The Triumphal Entry
12The next day the great crowd that had come for the Feast heard that Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem. 13They took palm branches and went out to meet him, shouting,
"Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!"
"Blessed is the King of Israel!" 14Jesus found a young donkey and sat upon it, as it is written,
15"Do not be afraid, O Daughter of Zion;
see, your king is coming,
seated on a donkey's colt."
16At first his disciples did not understand all this. Only after Jesus was glorified did they realize that these things had been written about him and that they had done these things to him.
17Now the crowd that was with him when he called Lazarus from the tomb and raised him from the dead continued to spread the word. 18Many people, because they had heard that he had given this miraculous sign, went out to meet him. 19So the Pharisees said to one another, "See, this is getting us nowhere. Look how the whole world has gone after him!"
Almost everyone in America loves Thanksgiving. It is the time of year when we all come together and celebrate all of the things that we’re thankful for, traditionally focusing on what God has provided for us. The roots of our Thanksgiving holiday come from a shared meal of hospitality between the Pilgrims and Native Americans in Massachusetts in 1621. Thanksgiving is full of familiar symbols such as Pilgrim hats, cornucopias, turkeys, big family meals, and of course, the traditional autumn brown and orange color scheme. There are many other holidays that are uniquely American in the way we celebrate them, and we are just as familiar with their symbols. All Americans would immediately know what holiday it is if you talked of picnics and cookouts, fireworks, parades, and of course, the red, white, and blue color scheme everywhere. Well that would obviously be July 4th, Independence Day. We know these holidays well and love them, but what if you came outside one July day and saw a parade but instead of national red, white, and blue items, you saw a large group of people wearing Pilgrim outfits. You still saw the fireworks but instead of brats and burgers, these people were cooking big, formal meals with turkey as the main course. You would obviously know that something had changed. You would know immediately that these people had intentionally blurred images from two different holidays and were trying to make some sort of unique statement about things.
Symbols and traditions are often unknown and confusing to people outside of a culture, but they are intimately familiar and well known to people within that culture. If you were to take a tradition from one holiday and start observing it or doing it during another holiday everyone within that culture would know that it was out of place. You just don’t hang stockings over the fireplace for Halloween. Everyone would know that didn’t fit. If you’re from outside of the culture, however, you might not catch the significance. As Jesus makes his way into Jerusalem, the Jews around him are making a clear statement of what they think is going on, and they do so by taking an image associated with one holiday and move into the current holiday. Those of us who aren’t from this culture can easily miss the significance, but it was obvious and important to those who were in Jerusalem when Jesus rode into town.
The next day, presumably after the dinner with Lazarus and his sisters, Jesus prepares to enter Jerusalem for the Passover week. As Jesus approaches, the great throngs of pilgrims who had traveled to Jerusalem to observe the Passover, heard that he was on his way. What John wants us to see, above all, is that this was the moment that Israel had been waiting for, even if they had a very wrong understanding of what was happening and how God was really going to return to Jerusalem.
Passover was the biggest festival and celebration in Israel. It took place in the Spring and was really at the heart of Jewish life. It was a remembrance of the great Exodus, when God acted to free His people from slavery in Egypt. God had used the sacrifice of the lamb to free Israel and then led them through the Red Sea. Passover was a holiday that was full of symbolism but palm branches were not one of them.
John has already alluded to Hanukkah in 10:22. That was the festival that commemorated Judas Maccabaeus’ defeat of pagan marauders and the subsequent cleansing of the Temple. Judas then set up a line of kings in Jerusalem that lasted for a hundred years. When Maccabaeus’ followers entered the city in 164 BC after his victory, they waved palm branches in celebration of Israel’s freedom and his impending kingship. During the next two centuries, waving palm branches became a part of the Hanuakkah celebration but it was also a symbol of kingship and freedom. It was a sign that was associated with a great king who would free Israel from her enemies.
The crowds that came out to meet Jesus that day clearly thought that this was finally the time when he would declare himself to be the Messiah. They waved branches, the sign of kingly cleansing, and shouted "Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord." Hosanna comes from Psalm 118:25 (a passage that was seen as overtly messianic) and was a call for salvation in the day of the lord. The one, in first-century Jewish thought, who came in the name of the Lord was none other than the Messiah. He was the Blessed King of Israel. Interestingly, John says that the crowds went out to meet him, using a word that was rather rare. It is a specific word that was used in Greek language to denote the act of going out to meet a sovereign and joyfully escort him back into the city. The pilgrims are clearly enthralled. They know the great signs that Jesus has done and they see him as the Messiah. He is God’s king who is coming in the name of the Lord to defeat Israel’s enemies. They are exalting him as king, yet they clearly still do not fully grasp the kind of Messiah that Jesus intends to be.
John is giving us a wonderful picture of people who are intentionally combining the symbolism of Passover with the kingly imagery of Hanukkah. Israel, here is your king, God’s lamb. Yet, even in all of that, Jesus intentionally sends a message of correction, even while he accepts the kingly reception. John merely tells us that Jesus found a donkey, but the synoptic Gospels inform us of the details of Jesus sending his disciples ahead to secure a donkey for this occasion. The act of riding on a donkey was a well known Jewish symbol of a king and certainly was a fulfillment of messianic prophecy from Zechariah 9:9, which reads, "See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey." Yet, kings in the ancient world also rode in on horses. The difference was that a king riding in on a donkey was a symbol of peaceful times, while the horse was a symbol of war and power. Israel has her king but he is not one of war and power but of peace. Zechariah continues in verse 10 that through the Messiah, God "will take away the chariots from Ephraim and the war-horses 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." The point of all of this is clear. The king, God’s king, has finally come and he will free his people from slavery and their enemies, but he will do it through a path of peace that no one anticipated or could even understand at that the moment that Jesus entered into the city.
In John 16:13, John will tell us of Jesus’ words of encouragement to his disciples, "the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth." John apparently gives us a real life example of that. He says that his disciples did not understand all that was happening at the time. It was clear that the crowds did not understand the full significance of everything that was happening either. It was not until after Jesus was glorified that they realized that these thing had been written about him and that they had done these things to him. It was only later, through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, that they understood the complete implications of Jesus entering the city as the peaceful king but also as the presence of God Himself returning to Jerusalem.
The crowd that was with him was so swept up by the promise and hope of these events, both the raising of Lazarus and his triumphal entry, that they continued to spread the word. That is what always happens when people truly come to faith in Jesus Christ. Those who have truly embraced and fully understood Christ cannot help but spread the good news. Based on hearing of this spreading of the word, Many people from within Jerusalem came to meet Jesus as well (historians tell us that the normal first-century population of Jerusalem was about 100,000, but that that would swell to as many as 1,000,000 during the Passover time).
As compelling as Jesus’ entry is, John doesn’t want us to get completely carried away. He reminds us of the Pharisees that are watching all of this. They fear that Jesus is getting more popular and is really getting somewhere, in contrast to themselves who are getting nowhere. They are still there lurking, and those opposed to Jesus will soon have their day. Yet, we cannot help but think that John sees a bit of ironic prophecy in their exasperated words, "look how the whole world has gone after him." From John’s perspective as he writes the Gospel in the first century
John and the other disciples thought they knew what was going on when Jesus entered into Jerusalem, but later on, the Spirit led them to a full understanding of events. Are you open to the Spirit giving you a new perspective on situations and events in your life, or do you always go with your first instinct. Perhaps before you come to a final conclusion on a conversation, an incident, or some other event, you should pray about it and ask the Spirit to reveal the truth of the situation.