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. The crowd that had been with him when he called Lazarus out of the tomb and raised him from the dead continued to bear witness. The reason why the crowd went to meet him was that they heard he had done this sign. So the Pharisees said to one another, “You see that you are gaining nothing. Look, the world has gone after him.”
Many have read and recounted the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem (Matt. 21:1-11; Mk. 11:1-10; Lk. 19:29-44; Jn. 12:12-19), otherwise known as Palm Sunday. Prior to entering into Jerusalem, Jesus views the city and weeps (Lk. 19:41-44). Once arriving, Jesus visits the temple (Matt. 21:12-17; Mk. 11:11; Lk. 19:45-46) and predicts his death (Jn. 12:20-36).
Historical and Contextual Setting
As we read this text and ponder the events of this first day of the Jewish week, and the last week of Jesus’ earthly life leading to his crucifixion, it will be helpful to address some of the historical and cultural background. The crowd and Galilean pilgrims are there for the Jewish festivities. They spread their cloaks on the ground with Jesus riding on a donkey into Jerusalem.
During the Jewish festivals, especially Passover, Jerusalem was an exciting place. The population of the city was approximately 40,000, and because Passover was one of the major Jewish pilgrimages, during this festival the population would increase to about 240,000 people, six times its normal amount. There was great anticipation for those celebrating this festival, and the city was abuzz. The Romans were on special alert during these days. Having that many Jews in one place concerned them. All the Jews were enthusiastic about their faith and this ritual of Passover, as they relived an important part of their history and their faith. The Romans wanted to control the people and the festivities, so they were extra observant and vigilant.
In addition to these historical and cultural matters, there were significant theological issues as well. Jesus entered into Jerusalem on a donkey. This is a fulfillment of the prophecy given by Zechariah. This was important for the Jews. Furthermore, the way in which Jesus entered into Jerusalem was the same way Solomon entered when he became king. The message communicated through these events, which fulfilled Old Testament prophetic promises, is that the Messianic king entered Jerusalem, God’s holy city. This was exhilarating for the Jews and others in the crowd. They were expecting a Messiah who would be a national deliverer, who would reestablish the Davidic kingdom. Jesus looked a lot like the Messiah who had been promised in the Old Testament Scriptures: he taught with authority, he healed the sick, he even raised the dead. The people welcomed him with this in mind, as they prepared the way for him as the Davidic king entering Jerusalem.
What this means is that Jesus entered into an exciting, tense and potentially explosive situation. The Romans wanted to keep things under control, so things did not get out of hand. The Jewish authorities also had concerns since they did not want to upset the Roman authorities. It was an intense and unstable situation for Jesus and the disciples.
This section in John’s Gospel focuses on the feast of unleavened bread culminating in the Passover. John begins this section in this way: “Six days before the Passover, Jesus therefore came to Bethany, where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead” (12:1). At Bethany, Mary anointed Jesus’ feet with oil (12:3). Other Gospel writers also include that Jesus’ head was also anointed, indicating there was sufficient oil to anoint both Jesus’ head and feet (Matt. 26:7; Mk. 14:3).
Judas, not unexpectedly, objects, since this oil could have been sold for a full year’s wages (12:5). It was, according to Judas, a waste. In the providence of God, it was a precursor to the anointing of Jesus’ body after his crucifixion and prior to his burial.
Large crowds came to see Jesus and Lazarus, whom Jesus had raised from the dead (12:9). The chief priests desired to kill both (12:10).
Jesus’ Triumphal Entry
A great crowd that had come to the feast of unleavened bread (12:12), associated with the Passover (12:1), heard Jesus was coming to Jerusalem, so they followed him (12:12; cf. 12:9). The excited crowd took palm branches and spread them on the road where Jesus rode into the city on a donkey (12:13). As they went out to meet Jesus with the palm branches, they recalled the words recorded in the Old Testament Scriptures. They quoted a text from Psalm 118:25-26, which they believed was being fulfilled by Jesus as he approached Jerusalem.
One has written, “By waving palm branches (a Jewish national symbol) the people hail Jesus as the Davidic king and echo the language of Ps. 118:25-26, hoping that Jesus is the promised Messiah. Most of the crowd probably understood the title King of Israel in a political and military sense, still hoping that Jesus would use his amazing powers to resist Roman rule and lead the nation to independence.”
“Hosanna,” is a Hebrew expression which means “save,” and it became an exclamation of praise. It remains so to this day. The statement “king of Israel” refer to the expectations for this person to be a political deliverer, whose identity is as the Messiah. In the beginning of this Gospel, John records Nathanael saying the same thing about Jesus: “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel” (1:49)!
Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a donkey, which is the fulfillment of another prophecy written by Zechariah (9:9), which identifies the one on a donkey as a king. Jesus came not on a war horse, but on a donkey, depicting his humility. As one concludes, “Jesus is depicted as the humble shepherd-king of Zech. 9:9, who comes to the Holy City to take his rightful place. An early messianic prophecy speaks of a rule from Judah, who, riding on a donkey, will command the obedience of the nations (Gen. 49:10-11).”
His disciples did not understand these things, until after Jesus was glorified (Jn. 12:16; cf. 7:39) At that time, the Spirit brought these things to mind (cf. Jn. 16:13) and gave them “eyes to see” and understand. The same occurred with what Jesus said of the temple and his body (2:22).
The crowd that was with him when he raised Lazarus from the dead continued to follow him. They continued to “bear witness” to what they had seen. It was this sign that led the people to desire to meet Jesus. (John records seven signs or miracles Jesus performed that are truly significant, in that they point to the person of Jesus Christ who is the God-man: water turned to wine [John 2:1-11]; healing the sick [Jn. 4:46-53]; healing on the Sabbath [Jn. 5:1-29]; feeding the multitude [Jn. 6:1-14]; walking on water [Jn. 6:16-24]; healing the blind [Jn. 9:1-12]; raising Lazarus from the dead [Jn. 11:1-44].)
The Pharisees concluded this was getting them nowhere, which meant their earlier desire to kill him was only strengthened. They claimed the “whole world”, was going to see him (12:19; cf. 12:10), a bit of hyperbole to strengthen their justification and resolve to kill him.
Following this, Jesus speaks of his impending death, his “hour” in which he and the Father are “glorified” (Jn. 12:23; 17:1).
The “hour” is related to the culmination of Jesus’ earthly ministry which is the cross, the place where Christ experiences the depths of sin, yet also the beginning of his exaltation through resurrection and glorification.
It is important to note John’s transition. When Jesus was asked to do certain things, He made it clear that the “hour had not yet come” (Jn. 2:4; 7:30; 8:20). But Jesus final journey to the cross marks his transition such that John records Jesus as saying, “The hour has now come for the Son of Man to be glorified” (Jn. 12:23; cf. 12:27(2x); 13:1; 17:1).
The cross is the unique way through which He will be glorified. Jesus’ High Priestly prayer begins, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you” (Jn. 17:1).
Jesus’ sinless life, his perfect substitutionary death and his glorious resurrection and ascension are historical and doctrinal truths we remember this week. More than that, these are truths that we not only believe and affirm, they are truths we have experienced which have transformed our lives. Ultimately, this leads to worship of the Lord Jesus. Like Thomas, we utter, “My Lord and my God” (Jn. 20:28).
Might our focus on the Lord Jesus Christ this week lead to worship of him and proclamation of this truth, as we trust him to work in the lives of people “to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.”