Shortly before the day that we now call Palm Sunday, Jesus walked into the village of Bethany and raised his friend, Lazarus, from the dead. This event did not go unnoticed. Word spread. This sign, as John’s gospel labels Jesus’ miracles, was the capstone of a series of signs that began when he turned water into wine three years earlier. So, when Jesus, and the crowd of disciples who were with him, left Bethany to walk to Jerusalem on the first day of Passover Week, the crowds that were already in town were primed for his arrival. They reasoned that if he could raise the dead, they could count on him to deliver them from the death grip of Rome. “They took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him,” shouting lines from the king’s victory psalm (John 12:13; cf. Psalm 118:24–25).
Jesus couldn’t continue. He stopped the procession and sent someone to fetch a donkey. He may have been the Christ who had recently accomplished his greatest miracle, but at this point he was the Christ who needed to pass his biggest test. A few days prior, he had explained to his disciples that he was like a nobleman who needed to attend the high king and be invested with his own crown (Luke 18:11 ff.). But now he needed to present an object lesson that demonstrated a part of God’s plan that the crowd was ignoring and that affirmed his faithfulness to all that the Father had given him to do.
We should understand that Jesus didn’t object to their celebration! Some of the Pharisees told him to quiet the people, but he answered, “I tell you, if these become silent, the stones will cry out” (Luke 19:40). Jesus deserved their adulation. But he wanted them to rejoice that he was on his way to receive the crown and that he would return to establish peace in the world and release them from the grave (Zechariah 9:10–12). For him to accomplish all of this, he would need to prove his righteousness, his faithfulness to God, which he would do by following through with the Father’s plan; and he would need to put himself in a situation from which God would need to rescue him, which he would do by going to the cross as an innocent man.
We celebrate Palm Sunday today because on it Jesus passed his biggest test yet, overcame his severest trial so far—with Gethsemane yet to come. He remained faithful to the Father’s will for his life in the face of the powerful cries of the enthusiastic throng. We all love to be praised, especially when we deserve it. Jesus did. But Jesus loved the Father’s praise even more. And this is what he wants for us as well. It wasn’t easy for him to resist the crowd’s adulation. He said, “Now my soul is greatly distressed!” He heard the crowd around him and he saw the cross ahead of him. Fortunately for us, his response was, “Father, glorify your name!” (John 12:28). Then, just as at Jesus’ baptism, the Father broke through with a vocal affirmation, so that we would be encouraged to love eternal life with the Father as much as he did. So, now, because Jesus won through this trial, we have a high priest who can sympathize with our weaknesses. Therefore, we can confidently approach the throne of grace and expect to receive mercy and grace to help us remain faithful when we are tested and tried as well (Hebrews 4:14–16).
Their expectations surged as hope arose again.
The Kingdom seemed so close while Jesus talked
Of saving errant, lost and needy men
Who’d follow on the path that he had walked.
So as they walked, he wove another tale
About a noble son who traveled long
And far to gain a crown and thus prevail
Against the foes who sought to do him wrong.
Perceiving that they failed to understand,
He sent his men to fetch a donkey’s foal
So he could demonstrate with clarity
The intricacy of what the Father planned:
How victory, which was the final goal,
Must be preceded by the Son’s humility.