THE TRIUMPHAL ENTRY
Topic: Sunday Morning Messages Passage: John 12:12–12:20
12 The next day the large crowd that had come to the feast heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. 13 So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, crying out, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!” 14 And Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it, just as it is written,
15 “Fear not, daughter of Zion;
behold, your king is coming,
sitting on a donkey’s colt!”
16 His disciples did not understand these things at first, but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written about him and had been done to him. 17 The crowd that had been with him when he called Lazarus out of the tomb and raised him from the dead continued to bear witness. 18 The reason why the crowd went to meet him was that they heard he had done this sign. 19 So the Pharisees said to one another, “You see that you are gaining nothing. Look, the world has gone after him.”
Today is Palm Sunday, the day that is historically remembered by Christians as when our Lord Jesus Christ made His “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem. From a purely human perspective, it seems rather odd that the event would be labeled as “triumphant,” especially when we consider that within a matter of days Jesus would be arrested, tried, convicted, scourged, and killed. “Tragic” would seem a more appropriate descriptor, would it not?
Fortunately, however, we know that the story doesn’t end at the place where He was nailed and left to die upon a cross or at the place where they laid His body to rest. For within thirty-six hours He would rise from the dead and offer eternal life to all who would turn from their sins and trust in Him. And because, by His resurrection He forever conquered death, you and I are able to gather today in celebration of what can truly be known as His “triumphal entry.”
Accounts of this familiar story are recorded by all four of the Gospel writers (cf. Matthew 21:1-11, Mark 11:1-10, and Luke 19:28-40). There are some variations and differences in its telling, but no contradictions. The records of all four are in essential agreement. Interestingly enough, however, John is the only one who specifically mentions palm branches being waved as part of this unique occasion.
The “triumphal entry” marks the climax of Jesus’ public ministry. It represents the final offering of Himself to the Jewish nation as their long-awaited King. Among those who awaited His arrival, there was considerable debate over what that King would be like. Most looked for a conquering hero, one who would overthrow Roman occupation of their land and restore their autonomy as a sovereign nation. To many, Jesus was an enigmatic figure who didn’t quite measure up to their expectations of a messiah. To put it mildly, He was controversial.
As thousands of pilgrims crowded the streets of Jerusalem for the celebration of the Passover, word would have spread like wildfire that Jesus was approaching from the east of the city near the descent of the Mount of Olives. Some would have rushed outside the city walls waving palm branches before Him, while others would have jostled for position to get as close to Him as they possibly could. Excitement was in the air and anticipation was high.
The King was coming. But would they welcome Him on His terms or on their own? The events of the following week would tell. Before we get there, however, we need to spend some time this morning recognizing that Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem was an event preplanned and prepared well in advance by none other than God Himself.
So, let’s begin with verses 12 and 13, where we observe...
The anticipation of the King’s arrival (12:12-13).
The opening phrase of verse 12 points us back to the verses which precede it. You will recall that Jesus and His disciples had dined the evening before in Bethany, where a dinner had been given in his honor. It appears to have been an expression of gratitude in light of Jesus’ having just recently raised Lazarus from the dead (cf. John 11:38-44). We are told that one of Lazarus’ sisters, Martha, served the meal; and that after the meal his other sister, Mary, anointed Jesus’ feet with very expensive perfume. The disciples, led by Judas, were indignant over what they perceived to be an extreme waste. But Jesus had accepted her act as an expression of devotion and extravagant worship.
It is now the next day, the Sunday which would introduce the Passion Week, and Jesus is approaching Jerusalem with His men. It would have been a moment filled with great enthusiasm, but one with little genuine spiritual significance for most of those who participated in the welcome. How many of the thousands who were gathering for the Passover were caught up in the excitement of Jesus’ arrival is impossible to estimate. John merely describes it as “a large crowd.” However many there may have been, it was largely misguided excitement. Few would have recognized that Jesus was acting out a living parable...the King coming as a humble Servant who was about to lay down His life so that others might live. For Him, this moment was highly significant. It would lead to the very reason for which He had come to earth.
What often goes unnoticed is that the waving of palm branches was, according to Leviticus 23:40, a way in which the people of Israel expressed their joy during the Feast of Tabernacles. Here in John 12, the symbolism appears to be the same. Those who gathered to witness Jesus’ arrival did so with joy...the joy of anticipation that their King was on His way.
That same symbolism had been employed at the conclusion of the Maccabean revolt two centuries earlier when the Jews regained their independence and had their Temple restored to them (cf. 1 Maccabees 13:51). Following that victory, the palm branch became something of a national symbol for Israel and was even impressed upon minted coins of the day.
Jesus, of course, would have known—even before seeing the gathering crowd—that they were awaiting His arrival. What’s more, He was fully aware that He was not the kind of messiah they were hoping to greet. They wanted a conquering warrior who would overthrow Rome, but His mission was something far different.
Luke gives us a glimpse of Jesus’ emotion at their inability to grasp the significance of what was happening. He wrote, “And when he drew near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, ‘Would that you, even you had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes...you did not know the time of your visitation” (Luke 19:41-42 and 44). And Matthew adds that His tears were absorbed by prayer: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” (Matthew 23:37).
Earlier He had resisted their attempt to “take him by force to make him king” (cf. John 6:15), and since that day His mission had not changed in the slightest. Even now as he drew near to them, they cried out—unaware of the significance of their own words—“Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!” It was a quote directly taken from one of the psalms of praise that was frequently sung during the Passover season, one that was filled with Messianic allusions. Psalm 118, verses 25 and 26 read,
“Save us, we pray, O LORD!
O LORD, we pray give us success!
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the LORD!
We bless you from the house of the LORD.”
The words, “He who comes in the name of the LORD” is one of the most frequently quoted Old Testament phrases found in the Gospels, and each time it is used it is in reference to our Lord Jesus. The people were shouting the right words, but little did they understand the import of what they were saying and to whom it was they were saying them.
Whenever royalty comes to town, there is great fanfare. Medieval scenes depict a king riding on a white horse or in a golden chariot amidst the sound of trumpets and loud ovations. And while there was much anticipation in Jesus’ coming...
The announcement of the King’s arrival (12:14-15)
...had been heralded centuries earlier. In verses 14 and 15 we read,
“And Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it, just as it written,
‘Fear not, daughter of Zion;
behold, your king is coming,
sitting on a donkey’s colt.’”
Those who claimed to have been spiritually-perceptive should have recognized what was being played out before their eyes, because the prophet Zechariah (9:9) had written centuries earlier,
“Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem!
Behold, your king is coming to you;
righteous and having salvation is he,
humble and mounted on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”
Zechariah’s use of the term “righteous” (“tsaddiq”), as the ESV translates it, likely has reference to Jesus’ “rightful” claim to the Messianic office. The prophet is saying that when the people see the One who is literally fulfilling these words, they should understand that He—and none other—is the true and “rightful” Messiah.
But “mounted on a donkey”? Really? Why not a prancing, white steed? And why wouldn’t such a one be brandishing the sword of a warrior? What kind of “king” is this? Can He truly be the One whom we were expecting?
The “daughter of Zion” and “daughter of Jerusalem” is a figurative way of referring to the city and its inhabitants. In John’s description of the “triumphal entry,” Jesus is here offering Himself to the nation of Israel—represented by its principle city—as the promised Messiah. He has come on His own terms—just as He is, just as the prophets of old predicted Him to be. But would the people recognize Him as such, or would they instead look for someone else?
You and I know the answer, don’t we? And we ask, “How could they have missed Him?” And yet, I wonder why so many “miss” Him today. Could it be because they, like those who “went out to meet him” on that day, walk away disappointed because they are looking for a different kind of Savior? Perhaps someone able to meet today’s needs. “We’ll worry about tomorrow later.”
The problem is that people tend to know what they “want,” but they cannot always see clearly enough to know what they “need.” It’s the old dilemma: immediate gratification versus delayed gratification. That’s the basic tenet of the so-called “prosperity gospel,” which is no “gospel” at all (cf. Galatians 1:8-9). Its “false apostles” offer “health and wealth” in the here and now, while nearly always avoiding the greater conversation of “sin and salvation.” And yet people flock to them, shouting “Hosanna!” while their real need—their eternal need—goes unaddressed and unmet.
The greatest need that any of us have is that we are desperately lost and separated from God because of the sin nature we have inherited and the acts of sin that we have committed. And to make matters worse, there is absolutely nothing we can do or contribute to rectify our condition. We are doomed for eternal separation from God in a place of torment called “hell,” unless there can be found for us One—a sinless One—who will willingly step forward to take our place and bear our punishment. An ideal substitute, if you will, One who will take upon Himself the incredible weight of our sins and impute to us His perfect righteousness.
It is for that very purpose that Jesus Christ is coming to town. From as early as Luke 9:51, we are told that “When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.” Fully aware of the “death blow” that awaited Him, He did not flinch or hesitate for a moment. Though His heart was filled with grief and sorrow at the destruction brought about by sin, He was resolute in facing it head on and rendering it powerless forevermore for those who would turn from sin and to Him in faith.
No one but Jesus fully comprehended the meaning of this day and the chain of events that would transpire once He entered into the city. Verses 12 through 16 describe for us...
The acknowledgment of the King’s arrival (12:16-19).
The reactions to four different groups of people are mentioned in recounting our Lord’s “triumphal entry.”
In the first place, we are told in verse 16 that “His disciples did not understand these things at first, but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written about him and had been done to him.” John himself was one of those disciples, perhaps His most loyal one at the time, but not even he was able to trace the links from the Old Testament prophecies to Jesus. Like the others, his Gospel account was written decades after the events he records. It was not until Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension back to heaven that he was able to put all the pieces together comprehend the meaning of it all.
You may remember that the disciples’ memory had to be jogged earlier, following Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple in chapter 2 (verses 13-22). We may presume that this was the case in several instances as they later correlated the words and works of Jesus with the Scriptures they had heard since childhood. There were many things over their three years of discipleship training that they were unable to grasp until “Jesus was glorified.”
Spiritual maturity takes time for us all. All of us are “slow of heart” (cf. Luke 24:25) and made of the same “poor stuff” as were these first disciples of Jesus. The Bible refers to the process of our growth in understanding and application as “sanctification,” and it is progressive in nature. As Jesus will tell His disciples in chapters 13 through 16, their growth will occur following His departure from them and His sending the Holy Spirit to indwell them (cf. Jon 14:26). As His followers today, You and I also possess and require that same resource. It is the same Holy Spirit—the third Person of the Trinity—who is able to fill us, create and sustain within us a desire to know His Word, and apply it to every aspect of our lives. Every disciple, both then and now, must be willing to submit to the leading of the Spirit, apart from which there simply is no Christian life.
I hear some folks today boast of having a “mastery” of the Bible. And while that may sound well and good—and very “spiritual”—the goal is not to master the Scripture, but to be mastered by it. After all, the purpose of eating healthy food, both physically and spiritually, is that we live healthy lives. So, continue your daily intake and interaction with the Word of God, but not merely for the sake of knowing it, but of living it. As your knowledge of the Scriptures increases, release it through application...service to God and service to others. Only then is the Bible able to fulfill its intended purpose in and through us. Only then, do we truly show ourselves to be His disciples.
A second group is the crowd that had been with him when he called Lazarus out of the tomb and raised him from the dead. These are mentioned in John 11:45, and are said to have “believed in him” after having witnessed Lazarus’ being brought back to life by the word of Jesus (cf. John 11:43). We envision them as part of the larger crowd that was gathering to welcome Jesus and likely saying to others, “I was there when He raised that man! I saw it with my own eyes!”
Those referred to in verse 18 clearly comprise a third and different group, because it is said that they “went to meet him...(when) they heard he had done this sign.” This group may have been made up primarily of pilgrims, those who had journeyed some distance to be in Jerusalem in time for the Passover. They may have heard about Jesus earlier, but the news of His most recent miracle—raising the man who had been dead for four days—was just getting to their ears. They were here on this day to see Jesus for themselves. Perhaps they were curiosity-seekers who thought that, if they were fortunate, they just may be able to see a miracle “first-hand.” Adrenalin was high, and suspense was building to a heightened level.
Before I comment on the fourth group referred to in this paragraph, let me say a word about another that is not mentioned...namely the Romans, who were keeping a close watch in the proceedings. Whenever large crowds would gather in the city for the celebration of a Jewish feast, military security and scrutiny were increased. It was the responsibility of the Roman soldiers to enforce “crowd-control” and to maintain “law and order.” Rome frowned upon unruly mobs in lands where its jurisdiction held sway. These, too, would have been very interested in what was happening.
The last mentioned group who acknowledged the arrival of Jesus that day were the Pharisees, who did everything within their power to dissuade the people from following after Jesus. Luke (19:39-40) informs us that “Some of the Pharisees in the crowd” wanted Jesus to quell the enthusiasm His arrival was creating. But He responded, “I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out.” The anxiety and animosity on the part of the Pharisees had been increasing over the previous weeks and days, and were now at a fever-pitch. Unaware of how to rid themselves of this “interloper,” the said among themselves in verse 19, “You see that you are gaining nothing. Look, the world has gone after him.”
Their statement is hyperbole, of course, but it carries an unexpected note of truth. We might paraphrase their concern as “The world has gone away from us and to Him.” Which is to say, they feared not only losing the religious authority they held over the Jewish people, but risked opening the door of God’s plan to Gentiles as well. Were we to glance forward into verses 20 and following—which we plan to do on Good Friday evening, Lord willing—we would see evidence of that very thing happening. The fears of the Pharisees would be realized, and the influence of the coming King would be irreversible.
Jesus’ purpose for riding into Jerusalem was to make public His claim to be the promised Messiah and the long-awaited King of Israel. His arrival was in precise fulfillment of Scripture, prophesied centuries before. And while some were ready to receive Him and acknowledge Him as the One sent from God, most did not. Although the crowds thronged to Him on that day, hopeful that He would be the kind of Deliverer they hoped for, the ensuing events of the coming week would reveal that their faith was not genuine. Had it been, it would have persevered. But within a matter of days, even those closest to Him would abandon Him in the hour of His greatest need.
The story of the “triumphal entry” is one of contrasts, and those contrasts have applications for us:
- • It is the story of a King who came not riding a regal white steed, but as a humble Servant on the back of a borrowed donkey.
- • He entered the city not wearing the robes of royalty, but wrapped in the garments of humility.
- • His plan was not to conquer His enemies by force, but to win the souls of men by means of grace and mercy, and by offering Himself in the place of sinners as a sacrifice for their sin.
- • His Kingdom is not one of military might, but of surrendered servanthood.
- • His conquest is not of nations, but of human hearts.
- • His message is not of temporal tranquility, but of everlasting peace in the presence of God.
Jesus was not the kind of Messiah most were looking for, but He was everything God ordained that He should and must be. By entering Jerusalem as He did, He inaugurated the events of His final week...events over which, though at times looking helpless, He was in sovereign control.
This Jesus says to those who would be His disciples, “Whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me” (Matthew 10:38), and cautions us to “count the cost” (cf. Luke 14:28) before we align ourselves with Him. “Bearing one’s cross” for the sake of Christ can be as difficult and painful as it sounds. But the benefit far exceeds the cost. Listen to the testimony of one man who without regret discovered that:
“Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith—that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share in his sufferings, becoming like him in death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead” (Philippians 3:8-10).
The question left for us to answer on this Palm Sunday is whether Jesus Christ has made a “triumphal entry” into your life. Have you acknowledged your need for Him to be the Great High Priest of your confession as well as your sin-bearing sacrifice? Until you do, this story remains just another legendary tale to be tossed onto the pile of religious fables.