The scene now shifts from a private setting to a public setting. Given the tensions and expectations that have been growing (cf. 10:39-42; 11:46-57; 12:11), Jesus' entry into Jerusalem is very dramatic. By openly entering the city where he is a marked man he takes the first step toward the final confrontation.
Passover was one of the three feasts that Jews were supposed to attend in Jerusalem, and consequently the population of Jerusalem swelled enormously at this time. As this great crowd is beginning to gather from around Israel and the larger world of the diaspora, news about Jesus is spreading, and people are wondering whether he will come to the feast (11:55-56). On Sunday, the day after the party in Bethany at which Mary anointed Jesus, news arrives that Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem (v. 12), and a crowd of pilgrims, presumably those who had been wondering if he would come, goes out to meet him. Mary's private expression of emotion is now matched by the crowd's public outpouring of enthusiasm.
They shout Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! (v. 13). These are lines from one of the Psalms of Ascents (Ps 118:25-26) sung as a welcome to pilgrims coming up to Jerusalem. As such, this is an entirely appropriate thing to do as Jesus is coming up to Jerusalem. But there is more involved here. The cry of Hosanna! is a Hebrew word (hoshi`ah-na) that had become a greeting or shout of praise but that actually meant "Save!" or "Help!" (an intensive form of imperative). Not surprisingly, forms of this word were used to address the king with a need (cf. 2 Sam 14:4; 2 Kings 6:26). Furthermore, the palm branches the people carry are symbolic of a victorious ruler (cf. 1 Macc 13:51; 2 Macc 10:7; 14:4). Indeed, in an apocalyptic text from the Maccabean era, palms are mentioned in association with the coming of the messianic salvation on the Mount of Olives (Testament of Naphtali 5). The cry of Hosanna! and the palm branches are in themselves somewhat ambiguous, but their import is made clear as the crowd adds a further line, Blessed is the King of Israel! (v. 13). Clearly they see in Jesus the answer to their nationalistic, messianic hopes. Earlier a crowd had wanted to make Jesus king (6:15), and now this crowd is recognizing him as king in the city of the great King. Here is the great dream of a Davidic ruler who would come and liberate Israel, establishing peace and subduing the Gentiles (cf. Psalms of Solomon 17:21-25).
Jesus responds by finding a young donkey to sit on (v. 14), thereby making a mess of the picture they were creating. He should have found a horse to ride on or made use of some other symbol of power. Instead he paints from a different palette. His action undercuts their nationalism and points in a different direction, evoking an image from the Prophets: Do not be afraid, O Daughter of Zion; see, your king is coming, seated on a donkey's colt (v. 15; from Zech 9:9). He is indeed king, but not the sort of king they have in mind.
John says the disciples did not make the connection with the passage from Zechariah at the time: At first his disciples did not understand all this. Only after Jesus was glorified did they realize that these things had been written about him and that they had done these things to him (v. 16). The word translated realize is emnesthesan, "remember," the same word used to describe their recollection and insight into the cleansing of the temple (2:22). At the time they were caught up in the swirl of events and did not really understand what was going on. From what we know of them elsewhere, they probably shared the nationalistic hopes of the crowd (for example, Acts 1:6). The disciples and the crowd thought they were honoring Jesus, and they were. But they did not really understand the true meaning of what was happening nor even what they were saying. They did not put the events of Jesus' entry into Jerusalem and the Scripture together, so they did not grasp what had taken place until after Jesus had been glorified. They needed to see the revelation at it greatest in the death and resurrection of Jesus and to have the help of the Spirit who was not available to them until after the glorification (7:39) before they understood the significance of these events (cf. 15:26; 16:13-14).
The meaning of what takes place is conveyed through both the Scripture shouted by the crowd at the time and the Scripture that occurred to the disciples later. The crowd shouted, "Help!" and "Save!" and Jesus has come precisely to help and save them, though it will not be through the political liberation the crowd expects. The crowd chants a line from a Psalm of Ascent: Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! (v. 13, from Ps 118:26). This line applies to Jesus in a way it never had to anyone else before. Jesus is the one who makes known the Father and has come in the Father's name (5:43), and he desires that the Father's name be made known (17:6, 26). So of him it is uniquely true that he comes in the name of the Lord. This expression is one way of summarizing his whole mission.
The crowd, in their messianic, nationalistic fervor, adds another line not found in the Psalm of Ascent: Blessed is the King of Israel! (v. 13). This acclamation ties together the whole of Jesus' ministry up to this point, signaled by the word Israel. Apart from this verse, the words Israel and Israelite occur only in the first three chapters. John the Baptist's witness to Israel (1:31) finds its initial response in the confession of Nathanael, a true Israelite (1:47), when Nathanael confesses Jesus to be the Son of God, the King of Israel (1:49). Nathanael stands in marked contrast to Nicodemus, a teacher of Israel (3:10), who is unable to understand earthly things, let alone heavenly things. So the first three chapters are characterized by a concern with the initial witness to Israel, and this motif now finds its fullness in this crowd's acclamation of Jesus as the King of Israel. Jesus is indeed King of Israel, and this motif now comes to the fore as the story nears its end (cf. 18:33-39; 19:3, 12-15, 19-21). His kingdom, however, far transcends Israel's boundaries. "What honor was it to the Lord to be King of Israel? What great thing was it to the King of eternity to become the King of men?" (Augustine In John 51.4). Augustine's language is too dismissive to be true to John at this point, but he does help us keep the Johannine perspective on the identity of the one entering Jerusalem.
The crowd is probably not aware that the line they have added to the acclamation is an echo of another passage that further contributes to the depth of revelation concerning Jesus in this story: "The Lord, the King of Israel, is with you; never again will you fear any harm" (Zeph 3:15). The context in Zephaniah is of the future time of peace when Jerusalem is no longer at war—the lame and the scattered have been brought home, and even the Gentiles have been purified so that they might call on the name of the Lord (3:9-20). The hallmark of this time is the Lord's own presence (3:15, 17). For Zephaniah, as for this crowd, such a scene was the anticipated outcome of the final battle with the Gentiles, which would liberate Israel once and for all. But John has shown that the realities described by Zephaniah are already taking place in the midst of Israel through the ministry of Jesus, though in a very different manner. Key themes in Zephaniah's description are heard also in the previous chapters in John. In particular, the bringing together of both Jew and Gentile was said to be the work of the Good Shepherd (10:4, 16), and the picture of life in the messianic kingdom is alluded to in Jesus' promise of abundant life (10:10), which was then further revealed in the raising of Lazarus (chap. 11). Thus, the crowd's nationalistic agenda is thrown into relief. "They should not be acclaiming him as an earthly king, but as the manifestation of the Lord their God who has come into their midst (Zeph 3:17) to gather the outcast" (Brown 1966:462). If they had eyes to see what Jesus was doing and ears to hear what he was saying they would find in him the fulfillment of their desires, though without the nationalistic element.
The Scripture passage that occurs to the disciples later is also, like the acclamation of the crowd, a composite text. The first part, Do not be afraid, O Daughter of Zion (v. 15), probably comes from the passage we have just examined in Zephaniah (3:16). The exhortation not to fear is very common in Scripture, but the Zephaniah passage is the closest to the full expression in John (Brown 1966:458). Thus, the crowd's acclamation and this later Scripture are tied together in John through Zephaniah, though not in the thinking of those in the midst of the event. The magnificent picture of eschatological peace in Zephaniah is behind this lack of fear. The fulfillment of this promise of peace is taking place right before the eyes of this crowd, though they do not know it.
The rest of the quote comes from Zechariah: "Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion! Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey" (Zech 9:9). As with the Zephaniah passage, this verse from Zechariah foresees the coming of the messianic age of peace, when the war-horses are taken from Jerusalem and the king will reign "from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth" (Zech 9:10). John has abbreviated the citation, and he probably did this for the sake of simplicity rather than in an effort to exclude the themes of righteousness, salvation and gentleness. Donkeys and mules were used by important persons and kings in the Old Testament (for example, Judg 10:4; 12:14; 2 Sam 13:29; 18:9), including David himself (1 Kings 1:33), but the contrast in this context in Zechariah 9 is between the warhorses (v. 10) and the donkey on which the king rides (v. 9) is a striking image of humility. The king is righteous, blameless in the eyes of the law, which reminds one of the controversies in this Gospel over who is the true disciple of Moses. The "having salvation" is a form that could be either passive or reflexive (Niphal, nosha`). This means that this king has himself been delivered by God (passive) or that he shows himself to be a deliverer (reflexive)—either sense is true of Jesus as revealed in this Gospel. Thus, by riding on a donkey, Jesus connects with a rich picture of the messianic king, thereby providing insight for interpreting his own identity and plans as he enters Jerusalem on this particular Sunday at the time of Passover.
John gives us a report on both the crowd and the opponents, as he does elsewhere in this Gospel. The repetition of the word "crowd" (ochlos) is a little awkward (Jn 12:17-18). Verse 18 reads literally, "Because of this the crowd went out to meet him, because they heard he had done this sign," which makes it sound like what was described in verse 12. The NIV has the right sense—the number of people gathering around Jesus was continuing to grow, spurred on by the report by those who had seen the raising of Lazarus (vv. 17-18). Despite the awkward expression, this is an important note for John to add, for it continues to connect the raising of Lazarus to what is now going on. John does not let us forget that the one who is heading toward his death is the Lord of life.
While the crowds build, the Pharisees, on the other hand, are getting more and more upset. The translation See, this is getting us nowhere (v. 19) is too weak. The verbs are in the second-person plural, capturing the mutual condemnation they are throwing at one another: "You guys see that you are doing no good." The crowd around Jesus is so large that they conclude, Look how the whole world has gone after him! (v. 19). This exaggeration expresses their dismay and frustration, but of course it is also yet another example in John of people's words being more significant than they realize.
A series of different people are coming to Jesus. First, we heard just before the triumphal entry that "many of the Jews were going over to Jesus and putting their faith in him" (12:11). Second, the Pharisees speak of the world (v. 19 ) probably because they are seeing even Jews from the diaspora, who are in town for the feast, being attracted to Jesus. But the world that God loves and for which he sent his Son (3:16) includes all humanity. Representatives of the third group, the Gentiles, appear in the next section as some Greeks who are seeking Jesus arrive. The Good Shepherd is indeed gathering his flock from the whole world (10:16) in fulfillment of the prophecies of the universal messianic kingdom such as those found in Zechariah and Zephaniah. Jesus continues to form his community apart from the official structures of Judaism. The same witness to Jesus that disturbs the leaders might have instead encouraged them to reconsider their rejection of Jesus and come to him for life. But they continue in their hardened position against Jesus, rejecting his love for them.