Mark 10 completes Jesus’s journey to Jerusalem, and Mark 11 begins with His entry into the city, which is often described as the ‘triumphal entry’. Although in chapters 9 and 10 Mark has been telling us about a succession of teaching opportunities, and we’ve looked at two or three of them, he has also been drawing attention to this journey, its destination and purpose, throughout chapters 9 and 10: 9.30, they went on… and passed through Galilee, but secretly, He did not want anyone to know, for He was teaching His disciples—He could not be distracted from His teaching work by crowds demanding miracles; 9.33 they came to Capernaum, and more teaching of the disciples there; 10.1 He left there and went… beyond the Jordan, where He taught about divorce and childlike faith; 10.17 as He was setting out on His journey He calls the rich young ruler to follow Him; 10.32 they were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them, as though He had an appointment to keep; in 10.33 Jesus reminds the disciples we are going up to Jerusalem; 10.46, they came to Jericho, and as he was leaving Jericho with his disciples and a great crowd—as though He had no time to stop so the crowd walks with Him at least a little way, and blind Bartimaeus, unlike the rich young ruler, does follow Jesus on the way; then in 11.1 as he approaches Bethany, a mile or so from the city gate, He prepares to enter the city where, as He has three times told the disciples during the journey, He will be put to death.
Most of us know the story of his entry into Jerusalem that day pretty well. Palm Sunday used to be pretty much a Roman-Catholic only celebration; Protestants dropped it at the Reformation. These days, though, many churches celebrate it by having everyone wave palms. The palms are actually the least important part of the day, as we’ll see, so let’s make sure we understand all that’s going on.
In 11.1 Mark tells us that Jesus sent two disciples into Bethany, and tells them exactly where they will find a ‘colt’, which in Greek can mean either a young horse or a young donkey—the context makes clear that donkey is what’s intended, so it should be translated ‘foal’—one that has never been ridden, and they are to untie it and bring it to Him. If anyone questions them, they are to say The Lord has need of it and will send it back here immediately. The disciples find the colt, are questioned, but the explanation Jesus told them to give is accepted and they bring Jesus the colt. Luke’s account is almost identical, except that there is no promise to return the colt. In Matthew’s account, it is a colt and a ‘son of’ a donkey, and there is no promise to return them. In John’s account, Jesus simply ‘finds’ a young donkey. So a lot of variation on how Jesus got the donkey; but no mistaking the bottom line: Jesus wanted and got a foal, a young donkey.
Mark then tells us that ‘they’, the two disciples, put their cloaks on the animal, and Jesus sat on it. Then ‘many’ spread cloaks on the road for the animal to walk on, while ‘others’ spread ‘long grass’ (‘leafy branches’ is not what Mark says) in the same way. Then presumably Jesus begins to ride the donkey towards Jerusalem, because those going before and those following are shouting Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David! Hosanna in the highest! Then He enters Jerusalem and goes into the Temple. Luke tells almost the same story, except that there is no grass (no palms either), the disciples are the ones shouting Hosanna, and some Pharisees who are watching tell Jesus to keep the disciples quiet. Matthew’s version implies that Jesus somehow sat on both animals, and talks about branches from the trees rather than grass (still no palms). John’s account is where we get the palms, and is different in other ways: the crowd comes out of Jerusalem with palm branches looking for Jesus, and He seems to find the donkey and ride it in response.
Again, we’re forced by the variation in the details to concentrate on the bottom line, that Jesus rode the donkey into Jerusalem to shouts of Hosanna etc, while the disciples and people lay their the cloaks on the ground. John’s palms seem to function in the same way as the cloaks, which I’ll explain in a minute, so he’s telling the same basic story, but where he got the palm element from we don’t know. It’s possible some people had palm branches, but it wouldn’t have been many; for the feast of Tabernacles, which required palm branches, they had to bring them from the coast, because palms didn’t grow in Jerusalem. And Jesus is doing this in Passover week, in the spring, while the feast of Tabernacles is in the fall. So the palms are really a pretty minor and obscure part of the story.
The major part of the story is that Jesus and His disciples are making a very significant statement in this business with the donkey; Jesus by riding on the animal, and the disciples by their cloaks and Hosannas of praise, in both of which the crowd joins them. Let me explain the significance, because while it would have been very obvious to everyone present on that day, to us all these centuries later, it’s by no means so clear. What Jesus is doing is saying ‘I’m the Messiah’, and what the disciples are doing is saying ‘we believe He’s the Messiah’.
Remember how we’ve seen in Mark what scholars call the Messianic secret: Jesus not letting His rôle as the Messiah be discussed. He’s specifically told the disciples to tell no one, once they understood Who He was, and he often told those whom He healed to tell no one about their healing, in case people began to think He was the Messiah. Now, as He prepares to enter Jerusalem, this changes. It’s time to announce Who He is, and to do so in a very special way. His words when He told the disciples what to say if anyone question their taking of the foal, the Lord has need of it, were the beginning; it must have been a pretty clear signal to the disciples that the ‘say nothing to anyone’ policy had been abandoned. Jesus’s use of the title Lord of Himself could mean either that He is the Lord, or acts with the authority of the Lord, and by telling the disciples to use the word publicly, it’s clear that He is ready to be acclaimed as the Messiah, and the ride on the donkey does exactly that. It isn’t obvious to us how that worked, but it certainly was to the people of Jerusalem.
This was the beginning of Passover week, and Jerusalem would already have been filling up with people making their pilgrimage to the feast. And we’re not talking just a handful of people; according to some pretty reliable scholars, hundreds of thousands of Jews came to Jerusalem for the Passover, and the journey there was a pilgrimage, which had its own special rules. Walking was part of the pilgrimage; to ride on a donkey in this pilgrimage was a dramatic departure from normal practice, and could have had only one meaning: this person thinks he’s the Messiah. That’s not obvious to us, but it was to everyone there. Everyone knew that David had fled from Jerusalem by donkey when his rebellious son Absalom had seized the government and driven him out; and God had promised that when the Messiah, the obedient Son of David, came, he would come by donkey as he took the city back. Matthew even quotes the prophecy in his account.
Verse 8 makes it clear that many of the pilgrims understood this meaning, and as they joined in the disciples’ response to Jesus’s action, Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David, Jesus’s ride would have turned into a spectacular demonstration. The road across the valley between Bethany and Jerusalem is visible from the walls of the city the whole way; and with the city already crowded with pilgrims, there would have been plenty of people watching from the walls as well as all those people on the road and camping out in tent cities by the road. The Hosannas, and the cloaks on the road, were a response to Jesus’s fulfilment of the ancient messianic prophecy, Behold, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on an ass, and on a colt, the foal of an ass, a response that says ‘the promised Messiah is here!’ That’s also why they spread their cloaks on the road for the donkey to walk on. This was as familiar as the ‘red carpet’ of our own day: in II Kings 9:13, you can read about people laying their cloaks on the steps of Jerusalem as Jehu walks up them to be anointed as King. During the early 20th century, when Palestine was a British protectorate, people would occasionally lay down clothes for the horses of British officials to ride on. The tall grass was perhaps like hay, to keep the road clean. These actions are an explicit acknowledgement of Jesus’s acted messianic claim. Jesus made His approval of this act of praise very clear: when the Pharisees mentioned by Luke tell Him to keep the disciples quiet, He replies if they were to keep quiet, the very stones of the street would cry out. This parade has eternal spiritual significance.
Until now Jesus has been reluctant to claim the messiahship; now He claims it as explicitly and as publicly as possible. Why? Obviously it was not because He thought it was essential for us to know He was the Messiah in order to be saved by Him. If we were saved by knowing that, He would hardly have passed up so many other opportunities to make it clear. To understand why it was necessa to make this claim, we must remind ourselves of what Jesus had told the disciples that His purpose was. Jesus had told the disciples that He was indeed the promised Messiah, but that the Messiah was not coming to bring political freedom, but spiritual freedom, and for that He had to do one thing only: to die. Four times we’ve seen it already in Mark: 8.31, 9.31, 10.33, and 10.45. In 10.33, He told the disciples that this visit to Jerusalem that they are now making is the time when it will happen: we are going up to Jerusalem; and the Son of man will be delivered to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death. In 10.45 He explains why: the Son of man… came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.
Jesus came to Jerusalem to be killed, and His actions on what we call Palm Sunday made His death certain. He is already carrying His cross, digging His own grave. Quite deliberately, knowing exactly what He was doing, Jesus set in motion, with that donkey, the train of events that would lead to Good Friday. The response of the Jerusalem authorities would have to be His death, because otherwise their own security would be forfeit. The High Priest was the man through whom the Romans ran things in Jerusalem; he was the go-between for the Jewish people and their Roman rulers. If anything happens that the Romans regard as disorder, he loses his job. High Priests had been deposed by the Romans not long before for just such things. John’s account is explicit: the chief priests say What are we to do? For this man performs many signs. If we let Him go on thus, everyone will believe in Him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation. And the high priest, Caiaphas, draws his famous conclusion, It is expedient that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation should not perish.
Jesus knew that His messianic claim would be misunderstood; He knew that people expected an earthly ruler, not a spiritual one. So while He was teaching His disciples the truth about Who He was, He downplayed all references to His messiahship. But now He had taught enough, and the time had come to die. And He could ensure His death by the simple step of claiming His messiahship, knowing that when the people hailed Him as Messiah, the Romans would see them acclaiming Him as King, a threatened coup d’état, and they would treat Him accordingly. Indeed, there was a man called Barabbas in jail on that very charge awaiting execution. Jesus knew that the High Priest would be bound by political considerations to seek His death at the hands of the Romans; if not, the High Priest himself might be suspected of sympathizing with a rebel.
And of course the High Priest would have to be the one to hand Jesus over to those who would kill Him. After all, it was the essence of the priestly rôle to deliver the death blow to the animals to be sacrificed, and it was the High Priest’s task to offer the three great sacrifices of the Jewish year, and on the day of atonement he entered the Holy of Holies with the blood of the atoning sacrifice and sprinkled it on the Mercy Seat. Jesus had come to give His life as a ransom, an atoning sacrifice, for many; who else should offer Him up but the High Priest? So Jesus took the step that would leave the High Priest no choice. In the events of Good Friday, Jesus sometimes seems like the helpless one, but in reality He is in total control. Everything that is happening is happening because He initiated it. The High Priest, and Pilate, and the Roman soldiers, are the ones who are helpless, carrying out the tasks for which they were programmed. And ironically, the High Priest, in acting to protect His job, loses it: the epistle to the Hebrews say that Jesus offered the atoning sacrifice once for all when He offered up Himself (7:27). What looked like the High Priest offering the Messiah to the Romans was in fact Jesus becoming our great High Priest, offering Himself for the sins of the world. Well have Christians throughout history summed up that Scripture by speaking of Jesus as both priest and victim.
On Palm Sunday Jesus wrote His own death sentence. On Good Friday it would be carried out. On Easter Sunday, the new life that Christ’s death made possible would begin!