by Peter Toon
Though the story of the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem is told by the other three evangelists (Mark 11:1-11; Matthew 21:1-11; Luke 19:29-45), John’s account is sufficiently different in detail to indicate that he wrote independently of them. And it is the account which is the normal basis for the Palm Sunday Festival in churches.
Let us now, with the text open in front of us, look at it, a section at a time.
“The next day” is usually taken to mean the first day of the week; this, together with the use of palm branches is the origin of “Palm Sunday.”
The feast to which the pilgrims are coming in great numbers is the Passover. The great crowd here refers to those who know about the raising from the dead of Lazarus by Jesus and who therefore think of Jesus as Messiah. Thus, as his ardent if ignorant supporters, they want to welcome him as the Jewish Messiah. Their actions appear to have been spontaneous, arising out of enthusiasm that he is One who will deliver them from their Roman overlords. And the spontaneity is expressed in getting hold of palm branches and greeting him by shaking them as he first came into view and then walked through them. They well knew that palm branches were the symbols of regal triumph. What they shouted as they shook their branches expressed their conviction as to his real identity.
“Hosanna” is a transliteration of the Aramaic for “Save, we pray.” This cry for God’s help, together with the blessing of this Man, Jesus, as “King of Israel” and the one “who comes in the name of the LORD” as His representative, clearly indicate that they look to Jesus to restore the kingdom of David in their present occupied country.
What they were doing in terms of the use of Scripture was taking the words of Psalm 118:25-26 from their usual liturgical setting at Jewish Festivals and applying them to a specific historical person, Jesus of Nazareth. What they said was correct but their understanding and interpretation of what they said was faulty.
Jesus had not desired, and did not want, the support of this emotional crowd, which was motivated by both a politicized understanding of the nature and vocation of God’s Messiah, and a misunderstanding of the vocation of Israel amongst the nations. And so, since Jesus was not able to get away from this crowd in the narrow streets of Jerusalem, he took a simple, but dramatic step to reject the idea that he was a military, nationalist Messiah. He sat on a young ass, which was available, and proceeded to go into the city riding upon it. By this act he focused attention upon a regal advent of the Messiah, but not for war but in peace and in humility. He went into the city to make salvation for Israel possible, not to lead his people into an uprising against the Roman occupying forces.
Although it was missed both by the crowd and the disciples, what Jesus did, says John, is a fulfillment of prophecy inspired by God centuries before. Specifically, it is the fulfillment of Zechariah 9:9, which is cited in an edited and abbreviated form.
John does not draw out the implications of this action of Jesus because the discourse that follows (verses 23-36) makes sufficiently clear the distinction between the genuine Messiahship of Jesus, fulfilling the prophecies and promises of the O.T., and the false Messiah, whom the Jews desired and expected as a deliverer from the Romans.
The disciples, long schooled in the popular understanding of the Messiah as a national Deliverer, were spiritually blind as they witnessed in a privileged way the words and deeds of Jesus. It was only after the Death and Resurrection of Jesus, and the arrival of the Paraclete (see John 14-16) that their eyes were opened, and their minds began to understand the true nature of the Messiahship of Jesus, the King of Israel.
The crowd, made up of ordinary Jewish pilgrims, did bear witness to Jesus by their words: “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel.” Certainly they spoke much better than they understood (as did Caiaphas, John 11:50) and further they rightly regarded the raising of Lazarus as a Messianic sign. Yet they were still a long way from the kingdom of heaven.
The despair of the Pharisees at the apparent success of Jesus of Nazareth, whom they planned to destroy, is full or irony. “Look,” they say, “the world (everybody) has gone after him.”
In the ecclesiastical Palm Sunday procession and blessing of palms, the ignorance and misunderstanding of the crowd in Jerusalem is redressed, and the Church welcomes the Christ/Messiah advancing to die for the salvation of the world.
Ride on! Ride on Majesty!
In lowly pomp ride on to die:
O Christ , thy triumphs now begin
O’er captive death and conquered sin.