On the Sunday before His death on the cross, Jesus entered the city of Jerusalem. Great multitudes of people took palm branches and went out to meet Him, while crying out “Hosanna! ‘Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!’ The king of Israel!” (John 12:12-13). In order to fully understand this passage, we must realize how excited the crowd was. They had come to Jerusalem for the Passover, and along the way had heard about Lazarus, whom Jesus had raised from the dead.
National feelings were always high during Jewish feast days. On this occasion the crowds were like dry kindling, ready to blaze up, and Lazarus was a match. The Jewish rulers had already decided to kill Lazarus “because on account of him many of the Jews went away and believed in Jesus” (John 12:11).
“At such a time Jerusalem and the villages round about were crowded. On one occasion a census was taken of the lambs slain at the Passover Feast. The number was given as 256,000. There had to be a minimum of ten people per lamb; and if that estimate is correct it means that there must have been as many as 2,700,000 people at that Passover Feast.” (William Barclay, Commentary on John, p. 115).
Try to picture in your mind the Jews streaming into Bethany to gaze at a risen man and the Messiah they had longed for (John 12:9).
As the jubilant crowds welcomed Christ into the city, they waved palm branches — a symbol of victory and rejoicing. The crowds also shouted, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of Jehovah,” a chant taken from Psalms 118:26. In that Psalm the phrase, “he that cometh in the name of Jehovah” meant the worshipper drawing near the temple. The added the words, “King of Israel,” diverted the expression to Jesus. “Hosanna” is from a Hebrew word which means “save we pray.”
William Barclay said of this Psalm: “Further, this was characteristically the conqueror’s psalm. To take but one instance, these very verses were sung and shouted by the Jerusalem crowd when the welcomed back Simon Maccabaeus after he had conquered Acra and wrested it from Syrian dominion more than a hundred years before. There is no doubt that when the people sang this psalm they were looking on Jesus as God’s Anointed One, the Messiah, the Deliverer, the One who was to come. And there is no doubt that they were looking on him as the Conqueror. To them it must have been only a matter of time until the trumpets rang out and call to arms sounded and the Jewish nation swept to its long delayed victory over Rome and the world. Jesus approached Jerusalem with the shout of the mob hailing a conqueror in his ears — and it must have hurt him, for they were looking in him for that very thing which he refused to be.” (Commentary on John, p. 117).
Earlier in His ministry Jesus had pulled back from the crowds and on one occasion “when Jesus perceived that they were about to come and take Him by force to make Him king, He departed again to a mountain by Himself alone” (John 6:15). He had sought every possible way to avoid publicity (John 5:13; Mark 3:1-12; Mark 5:35-43; Mark 9:2-9). Now, Jesus deliberately sets Himself to intensify the excitement of the crowd.
Jesus chose to ride into Jerusalem on a donkey, which was a fulfillment of Messianic prophecy. “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your King is coming to you; He is just and having salvation, lowly and riding on a donkey, a colt, the foal of a donkey.” (Zech. 9:9).
The scene presents an interesting contrast between Jesus and the Zealots. The Zealots were ready for a hand to hand fight with Rome, while Jesus chose a slow paced donkey to bear Him into the city.
“With us the ass is lowly and despised; but in the East it was a noble animal. Jair, the Judge, had thirty sons who rode on asses’ colts (Judges 10:4). Ahithopel rode upon an ass (2 Samuel 17:23). Mephi-bosheth, the royal prince, the son of Saul, came to David riding upon an ass (2 Samuel 19:26). The point is that a king came riding upon a horse when he was bent on war; he came riding upon an ass when he was coming in peace. This action of Jesus is a sign that he was not the warrior figure men dreamed of, but the Prince of Peace. No one saw it that way at that time, not even the disciples, who should have known so much better. The minds of all were filled with a kind of mob hysteria. Here was the one who was to come. But they looked for the Messiah of their own dreams and their own wishful thinking; they did not look for the Messiah whom God had sent. Jesus drew a dramatic picture of what he claimed to be, but none understood the claim.” (William Barclay, Commentary on John, p. 118).
To help us further appreciate our Lord’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem, let us notice how a victorious Roman general would receive an official “triumph” parade upon his return to Rome. “Only those were eligible for it who had won a campaign in which 5000 of the enemy had been slain; the unfortunate commander who had won with less slaughter received merely an ovation — for him no ox was sacrificed, but only a sheep (ovis). The procession formed outside the city, at whose borders the general and his troops were required to lay down their arms; thence it entered through a triumphal arch that set a fashion for a thousand monuments. Trumpeters led the march; after them came towers or floats representing the captured cities, and pictures showing the exploits of the victors; then wagons rumbled by, heavy with gold, silver, works of art, and other spoils. Marcellus’ triumph was memorable for the stolen statuary of Syracuse (212); Scipio Africanus in 207 displayed 14,000 and, in 202, 123,000 pounds of silver taken from Spain and Carthage. Seventy white oxen followed, walking philosophically to their death; then the captured chiefs of the enemy; then lictors, harpers, pipers, and incense-bearers; then, in a flamboyant chariot, the general himself, wearing a purple toga and a crown of gold, and bearing an ivory scepter and a laurel branch as emblems of victory and the insignia of Jove. In the chariot with him might be his children; beside it rode his relatives; behind them his secretaries and aides. Last came the soldiers, some carrying the prizes awarded them, every one wearing a crown; some praising their leaders, others deriding them; for it was an inviolable tradition that on these brief occasions the speech of the army should be free and unpunished, to remind the proud victors of their fallible mortality. The general mounted the Capitol to the Temple of Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva, laid his loot at the feet of the gods, presented an animal in sacrifice, and usually ordered the captive chieftains to be slain as an additional thank-offering. It was a ceremony well designed to stir military ambition and reward military effort; for man’s vanity yields only to hunger and love.” (Will Durant, Caesar And Christ, pp. 82-83).
Brother J. W. McGarvey observed: “It has been the custom of all lands to bestrew in some manner the pathway of those who are thought worthy of the highest honor. When Lafayette visited our fathers after the Revolution the roads over which he approached our cities were strewn with flowers. Thus over flowers Alexander entered Babylon, and Xerxes crossed the bridge of Hellespont over a myrtle-strewn pathway. Monier tells of a Persian ruler who in modern times made his honored progress over a road covered for three miles with roses. But it is more natural to contrast the entry of Jesus with the Roman triumphs so popular in that day. The wealth of conquered kingdoms was expended to insure their magnificence. We find none of that tinsel and specious glitter in the triumph of Christ. No hired multitudes applaud him; no gold-braided banners wave in his honor. There is nothing here but the lusty, honest shout of the common people, and the swaying of the God-made banners of the royal palms. The rich in purse, the learned in schoolcraft and the high in office were, as usual, not there.” (The Fourfold Gospel, pp. 576-577).
The entry of Christ into the city of Jerusalem was not only a literal fulfillment of prophecy, but it was a demonstration of the nature of His kingdom (John 18:36). The Prince of Peace entered the city of David while riding upon a donkey, not upon a horse as if ready for war.
A few days after His entry into Jerusalem, the tide of public opinion would turn against Christ. Our Savior knew this would happen, for on the day of His entry into Jerusalem He said, “And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all peoples to Myself” (John 12:32). John tells us that Jesus said these words “signifying by what death He would die” (John 12:33).
Some of the same people who had cut down palm branches to welcome the Son of God into their city would soon stand in front of Pilate’s judgment hall and cry out for the death of the Lamb of God.
The apostle John records the scene as Pilate presents the innocent Jesus to a stirred-up Jewish mob. “Now it was the Preparation Day of the Passover, and about the sixth hour. And he said to the Jews, ‘Behold your King!’ But they cried out, ‘Away with Him, away with Him! Crucify Him!’ Pilate said to them, ‘Shall I crucify your King?’ The chief priests answered, ‘We have no king but Caesar!’ So he delivered Him to them to be crucified. So they took Jesus and led Him away.” (John 19:14-16).