How does my experiment with the American flag relate to Palm Sunday? You can read about that experiment in the previous post.
As we begin to answer that question, turn with me to Mark 11, and read the story of the first Palm Sunday. We are studying Mark’s account of the story of Jesus’ Triumphal entry because, as I mentioned in the preview post, there is a detail in Mark’s telling of this story that is important. Matthew and Luke don’t include this detail, but John and Mark do.
Who was Mark? For starters, Mark was not a disciple of Jesus. Mark came along years later, long after Jesus returned to heaven and the church had begun. Mark was a missionary in the church, spending time with Paul and Peter. Biblical historians believe that it was Peter who told Mark the stories of Jesus. So you could say that Mark’s is actually “The Gospel according to Peter, as told by Mark.” When we read Mark’s version of the Triumphal Entry, therefore, we are getting an eyewitness account. Peter was there that day. Let’s review the event itself.
Skim over the story, especially Mark 11, verses 7-10. Here’s a summary: Nearing the end of his three-year ministry, Jesus enters the city of Jerusalem, the seat of government, riding on a donkey, while the crowds spread their cloaks on the ground creating a kind of red carpet entry for him, as they waved palm branches and shouted, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”
Do you know what is going on here? This was a coronation. A coronation is the crowing of a new king. The people identified Jesus as their new king.
Of course not everyone agreed with them. The religious leaders and political rulers did not see Jesus as king. There was already a man that the Jews called “king,” a guy named Herod. He wasn’t the king of the whole land, though, and he did not rule over Jerusalem. Instead, Herod was more like regional governor of the northern part of Israel. Rome was in control of the land, not Israel. So this Jewish “king,” Herod, was subject to Rome. A Roman named Pontius Pilate was the leader in Jerusalem, and Herod and Pilate’s boss, hundreds of miles away in Rome, was the absolute true king of the empire, the emperor, Caesar.
So when Jesus, a popular Jewish itinerant preacher who reportedly did miracles and had crowds numbering in the thousands rides into town on a donkey, to the joy of the crowds, the leadership in the city didn’t seem all that concerned. Not that they were totally unconcerned, though. Rome was always cautious about uprisings, and to keep the peace they could be ruthless in putting down rebellion. Rome had the biggest guns, so it was pretty much impossible to challenge their authority. If Jesus had whipped up this crowd of cheering followers into a riot to overthrow the government, there is no doubt what would have happened. There would be a battle between the barely-armed crowd and the heavily-armed Roman military. The Jewish crowd might kill some Roman soldiers, the uprising might last a few days, but Rome would win.
That is not to say, though, that the Jews wouldn’t have tried. The really might have tried, especially if Jesus told them to form a militia and start fighting on his behalf. I say that because previously many others had tried. In fact, there was a family of Jews in the roughly 400 year period between the Old and New Testament that defeated the Romans and took back control of Israel for approximately 100 years. That family was called the Maccabees, and the Jews looked back on them with reverence. There were almost certainly plenty of people in the crowd that day cheering Jesus, hoping that he would start a movement like the Maccabees. Most, if not all, the Jews wanted to be free of Roman occupation.
Furthermore, by what they are saying about Jesus, the people seem to give us evidence that they might have believed Jesus was going to lead an uprising. How do we know that? Look at Mark 11, verses 9-10.
Verse 9 is familiar, as we quote or sing it almost every Palm Sunday. “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” That is a quote from Psalm 118 verses 25-26. Why did the Jews shout these verses?
Psalm 118 is often considered to be a messianic psalm, meaning that the ancient Jewish scholars interpreted this psalm as talking about the Messiah. You and I hear that word “messiah,” and my guess is that most of us instantly, in our minds, connect “messiah” to Jesus. Jesus, we Christians believe, was the promised Messiah, and that belief has been true in Christian thinking for nearly 2000 years.
But for the Jews who wrote Psalm 118, and for the Jews who were shouting verses from Psalm 118 as Jesus entered the city of Jerusalem sitting on a donkey, they had made no previous connection between Jesus and this Messiah figure. Actually, we could say that the crowds at that Palm Sunday were some of the first people to make the connection.
While they were correct, they were also very wrong. In the next post we’ll learn how.