Episode 116 - Sunday: The “Triumphal” Entry, part 1
Hi I’m Josh Hawkins, this is episode 116 of Opening Up the Gospels. In the last episode I gave a short introduction to Passion Week, the final week of Jesus’ life as narrated by the Gospels before His crucifixion in Jerusalem in April of 29AD, and today we’re going to jump right in to the events beginning on the opening Sunday of the week. The church often calls this day “Palm Sunday” because of how the crowds greet Jesus as He enters into Jerusalem. Also, the scene we’re going to look at today is sometimes called “the triumphal entry”, but as I’ll mention later on, I believe that is a bit of a misnomer. This scene is detailed in Matthew 21, Mark 11, Luke 19, and John 12, but I’m going to read John’s Gospel to get us started:
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!”
(John 12:12–15 ESV)
John says it was “the next day” when the crowds who had come to the Passover heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. The previous day was when the Sabbath ended at sundown, a Saturday night according to our modern reckoning, when Mary of Bethany poured her ointment all over Jesus at the dinner at Simon the Leper’s house in Bethany. So quite likely sometime on Sunday afternoon, Jesus makes the short trip from Bethany to Jerusalem, with throngs of people following Him. The crowds in Bethany were the ones who had accompanied Him from Jericho, and as we talked about in Episode 114, there were also crowds from Jerusalem that had come to see Jesus in Bethany because they had heard about Lazarus being raised from the dead. Now on this route, Jesus was near both Bethphage and Bethany, just east of the Mount of Olives, which is just east of the city of Jerusalem. Luke’s Gospel adds a few more details to this scene, so let’s read from Luke 19:
"And when he had said these things, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem. When he drew near to Bethphage and Bethany, at the mount that is called Olivet, he sent two of the disciples, saying, “Go into the village in front of you, where on entering you will find a colt tied, on which no one has ever yet sat. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ you shall say this: ‘The Lord has need of it.’ ” So those who were sent went away and found it just as he had told them. And as they were untying the colt, its owners said to them, “Why are you untying the colt?” And they said, “The Lord has need of it.” And they brought it to Jesus, and throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. And as he rode along, they spread their cloaks on the road."
(Luke 19:28–36 ESV)
Jesus sends two of His disciples ahead of Him and tells them that they will find a donkey tied up that no one has yet sat on. And sure enough, they go ahead and find it exactly as the Lord had told them. How glorious is Jesus? This is the Creator of everything, the One who understands and perceives the hearts of all men, the One who holds the very life and breath of every living thing in His hand - surely nothing is out of His sight or out of His knowledge. Now they brought the colt to Jesus, and He rode on it toward the city, showing that the prophecies of Isaiah 40:9 and Zechariah 9:9 were true - the people should not fear because God was going to restore Jerusalem, and that final king of Israel would come to the people sitting on a young donkey. Jesus is showing the people of Israel that He really is the one they are expecting according to the Law and the Prophets. And as He’s going along, the people are laying out their cloaks on the dusty roads and waving palm branches in their hands. They’re setting up a carpet as it were with their cloaks, which was a common act of homage to a king, and they are waving palm branches, a nationalist symbol with historical roots in the Maccabean Revolt as well as Jewish apocalyptic literature. They’re crying “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”, quoting Psalm 118. They know the Old Testament, and they really believe that Jesus is that promised son of David, the king who will come and crush Israel’s enemies and establish an everlasting kingdom from Jerusalem that will rule all the nations of the earth per the promises in 2 Samuel 7. It’s why all the Gospels use the phrases: “Son of David”, “the coming kingdom of our father David”, “the King who comes in the name of the Lord”, and “the king of Israel”. Jesus is taking all of this in - He's not correcting them and telling them their expectations are misguided and that He really has a spiritual kingdom, He’s not saying that He’s here to rework and reimagine everything they hoped for. In fact, look what He says to the Pharisees here:
And some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples.” He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out.”
(Luke 19:39–40 ESV)
Jesus is saying “yes, it is right that these people are lauding me as the son of David, as the one who will bring to pass everything that God has promised. I can’t tell them to be quiet, because if they were, even the rocks would cry out.” With that proverb, Jesus is saying that He approves of what they are saying about Him. Though as we will see in the next episode, He definitely does not approve of their response to that truth. For Israel had largely not borne the fruits of repentance as He was looking for.
So just picture this scene. There are SO many people. The Jewish historian Josephus said that the population of Jerusalem could swell to up to three million during the feasts. Many think that this number is a bit of an exaggeration, but nonetheless, even if only one million people were there, that was certainly remarkable when considering the size of the city and the population statistics of the first century. So you have the crowd coming from Jericho with Jesus, then you have the crowd who had gathered in Bethany with Jesus, and finally you have the crowd coming out of Jerusalem to see Jesus. These groups are all converging on the road, and that’s where they all cry "Hosanna!”.
Now there’s a very common misunderstanding that’s often preached and talked about related to the crowds here. I’ve heard some say that on Sunday, the crowds loved Jesus and said “hey, we want you to be the king! We love you!", and then all of a sudden three or four days later, they all turn on Him and say “hey, we hate you! Crucify Him! Crucify Him!” That is definitely NOT what happened. Their enthusiasm didn’t change to bitter hatred over the course of a few days. It’s so important to see that there were two crowds, both with very different sentiments toward Jesus. The first crowd was the excited crowd. That included the people that had come with Jesus to the Passover feast from the north, the people whom He had met in Jericho and then in Bethany, and the people that had come to Jerusalem already for the feast, who were from all across the dispersion. They had come out to see Him after hearing He was on His way into the city. The second crowd, the crowd that wanted to kill Jesus and who shouted “crucify Him!” was group of people who actually lived in Jerusalem who were loyal to the Pharisees and Jewish authorities, and had been bitter toward Jesus for the past two years. They were the ones who wanted to stone Jesus for blaspheming as we saw several times earlier in the Gospels. Most of them had certainly NOT gone out to meet Jesus on this day. Does that make sense? Yet again we see a division between the people. There was no great turning of sentiment that happened that week. Without seeing the larger story of what’s going on in the Gospels, it’s easy to think otherwise. John’s Gospel makes this even more clear:
"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. The crowd that had been with him when he called Lazarus out of the tomb and raised him from the dead continued to bear witness. The reason why the crowd went to meet him was that they heard he had done this sign."
(John 12:16–18 ESV)
I believe Jesus knew that the fanaticism of the crowds on this day was just shallow excitement. They were sincere, but Jesus knew that He was not going in to be installed as the king just as they thought He was. So in this sense, I think that the term “triumphal entry” that is typically attached to this scene is a bit of a misnomer. Though the Bible doesn’t use that language, that’s just what it’s been called throughout church history. Jesus was not entering the city in triumph or victory at all. The crowds may have thought He was going in to take up His throne, but as He and a few precious others like Mary of Bethany well knew, He was going into the city to lay down His life.
Well there’s more to talk about related to this scene, so be sure to come back for the next episode where we’ll look at Jesus’ reaction as He approaches the city and what He does as He enters it. In the meantime, find all of the past episodes in this series on my website, www.joshuahawkins.com/gospels. God bless, see you then.