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Palm Sunday & the Unexpected King

This Sunday is Palm Sunday—the day Christians remember the entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem. It’s a relatively small and seemingly insignificant story in the Bible, so why do we stop to remember it? Well, have a read of the text from John’s gospel below and see what’s happening:

The next day the large crowd that had come to the feast heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. 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!” And Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it, just as it is written: “Fear not, daughter of Zion; behold, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt!” 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. (John 12:12-16)

So, a fairly simple story: Jesus is coming to Jerusalem; lots of people get all excited, calling him the king and shaking palm branches (hence, “Palm Sunday”); and Jesus gets on a donkey and rides into town. There is a clue though that something bigger is happening in this event. In verse 16 it says, “His disciples did not understand these things at first.” Well, at first, you also might not understand all this either. Here are a few thoughts to help you see the significance of this event.

“Jesus was coming to Jerusalem”

This little phrase holds great significance. Jerusalem was (and still is) the central city of Judaism. It was where all the powerful Jewish leaders were. Jesus’ claim to be the prophesied king of God’s kingdom and the Son of God, could be shrugged off as insignificant as long as he stayed to the little country towns in Israel. But coming to Jerusalem was a bold and dangerous statement and both Jesus and his disciples knew it. There is a key moment in Jesus’ ministry when he turns to head towards Jerusalem and his disciples are shocked and scared, but Jesus very clearly explains his reasoning for going:

And they were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them. And they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid. And taking the twelve again, he began to tell them what was to happen to him, saying, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death and deliver him over to the Gentiles. And they will mock him and spit on him, and flog him and kill him. And after three days he will rise.”  (Mark 10:32-34)

Jesus was going to Jerusalem in order to be captured. He was going there to die. He was going there to be resurrected. He was going there to bring about the first Easter.

Jesus was going to Jerusalem in order to be captured. He was going there to die. He was going there to be resurrected. He was going there to bring about the first Easter.

Of course, this was Jesus’ perspective. The crowds who greeted Jesus had a different idea. In their minds, Jesus coming to Jerusalem was him finally putting his money where his mouth was. For three years he had been talking about the kingdom of God and how he was the prophesied “Son of Man” from Daniel 7, and it was well known that he was a prophet and a miracle-worker and even called the Son of God. To the crowds, Jesus was the Messiah – the promised king who would establish God’s kingdom, destroy the Roman Empire and allow the Jews to rule the world in prosperity and harmony with God forever! But until he came to Jerusalem, all his talk of being a king was just talk. It would be like if someone said, “I am the rightful Prime Minister of Australia!” but they always stayed in Coober Pedy and never went to Canberra.

From the people’s perspective, Jesus coming to Jerusalem was his triumphant entry where he was truly saying “I am king! And now I will take over!”

That’s why they were waving palm branches like it was a ticker tape parade and cheering battle cries: “Hosanna!”, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”, “Blessed is the king of Israel!” The word “Hosanna” means “Lord, save us” and it shows the crowd was basically quoting a couple of verses 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! We bless you from the house of the Lord.” (Psalm 118:25-26)

They saw Jesus’ arrival as a king coming to assume his throne. Jesus saw his arrival as a dead man walking coming to be executed. Two very different perspectives.

“Jesus found a young donkey”

Why did Jesus enter Jerusalem on a young donkey? Was it because he was tired of walking and donkeys were easier to find than a horse and chariot? Well, the text doesn’t suggest that. In Matthew’s account of the story, there’s even more detail about how they got the donkey. Jesus says to his disciples before they get to Jerusalem: “Go into the village in front of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her. Untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, you shall say, ‘The Lord needs them,’ and he will send them at once.”

It seems the donkey is something very, very deliberate for Jesus. So what is he trying to say? Well, both accounts of this story tell us that Jesus is using the donkey so that he would fulfil a prophecy made by the prophet Zechariah hundreds of years earlier.

In Zechariah 9:9-11, God spoke through the prophet to give a picture of what it would be like when his promised king would come to Zion (or Jerusalem).

“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.

I will cut off the chariot from Ephraim

    and the war horse from Jerusalem;

and the battle bow shall be cut off,

    and he shall speak peace to the nations;

his rule shall be from sea to sea,

    and from the River to the ends of the earth.

As for you also, because of the blood of my covenant with you,

    I will set your prisoners free from the waterless pit.”

The picture is definitely of a king. He is righteous and victorious. His rule will extend to the ends of the earth. And he will bring peace to all the nations of the world and freedom from those imprisoned. This is definitely a king. But it is an unexpected king.

His righteousness and victory don’t appear as strength or brute power. He comes lowly and riding on a young donkey. You can’t go to battle on a donkey! You can’t destroy the Roman Empire on a donkey! You can’t fight your way to the throne, destroying all your enemies in your way, and claim your rightful role as king of Jerusalem, if your warhorse is a donkey!

This is definitely a king. But it is an unexpected king. You can’t go to battle on a donkey!

But that is the unexpected king. He takes away all chariots and warhorses and battle bows. He is the one who proclaims peace to the nations, not war.

Now, this act of weakness and lowliness doesn’t mean he will not be victorious in establishing his rule. As the prophecy says, his rule will extend from seas to sea, and his lowliness does not jeopardise that one bit. In fact, his lowliness will be the very means by which his kingdom is established, peace is brought to the world and the prisoners are set free from the waterless pit.

You see that alluded to in verse 11 of the prophecy. It is because of the “blood of the covenant” that all this will happen. The first time the phrase “blood of the covenant” is mentioned in the Bible is when an animal sacrifice was made on behalf of the people to establish their relationship with God in the Old Testament (the story is found in Exodus 24:4-8).

For those that know the Easter story, they will remember that on the night before Jesus was crucified, he told his disciples that his own death would be the new “blood of the covenant”. Jesus saw his death as the ultimate atoning sacrifice that would free people from the pit, bring peace to the world and establish an everlasting relationship between God and all those who trusted in it.

It is for this atoning death that Jesus entered Jerusalem. That is why he comes lowly and riding on a donkey. That’s why he didn’t come on a warhorse. Hadn’t come to destroy his enemies. He had come to die for them. To offer them forgiveness and salvation. As the prophecy said, “he shall speak peace to the nations”. (Zechariah 9:10)

The crowds were right

So the crowds were right! They were right to praise Jesus as king – for that is who he is. They were right to say “Hosanna!” which means “Lord, save us” – for that is what he came to do. They were right to expect that he had come to Jerusalem to establish God’s kingdom and reconcile people to God. They were simply wrong in how they expected he would do it.

The story finishes with the disciples being confused: “His disciples did not understand these things at first.” And I don’t blame them. Jesus was the king, but he came to Jerusalem on a donkey. Jesus was supposed to be the Messiah, but he talked about dying. How did it all fit together?

Well, it then tells us: “but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written about him and had been done to him.” It’s only after Jesus was glorified in his death and resurrection (John 12:23 & 17:1) that the disciples remembered the Old Testament prophecies like the one from Zachariah and saw how the puzzle pieces all fit together.

Fortunately, we live in the time after Jesus has been glorified. And every Easter we can remember the great work on the cross he did to die for sinners like you and me.

For today, as we reflect on Psalm Sunday once again, let us grab our palm branches and praise the king. Not having a false expectation that Jesus establishes his rule through aggression and force, but remembering that God answered that cry “Hosanna” – God save us, with a cross.

Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey.

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