores of the Dead Sea. These scrolls were written in the centuries and decades prior to Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on a donkey. They were hidden in caves and left there until a Bedouin boy discovered them by accident in 1947.
One of those scrolls, The Messianic Apocalypse, spells out those expectations. It reads like this:
(the hea)vens and the earth shall listen to His Messiah. …
Over the humble His spirit hovers, and He renews the faithful in His strength.
For He will honor the pious upon the th(ro)ne of His eternal Kingdom,
setting prisoners free, opening the eyes of the blind, raising up those who are bo(wed down.) …
And the Lord shall do glorious things which have not been done, just as He said.
For He shall heal the critically wounded, He shall revive the dead, He shall send good news to the afflicted …
He shall sati(sfy the poo)r, He shall guide the uprooted, He shall make the hungry rich …
(Michael Wise, Martin Abegg, Edward Cook, The Dead Sea Scrolls: A New Translation HarperSanFrancisco, 2005, revised edition, p. 530. Parentheses represent missing portions of the scroll reconstructed by the translators.)
This expectation of the Spirit’s work in liberating prisoners, restoring sight, healing the critically wounded and bringing good news to the poor, emerged from the chrysalis of Isaiah 61, which reads:
The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me,
because the LORD has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the LORD’S favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn;
to provide for those who mourn in Zion—
to give them a garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.
But one expectation of The Messianic Apocalypse did not emerge from Isaiah 61: Reviving the dead. The Messiah, in this scroll, will revive the dead!
This is what the crowds may have expected. Not just liberation or healing or hearing good news. Those, yes, but resurrection, too!
Fast forward from this scroll to that moment in the Gospel of Luke when John the Baptist, imprisoned for challenging Herod, asks Jesus if he’s “the one” they are expecting — essentially asking if he’s the Messiah. Jesus does not claim to be the Messiah — something he’s reluctant to do. (Scholars often talk about the messianic secret, especially in the Gospel of Mark, based upon a pioneering book of the same name by William Wrede).
Instead, Jesus lists the good things he’s done, the benefits he’s conferred, including raising the dead: “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them” (Luke 7:22).
Jesus’ answer to John is a veiled and subtle affirmation of his messianic role. If John had been associated with the community of the Dead Sea Scrolls, as some scholars have suggested, he would have grasped the gist of Jesus’ response immediately.
Without saying so, without making an outlandish claim he wasn’t even willing to make during his trial before Pilate, without self-adulation, without calling attention to himself, Jesus pointed to his work, his calling, the healing and health that came in his train.
And in so doing, quietly, inconspicuously, unobtrusively, almost inaudibly, he demonstrated to John, in prison and, it seems, in doubt, that yes, he is the liberator of prisoners, the healer of the bent and broken, the bringer of good news to the poor, and the raiser-of-the-dead.
Jack Levison holds the W.J.A. Power Chair of Old Testament Interpretation and Biblical Hebrew at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University. His next book, Seven Secrets of the Spirit-filled Life, is available for pre-purchase.
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