12 The next day the large crowd that had come to the feast heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. 13 So they 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!” 14 And Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it, just as it is written,
15 “Fear not, daughter of Zion;
behold, your king is coming,
sitting on a donkey’s colt!”
16 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. 17 The crowd that had been with him when he called Lazarus out of the tomb and raised him from the dead continued to bear witness. 18 The reason why the crowd went to meet him was that they heard he had done this sign. 19 So the Pharisees said to one another, “You see that you are gaining nothing. Look, the world has gone after him.” – John 12:12-19 ESV
The last week of Jesus’ earthly life is marked by contrasts. He is the light of the world, but as each day passes, the darkness of sin and evil seems to be growing darker. He is the one who gives life, and yet He is on a God-ordained mission that will end in His own death. The one who offered the Samaritan woman “living water” will soon be hanging on a cross, expressing the words, “I thirst” (John 19:28). And as we will see in this passage, Jesus will find Himself surrounded by crowds, yet increasingly more alone. His entrance into Jerusalem will be accompanied by great fanfare and a seeming surge in His popularity, but by the end of the week, His only companions will be the two criminals with whom He is crucified.
Beginning in verse nine and through the next 11 verses, John repeatedly and purposefully mentions “the large crowd.” This nondescript and unnamed group makes their first appearance in Bethany, where they had gathered outside Simon’s house in order to get a glimpse of Jesus and Lazarus. The news had gotten out regarding Jesus’ miraculous raising of Lazarus from the dead. In no time, both men had become celebrities with a growing and enthusiastic fan base. The fact that Lazarus had become a kind of walking billboard for Jesus’ power and authority had left the Sanhedrin with no other alternative but to eliminate him as well. John explains that “it was because of him that many of the people had deserted them and believed in Jesus.” (John 12:11 NLT).
John also indicates that it was this very same group of enthusiastic and energized people who got wind that Jesus was going to make the two-mile journey from Bethany to Jerusalem for the Passover. So, they planned a greeting fit for a king. It seems clear from their actions that they believed Jesus to be the long-awaited Messiah of Israel. But the things they said and did provide evidence that their expectations of Him were not in keeping with God’s assignment for Him. They greeted Jesus as a conquering hero, complete with a parade and shouts of adulation. Removing branches from nearby palm trees, the crowd waved them in the air and threw them on the ground in front of Jesus. Matthew and Mark both describe the people throwing their outer garments in the path before Jesus as a sign of homage.
And just so there’s no doubt as to what the crowd was thinking, John records what they were shouting as Jesus entered into the city.
“Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!” – John 12:13 ESV
The term, “hosanna” was a transliteration of the Hebrew yasha` na’. This was a phrase found in the Hallel, a collection of psalms that were sung during the feasts of Tabernacles, Dedication, and Passover. They were essentially quoting from Psalm 118.
Save us, we pray, O Lord!
O Lord, we pray, give us success!
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! – Psalms 118:25-26 ESV
This was a clear reference to the Messiah. And the Jews who accompanied Jesus into Jerusalem had concluded that Jesus was not only their Messiah but the new King of Israel. He was the descendant of David who had come to reclaim the throne and re-establish Israel’s former glory. Luke provides further evidence of the nationalistic fervor that drove the crowd.
…the whole multitude of his disciples began to rejoice and praise God with a loud voice for all the mighty works that they had seen, saying, “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!” – Luke 19:37-38 ESV
Their enthusiastic declarations were not inaccurate but only mistimed. Everything they claimed about Jesus was true, but they had failed to understand His role as the suffering servant. In their minds, the Messiah would be a conquering king and a political savior who would free them from their subjugation to Rome. He would be a deliverer who would raise up an army and overthrow their enemies. And Luke records that the Pharisees demanded that Jesus rebuke the crowd for declaring Him to be king. They knew that if the Romans caught wind of what was going on in the streets of Jerusalem, the response would be swift and deadly. But Jesus simply responded, “I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out” (Luke 19:40 ESV).
Jesus did not refute the claims of the people. In fact, during His trial before Pilate, the Roman governor asked Him, “So you are a king?” And Jesus replied, “You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice” (John 18:37 ESV).
Jesus was the King of Israel. But, as He made clear to Pilate, His kingdom was not of this world.
“My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.” – John 18:36 ESV
So, the crowd was right, but they failed to understand the true nature of Jesus’ reign and the extent of His rule. He was not simply the King of Israel, He was the King of kings and Lord of lords, the sovereign over all heavens and the earth. But before His reign could begin, He would have to suffer and die. His crucifixion would have to precede His glorification. It would only be after He wore a crown of thorns that He could be crowned with glory and honor by His Heavenly Father.
…he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. – Philippians 2:8-11 ESV
Everything that Jesus did was in fulfillment of God’s redemptive plan for mankind. His every step was orchestrated by God. Even His decision to procure the foal of a donkey on which to ride was part of God’s divine plan. It fulfilled the words of the prophet, Zechariah.
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. – Zechariah 9:9 ESV
Jesus took no shortcuts. Refusing to leave out any aspect of the divine plan, He faithfully fulfilled each and every prophecy and prediction, in unwavering obedience to His Father’s will.
But all of this escaped the disciples of Jesus. They were oblivious to the much deeper meaning behind all that was going on around them. Buoyed by the unbridled enthusiasm of the crowd, they were caught up in the thrill of the moment and beginning to wonder if Jesus was finally going to reveal Himself as who they believed Him to be: the Christ, the Son of the living God (Matthew 16:16).
Their hopes were high. Things seemed to be taking a dramatic turn for the better. They had the crowds on their side. The tide seemed to be turning. But John indicates that they were missing the point because they lacked the ability to comprehend what was really going on. It would not be until after Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension that they would grasp the true significance of those days.
…when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written about him and had been done to him. – John 12:16 ESV
It would not be until Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit descended upon them, that the disciples would understand all that had taken place in those days before Jesus’ death.
As the story unfolds, John makes it clear that every event has been carefully timed and orchestrated by God to create the perfect environment in which to display His final act of divine love for sinful mankind. From the self-centered crowd driven by desires for physical freedom to the self-righteous religious leaders driven by jealousy and revenge, John exposes a world marked by darkness and a people whose spiritual sight is distorted and confused.
The people expressed hope because they took the raising of Lazarus as a sign. But the very same sign caused the Pharisees to express despair because they were losing the battle with Jesus. His popularity continued to pick up as their options for eliminating Him seemed to be running out.
“There’s nothing we can do. Look, everyone has gone after him!” – John 12:19 ESV
But despite their sense of defeat and resignation, they were far from done. Their anger would intensify yet again and their plan for putting Jesus to death would gather steam.
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.