Gospel of John: Background Stories


Before entering into the events of Passion Week, it seemed good to gather the backstories that were in play during those fateful seven days. I promised to give four stories that would provide foundational understanding for what happened.

Yesterday was the first story, Story #1, A Lamb. Today are two more stories, and tomorrow will come the last story.


Story #1, A Lamb

Francisco de Zurbarán, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The beautiful and pure Passover Lamb, without mark or imperfection, beloved for three days, then slaughtered, roasted, and eaten.


Story #2, A Song

On the day of Passover, crowds of worshipers always climbed Mt.  Zion, up to the temple, to offer their lambs, and they would sing the Hallel Psalms, The Songs of Praise, Psalms 113 through 118. 

After each line the people would sing a refrain, Hallelu Yah, meaning “praise ye the Lord.” 

Psalm 113—Begins “Praise the Lord,” praising God for His power and glory, as Creator and Sovereign, highly exalted. And yet, this same God raises the poor from the dust and seats them with princes, and brings loving family to everyone.

Psalm 114—Exalts God for bringing the Israelites out of Egypt and into His presence, and for giving them water from the rock.

Psalm 115—Compares the living powerful God with lifeless idols, putting trust in God, being blessed by God, and the privilege of extoling God.

Psalm 116—Describes God as gracious and righteous, full of compassion, rescuing God’s people from death.

Psalm 117—Praises God for God’s love and faithfulness

Psalm 118—Thanks God for God’s goodness and God’s love, for God’s salvation and God’s victory. Here are some famous lines from that Psalm:

The stone the builders rejected
    has become the cornerstone;
the Lord has done this,
    and it is marvelous in our eyes.

Psalm 118:22-23 (NRSV)

Peter would use this very song to describe Christ and the Church in one of his letters.

Horn | Pxfuel.com

Lord, save us!
    Lord, grant us success!

Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.
    From the house of the Lord we bless you.
The Lord is God,
    and he has made his light shine on us.
With boughs in hand, join in the festal procession
    up to the horns of the altar.

You are my God, and I will praise you;
    you are my God, and I will exalt you.

Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;
    his love endures forever.

Psalm 118:25-29 (NRSV)

I hope you are able to read these Psalms sometime this week to get the feel of what the people were thinking, and feeling, and singing as they prepared for the Passover.


Story #3, A Donkey

Every Jewish person got something of an education in their scriptures as they grew up, just like you and I do today in Sunday school. There were stories they knew by heart, and symbols they were very familiar with.

One of those symbols was a donkey.

The donkey or mule was known as the king’s steed, and was associated with peaceful rule, and here is why: clear back in Genesis, when Jacob was prophesying about each of his sons, this is what he said about his son Judah,

▪Donkey and foal | by Ansgar Scheffold on Unsplash

The scepter will not depart from Juda
    nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet,
until he to whom it belongs shall come
    and the obedience of the nations shall be his.

He will tether his donkey to a vine,
    his colt to the choicest branch;

Genesis 49:10-11 (NRSV)

So, from the very beginning, the tribe of Judah was associated with a dynasty of kings who would rule forever, a King of kings Who would come one day to claim his own, and this King of kings would have a donkey, a colt.

The association of donkeys and mules with rule and kingship is linked in other ways, too, in the Bible.

  • In the book of Judges, there are several references of leaders and their sons riding on donkeys.
  • Saul became king when he was searching for his father’s lost donkeys and ran into Samuel.
  • When David escaped Jerusalem, his household rode on donkeys.
  • Solomon, when he was crowned king, rode into Jerusalem riding on King David’s own mule.

But, Jacob had not finished prophesying about his son Judah.

he will wash his garments in wine, his robes in the blood of grapes.

Genesis 49:10-11 (NRSV)

This reference, of garments washed in wine, refers to judgment, and became one of the distinctive depictions of Jesus, in the Book of Revelation, in his second advent as the sovereign judge of the cosmos. Jesus is also portrayed as a rider on a white horse who “had a bow; a crown was given to him, and he came out conquering and to conquer.”

So, the horse was considered an animal of war, and as such became a coveted part of a king’s armory.

  • In the Exodus, Pharaoh pursued the Israelites, who were running on foot, with his world-class cavalry and chariots.
  • The prophet, priest, and judge Samuel warned the people who were clamoring for a king that a king would tax them heavily to acquire horses and riders for his army.
  • When Adonijah was planning his coup, his first order of business was to build up his cavalry. It would prove his undoing, as he fled through the woods on his steed, and his hair was caught in branches.
  • King Solomon gained renown for his forty thousand stalls of horses, for his chariots, and for his twelve thousand horsemen.
  • King Jehu rode his horse into Jerusalem on a carpet of the people’s garments, but he went straight to the palace to deal with Queen Jezebel, then ‘cleansed’ the temple of Ba’al.

In Jesus’ day, people knew without saying that whoever rode into Jerusalem on a horse came as a conqueror of Jerusalem, with every intention of making war until Jerusalem had surrendered and been rid of all resistance. There would come a time, and far sooner than the people realized, when Rome would ride in on horses and leave Jerusalem ruined, awash in blood.

However, the one who rode in on a donkey would be welcomed as king of Jerusalem, one bringing peace and healing,

One hundred years after Jezebel had been assassinated by King Jehu, Isaiah would prophesy,

The Lord has made proclamation
    to the ends of the earth:
“Say to Daughter Zion,
    ‘See, your Savior comes!
See, his reward is with him,
    and his recompense accompanies him.’”

Isaiah 62:11 (NRSV)

Another hundred years after Isaiah, the prophet Zechariah may have had all these things in his mind when he received this prophecy from God:

The Coming of Zion’s King

Brooklyn Museum | James Tissot / Public Domain

Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion!
    Shout, Daughter Jerusalem!

See, your king comes to you,
    righteous and victorious,
lowly and riding on a donkey,
    on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

I will take away the chariots from Ephraim
    and the warhorses from Jerusalem,
    and the battle bow will be broken.

He will proclaim peace to the nations.
    His rule will extend from sea to sea
    and from the River to the ends of the earth.

Zechariah 9:9-10 (NRSV)

This last passage is perhaps the most famous of the predictions about Messiah coming into Jerusalem on a donkey, because this is the one the ancient Gospel writers chose to refer to. But, without the backstory, though the fulfillment of this prophecy is exciting and tremendous, it loses the impact it would have had on a first century audience.


[Scroll | pngimg.com]

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