Jesus Journey: 40 Days in the Footsteps of Christ

Day 31

The Palm Sunday Mystery

Read John 12:12–19

We’re walking with a crowd of Christians from all over the world, just two weeks after Easter, down the road that slopes westward from the Mount of Olives to Jerusalem. The Palm Sunday Road.

We can see the Temple Mount across the valley in front of us. This very route, or one close to it, was the one taken by Jesus when he rode on a donkey into the city on that famous spring day.

Then it was lined with his fans. They yelled their support and waved palm branches to welcome him to the city. Less than a week later, he was killed.

You could call it “The Palm Sunday Mystery.

How could a crowd welcome Jesus with such enthusiasm — and then rally for his execution a week later? Why did the cheers turn to jeers?

Let’s try to solve the puzzle. Put aside any of your preconceived ideas. And look at these verses through the lens of history. Examine the clues in the words of the text.


John says there was a “great crowd that had come for the feast.” Who were these people, and how big was this crowd?

They were in town for the feast of Passover, when the Jews remembered their deliverance from Egypt with the ritual sacrifice of a lamb.

The ancient Jewish writer Josephus reported that at one Passover in the mid-first century there was an official tally kept of sacrificial lambs slain in Jerusalem, and it added up to 256,500. From this figure he estimated there were 2,565,000 people in the city for the feast, based on an average of about ten people per lamb — and since Jerusalem had no more than a few hundred thousand residents, about two million of those must have been pilgrims who came from other cities or countries. 35

Think of the pictures you’ve seen of the Hajj, the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, and you’ll get an idea of the crowd size — and of the fervor that can be quickly produced in such a massive gathering! 36

Bible scholar D. A. Carson describes the emotion this crowd would have been experiencing:

The Passover Feast was to Jews what the fourth of July is to Americans… It was a rallying point for intense, nationalistic zeal. This goes some way to explaining their fervor that tried to force Jesus to become king. 37


Why were they waving palm branches? The palm was a symbol of national independence for Jews at the time. Almost exactly two hundred years before Palm Sunday, there had been a successful revolution against foreign oppressors led by a man named Judas Maccabeus. He minted coins with the symbol of a palm tree.

This became the icon of Israel’s freedom. Waving the palm branch was like waving the stars and stripes: It was a patriotic statement, a fond memorial of the Maccabean revolution. In the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, I saw several Jewish coins from the first and second century stamped with palm trees and the slogan, “For the freedom of Jerusalem!”


And this patriotic sentiment goes perfectly with what the crowds were yelling: “Hosanna,” which simply means, “save us now!” Note: Not just, “Save us,” but, “Save us — now!”

The Messiah-mania sweeping the country had to have been intensified by a kind of bicentennial fever because, again, Judas Maccabeus had ridden in from Galilee about two centuries before this. And now here comes Jesus, riding in from Galilee, too. The people surely hoped for another Maccabean-like revolution — right away! Perhaps they thought Jesus had been toying with them through his riddles and stories. But now his intent was clear: To throw the Romans out!


You could say the dry kindling was all arranged. The bases were loaded. The bullets were in the barrel. All Jesus had to do was light the fire, swing the bat, pull the trigger — just make the slightest move to revolt — and he would have had massive popular support. The expectation level must have created a palpable buzz. The people were ready for a rumble.

Then what is Jesus’ very next move in Jerusalem?

It takes every single observer by surprise, including all of his disciples. And it seems like a colossal miscalculation that not only costs him popular support but leads to his death.


He strides into the city (the tension mounts!) goes up to the Temple (so far so good!), and instead of going to the barracks of the soldiers and palace of the Roman governor, he turns left (what’s he doing?). He heads for a plaza known as the Court of the Gentiles. And instead of kicking the Gentiles out of the temple area, he… makes more room for the Gentiles!

The Court of the Gentiles was originally designed to be a “place for prayer for all nations” as Jesus points out, but it had turned into a bazaar for religious merchandise, a “den of thieves.”

Here’s the background: The Temple authorities had to approve all the lambs people brought for sacrifice during the Passover. They had to be “unblemished.” Apparently, it was typical for the priests to find some small flaw with the beasts the travellers brought in. The pilgrims were so far from home they couldn’t easily go back and get another animal. So they had to buy the handy “pre-approved” lambs from the stalls on the Temple Mount — at an inflated price, of course. Where did the priests find room for these extra stalls? The Court of the Gentiles.

What’s more, people couldn’t purchase these lambs with just any old money. They had to exchange their Roman Empire coins for temple money, good only with temple merchants (Roman coins were engraved with images of Caesar, and since “graven images” were forbidden in Jewish law, the priests said they couldn’t be used to buy temple animals). Of course, this money exchange turned into a scam too.

So the Court of the Gentiles became a place where Gentiles were squeezed out by all this activity — activity which was also ripping off the Jewish people.

And Jesus is upset, to put it mildly. He clears the plaza of this racket, setting the animals free and overturning the tables of the money-changers.

Again he shows his mission as Messiah: To bring people to God. That means all people. Jew and Gentile alike. Any obstacle must be removed.

Now he really has the undivided attention of the leaders of the Temple system. He is endangering their livelihood. They want him silenced. And the crowd is confused and enraged because it looks to them like Jesus has just given them a major head-fake. He slips out of town, and they’re left holding the palm branches, shouting for a revolution that never happens, vulnerable to Romans who quickly punish insurrection with death.


The Roman presence on the Temple Mount was always beefed up during Passover because of the potential for riots. These Romans had just seen the people hail Jesus as their king. A few years earlier, thousands of Jews had been slaughtered in Jerusalem on the merest suspicion of treason.

The corrupt members of the high priest’s council see an opportunity to get rid of this annoying Galilean threat. They encourage the frightened mob to do the math: It was them or Jesus. As one priest says,

“Don’t you realize that it’s better for one man to die…than for the whole nation to die for the actions of one man?” John 11:50

It should be made crystal clear that very few Jews were involved in the leadership that conspired against Christ. Plus, only the Romans had the actual authority to sentence someone to capital punishment. And of course, ultimately, this was not about human power play, anyway — it was all God’s plan. So any bigoted portrayal of Jews as Christ-killers is at best inaccurate and at worst viciously harmful.

But from a human perspective, a small group of corrupt politicians and religious leaders instigated the call for Christ to go on trial, seeding the mob with agitators and false witnesses. All they had to do next was to produce Jesus. Quick. While emotions ran high.

And that problem was unexpectedly solved by one of Jesus’ own disciples — the one named for the national hero.


It wasn’t just the corrupt elements of the religious leadership who had a beef with Jesus. One of his own disciples was bitterly alienated by this time.

It’s easy to see why. I imagine Judas had been raised on stories of his namesake, Judas Maccabeus. He’d seen Jesus as the next liberator, and had been so excited to be part of a new rebellion, and perhaps to gain some power for himself in the bargain. And then when Jesus, right on the verge of a hitting a grand-slam home run, instead insults the crowd — and leaves the city? Judas feels angry and confused. His country has been endangered by Jesus, not liberated by him. He has had it with Christ’s riddles and mysterious behavior. And so Judas betrays him.

Agitators in the mob yell, “We have no king but Caesar!” as they send to Pilate the man some had cheered as Messiah — but who had disappointed them so severely.

And the palm trees turn into Calvary’s tree.


From a human perspective, Jesus made all the wrong moves between Palm Sunday and Good Friday. But from his perspective, it was all part of the plan.

All the details had to be the right ones, fulfilling prophecy.

The place had to be the right place: Jerusalem.

The timing had to be right: Passover, when the sacrificial lambs were slain, completing the amazing symbolism.

Even the method of execution had to be right: Crucifixion, so that “the Son of Man is lifted up” as Christ prophesied to Nicodemus.


Palm Sunday shows me an example of something that keeps happening all through the gospels:

People give Jesus an identity that isn’t his (human soldier, in this case).

An agenda that isn’t his (human soldier, overthrow Romans!).

And a schedule that isn’t his (human soldier, overthrow Romans now!).

And then they get upset when his plan isn’t their plan.

Do people still today force Jesus into their political agendas? Uh, yeah. And social agendas, and personal agendas….

I look at these people and I see myself.

I try to fit Jesus into my own mold. I imagine my top priorities must also be his. I praise God enthusiastically when I think my prayers will be answered the way I want them answered. Now. Then I get impatient when God won’t make everything turn out the way I envisioned.

But the Messiah is his own person, with his own agenda and schedule.


Sometimes I think we look at life like one of those connect-the-dot books. Remember those from when you were a kid? As a child they seemed mysterious, but as adults it seems so obvious how the dots are supposed to connect. We can practically see the picture!

We can feel that way about life sometimes. It’s so obvious to us how the dots should connect.

But God sees dots we don’t see. He sees dots way off our page. And his dots form a bigger picture. A masterpiece.

The people were connecting dots that went back to the Maccabean revolt.

But Jesus was connecting dots that went all the way back to the first Passover, all the way back to the first sin, and all the way forward to the recreation of heaven and earth.

Here’s what his big picture looked like when the dots were connected. Did you know there is one other time in the Bible that people wave palm branches and cheer Jesus? It’s in heaven….

After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice: “Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.” Revelation 7:9–10

That’s the ultimate Palm Sunday.

That’s the day we stop singing the blues. Forever.

But in the days immediately following Palm Sunday, the tension between Jesus and the Temple authorities gets cranked up to a new level of tension — and usually it’s Jesus doing the cranking.


How in your past have you seen Jesus connect dots you couldn’t see to make a bigger picture?