Palm Sunday: On to Jerusalem
Jesus and his disciples departed from Bethany to Jerusalem, which was not a great distance. He would spend the next few days in and around the city teaching the people before the Passover Feast. As they neared the city, Jesus sent two of his disciples ahead to Bethpage (meaning “house of the early figs”) to fetch a donkey colt, which had never been ridden — a picture perhaps of consecration to God. He gives them specific instructions about where to find the animal and what to say if challenged. These disciples find the colt as promised are challenged and give the appropriate response.
Once they returned to Jesus with the animal, he rides into Jerusalem the same way he had come to nearby Bethlehem (meaning “house of bread”) years before on the back of a donkey. It would have been a warm spring day on a Sunday around the year 30 when he rode into Jerusalem. At just the time when the Jews were hoping for a Messianic King to come and overthrow the Roman government, Jesus rides into the city as a picture of humility on the back of a donkey, setting the stage with paradox and irony… more will follow in the week ahead. If they could have seen it, they might have known that His Kingdom was not as they had expected it to be: he didn’t come on a horse waving a sword and prepared to kill, but on a donkey, prepared to die.
The Maccabean wars had been fought to re-take control of Jerusalem, ending in victory for the Maccabees against all reasonable odds. While overrun, the temple had been desecrated and it had to be cleansed and rededicated, which the Maccabees did after riding into Jerusalem with palm branches being waved and thrown on the road in front of the victory procession. This parallel to what was about to transpire could not have been missed by the people of the first century, who were looking for a messiah to overthrow the Roman occupation. Not exactly what Jesus had in mind.
Zechariah 9:9 says,
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.
The city of Jerusalem was already beginning to bustle with Passover activity. The Feast of Passover was as big a celebration to the first century Jewish people as Christmas is today, complete with pilgrimages, overflowing shopping malls, and neverending “to-do” lists before the holiday. During the Passover celebration, one of the hymns commonly sung included the line, “Blessed his He who comes in the name of the Lord!”
As Jesus enters the city, the people, starting with the disciples, begin to praise him, waving palm branches and laying down their coats on the ground for the donkey to walk on. The readiness of the crowds to receive Jesus in this way shows his popularity with the people, who had perhaps heard of the raising of Lazarus recently in Bethany. The people cry “Hosanna to the Son of David!” and “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” “Hosanna” means “save us,” and their praises are Messianic in nature, seeming to indicate that they are in fact about to receive him as the promised Messiah… although other events are about to unfold.