This story of Christ’s riding in triumph to Jerusalem is recorded by all the evangelists, as worthy of special remark; and in it we may observe,
I. The respect that was paid to our Lord Jesus by the common people, John 12:12, 13, where we are told,
1. Who they were that paid him this respect: much people, ochlos polys—a great crowd of those that came up to the feast; not the inhabitants of Jerusalem, but the country people that came from remote parts to worship at the feast; the nearer the temple of the Lord, the further from the Lord of the temple. They were such as came up to the feast. (1.) Perhaps they had been Christ’s hearers in the country, and great admirers of him there, and therefore were forward to testify their respect to him at Jerusalem, where they knew he had many enemies. Note, Those that have a true value and veneration for Christ will neither be ashamed nor afraid to own him before men in any instance whereby they may do him honour. (2.) Perhaps they were those more devout Jews that came up to the feast some time before, to purify themselves, that were more inclined to religion than their neighbours, and these were they that were so forward to honour Christ. Note, The more regard men have to God and religion in general, the better disposed they will be to entertain Christ and his religion, which is not destructive but perfective of all previous discoveries and institutions. They were not the rulers, nor the great men, that went out to meet Christ, but the commonalty; some would have called them a mob, a rabble: but Christ has chosen the weak and foolish things (1 Cor. 1:27), and is honoured more by the multitude than by the magnificence of his followers; for he values men by their souls, not their names and titles of honour.
2. On what occasion they did it: They heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. They had enquired for him (John 11:55, 56): Will he not come up to the feast? And now they hear he is coming; for none that seek Christ seek in vain. Now when they heard he was coming, they bestirred themselves, to give him an agreeable reception. Note, Tidings of the approach of Christ and his kingdom should awaken us to consider what is the work of the day, that it may be done in the day. Israel must prepare to meet their God (Amos 4:12), and the virgins to meet the bridegroom.
3. In what way they expressed their respect; they had not the keys of the city to present to him, nor the sword nor mace to carry before him, none of the city music to compliment him with, but such as they had they gave him; and even this despicable crowd was a faint resemblance of that glorious company which John saw before the throne, and before the Lamb, Rev. 7:9, 10. Though these were not before the throne, they were before the Lamb, the paschal Lamb, who now, according to the usual ceremony, four days before the feast, was set apart to be sacrificed for us. There it is said of that celestial choir,
(1.) That they had palms in their hands, and so had these branches of palm-trees. The palm-tree has ever been an emblem of victory and triumph; Cicero calls one that had won many prizes plurimarum palmarum homo—a man of many palms. Christ was now by his death to conquer principalities and powers, and therefore it was fit that he should have the victor’s palm borne before him; though he was but girding on the harness, yet he could boast as though he had put it off. But this was not all; the carrying of palm-branches was part of the ceremony of the feast of tabernacles (Lev. 23:40; Neh. 8:15), and their using this expression of joy in the welcome given to our Lord Jesus intimates that all the feasts pointed at his gospel, had their accomplishment in it, and particularly that of the feast of tabernacles, Zech. 14:16.
(2.) That they cried with a loud voice, saying, Salvation to our God (Rev. 7:10); so did these here, they shouted before him, as is usual in popular welcomes, Hosanna, blessed is the king of Israel, that comes in the name of the Lord; and hosanna signifies salvation. It is quoted from Ps. 118:25, 26. See how well acquainted these common people were with the scripture, and how pertinently they apply it to the Messiah. High thoughts of Christ will be best expressed in scripture-words. Now in their acclamations, [1.] They acknowledge our Lord Jesus to be the king of Israel, that comes in the name of the Lord. Though he went now in poverty and disgrace, yet, contrary to the notions their scribes had given them of the Messiah, they own him to be a king, which bespeaks both his dignity and honour, which we must adore; and his dominion and power, to which we must submit. They own him to be, First, A rightful king, coming in the name of the Lord (Ps. 2:6), sent of God, not only as a prophet, but as a king. Secondly, The promised and long-expected king, Messiah the prince, for he is king of Israel. According to the light they had, they proclaimed him king of Israel in the streets of Jerusalem; and, they themselves being Israelites, hereby they avouched him for their king. [2.] They heartily wish well to his kingdom, which is the meaning of hosanna; let the king of Israel prosper, as when Solomon was crowned they cried, God save king Solomon, 1 Kgs. 1:39. In crying hosanna they prayed for three things:—First, That his kingdom might come, in the light and knowledge of it, and in the power and efficacy of it. God speed the gospel plough. Secondly, That it might conquer, and be victorious over all opposition, Rev. 6:2. Thirdly, That it might continue. Hosanna is, Let the king live for ever; though his kingdom may be disturbed, let it never be destroyed, Ps. 72:17. [3.] They bid him welcome into Jerusalem: “Welcome is he that cometh; we are heartily glad to see him; come in thou blessed of the Lord; and well may we attend with our blessings him who meets us with his.” This welcome is like that (Ps. 24:7-9), Lift up your heads, O ye gates. Thus we must every one of us bid Christ welcome into our hearts, that is, we must praise him, and be well pleased in him. As we should be highly pleased with the being and attributes of God, and his relation to us, so we should be with the person and offices of the Lord Jesus, and his meditation between us and God. Faith saith, Blessed is he that cometh.
II. The posture Christ puts himself into for receiving the respect that was paid him (John 12:14): When he had found, or procured, a young ass, he sat thereon. It was but a poor sort of figure he made, he alone upon an ass, and a crowd of people about him shouting Hosanna. 1. This was much more of state than he used to take; he used to travel on foot, but now was mounted. Though his followers should be willing to take up with mean things, and not affect any thing that looks like grandeur, yet they are allowed to use the service of the inferior creatures, according as God in his providence gives particular possession of those things over which, by his covenant with Noah and his sons, he has given to man a general dominion. 2. Yet it was much less of state than the great ones of the world usually take. If he would have made a public entry, according to the state of a man of high degree, he should have rode in a chariot like that of Solomon’s (Song 3:9, 10), with pillars of silver, the bottom of gold, and the covering of purple; but, if we judge according to the fashion of this world, to be introduced thus was rather a disparagement than any honour to the king of Israel, for it seemed as if he would look great, and knew not how. His kingdom was not of this world, and therefore came not with outward pomp. He was now humbling himself, but in his exalted state John sees him in a vision on a white horse, with a bow and a crown.
III. The fulfilling of the scripture in this: As it is written, Fear not, daughter of Sion, John 12:15. This is quoted from Zech. 9:9. To him bore all the prophets witness, and particularly to this concerning him.
1. It was foretold that Zion’s king should come, should come thus, sitting on an ass’s colt; even this minute circumstance was foretold, and Christ took care it should be punctually fulfilled. Note, (1.) Christ is Zion’s king; the holy hill of Zion was of old destined to be the metropolis or royal city of the Messiah. (2.) Zion’s king does and will look after her, and come to her; though for a short time he retires, in due time he returns. (3.) Though he comes but slowly (an ass is slow-paced), yet he comes surely, and with such expressions of humility and condescension as greatly encourage the addresses and expectations of his loyal subjects. Humble supplicants may reach to speak with him. If this be a discouragement to Zion, that her king appears in no greater state or strength, let her know that though he comes to her riding on an ass’s colt, yet he goes forth against her enemies riding on the heavens for her help, Deut. 33:26.
2. The daughter of Zion is therefore called upon to behold her king, to take notice of him and his approaches; behold and wonder, for he comes with observation, though not with outward show, Song 3:11. Fear not. In the prophecy, Zion is told to rejoice greatly, and to shout, but here it is rendered, Fear not. Unbelieving fears are enemies to spiritual joys; if they be cured, if they be conquered, joy will come of course; Christ comes to his people to silence their fears. If the case be so that we cannot reach to the exultations of joy, yet we should labour to get from under the oppressions of fear. Rejoice greatly; at least, fear not.
IV. The remark made by the evangelist respecting the disciples (John 12:16): They understood not at first why Christ did this, and how the scripture was fulfilled; but when Jesus was glorified, and thereupon the Spirit poured out, then they remembered that these things were written of him in the Old Testament, and that they and others had, in pursuance thereof, done these things to him.
1. See here the imperfection of the disciples in their infant state; even they understood not these things at first. They did not consider, when they fetched the ass and set him thereon, that they were performing the ceremony of the inauguration of Zion’s king. Now observe, (1.) The scripture is often fulfilled by the agency of those who have not themselves an eye to the scripture in what they do, Isa. 45:4. (2.) There are many excellent things, both in the word and providence of God, which the disciples themselves do not at first understand: not at their first acquaintance with the things of God, while they see men as trees walking; not at the first proposal of the things to their view and consideration. That which afterwards is clear was at first dark and doubtful. (3.) It well becomes the disciples of Christ, when they are grown up to maturity in knowledge, frequently to reflect upon the follies and weaknesses of their first beginning, that free grace may have the glory of their proficiency, and they may have compassion on the ignorant. When I was a child, I spoke as a child.
2. See here the improvement of the disciples in their adult state. Though they had been children, they were not always so, but went on to perfection. Observe,
(1.) When they understood it: When Jesus was glorified; for, [1.] Till then they did not rightly apprehend the nature of his kingdom, but expected it to appear in external pomp and power, and therefore knew not how to apply the scriptures which spoke of it to so mean an appearance. Note, The right understanding of the spiritual nature of Christ’s kingdom, of its powers, glories, and victories, would prevent our misinterpreting and misapplying the scriptures that speak of it. [2.] Till then the Spirit was not poured out, who was to lead them into all truth. Note, The disciples of Christ are enabled to understand the scriptures by the same Spirit that indited the scriptures. The spirit of revelation is to all the saints a spirit of wisdom, Eph. 1:17, 18.
(2.) How they understood it; they compared the prophecy with the event, and put them together, that they might mutually receive light from each other, and so they came to understand both: Then remembered they that these things were written of him by the prophets, consonant to which they were done to him. Note, Such an admirable harmony there is between the word and works of God that the remembrance of what is written will enable us to understand what is done, and the observation of what is done will help us to understand what is written. As we have heard, so have we seen. The scripture is every day fulfilling.
V. The reason which induced the people to pay this respect to our Lord Jesus upon his coming into Jerusalem, though the government was so much set against him. It was because of the illustrious miracle he had lately wrought in raising Lazarus.
1. See here what account and what assurance they had of this miracle; no doubt, the city rang of it, the report of it was in all people’s mouths. But those who considered it as a proof of Christ’s mission, and a ground of their faith in him, that they might be well satisfied of the matter of fact, traced the report to those who were eye-witnesses of it, that they might know the certainty of it by the utmost evidence the thing was capable of: The people therefore that stood by when he called Lazarus out of his grave, being found out and examined, bore record, John 12:17. They unanimously averred the thing to be true, beyond dispute or contradiction, and were ready, if called to it, to depose it upon oath, for so much is implied in the word Emartyrei. Note, The truth of Christ’s miracles was evidenced by incontestable proofs. It is probable that those who had seen this miracle did not only assert it to those who asked them, but published it unasked, that this might add to the triumphs of this solemn day; and Christ’s coming in now from Bethany, where it was done, would put them in mind of it. Note, Those who wish well to Christ’s kingdom should be forward to proclaim what they know that may redound to his honour.
2. What improvement they made of it, and what influence it had upon them (John 12:18): For this cause, as much as any other, the people met him. (1.) Some, out of curiosity, were desirous to see one that had done such a wonderful work. Many a good sermon he had preached in Jerusalem, which drew not such crowds after him as this one miracle did. But, (2.) Others, out of conscience, studied to do him honour, as one sent of God. This miracle was reserved for one of the last, that it might confirm those which went before, and might gain him this honour just before his sufferings; Christ’s works were all not only well done (Mark 7:7) but well timed.
VI. The indignation of the Pharisees at all this; some of them, probably, saw, and they all soon heard of, Christ’s public entry. The committee appointed to find out expedients to crush him thought they had gained their point when he had retired unto privacy, and that he would soon be forgotten in Jerusalem, but they now rage and fret when they see they imagined but a vain thing. 1. They own that they had got no ground against him; it was plainly to be perceived that they prevailed nothing. They could not, with all their insinuations, alienate the people’s affections from him, nor with their menaces restrain them from showing their affection to him. Note, Those who oppose Christ, and fight against his kingdom, will be made to perceive that they prevail nothing. God will accomplish his own purposes in spite of them, and the little efforts of their impotent malice. You prevail nothing, ouk opheleite—you profit nothing. Note, There is nothing got by opposing Christ. 2. They own that he had got ground: The world is gone after him; there is a vast crowd attending him, a world of people: an hyperbole common in most languages. Yet here, like Caiaphas, ere they were aware, they prophesied that the world would go after him; some of all sorts, some from all parts; nations shall be discipled. But to what intent was this said? (1.) Thus they express their own vexation at the growth of his interest; their envy makes them fret. If the horn of the righteous be exalted with honour, the wicked see it, and are grieved (Ps. 112:9, 10); considering how great these Pharisees were, and what abundance of respect was paid them, one would think they needed not grudge Christ so inconsiderable a piece of honour as was now done him; but proud men would monopolize honour, and have none share with them, like Haman. (2.) Thus they excite themselves and one another, to a more vigorous carrying on of the war against Christ. As if they should say, “Dallying and delaying thus will never do. We must take some other and more effectual course, to put a stop to this infection; it is time to try our utmost skill and force, before the grievance grows past redress.” Thus the enemies of religion are made more resolute and active by being baffled; and shall its friends be disheartened with every disappointment, who know its cause is righteous and will at last be victorious?