Summary: John's is the only Gospel to tell us about the palm branches.
THE FIRST PALM SUNDAY
First, in this short passage, we see the sense of expectation of the people of God (John 12:12). We read that “much people” who were come to the feast, “heard” that Jesus was coming to the City. And hearing, they acted on it.
It is good to “hear” the preaching of the Gospel, but we must also learn how to make an appropriate response to it and act accordingly. Also, in the light of the teachings, warnings and signs of the second coming of Jesus, we also should be living in anticipation of that event. ‘When the son of man comes, shall He find faith on the earth?’ (Luke 18:8).
Second, John's is the only Gospel to tell us about the palm branches. Scholars tell us that palm trees did not grow in the mountainous region of Jerusalem: so, palm branches had quite possibly been imported from the lowlands around the River Jordan and were readily available for the Jewish feasts of Tabernacles and Passover. The occasion called for celebration: so, the people in our text acquired palm branches, and no doubt waved them as Jesus approached Jerusalem (John 12:13). What would happen if Jesus was coming to our town or city - or even church - today?
Their cry of “Hosanna” is a transliteration from Hebrew into Greek (into English). It comes from Psalm 118:25, and seems to mean, “Save now, please.” Although the people might not understand it yet, this is what Jesus had come to do (cf. Luke 19:10).
Psalm 118, which was part of the liturgy for the festival, continues, ‘Blessed is He who comes in the name of the LORD: we have blessed you out of the house of the LORD’ (Psalm 118:26). This was recognised as a Messianic verse, and no doubt the people who cried “Blessed is the King of Israel that comes in the name of the Lord” (John 12:13) at least hoped that Jesus was the One who would fulfil the dreams and expectations of Israel (cf. Luke 24:21). Old Simeon certainly had been waiting for the ‘consolation of Israel’ (Luke 2:25) and recognised the infant Jesus as ‘a light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel’ (Luke 2:32).
Perhaps the enthusiastic crowd saw this “King” as a Maccabean-type character, who would drive the Romans out of the Holy Land? What they could not at this point anticipate, was that this “King” whom they acknowledged had come to be ‘enthroned’ upon a Roman Cross, with a superscription that at one and the same time acknowledged and mocked His Kingship. Suspended between two villains, His was, after all, a much greater, and a much more universal mission (cf. John 12:32).
Next, John mentions the donkey (John 12:14). I have observed before how Pontius Pilate would have entered Jerusalem about this time, on a charger. By way of contrast, the donkey is symbolic of Jesus’ humility (cf. Philippians 2:6-8).
John has been emphasising that Jesus’ time had not yet come (cf. John 2:4; John 7:6; John 7:8; John 7:30; John 8:20). Now Jesus deliberately exposes Himself, because ‘the hour is come that the Son of man should be glorified’ (John 12:23; cf. John 12:27). John emphasises that the entry of Jesus thus into Jerusalem is “as it is written” (John 12:14).
The passage cited in John 12:15 is Zechariah 9:9. However, there is no “fear not” in that Old Testament verse, but rather, ‘Rejoice greatly’. The “fear not” seems to come from Zephaniah 3:16, which is part of a much earlier prophecy (Zephaniah 3:14-17), which nevertheless provides a perfect commentary on Zechariah 9:9.
Now, John is at pains to tell us that the disciples did not understand these things at the first: but when Jesus was glorified (John 12:16). It is doubtful whether the disciples even understood what Jesus meant when He later spoke of being ‘glorified’ (cf. John 12:23); but they remembered afterward. We cannot understand everything straight away, but the Lord enlightens us in due time.
John lays some emphasis on the witness of those who had been with Jesus when He called Lazarus out of the grave (John 12:17). It is important that we thus “bare record” to Jesus, sharing who He is, what He has done, what He has done for us, and what He has done for you too, etc. After all, ‘These things did not happen in a corner’ (Acts 26:26).
John calls Jesus’ miracles, ‘signs’ (cf. John 12:37; John 20:30). John names the raising of Lazarus as one such “sign” (John 12:18). The witness of this “sign” is what encouraged the crowd who met Jesus: perhaps like the Samaritans, going to see Him for themselves (John 4:39-42).
The Pharisees, for their part, reckoned that “the whole world” had gone after Jesus (John 12:19). An exaggeration, no doubt, but perhaps it was another unwitting prophecy, like that of Caiaphas the high priest (John 11:49-52). It certainly anticipates the following passage (e.g. John 12:32).