When our Lord Jesus rode into Jerusalem on that first Palm Sunday (see John 12:12–33), there was already a plot against his life and a price on his head.
From that day on, the Jews made plans to put him to death. . . . The chief priests and the Pharisees had given orders that if anyone knew where Jesus was, he should let them know so that they might arrest him.
(John 11:53, 57)
We need to understand fundamentally, as we approach such a well-known passage as this, that Jesus rides into Jerusalem as someone regarded as a criminal. Not only is there a plan to murder him, but there is also a plan to murder Lazarus, whom he raised from the dead. Those are the circumstances in which Jesus rides into Jerusalem.
In this passage, John is clever artistically. Imagine him as the producer of a narrative of Jesus: he has his cameraman focus in three different ways on the scene so we can see the depth and the riches of what is actually going on here, because this—for John as for Jesus—is a hugely significant moment.
John’s camera is first of all on the crowd. He makes it fairly clear that they saw this as a time of great nationalistic fervor. What are palm branches? A palm branch is a palm branch, but not to these people. John tells us that the people in Jerusalem carefully and deliberately got palm branches and came out of the city to join this crowd. Palm branches were national flags. If you want to catch the atmosphere here, it’s a great national occasion, and the children and their parents stand in the streets, watching the cavalcade come through the streets, waving their flags, caught up in the excitement and the enthusiasm. That’s exactly why John tells the story in such detail, and why he includes words that are essentially treasonable words you would never say in public if you were a Jew: “Here comes the king!”
What on earth possessed them to think that this gracious Jesus had come to liberate them from Rome? If you had asked them why they said this, I think many of them would have been bound to say, “Well, everybody else is saying it. They’re marvelous words, and we got caught up in these aspirations and these hopes.” So you see, John is helping us to understand that, for the crowd, this was really no more than a moment of nationalistic fervor and not a moment of real understanding of the gospel.
But then his camera moves to the disciples. You see this in verses 15 and 16, as John cites Zechariah 9. He says that the disciples didn’t understand these things at first; but when Jesus was glorified—that is, after Jesus had died on the cross and been raised from the dead and was in the presence of his heavenly father—then they remembered that these things had been written about him and been done to him. He doesn’t say, “Do you remember the two who went on the road to Emmaus and Jesus accompanied them and taught them about himself from the Old Testament Scriptures?” He doesn’t say that this is how they found this out. He doesn’t even say, “Do you remember those days between Jesus’ resurrection and his ascension—those six weeks when he kept coming back to the disciples and teaching them about the kingdom? Jesus taught us this after his resurrection.” What he says, you notice, is that they didn’t understand these things at that time.
When Jesus was glorified, then they remembered these things. They had what the psychologists call an “aha moment” or a “eureka moment.” It’s when, without thinking with clinical logic to a conclusion, something dawns on you and you see it in a new light or the puzzle is solved. That’s what John is speaking about here. None of these disciples had a Bible of their own. They either had it memorized or at best they had bits and pieces they could hear or see in the synagogue. Perhaps one of them had memorized the book of Zechariah and remembered this passage (Zech. 9–11, 13):
Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; . . . humble and mounted on a donkey. . . . [H]is rule shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth. As for you also, because of the blood of my covenant with you, I will set your prisoners free from the waterless pit… For I have bent Judah as my bow; I have made Ephraim its arrow. I will stir up your sons, O Zion, against your sons, O Greece, and wield you like a warrior’s sword.
As the disciples hear these words, one says to another, “That’s the meaning of what happened on Palm Sunday! He was fulfilling these Old Testament prophecies. Now we see—because, after all, he sent us into the whole world with the gospel message. Now we see that he was riding into Jerusalem in such a way that we would learn from the prophecy of Zechariah! He came to be the king of the nations!”
And lest he be misunderstood, Jesus came in meekness and lowliness. He came to bring in a new covenant by the shedding of his blood. You notice that, don’t you? The people had no understanding of Zechariah’s prophecy, nor did the disciples at the time grasp what Jesus had come to do. Then, finally later on, the Holy Spirit opened their eyes and it dawned on them: “Oh, that’s who Jesus is!” This is an enormously insightful statement, I think. It’s about discovering who Jesus really is. Someone told me just the other day how in going through the Christianity Explored course, a total stranger to Christ said, “I think I’m beginning to see.” As they were going through the Gospel of Mark, this man said:
I think I’m beginning to see that he came because of my need, that he is the Son of God sent by his Father in order to take my sin—the Son of Man came to give his life as a ransom for many. And I see that he’s not just the character in this book—he’s real, he’s alive! He is as real as real can be! And I can come to know him and trust him! And he’s not just locked up in the Apostles’ Creed, but he is Jesus himself!
This is who Jesus is and this ancient prophecy. I suppose many of the disciples had been forced in synagogue school to learn Zechariah by heart. That was what synagogue school was all about—learning the Bible by heart. Now it dawns on them that these are not distant words that have no relevance to their lives. This is Jesus, and he has every conceivable relevance to their lives.
Well, this raises a question. Where are you in the disciple trajectory? You probably wouldn’t be here unless you were somewhere in a disciple trajectory. It could be that you’re here because you have respect for somebody who’s a Christian, or you’re here because you won’t get your Sunday lunch with your folks unless you’re here. But has it ever dawned on you who Jesus really is? Is he as “real as real could be”? That’s what the disciples were discovering. They were beginning to piece all the bits of the Bible together and see how they helped to explain the Lord Jesus to them. It was their “aha” moment—oh, that’s who he is, that’s what he was doing! He was fulfilling the prophecy of Zechariah.
It’s interesting that Zechariah’s prophecy specifically mentions the Greeks. As a parenthesis, the Greeks are not frequently mentioned in the Bible. And don’t you think it’s at least striking that Philip and Andrew come to Jesus and say, “Jesus, there are some Greeks here, and they want to see you.” These words are actually hidden in many Scottish pulpits. The congregation never sees them, but they’re hidden here. They’re words directed to the preacher: “Sir, we would see Jesus.” Here they are, the Greeks. The disciples come and say, “Jesus, there are these Greeks here.”
This brings us to the third camera angle, because Jesus seems to have seen this as a signal from his Father. The crowds by and large see it as a moment of nationalistic fervor. The disciples understand it only somewhat later. But Jesus understands it fully, because this to him is a signal from the Father. This is the dividing moment in the Gospel of John. Up until this time in this Gospel, a little expression has punctuated the story: “his time had not yet come,” or “his hour had not yet come.” But what does Jesus say in verse 23 when he is told that the Greeks have arrived? “The hour has come.”
So what is this hour? Well, he tells us that it’s the hour of his glory. The time has come, he says, for the Son of Man—that’s his favorite way of describing himself—the hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. He’s going to be lifted up. He says later on in verse 32, “When I am lifted up from the earth.” Now that’s a double entendre, isn’t it? That’s a statement that’s got two meanings wrapped up in the same statement. He’s going to be lifted up on the cross to die, but that’s also the way he’s going to be exalted as the Savior of men and women among the nations. So this hour of his glory is also going to be the hour of his agony, which he describes in verse 27: “Now is my soul troubled.”
Jesus only infrequently speaks about what is going on in his emotional life, and this is one of them: “My soul is distressed,” he says. This is not some ancient Greek hero going to his death as a macho man. This is Jesus going to his glory, realizing how costly it will be for him to be lifted up so that he may draw men and women and boys and girls to the forgiveness of their sins and to grace and mercy. He knows this is the hour when Gethsemane is near, when the shadow of Calvary falls fully upon his soul; the moment is about to come when he will cry out with that awful sense of God forsakenness. So the hour of great glory is also an hour of intense agony. But I think it’s important that we also notice that Jesus describes it in verses 31 and 32 as the hour of spiritual victory.
I suppose if I were to ask you why Jesus died, I think, for all of us, our instinctive answer with respect to the blessings of the Christian gospel would be, “He died that we might be forgiven.” Notice that this passage says nothing, however, about Jesus dying for our forgiveness. It’s true, but it’s not the point Jesus is making here. He doesn’t say, “I’m going to be lifted up from the earth in order that I may be the source of the forgiveness of sins”—true though that is. Here, he concentrates on something else: “When I am lifted up, what will happen is that the judgment of this world will take place and the ruler of this world will be cast out.” What is he saying? He’s saying that our sins are not our only problem. Our sins are only a horrific symptom of a problem: that by nature we are not only sinners, but we are also in bondage to the one John here describes as the ruler of this world.
No matter how respectable my life may look, no matter what position I may have, Jesus teaches us—and the apostles teach us over and over again—that my problem is not only that I’m guilty of sin, but that I’m dead in trespasses and sins, as Paul says in Ephesians 2; my life is in the grip of the evil one. You actually can’t remove that from the Gospels or from the New Testament teaching and have very much of a gospel left. That’s what Jesus focuses on, and there are all kinds of indications of it. I find that the simplest and clearest indication of it is that people will say to me, “When the time comes, I’ll entrust my life to Jesus and I’ll be able to do that.” And I say, “Well, reassure me, because I care about you. Do it now.” And, of course, they can’t because they’re in bondage.
Actually, I find that people are quite content to recognize that, yes, of course they sin. But very few of us are prepared to acknowledge that we are slaves to an alien power—that we’re not free, free to love God, free to serve God. If you meet a non-Christian who says he is free, you say, “Show me how absolutely free you are by loving and worshiping the Lord Jesus and following him with all your life.” Whatever excuse they give is because they are in bondage to the ruler of this world! But Jesus, by going to the cross, wrests from the hands of the evil one all the dominion and power he had over men and women. Through Jesus’ death and resurrection, the Lord Jesus Christ set us free.
One of the things the evil one uses, Paul tells us in Colossians 2, is our guilt. He trades in guilt-edged stock, if I may put it that way. He blackmails us. Isn’t this true? Can you imagine the hidden sins in this room? For example, if somehow or another, when we came into this room, our hidden sins were all enumerated on a huge screen at the back of the church, how many of us would be able to stay for the whole of the service as those sins flashed up before the people?
But it is true of us. Please, God, we’re not so foolish to pretend it isn’t. If God were to mark our sins, as Psalm 130 says, none of us could stand. So Satan comes along and does his little deals with us, doesn’t he? Just let’s try and keep these things polite, under control; nobody else need know; we’ll all accept them. You play into his hands, and then he’s got you exactly where he wants you. But Jesus comes and bears all our guilt, and by bearing our guilt—our fear of judgment and death—he snaps the chains by which the evil one has bound us to himself. So I can say when Satan tempts me to despair and tells me of the wrong within,
Upward I look, and see [Christ] there, Who made an end of all my sin. Because the sinless Savior died, My sinful soul is counted free. For God the just is satisfied To look on Him and pardon me.
Or, in other words, when Satan comes and accuses me of sin and guilt, I’m able to say to him, “But Christ has died for my sins to set me free from your grip and to draw me to himself.”
Then Jesus says something very interesting. It may seem difficult to follow his logic here, but when he speaks about his death, he then goes on to speak about our death—not our physical death, but another kind of death: “Whoever loves his life, loses it, but whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life” (v. 25). What does he mean? He means this: If you’re not trusting fully and joyfully in Jesus Christ, then there is something else in your hands. It’s as though he’s asking, “What so fills your hands so that there’s no room in your hands for me?” And it will differ from one person to another. It may be yourself, another person, a possession, ambition, power, money, influence, or your profession or job. It could even be your family. “Those of you who are parents, do this with your children,” Jesus says as he pries open that clenched fist. “This keeps you from entrusting everything to me and letting whatever it is fall into my hand for safekeeping. Place your hand in my nail-pierced hand and come and love and trust me.”
My dear friends, for some of us, there is an almost excruciating pain in coming to trust in Jesus Christ, because so much else has been glued to our hearts in which we find our security and hope for our salvation. Is your family the great idol in your life? My dear friend, you’re not big enough to secure your family. Let them drop into the hands of Christ. Is it your possessions, your influence, somebody you love, or your driving ambition? You’re not able to secure any of these, and you only become a prisoner to whatever it is. But once your hand has been pried open by grace and dropped into the safe hand of Jesus Christ and you’re holding onto him, then at last you will be free to enjoy the gifts he’s given you, without that gnawing insecurity—all because, in his grace, he rode into Jerusalem that day as king. Just as one day, which John sees in the revelation given to him, a great multitude that no one can number from every nation, all tribes and peoples and languages, will stand before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes with palm branches in their hands.
For some of you, the ones you loved most dearly in this world are already there, clothed in white and waving their palm branches. You want with all your heart to be where they are, because the Lord Jesus opened your hands, and now he has filled you with himself. Oh, may our hearts say in this sense: Ride on, ride on, Jesus, in majesty!
Sinclair B. Ferguson is a Ligonier teaching fellow and distinguished visiting professor of systematic theology at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. His many books include The Whole Christ: Legalism, Antinomianism, and Gospel Assurance-—Why the Marrow Controversy Still Matters (Crossway, 2016).