Today is Palm Sunday. This is the day we celebrate the “triumphal entry” of Jesus into the City of Jerusalem riding on a donkey. Many hundreds of thousands were gathered in Jerusalem for the coming Passover, and John tells us that the people were focused on Jesus because of crowd spreading the word that he had risen Lazarus from the dead just days before. (John 12:17-18 (“Now the crowd that was with him when he called Lazarus from the tomb and raised him from the dead continued to spread the word. Many people, because they had heard that he had performed this sign, went out to meet him.”))
As Jesus entered the City, people lined the streets with palm branches, threw their cloaks on the road in front him, and venerated him with shouts of “Hosanna!” and “Blessed is the king who come in the name of the Lord!”
This is Luke’s account:
As he went along, people spread their cloaks on the road.
When he came near the place where the road goes down the Mount of Olives, the whole crowd of disciples began joyfully to praise God in loud voices for all the miracles they had seen:
“Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” (Luke 19:36-38)
And here is John’s account:
The next day the great crowd that had come for the festival heard that Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem. 13They took palm branches and went out to meet him, shouting, “Hosanna!” “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the LORD!” “Blessed is the king of Israel!” (John 12:12-13)
As we celebrate Palm Sunday today, we know that story is about to take a very drastic, tragic turn for the worse. The triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem is not the precursor to celebratory times, but the darkest of times. We should consider the incongruity that just days before Jesus was condemned by an angry crowd yelling, “Crucify him!”, he was hailed King of the Jews by an adoring crowd – and it was likely the same crowd!
The atmosphere of 1st Century Palestine was ripe for the appearance of a Messiah. The Hebrew word, “Messiah” meant “anointed one” and referred, initially, to the kings of Israel by reference to the act of anointing with oil by a prophet of high priest at the time of their acknowledgment as king. The line of kings, however, ended at the Babylonian exile, and the idea of an “anointed one” took on a new meaning. (See What sort of saviour or messiah was Israel expecting according to diverse Old Testament traditions?) Thus, an Anointed One or Messiah came to represent a future agent of God that would save and restore the glory of Israel.
“The idea of a restored monarchy from the line of David, and a reunified kingdom, emerges in Hosea 3:4-5, which was written about the time of the fall of the northern kingdom of Israel to Assyria. Hosea says ‘the children of Israel shall return and seek the Lord their God, and David their king.’ The suggestion of a future David is continued by Jeremiah writing to those in exile in Babylon in Jeremiah 30:8-9 and by Ezekiel, writing at the same time, in Ezekiel 34:23-24. Both passages refer to a David of the future as being the king or prince.
“when trying to understand the mindset of pre-Christian Jewish expectation, there is a progression of thought evidenced in Old Testament writings of first a continuation of the Davidic dynasty, of anointed kings, who would rule over Israel. This then develops at a time of national crisis, during the exile to Babylon, into an expected Messiah figure who would lead Israel into period of restoration, with the Temple rebuilt, the land cleansed and a messianic age of shalom, worshiping the true God.”
This expectation (or impatience waiting for it) likely fueled the Zealot Movement that began about the time Jesus was born (6 BC) and was in full swing during the life and ministry of Jesus. The Zealots were a political movement that sought to incite rebellion against Roman rule. There were a “fourth sect” of Judaism according to historian, Josephus, that promoted allegiance to God alone and urged a violent overthrow of the Roman occupiers. (See Wikipedia)
The Jewish people in the 1st Century had been waiting over 300 years for this future Messiah, and they were tired of Roman rule in their Promised Land. Indeed, there was a certain “Messiah ‘fever’” afoot at the time of Christ as hinted by Gamaliel, the Jewish head of the Sanhedrin (Did the Jews Expect a Messiah?):
“Some time ago Theudas appeared, claiming to be somebody, and about four hundred men rallied to him. He was killed, all his followers were dispersed, and it all came to nothing. After him, Judas the Galilean appeared in the days of the census and led a band of people in revolt. He too was killed, and all his followers were scattered.” (Acts 5:36-37)
This was the context in which Jesus arrived on the outskirts of Jerusalem, mounted a donkey and began to ride into town at the time of the Passover. His reputation had gone before him as an authoritative teacher (Matthew 7:28-29) and performer of miracles, signs and wonders (John 3:2), and he had just reportedly raised a man from the dead. The people believed that Jesus was the Messiah they had been awaiting. This is why they yelled “Hosanna” (meaning “Save us” or “Savior” (Wikipedia)) and “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!”
Some have suggested that Judas betrayed Jesus in the garden to hasten the confrontation between Jesus, the Messiah, and the Roman authorities. He didn’t seem to betray Jesus for the money, despite the evidence that Judas was motivated by money, because he ended up throwing the coins away in disgust. (Matthew 27:3-5) Peter was obviously ready for armed conflict, as he drew his sword in the garden when the Roman authorities came to take Jesus away, but Jesus told him to put it away. (John 18:10-11)
Consider the enormous disappointment these men who were closest to Jesus must have felt. Jesus was their hope that they had been waiting for centuries for. Instead of rising up and seizing control of Jerusalem from the Romans, Jesus went like a docile sheep with the guards to his eventual humiliating, public death. The King of the Jews was nothing but a lamb led to the slaughter, and that was hard to take.
Jesus didn’t live up to the expectations of the crowd who followed him, and, no longer believing he was the Messiah they had hoped for, they turned on him with a vengeance. Pilate, the Roman leader, didn’t know what to do with Jesus. He had broken no Roman law, yet Jesus was there before him to be crucified. In exasperation, he turned to the crowd:
“What shall I do, then, with Jesus who is called the Messiah?” Pilate asked.
They all answered, “Crucify him!”
“Why? What crime has he committed?” asked Pilate.
But they shouted all the louder, “Crucify him!” (Matthew 27:22-23)
Jesus didn’t fight, and that was why the crowd turned on him. He obviously wasn’t the Messiah they hoped for. He was just another false hope, and not even of the same caliber of the others who came before him who, at least, made a valiant attempt to fight.
The last hopes of the expectant 1st Century Jews were quashed when the Temple was destroyed in 70 AD, and the Jews were driven out of Jerusalem. Meanwhile, the followers of Jesus went from bitter disappointment to joy when he appeared to them, so they claimed, risen from the dead. But they too, like their Messiah, did not mount any organized opposition to the Roman rule. They preached the kingdom of God, like Jesus did, in self-sacrificial humility and gentle boldness, being subjected to persecution and some of them death, just like their leader.
Amazingly, these disappointing beginnings led to a worldwide revolution of the message Jesus spoke that continues to this day. Those who expected a conquering King of the Jews continued on with their hope of an earthly establishment of Jewish rule, but those who took the kingdom of God that Jesus preached to heart found a transcendent kingdom of God that changes lives as dramatically as the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.
Today people are still tempted to look for temporal answers to physical circumstances and difficulties, and many turn away from Jesus, disappointed when the temporal answers they look for are not provided. When our expectations are driven by the here and now, and not by the ever after, we aren’t likely to find our answers in Jesus.
In truth, however, the kingdom of God that Jesus preached begins in the here and now. It’s just a different kind of answer than we might be seeking. The kingdom of God that takes root in our hearts is the kingdom Jesus preached – the seed of eternal life, God in us, the hope of glory. He offers salvation from our sins, from our sinful selves, and the promise of life everlasting with the Father, and we gain the seed of that reality through the Holy Spirit, an internal witness to the reality of which Jesus spoke.