John 12:9-22 – Palm Sunday
Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast June 17, 2007
Craig D. Atwood
Introduction: Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church in beautiful Winston-Salem, NC. I had the pleasure of meeting with some of the staff of Visit Winston-Salem recently and told them all the good things about the Moravian Church. If you haven’t seen our Visitors’ Center, stop in. It’s quite nice. Friday I led the lovefeast for the children in Old Salem’s Five Yesterdays program. The children were so cute in their Old Salem costumes and so sweet. By the way, I was working on this lesson Monday, just as a thunderstorm came up. We lost power for six hours. I hope that is not a sign of some sort.
Palm Sunday Today we have finally made it to Palm Sunday in John’s Gospel. In church one Palm Sunday, the preacher referred to the people having palms in their hands, and my young daughter commented that most people have palms in their hands. What’s so special about that? Another daughter often confuses Palm Sunday with Psalm Sunday, wondering why we sing palms.
A friend of mine was an associate pastor years ago working with a senior pastor who really liked to preach. So my friend only got to preach on the Sundays before or after major holidays. Instead of Christmas, he got First Advent. Instead of Easter, he preached on Palm Sunday. So, twice a year for several years, he had to preach on Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey. He told me he was pretty sick of that donkey by the time he left for another position. This is one of the problems with the liturgical year. There are some parts of the gospels that get preached to death and other parts largely ignored. I’m not sure there is much new that can be said about Palm Sunday, but this we will look at John’s version very closely and see that it gives a distinctive twist to this familiar scene.
Read: John 12:12-19
Distinctly John: This is one of the few stories that appears in all four canonical gospels; therefore historians can be fairly confident that Jesus did indeed come into Jerusalem riding on a donkey shortly before Passover. Church people are familiar with that story. What you may not know is that it is only the Gospel of John that says that this took place on a Sunday, five days before Passover. The anointing was six days before Passover, and the entry into Jerusalem was the next day. So, it is only because of John’s Gospel that the church observes Palm Sunday. Remember, Sunday was not a day of worship for Jesus. He would have spent the Sabbath in Bethany and completed his journey the next day, just as John recorded.
John is also the only gospel to tell us that people were waving palm branches during the procession. Mark and Matthew state that the crowds cut branches from the trees, but not that the branches were palms. Thus it is only because of John’s Gospel that the church observes “Palm” Sunday. The palms and the Sunday are unique to John.
Palms The palms are not a minor detail. John says that the crowd took palm branches from palm trees, using two different Greek words for palms, so that no one would miss the point. The problem with John’s statement is that there is no firm evidence that palm trees ever grew near Jerusalem. Palms grow to the south in the warm, fertile valleys. Today, most of the palms that pilgrims use in Jerusalem are imported from Jericho, and ancient records indicate that this was true in the time of Jesus, as well.
John’s description is so brief, yet detailed, that some scholars think that he was accurate about the palms but wrong about the date of the procession. Earlier we discussed the feast of Tabernacles, or Succoth, which is in the autumn. As part of that festival, worshipers would construct shelters out of branches, including palm fronds. They also approached Jerusalem in a procession while carrying myrtle, willow, and, you guessed it, palm branches. As the pilgrims approached the city, they recited out loud Psalm 118, which is quoted in all four gospels. John’s statement that people went out to greet Jesus carrying palms sounds more plausible for Tabernacles than for Passover. This has led a few scholars to propose that Jesus was actually executed in the autumn rather than the spring, but I think that places far too much weight on a palm branch.
The truth is that we do not know enough about Jerusalem in the time of Jesus to know for sure whether palm branches might have been carried at Passover, too. It is could be that the memories of Jesus’ final entry into Jerusalem at Passover became confused with one of the times that he and the disciples joined in the Tabernacles procession. Oral traditions are rather fluid. Remember, we’ve see in John’s gospel that Jesus visited Jerusalem several times during his ministry, which seems more likely than Mark’s account of a single, fateful visit.
Victory Palms: But there is another explanation for the palms at Passover. It is entirely possible that the evangelist put the palms in the story in order to make an important point about Jesus’ final trip to Jerusalem. There is strong evidence that palm fronds were a nationalistic symbol in Judea, much like the Star of David is in Israel today. For instance, when Judas Maccabeus rededicated the Temple in 164 BC, the people made a solemn procession to the Temple carrying palms. Other Jewish military victories were celebrated with palms, much the way Greeks used olive branches to symbolize victory (Brown, 461). A hundred years after Jesus, there was a Second Jewish Revolt against Rome, this one led by Simon bar Kosiba. He was successful enough to mint his own coins, which had palms on them. So, the palms here in John may have been connected to nationalistic hopes.
Even the phrase that the people went out to greet Jesus is evocative of Greek historical writing to describe the reception given to victorious kings entering a city. Putting all of this together, it seems safe to conclude (with Raymond Brown) that John is intentionally depicting the crowds as hailing Jesus as a conquering hero, a nationalistic liberator. Centuries later, the church still often calls this the Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem. It is probably not accidental that another book associated with the apostle John gives a vision of heaven in which a multitude from every nation was praising the Lamb of God and carrying palms (Rev. 7:9).
Hosanna! The four gospels agree that the crowds were shouting verses from Psalm 118, which was indeed used during the Passover procession. The evangelists all interpret these verses as applying directly to Jesus, but it is not clear what percentage of the people were shouting about Jesus or simply doing what one was supposed to do every Passover. This was actually antiphonal, with the incoming pilgrims shouting Hosanna (or Hosianna) and the people standing on the walls of the city shouting “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” Presumably, all of the pilgrims were being blessed, but Jesus’ disciples understood those words as applying uniquely to Jesus.
King David? John adds something interesting that is not found in Matthew or Luke, which are also late gospels. Mark says that the crowd shouted “Blessed is the coming of the kingdom of David our father,” which is blatantly messianic. It fits many features of Mark’s gospel, where Jesus was often called the Son of David. Mark also stresses the coming kingdom of God. It is curious that Matthew and Luke both omit this reference to the kingdom of David when they copied Mark’s story. This was presumably in order not to antagonize the Romans.
In John’s version, the crowds shouted that the one who comes in the name of the Lord is the King of Israel. The palms may have been a subtle indication that the crowd wanted to make Jesus king, but these words were quite aggressive. Right there in front of the Imperial guard, some in the crowd were calling for Jesus to be crowned. As the youth say today, the crowd was getting in the face of the Romans and the chief priests, at least according to John. Notice that there is no mention of King David in John’s version. John’s Gospel is distinct in that it does not proclaim Jesus as the descendent of David or call for the restoration of the Davidic monarchy. The crowd also calls for the King of Israel, not the King of the Jews. Could this reflect the pro-Samaritan aspect of John’s gospel or is this a call for the full restoration of Israel as it was originally before David?
The Donkey This brings us to another subtle, but important, difference between John and the other gospels: the donkey. All of the gospels agree that Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, but Matthew, Mark, and Luke say that Jesus himself gave explicit orders to two disciples to go and secure a donkey for him. In the synoptic gospels, it sounds like Jesus worked things out ahead of time, since the disciples were to look for a particular man and give him a codeword to get the beast of burden. Mark and his plagiarists were probably emphasizing Jesus’ prophetic knowledge, but the picture they paint is that Jesus planned to ride into Jerusalem in a way that would proclaim that he was the Messiah. The prophet Zechariah had referred to the messiah entering Zion triumphant and victorious, humbly riding on a donkey (Zech. 9:9). The whole entry into Jerusalem, according to the Synoptic gospels, was a bit of political theater that culminated at the Temple.
John tells the story of the donkey quite differently, and even quotes the Old Testament differently. Jesus “finds” the donkey, not the disciples, and he finds it after the crowd has rushed out to him. Finding a donkey was an odd response, and even the disciples did not understand it, according to John. The Zechariah prophecy was remembered after the fact. John adds an additional verse from Zechariah that puts an interesting spin on the whole scene.
Fear Not: John may have just gotten his prophets confused. He would not be the first or last person to confuse Zechariah and Zephaniah. I’ve done so myself on many occasions, including a quiz in seminary. But, let’s assume John knew what he was doing when he quoted Zephaniah ch. 3 – even though he was apparently quoting the text from memory. He wrote “Do not be afraid, O daughter of Zion,” but Zephaniah calls for the daughter of Zion to sing aloud, to rejoice and exult. Then he says “Do not be afraid, O Zion.” If you have trouble quoting Scripture literally, take comfort in the fact that John paraphrased himself. Clearly, though, he interpreted Palm Sunday through Zephaniah 3.
What makes this particularly interesting is that this prophecy of Zephaniah is about the conversion of the nations to the God of Israel. The curse of Babel will be reversed. All nations with one language will call on the name of the Lord. Israel will be restored, but not like the Jewish nationalists wanted. Under the true King, Israel will be humble before the Lord and seek refuge in God. The prophet says that “they will pasture and lie down and no one will make them afraid.”
In quoting Zephaniah, John depicts Jesus riding into Jerusalem as a king and savior, but not the king the crowd was looking for. Jesus was entering the city as the Good Shepherd, riding a donkey. He was a conqueror who had defeated death itself when he called Lazarus from the tomb. He was riding into Jerusalem as the one who would indeed restore the true Israel, but he was not going to claim the throne of David. He was going to offer up his life and draw all people to himself. Jesus was going to tear down the tower of Babel and remove the obstacles that divide nations. He would give people a new song, a song of victory over sin, death, and the power of evil. Hosanna!
Ignorance John includes an editorial comment that is simply brilliant in its honesty. He says that the disciples did not understand what Jesus was doing until after he was crucified. Then they remembered the events of Palm Sunday and recalled what the prophets had said. In other words, John does not pretend that he is a reporter on the scene recording what happened when Jesus’ magical mystery tour made it is final stop in the big city of Jerusalem. This was not CNN and John is not Wolf Blitzer. John honestly tells us that those events were memorable but confusing at the time. It was only in hindsight that it all came into focus. What is so delightful about this gospel is that the author includes ambiguity and irony even in a story like Palm Sunday. The evangelist leaves us to struggle with the meaning of these vignettes and teachings. Who is the King of Israel?
The Crowds Several times today I have mentioned the crowds. One commentator says that they function like a Greek chorus in John’s gospel. We know that the population of Jerusalem typically swelled from 25,000 to over 125,000 during the week of Passover, so clearly there was a crowd on Palm Sunday. The confusing thing is that John mentions more than one crowd. There was a large group who followed Jesus from Bethany to Jerusalem. They had come seeking Jesus because of the reports about Lazarus. This group probably included believers, scoffers, and the curious, and John uses it to show why the authorities were increasingly frightened of Jesus. As the lyrist Tim Rice wrote, “we are frightened by the crowd, they are getting much too loud.”
There was also a crowd of pilgrims coming into the city, which was different from the troupe following Jesus. And then there were those in the city who rushed out to greet Jesus. We can picture these streams of people meeting and merging, talking and arguing. We do not know how many people were actually involved, but we can understand the Pharisee’s concern that “the world has gone after him.” This statement was hyperbole at the time, but it was an important part of the evangelist’s vision.
The Greeks Most Bibles and commentaries end the story of the triumphal entry at verse 19, but I think it is helpful to go a little further. In Matthew and Luke, Jesus goes right to the Temple and starts throwing the money-changers around. John’s ending is so anticlimactic that it merits attention. After all of the hoopla and turmoil, some Greeks wanted to see Jesus. John places this minor incident right after the Pharisees complain that “all the world has gone to him.” We’ll discuss this more next week, but today I want to leave you with this picture. These were not Greek-speaking Jews. They were pagans and Gentiles. We do not know why they were at Jerusalem for the festival. Maybe they were just merchants selling palm fronds at premium prices, but they heard the good news and wanted to know more. These Greeks represent the promise of Zephaniah that the true king of Israel would bring the nations together, not through military conquest or economic imperialism, but by his teachings, his actions, his death and his resurrection. The Good Shepherd arrived riding on a donkey, ready to lay down his life for the sheep.