A “day” is defined as a 24-hour period of time that begins at midnight and ends a moment beforehand. While only containing a mere 86,400 seconds or 1440 minutes, it’s astounding how much can happen in just one solitary day. In fact, there are moments when everyone alive understands, in the moment, the effect that one day will carry with it forever.
While largely resistant to the idea of sending our boys into yet another global conflict, December 7, 1941, would become known as “a date which will live in infamy” when an American naval base located in Pearl Harbor on the island of Hawaii was suddenly attacked without any provocation by Imperial Japan. Every citizen listening to the news reports on their radios that night knew the events of that day would result in the U.S. joining WW2.
If you were at least in middle school for the turn of the millennia, you not only vividly remember the scary events of September 11, 2001, when 19 terrorists turned passenger jets filled with people into scud missiles but you knew 9-11 had changed the world forever. Personally, as an 18-year-old Bible College student, the events of that one day manifested in my heart a call to dedicate the rest of my life to the service of Jesus and His Church.
While there are days when everyone is instantly aware what they just witnessed was going to carry with it long-lasting effect, there are other moments in time when the true significance of a particular day is only recognized with the benefits of hindsight.
For example, on June 28, 1914, the Austrian Archduke by the name Franz Ferdinand was assassinated by a 19-year-old Serbian. On that day, not a soul could have ever imagined that by summers-end the entire planet would plunge into a four-year World War resulting in the devastation of much of the European continent and the deaths of more than 20 million!
Let me give you another date that changed the world forever… October 29, 1969. On this tepid Fall afternoon, the first-ever node-to-node communication between a computer located at UCLA and one at the Stanford Research Institute proved successful. While exciting, no one could have imagined two letters “LO” meant to spell “LOGIN” before the system crashed effectively laid the groundwork for what would become a world-wide-web central to the global economy and social community. On 10-29-69 the Internet was born.
I bring all of this up because today, Palm Sunday, is designed to commemorate another one of these momentous days in human history — the day when Jesus made His Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem initiating what would be the most consequential week since Creation! What is interesting about Palm Sunday is that virtually no one who witnessed the events of that day had any true understanding as to what was really happening.
This morning we’re going to begin by reading John’s account of this day — then we’ll harmonize his record with a ton of additional details provided in the synoptic Gospels —before spending our last few minutes together examining the reaction of those present in order to illustrate how they all completely missed the significance of the moment.
In turn, I hope by the end of our study you will see why this day was of such incredible importance to God’s plan because it wasn’t for the reasons you might have thought!
Let’s begin with John’s account… John 12:12-13, “The next day a great multitude that had come to the feast, when they heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem, took branches of palm trees and went out to meet Him, and cried out: ‘Hosanna! 'Blessed is He who comes in the name of the LORD!' The King of Israel!’”
For a measure of context, chapter 12 begins by establishing an important timeline. John writes, “Then, six days before the Passover, Jesus came” back “to Bethany” from an area known as “Ephraim.” Not only does this tell us “the feast” everyone had come to celebrate was the Feast of Passover but verse 12 places this scene 5 days beforehand — Sunday!
John 12:14-19, “Then Jesus, when He had found a young donkey, sat on it; as it is written (quote from Zechariah 9:9): ‘Fear not, daughter of Zion; behold, your King is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt.’ (In verse 16, John adds a little commentary which should clue us in on the fact Jesus’ actions were lost in the moment) His disciples did not understand these things at first; but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things were written about Him and that they had done these things to Him.
Therefore the people, who were with Jesus when He called Lazarus out of his tomb and raised him from the dead, bore witness. For this reason the people also met Jesus, because they heard that He had done this sign. The Pharisees therefore said among themselves (this was their ultimate conclusion to Jesus’ Triumphal Entry), ‘You see that you are accomplishing nothing. Look, the world has gone after Him!’”
While John’s account provides a skeleton for the events of this day, let me add some flesh to these bones by harmonizing the records presented in Matthew 21, Mark 11, and Luke 19.
“Now when they drew near Jerusalem, and came to Bethphage from the town of Bethany, at the Mount of Olives…” Please note this crew would have included the twelve apostles, Mary, Martha, and their brother Lazarus, Mary the mother of Jesus, Mary Magdalene, Bartimaeus who’d just been healed from his blindness, and a multitude from Galilee…
Regarding the reference of these towns and therefore the route they took into the holy city, we know during this week leading up to Passover, Jesus would lodge in Bethany at the home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. Bethany was basically a wealthy suburb about two miles east of Jerusalem on the far side of the Olivet towards the Judean wilderness.
After leaving Bethany, once Jesus reached Bethphage, the next town heading west located on the eastern slope of the Mount of Olives, we read that “He sent two disciples (we know the two were Peter and John), saying to them, ‘Go into the village opposite you, and as soon as you have entered it immediately you will find a donkey tied (specifically an adult female), and a colt (this was a younger male donkey) with her on which no one has sat. Loose them and bring them to Me. And if anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’, you shall say, ‘The Lord has need of them,’ and immediately he will send them.’
So Peter and John went and did as Jesus commanded them. They went their way, and found the colt tied by the door outside on the street, and they loosed it. But the owners who stood there said to them, ‘What are you doing, loosing the colt?’ And they spoke to them just as Jesus had commanded. So they let them go.
Like John’s Gospel, Matthew also finds it important to explain how this strange event was prophetically influenced by quoting from Zechariah 9… All this was done that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet, saying: ‘Tell the daughter of Zion, 'Behold, your King is coming to you, lowly, and sitting on a donkey, a colt, the foal of a donkey.’ They brought the donkey and the colt, laid their clothes on them, and set Jesus on the colt.
John mentions how word started to spread amongst the pilgrims in Jerusalem that Jesus was coming to the city so that they went out to met Him. In response to this news, we’re given a more complete picture as to what this really looked like by the other writers…
And a very great multitude spread their clothes on the road; others cut down branches from the trees and spread them on the road. Then the multitudes who went before Jesus and those who followed began to rejoice and praise God with a loud voice for all the mighty works they had seen crying out, saying: ‘Hosanna to the Son of David! 'Blessed is He who comes in the name of the LORD! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest! Blessed is the kingdom of our father David that comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!’
Then as all of this is happening… “Some of the Pharisees called to Jesus from the crowd, ‘Teacher, rebuke Your disciples.’ (They understood the Messianic nature of it all.) But He answered, ‘I tell you that if these should keep silent, the stones would immediately cry out.’
Now as He drew near, Jesus saw the city and wept over it, saying, ‘If you had known, even you, especially in this your day, the things that make for your peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. For days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment around you, surround you and close you in on every side, and level you, and your children within you, to the ground; and they will not leave in you one stone upon another, because you did not know the time of your visitation.’
And Jesus went into Jerusalem and into the temple. So when He had looked around at all things, as the hour was already late, He went out to Bethany with the twelve.” A side note… Because of what He saw, in the morning, Jesus returns to the temple and cleans house!
In order to understand the reaction of the crowd to Jesus’ arrival to Jerusalem, it’s important you remember it’s the week of Passover. In addition to the Feast of Pentecost which occurred 50-days later in the summer and the Feast of Tabernacles which came after the fall harvest, Passover was the first of the three taking place in the early Spring.
For this particular week, Jews from all over the Roman world would make their pilgrimage after the winter months to the city of Jerusalem in order to join in this incredible celebration.
According to a first-century, Jewish historian named Josephus, during this week, the population of the city and surrounding towns would swell to more than 3x times the normal size. Some scholars estimate the numbers could have reached as high as 2.7 million.
Of the three feasts, Passover had come to be the most festive and patriotic mainly because it celebrated God’s deliverance of Israel from Egyptian captivity — which possessed a present significance as the Jews were living under Roman occupation. Aside from this, Passover held a deeper, more practical religious connotation as it also presented the people a chance to offer a sacrificial lamb for their sins on the Day of Atonement.
As you play out this scene in your mind, please know the atmosphere in Jerusalem — even without Jesus’ involvement — was already lit! Aside from the chance to make an offering to God, Passover was patriotic and celebratory! As this “great multitude” of people living under the thumb of Rome ascended up to Jerusalem with family and friends, they would be signing the Hallel Psalms (113-118) and the Psalms of the Ascent (120-134).
Setting aside the current political climate related to Jesus, though the Feast of Passover was festive, there was always an uneasiness and anxiety just below the surface.
Because of the massive increase in population, the patriotic nature of the gathering, and the ongoing unrest in Judea, the Roman Governor Pontius Pilate rightfully feared a revolt was possible during this week. As such, Josephus also notes the increased presence of soldiers would be 10x the norm. Jerusalem was a powder-keg that simply needed a spark.
Another contributing factor to the growing excitement and anxiety with regards to this particular Passover was the unexpected news Jesus of Nazareth was actually “coming to Jerusalem.” Because the religious establishment had put out a public warrant for His arrest just a few weeks earlier, most people assumed Jesus would likely be a no-show. The party grew even more exuberant when word arrived Jesus was on His way!
Let’s look at the two reactions to Jesus’ Triumphal Entry… First, as word quickly spread throughout the city that Jesus was indeed on His way to celebrate Passover, John recalls how the crowds “went out to meet Him.” You see people admired His bravery and tenacity in the face of powerful enemies. Jesus had risked arrest by coming to the City of David. In a way, this was seen as Jesus thumbing His nose towards the corrupt powers that be!
As Jesus, His entourage, and this massive crowd of pilgrims crested the top of the Mount of Olives working their way down the western slope, across the Kidron Valley, and up into the city through the East Gate, John tells us the people started ripping down “branches” from the “palm trees” that lined the road and began waving them in the air as Jesus approached.
Right from the bat, you need to understand this gesture was the people’s way of making a statement. Ever since the Maccabean Revolt in 150 BC, the palm had become a de-facto symbol of Jewish patriotism. Waving a palm was the way you greeted a revolutionary. There is no doubt the people were hailing Jesus as a King coming to restore order.
In addition to this dramatic effect of waving these palm branches and laying down clothes and fronds along His path as noted by the other Gospel authors, John mentions how this great multitude that had amassed in front of and behind Jesus also began actively “crying out, ‘Hosanna!’ Blessed is He who comes in the name of the LORD! The King of Israel!”
The other writers provide a more complete accounting that this mass of people “began to rejoice and praise God with a loud voice for all the mighty works they had seen Jesus do crying out, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the LORD! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest! Blessed is the kingdom of our father David that comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!’”
Not only are they quoting directly from Psalm 118 — which was Messianic in nature, this word “Hosanna” literally means save now! As Jesus makes His way into Jerusalem riding on this colt, the people are not only hailing Him as “the King of Israel” but they were making an appeal for Jesus to act as King on their behalf! “You are the King of Israel. Save us now!”
Comprehending what it was the crowd was truly saying about Jesus and the implications of what they were asking Him to do, you can see why the religious leaders became troubled by the entire situation. In the midst of all the fanfare, these men come to Jesus from the crowd with the appeal He “rebuke His disciples” and put an end to the commotion.
Practically, these men had been given a measure of autonomy to govern the people as long as peace and order were maintained. There is no question the scene of this mob publicly hailing Jesus as their King begging him to save would alarm an already trigger-happy Roman Governor. And yet, at the heart of their request was unbelief. These men rejected Jesus as being the Messiah and thus they found the whole scene to be highly inappropriate.
Before we unpack what’s happening and more specifically why it’s all significant, can’t we be honest the whole episode seems oddly out of character for Jesus? Consider that time and time again Jesus actively and repeatedly discouraged public praise and adulation. Once more, He had recently retreated from the large crowds hoping to avoid controversy.
And yet, in this instance, as He makes His way into Jerusalem, something has changed. Not only is He doing nothing to stop the fanfare but the case can be made Jesus intentionally orchestrated the events of this day to bring all this attention to Himself! He picked the day of His arrival to be 5 days before Passover and He specified His mode of transportation. Again, why the dramatic shift in His public presentation on this day?
One clue as to why this day was so different from all the others can be found in three fascinating statements Jesus made during His journey towards the city. Jesus defines His arrival as being “your day” in reference to the Jewish people that had gathered. He refuses to capitulate to the religious leader's request He silence the crowds adding, “The rocks would cry out!” Then He rebukes these men for not “knowing the time of their visitation.”
While I don’t want to run down a rabbit hole, in order to know what Jesus is referring to with these three statements, you need to look back at a prophetic word given to Daniel some 600 years before this day. Recorded in Daniel 9 we call this vision the 70 Weeks Prophecy.
In this prophecy, God tells Daniel that He was setting aside 490 years to finish His dealings with Israel. Aside from this, God also reveals what these dealings would include, when the 490 years would start, what would happen at the 483-year mark, when the final set of seven years would initiate, and what would take place to bring all of these things to a close.
For our purposes this morning, please note God was clear these 490 years would begin with “the command to restore and build Jerusalem!” Regarding the fulfillment of this, in Nehemiah 2:1, we know the Persian King Artaxerxes issued an official decree allowing the Jews to return to the land and rebuild Jerusalem on March 14, 445 BC.
Working out from this date, God also told Daniel that from the command “to Messiah the Prince” would be 483 years. In a sense, God told Daniel that when the decree was issued allowing the Jewish people to return and rebuild, you could extrapolate from that date 483 years and you’d have the exact day the Messiah would reveal Himself to Israel.
While it’s very difficult to work out the timeline and land on a specific date because of all the changes that have happened to the calendar, when Jesus rebukes the religious leaders for failing to know this was the “day of their visitation” this is what He’s referring to! As the religious scholars, the Bible experts, these men should have known Daniel’s prophecy and therefore knew this would be the day the Messiah would present Himself to the people.
You see Jesus broke with the protocol of keeping it low-key because of what this day represented. For the first time, He accepted the praise of the masses because He was officially presenting Himself to Israel as their Messiah! Jesus was entering Jerusalem as the “King of Israel!” This is why to the very suggestion He should tell His disciples to be quiet, Jesus replied it would be pointless for “even the rocks would cry out!”
In addition to presenting Himself to Israel as their King, there is another reason Jesus orchestrated the events of this day the way He did. You see beyond its prophetic implications, it was important Jesus enter the city riding on a donkey. And note, riding on a donkey was not demeaning. In actuality, when a king would return following a great battle the act of riding into town on a donkey signified to the people peace and victory were had.
In a way, by riding on a donkey, Jesus was affirming the people’s conclusion — He was coming as a Triumphal King! In light of this, their appeal for Jesus to save had been completely appropriate. The problem was that no one really understood what it was that Jesus had come to Jerusalem to triumph over — what He’d come to actually save the people from! Tragically, the truth was right in front of them but everyone missed it!
The fact Jesus entered Jerusalem the Sunday before the Feast of Passover ridding on a donkey would present a strange visual. According to the Law, pilgrims for this feast were required to bring with them a lamb for the yearly sacrifice to be made on the Day of Atonement. The challenge was insuring the lamb remain spotless during the journey.
As you’re playing this scene out in your mind, you see Jesus coming down the Mount of Olives towards Jerusalem. He’s riding on a donkey and the mobs of people surrounding Him are declaring Him to be their King all the while crying out, “Hosanna, Hosanna!”
And yet, as you picture the makeshift pathway of tunics and coats with all the palm branches being waved in celebration, there are two more elements you need to see. First, while everyone is singing, dancing, and worshipping God — while the masses are laughing and celebrating and cheering on the arrival of their King — while the religious leaders are standing by scowling and seething… You have Jesus sitting on this colt weeping!
In Luke’s account, he records how when “Jesus saw the city” (likely from the Mount of Olives) He began to “weep over it, saying, ‘If you had known, even you, especially in this your day, the things that make for your peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes.’”
Aside from the odd image of Jesus weeping while the crowds cheered, it was on this day — five days before Passover — that the people would bring their lambs to the temple. In fact, over the next three days, the lambs would be inspected by the priests to insure the sacrifice was spotless and therefore an acceptable offering to make to God for sin.
Please realize, as this scene is unfolding with Jesus making His triumphal entry into the city, there are literally sheep everywhere. Again, Josephus recorded in his annuls that during the Passover roughly 256,500 lambs were brought to Jerusalem to be sacrificed.
And do you want to take a guess as to how these lambs were typically transported? Because the lamb had to remain without blemish, which again was challenging considering Jerusalem was surrounded by tough terrain, it was normal for young lambs to be transported in satchels carried by donkeys! I have a picture to illustrate this.
As you imagine this Triumphal Entry scene here’s one more element you should include… Jesus is not the only one riding a donkey — He just happens to be the only human! All around Jesus are donkeys everywhere loaded down with lambs being brought for sacrifice!
You see Jesus broke protocol this day not only because He was presenting Himself to Israel as their Messiah — a day long predicted by Daniel the prophet but Jesus came on this Sunday in order to present Himself as the ultimate Passover Lamb! Jesus had not come to free the people from Rome. He’d come to triumph over the greater foe called death, and in turn, liberate all of humanity from the bondage of sin!
As was the custom, over the next three days, Jesus would undergo a period of inspection whereby the religious leaders and even the Roman Governor would concede His innocence. And yet, as the lambs were being slaughtered in the temple, on Passover, Jesus would hang dying on the cross as the spotless sacrifice God offered to atone for the sins of mankind.
With this in mind, don’t forget the initial testimony of John the Baptizer concerning Jesus. In John 1:29, it’s recorded how “John saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, ‘Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!’” Never forget, Jesus was not the lamb sinful man would offer but was the Lamb God would offer on a sinful man’s behalf!
As strange as this may seem, never forget the death of Jesus on the cross had always been the plan! Back in Genesis 22:7-8, an event foreshadowing this one, we read how “Isaac spoke to Abraham and said, ‘My father! Look, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?’ And Abraham said, ‘My son, God will provide for Himself the lamb for a burnt offering.’” You see, on this day, God was doing the very thing Abraham predicted… Jesus had come to Jerusalem to “provide Himself the lamb for a burnt offering.”
As we close our time together, in verse 16, John admits that the “disciples did not understand these things at first; but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things were written about Him and that they had done these things to Him.” What a sad admission that on this day they all completely missed what was really happening.
Indeed, this was a day misunderstood and we know this for one reason… Though the people rightly saw Jesus as their Messiah, tragically they misunderstood what He’d come to Jerusalem to accomplish. Yes, “Save now!” was the appropriate appeal, but it was sin Jesus had come to save them from and not the tyranny of Rome.
If people knew why Jesus had come to Jerusalem… If they knew He’d come to conquer sin and that in order for Him to be triumphal He would have to lay down His life on the cross as the ultimate sacrifice… I have to imagine the atmosphere would have been much different.
While the streets would have still been filled and Jesus hailed as a King come to save, I don’t believe you would have heard celebration and fanfare. Instead of the waving of palm branches, I imagine the mob on their knees in a somber reverence. The irony about the entire scene is that Jesus was the one weeping when it should have been the people!
Why did Jesus weep as He looked over the city? It’s simple… Everyone present that day missed the moment and Jesus knew judgment would result. As He predicted, in less than 40 years, the city of Jerusalem would be completely destroyed by the Romans.
On the flip side to this, why are tears appropriate for Palm Sunday? Again, I think it’s simple… If you truly understand that on this day Jesus was officially presenting Himself as the lamb to be judged for sin so that you might be saved, what other reaction is there?
In Revelation 5:6, John describes the glorified, heavenly Jesus as a “Lamb as though it had been slain.” You see for all of eternity Jesus will bear in His physical frame the effects of a work He initiated on this day — a day misunderstood by those present… the day He rode into town planning to lay down His life so that you and I might live!
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