The cool, pre-dawn air was heavy with the fragrance of the snow-white narkis (narcissus) flowers that covered much of the east slope of the Mount of Olives. It was Nisan 10, the tenth day of the first month of the Jewish calendar. As best that many scholars have concluded, it was in Jewish year 3794 (or 33 AD). 1
In the Jewish calendar, the “day” begins at sundown and extends to the next sundown, whereas in the Gregorian calendar, our “day” begins at midnight and extends to the next midnight. So, in 33 AD, Nisan 10 began at sundown on what we would call March 29 and ended at sundown on March 30th. 2 First century Jews ate two meals a day - one at sunrise and one at sundown. So, rising before dawn was a regular part of their daily lives.
The name, Bethany, means “house of the afflicted.”
The Gospel of John tells us that Jesus and His disciples had returned from Ephraim to the house of Lazarus in the village of Bethany on the previous day (Nisan 9) “six days before Passover” [John 12:1]. The name, Bethany, means “house of the afflicted.” Bethany was a village on the south-eastern side of the Mount of Olives on the Jericho Road which served as a center for caring for the sick and the aged who came as pilgrims to Jerusalem, principally from Galilee.
At some point in His journeys, Jesus formed a friendship with Lazarus and his sisters Martha and Mary. A number of scholars theorize that if Lazarus accommodated, at his house, Jesus and His disciples, [Mark 11:11; Matthew 21:17]. the house must have been much larger than typical first-century houses. Lazarus and his sisters likely had several buildings in which they operated in Bethany, the “house of the afflicted,” what we would call today, a temporary nursing care facility. This might account for why Jesus had such a deep affection for Lazarus and his sisters.
By Mosaic Law, those celebrating Passover were required to spend Passover night in Jerusalem. Over the centuries, the crowds at Passover grew to the point that Temple authorities had to expand the boundaries of “in Jerusalem” to include the Mount of Olives and the villages of Bethphage and Bethany. Therefore, many of those who were physically challenged stayed in Bethany for Passover, quite likely at a facility operated by Lazarus, his sisters and some volunteers, which likely included Jesus and His disciples.
On Nisan 10, Jesus and His disciples set out for Jerusalem. “As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage on the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, ‘Go to the village ahead of you, and at once you will find a donkey tied there, with her colt by her. Untie them and bring them to me’” [Matthew 21:1-17; Mark 11:1-11; Luke 19:29-40]. This was in fulfillment of the words of Zechariah: “See, your king comes to you, righteous and victorious, lowly and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey" [Zechariah 9:9]. A donkey was the symbol of peace. The village most likely was En-shemesh (“spring of the sun”). It was about a mile east of Bethany and the only spring on the road to Jericho. Archaeologists have concluded that it got its name due to the spring being in the direct sun light the whole day long.
A great crowd quickly surrounded Jesus, waving
palm branches and shouting “Hosanna.”
Since the Jericho Road would have been filled with pilgrims headed to Jerusalem for Passover, a great crowd quickly surrounded Jesus, waving palm branches and shouting “Hosanna” (which meant “Lord, grant salvation,” from Psalm 118:25). The waving of palm branches was prescribed for expressing rejoicing [Leviticus 23:40]. However, shouting Hosanna would have been regarded as treasonous by Romans, since the only living person who could be publicly acknowledged as a deity was Caesar. But Romans would have been well out-of-sight in Jerusalem during Passover for fear of inciting public unrest.
On the way, “some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, ‘Teacher, rebuke your disciples.’ He answered, ‘I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out.” [Luke 19:39-40]. Even to His principal antagonists, the Pharisees, Jesus never gave up hoping that they would “come around” to understand.
As the crowd on the Jericho Road rounded the Mount of Olives and the city of Jerusalem first came into view, as was their custom, the crowd would have begun reciting with great pride the passage from Isaiah 2:3. “Many peoples shall come and say: ‘Come, let us go up to the Lord’s mountain, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may instruct us in his ways, and we may walk in his paths’ for from Zion shall go forth instruction and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.’” 3
Jesus saw the city and wept over it.
But, Luke tells us that, Jesus “saw the city and wept over it, saying, ‘If this day you only knew what makes for peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes’” [Luke 19:41-42]. How grand and sweeping was His power, yet how particularly personal was His love. He poured Himself out to every person He touched. Yet for many, that was not enough. His beloved Holy City not only rejected Him but would kill Him in the most hateful and grotesque manner imaginable. He wept not for Himself but for them and all they could have experienced had they “recognized the time of their visitation” [Luke 19:44]
It’s difficult for many of us who did not grow up in the Jewish tradition to fully appreciate the deep visceral connection Jews of all times, Jesus and His disciples included, had for Jerusalem. From the ardent longing when they were away, to the aspirations breathed into almost every synagogue service, to the awe they would experience each time their Holy City came into view, no place on earth had such a hold on the psyche of a people than did Jerusalem in the time of Jesus.4 But, on this occasion, Jesus wept. God Himself, in the flesh, had walked in their streets and they did not recognize Him.
Proceeding along the Jericho Road, around the southwestern slope of the Mount of Olives, in full view of the magnificent Temple, Jesus and the crowd would have crossed the Kidron Valley, passed the Gihon Spring, and, most likely, entered the city through the Water Gate, which was where the Jericho Road ended. And, it was the main city gate to the Temple area. It was in the square in front of this same gate, in the year 458 BC, that all the people gathered to hear Ezra the Scribe read to them the entire Torah and declared it the official Law of Moses [cf. Nehemiah 8:1-12]. This was a much-needed new beginning for the people in Ezra’s day.
A new beginning was at hand for them, but they
would turn on Him in a matter of a few days.
And on this festive day, as the jubilant crowd entered the Water Gate with Jesus, a new beginning was at hand for them, as well. But they would turn on Him in a matter of a few days and their new beginning slipped through their fingers. Once through the gate, they would have proceeded north through the Xystus Square where even more people would have joined them. They most likely entered the Temple through one of the very popular Hulda Gates on the south side of the Temple.
Sometime after entering the Temple area, a group of Greeks “who had come up to worship at the feast” [John 12:20], approached Philip asking to see Jesus. They wanted to know if Jesus was the Messiah. Jesus gave a reply that startled them all: “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Amen, amen, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit” [John 12:23-24]. The insight that only Peter had professed on the road from Caesarea Philippi, that the Messiah was also the Son of Man who must sacrifice himself for the redemption of all [cf. Matthew 16:13-16; Mark 8:27-29; Luke 9:18-20] was now professed to Jews and Gentiles alike. Mark tells us that soon after entering the Temple area, Jesus “looked around at everything and, since it was already late, went out to Bethany with the Twelve” [Mark 11:11]. As the sun set on Nisan 10, 33 AD, the first Palm Sunday, one of the most significant days in Christian history, came to an end.
By entering the city on a donkey, in the same manner Solomon did on the day of his coronation as king,[1 Kings 1:33] Jesus was publicly declaring to the people, for the very first time, that He was their King and the Messiah they had been waiting for. No longer was Jesus telling His disciples to be quiet about Him [e.g. Matthew 12:14] but to shout His praises and worship Him openly. Their spreading of cloaks before him was an act of homage reserved for royalty [see 2 Kings 9:13].
Jesus came to His people, on the first Palm Sunday, not to conquer by force, as earthly kings do, but in love, grace and mercy.
In these times of great anxiety, social distancing and isolation, when we can’t celebrate Palm Sunday in the way we have become so accustomed to, please don’t lose sight of the great importance of Palm Sunday for all of us. The story of Palm Sunday is the story of our Heavenly King who came to His people as a lowly servant on a donkey, not in royal robes. Jesus came to His people on the first Palm Sunday not to conquer by force, as earthly kings do, but in love, grace and mercy, to sacrifice Himself for His people, all of us. Let Him come again into your heart this Palm Sunday with the love, grace and mercy that only He can bring.
Have a Blessed Holy Week.
‘Till next time.
Dcn Bob Evans
April 4, 2020
1 Hoehner, Harold W, Chronological Aspects of the Life of Christ, 1977.
2 equivalent Gregorian Dates from Steffen Thorsen, Time and Date AS, 1998.
3 A. Edersheim, The Temple, Its Ministry and Services as They Were at the Time of Jesus Christ, 1880.
John 12:1; Mark 11:11; Matthew 21:1-17; Mark 11:1-11; Luke 19:29-40; Zechariah 9:9; Psalm 118; Leviticus 23:40; Isaiah 2:3; Luke 19:41-42; Luke 19:44; Nehemiah 8:1-12; John 12:20; John 12:23-24; Matthew 16:13-16; Mark 8:27-29; Luke 9:18-20; 1 Kings 1:33; Matthew 12:14; 2 Kings 9:13