Jesus’ final entry into Jerusalem is a dense portion of scripture as recorded by John. Old Testament prophesies are converging alongside plots and schemes by Jesus’ enemies, as well as the natural curiosity of the people to see the Man who recently rose a man who’d been dead for days.
There’s a lot going on. Let’s look at a few verses in John 12 and study a little of it…
On the next day much people that were come to the feast, when they heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem,
Took branches of palm trees, and went forth to meet him, and cried, Hosanna: Blessed is the King of Israel that cometh in the name of the Lord.
And Jesus, when he had found a young mule, sat thereon; as it is written,
Fear not, daughter of Sion: behold, thy King cometh, sitting on an mule’s colt.
Many people who lived in and around Jerusalem, plus many more who had journeyed to the city to take part in the Passover event, all felt compelled to give Jesus a welcome as He entered the city. How many there were is hard to say, but some historians speculate that there could have been anywhere from one to three million Jews gathered in the holy city for the Passover feast. Many of them came to welcome Jesus.
A year ago, they wanted to make Him a King to sit on the throne in Jerusalem, so Jesus retreated from them (ch6:15). In the meantime, He has done even more amazing works. Naturally the people’s interest in Him had grown as well. With the raising of Lazarus having just occurred, the Lord’s popularity would never be higher. As the Lord approached the city, a great many people were stirred with excitement for His arrival…
The Jews had been waiting for their Messiah to come since at least as early as Moses’ declaration of “the prophet” (Deuteronomy 18:18). Others may have caught on that God’s words to Abraham were Messianic in nature as well (Genesis 13:1-3). In addition, the Jews came to believe that their Messiah would be the one to deliver them from national bondage.
At this time they were under the rule of the Roman Empire, but before that was Persia, Babylon, Assyria, etc. The Jews—partially borne out of a misunderstanding of Isaiah’s prophesies—thought the Messiah would be a great military hero who would restore Israel to the power and prominence it had under Solomon. The mighty miracles of Jesus led many to conclude that Jesus was not only the long-expected prophet Moses promised, but was also the One who would restore the kingdom of Israel. They saw Him as a King…and He was, but not in the way they envisioned.
Palm trees grew wild in this region and they were frequently used during the Feast of Booths (in order for the Jews to build their makeshift homes to stay in for that holy week). Wanting to give their expectant-King a proper welcome into “His” city, the people broke off palm branches and cast them down on the road where He was to enter. It was a customary welcoming for a man of royalty, so the ruler would not have to touch the dirt of the earth with his feet.
As the Lord approached, the people cried “Hosanna!” The word is Hebrew, meaning “Save us now, we beseech thee!” (Psalm 118:25). Essentially they were shouting “Save us, Savior, Save us!” This signifies that the people had come to accept Jesus as the Messiah predicted to come.
But what kind of salvation were they seeking? It doesn’t seem to be the spiritual kind (which was the kind Jesus was offering); they also cried out “Blessed is the King of Israel that comes in the name of the Lord.” In other words, they also saw Him as the ruler that would drive away the Roman oppressors and restore the glory to Solomon’s throne. They wanted salvation of a worldly kind, but that was not His mission.
Meanwhile there’s Jesus: After entering the city many times prior, usually in an inconspicuous way, the Lord was now ready to enter the city in a way that fully embraces His role as the Messiah to the people and as the Son of God. Matthew, Mark and Luke go into much more detail than John does (since John’s book was written years after those three Gospel accounts were widely circulated), but John does make mention of the fact that the Lord mounted a young mule to ride into the city.
To enter a city in such a fashion was clearly the posture of a King. The whole procession, with the palm trees and the shouting people, evoke the triumphant entry of a great conquering ruler or, conversely, a returning hero who drove away a conquering force. There was more to it than that, for Jesus, however. He does what He does here, in such a marked departure from His earlier entries into Jerusalem, as a fulfillment of prophesy.
John quotes from Zechariah, who prophesied to God’s people five-hundred years before this event took place. Among his predictions, Zechariah said that the Messiah—called “thy King”—would arrive, sitting on a young mule (“colt” means “foal” or “filly” and describes a young horse or donkey).
The text referenced by John is Zechariah 9:9. There’s more from Zechariah that John doesn’t include however. The prophet goes on to predict that the King who would enter on a mule would “have salvation” (which is what the people were shouting at Jesus as He entered), and would be “lowly” (a very fitting adverb to describe the Christ, and one which the Lord uses to describe Himself—Matthew 11:28-30).
These things understood not his disciples at the first: but when Jesus was glorified, then remembered they that these things were written of him, and that they had done these things unto him.
Looking carefully at the grammar here and you’ll see that not only were the disciples of Jesus present for His grand welcoming, but they were also among the people who threw down palm branches and shouted “Hosanna!” to the Lord as He entered Jerusalem. John says that the whole spectacle fulfilled the prophesy of Zechariah, but that was a fact lost to the crowd engaged in the celebration. Even the disciples did not understand at first that this scene was the fulfillment of half-millennia-old prophesy.
Later, when Jesus was about to ascend into Heaven (“glorified” John calls it), the Apostles were given fuller understanding (Luke 24:45) and looked back on this, and many other events, with Old Testament glasses and see how Jesus fulfilled the predictions of the Old Texts. In this case, they looked back on Jesus’ entry into the city and the things they had done unto Him (meaning the palm branches and the shouting of salvation) and saw how they had played an unintentional part in fulfilling Zechariah’s prophesy.
It’s important to remember that the disciples were not meaning to fulfill prophesy. They weren’t con men who just flipped through the Old Testament and went about trying to fulfill scriptures in order to pass over their leader, Jesus, as the Messiah. Instead, they were simply taking part in an act of reverence toward Jesus, blissfully unaware of the Old Testament ramifications of their actions.
It’s also the case that at least some of the disciples thought Jesus was going to be an earthly King that would restore the glory of Israel’s throne. That was a misconception they held throughout Jesus’ ministry, even after His death and resurrection. In fact they believed it until just moments before He ascended and gave them a fuller-understanding of His mission and theirs (Acts 1:6).
So when the disciples left Jesus’ side to join in with the crowd in welcoming “the King” to “His city” they probably thought this would be the beginning of His great reign and that they would have places of honor at the side of this great king (an issue that came up once or twice during Jesus’ ministry—Matthew 18:1, Matthew 20:20-24). This might explain why they would soon temporarily abandon Him when it became clear He had no intention of fighting for His cause like a typical revolutionary leader (Matthew 26:56).
The people therefore that was with him when he called Lazarus out of his grave, and raised him from the dead, bare record.
For this cause the people also met him, for that they heard that he had done this miracle.
The Pharisees therefore said among themselves, Perceive ye how ye prevail nothing? behold, the world is gone after him.
The reason the raising of Lazarus was such a tipping point for the religious leaders in their quest to be rid of Jesus, is due to the tremendous impact the miracle had on the people. John tells us here that those who witnessed Lazarus being called out of his grave “bare record” (literally “were testifying concerning it from then on”) of it from that time forward. In fact, the grammar of the words “bare record” imply that the witnesses of the miracle continued talking about it up to the time of John’s writing (some sixty years later).
As Jesus entered the city those who witnessed that miracle told everyone around them about it. They weren’t repeating the buzz that was going around town. They weren’t saying “have you heard…” It was much more than that; they were saying “This is He who raised the dead. I was there. I saw it happen!”
No amount of threatening or contrary propaganda from the Pharisees could sway those people to deny what they clearly witnessed. A man was dead for four days and then, at the command of Jesus, came out of his grave, raised from the dead. It was so remarkable there would be no forgetting it (and certainly no denying it).
The Lord’s fame was already significant, even before the great miracle of chapter eleven, and raising Lazarus was not the first miracle He did in the vicinity of Jerusalem (John himself previously wrote of Jesus’ healing of the paralyzed man and the blind man, both of which took place in the city itself). But the fact that it happened so close to Passover meant that many more would hear about it (and hear about it immediately after, too), since many were traveling into the city to take part in the festival.
John takes care to keep the enemies of Jesus on our minds as he mentions the Pharisees. No doubt they witnessed the crowd rushing to welcome the Lord with palm branches, and then later watched as even more flocked just to set their eyes on the Man. Filled with jealousy and hatred they whispered to one another, saying “perceive ye how ye prevail nothing?” In other words they cursed their own failed attempts over the past two years to diminish Jesus’ influence with the people. The word “perceive” means “look closely and see; examine for yourself!” The fact of their failure was staring them right in the face.
They added, “the world is gone after Him.” Such a statement reveals their petty jealousy. Before Jesus arrived, the people looked to them—the Pharisees, Sanhedrin, chief priests, scribes—for their religious guidance and help. They were “the leaders” of the people and they took great (literal) pride in their standing. They also greatly abused their standing, binding traditions of men as though they were doctrines of God.
Jesus came and taught only the Word of God, applying it in new ways, but teaching only it. The people naturally gravitated to the Word and to Jesus as the “Master Teacher” of it. Eliminating Jesus was not about executing a blasphemer or a false teacher; it was not about saving Judea from a Roman invasion. It was about power and influence: The leaders were losing it, Jesus was gaining it and something had to give.
The decision had been made: Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem would be his last.