On Palm Sunday, the Christian Church begins its most sacred and holiest week of the year. This is not an arbitrary observation that the Church adopted over time. In fact, it was established by the Gospel writers themselves by the disproportionate amount of attention that each one devotes to this one week in the life of our Lord.
Out of curiosity I did the math. Matthew, Mark and Luke devote 23% to 30% of their gospels to this one week of our Lord’s life. John devotes a whopping 43% of his gospel just to this one week of Jesus’ life. No wonder then that as the Church reads the gospels, it’s attention becomes so focused on this one week in the life of its Lord that it observes this week as the sacred and holy week that it is.
So, here’s the plan for our observance of Holy Week in this year 2020 during this time of quarantine. Each day during this week, we’ll prepare an audio bible study that will review the events of that day as given us by the four gospel writers. On Monday, we’ll consider the events that the gospels tell us happened on Monday of Holy Week, and Tuesday, and so forth. Today, we consider the events of Palm Sunday.
John writes, “The next day the large crowd that had come to the feast heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem.” By beginning with the words, “the next day,” John wants to connect the events of Palm Sunday to the events of the previous day.
John writes, “Six days before the Passover, Jesus therefore came to Bethany where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead.” John informs us that “when the large crowd of Jews learned that Jesus was there, they came, not only on account of him but also to see Lazarus, who he had raised from the dead.”
It’s interesting that John says “THE” large crowd and not “A” large crowd. The definite article alerts us that this is a particular crowd of Jews. As we’ll hear in just a minute, this is THE crowd that was present at the tomb when Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. This is THE crowd that will follow Jesus out of Bethany to Jerusalem. They’ll meet another crowd coming in the opposite direction.
Now, “the next day…” That is, “the next day” after the previous day, which was “six days before the Passover.” That puts this “next day” at Sunday, the 10th of Nisan. That’s a very special day for Israel. This was the day that Moses had long ago instructed Israel to choose the lamb that it would sacrifice for the Passover. It had to be male, young, without blemish. For all of the Passover Seder meals that Israel had celebrated by choosing a lamb, killing it and then eating it – this one would be very different. This one would be the one that all the other Passovers pointed to.
John skips the backstory that Matthew, Mark and Luke include about Jesus sending two of his disciples into town to fetch a donkey and its colt. That is, two donkeys, the mother and its colt.
John shifts our attention from Bethany to Jerusalem, where notes, “…the large crowd that had come to the feast heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem.” They had come from all over the world to celebrate the Passover in the holy city at the Temple. The celebration of the Passover in Jerusalem was a festive and happy week with lots of worship and elaborate rituals to mark the holiday.
A standard part of Israel’s Passover worship was the singing of Psalm 118, just as we heard it. Especially verses 25 and 26, “Save us, we pray, O Lord! O Lord, we pray, give us success! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!” It’s helpful to know that the word “Save us” in Hebrew is “Hosanna.”
By the time of Jesus, an additional ritual had been added whereby the Priests would sing this Psalm while walking around the altar waiving palm branches, and the people would join in. By the time of Jesus, the palm tree had become a mark of national identity, like the eagle is for us.
“So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him crying out, ‘Hosanna, Blessed is he who come in the name of the Lord – even the King of Israel.” They are moving their worship at the Temple to the new temple – who is Jesus. But as they do, they add this bit of pent-up nationalistic hope that goes all the way back to David – “even the KING OF ISRAEL!” How hungry they were to have a King to rule over them instead of Caesar. How hungry they were to see the glory of Israel restored like it had been under David.
To get the whole picture of what happens next, we’ve got to see two, separate crowds converging together. John writes, “The crowd that had been with him when he called Lazarus out of the tomb and raised him from the dead…” – that’s the crowd that is accompanying the Lord from Bethany to Jerusalem. John tells us that this crowd “continued to bear witness!” They never stopped talking about what they had seen. And their reports had filtered throughout the city of Jerusalem so that many had heard the news.
There is a crowd that is going out from Jerusalem to Bethany, to see both Jesus and Lazarus. John writes, “The reason why the crowd went to meet him was that they heard he had done this sign.”
The buzz of excitement among those who were in Jerusalem must have been electric. So much so, that the Pharisees are utterly exasperated in their attempts to discourage the people from getting too caught up in Jesus. As they watch these crowds going to see Jesus, “The Pharisees said to one another, ‘You see that you are gaining nothing. Look, the whole world has gone after him.”
The crowd accompanying Him from Bethany and the crowd coming out of Jerusalem converge at the Mount of Olives and they all join together in their joyous song of praise. “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!”
It is at this point that Jesus employs those two donkeys that He had sent His disciples ahead to fetch. It’s clearly the colt that Jesus intends to ride. The mother is probably brought also just because the colt would not have come without its mother. John writes, “And Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it…”
Our Lord has made this two mile journey from Bethany to Jerusalem countless times. Never do we hear that He required an animal of any kind to ride. Why now? John writes, “Just as it is written, ‘fear not, daughter of Zion; behold, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt.’”
The reference is to the prophet Zechariah who had seen the day when God’s people would welcome their coming King with shouts of joy. By riding the colt, the foal of a donkey, Jesus wants to make it clear that He is the fulfillment of Zechariah’s prophecy. He is the King who will deliver His people from every enemy and establish His kingdom of perfect and everlasting peace.
St. Luke makes mention that Jesus had told His disciples to go into a village where they would find ‘a colt tied, on which no one has ever sat.’ In several places, the Old Testament commands that animals selected for sacred purposes cannot have been used. In addition to that, the cart that carried the ark of the covenant where God Himself was located between the Cheribim over the mercy seat, had to be a ‘new cart’ that is, one that had never been used.
This colt that had never been ridden was now being used for the most sacred mission any donkey would ever have. On this day, this most blessed of all donkeys in the history of the world, would be the unused cart that would carry the true Ark of the Covenant.
John ends his account of Palm Sunday right there. He warns us not to get too caught up in the euphoria however by telling us that “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.”
So if the disciples of Jesus didn’t “understand these things” at the time, then certainly the crowds that are praising Him and acclaiming Him to be their King don’t understand either.
A year before this, after He had fed the 5,000, they had tried to make Him KING, but “he withdrew to the mountain by himself.” (John 6:15). But now the time had fully come. In their enthusiasm, the crowds acclaim Him to be, “even the king of Israel” – completely ignorant that this would be the very charge that would be used against Him and that would have Him crucified by the end of the week.
Seeing all of this just as clearly as He saw it before the creation of the world, Jesus does NOT react as we would expect. Luke writes, “And when he drew near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, ‘Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes…” (Luke 19:41-42). What a contrast! The crowds rejoice while the One they rejoice over weeps.
He has come to be their King alright. But His rule will not be like any other king. He will rule the world in meekness and lowliness. “He who did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, made Himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to point of death, even death on a cross.” (Phil.2:6-8) None of this did these crowds understand.
When He finally arrives in the city, it’s late in the day. St. Mark writes, “And he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple. And when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.” (Mark 11:11) Tomorrow, He will return and do some housecleaning.
This is Palm Sunday. For all that the disciples and the crowds did NOT understand about what took place on this day, first and foremost was that they had chosen their Lamb for the Passover sacrifice. He is male, young and without blemish. On the 14th of Nissan, they would sacrifice this Lamb. And as His blood will mark the beam and lintel of the cross. And God will do His greatest work ever – delivering them, AND US, from sin, death and the devil, and bringing them and us into His kingdom of righteousness, life and the His presence – once and for all.