rewind (part 5)
It is Palm Sunday and we are continuing our series going backward through the gospel of John for this season of Lent. And as it works out, the passage we are backed up to today happens to be the story of Jesus arriving in Jerusalem on that day we know as Palm Sunday. This event appears in all four of the gospels in the Bible, but each gospel writer tells the story a bit differently to draw out a different focus. If you took the time this week to listen to the podcast that was sent out along with our Thursday prayer email update this past week, then you’ve already heard a little something about the differences in this Palm Sunday story in each of the four gospels.
Today I want to set our attention on what makes John’s version of this story unique from the other gospel writers. Let’s take a look at this story from John 12. And especially note the commentary that John provides along with the telling of the details; it gives us a clue to what John wants us to see happening behind the scenes.
John 12:12–19 (NIV)
The next day the great crowd that had come for the festival heard that Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem. 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!” Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it, as it is written: “Do not be afraid, Daughter Zion; see, your king is coming, seated on a donkey’s colt.” At 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 these things had been done to him. Now the crowd that was with him when he called Lazarus from the tomb and raised him from the dead continued to spread the word. Many people, because they had heard that he had performed this sign, went out to meet him. So the Pharisees said to one another, “See, this is getting us nowhere. Look how the whole world has gone after him!”
Let’s go back through this passage piece by piece and see the way John draws our attention in a particular direction. John gives us this introduction inverses 12 and 13a.
The next day the great crowd that had come for the festival heard that Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem. 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!”
many of the visitors for the Passover set up camp on the outskirts of Jerusalem for the week
Try to picture the setting. If we were to back up in the story, we see that Jesus is coming from the town of Bethany—home of Mary and Martha and Lazarus—about two miles away from Jerusalem. The other gospel writers’ account of this story tell us that Jesus goes from Bethany to the village of Bethphage which is just over the Mount of Olives on the east side of Jerusalem. Scholars estimate the population of Jerusalem during this time to be about 50,000 people. But for a festival like the Passover celebration which is talking place in this story, pilgrims from all over Israel would come stay in Jerusalem likely doubling the population in the area to at least 100,000 people or more. There was not room in the city for all these extra people to stay. So, it is likely that many of these visitors for the Passover set up camp on the outskirts of Jerusalem for the week. The layout of Jerusalem at the time places the temple on the eastern side of the city at its highest point on Zion. Outside that eastern side of the city was the Kidron valley. And up on the other side of the valley was the Mount of Olives.
Picture, then, that this valley outside of the eastern wall of Jerusalem is filled with people making camp for the week who have come to celebrate Passover in Jerusalem. From this valley, people could look west and see the temple standing high on the edge of the city. And from this valley, people could look east and see up the Mount of Olives. It is over the crest of this mountain that Jesus appears coming down the road. The view from that place would have allowed Jesus look west and see all the people camped there in the Kidron Valley. The eastern side of Jerusalem with the temple rising high above the city would have also been in view over and across the kidron valley. And it is down this road into the Kidron Valley towards Jerusalem that Jesus travels on that Palm Sunday.
The next detail we see is that the great crowd of people who were gathered there all go out to greet Jesus as he is coming towards the city. And John tells us that they take palm branches with them. Let’s spend a moment on that because it is significant. John is the only of the four gospel writers to tell us that the branches used here are palms. There is symbolic meaning in palm branches. For example, many of us are aware of the symbolic meaning of olive branches. An olive branch is symbolic of peace. The Jewish people at this time used the palm branch as a symbol of nationalistic pride. Archeologists have discovered coins and medallions made by the Maccabean’s during time which contained images of palm branches. The Maccabean people were the rebels among the Israelites who lived in the caves south of Judea and fought to liberate the Jewish people from the Roman Empire. Palm branches were their political symbol of national patriotism against Rome. John’s original audience would have known this.
Let’s move on to look next at what the people say. It is a quote from the Old Testament coming from Psalm 118.
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!”
hosanna — Aramaic expression = “save us now”
king is a political office at this time
First, the meaning of the word hosanna. It is an Aramaic expression meaning “save us now” or “help us immediately.” And then the quote from Psalm 118, “blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” But hold on, the people gathered here to meet Jesus add one more line that is not a part of Psalm 118. The people also say, “blessed is the king of Israel!” That part is not in Psalm 118. Remember also that king is a political office at this time. I know in our day we talk a lot about kingship of Jesus and the kingdom of God as theological terms. But in the time of John writing this gospel, it was a political term. The title of king meant something to them like the titles of senator or president or prime minister would mean to us in our time.
people want Jesus to lead the charge against Rome
Here is the point that John is very much wanting to make for his readers. Absolutely everybody gathered at this scene of Jesus coming into Jerusalem on that day is thinking one thing: political insurrection. Jesus is the one who is going to lead the charge for Israel to liberate the nation from Rome. Now, John uses the rest of this story to frame for us what this event is really all about. Let’s continue in verses 14 and 15.
Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it, as it is written: “Do not be afraid, Daughter Zion; see, your king is coming, seated on a donkey’s colt.”
king is expected to arrive on a war horse
It would have been a picturesque scene for a conquering king to return from the latest victory and be welcomed back to their own hometown with a gathered crowd and cheers of victory. It would have been a scene in which the victorious king would bring along all the spoils of war to parade past the people as a show of power and might and glory. The king would ride on a war horse or in a battle chariot; symbols of power and domination. It is the equivalent of our modern day presidential motorcade. The long line of black limousines and SUVs surrounded by flashing lights of police cruisers and secret service personnel. That’s how the powerful leader is supposed to arrive on scene—in the fortified motorcade. Instead, Jesus rolls up to Jerusalem in a 1975 four-cylinder Ford Pinto—the kind with hand-crank windows, no air conditioning, and an AM radio. Jesus shows up for the victory lap, and that’s his ride.
Jesus chooses a donkey
We shouldn’t underestimate the dissonance of that choice. I imagine it would have given people a pause for second thought. They hear the rumors that this great prophet from Galilee is coming their way right past them on the road they are along. They line up ready to meet this guy and welcome his arrival. Perhaps many of them have never actually seen or met Jesus before—they have only heard about him in the stories of others. The excitement in building as the crowd grows larger. The loud cheering is getting closer. You strain for look through the mass of people to see the awesome sight of this hero passing by. And there goes Jesus strolling past on a donkey. It would have been a moment for double-take. Wait, is that it? Is this really the guy? This is the one everybody is cheering for?
The moment of actually seeing Jesus for the first time coming down the road would have felt that jarring and out-of-place simply by the choice of transportation. It would have been enough to give people a moment of reconsideration because something here is extremely out-of-place with a political leader coming into his victory parade on a donkey. It should have placed a question in everyone’s mind. Maybe this guy is not who we think he is. And this is exactly what Jesus is trying to demonstrate. And it is exactly what John is trying to communicate in his telling of this story.
maybe Jesus is not who we think he is
Maybe Jesus is not who we think he is.
I think this is main point that John wants to raise for us as readers of this story in his gospel. The rest of the passage provides John’s commentary on the whole situation. Let’s continue in verse 16.
At 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 these things had been done to him.
The disciples did not get it. At this point in the story according to the disciples’ thinking, Jesus is not who they think he should be. Verse 18.
Many people, because they had heard that he had performed this sign, went out to meet him.
The sign that John is referring to here is the raising of Lazarus from the dead. That miracle had just happened a few days before just two miles away in the town of Bethany. But the people here have heard news that this guy Jesus can perform miraculous signs like the prophets of the Old Testament. But Jesus is not just another prophet. Jesus is not who they think he should be. And then there are the religious leaders in verse 19.
So the Pharisees said to one another, “See, this is getting us nowhere. Look how the whole world has gone after him!”
Those who were in positions of power in Jewish society saw Jesus as a threat to their own power and control. There have been plenty of occurrences by this point in which Jesus is critical of the Pharisees by drawing attention to their own hypocrisy. To them, Jesus was a not a political savior, he was a political threat. But Jesus did not come to be a political hero. Jesus is not who the Pharisees think he is.
maybe Jesus is not who we think he is
Whether it is the disciples who are ready to follow Jesus to revolution, the crowds who are curious just to catch a glimpse of Jesus, or the Pharisees who want to take down Jesus, the one thing they all share in common is that Jesus is not who they think he is. And this is exactly what John wants to remind his readers in his telling of the Palm Sunday events. Maybe Jesus is not who we think he is.
the whole creation itself is crying out hosanna — save us now!
In Luke’s telling of the Palm Sunday story, the Pharisees approach Jesus and instruct him to tell the people to keep quiet. Jesus responds by saying that if the people are made to be silent, then even the rocks and stones would cry out. The whole creation itself is crying out hosanna — save us now! God knows it. He hears it. Our whole world is cracked and broken by the burden of sin. We all can see that the whole world needs fixing. Our world needs redemption; it needs saving; it needs the restoration of shalom. Hosanna is not a shout of victory; it is not a shout of praise; it is not a shout of worship. It is a shout of desperation. Hosanna is a shout of acknowledgement and confession that ours is a world which needs saving.
hosanna is a shout of acknowledgement and confession that ours is a world which needs saving
Jesus hears this cry and he knows it is true in ways that go even beyond our own understanding. Hosanna — save us now. Some in our world cry that out because they are looking for God to be a source of power and control to have dominance over others in society. Some in our world cry that out because they have been continually depending on their own effort and their own ingenuity to fix all that is wrong in the world, and it’s not working. Some in our world try to silence that cry from others because all they see are threats to their own positions of power, wealth, and privilege. John presents this cry of hosanna to us in a way which forces us to confront the underlying question: do we really understand who Jesus is?
mention of Lazarus hints at resurrection theme
John is the only gospel writer to mention the name of Lazarus in connection to the Palm Sunday story. On the one hand, it is the miracle of raising Lazarus from the dead that creates the buzz of popularity around Jesus coming into Jerusalem. People want to come see Jesus because they have heard about this miraculous sign. On the other hand, John wants to draw the readers’ attention to Lazarus because this hint of resurrection is a theme that no one there sees or understands yet. The people simply do not understand who Jesus is.
posture of humility as we enter holy week — invitation to examine my own heart
Don’t pass over that too quickly today. It might feel easy to dismiss the question. It might feel easy to think, thank God we don’t misunderstand Jesus the way everybody back then did. Thank God we are the people who get it right and truly understand why Jesus came to the world. That would be arrogant. Rather, I would suggest a posture of humility as we enter this Holy Week between Palm Sunday and Easter. I suggest you take from this story as an invitation to examine your own heart. Hosanna — save us now. Only Jesus can save me from the weight of my own brokenness and sin. Only Jesus can turn my heart towards God. Only Jesus can give a perfect righteousness. The cry of hosanna—save us now—has only one visible destination: the cross which Jesus chose for our sake.
this week: every time I see a story that reminds me how broken the world is, remember Jesus took our brokenness to the cross
This is what I would like us to do this week. As you go about your daily activities, you read news and witness events which remind us of just how broken our world is; as you encounter those moments when you are confronted with the reality that something in our world is wrong and things are not as it should be; let every one of those moments be a reminder of the cross. Jesus takes all that is wrong and broken in this world upon himself as he went to the cross. Let our cries today of a world that needs saving be cries that direct our eyes to the cross. Keep that in front of you this week.
seeing our brokenness through the lens of the cross changes the way we see our world
I know that by itself doesn’t make all the problems of the world go away. But it does change the way we look at it. It changes the way we see the world when we look at it through the lens of the cross. And what exactly is changed about that? We need to get to the other side of the cross in order to understand that answer. We need to journey though this week and spend some time in the upper room, in the garden of Gethsemane, alongside the hill at Calvary, to finally end up standing before an open and empty tomb. That is where we will find the answer; but we must journey through the events of this week to get there.