Can you feel the anticipation and excitement? Look around and see thousands upon thousands of jubilant citizens hail the newly elected president lining Pennsylvania Avenue as the motorcade goes by. Watch and listen to the inauguration of a new President of the United States. What a memorable event in the life of our nation! What a turning point! What a hopeful day! No more “politics as usual,” finally “the most open and honest” government ever, finally an “outsider” to Washington D.C. is in the White House, a real “reformer with results.”
Yet the bright light of that day turned into a storm cloud. Here we are, eight years after the inauguration of our former President, wondering what happened, only to be filled again with disappointment, despair, and disillusionment at the whole political process. This was what it was like on Palm Sunday some two thousand years ago in Jerusalem.
In John 12 we feel the anticipation of the people lining the streets as they ask each other, “What do you think? That he will not come to the feast at all” (John 11:56)? We feel their hope when we read that a “large crowd . . . had come to the feast” (John 12:12). The first-century Jewish historian, Josephus, tells us that around the year AD 60 there were two and a half million pilgrims in Jerusalem for the required Passover Feast. Can you imagine that? That would be like having nearly the entire county of San Diego packed into a tiny city whose area was only about one hundred and twenty five acres within the city walls!
All the acclamation and adulation was there, but in a few short days—not years—everything was dashed in disappointment. What is so amazing is the plan of God. Out of our despair and disillusionment he builds a stage to perform his most amazing act. Here on Palm Sunday, the stage is set for the act of Good Friday, only five short days away.
The Promised King
O Church, behold your King, the promised King. This great crowd heard that Jesus was coming—against their expectations! They knew the Pharisees wanted him dead; in fact, they even plotted to kill Lazarus, whom Jesus had raised from the dead (John 12:9–11). Yet Jesus comes anyway because he has a divine mission to fulfill: “For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me” (John 6:38).
This great crowd goes out to the city gate with palm branches and crying out at the top of their lungs, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel” (John 12:13)! The promise that faithful Israelites sang for generations in Psalm 118 is now fulfilled.
The palm branch was a symbol, first of all, of praise (cf. Rev. 7:9–10). But the palm branch had a second, and more deeply felt symbolism for the first-century Jews. It was a symbol that was placed on their coins after Judas Maccabaeus had cleansed the Temple in December 164 BC and began the Feast of the Rededication of the Temple. It was a symbol of political salvation. The Messiah, the anointed king, the Christ, entered the city of God as was promised, to bring salvation. The Jews saw it, however, in terms of political salvation from the Roman Empire.
They also cried out, “Hosanna,” which means, “Save now!” It is time! In their minds the great tyrant, the Roman Empire, would now be cast down. Because our Lord’s kingdom is not like the kingdoms of this world (John 18:36), we receive an exhortation from this text not to attach our ultimate hopes and dreams to any particular party, person, or politic. This is strikingly illustrated for us as this promised king came into Jerusalem, riding on a donkey. Contrary to popular understanding, riding in on a donkey was not merely a sign of our Lord’s humility. Instead, it was a dramatic fulfillment of what the Old Testament Scriptures promised. In Genesis 49:11 we are told that Judah’s great descendant would bind “his foal to the vine and his donkey’s colt to the choice vine.” The prophet Zechariah picked up on this imagery over a thousand years later, saying, “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” (Zech. 9:9). Riding in on a donkey was our Lord’s way of demonstrating not merely his meek and mild rule as a new kind of king, but that as a different kind of king, he would humiliate himself so far as to be cut off like a sacrificial donkey. For as Jacob prophesied: “He has washed his garments in wine and his vesture in the blood of grapes” (Gen. 49:11).
The World’s King
O Church, behold your King, the world’s King. In this we find an aspect of Palm Sunday in John’s account that we do not see in the other Gospel accounts. He is not just Israel’s promised King, but he is the world’s King. In verse 19 the Pharisees say, “Look, the world has gone after him.” The word John uses here is kosmos. They are not saying every human being whoever lived is following Jesus, contrary to the Arminian’s use of the word “world;” instead, what John is showing in the context is that “the large crowd” at the Feast was made up of a whole host of Jews as well as Gentile converts.
We see this in the verse just after the text before us. In verse 20 we read, “Now among those who went up to worship at the feast were some Greeks.” Their words to Philip were those that have been inscribed on innumerable pulpits ever since: “Sir, we wish to see Jesus” (John 12:21). Here on Palm Sunday a part of our Lord’s triumph in his entry was to begin his work of “draw[ing] all people to myself” (John 12:32). In fulfillment of such great promises as our Lord’s promise to Abram (Gen. 12) and Solomon’s Psalm (Ps. 72), Jesus was showing himself a blessing to the nations.
How amazing is our King! He comes not for one ethnic people, but for all peoples. He comes not only for those whose skin is white, but also for those who skin is black, and every shade in between. He comes not for the righteous, but for sinners. He comes not only for the rich, but especially for the poor. He comes not only for those in the covenant at that time, but for all those of the innumerable host (Rev. 7:9), those who are outsiders, those who are strangers, those who are without hope, and those without God in the world (Eph. 2). You see, Palm Sunday is about our Lord’s coming for you! Hallelujah! What a Savior!
The Soon Glorified King
O Church, behold your King, the soon-to-be glorified King. Jesus’ triumphal entry on what we call “Palm Sunday” is a memorable event in the history of salvation as an aspect of the work of Jesus as Messiah. God’s covenant of grace continued to be unfolded, like a newly bought carpet, yard by yard. What began as a simple promise to Adam and Eve in Genesis 3:15 was elaborated upon to Abraham (Gen. 12, 15, 17). More of the work of God’s redeeming plan was unfolded under the great glory of the days of Moses at Sinai (Ex. 19, 24) and to David, whose line would rule forever (2 Sam. 7).
It all sounds so glorious. It all sounds so full of kingly glorification. Yet even as our Lord entered the city his own disciples “did not understand these things at first” (John 12:16). They were only given the illumination of the Holy Spirit to understand these things after Jesus was “glorified” (John 12:16). In the rest of the New Testament Jesus’ glorification is portrayed as his glorious resurrection, ascension, and session as the triumphant King of the world he was “declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead” (Rom. 1:4); when he “ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men” and “ascended far above the heavens” (Eph. 4:8, 10); and he is “exalted at the right hand of God” having been made “both Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:33, 36).
In John’s gospel the beloved disciple shows us something truly sensational, truly shocking, and truly stunning. John says Jesus was glorified at his crucifixion, on the cross. “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified” (John 12:23 cf. 7:39). “Now is the Son of Man glorified, and God is glorified in him” (John 13:31 cf. 17:5). While Paul preached Jesus’ entire earthly sojourn as his humiliation (Phil. 2) and especially the crucifixion as Jesus’ being cursed by God on account of our sins (Gal. 3:10), John preaches the irony of Jesus’ death as his glorification.
John is saying that the theology of the cross is the only true theology of glory; that suffering is the pathway to glory; that Christ had to die that we might thereby have life. Behold your King, O Church! There he is on his way into the city, only to be led outside in shame. There he is hailed as conqueror, only to seemingly be conquered. Yet there he is for the world to see him, and for those who will see in faith they will see their sins abolished that they might be led in his royal procession into the heavenly courts of the Lord. Behold your King by glorying only in the cross, knowing nothing else but Christ and him crucified.
Rev. Daniel Hyde is the Pastor of the Oceanside United Reformed Church in Oceanside, California.