John 12:12-18 – The Colt, The King and The Lazarus Thing

Thus far in John 12, we have seen how costly and fragrant worship can and should be.
• And interestingly, we have repeatedly seen John reference Lazarus.
    o “where Lazarus was” (vs. 1)
    o “Lazarus was one of those” (vs. 2)
    o “also to see Lazarus” (vs. 9)
    o “put Lazarus to death” (vs. 10)
    o And in today’s text, “called Lazarus out of the tomb” (vs. 17)
• This begs the question.
    o Why, in the midst of a story about Jesus, does John repeatedly focus on Lazarus?

Additionally, our text today is ripe with symbolism and misunderstanding.
• From the palms, to the colt to the pronouncement as king.
• We will explore its meaning and significance and why it was misunderstood.

We will tackle the symbolism first.

1) THE KING OF ISRAEL

John 12:12–16 (ESV) — 12 The next day the large crowd that had come to the feast heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. 13 So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, crying out, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!” 14 And Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it, just as it is written, 15 “Fear not, daughter of Zion; behold, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt!”

It has to be pointed out that Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem is the fulfillment of Daniel’s prophecy in Daniel 9.
• Jesus’ entry took place “seven weeks and sixty-two weeks” from the time of Artaxerxes’ decree to rebuild the temple in 445 B.C.
BTW – depending on the various calculations – that puts us at about 33 A.D.

large crowd” (vs. 12).
• Scholars estimate that the population of Jerusalem at the time of Jesus was about 100,000.
• The Jewish historian Josephus tells us the population of Jerusalem swelled to over 1 million during Passover.
• So “large crowd” is no exaggeration.

BTW – knowing these numbers helps us understand the actions of the Jewish leadership at this time.
• Matthew 26:3–5 (ESV) — 3 Then the chief priests and the elders of the people gathered in the palace of the high priest, whose name was Caiaphas, 4 and plotted together in order to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him. 5 But they said, “Not during the feast, lest there be an uproar among the people.”

Why Palm Branches?
• Because “nothing in the Old Testament…prescribes palm branches at Passover” but at the Feast of Tabernacles (the lulav) – D.A. Carson.

Background:
• Psalm 92:12 (ESV) — 12 The righteous flourish like the palm tree and grow like a cedar in Lebanon.
    o Spiritual Context – associated with righteousness
• 2 Maccabees 10:7 — 7 Therefore, carrying ivy-wreathed wands and beautiful branches and also fronds of palm, they offered hymns of thanksgiving to him who had given success to the purifying of his own holy place.
    o Religious Context – used in rededication of temple in 164 B.C.
• 1 Maccabees 13:51 — 51 On the twenty-third day of the second month, in the one hundred seventy-first year, the Jews entered it with praise and palm branches, and with harps and cymbals and stringed instruments, and with hymns and songs, because a great enemy had been crushed and removed from Israel.
    o Political Context – used to celebrate victory of Syrians in 141 B.C.
• Kostenberger tells us that, “palms appear on coins minted by the insurrectionists during the Jewish wars against Rome” in the 1st and 2nd centuries A.D.
    o Political Context – used to signify the resistance of Israel against its oppressors.

Significance of Palms:
It is likely that in our text, the perceived context by the crowd was a political one.
• In other words, the palm branches were used to express “nationalistic hopes” with Jesus as a “messianic liberator” from the Romans – Kostenberger.

All of this is further supported by the following declaration of the crowd.

What kind of King?
Hosanna…the King of Israel!” (vs. 13)
• Hosanna literally means, “give salvation now” and comes from Psalm 118:25, “Save us, we pray, O Lord”.
    o Generally, it was used as a term of acclamation or praise.
• The crowd followed up this praise with Psalm 118:26.
    o Psalm 118:26 (ESV) — 26a Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!
• By Jesus’ time, this verse was ripe with messianic implications.
• In fact, John the Baptist asked Jesus in Matt. 11:3 if Jesus was “the one who was to come”, an allusion to the expectation of Psalm 118:26.
• And of course the one who was to come, in a Davidic sense, would be the “King of Israel”.

This declaration by the crowd was similar to the crowds’ pronouncements in John 6.
• John 6:15 (ESV) — 15 Perceiving then that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, Jesus withdrew again to the mountain by himself.
• And just as the crowds of John 6 abandoned Jesus when confronted with the truth at Capernaum, in just a few days, they would do so in Jerusalem as well.

Stark Contrast – Palm Branches, a War Horse and the Colt:
Jesus confronts the crowds’ perception of His kingship in a way that was completely at odds with the scene and their expectations.
• He purposely arranged entry into Jerusalem, in fulfillment of Zechariah 9:9 (see Mark 11:2-7), on a colt.
• Zechariah 9:9 (ESV) — 9 Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
• Jesus took it upon Himself to claim that He was the fulfillment of Zechariah’s king.
• A king quite different from the one the crowd longed for.

By Jesus’ action, the crowds’ expectation of the King of Israel who “was to come” and bring deliverance from Roman oppression is purposely challenged.
• The crowd “went out to meet” (vs. 12) their nationalistic warrior king.
• But Jesus took his place on the back of a colt – “humble and mounted on a donkey” (Zech. 9:9).
• By doing this, “Jesus refuses to reinforce their political and nationalist aspirations” – Carson.
• Carson says it had the effect of, “dampening down” their expectations.
• In other words, it was a buzz kill.
• “Nothing further from a Zealotic view of the Messiah could be imagined” – Beasley-Murray.
• To fulfill the crowds’ expectations, Jesus would have had to enter Jerusalem on a snorting war horse
    o Something Jesus will do one day – on a white horse.

The Gentle King:
So, King Jesus was the gentle, humble and sacrificial king of Zechariah 9.
• One could easily see why, given the political context of the time (under Roman rule), so many rejected the gentle king.
    o It was simply not something they wanted.
• Zechariah’s gentle king was in complete opposition to the crowd’s desired war king.

In fact, the gentle king of Zechariah can be contrasted with the war king as follows (D.A. Carson):
• (1) “the cessation of war” // the crowd wanted an insurrection instigator
• (2) “the proclamation of peace to the nations” (including Gentiles) // the crowd wanted Gentile Rome wiped out
• (3) “the blood of God’s covenant that spells release for prisoners” // the crowd wanted to imprison its Gentile captors

Now let’s examine John’s commentary in vs. 16 about understanding the difference between the war king and the gentle king.

2) WE DON’T GET IT – WHERE IS THE WAR HORSE?

John 12:16 (ESV) — 16 His disciples did not understand these things at first, but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written about him and had been done to him.

It could be said that the hard hearted could only trust in a Jesus riding a war horse to deliver Israel from Rome.
• But those who had eyes to see and ears to hear could trust the Jesus on a colt.
• However, John points out in vs. 16 that not until after Jesus was glorified did the disciples fully understand the symbolism behind Jesus’ actions.
• Perhaps because, in part, the fulfillment of the Zechariah prophecy was legitimized by the resurrection.
    o Otherwise, it could be seen as a dead Jesus who had manipulated events to appear as fulfillment.
    o In other words, He is not king because He is dead.

This is peculiar because Jesus’ own words to the disciples, prior to his triumphant entry, made clear the nature of His kingship, as alluded to by Jesus appropriation of Zechariah’s prophecy.
• Mark 10:32–34 (ESV) — 32b And taking the twelve again, he began to tell them what was to happen to him, 33 saying, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death and deliver him over to the Gentiles. 34 And they will mock him and spit on him, and flog him and kill him. And after three days he will rise.”

This inability to grasp certain truths, leads us to an interesting insight.

The Heart before the Mind
For the believer, the disciples lack of understanding points to the profound inability of the mind, due to cultural and other pressures, to sometimes lag behind the legitimate trust of a regenerated heart.
• In other words, our regenerated hearts can trust while simultaneously our minds fail to comprehend.
• The disciples believed in their hearts Jesus was Messiah.
• Yet they also thought and expected that He would restore Israel politically as the crowd did.
    o Acts 1:6 (ESV) — 6 So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?”
• They were simply unable to understand all its implications until Jesus’ life was seen in context of His resurrection and until they were given the Holy Spirit.
    o John 14:26 (ESV) — 26 But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.

This idea has a couple of important implications for us.
• (1) We should be capable of recognizing and shedding cultural and social intrusions that dim the clarity of the truths of Scripture held in trust by the Holy Spirit.
• (2) We should be patient with fellow believers whose understanding lags behind their heart.
    o Jesus was certainly patient with the disciples.

Finally, it is worth ending this part of our discussion with some insight into what Jesus’ was feeling during the triumphant entry from Luke’s Gospel.
• Luke 19:41–44 (ESV) — 41 And when he drew near and saw the city, he wept over it, 42 saying, “Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. 43 For the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up a barricade around you and surround you and hem you in on every side 44 and tear you down to the ground, you and your children within you. And they will not leave one stone upon another in you, because you did not know the time of your visitation.”

Having understood the symbolism behind the triumphant entry, let’s explore why Lazarus plays such an important role in John’s Gospel.

3) WHY IS LAZARUS SO PROMINENT FOR JOHN?

John 12:17–18 (ESV) — 17 The crowd that had been with him when he called Lazarus out of the tomb and raised him from the dead continued to bear witness. 18 The reason why the crowd went to meet him was that they heard he had done this sign.

We saw last week that, with respect to salvation, the fact that Jesus resurrected Lazarus was really not the issue.
• The real issue was why wasn’t this recognition decisive in bringing about saving faith.
• In other words, signs were a witness to Jesus’ identity and relationship with the Father, but not all who witnessed the signs made the connection and trusted (salvifically) in Jesus.
    o In fact, Matthew 11:20 tells us that the witnesses to Jesus’ works that did not repent were under judgment.
• Lazarus was, in a sense, symbolic of this conundrum.
    o One which Jesus addressed in John 3, John 6 and John 10.

But Lazarus was also pivotal in more than just highlighting the need for a work of God in the heart of man.
• And these other reasons are why Lazarus plays such an important role for John since, as we saw in the introduction, John 11.

Reason 1:
The obvious reason is that Lazarus resurrection points to Jesus’ own resurrection.
• We covered this in depth in John 11.
• The Kingdom Resurrection was not at all what the Jews expected.
• Lazarus was symbolic of its inauguration through Jesus.

Reason 2:
Lazarus’ resurrection was the beginning of the end of Jesus’ earthly life.
• “Jesus knows his raising of Lazarus from death is going to provoke the course of events that will lead to his death” – Richard Bauckham.
• In verse 18, John tells us that, “the reason the crowd went to meet him” was because of Lazarus’ resurrection.
• In other words, the triumphant entry is how Jesus made a symbolic public declaration that His time has come.
    o Remember, there were well over 1 million Jews in Jerusalem.
• And this entry was made possible by the attention He drew to Himself by raising Lazarus.
• Something He no doubt did at the request of the Father (see John 5).

Reason 3:
Lazarus represents the anguish of Jesus’ coming suffering.
• John 11 details the “exceptional stress on Jesus’ emotions” in the context of Lazarus’ death and coming resurrection.
    o “he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled” (vs. 33)
    o “Jesus wept” (vs. 35)
    o “deeply moved again” (vs. 38)
• We see that Jesus’ “sympathy with the bereaved is mixed with anguish on his own behalf” – Bauckham.
WHY?
• “In order to help the family he loves by restoring their brother, he must initiate the process of his own suffering and death” – Richard Bauckham.

And Jesus’ initiation of “his own suffering and death” leads us directly to our 4th reason for Lazarus’ prominence.

Reason 4:
Lazarus represents both the extent of Jesus’ love for us and the extent of His obedience to the Father’s ordained mission.
• “John depicts the raising of Lazarus as the event which prefigures Jesus’ willingness to die for the sake of those he loves” – Richard Bauckham.

We have now explored the symbolism of the triumphant entry.
• We have seen Jesus’ deliberate contradiction of the crowds’ expectations.
• And we have seen why Lazarus has played such an important role in John since John 11.
• Now we can move to the more general task of comparing and contrasting the 4 Gospel versions of the triumphant entry.