John 12:12-19 The Coming of the King
Christmas is the biggest communal celebration held in the United Kingdom. The vast majority of people take part in some sort of events associated with it, though only a minority –still in the millions- take part in the Christian aspects of that festival. Now in proportion to numbers, when Passover was celebrated this was a communal event like no other in Israel. In addition, many thousands came from other parts of the known world in Europe, Asia, or North Africa and the Middle East in varying numbers to participate in this annual celebration. It was not celebrated by the majority in their home communities unless they were unable to travel, instead vast numbers of people converged on the capital city Jerusalem for around ten days which with travelling time would have meant quite a few weeks away from home for many of them. It was spring-time and ideal temperatures for being outside in the Holy Land. Most people in Israel at that time lived in small villages of a few hundred people at the most and only went outside their local area to go to Jerusalem for Jewish religious festivals and even then probably only once a year. The whole community would travel down together sleeping out in the open air and living very simply but enjoying time off work. The numbers given are huge. Thirty years after the time of Jesus Josephus the most well-known Jewish historian gives a figure of over two and a half million attending Passover which is in excess of the total population of Israel at that time turning up. Imagine all 5.4 million residents of Scotland turning up in Edinburgh for an event and you get the idea of the overcrowding and logistical difficulties possible with such large numbers. I think it likely that a figure of one million would be the maximum total in Jesus’ day, but when you realise how small Jerusalem was as a city back then with incredibly narrow streets in the old city which still survive in places then you can get a sense of the atmosphere of those days. The other three gospels focus on Jesus’ heaviness of heart knowing what lay ahead of Him within only a week of His entry into Jerusalem. However, John’s focus is more immediate on the exuberance of the crowds who have gathered on the hills around Jerusalem and the sounds of their praises echoing round the hills and valleys. In such a context the 1,200 Roman soldiers in their fortress garrison in the city might have every reason to feel rather vulnerable if the crowds decided to turn on them and demand their independence. The main garrison troops were in Damascus, Syria. In an age before modern communications that was a very long way if you needed assistance at relatively short notice! Let’s look briefly at this remarkable day in the life and ministry of Jesus and see how the events of that day fitted into His calling and vision for God’s kingdom on earth.
1. The preparation by the king (John 12:1-11)
The other gospels, but especially Luke chose not to highlight the emotionally charged crowds that were all around Jesus in the miles leading up to Jerusalem with people converging from different directions to the capital city. In particular in Luke 19:41-44, there are some very sober words of Jesus: As He approached Jerusalem and saw the city, He wept over it 42 and said, ‘If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace – but now it is hidden from your eyes. 43 The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. 44 They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognise the time of God’s coming to you.’ In the midst of the deafening noise of the triumphant crowds enjoying their holidays Jesus on the Mount of Olives overlooking Jerusalem views the future through very different eyes to others around Him. He can see that their hopes for an independent Israel free from Roman control will bring not the freedom they hoped for but enslavement and misery or even death for the vast majority of the population. It would be two thousand years before a Jewish state would be established in this land again. We need to be careful what we ask for in life. Rarely do things turn out as we hope or expect. Sometimes of course they can be better than we had hoped but on other occasions our aspirations can be overshadowed by unexpected difficulties. Yet in it all God is in control and works for the good of His people through the good times and the tough. Luke has focused on the longer-term future as He zooms in on Jesus seeing through the exuberance that is taking place all around Him. We all need to have hopes and dreams they give us a focus for living. Yet we need to be careful in discerning what we ask for and be sure to take things to God in prayer to ensure we are not simply asking Him to bless our hopes rather than asking what might be Your will or plan in this situation.
However, John also in the story at Bethany recorded in John 12:1-11, drew attention to some very different human perspectives through the account of Mary pouring some expensive perfume on Jesus while He was staying in the home of the family Jesus had a special friendship with and with whom He stayed when visiting Jerusalem. Here in that story we have three perspectives: firstly of Judas Iscariot, the strong nationalist disciple whose big ambition was to see the Romans excluded from the land. His passion was for independence from Rome. He was treasurer of the apostolic group. Sadly it appears he had little spiritual discernment about what was going on and could only view things from a materialistic perspective and saw the use of the perfume as a waste of money. How tragic for him that he never truly grasped until after Jesus’ crucifixion that Jesus’ kingdom and rule was so different from his own perspective. He had been so determined to get Jesus to change His course of action that he never took time to consider that it was him who needed to change. Is this true of anyone here today? Is this a place you or I have been in the past? It can be sobering to understand for the first time that prayer can sometimes be more about God changing us and our attitudes than changing the situation we are bringing to God. Whose will do we want to be done on earth as it is in heaven? We recognise that this is not easy to discern. Yet we need to learn humbly from the mistakes of others like Judas that our hopes may need to be redirected – if only Judas had grasped this then he could have played a part in the Early Church too, but it was not to be.
The second perspective in the story comes from Mary whose devotion to Jesus resulted in the anointing of Jesus and whose prophetic act was recognised by Jesus. In John 12:7-8 Jesus stated: ‘Leave her alone,’ Jesus replied. ‘It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of My burial. 8 You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have Me.’ If a TV reporter had done a live interview with Mary the day after the event it is interesting to speculate how much she had discerned about the possible events of the coming week. We will never know, but it was clear that somehow she was aware that Jesus’ death was imminent, but I doubt she could have articulated that with any clarity. We cannot blame her for that – on the contrary the fact that she alone seems to have anticipated that within a short time Jesus would be dead is remarkable. I think even she might have been taken aback if Jesus had told her than in a week He would be buried in a tomb less than two miles away. What was important for Mary was that she did what God prompted her to do without knowing how that fitted into the bigger picture. This is crucial for us to grasp. Judas in looking for the big picture failed to do what he might have done in the present. Mary, together with her brother and sister Martha and Lazarus seem to have that ability to focus for God on the here and now and what could be done in the present and leave the rest to God. It was a simple child-like faith but that kind of trust in God through Jesus is what He desires from us as well. We need to ask ourselves how can I serve God by addressing the needs in front of me at the present time. They were asking the right questions and Jesus loved being in their company. It is a lesson for us all to keep things simple. With humility to see what needs to be done and quietly rise to the challenge of doing what we can. God honours those who do that just as Jesus singled out Mary here. What can I do / help with that needs to be done?
The third perspective was that of the crowd recorded in John 12:9-11: Meanwhile a large crowd of Jews found out that Jesus was there and came, not only because of Him but also to see Lazarus, whom He had raised from the dead. 10 So the chief priests made plans to kill Lazarus as well, 11 for on account of him many of the Jews were going over to Jesus and believing in Him. It is so interesting that these people refused to go along with the narrative of the Sadducees and Pharisees that rejected Jesus as the Messiah. The resurrection from the dead of Lazarus, here in Bethany, recorded in John 11, was the game-changer. At the human level it appeared that the likelihood of Jesus’ peaceful mission succeeding seemed so remote, yet in the light of what had happened in that Bethany graveyard had revealed that anything is possible with God. If Jesus can call a man back to life whose body was decaying in the tomb then everything else He was declaring was now viewed in a very different light. We will never know if these people were among the several thousand Jews who became followers of Jesus in the first few weeks and months after the Christian Church started on the Day of Pentecost. It would be quite plausible because they had already had minds opened to believe that God was working through Jesus in unexpected ways. Sometimes we have to be honest that we don’t know what God wants us to believe or do in a particular situation, but coming before Him in prayer in a spirit of openness is the right course of action as we look to Him for the future. Palm Sunday for John was prefaced by these three perspectives on the events that would shortly unfold – with which perspective do you most identify at this moment in time – if any?
2. The coming of the King (John 12:12,14-15))
2 The next day the great crowd that had come for the festival heard that Jesus was on His way to Jerusalem. … 14 Jesus found a young donkey and sat upon it, as it is written: 15 ‘Do not be afraid, Daughter Zion see, your king is coming, seated on a donkey’s colt.’ The events of Palm Sunday although informal and not officially organised were planned to some degree in advance. The festival attendees, almost certainly from Galilee, but possibly including others from Judea who had witnessed Lazarus’ resurrection from the dead, had advance warning that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem and decided to prepare a welcome for Him. It is unique to John’s account that he specifies the recognition by these people of Jesus’ status.
What was in their minds and how were they viewing Jesus? It is clear that there were thousands of Galileans very open to acknowledging Jesus as the Messiah as the acclaimed future ruler of their country. There are occasions when this is spelt out in the Gospel accounts of the ministry of Jesus. For example, after the feeding of the Five Thousand, John 6:14-15 states: After the people saw the sign Jesus performed, they began to say, ‘Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world.’ 15 Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make Him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by Himself. It is evident from John’s account that Jesus began the day travelling on foot before later sending His disciples to collect a donkey and her colt (a young donkey). The details of the two animals and the circumstances around their collection are given in the other gospels. John’s focus is on the people and their acknowledgement of Jesus. Reading the account in John 12 the focus is clearly on the kingship of Jesus. The religious authorities may be hostile or indifferent at best to Jesus, but many of the ordinary people take a very different view. They are very willing to acknowledge Him. They were in some cases going out to travel with Him into the city. John 19:13 states: They …went out to meet Him. The coming of the king was going to be acknowledged and broadcast to their fellow Jews. They were not hiding their professed allegiance to Jesus. We would love to know how many of these people later became followers of Jesus after His resurrection, recognising His true identity! However, we will never know the answer to that question. The question for us to answer here is this: Do I openly declare my allegiance to Jesus or not? This doesn’t mean wearing a tee-shirt with printed messages or carrying a banner around Dundee city centre or down Brook Street in Broughty Ferry. But there should be occasions when it is natural as Christians to give a verbal acknowledgement of our faith to people around us. There are real questions to raise about how they viewed Jesus? Almost certainly many would have expressed their support for a military figure that would overthrow the Romans and establish a new free Jewish state. This was the sort of Messiah they wanted. Naturally, this raises another question: How closely do I want to follow the way of Jesus? Am I content to follow the account raised in the Bible or do I want to try and fit Jesus into a category of my own making? This is a very serious question because it affects how we live our lives day by day and it also has a major impact on how we participate in church life. When a group of followers of Jesus gather today to genuinely seek to be like Him then some very special counter-cultural things may happen over time as individuals and groups and sometimes even communities are changed. …Now the crowd that was with Him… (John 12:17a) Prior to the familiar Palm Sunday activities a smaller crowd travelled with Jesus on the up to two miles journey into Jerusalem from the direction of Bethany. These people were keen to acknowledge Jesus as King- are you?
3. The response to the King (John 12:13, 16-19)
There were clearly three responses identified to Jesus on Palm Sunday.
(a)The disciples (John 12:16) At first His disciples did not understand all this. Only after Jesus was glorified did they realise that these things had been written about Him and that these things had been done to Him. In conversations with Muslim friends they have a number of concerns about the biblical text. The most serious is with Old Testament figures who do things wrong or engage in sinful conduct. They are convinced that a true man of God will always get things right. In response a Christian will seek to reply with humility that of the people who have lived on earth only Jesus was perfect and never made a mistake or gave a wrong judgement call. The rest of us have had plenty of wrong thoughts, or made wrong assessments of other people; said inappropriate words or took a wrong course of action- or failed to take action when something ought to have been done. The only thing we can say in mitigation is ‘Thank God most of these mistakes or conscious sins were very small errors and few of them caused any long-term harm to others or to ourselves, more often temporary embarrassment and a need to apologise prior to the resolution of a matter.
The second thing Muslim friends pointed to is the ignorance of the followers of Jesus. Why were they so slow to recognise Jesus’ true identity? The Bible has a very simple answer. The record we have in the Gospels is what actually happened. Christians are real people whose fallible feet walk this earth like other people. The wonderful blessing is that God calls very ordinary imperfect people to follow Him, people who know they have made mistakes but who in all sincerity want to follow Him and live for Him and make a difference for Him in the community in which we live. Will you commit your life to following Him if you haven’t done so yet?
(b) The authorities (John 12:19) So the Pharisees said to one another, ‘See, this is getting us nowhere. Look how the whole world has gone after Him!’ The reaction of the authorities had always been negative towards Jesus once His ministry became public. It is clear after the raising of Lazarus from the dead that a red line was crossed and decisive action was called for. John 11: 47-53 records a meeting of the Jewish ruling Counsel in which a decision was taken to eliminate Jesus. Then the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the Sanhedrin. ‘What are we accomplishing?’ they asked. ‘Here is this man performing many signs. 48 If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our nation.’ 49 Then one of them, named Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, spoke up, ‘You know nothing at all! 50 You do not realise that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.’ 51 He did not say this on his own, but as high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the Jewish nation, 52 and not only for that nation but also for the scattered children of God, to bring them together and make them one. 53 So from that day on they plotted to take His life. In the immediate future John 11:57 reminds us they planned to arrest Jesus. But the chief priests and the Pharisees had given orders that anyone who found out where Jesus was should report it so that they might arrest Him. Here in John 12:19 it is clear they fear they are losing the battle of convictions and the only way to win the day is to kill Him. This scenario reminds us that we can be living the best of lives and still face real difficulties, even hostility from supposedly educated people. These men ought to have known better.
(c) The crowds (John 12:13, 17-19) 13 They took palm branches and went out to meet Him, shouting, ‘Hosanna!’ ‘Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!’ ‘Blessed is the king of Israel!’….17 Now the crowd that was with Him when He called Lazarus from the tomb and raised him from the dead continued to spread the word. 18 Many people, because they had heard that He had performed this sign, went out to meet Him. Palm branches were a nationalist symbol that had been in use in the Holy Land since the time of the Maccabees in the 160s BC. Later in the Jewish struggle against Rome in the 60s AD coins were struck with the palm branches image depicting an independent Jewish state. It is, therefore, likely that for some of these people it was nationalist not specifically religious sentiments that were uppermost in their minds. Of course there would have been many others who were committed to their Jewish faith and advocated nationalist opinions. Hosanna means either ‘God saves’ or literally ‘give salvation now’. It came from Psalm 118:25, a Psalm sung regularly in Jewish worship services, including the major festivals in Jerusalem. The waving of bunches of willow, myrtle and palm branches known as a lubab were a very common sight at the Tabernacles Festival and possibly this practice spread to the other festivals too. Almost certainly the nationalistic image of Messiah promoted by these festival goers included a desire to overthrown the Roman occupation. So how does Jesus respond?
This ideology was not shared by Jesus for His first coming. At His second coming He will happily be acknowledged as ‘King of Kings’ and reign but here at His first coming it was as a prince of peace. The decision to ride into Jerusalem on a donkey in the light of Zechariah 9:9 made it plain His real peaceful intentions. Jesus found a young donkey and sat upon it, as it is written: 15 ‘Do not be afraid, Daughter Zion see, your king is coming, seated on a donkey’s colt (John 12:15) In contrast to Judas Maccabaeus who entered the city more than a century and a half earlier on a war horse, Jesus had a very different agenda. Returning to Zechariah 9:9-10 Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion! Shout, Daughter Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and victorious, lowly and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. 10 I will take away the chariots from Ephraim and the war-horses from Jerusalem, and the battle-bow will be broken. He will proclaim peace to the nations. His rule will extend from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth. How counter-cultural is our message and witness as Christians in a world of violence and growing hostility between different countries and cultures? We have a distinctive message to proclaim.
4. The revelation from the king (John 12:20-26)
(a)The enquiry (John 12:20-22) 20 Now there were some Greeks among those who went up to worship at the festival. 21 They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, with a request. ‘Sir,’ they said, ‘we would like to see Jesus.’ 22 Philip went to tell Andrew; Andrew and Philip in turn told Jesus. How interesting that being distinctive positively in witness drew enquiries from people attracted to what Jesus was saying and doing. There would be hostility and Jesus would be crucified less than a week later, but there were people wanting to hear more about following Him. Praise God His disciples were alert enough to notice their interest and follow it up. How open are we to look for opportunities to share our faith with people around us? Like this occasion it is unlikely to be expected opportunities these moments come ‘out of the blue’. Remember our verse for the year as a church in I Peter 3:15: But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect. This is our calling as followers of Jesus.
(b) The requirement (John 12:23-26) Jesus replied, ‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 24 Very truly I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. 25 Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 26 Whoever serves Me must follow Me; and where I am, My servant also will be. My Father will honour the one who serves Me. How willing are we to follow in His footsteps? It will be a hard path to follow at times but it is the only way to be effective witnesses for Him. I pray He will give each one of us the grace we need to follow Him and proclaim and live faithfully the wonderful good news that the world so desperately needs to hear, for Jesus’ sake Amen.