"Come and See": A Web Commentary on the Gospel of John: Section 11. Jesus begins to move from death to new life (Jn 12.1-50)
11.2 Jesus Enters Jerusalem (Jn 12.12-19)
With the entry into Jerusalem we come to one of the small number of incidents reported in all four gospels. Previously we have had the cleansing of the Temple, which is in all four, but at a different point in Jesus’ ministry in John than it is in the Synoptic Gospels, and the feeding of the Five Thousand. The remaining such events are to come in the Passion and later sections of John. Here is the entry into Jerusalem as described in all four Gospels:
The order of events is slightly different in John from what it is in the Synoptic gospels. Here in John, Jesus is greeted when he arrives at Jerusalem by the festival crowd, who are carrying palm branches. They come to meet him, prompted in part by what they have heard from those who had been in Bethany, reciting verses from Psalm 118. Jesus then “finds” a young donkey and sits on it in a deliberate fulfilment of Zechariah 9.9. and continues into the city. As much earlier in the story of the cleansing of the Temple in ch2, John emphasized that there were aspects of what Jesus was doing here that his disciples did not understand at the time but did understand after he was glorified, that is, after Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection.
The Synoptics all place their emphasis first on the elaborate planning, complete with passwords, that underlay the provision of a donkey for this ride. They do not quote the verse from Zechariah as John does, although the allusion is clear. In their telling of the story, Jesus is already riding in on the donkey when the crowd begins to acclaim him. In John, as we have seen, the crowd greets Jesus in the words of Ps 118 first, and only then does Jesus get on the donkey and ride it.
Clearly in both scenarios the donkey must have already been “found” and have been standing ready at hand for Jesus to act out Zechariah’s words. But John paints a picture that emphasised Jesus’ rejection of the conventional royal Messiah by showing him turning to Zechariah’s very unregal mount as a response to the crowd’s use of those Psalm verses.
So this detail of the story undercuts a traditional view, by Jesus' disciples and other adherents, of what it means to be the Messiah. In that way it is a fitting sequel to the story of Jesus' anointing by Mary of Bethany, which precedes it in John's Gospel. Just as the allusion to Zechariah's donkey invoked a king of peace rather than war, so Mary's anointing invoked a Messiah who was directed toward his ransoming death.
See Brown 1966 pp 456-64, Carson pp 431-5, and Thompson pp 262-7 for further discussion of the entry into Jerusalem and some of its details.
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Comments on Selected Verses
We only learn later in v17 that this crowd is informed, and likely augmented, by some of those who had been present when Jesus called Lazarus out of the tomb and back to life. As the council had feared, the story about Lazarus had inspired great enthusiasm for Jesus at a time when religious fervour was already running high in the holy city. This crowd of people is moved to go out, that is, outside the city gate, to meet Jesus.
However we must not take the statement that the crowd was a large one to mean that it was a huge one! For one thing the streets and gates were narrow and close, not allowing for as large crowds as modern cities. Further, it can't have been large enough to attract the attention of the Romans, who would have been on the alert for any demonstration of nationalistic sentiment during the holiday: the Roman authorities are not alert to Jesus as a potential revolutionary threat until later.
Palm branches are associated more with the feast of Tabernacles than with Passover, but from at least the time of the Maccabees, they had become a national symbol. So to receive Jesus into Jerusalem with palm branches had definite political overtones: he was being received like a king at the least and like a royal Messiah at most. The quote from Ps 118 brings both a Passover and a royal theme into play: it was one of a series of psalms sung at Passover, while the psalm as a whole involves thanksgiving for a royal victory.
The royalist and messianic overtones of the crowd's actions bring an immediate corrective response. It seems highly unlikely that there was a young donkey just standing by for Jesus to find when he needed it - the Synoptic story of the disciples being sent to arrange for it is not at all contradicted by John's telling. By telling us that Jesus turns to the donkey after, rather than before, the crowd's acclamation, John puts a greater emphasis on Jesus' rejection of the royal, nationalist messiah figure the crowd (and others) are expecting. When the people sought to make him king after the miraculous feeding, Jesus withdrew where they could not find him (Jn 6.15). Here he confronts them with a different picture, drawn from Zechariah 9 and involving a king of peace who is both triumphant and humble:
9Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you;
triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
10He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim
and the warhorse from Jerusalem;
and the battle-bow shall be cut off,
and he shall command peace to the nations;
his dominion shall be from sea to sea,
and from the River to the ends of the earth.
The evangelist changes the beginning of the quoted verse from "[r]ejoice greatly" to "[d]on't be afraid", but otherwise he preserves the sense of the prophet's text in his allusion and prophetic act. The whole passage is a strong rejoinder to the messianic expectation by which Jesus seems to have felt constrained.
As in the story of Jesus' conversation with the Judaeans (or Jerusalemites) in Jn 2.17-22, the evangelist here points out what the disciples witnessed but did not understand until after the Resurrection. There it was the way in which Jesus was using the Temple as a figure to talk about himself and his rising again; here it is the meaning of his prophetic act in entering Jerusalem sitting upon a young donkey.
The use of "him" in the last clause is also of interest. Jesus clearly is the person meant in both places, but we should be aware that the evangelist has silently elided his contemporary Jesus with the Messianic king spoken of in the prophetic passage. John is saying that the disciples understood after Jesus was glorified that the things that they (the disciples) did to Jesus - acclaiming him as Messiah while helping him to make his understanding of his role clear by means of the donkey - were the things that the prophet Zechariah had said about the Messiah. No doubt that the disciples' understanding of the events of this day gives John licence to do so, but it is interesting that he does not do so explicitly.
Who are the "they" the evangelist refers to in that final clause of this verse, the ones who do to (or for) Jesus "the things that had been written about him" in Zechariah? Normal grammar would suggest that "they" refers to the disciples themselves. In that case, we would have to assume that the disciples here, as in the Synoptic accounts, joined in the acclamations of the crowd and arranged for the donkey. The immediacy of Jesus' finding of the donkey at precisely the point at which it was wanted does argue for a prior arrangement similar to the Synoptics, as we have said. And it seems very likely that in the heat of the moment the disciples may have joined in the acclamations. Nor is it impossible that the crowd that met Jesus included persons who were already disciples.
The other possibility is that "they" in that clause refers to the members of the crowd: later, after Jesus had been glorified the disciples understood that the crowd was doing exactly what the prophet said they would do, with all that implied about Jesus' messiahship. Either possibility makes sense, and the emphasis is, or should be, that only after Jesus had been crucified and resurrected did the disciples make sense of everything that they had witnessed or taken part in.
These verses explain that the crowd has been influenced by what had been said about what Jesus did at Bethany by those who were there and are now in Jerusalem. Whether they were country-dwellers who have come to the holy city for the festival or made their homes there, it seems likely that the crowd was augmented by these witnesses and their testimony. It seems awkward to put this explanation here, but in fact it allows the evangelist to close off the story of Jesus' entry into Jerusalem with an allusion to Lazarus as a factor in Jesus' popularity and (in v19) in the hostility of some of the Pharisees. In the same way he also closed off the story of the annointing at Bethany by speaking about the role of the raising of Lazarus in the conspiracy against Jesus. The evangelist ties the two stories - the anointing and the entry - together in various ways. The use of the verb for bearing witness in connection with the crowd also ties this story back to mentions of witnesses in previous chapters, although the evangelist usually records mentions of the Father or the signs as witnesses, and not ordinary humans (other than John the Baptist)
The Pharisees (here likely specifically the Pharisee members of the Council whose hostility to Jesus we have seen before in Jn 7.45-52 and 11.47-53, 57) are exasperated by their failure to prevent Jesus from attracting the kind of large public following that was likely to provoke a reaction from the Romans. The irony of their rueful statement, meant as a hyperbolic reaction to Jesus' reception in the city, is shown clearly in the next section of the gospel. There as we shall see, the whole world, symbolised by a group of Greek-speaking Gentiles, does indeed go after Jesus, seeeking him out to speak with him.
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