History has known many grand entries.
One such example is the coronation of the Imperial Majesty Bokassa I of the Central African Empire in 1977. All the people were gathered together to witness it. The trumpets and drums set the tone and mood as the royal family arrived and prepared to enter. Eight of Bokassa’s 29 children entered first and walked down the royal carpet to their seats. Then Jean Bedel Bokassa II, heir to the throne, walked in next dressed in all white and sat down to the left of the throne. Then Catherine, the favorite of Bokassa’s nine wives, entered wearing a $73,000 gown from Paris. Lastly, the emperor arrived. A golden carriage led by six massive Norman horses carried him to the red carpet. He stepped out to reveal not only his $2,500,000 golden wreathed crown complete with an 80 carat diamond on top, but he also revealed his 32lb. royal robe decorated with 785,000 small pearls laced with gold embroidery. As his march to the throne finished he sat down on a golden throne resembling an eagle, and the people cheered his enthronement. All together his coronation costs the empire $25,000,000. As ridiculously outlandish as this event seems, it’s even more ridiculous knowing that just two years later the French came in and carried out a successful coup, kicking out Bokassa for good.
What a contrast we have before us today as we celebrate Palm Sunday. We’ve been trekking out way through John’s gospel and it just so happens that today, on Palm Sunday, we’re coming to the passage where John describes Jesus’ triumphal entry into the city. It also is a grand entry history has never forgotten, but it stands alone in its uniqueness not only because of the One who entered, but because of how He entered as well.
v12-13 show us the entry, v14-15 shows us the donkey, and v16-19 shows us the varied responses.
The Entry (v12-13)
After the dinner party His friends threw for Him, beginning in John 12:12 we see the events that unfolded on the next day. Passover was once again approaching and Jesus decided to come into Jerusalem, being fully aware and already knowing that the chief priests and the Pharisees had put a price on His head. We read in v12-13 that those who had come into the city to celebrate the feasts leading up to Passover heard of His coming and went out to greet Him. Now, in the Jewish year three occasions held a prominent importance. Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles. While Tabernacles was the most festive and joyous feast because it was a celebration of the end of harvest, Passover was, without a doubt, the most solemn occasion of the three. Here they remembered the Exodus liberation when the blood of the Lamb covered, protected, and saved them from the angel of death. Because Passover was such a cherished event for the Jews, almost every Jew from the nation would come to Jerusalem for it. The historian Josephus points out to us that on average around 2.7 million Jews would come to the city for the occasion. So when we read that the large crowd heard Jesus was coming into town and then see this large crowd going to out to greet Jesus on His way into town in, do not imagine a small band by the side of the road making their way to greet Jesus. Picture it as it was. Near 2.5 million people vying for a spot close to the road to get a look at this Jesus who taught great things and did great things as well.
If you’ve been tracking with us throughout our journey in John’ s gospel you’re aware that this isn’t normally like Jesus. So far in John’s gospel we’ve seen the pattern of Jesus teaching weighty things or working great wonders and then avoiding and evading publicity and arrest. Why then does He now come into the city so publicly? Well, each time He evaded situations like this before we saw a phrase explaining His evasions, “His time had not yet come.” That He comes into town now, stirring up such fanfare and hype, should prompt us to conclude that He is making it known, very publicly, that His time has now come. At the very time when the nation was gathering together to solemnly remember what God had done for them through the shedding of innocent blood for redemption Jesus entered the city making it known that the “…time had come at last when Christ was to die for the sins of the world. The time had come when the true Passover Lamb was to be slain, when the true blood of atonement was to be shed…” By coming into Jerusalem this publicly and at this time, we can see the main purpose of the triumphal entry. It’s not about donkeys, not about cheering applause, no, Jesus was forcing the hands of the Jewish leaders to act against Him. Seeing such public praise and applause guaranteed a strong reaction from them.
So in He came and this massive hoard of people “…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!’” Notice they brought palm branches with them. Question: palms are nowhere prescribed in any of the feasts of Israel, so why did they get them and bring them to the roadside? Answer: because of what they meant. 200 years earlier the Maccabees, after much struggle, finally and fully removed the wicked tyrants of the Seleucid empire who desecrated the temple and restored the true worship of God once more. After this removal and restoration took place they people celebrated with music, dance, feasting, and the waving of palm branches. From that point on the palm became a national symbol of military triumph the eventual liberation the Messiah would bring. This image became so ingrained Jewish identity that when they revolted against Rome in 64 AD the Jews replaced the Roman currency with the image of Caesar by minting their own coins and stamping it with the image of a palm. Ironically later after the Romans squashed this revolt they minted new coins for the empire that bore the image of Caesar and a palm branch, indicating they will always be victorious.
See then what these people were saying by bringing the palms with them. They thought Jesus would do to the wicked Romans what the Maccabees did to the wicked Seleucids. They thought Jesus would at any moment stop, blast the trumpet, and call the nation to pick up arms against Caesar. They thought Jesus would be their conquering King who would crush their enemies once and for all. This is seen in all the ‘Hosanna’s’ they cry out as well. Hosanna means ‘save now’ and it comes from Psalm 118 where we find the following, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone. This is the LORD’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes. This is the day the LORD has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it. Save now (Hosanna!), we pray, O LORD! O LORD, we pray, give us success! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the LORD!” (v22-26a) The crowd was not pronouncing a blessing in the name of the Lord on any one who comes, they were pronouncing a blessing on the One who comes in the name of the Lord. They were indeed looking for salvation from Jesus, but they were looking for it militarily. They were indeed looking to Jesus to redeem them, to deliver them, but they missed what His redemption and deliverance was truly about. That they added that last bit on about Jesus being the true ‘King of Israel’ shows that they wanted Him to be their King and usher in a new kingdom, and King He was and a Kingdom He would bring! But He would not be the King nor bring the kingdom they wanted.
Because He so disappointed the military desires of the people they would soon usher this so called king to a throne they would construct for Him, a throne made of wood, in the shape of a cross.
The Donkey (v14-15)
Jesus further illustrated these things with what He did next. In v14-15 we read, “And Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it, just as it is written, ‘Fear not, daughter of Zion; behold, your King is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt!’” John, in recounting this event, does not seem to be concerned with details of how Jesus got this donkey or when He began riding it. No, John is only concerned with what it means that Jesus rides a donkey into the city. And the meaning of it is all wrapped up in the quotation he gives us in v15. The quote is a combination of two Old Testament passages, Isaiah 40:9 which says, “Go up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good news; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good news; lift it up, fear not; say to the cities of Judah, ‘Behold your God!’” And Zechariah 9:9-10 which says, “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. I will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and He shall speak peace to the nations; His rule shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth.”
Having read these two passages which John has combined in v15 and knowing what kind of king the people were rejoicing in with palms as He came into the city, see what these two Old Testament passages put forward to us about the special kind of king Jesus came to be. These passages do not speak of a conquering King riding His war horse into the city, eager and ready to rouse he nation to revolt once again. No, these two passages speak of leaving fear behind, taking up great joy, and rejoicing loudly. Why? Because as they look and behold the King who is coming with righteousness and salvation, they see that He is a King like no other! He is humble, riding on a donkey not a royal steed, bringing peace to all nations in His global kingdom. By coming into the city in this way Jesus further deliberately demilitarizes the vision of a war bent king by coming as the Prince of Peace. He wasn’t the king they expected, but He was the King God had long ago appointed. This continues to show us how a crowd that cheered Him so loudly here on Palm Sunday could mock Him so wickedly on Good Friday.
If there ever was a picture to keep in your mind about who Jesus is, it is this one. He doesn’t come raging in fury bent on revolt riding a royal steed, but comes meek and lowly riding on a donkey bringing peace to the world through His gospel. If ever there was a picture to keep in your mind of what the Church is, it is this one. The gospel is a gospel of peace not of worldly power. We don’t spread the gospel of peace to this world with sword, might, or human strength, but with gentleness, humility, and peace. In this way the Church exists in this world to reflect the character of God to this world. Indeed, Jesus is a King unlike any other, and He leads and builds His Church to be a people unlike any other.
The Responses (v16-19)
As John ends the passage covering this triumphal entry, he shows us the varied responses it causes among the people. First we see what occurred with His disciples in v16. Seeing all these things take place, we find that they didn’t understand what it all meant. But John tells us that, after Jesus’ glorification (which likely refers to both His resurrection and ascension), when the Holy Spirit was sent out, then the disciples remembered the true meaning of things they had been eyewitnesses to, recalling how these prophecies found their fulfillment in Jesus. This doesn’t mean that the crowds recognized who Jesus was and the disciples did not. Rather this means that when Jesus rode in on the donkey the disciples probably desired similar things as the crowds who gathered there. They too thought of His kingship wrongly. Only after the Spirit awakened and illuminated their understanding could they see His kingship rightly. Lesson? Jesus is many things to many people, and Jesus is used by many people for many purposes of their own making, like the crowd here wanting to wield His power for political gain. In the midst of all this confusion of who Jesus is and what He intends to do in this world remember, only those whom the Spirit of God illuminates and awakens see Jesus as the King He truly is. Only they see that a new kind of King has come, with a new covenant, and a new kingdom.
Second we see two crowds of people in v17-18. The group that had been at the tomb in Bethany when Jesus called Lazarus’ out of the tomb and raised Him from the dead, they could not help but go in spreading the news. So much so that their efforts in v17 apparently prompted the larger crowds already gathered for Passover, who heard of this miracle but hadn’t seen Jesus for themselves, to come and see this Jesus in v18. They likely heard of this powerful man who could do what no one else could do and got all excited about going to see him, and grabbed palms to wave and throw down before Him hoping he’d be their conquering hero. Third we see the Pharisees in v19. They are undone and conclude that they are gaining nothing, why? “The whole world has gone after Him.” This is surely something of hyperbole, of exaggeration. While the whole world hasn’t believed in Him for them, in this moment, it probably feels that they have.
So what response does the King’s grand entry into the city bring? Confusion and a later clarity for the disciples, curiosity and false expectations for the crowd, and increasing dismay for the Pharisees that forced them to act.
History has known many grand entries, and this, the triumphal entry of Christ into Jerusalem is an entry no one will ever forget. To the millions of people there that day waving their politically charged palms, to them, this was not an entry of triumph but an entry of disappointment. Jesus wasn’t the King they expected or wanted. But what looked like folly to them, was in reality a greater triumph, a deeper redemption, and an eternal salvation greater the world has ever seen. He came into the city to die that day, as the greater Passover Lamb, who would lead a new and greater Exodus. In His death a new kingdom would come, a new covenant would begin, and (by faith) a new people would be created.
This was indeed a grand entry, but do you there will be another grand entry where palms are once again employed, this time in a correct manner. Listen to Revelation 7:9-12, “After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, saying, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”
Jesus indeed came once as a meek, humble, and peaceful King, bringing salvation, healing, and hope. They welcomed Him with as He was on His way to triumph over Satan, sin, and death by His death and resurrection. One day He will reverse our text today and come again. Not on a donkey but on His royal steed. Not bringing peace but bent on war. On that day He will not save any from death but hand all the unbelieving over to death finally and fully. And the millions upon millions and millions of redeemed sinners who triumphed by the blood of the Lamb, will wave palms once again.
 R. Kent Hughes, John: That You May Believe – Preaching the Word Commentary, page 303-304.
 Richard Phillips, John 12-21 – Reformed Expository Commentary, page 80.
 Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John – NICNT, page 583, ft. 35.
 J.C. Ryle, Expository Thoughts on the Gospels – John, vol. 2, page 365.
 R.C. Sproul, John – Saint Andrew’s Expositional Commentary, page 223.
 D.A. Carson, The Gospel According to John – PNTC, page 432.
 Bruce Milne, The Message of John – BST, page 180.
 Carson, page 432.
 Milne, page 181.
 As Matthew, Mark, and Luke are.
 Morris, page 587.
 Sproul, page 225.
 Morris, page 589.