Text: John 12:9-19
Palm Sunday is when Christians remember and celebrate Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. The basic story is familiar enough. He rode into town on a donkey, being greeted by a jubilant crowd who hailed him to be their king. But this celebration was short-lived, as Palm Sunday inevitably lead to Good Friday, to death on the cross.
The Synoptic Gospels—Matthew, Mark, and Luke—give a shared presentation of this event, each associating Jesus with the messiah who would bring eschatological judgment. The surprise was that Jesus brought it on the religious leaders of Jerusalem and especially the temple. Here in John’s gospel, however, there is a different emphasis. The cleansing of the temple was placed early, all the way back in chapter 2, and here at the Triumphal Entry we have a special focus on Lazarus. Jesus’ bringing Lazarus back from the dead is mentioned at the beginning and end of John’s presentation of the triumphal entry, and from this we learn that Jesus’ messianic action was directly tied to resurrection. Because Jesus could give life to the dead, the people knew that he was their messiah and their savior. He could make the world all over again, and He could save them from their enemies, even death.
The introduction to the Triumphal Entry is actually Jesus’ anointing at Bethany with Lazarus. We are told that Jesus had become famous because of the miracle of Lazarus’ resurrection, and they all came to see him. This set the stage for Jesus’ triumphal entry:
Now a great many of the Jews knew that He was there; and they came, not for Jesus’ sake only, but that they might also see Lazarus, whom He had raised from the dead. But the chief priests plotted to put Lazarus to death also, because on account of him many of the Jews went away and believed in Jesus. (John 12:9-11)
We can see that Lazarus gained Jesus both friends and foes. Many of the Jews came to believe in Jesus because of that great event, and the fact that this was happening enraged the chief priests. Earlier in chapter 11, we were told this:
But some of them went away to the Pharisees and told them the things Jesus did. Then the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered a council and said, “What shall we do? For this Man works many signs. If we let Him alone like this, everyone will believe in Him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and nation.” …Then, from that day on, they plotted to put Him to death. Therefore Jesus no longer walked openly among the Jews, but went from there into the country near the wilderness, to a city called Ephraim, and there remained with His disciples.
And the Passover of the Jews was near, and many went from the country up to Jerusalem before the Passover, to purify themselves. Then they sought Jesus, and spoke among themselves as they stood in the temple, “What do you think—that He will not come to the feast?” Now both the chief priests and the Pharisees had given a command, that if anyone knew where He was, he should report it, that they might seize Him. (John 11:46-48, 53-57)
So the people were waiting on Jesus to come to the Passover. Some were waiting to greet him with cheers, and others were waiting to capture him.
The Triumphal Entry
This background also explains why there were such large crowds greeting Jesus when he entered the city. They were excited because of the news of Lazarus. The crowd at Jerusalem was divided between those who were eager to see Jesus and those who were already plotting his death. The crowd at the Triumphal Entry represented the people who celebrated Jesus and his power. The Pharisees were discouraged by this at first, but they only redoubled their efforts to trap Jesus and put him to death:
Therefore the people, who were with Him when He called Lazarus out of his tomb and raised him from the dead, bore witness. For this reason the people also met Him, because they heard that He had done this sign. The Pharisees therefore said among themselves, “You see that you are accomplishing nothing. Look, the world has gone after Him!” (John 12:17-19)
It’s also important to remember those quotations from the Old Testament, from Psalm 118 and Zechariah 9. The first comes from the crowd, “Hosanna! ‘Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!’ The King of Israel!” “Hosanna” is a transliteration of the Hebrew expression for “Save now,” and then the line “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” is a direct quote from Psalm 118. The next line, “The King of Israel!” is not directly from the psalm, but it reflects the fact that the people understood the psalm to be about the messiah, the son of David. The person who came “in the name of the Lord” would do the mighty works of salvation listed in Psalm 118, and that person would be the messiah who would restore the kingdom of David. The crowd is saying that Jesus is this person. Jesus is the messiah.
Zechariah 9 is not chanted by the crowd, but John does mention it as a way to explain what has happened. “Then Jesus, when He had found a young donkey, sat on it; as it is written: ‘Fear not, daughter of Zion; Behold, your King is coming, Sitting on a donkey’s colt’” (John 12:14-15). The citation comes from Zechariah 9:9-10, but the whole section of Zechariah 9 concerns the messiah’s work in bringing the people out of exile. If you continue you reading you can see that the king does not only come riding on a donkey’s colt, but he goes on to bring about his dominion, his rulership:
As for you also, because of the blood of your covenant, I will set your prisoners free from the waterless pit. Return to the stronghold, you prisoners of hope. Even today I declare that I will restore double to you.
…The Lord of hosts will defend them; they shall devour and subdue with slingstones. They shall drink and roar as if with wine; they shall be filled with blood like basins, like the corners of the altar. The Lord their God will save them in that day, as the flock of His people. For they shall be like the jewels of a crown, lifted like a banner over His land— For how great is its goodness and how great its beauty! Grain shall make the young men thrive, and new wine the young women. (Zechariah 9:11-12, 15-17)
This is what Jesus was kicking off when He entered Jerusalem. He really was the messiah, the king of Israel, and He was beginning to bring in the long-promised salvation and restoration of the kingdom. John lets us know that the apostles didn’t really put all of this together until after Jesus’ death and resurrection, but the fact that it happened was a fulfillment of prophecy and a sign to be believed.
Resurrection as Messianic Triumph
As we said, the main difference in presentation between John’s gospel and Matthew, Mark, and Luke is that John does not mention the various sermons on the last judgment or the cleansing of the temple but instead emphasizes the connection between the Triumphal Entry and Lazarus. Immediately afterwards in John’s gospel, Jesus goes on to preach about resurrection. Consider verses 23-26:
But Jesus answered them, saying, “The hour has come that the Son of Man should be glorified. Most assuredly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it produces much grain. He who loves his life will lose it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. If anyone serves Me, let him follow Me; and where I am, there My servant will be also. If anyone serves Me, him My Father will honor.
And even more interesting is the fact that these men were Greeks. The leaders of the Jews were plotting to kill Jesus while the Greeks were hearing Jesus teach them about the necessity of His death and resurrection.
John then goes on to show Jesus’ preaching on death and suffering, as well as the relationship between darkness and light. Darkness and light bring to mind ethics—right and wrong—but also the concepts of life and death:
Then Jesus said to them, “A little while longer the light is with you. Walk while you have the light, lest darkness overtake you; he who walks in darkness does not know where he is going. While you have the light, believe in the light, that you may become sons of light.” These things Jesus spoke, and departed, and was hidden from them. (John 12:25-26)
Jesus is letting them know that the restoration of the kingdom will not come apart from death and resurrection. And His death is near.
In this we learn an important lesson. Both the kingdom and the resurrection come in two parts. There is the big, glorious, and world-changing form. This is what the Jews were looking for right away, and Lazarus’ famous resurrection seemed to show it. The messiah was going to raise bodies out of the graves, after all, and this was going to be a big deal. Yet, the fullness of this glorious event will not happen until the messiah first dies and is resurrected Himself. And we cannot enjoy the glory of the kingdom unless we die and are resurrected as well.
Interestingly enough, John is also the only gospel-writer who tells us that the branches were palm branches. Palm branches were symbols of victory, of conquerors in the ancient world, and so John is showing us that Jesus is a victorious king, all at the same time that He is preparing for His death and resurrection.
John’s gospel is the gospel most concerned with world recreation. John begins things with a reminder of Jesus’ role in the very creation of the world, and it is John who most clearly talks about being “born again” and resurrected in order to inherit eternal life. It is John who ties the Triumphal Entry to the resurrection by connecting it to the raising up of Lazarus. All this shows us that one of the messiah’s chief works would be raising the dead to new life, both spiritually and literally.
It is also resurrection which most fully defeats the Pharisees. They see that they are “accomplishing nothing” in trying to defeat Jesus. The whole world has gone after Him because of the signs and wonders. The kingdom cannot be stopped because the resurrection cannot be stopped.
And think about it. Resurrection is life to the dead. There’s no works’ righteousness in resurrection. You can’t raise yourself. On the contrary, you’re dead. Someone else has to raise you and give you new life. And so we see that the kingdom will come by the hands of the messiah and none other. We do not bring it in partially or halfway. We witness it being brought in by Jesus.
We also need to see Jesus’ own death and resurrection foreshadowed here. Palm Sunday points to Good Friday. This is true. Jesus came into Jerusalem where crowds cheered him but where other crowds were waiting to capture him and deliver him over to be killed. He knew this. And he went anyway. Jesus went to His death because He knew that new life couldn’t come any other way. And so as we cheer on our king, we remember that the resurrection only comes by way of the cross. The fullness of the kingdom is manifest only through suffering and death, the death of Christ and then our following after Him, dying to ourselves and living new lives for Him, which means lives which continue to bear their crosses. And yet in all this there is victory. In fact, it is precisely in death and resurrection that the kingship of Christ is seen. And so let us cheer on our king as we follow after him, living lives of service and suffering for his sake so that the whole world might see him and follow after us.
Let us pray.