Each year, one week before Easter, Christian churches observe Palm Sunday, commemorating the day Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey while the people waved palm branches and shouted praise. The people were right to praise Jesus, but they were doing it for the wrong reason.
Praise to the king!
John tells us that Jesus was in Bethany six days before the Passover (John 12:1). The next day, Jesus started walking to Jerusalem, and many people found out about it. “The great crowd that had come for the festival heard that Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem. They took palm branches and went out to meet him, shouting,
“Hosanna!” [a Hebrew word meaning “save!”]
“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”
“Blessed is the king of Israel!” (John 12:13, quoting Psalm 118:25-26).
This is the way people in the first century greeted a visiting king—they would go out to meet him, praise him, and escort him into the city. These people were welcoming Jesus as a king. They were eager for Judea to have its own king, independent of Rome.
But the Romans did not want anyone to be king over Israel without their permission, and this parade for Jesus implied disloyalty to Rome. When the people waved palms, they were waving a Jewish national symbol. When Judea eventually did rebel against Rome, they put images of date palms on the coins. Palm trees represented a free and independent Judea.
Jesus knew that he was coming into the city toward his death, and that the crowds would soon call for his crucifixion. Right now, the crowds cheered because they thought that Jesus would be a military hero, but he was not; they were badly mistaken about who Jesus was—and yet correct in their praise.
Seated on a donkey
Jesus did something else that may have added to the crowd’s excitement: He “found a young donkey and sat on it, as it is written: ‘Do not be afraid, Daughter Zion; see, your king is coming, seated on a donkey’s colt’” (John 12:14-15, quoting Zechariah 9:9).
Some of the people probably knew from Zechariah that the promised Jewish king would ride a donkey. But none of them, not even the disciples, really understood what Jesus was doing. “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” (John 12:16).
The disciples were probably thinking just like the crowd. Although Jesus had told his disciples that he was going to be killed, they did not understand it. Perhaps they thought it was a riddle, and they hadn’t yet figured out the hidden meaning. But they understood it later—they understood that Jesus really was a king, and that he fulfilled the messianic prophecies, but that his kingdom was very different from anything they expected; it was “not of this world” (John 18:36).
But at this moment, the crowds and the disciples were excited because they thought Jesus might be the king who would deliver them from Rome (John 12:17-18).
Jesus could have gathered quite a large following if he had wanted to—and this terrified the Jewish leaders. They knew what Rome did to populist uprisings, and they definitely didn’t want that. “So the Pharisees said to one another, ‘See, this is getting us nowhere. Look how the whole world has gone after him!’” (verse 19).
They also spoke the right words, but for the wrong reason.
The Greeks Had a Word for It
We get the English word “eulogy” from the Greek word eulogeō; it comes from root words meaning “to speak well of.” In eulogies, we speak well of people; we praise them.
The New Testament uses eulogeō 41 times; the Greek Old Testament uses it more than 500 times, usually with the meaning to praise or to bless. James 3:9 says that we eulogize God—we praise or speak well of him.
When Jesus eulogized his disciples (Luke 24:51), he was giving a blessing. To bless a person means “to ask God to bestow divine favor on … . In a number of languages the closest equivalent of to ‘bless’ is ‘to pray to God on behalf of’ or ‘to ask God to do something good for.’”1
In Ephesians 1:3, Paul says that God has already blessed us, already done good to us. When the people called Jesus “blessed” (John 12:13), they were saying that God had already been good to him.
When Jesus blessed bread (for example, Luke 24:30), he was asking God to further his good purpose through that bread.
1 Johannes Louw and Eugene Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament Based on Semantic Domains, I: 442.
Dr. Michael Morrison teaches classes in the New Testament at Grace Communion Seminary. More information about the seminary can be found at: www.gcs.edu.
Author: Michael Morrison