“From that day on they plotted to to take his life” (John 11.53). When Jesus raised Lazarus from the grave, the crowds followed him. But the leaders of Israel could not tolerate this. In sharp contrast Mary then anointed Jesus with costly perfume for his burial and the crowds gathered to see Jesus and Lazareth. Now we are told that the chief priests “made plans to kill Lazarus as well” (12.10/11). What an impact the raising of Lazarus was having (see also John 12.17)! So we move on to our passage for today with Jesus’ popular welcome from the crowds as he makes his way to Jerusalem. Again the Pharisees hate his popularity with the crowds following him, but wonder how they can deal with him. The plots are thickening. Hatred burns increasingly hotly in Israel’s leaders’ hearts. Jesus’ death is obviously coming ever closer.
Unlike the other three Gospels’ account of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, John divides the story into two sections which also lead into the resultant bitter opposition of Israel’s leaders.
1. Palm Branches
Luke’s account of this event does not mention palm branches at all, while Matthew and Mark record how the crowds laid their palm branches on the road. John merely mentions that the crowds “Took palm branches”. None of the four Gospel writers suggest at all that the crowds waved the palm branches triumphantly to welcome Jesus. In those days a king or triumphant general might be welcomed with palms waved before him, but the Gospel writers are emphasizing their welcome of him which is not as a triumphant king or general. He comes in humility on a young donkey. Unfortunately the common practice of waving palms triumphantly on Palm Sunday has no biblical warrant! The NIV’s heading to this story, “The Triumphal Entry”, is misleading.
In John’s Gospel the crowd welcomes Jesus as the Saviour – Hosanna is the Hebrew for ‘Save us’. They welcome him with honour as the one who “comes in the name of the Lord”. And they acknowledge him as the Davidic “King of Israel”, but the Gospel writers would not have interpreted this in the common worldly sense of a king. In the Gospels Jesus frequently rejects any such thought that he might be the sort of Messiah who would use military power to overthrow the despotic rule of Rome.
2. A Young Donkey
John 12.14 in the Greek has a conjunction which shows that we are moving to the next part of the event. This conjunction (‘de’ in the Greek) is a mild word which has a meaning somewhere between ‘and’ and ‘but’. So it conveys a continuity with what comes before it, but it also shows a contrast. The old Authorized Version translates it as ‘and’ which rightly gives validity to the crowds’ enthusiastic welcome of Jesus as the Saviour, the one who comes in the name of the Lord and as the true King of Israel. But ‘and’ does not convey the contrast in the story. Jesus rejects any welcome which makes him out to be like a victorious general or king in royal splendour. The Greek ‘de‘ shows the contrast. Sadly the NIV does not notice this conjunction at all in its translation! It is this same conjunction which John also used in 12.8: “You always have the poor among you, but me you do not always have.” So, in contrast to any welcome in splendour, Jesus “found a young donkey and sat upon it” (12.14). John’s Old Testament quote in 12.15 comes from the prophecy in Zechariah 9.9 which stresses that the messianic king will come with gentleness, with salvation and with righteousness. He takes away all emblems of power and victory in battle. Indeed he comes to proclaim peace and his peace is not only for Israel, but also more widely for “the nations”, the Gentiles (Zech.9.10). Little did the Pharisees realise the truth of their despairing words which have proved prophetic: “the whole world has gone after him” (John 12.19). So we rejoice in the spread of the gospel all over the world as we too welcome Jesus as Saviour and King, coming in the name of the Lord.