Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German pastor and theologian before and during the Nazi regime in Germany. At first, he scoffed at the idea that Hitler would ever come to power, and then when Hitler became Chancellor of Germany, Bonhoeffer did all he could to stand up to the evil that the Nazi’s were perpetrating against the Jews and others. He challenged the church to take a stand for what was right, but the rising tide of nationalism and fear silenced most of the church. Bonhoeffer was a voice in the wilderness. In the months just prior to the start of the second World War, he returned to America to lecture. Some of his American friends were eager to rescue him from the inevitable fate of those who were speaking against the government. Bonhoeffer quickly realized that he had made a mistake in coming to America in the summer of 1939. He stayed for about five weeks. Bonhoeffer decided that his place was to suffer with those true Christians in his own country. He was later sentenced to death for conspiring against Hitler. Just weeks before the end of the war, he along with five others were hanged, after having spent 18 months in a concentration camp.
Crisis can come swiftly, or it can grow and gather strength until it’s like a tidal wave breaking into life. It can be personal illness, a financial disaster, a relationship breakdown, a test of faith. It can strike us when we feel least prepared. It can paralyze us, like it did the disciples in Gethsemane when they were unable to handle the arrest of Jesus, even though they had been forewarned.
How often over the years have we looked at Palm Sunday as a day of triumph and celebration? But what was really happening? What was happening in the heart of our Lord? Palm Sunday was a time of incredible tension leading up to the ultimate moment when Jesus would be crucified. Though it was a moment of celebration, it was also a moment of escalating crisis.
John’s gospel travels over the mounting storm leading to the crucifixion. Jesus had been summoned to come to the home of his friends, Lazarus, Martha and Mary in Bethany. There was a severe medical crisis in their lives.
“Now a man named Lazarus was sick. He was from Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. (This Mary, whose brother Lazarus now lay sick, was the same one who poured perfume on the Lord and wiped his feet with her hair.) So the sisters sent word to Jesus, ‘Lord, the one you love is sick (John 11:1-3).’”
As the event plays out, we find that Jesus doesn’t immediately respond to the need as they thought He should. We could say much about that fact. How often do we wonder when we are in crisis and God doesn’t immediately come to our rescue? The question that comes to mind is, ‘where are you, Lord? Or why is this happening to me, Lord?’ We can even question God’s love for us. Notice in this text that this is not the issue. God’s love is enduring and immediately we see that despite the delay, Jesus’ love for these friends. “Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. Yet when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days (John 11:5-6).”
We can determine from this text that God’s timetable and our timetable are different. What did God have in mind? Jesus gives us a glimpse earlier when he stated that this sickness wouldn’t end in death. “When he heard this, Jesus said, ‘This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it (John 11:4).” God had something even more profound, more powerful in mind in this situation. Not only would God be glorified through this powerful resurrection from the dead, but it would cause a deeper level of faith to arise in the hearts of His followers and bring others to faith. God often does things in our lives, not only for our own sake, but also for the sake of others.
So then he told them plainly, ‘Lazarus is dead, and for your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him (John 11:14-15). We cannot fully understand Palm Sunday without this context and incident that happened just days before the triumphal entrance of Jesus to Jerusalem. Here we see the tension and response between those who believe in Jesus and those who don’t and are threatened by him. What we discover is the power of love winning over death. Yet in that moment of supreme victory, we see the shadow of the cross looming before Jesus.
Notice how intense the situation was at that time in Jesus life. Jesus suggested to his disciples that they go to Bethany and wake Lazarus, the disciples immediately realize how dangerous that idea is. “Then Thomas (called Didymus) said to the rest of the disciples, ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him’ (John 11:16).”
In other words, Jesus’ life was at risk, and the disciples understood that. This act of Jesus in raising Lazarus from the dead becomes the triggering event leading to his own death. Jesus is willing to sacrifice his life for his friend’s life. However, the good news is that this is not only true for Lazarus but for all of us (cf. Romans 5:8). It is a crystalizing moment. Raising Lazarus from the dead, brings some to faith, but for others it only reveals the hardness of their hearts. “Therefore many of the Jews who had come to visit Mary, and had seen what Jesus did, put their faith in him. But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done (John 11:45-46).” These particular Pharisees were part of the religious leadership of the day. So they call for a meeting of the Sanhedrin (their parliament). It is there that they discuss the implications of what Jesus was doing. They were afraid that they would lose their positions of authority under the Romans. “If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our Temple and our nation. Then one of them, named Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, spoke up, ‘You know nothing at all! You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish. He did not say this on his own, but as high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the Jewish nation, and not only for that nation but also for the scattered children of God, to bring them together and make them one. So from that day on they plotted to take his life (John 11:48-53.”
Jesus was aware of the danger of going to Bethany. Bethany was only two miles from Jerusalem and he knew that he was a threat to those who were in leadership. John tells us that right after the miracle, Jesus withdrew from the crowds to the edge of the wilderness. “Therefore Jesus no longer moved about publicly among the Jews. Instead he withdrew to a region near the desert, to a village called Ephraim, where he stayed with his disciples (John 11:54.”
The raising of Lazarus was the catalyst that caused the leadership of the Jewish nation to make an evil decision. Now they were awaiting the opportunity to carry it out. The only thing that the leaders of the nation lacked was the whereabouts of Jesus. They were asking for help in locating him. John then moves us from the resurrection of Lazarus, to the anointing of Jesus, which triggers Judas decision to betray Jesus. “Six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus lived, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. Here a dinner was given in Jesus’ honor. Martha served, while Lazarus was among those reclining at the table with him. Then Mary took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume (John 12:1-3).”
These events are now creating a response from people, which reveals their heart condition. Our response to each incident in our life is really a revelation of the true nature of our heart’s condition. This incident now reveals Judas’ spiritual condition. “But one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, who was later to betray him, objected, why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages (John 12:4-5).” John now tells us what was motivating his criticism of this action. “He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it (John 12:6).”
It’s this event that triggers within Judas an action that he will later deeply regret. New Testament scholar, Merrill Tenney shares this insight:
…Jesus failure to claim royal titles and prerogatives for Himself when He exercised miraculous powers may have been the underlying cause for Judas’ perfidy [betrayal of trust]. Contrary to the disciples’ expectation of an outward political coup, Jesus carefully refrained from making any pronouncements on issues of state; He talked instead to his disciples about surrendering Himself to death. Possibly Judas felt frustrated because the kingdom that he had anticipated was not about to materialize. If the kingdom were not to be immediately manifested, his relation to Jesus had put him in the position of gaining nothing and losing everything. Not only would he fail to obtain a post in a new realm, but he would, upon Jesus’ death, be put under suspicion as a rebel. If he should take the alternative of betraying Jesus, he would profit financially and would square himself with the victorious priests.”
So why did Jesus go to Jerusalem knowing that this would lead to His death? What is the real significance of Jesus entrance into Jerusalem on what we now call Palm Sunday? I see three elements that reveal the significance of this moment in the life of Jesus.
Jesus gives a Demonstration of his Identity
This moment was another opportunity for people to understand who Jesus is and what he came to do. In fulfilment of the Scriptures, Jesus has his disciples go and secure a colt for him to ride triumphantly into the city of Jerusalem. “The next day the great crowd that had come for the Feast heard that Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem. They took palm branches and went out to meet him, shouting, ‘Hosanna!’ ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!’ ‘Blessed is the King of Israel!’ Jesus found a young donkey and sat upon it, as it is written,
‘Do not be afraid, O Daughter of Zion [another name for Jerusalem];
see, your king is coming, seated on a donkey’s colt’ (John 12:12-15).”
The disciples would later understand what was now happening to Jesus. He was fulfilling this Old Testament prophecy. John is quoting from the prophet Zechariah 9:9 about the coming king to save his people. This is made very clear from the context of Zechariah. The very next verse in Zechariah reads: “I will take away the chariots from Ephraim and war-horses from Jerusalem, and the battle bow will be broken. He will proclaim peace to the nations. His rule will extend from sea to sea and the River to the ends of the earth (Zechariah 9:10).”
These people knew these texts of Scripture and had longed for this great king to come and deliver them. Jesus is entering as that King that will take away their oppression and bring peace to the nations. Their cries of ‘Hosanna’ which literally means ‘Save Now’ speaks to their understanding of the significance of this moment. The cry was for immediate deliverance. The significance of Jesus riding into the city of Jerusalem on a donkey is that this hour had come. Jesus was coming to bring peace in a way that they didn’t grasp. How often our expectations of what God is supposed to do is different than what he actually does. When that happens, we become disillusioned. The people’s expectation was for a king making war against their enemies. By riding on a donkey rather than a horse, Jesus was giving them a different message than what they were anticipating. However, just like the kings of old coming for their coronation, Jesus was riding on a donkey. We read of the account of King Solomon’s coronation ceremony that he came riding on a mule. “So Zadok the priest, Nathan the prophet, Benaiah son of Jehoiada, the Kerethites and the Pelethites went down and put Solomon on King David’s mule and escorted him to Gihon. Zadok the priest took the horn of oil from the sacred tent and anointed Solomon. Then they shouted, ‘Long live, King Solomon (1 Kings 1:38-39).”
Jesus kingdom is a spiritual kingdom. What he came to do was destroy the power behind the powers that be. Jesus came to destroy the power of sin and death. He came to give an abundant and unending life. Jesus came to ultimately destroy the power that was empowering the Roman Empire. Rome brought peace through the death of others; Jesus was coming to give peace through His own, substitutionary death.
A Declaration of Jesus’ Purpose.
Actions often have a significance that transcends words. In other words, talk is often cheap, but when we see things being lived out, we eventually get the message.
A. The reason why Jesus needed to make this declaration.
Even his own followers were not getting the message. Later they would. They would see in Jesus actions a fulfilment of the Scriptures. “At first his disciples did not understand all this. Only after Jesus was glorified did they realize that these things had been written about him and that these things had been done to him. As Jesus is approaching the city with the people from Bethany who have witnessed this incredible miracle of the raising Lazarus from the dead, a huge crowd from the city are on their way out to meet Jesus. Now the crowd that was with him when he called Lazarus from the tomb and raised him from the dead continued to spread the word. Many people, because they had heard that he had performed this sign, went out to meet him (John 12:16-18).”
John now gives us insight into the thinking of the leaders. “So the Pharisees said to one another, ‘See, this is getting us nowhere. Look how the whole world has gone after him!’ (John 12:19).”
B. Jesus extends their understanding of the scope of His mission.
What Jesus is about to do will move beyond the sphere of the Jewish nation. Jesus is not just the King and Savior of the Jews, He is the Savior of the world. John introduces this idea for us when some Greeks, non-Jewish people request to see Jesus. “Now there were some Greeks among those who went up to worship at the Feast. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, with a request. ‘Sir,’ they said, ‘we would like to see Jesus. Philip went to tell Andrew; Andrew and Philip in turn told Jesus (John 12:20-22).”
We never find out what their request is, but what we have is an introduction to the idea that Jesus death is for all humanity. Jesus now explains the purpose of what the Messiah is about to do. How he is going to bring peace to them. “Jesus replied, ‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be. My Father will honor the one who serves me’ (John 12:23-26).”
What is true in the natural is also true in the spiritual. Seeds only produce once they are planted, die and then reproduce more than they are. Here Jesus is about to die so others might have life. This is also a model of what he expects of us, His followers. That we will follow Him along the same path of laying down our lives for the sake of others. This may mean physical death, but more often it is simply laying aside our rights, our desires for the sake and welfare of others.
What Jesus means by the statement, ‘that the person who hates their life in this world, ‘means that this person does what God commands. It may be despite our own human desires at times. It is as we obey God’s way, that God will honor our lives.
C. Jesus corrects their incorrect perceptions of the event.
In his prayer for the Father to be glorified by his life’s purpose, the Father speaks from heaven. “Now my soul is troubled, and what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour? No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour. Father, glorify your name! Then a voice came from heaven, ‘I have glorified it, and will glorify it again. The crowd that was there and heard it said it had thundered; others said an angel had spoken to him. Jesus said, ‘This voice was for your benefit, not mine. Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself. He said this to show the kind of death he was going to die (John 12:27-33).”
Jesus was talking about being crucified. Other New Testament writers in speaking of Jesus being lifted up are talking about His exaltation, but here John clearly states that Jesus is speaking about His crucifixion and the people listening to him understand that. What they do not understand is how the Messiah is to be killed. Their expectation of the Messiah is different. “The crowd spoke up, ‘We have heard from the Law that the Christ [Messiah] will remain forever, so how can you say, ‘The Son of Man must be lifted up?’ ‘Who is this Son of Man?’ (John 12:34)”
They do not understand that the Messiah must suffer. They do not see Isaiah 53, the suffering servant as a description of the Messiah; that he needed to come first to suffer for our sins, and only then will he return as the conquering King.
D. Jesus challenges them to believe in Him.
“Believe in the light while you have the light, so that you may become children of light (John 12:36.” What is Jesus asking of them? That in the hours to come when the crisis will hit, and He will be crucified that they need to have put their trust in him and continue to do so, even though they might not understand for the moment what is happening. This is certainly true in our own lives. When crisis comes, the only healthy response is to trust in God, despite what we think or how we feel.
The Disbelief in the Human Heart
We may often wonder in light of all that Jesus did how people could continue to reject Him. To witness miracles, even the raising of someone from the dead, and still reject who he is, seems amazing. Yet, we see that in our own day, how people reject the message of the gospel. Here Jesus explains the reason it happens.
- Here we find a description of unbelief.
Here we see the deliberate rejection of Christ in spite of all that He said and did. “Even after Jesus had done all these miraculous signs in their presence, they still would not believe in him (John 12:37.” God revealed to the prophet Isaiah that the prophet’s own people would reject the message. “This was to fulfill the word of Isaiah the prophet: ‘Lord, who has believed our message and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?’ (John 12:38)”
B. We also discover a reason for the unbelief.
“For this reason they could not believe, because, as Isaiah says elsewhere: He has blinded their eyes and deadened their hearts, so they can neither see with their eyes nor understand with their hearts, nor turn- and I would heal them (John 12:39-40).”
Why should it surprise us that people don’t believe? Merrill Tenney writes: “Not only did prophecy describe unbelief, it also explained it. Why should not the hearers of Jesus believe in him when the signs so unmistakably accredited his claims? John quotes Isaiah 6 to show that unbelief is the result of the rejection of light…”
C. Isaiah had an incredible insight into what was about to happen in a very profound moment in his life, in a time of national crisis.
“In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him were seraphs, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. And they were calling to one another: Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory (Isaiah 6:1-3).”
It is in this context that Isaiah is sent to speak to God’s people, that though they hear, they don’t understand; and seeing they don’t perceive what’s really happening. John tells us that this encounter with God, was an encounter with Christ, Himself. “Isaiah said this because he saw Jesus’ glory and spoke about him (John 12:41). What do we need in our hour of crisis, but a renewed vision of God on the throne! We need to see that He is in control.
John tells us that though some believed they lacked the courage to stand up for what was true and right. They were more concerned about what others thought than they were about being true to God. “Yet at the same time many even among the leaders believed in him. But because of the Pharisees they would not confess their faith for fear they would be put out of the synagogue; for they loved human praise more than praise from God (John 12:42-43).”
Everything about the waving of the Palm branches, the declaration of their faith in the Messiah, the tensions between those who were threatened by Jesus and intimidating people into keeping the status quo and rejecting Christ despite all that they had heard and witnessed. Palm Sunday is more than just a moment of Jesus demonstrating His identity, declaring His purpose, and revealing the unbelief in the human heart. It is a moment of crisis. Palm Sunday is a place of crisis, not only for Christ, but also for the people he’s reaching out to. Palm Sunday is even more. It speaks to the times in our own lives when our faith is being challenged, which includes this present moment of crisis. It includes times when we don’t understand what God is doing in our lives? We need to be reassured when our expectations aren’t realized? We need to be reminded in moments when we must choose to die to our own human wants and desires in order to fulfill God’s will and obey His word. We must remind ourselves to do the right thing for the sake of others though that may not be what we want to do in the moment. In times of crisis we are called to trust God. Jesus said: Believe in the light while you have the light, so that you may become children of light (John 12:36).”
 Merrill C. Tenney, John: The Gospel of Belief, (Grand Rapids, Mi: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1948), 183.
 Merrill C. Tenney, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, ‘John and Acts,’ Vol. 9 (Grand Rapids, Mi: Zondervan, 1981), 133.