First-century Passover celebrations brought Jewish pilgrims to Jerusalem from around the world, and the ancient Jewish historian Josephus says that at one Passover, 2.7 million Jews were present in the Holy City. Thus, the crowd that greeted Jesus as He rode into Jerusalem on the first Palm Sunday must have been vast.
John describes that first Palm Sunday in today’s passage, informing us of a large crowd present on that day to herald Jesus’ journey from Bethany to Jerusalem (v. 12). We see that as Jesus comes to the city, the crowd, waving palm branches, greets Him with a shout: “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!” (v. 13). Palm branches were a national symbol for first-century Judea, and they were frequently used in contexts associated with messianic expectations. Palm branches had been waved about two hundred years earlier when the Maccabees liberated the temple from foreign occupation, so their use on Palm Sunday seems to indicate that the crowd expects Jesus to be the promised Messiah, the son of David appointed to lead them to independence. This is confirmed in the cries of the crowd, which are drawn from Psalm 118 and were seen by the rabbis as words to be pronounced at the Messiah’s arrival. The shout “Hosanna!” in fact, means something like “Save us now!” and we know that the salvation that many first-century Jews were looking for from the Messiah was a political liberation from Roman rule.
Yet Jesus’ manner of entry is not that of a conquering earthly king. He comes riding on a young donkey, a humble beast of burden, and not a war horse (v. 14). Of course, to ride on such an animal is not ultimately incompatible with a king who is victorious in battle. After all, King David sometimes rode on a mule, and he was skilled in battle (1 Kings 1:33). Still, the choice of a donkey is significant, as it points to Jesus’ mission as not being one of political salvation first and foremost. He arrives in Jerusalem to do battle with the more dreaded foes of sin, Satan, and death (Col. 2:15).
Dr. R.C. Sproul writes in his commentary John: “When Jesus came into the city, He did not deny that He was the people’s rightful King. However, by riding a donkey colt, He subtly informed them that He was the King God had appointed, not the King that they had conjured up in their expectations.” He came as the Messiah Zechariah foresaw, the One who secures peace between God and His people through the blood of the covenant (Zech. 9:9–11; see John 12:9–13).