Musical keys are very important. If a musician fails to take note of the key in which a song is written, many of the notes they play will be wrong. That’s not only bad for the musician, but it hinders any attempt the musician makes to harmonize with others who are playing the same song. For instance, the note might look like a B, but a simple glance at the key tells you that it is to be played as a B-flat. Why not just write B-flat and be done with it? I suppose one reason is that if you are going to be playing a bunch of B-flats, it is tidier just to say up front that every B is a B-flat. The alternative is to add a bunch of flat-signs throughout the music, adding clutter to the notes written throughout the staff. However it was that the practice developed, musicians know that in order to play the correct notes, one must first consult the key signature to see if any of them should be played as sharps or flats.
The gospel is also written in a certain key. If we fail to take note of it, we might find ourselves playing the wrong notes, interpreting things the wrong way. The disciples find themselves in this situation a few times in the Gospel of John. In one instance, Jesus goes into the temple and cleanses it (John 2). The authorities want to know exactly who Jesus thinks he is, coming into such a holy place and behaving in such a way.
So the Jews said to him, “What sign do you show us for doing these things?” Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews then said, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?” But he was speaking about the temple of his body. When therefore he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this, and they believed the Scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken. (John 2:18-22 ESV, italics mine)
In their defense, they are a few years away from experiencing Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection. Apart from his death, burial, and resurrection—what the gospel refers to as Jesus’s glorification—Jesus’s actions and statements in the temple that day don’t make much sense. We might even say that Jesus’s actions strike the wrong note. Yet, with a simple glance back at the key in which the gospel is written, the key of Jesus’s glorification, his words and deeds that day reveal a great deal to us. They reveal that Jesus in his very person is a new axis mundi, a place where heaven and earth meet. They reveal that in some way, Jesus’s destruction is part of the divine plan. They reveal that this destruction will be supplanted by his being raised up again … in a mere three days.
A second instance takes place a few years later. Having been anointed by Mary the day before, Jesus rides triumphantly into Jerusalem on the Sunday before his crucifixion.
The next day the large crowd that had come to the feast heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, crying out, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!” And Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it, just as it is written,
“Fear not, daughter of Zion;
behold, your king is coming,
sitting on a donkey’s colt!”
His disciples did not understand these things at first, but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written about him and had been done to him. (John 12:12-16, italics mine)
What could they not have understood? Jesus was coming into Jerusalem as a conquering hero! The people had found their champion; the crowds’ past attempts to make Jesus king were finally going to be realized. If that was the case, however, why was Jesus nailed to a cross less than a week later? To put it simply, Jesus refused to be the type of king they wanted. In fact, he finds the young donkey and rides it into Jerusalem not only as a fulfillment of prophecy, but as a signal to the type of king he would be.
Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem!
Behold, your king is coming to you;
righteous and having salvation is he,
humble and mounted on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
I will cut off the chariot from Ephraim
and the war horse from Jerusalem;
and the battle bow shall be cut off,
and he shall speak peace to the nations;
his rule shall be from sea to sea,
and from the River to the ends of the earth. (Zech 9:9-10, italics mine)
This is a king who comes not on a war horse, but on a donkey. He comes not with the weapons of war, but as the instrument of peace. Salvation would come not by means of a bloody war of independence against the Roman Empire, but through the precious blood of Jesus running down a Roman cross.
How often do we forget that the gospel is written in the key of Jesus’s glorification? How often do we attempt to make sense of Scripture, the church, and even the world around us without placing the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus at the center of it all? If our lives are full of notes that are out of tune, perhaps it is time we take another glance at the key signature. If there is tension within our churches, if the music we are playing isn’t harmonizing with that of other Christians, maybe we all need to step back and check to see if we are playing the same song. The disciples followed Jesus daily for three years, but it was only when they had experienced his death, burial, and resurrection that all they had seen and heard began to make sense. My prayer is that by experiencing Jesus’s glorification, the music of our lives will lead others to the realization that the sweetest carol ever sung is Jesus, blessed Jesus.