It is estimated that the population of Jerusalem doubled for the Passover feast. You can imagine the happy buzz among the faithful and the heightened expectations of faith created by such a gathering. Earlier, when Martha held a feast in Jesus’ honour we read, “Meanwhile a large crowd of Jews found out that Jesus was there and came, not only because of him but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead.” (John 12:9) The following day when news spread that Jesus was travelling into Jerusalem, the word spread and many more came to see him. In their fervour the crowd greeted Jesus enthusiastically. We read, “They took palm branches and went out to meet him, shouting, ‘Hosanna!’ ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!’ ‘Blessed is the king of Israel!’” (John 12:13) Gary Burge, a New Testament scholar wrote, suddenly we gain the impression that the crowds are greeting a national Liberator, and therefore this scene is awash in Jewish political fervor. To Jews, Romans and Greeks the sight of Jesus riding a donkey into Jerusalem and the acclaim of the crowds was a triumphal entry. There was no mistaking the meaning of this event.
It pleased the crowds but angered the authorities. Both those who welcomed Jesus and those who opposed him, possibly thought Jesus was claiming to enter Jerusalem as a king. Both were wrong. They thought too small. Jesus was not a mere king trying to claim the throne in Jerusalem. Jesus is the King of Kings, the Lord of Lords, the Son of God come among them to save them from their sin.
The Jewish leadership thought Jesus was claiming to be king and they knew for them it meant trouble. Jesus could not be enthroned as king while King Herod ruled in Israel, the puppet of Tiberius Caesar, the emperor, who ruled the Roman world. Jesus’ entrance, whipping up the crowd, was asking for a fight and risked the heavy hand of Roman vengeance if there was even the slightest whiff of rebellion in the air. The authorities had tried reasoning with him and debating with him. Now they saw killing him as the only option they had left. They were frustrated and said, ‘See, this is getting us nowhere. Look how the whole world has gone after him!’” (John 12:19)
In reality no one, not even Jesus’ disciples grasped the significance of what Jesus was doing. “At first his disciples did not understand all this. Only after Jesus was glorified did they realise that these things had been written about him and that these things had been done to him.” (John 12:16) The crowds, the authorities and even the disciples all saw what they thought was a man on a donkey, a worldly messiah, with earthly claims to a throne in a backwater nation. But later the disciples, and then we in our time, see the Son of God, the King of Kings, the Lord of all creation, drawing closer to the cross to die for our sin.
Palm Sunday came to an end with Jesus making his final public appeal for people to believe in him. “Believe in the light while you have the light, so that you may become children of light.” (John 12:36) This echoes the opening words of John’s gospel which spoke of the true light coming into the world so people could become children of God. From chapter 1 to chapter 12 the light has been shining, but soon it would be extinguished, momentarily on the cross. But the truth of the light shone brightly on Palm Sunday. Through his actions on that day, and in the appeal he made for them to believe, we see Jesus heart and longing for the people of Jerusalem.
Which part of this story do you find most encouraging – explain why?
What makes this story so important for Christianity?
How would you explain the meaning of Palm Sunday to a new Christian?
Can you identify reasons why the crowd gathered on this day?
What was the importance of the palm branches and the donkey? (Zechariah 9.9 Rev 7.9)
What is the significance of the heavenly voice? John 12:28–30 (also Matt 3.17, 17.5)
(Read John 1.9 & 12.35-36,46) What do we learn about Jesus in these verses?
How does Palm Sunday begin to prepare us for Good Friday?
Rev John Malcolm