Palm Sunday & the Unexpected King
Today is Palm Sunday. It’s a day we remember the entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem. It’s a relatively small and seemingly insignificant story in the Bible, so why do we stop to remember it? Well, have a read of the text from John’s gospel below and see what’s happening…
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.
So, a fairly simple story. Jesus is coming to Jerusalem, lots of people get all excited, calling him the king and shaking palm branches (hence, “Palm Sunday”), and Jesus gets on a donkey and rides into town. In verse 16 it says, “At first his disciples did not understand all this.” Well, at first, you also might not understand all this either. Here are a few thoughts to help you see the significance of this event.
“Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem”
This line has two major points of significance. Firstly, from Jesus’ perspective. From other parts of the gospels we learn that Jesus had been planning to go to Jerusalem for a while and his purpose was to die. Jerusalem was (and is) the central city of all Judaism. It was where all the powerful leaders were. Jesus’ claim to be the prophesied king of God’s kingdom and the Son of God, was not that big a deal as long as he stayed to the little country towns in Israel. But if he went to Jerusalem that was like walking into the lion’s den. And Jesus knew it. So did his disciples. There is a key moment in Jesus’ ministry when he turns to head towards Jerusalem and his disciples are shocked and scared, but Jesus very clearly explains his reasoning for going. Read Mark 10:32-34…
They were on their way up to Jerusalem, with Jesus leading the way, and the disciples were astonished, while those who followed were afraid. Again he took the Twelve aside and told them what was going to happen to him. “We are going up to Jerusalem,” he said, “and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will hand him over to the Gentiles, who will mock him and spit on him, flog him and kill him. Three days later he will rise.”
Jesus was going to Jerusalem in order to be captured. He was going there to die. He was going there to be resurrected. He was going there to bring about the first Easter.
Now, this was Jesus’ perspective. But the crowds who greeted Jesus had a different idea.
From their perspective, Jesus coming to Jerusalem was him finally putting his money where his mouth was. He had been talking about the kingdom of God and how he was the prophesied “Son of Man” from Daniel 7, and it was well known that he was a prophet and a miracle-worker and even called the Son of God. Jesus was the Messiah, the Christ, the promised king who would establish God’s kingdom, destroy the Roman Empire and allow the Jews to rule the world in prosperity and harmony with God forever! But until he came to Jerusalem, all his talk of being a king was just talk. It would be like if someone said, “I am the rightful Prime Minister of Australia!” but they always stayed in Coober Pedy and never went to Canberra.
From the people’s perspective, Jesus coming to Jerusalem was his triumphant entry where he was truly saying “I am king! And now I will take over!”
That’s why they were waving palm branches like it was a ticker tape parade and cheering battle cries: “Hosanna!”, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”, “Blessed is the king of Israel!” The word “Hosanna” means “Lord, save us” and it shows the crowd was basically quoting a couple of verses from Psalm 118…
“Lord, save us! Lord, grant us success! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. From the house of the Lord we bless you.” (Psalm 118:25-26)
They saw Jesus’ arrival as a king coming to assume his throne. Jesus saw his arrival as a dead man walking coming to be executed. Two very different perspectives.
“Jesus found a young donkey”
Why did Jesus enter Jerusalem on a young donkey? Was it because he was tired of walking and donkeys were easier to find than a horse and chariot? Well, the text doesn’t suggest that. In Matthew’s account of the story it gives even more detail about how they got the donkey. Jesus says to his disciples before they get to Jerusalem: “Go to the village ahead of you, and at once you will find a donkey tied there, with her colt by her. Untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, say that the Lord needs them, and he will send them right away.”
It seems the donkey is something very, very deliberate for Jesus. So what is he trying to say? Well, both accounts of this story tell us that Jesus is using the donkey so that he would fulfil a prophecy made by the prophet Zechariah hundreds of years earlier.
In Zechariah 9:9-11, God spoke through the prophet to give a picture of what it would be like when his promised king would come to Zion (or Jerusalem).
“Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion! Shout, Daughter Jerusalem!
See, your king comes to you, righteous and victorious,
lowly and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
I will take away the chariots from Ephraim and the warhorses from Jerusalem, and the battle bow will be broken.
He will proclaim peace to the nations.
His rule will extend from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth.
As for you, because of the blood of my covenant with you, I will free your prisoners from the waterless pit.”
The picture is definitely of a king. He is righteous and victorious. His rule will extend to the ends of the earth. And he will bring peace to all the nations of the world and freedom from those imprisoned. This is definitely a king. But it is an unexpected king.
His righteousness and victory doesn’t appear as strength or brute power. He comes lowly and riding on a young donkey. You can’t go to battle on a donkey! You can’t destroy the Roman Empire on a donkey! You can’t fight your way to the throne, destroying all your enemies in your way, and claim your rightful role as king of Jerusalem, if your warhorse is a donkey!
But that is the unexpected king. He takes away all chariots and warhorses and battle bows. He is the one who proclaims peace to the nations, not war.
Now, this act of weakness and lowliness, doesn’t mean he will not be victorious in establishing his rule. As the prophecy says, his rule will extend from seas to sea, and his lowliness does not jeopardise that one bit. In fact, his lowliness will be the very means by which his kingdom is established, peace is brought to the world and the prisoners are set free from the waterless pit.
You see that alluded to in verse 11 of the prophecy. It is because of the “blood of the covenant” that all this will happen. If you want to explore deeper as to what that phrase means, have a read of another blog I wrote on this topic HERE. To summarise though, it is pointing to the atoning sacrifice that was made on behalf of the people that established their relationship with God in the Old Testament (the story is found in Exodus 24:4-8).
For those that know the Easter story, they will remember that on the night before Jesus was crucified, he told his disciples that his own death would be the new “blood of the covenant”. Jesus saw his death as the ultimate atoning sacrifice that would free people from the pit, bring peace to the world and establish an everlasting relationship between God and all those who trusted in it.
That is why he comes lowly and riding on a donkey. That is why Jesus came to Jerusalem at all! He came to die. But not just to die. He came to die as an atoning sacrifice for people. Even his enemies. That’s why he doesn’t come on a warhorse. He doesn’t want to destroy his enemies. He wants to rescue them and embrace them into God’s kingdom. He wants to die on their behalf. He wants to save them.
The crowds were right.
So the crowds were right! They were right to praise Jesus as king – for that is who he is. They were right to say “Hosanna!” which means “Lord, save us” – for that is what he came to do. They were right to expect that he had come to Jerusalem to establish God’s kingdom and reconcile people to God. But they were wrong in how they expected he would do it.
The story finishes with the disciples being confused: “At first his disciples did not understand all this.” But then it tells us that, like us, they eventually understood what was going on: “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.” When it says Jesus was “glorified” it is referring to Jesus’ death and resurrection (see John 12:23 & 17:1).
At first, the disciples were confused by what was going on. There was a juxtaposition. Jesus was the king, but he came to Jerusalem on a donkey. Jesus was supposed to be the Messiah, but he talked about dying. How did it all fit together? Well, after Jesus was glorified in his death and resurrection, then they realised that “these things had been written about him”. It was only after Easter that they remembered the prophesy of Zechariah and the puzzle pieces fit together.
Fortunately, we live in the time after Jesus has been glorified. And every Easter we can remember the great work on the cross he did to die for sinners like you and me.
For today, let us grab our palm branches and praise the king. Not having a false expectation of him establishing his rule through aggression and force, but seeing the mission from Jesus’ perspective, pointing to the cross as the great moment that reconciled God and people.
Let us remember that our king came lowly, riding on a donkey, and join in the cry, “Hosanna!