The Triumphal Entry, along with the feeding of the 5,000, is one of the few events in the Lord’s ministry that is reported in all four Gospels. John gives a more spartan report than do the synoptic gospels but he has some reasons of his own to include this event that marked the beginning of the passion week, though no one but Jesus knew it at the time.
v.12 As we said last time, the banquet at which Mary had anointed the Lord with the very expensive perfume had been held on a Saturday night, after the Sabbath was over. The next day would then be Sunday, the Sunday the Christian church celebrates as Palm Sunday. The reference to the great crowd is historically accurate. Jerusalem’s population swelled immensely at Passover as folk came from not only Galilee and Judea for the feast but from all over the Roman world. We know from the other gospels also that Jesus was the center of a fever pitch of excitement, heightened by the great miracles he had performed in the previous weeks, giving sight to the blind beggars in Jericho on a road crowded with pilgrims and then raising Lazarus from the dead. The Lord’s name was on everyone’s lips. Passover was the most patriotic time of year for a Jew and now they believed in large numbers that the Messiah might well have finally made his appearance.
v.13 For almost two centuries by this time, palm branches had been a national symbol, a patriotic symbol, ever since Simon the Maccabee was hailed with palm branches after driving the Syrian forces out of Jerusalem in 141 B.C. The same palm branches had been used in the ceremony when the temple was rededicated in 164 B.C. It is interesting that palms appear on the coins struck by the rebels at the time of the Jewish war against Rome which led to the sack of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple in A.D. 70. It would be very much like giving Jesus a ticker-tape parade today, or, perhaps, greeting him with the waving of thousands of little American flags.
“Hosanna!” which literally means, “Save Now” or “Bring salvation now” had come to be a term of praise. The word appears in Psalm 118:25, where the NIV has “O Lord, save us.” The following words, “Blessed is he who comes…” come from the next verse of Ps. 118. By this time this sentence was understood of the Messiah. The Messiah was the one who came in the name of the Lord and so the crowds are clearly identifying the Lord Jesus as the Messiah.
“Blessed is the King of Israel!” is not a quote from the psalm and so confirms that they intended to identify Jesus as their coming king.
v.14 As you remember from the synoptic gospels, the Lord made elaborate arrangements to be sure that he entered Jerusalem riding on this donkey. He was self-consciously fulfilling the prophecy of Zech. 9:9 which is cited here in v. 15. But, in any case, the Lord did not enter Jerusalem on a steed, a war horse, which would have whipped nationalistic expectations to a frenzy, but upon a gentle colt of a donkey. He is a king who comes in peace. He had come to fulfill different prophesies than the people were thinking of. He will be a different kind of king than they expect.
v.16 “after he was glorified” amounts to “after his death and resurrection.”
v.18 There were effectively two crowds. Those who had accompanied him from Bethany – among whom were those who had witnessed the raising of Lazarus and had spread the news of the miracle (here is John’s important emphasis on “witness” once again) – and those who came from the city itself upon hearing that Jesus was approaching. Having heard of the miracle they were eager to welcome Jesus.
v.19 They had already made the decision to kill Jesus but had felt it necessary to proceed in stealth. But clearly that was getting them nowhere: the Lord’s popularity continued to skyrocket, as this display of enthusiasm demonstrated to them.
There is irony in John’s report of their statement “the whole world has gone after him.” For, in John, Jesus is the Savior not of the Jews only but of the entire world. The word “world” in John typically refers to the people of the earth, without racial or national distinction, who were in rebellion against God and are lost and needing salvation. This idea that Jesus was to be the Savior of the world is to be foreshadowed in the incident that immediately follows this – when some Greeks ask to see Jesus – and in there being so many from all over the Roman world being present to welcome Jesus during the Passover feast.
Now it is time to pay some closer attention to a theme that has surfaced a number of times so far in our reading and studying of the Gospel of John. I mean the enthusiasm of the crowds for the Lord Jesus, which John even frequently refers to as their “faith” in him. Let’s review some of these references. I have collected them in my Bible next to 2:23 which is the first such reference to the positive response to Jesus that so many would make during the course of his three year public ministry.
There we read that “many people saw the miraculous signs he was doing and believed in his name.” However, ominously, the very next verses (2:24-25), go on to suggest that this faith was something less than a true, genuine, and permanent commitment to Jesus. “But Jesus would not entrust himself to them, for he knew all men.” That is, he knew human psychology. He understood the reasons why they were so excited about him and they had nothing to do with the real reasons he had come into the world. You remember that this point was made again in chapter 6, after the feeding of the 5,000. As the Lord made more explicit his true identity and his true purpose in the world in his “Bread of Life Discourse” that followed the great miracle, this vast crowd that moments before had to be restrained from making Jesus their king, there on the spot, began, instead, to dissipate and “many of his disciples” we read, “turned back and no longer followed him.” (6:66)
But that defection did not keep many other Jews from rallying to Jesus through the months and years of the ministry. In 8:30 we read, “Even as he spoke, many put their faith in him.” However, once again, the very next paragraph indicates that this faith was spurious, it was an enthusiasm for Jesus based on a gigantic misunderstanding of his person and work. The very ones who were said to have believed on him are accusing him of being demon-possessed a few verses later (8:48)!
In 10:42 we have another brief statement, “And in that place many believed in Jesus.” The previous verse mentions his miracle working and that seemed to be, in many of these cases, what drew the people to Jesus. After the raising of Lazarus, in 11:45, we read again, “Therefore many of the Jews who had come to visit Mary, and had seen what Jesus did, put their faith in him.” That same point was repeated in 12:11, just before our text today: again people believing on account of Lazarus, and then again once more here in v. 19.
However, here, as before, some cold water is very soon to be cast on these professions of faith in Jesus. In 12:37-45 we are going to read about the unbelief of the Jews and of the so-called faith of some of the religious leaders who, nevertheless, were unwilling to confess their faith publicly “because they loved praise from men more than praise from God.” And the Lord will himself speak darkly of those who “hear my words but [do] not keep them…”
In other words, throughout the course of the Lord’s ministry, even as he suffered the active opposition of the religious leadership on account of their envy, he received the enthusiastic adulation and credit of large and increasing numbers of people. The triumphal entry on the Sunday of passion week is the culmination of that development: an enthusiasm now so great and shared by so many that the Pharisees can speak of “the whole world going after him.”
But, all along the way, John casts doubt over the genuineness of this enthusiasm. These folk who seem so enamored of Jesus in fact are enthusiastic about him for the wrong reasons and will not stick when it becomes clearer that he has not come to fulfill their expectations.
The palm branches and the cries of the crowd from Ps. 118 make clear that they are welcoming Jesus as a political if not military deliverer. They have visions of him throwing off the yoke of Roman rule. They dream of his restoring the nation of Israel to its rightful place as the greatest nation on the earth. If a man can raise the dead, he can handle a Roman legion!
Now, what needs to be admitted and appreciated – especially if we would feel the full force of the lesson of this history – is that there was a reason for them to think this way about the Lord Jesus. The Messiah, as the OT made very clear, was to be a king. A descendant of David, indeed. And what does a great king do, what did David do, but deliver his people from their enemies, protect them from foreign powers, and establish them as a free and prosperous people. And, indeed, in a great many prophecies of the Messiah’s coming in the OT that is precisely what is said the Messiah will do.
“For as in the day of Midian’s defeat [that is when Gideon delivered Israel from bondage to one of her enemies], you have shattered the yoke that burdens them, the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor…. For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders…. “Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever.” [Isa. 9:4-7]
What is more, that earthly conquest of the enemies of God’s people, that granting of peace and prosperity in the world is precisely what we Christians today expect the Lord Jesus to do for us when he comes again. You cannot read Revelation 19 and its account of the Lord Christ astride a great white horse – “the armies of heaven…following him. Out of his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations. ‘He will rule them with an iron scepter.’ On his robe and on his thigh he has this name written: King of Kings and Lord of Lords.” – I say, you cannot read that description, which is not all that different from any number of such prophecies in the OT, without realizing that the hopes of those who greeted Jesus as he entered Jerusalem that long-ago Sunday were not based on nothing. Their hopes had biblical justification.
So what made them so wrong, so false? What made their hopes, so high on Sunday, so utterly to dissipate by Friday of the same week? How could people who seemed to have “faith” in Jesus – that is what John often calls their enthusiasm for him –, I think, because at the moment it looked like faith, – to cry out for his murder just a few days later?
Well, the problem was, of course, that they wanted only a military, political deliverer, they were interested only in the freedom, respect, prosperity, and power that they expected him to give them. They were not interested in a Redeemer who would die for the sins of the world. They were not interested in a Lord and Master who would demand from them an absolute loyalty of heart and life. They were looking for the destruction of the Romans not of their own pride!
But, and this is the key to everything in human life and history, no one can have the one thing – everlasting peace and prosperity – without the other – a divinely provided redemption from sin and guilt embraced by humble faith and followed by the submission of one’s life. Whenever in the gospels it became clear to people that this is what Jesus was saying, that this is what he was demanding of them, that this and this alone was the salvation he was offering to them, the generality of men turned away in disgust.
Or, to put it in the terms of our text, you cannot welcome the King of Kings astride his white steed, with the armies of heaven following behind him, until you have welcomed, trusted, and loved the humble king, riding on the colt of a donkey, who has come to die for your sins that you might live to God.
Now what makes all of this so important, of course, is not only that all of this prideful misunderstanding led inexorably to the Savior’s crucifixion five days later. What also makes it so important is that the same error has been made countless times in the church since and is being made today in all manner of different ways. You do not usually run into people who have or will express a negative opinion about Jesus Christ. His character shines so luminously down through the ages, his unrivaled goodness is so impossible to deny, the extraordinary authority of his teaching is so impossible to evade, that even those who have no great interest in Jesus seem to know better than to criticize him. In biblical scholarship, indeed, there is a not insubstantial industry devoting its time and talents to blaming the early church for all the ideas of Jesus that modern men cannot stomach. No one wants to say that Jesus himself was guilty of these extreme views or these politically incorrect judgments, so scholars seek someone else to blame – the early Christians who reshaped Jesus’ message into what became known as Christianity, with all its faults. If only we could get back to Jesus himself – that is the idea.
But, popular as Jesus remains, it is very often, just as here, an enthusiasm that is based on a complete misrepresentation of his person and his work, of his message and his mission. In 1985 Jaroslav Pelikan, then a Lutheran now Orthodox, one of the 20th century’s great church historians, wrote a book entitled, Jesus through the Centuries. In that book Pelikan described the various views of Jesus that different groups or different periods had held, the different uses that people had put Jesus to through the ages.
For some in early Christianity and later he was the great philosopher, of which Plato and Aristotle were but anticipations or forerunners. For others, especially the medieval monks, he was the first monk, the first true ascetic. Later on, after the enlightenment, more and more he became the world’s greatest teacher of morals, the rabbi who taught us to love God and one another. In the second half of the 20th century especially, people came to think of him as the Liberator of the poor, just as in previous generations Jesus had been regarded in other circles as virtually the patron saint of capitalism. Gandhi and Martin Luther King appealed to him as the exemplar of their movements of passive, non-violent resistance to social injustice and, after them, the Liberation theologians appealed to his more aggressive side – the cleansing of the temple, the prophecies of violent judgment of the wicked – and made him the spiritual leader of their revolutionary movements, sometimes violent, for social change. In the 1970s and thereafter, if you remember, there was a concerted effort to find in the life and work of Jesus the first Marxist. I remember my studies in Amsterdam in 1984. There at the Free University to be a follower of Christ was primarily understood – at least in the divinity faculty – to be a person committed to social justice and economic liberation for the poor.
What must be admitted about all of these ideas of Jesus is that there is some truth to them. He was the world’s greatest philosopher, Plato and Aristotle were schoolboys in comparison. He was the only perfect ascetic that ever lived, – foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head – even if, at the same time, men accused him of being a drunk and a glutton. He was the world’s greatest teacher of morals and did, in fact, teach more perfectly, more persuasively, more helpfully the love of God and man than any other teacher ever has come close to doing, Confucius, Buddha, and Mohammed among them. And he is and shall be the great liberator of the poor and the downtrodden as he is also the Creator who has made a world and gifted mankind so as to provide unending prosperity for those who make proper use of his gifts. The Lord Jesus, as the Maker of Heaven and earth and of all men, as the King of Kings, as the Word sent from heaven, as the embodiment of the love of God, is bound to be related in some fundamental way to every good, every pure, every loving, every just instinct that human beings find within themselves.
The problem is, that you can worship Jesus Christ and sing his praises for these various things that he represents and communicates and embodies, and still be among those who crucify him on Friday afternoon!
Remember this when today you hear people invoke the name of Jesus on behalf of gay rights or feminism or, even, when you hear his name invoked on behalf of things that may well have some actual connection to his teaching, such as environmentalism or economic development for the poor.
Remember, the people who greeted Jesus as he entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday had their texts too. But, they did not in the first place and primarily honor the Lord Jesus as the Savior of sinners – sinners such as themselves – and until he is honored for that and as that by people who confess from their hearts their need of his sacrifice, his redemption, none of the rest that Jesus is, represents, or brings to men will do them any good at all. None of the enthusiasm they show for Jesus will be taken in heaven as anything else but an extravagant and hypocritical demonstration of their unbelief and their rebellion against Jesus and everything he is, everything he did, and everything he taught. These hosannas were just a cruel way of rejecting the Lord. And by Friday everybody knew it.
The angel said it. “He shall save his people from their sins.” That was his errand in the world. Everything else was and is subject to that. Confess Jesus as your Savior and you get him as your philosopher, your teacher, your liberator, your example for life. Refuse him as your Savior and you get nothing from him, whatever appearances may suggest temporarily.
There is the lesson and the warning in this scene of wild adulation at the appearing of Jesus of Nazareth by the very same people who would crucify him five days later.