Today is the day on the calendar that we call Palm Sunday. It marks the beginning of what is often referred to as Holy Week or Passion Week, and it is the day on which Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey to the cheers and accolades of the masses. It is often recognized with excitement and celebration—but I would suggest to you that it really was not. The ultimate end of Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem would be cause for excitement and celebration, because the ultimate end would be, one week later, when He rose from the grave having defeated sin and death. For that reason we can recognize this day with celebration. On the day in question, however, only Jesus understood that that was what was coming. If we look at the triumphal entry from the perspectives of the various groups of people who were present on that day we will actually come away with a feeling quite unlike excitement and celebration. And frankly, when we really look at those various groups of people, we may find ourselves staring face to face with ourselves—or at least ourselves as we are and act at various times in our lives.
So we will unpack that idea more momentarily. Let us begin by setting the scene for what takes place on Palm Sunday. We could dwell on many aspects of this text but I am going to skip over some of them because they are beyond the points I want to examine here. John 12:1-2 tells us that six days before the Passover Jesus and His disciples arrive in Bethany. This was the hometown of Mary, Martha and Lazarus and it was very close to Jerusalem—two miles or so. This was where Jesus had performed perhaps His most famous miracle—raising Lazarus from the dead. They had a meal for Jesus here and Lazarus was one of those individuals reclining with Jesus at the table.
Jump to verse 9. Here we see that word got out that Jesus was in town and a large crowd flocked to see Him—and to see Lazarus, whom He had raised from the dead. Now John says that the people wanted to see Jesus and Lazarus, but I think it stands to reason that the real appeal was to see them together. This was where Lazarus lived, so if the crowds wanted to see him in particular they could have done so almost any time. But now Jesus, the man who raised Lazarus, is in town again and the opportunity presents itself to see both the miracle and the miracle worker.
Verses 10 and 11 tell us that the chief priests made plans to put Lazarus to death because, verse 11, “on account of him many of the Jews were going away and believing in Jesus.” Now what about this word believe that we have here? This sounds like a wonderful thing, right—Jews by the dozens are flocking to Jesus and believing in Him. I would suggest to you that this is not as wonderful as it appears. The Greek word is pisteuó, and it means “to believe or have faith in.” However, the HELPS Word Studies explains this important detail: the word is “used of persuading oneself (= human believing) and with the sacred significance of being persuaded by the Lord (= faith-believing). Only the context indicates whether pisteúō (“believe”) is self-serving (without sacred meaning), or the believing that leads to/proceeds from God’s inbirthing of faith.” I think, based on what is about to happen in the following verses, that many of those who were “believing” in Jesus at this time were doing so in the self-serving sense. They recognized a man who could do incredible things—literally, miracles—and they wanted to be on His side. They also, no doubt, wanted what He could do for them.
Just a few chapters earlier, in John 6, we see Jesus feeding the 5,000 and then walking on water. The people were thrilled and wanted to make Him their king. But in verse 35 of that chapter Jesus says, “I am the bread of life,” and proceeds to explain the plan of salvation. What happens then? In verse 42 we read, “They said, ‘Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, “I came down from heaven”’?” Jesus proceeds to teach them further and then, in verse 66, we read, “From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.” Why did they no longer follow Him? The phrase translated “from this time” means, basically, “as a result of.” In other words, because of what Jesus said, they said, “Forget this. I’ve had enough of this. This is not what I had in mind.” They were following Jesus because of what He could do for them and because of their earthly Messianic hopes, which involved defeating Rome and returning Israel to the Jews.
Now, go back to John 12 and look at verses 17 and 18. Here we see that those who had seen Jesus raise Lazarus from the dead were still talking about and spreading the word and, as a result, verse 18 says, the crowd went to meet Him—or to see Him. There was a procession now, with Jesus coming into town riding on a donkey, and the crowds wanted to see Him. These people were impressed by the idea that Jesus could raise someone from the dead. No doubt they had also heard of many of His other miracles, including healing the sick, the blind, the lame; of feeding the massive crowds of people with a handful of food. This, they thought, could be the one who was going to lead them out of their Roman captivity!
The people, as Jesus entered Jerusalem on Sunday, began waving palm branches and carpeting the road with branches and their own clothing. The palm branches were plentiful in the area and they were often used at festivals and celebrations as a symbol of joy and victory. The people were thrilled that Jesus was coming. Now, Jesus entered Jerusalem on a borrowed donkey. The most important significance of this is that it fulfilled specific Old Testament prophecy saying that the Messiah would enter Jerusalem on a colt. There may be other significance, primarily symbolic—with the colt being a symbol of peace rather than a horse, which would more likely represent a military conqueror.
The people wanted something more like a military conqueror because they wanted a Messiah who would free them Roman oppression. But that was not Jesus. The people were shouting “Hosanna!” which literally means, in English, “Save now.” The salvation they had in mind, though, was temporal and material, not spiritual and eternal. We know the “belief” of most of these people was not sincere because, within just a few days, their cries of “Hosanna!” will be replaced instead with cries of “Crucify Him!”
Now, let’s look at a second group, the religious leaders of the day. These individuals were furious with Jesus and determined to put Him to death. Why? Because they were losing their power and their influence. Look back at John 12:9-11. We see here that because so many people were flocking to Jesus the leaders determined to put Lazarus to death as well—meaning they were planning to kill Lazarus and Jesus. In verse 19 we see the attitude, the revealed heart, of the Pharisees—they are lamenting that “the whole world has gone after Him.” This implies that there were masses of people going to celebrate the entry of Jesus and therefore leaving the leadership and influence of the Pharisees—and they found this unacceptable. They were realizing that they should have followed the advice of Caiaphas. Look back at chapter 11, verses 45-53. The words of Caiaphas here seem to allude to the death of one man—Jesus—saving a people or a nation, and therefore alluding to the salvation made possible through the death of Christ. That, however, is not what he had in mind at all. He was expressing that Jesus—whom the Pharisees viewed as stirring up sedition and anti-Roman thoughts among the people—should die so that He did not succeed in leading a rebellion which may result in the Roman army killing all of the Jews in response and, more practically for Caiaphas, in the Pharisees losing their power and influence.
This second group of people is perhaps the group with which we are most familiar and the group whose motives are easiest to discern from a first reading of the text.
Let us look at one last group of people in John 12:42-43. Apparently there were those, even among the Jewish leaders, who truly did believe on Jesus. We know, of course of Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, but they did not reveal publicly their faith until after Jesus had died. What we see in these verses is that they remained silent about their faith because they feared the response and retaliation from the other Jews. They loved the position, the power and the influence they had and they were unwilling to give that up. Back in John 9:22 we see that the rulers had determined that anyone who acknowledged Jesus would be excommunicated, thrown out of the synagogue. These leaders knew the truth, and the accepted it apparently, but at this point only secretly.
So we see three groups of people among the crowds on the first Palm Sunday. We see those who were impressed by what Jesus could do and were following Him because of what they thought they could get out of it. They imagined free food, free health care, a throwing off of the Roman oppression. Reflect on your own life for a moment. Are you ever guilty of following Jesus or of seeking Jesus just for your own benefit? Do you look to Him only when you want or need something, expecting that He will come through and provide what you want, when you want it, but you ignore or reject the hard parts of His teaching, the parts about dying to self and serving others?
Next, we looked at two different groups of leaders responded differently to Jesus but for the same reasons. The majority of the religious leaders were so mad that the people, who had always been under their influence and control, were leaving them to go follow Jesus that they wanted to kill Him. If they could just get rid of Jesus they could continue to live life the way they wanted, to do things the way they wanted. There are many people in the world today, and have been many people throughout history, who have denied God, wished Him dead or claimed He was no longer relevant, because then there would be no one to whom they were accountable and they could do whatever they wanted to do—especially if they were ones in power and positions of influence and control.
The second group of religious leaders accepted Jesus, but they would not tell anyone because of what they thought it would cost them. They already had the prominence, the position, the influence that the world could offer and they did not want to give it up. They wanted to keep the riches and glories of this world while also claiming those of the world to come, of the heavenly kingdom. Take a moment to reflect. How many times do you—do I—not speak up and claim the name of Christ because we are afraid of what others will think? Because we are concerned about the social, political or professional repercussions of being known as “one of them”? Jesus Himself said, recorded in several of the gospels, “What good will it do for a man to gain the whole world yet lose his soul?” There is nothing that this world has to offer us that could possibly come close to the promise of what is waiting for us in eternity if we know Christ as our Savior. We must not allow the fear of man to keep us quiet about Him!
Interestingly, those religious leaders who wanted to kill Jesus were the most honest of the three groups we have seen here. They were opposed to Jesus and they were completely upfront about it. The first group professed to follow Jesus but their following was self-centered and not sincere. The third group believed Jesus but would not admit that they did. It was a sincere but silent and secret faith. There are many today who fit those two groups. Many who profess to be Christians are following after Jesus only because of what they think they can get out of it—because of what they think He can do for them. Many others may have a sincere belief in what the Bible teaches about Jesus, about sin and salvation, but they believe in silence, preferring to keep their faith to themselves so as not to reap unpleasant consequences of making that belief known. Scripture makes it clear that God is not pleased with that kind of faith.
There was a fourth group of people present that day, and that was those who truly were followers and disciples of Jesus. Even many of them, however, were unaware of what was really happening. In verse 16 we see that explained to us, as John writes, “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.”
Here is why the Triumphal Entry is such good news, despite the mixed bag of people who were present that day. It is good news because Jesus knew exactly what was coming…and He went anyway. Luke 19 tells us that as Jesus approached and saw the city of Jerusalem He wept over it. Why? Because He knew the response of the people that was coming. Despite the fact that they were about to welcome Him with shouts of adoration and celebration, he knew that they would reject Him. As they were celebrating the Passover feast, remembering the escape from physical death for those who had applied the blood to their doorposts when the angel of death passed over Egypt, they were preparing to reject that sacrificial lamb who would free them from eternal death and separation from God. He was weeping because, as Scripture tells us, He is not willing that any should perish. He knew both that most of those in Jerusalem were about to reject Him, and He knew that many throughout history would reject Him, refusing to accept the free gift of salvation made possible through His obedience to God’s plan, His death on the cross to pay the penalty for our sins, and His resurrection from the grave, proving victory over hell, death and sin.
Jesus knew what was coming and He went into Jerusalem anyway. Look at the end of John 12 – verses 44-50. Verse 44 says that Jesus cried out. This implies that He was making a public proclamation in a loud voice, likely addressed to the crowd that had followed Him. In the preceding verses we see that the people’s unbelief was revealed. Jesus is now proclaiming the consequences of believing in Him and of rejecting Him. Jesus makes it clear that believing in Him, or rejecting Him, was believing in, or rejecting, God the Father. He makes it inexplicably clear that they are one. These few verses seem, really, to be Jesus summing up all that He had done during His earthly ministry. He explains that He has done what He has done, and taught what He has taught, because it is what God the Father determined for Him to do. The audience hearing Him here was left without excuse. He made clear to them, unmistakably clear to them, that He was the Son of God and that believing in Him brings light and life, rejecting Him brings death and darkness.
We too are without excuse. Indeed, Romans 1 tells us that all humankind is without excuse. Of the groups of people we have seen here, which are you? Are you following Jesus just because of what you think He can do for you? Are you following Him but keeping it yourself, fearful of what others may think or what the consequences may be if your faith is known? Have you rejected Him, preferring to do your own thing and live your own life how you want? Or have you truly accepted Him, received the gift of salvation made possible through His life, death and resurrection? My hope and my prayer is that you are in that fourth group. If you are not, I urge you to examine your heart and your life and to get right with God. Verse 48 of John 12 says, “The one who rejects me and does not receive my words has a judge; the word that I have spoken will judge him on the last day.” You have received the truth and you are now accountable for it. You are without excuse.
For those who have accepted Christ, Palm Sunday truly is a celebratory day because we know that Jesus, recognizing and knowing full well what was before Him and the painful death He was about to endure, went ahead anyway. He obeyed. He entered Jerusalem to give His life for you and for me.