Listen closely and you can hear the cries of the crowd on Palm Sunday. There is the sound of a distant, muffled roar. You can’t make out the words, then you hear a cheer, and then a chant: “Hosanna! Hosanna! Hosanna!”
Look and you see brightly colored Jews, dressed in the festive garments of pilgrims.
The Jews are tense, waiting for the Passover. They are tense, wondering whether Jesus of Nazareth will show Himself at the festival. A rumor has pulled them away from their sightseeing: “The Messiah has revealed Himself!”
Imagine the press of people behind Jesus. A crowd has followed Him from Bethany, the home of Lazarus. You can smell the dust, and the unmistakable odor of too many unwashed people jammed together. You can feel the heat of the rising Mediterranean sun.
In the Gospel of John, chapter 12:12,13 we are told that many pilgrims in Jerusalem heard and saw this demonstration:
On the next day much people that were come to the feast, when they heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem, Took branches of palm trees, and went forth to meet him, and cried, Hosanna: Blessed is the King of Israel that cometh in the name of the LORD.
You can sense the palpable excitement in the air. Dads, Moms, as well as children are climbing trees to break off palm branches. Who is this man on the donkey that the Jews are treating like a king?
The Absurdity of a Donkey King!
See this man lauded by the Jews who rides on a donkey! The crowd is crying out that Jesus of Nazareth is the great Son of David. They are using messianic language to refer to Him as Savior. They cry: “Hosanna!” What a contrast between this king and other kings. When the Roman Emperor traveled to a city, he did not ride on a donkey, much less the colt of a donkey! He rode on a white warhorse or in an elaborate chariot, pulled by impressive horses. The ruler of the Empire was always accompanied by armed guards.
Look at this donkey king. He doesn’t ride on a horse. He is riding on a donkey. In addition it is a colt. I have no doubt that both of Jesus’ feet were dragging on the ground. The absurdity of it. Especially in light of the Jewish dreams about the Messiah.
A Meek and Lowly King
In ancient Israel, a donkey was not a dishonorable animal to ride. Ancient kings even rode them. Yet the donkey did picture that Jesus was the Prince of Peace. That is why Matthew retains the word “meek” in his quote from Zechariah 9:9 that mentions how the King would be “lowly”. John omits the line containing “meek” or “lowly” in his quotation because he is interested mainly in the fact that Jesus’ riding on a colt was fulfilling the words of Zechariah. Jesus shows the multitudes that He is a meek and lowly king. He came to make peace by the blood of the cross (see Galatians 1:20).
Jesus declares His kingship by riding on a donkey. We never read of Jesus riding on a horse or donkey during His ministry other than this. He walked. Even when he took long journeys from Judea to Galilee, He walked. He did not expect special privileges. He did not ask His disciples to provide him with a brand new Cadillac. Why? He clearly wanted to be with and among His disciples and the common people.
Riding into Jerusalem on a donkey’s colt, Jesus fulfills prophecy and reveals Himself as a new kind of royalty. When Solomon became king, David had him ride his favorite mule during the inaugural procession around Jerusalem (see I Kings 1:33). Now a far greater son of David rides into the City of David on a donkey.
Jesus is making clear that He is a new kind of royalty. A Gentile king would have ridden into the city on a warhorse or in a golden chariot. But Jesus rides on the back of a donkey, and a colt at that!
Jesus specified that the donkey was to be a young colt that had never been ridden. This suggests that this journey is sacred. In Numbers 19:2 and I Samuel 6:7 we find that only animals that had never been used as beasts of burden could be considered suitable for sacred purposes. That an unbroken and unridden colt is willing to bear Jesus says something about His power.
Jesus sets Himself forth as the Messiah by fulfilling the Messianic prophecy in Zechariah 9:9. That Scripture prophesied:
Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion; shout, O daughter of Jerusalem: behold, thy King cometh unto thee: he is just, and having salvation; lowly, and riding upon an ass, and upon a colt the foal of an ass.
When the multitudes hail Jesus as the Messiah, He does not in any way deny the clear implication of their Hosannas. He soon defends the children in the temple who are still crying out Hosannas. The chief priests and scribes saw the children crying “Hosanna to the son of David” in the temple. They were unhappy and said: “Hearest thou what these say?’ Jesus response is:
Yea; have ye never read, Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings thou hast perfected praise? (Matthew 21:16)
Jesus accepts the title of king, He even declares that He is the messianic king.
But Jesus refuses to become the military messiah that the Jews and His disciples want. The palm leaves show where the thoughts of the crowd are. The road is jammed with pilgrims and locals alike. They join the disciples in laying their cloaks across the path to show Jesus honor. They break off fronds from the palm trees and wave them in the air, and then spread them on the road.
John describes a jubilant, royal, triumphal entry—that is a spontaneous, street-fair sort of event. It was a large crowd, a Passover-multitude that came pouring out of Jerusalem’s eastern gate that Sunday morning. People spill out of their houses. They are drawn by the fanfare. They are sure that this is the promised Messiah. They wave palm branches as a token of rejoicing and triumph.
But the crowds are fickle. Today is Sunday. But by Friday these crowds will be mocking Jesus. On Friday morning they join the religious leaders in calling for Jesus to be crucified (John 19:15). Later at Calvary we find the Jewish pilgrims wagging their heads and mocking Jesus. Matthew records how the crowd acted then:
And they that passed by reviled him, wagging their heads, And saying, Thou that destroyest the temple, and buildest it in three days, save thyself. If thou be the Son of God, come down from the cross (Matthew 27:39,40).
But for a little while on Sunday the crowds are excited by Jewish dreams of the Messiah. Now they proclaim Jesus as the son of David and the King of the Jews.
Palm Fronds: Nationalistic Symbols of Victory
The waving of Palm branches show what is on the mind of the Jews. Palm branches symbolized victory to the covenant people. Since the time of the Maccabees the palm fronds had become a political symbol. The Maccabees adopted the palm branch as the symbol of victory. We are told that when Simon the Maccabee regained the citadel at Jerusalem:
On the twenty-third day of the second month, in the one hundred seventy-first year, the Jews entered it with praise and palm branches, and with harps and cymbals and stringed instruments, and with hymns and songs, because a great enemy had been crushed and removed from Israel (I Maccabees 13:51).
In we read about the purification of the temple after Judas defeated the Syrians:
Therefore, carrying ivy-wreathed wands and beautiful branches and also fronds of palm, they offered hymns of thanksgiving to him who had given success to the purifying of his own holy place (2 Maccabees 10:7).
Judas put the image of a palm branch on his coins and had them used in temple feasts to celebrate the victory over the Syrians.
Passover was a time of remembering the deliverance from the bondage of Egypt. To liberate the Jews from the present Roman tyrant a mighty deliverer would be needed. Jesus had just demonstrated His extraordinary power by raising Lazarus from the dead!
On the Verge of Triumph
The crowd shouts: “Hosanna!” This is derived from the imperative form of the verb “to save” and means “save now” or “save, pray”. The people see Jesus as their Savior. The crowd expects Jesus to issue a call to arms and drive out the hated Romans. This phrase comes from Psalm 118:25: “Save now, I beseech thee, O LORD.” Psalm 118 is a song of victory that celebrates the moment of God’s deliverance of His people. The crowds view Jesus on the verge of victory.
One year the basketball team from my high-school was playing in the state finals. They won the first game. If they would win again they would become the first team in this division to win state 4 years in a row. You can imagine the excitement of the disciples if you think of the Southwest Eagles being behind by 1 point with 3 seconds left and suddenly the forward steals the ball (the lane is open) and goes up for a slam dunk!
The moment of triumph has come for Jesus! The hearts of the disciples are pounding. Their breath comes quick. They are as tense as soldiers about to fight. The sons of thunder must wonder whether Jesus will call down fire from Heaven like Elijah. Would they storm the Roman praetorian in a people’s revolution? Let the legions attack, Jesus will burn them to cinders!
The disciples had visions of power dancing in their heads. James and John had coerced their mother into asking Jesus to give the precedence to her sons.
Jesus shows that He is not the earthly Messiah of Jewish dreams. He does something that the surging mob does not understand. He rides on the colt of an ass, not an animal associated with war, but with pursuits of peace. He is coming to conquer, but through His lowly death.
Even the disciples did not understand Jesus. John 12:16 says: “These things understood not his disciples at the first:…” They did not understand the nature of Jesus’ kingship. They did not understand the necessity of a cross.
Jesus did not come to bring physical wealth and political freedom to the Jews. Why are you interested in following Jesus? Do you think that if you become a Christian, then you will not have to worry about your health or money. You are deceived if you think Jesus came to give you a big house, a new car, and perfect health. Jesus is not that kind of savior.
If you are authentically interested in Jesus for who He is, you will come to Him concerned about your sins. You will want to simply be faithful and obedient to Him, given what health and money the Lord has blessed you with. You will not follow Jesus for carnal reasons. Instead you will realize that your worship of Jesus is not for yourself, but for His glory.
A King who Dies for His Subjects
Why did Jesus enter Jerusalem on Palm Sunday? The first answer is that He came to fulfill Scripture. But more importantly, He came to die. By His Triumphal Entry He indicates that He will lay down His life.
He is forcing the issue. He deliberately plans this demonstration. It is not just spontaneous. He arranges for the disciples to find the donkey. He realizes that the enthusiasm of the masses will so enrage the hostile religious leaders that they will want to kill Him soon.
Jesus speaks about the necessity of His death. In John 12:24 He speaks about the necessity of His death for there to be a resurrection harvest:
Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit.
A confused hush must have settled over those who heard this. This was a king who would rule through death, not military conquest.
The kingship of Jesus will look different in the future than it does now. He will be the white-horse rider. He will come with infinite majesty. He will come to make war on His enemies. But now He shows that He is the messianic king by triumphing over His enemies on the cross.
Subjects of the King?
The King who Christians worship is approachable. He is meek and lowly of heart. He is a King who welcomes all who come to Him sorrowing over their sins and wanting forgiveness. Some two thousand years ago Jesus came riding into Jerusalem. The response of the religious rulers was that they needed to get rid of Him quickly before His influence grew even more. Many of the Jewish people were fickle. On Palm Sunday they cry “Hosannas” to Jesus, but by Good Friday morning they have changed and are yelling: “Crucify Him!”. When the Jews saw that Jesus was not a political deliverer, they didn’t care if He lived. If He wasn’t a political deliverer, He was a fraud. So they chose Barabbas over Jesus.
Naturally all fallen men are rebels. Adam and Eve rebelled against their rightful king. Naturally as we see Jesus coming into Jerusalem as king, we hate Him and despise His commandments.
But King Jesus came into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday because He was going to establish His kingdom by His atoning death on the cross. He needed to pay for the sins of His people. What a strange king! In history most kings have thought that their subjects exist for them. Jesus was a king who loved His elect subjects so much that He died for them. He gave His life for them. He suffered God’s wrath against the sins of all His elect, in order to redeem them and bring them into the kingdom of light.
On Palm Sunday excitement grips many church attendees, just as it gripped the original celebrants on that day. In fact there are foolish people who go to church only a few times a year on church holidays like Christmas, Palm Sunday, or Easter. But the example of the fickle Jews show that we need more than excitement. We need a true and living faith in Jesus Christ. We need the faith that justifies us apart from any works. We need to see that the King is the only possible savior and He is a sufficient savior.
What earthly kings are notable for their love? They are more interested in having the respect of their subjects. Stalin intimidated the Russians into obeying him. But King Jesus is a king characterized by infinite love for His subjects who were given to Him in the eternal decree of election. His kingship is characterized by sacrificial love.
Do you love the king? Jesus said that if a person loved Him, he would keep His commandments. Do you?
King Jesus proclaimed a new ethic. He proclaims that we must hate our life to save it. He expands the principles about the necessity of a kernel being planted to produce fruit in John 12:25:
He that loveth his life shall lose it; and he that hateth his life in this world shall keep it unto life eternal.
Is Jesus saying that we should cultivate a hatred for life and want to commit suicide? No. He is rather teaching that we must not live for the pleasures of sin to be experience in this present world. We must constantly die to self and to this sinful world.
If we are children of the King, we should imitate the humility and lowliness of Jesus. We who are followers of a humble, suffering King, should not love to lord it over others. We should be willing to go outside the camp with Jesus, bearing our crosses, suffering reproach for Christ’s name.
Dying is a daily requirement for spiritual vitality. We need to die to our own selfish opinions, preferences, tastes, and will. In other words we must follow King Jesus, obeying Him. Jesus says: “If any man serve me, let him follow me;…” (John 12:26). If we are citizens of the King, we need to die to ourselves and live for Christ. This is the royal life, a life of sacrifice and self-denial, a life that produces much fruit.