John 12:12 – Why Wave Palm Branches?

As John Dowden pointed out in a comment on a post I made on Mark’s Triumphal Entry, only the gospel of John mentions the palm branches. In John 12:13, the Greek, φοινιξ (palm) is used along with the Coptic loan-word βαΐον (branch). The only other place in the New Testament where this word for “palm” appears is in Revelation 7:9, the martyrs under the throne of God have branches in their hands as they worship the Lamb.

Waving branches is associated with Sukkot (Feast of Booths). At Sukkot, people marched around with a lulav, a bundle of palm branches with an etrog (a citrus fruit) tied to the end, usually with a great deal of singing and dancing. (See b.Sukkah 5.4 for a description of the festival.) The Hallel was to be sung each day, during which the people would shake their lulav.

Certainly there are similarities to the Triumhal Entry, but Jesus enters Jerusalem at the Passover, so the palms cannot be part of the celebration of the Sukkot nor is there any allusion to the fruit used at that feast. Although I am not sure, it is possible the etrog was not ripe at the time of Passover, the early Spring; someone who knows can correct me on this!

The palms are not associate with worship at Passover, but with the liberation and cleansing of Jerusalem more than 100 years prior to Jesus. The image of a king entering Jerusalem in victory appears in 1 Maccabees 13:51.

1 Maccabees 13:51–52 (NRSV) 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. Simon decreed that every year they should celebrate this day with rejoicing. He strengthened the fortifications of the temple hill alongside the citadel, and he and his men lived there.

Near the end of the first Jewish revolt (141 B.C.), Simon liberated Judea and set up an independent state. In 13:41-42 people begin to sign documents “the first year of Simon the great high priest and commander and leader of the Jews.” He captures Gaza and removes “all uncleanliness” from the city, then in 13:51 he enters the citadel in Jerusalem and “cleansed the citadel from its pollutions.” He establishes peace and provides food for the people starving from famine.

It is not insignificant that Jesus enters the Temple and stages a protest against the “buyers and the sellers” soon after this triumphal entry. In Matthew and the Temple Incident follows directly after the Triumphal entry, in Mark Jesus enters the Temple but returns the next day to make his protest. The Gospel of Mark uses the symbolic miracle of the Cursing of the Fig Tree to explain the Temple Incident. (John has the Temple Incident early in Jesus’ ministry, but that is a problem for another time!)

If anything, the way Jesus enters Jerusalem heightens the messianic hopes of the huge crowds gathered for Passover. Caught up in the messianic fervor, the audience waves palms to welcome Jesus as their ancestors welcomed Simon a century earlier.

Was this Jesus’s intention all along? Was his goal to stir up this kind of frenzy, only to teach in the Temple for a few days that the Messiah is not there to liberate the Temple from the unrighteous Jews or Jerusalem from the pagan Romans?

12 thoughts on “John 12:12 – Why Wave Palm Branches?

  1. Yes, I do believe it was Jesus intention to portray a kingly and messianic image. There are many examples, even beside the ones we have discussed in class, about Jesus fulfilling the role of the expected Messiah. As we look at the text of the Triumphal Entry, we see Jesus riding in on a donkey and that “it is written, “Fear not, daughter of Zion; behold, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt!” to which the author adds an aside that “his disciples did not understand these things at first,” but that they later came to an understanding “that these things had been written about him and had been done to him” (John 12:14-16). Here we have a specific example in the text itself about Jesus’ fulfilling prophecy of a Israel’s coming king (Zech. 9:9). In regard to Jesus command to retrieve a donkey for him, and, if questioned to say “The Lord has need of it” (Mark 11:3), Strauss remarks, “The scene recalls the Middle Eastern practice of impressment, whereby subjects of a king would be expected to make resources available to him for his use” (480). Each aspect of this event offers an even more full picture of Jesus’ intent to show himself as king.

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  2. I would say that this was Jesus’ intention all along. He intentionally chose to ride into Jerusalem on a donkey, which was an obvious fulfillment of the prophesy of Zion’s king in Zechariah 9:9. Jesus was very intentional about that, and it could be expected for Him to receive a messianic welcome when He arrived. Jesus would have known the implications of riding into a Jerusalem heavy laden with the desire for a king to over-through the corruption and the Romans that had oppressed them. The frenzy was stirred up and ,as Wright often speaks about in “Simply Jesus”, Jesus was not what they expected Him to be. It may seem odd that He received a Messianic welcome into Jerusalem with the palm branches and other things, yet He taught that He did not come to abolish the unrighteous Jews or the rule of the Romans, but that is the beauty and mystery that was Jesus’ ministry. I agree with Kyle, that Jesus was intentional in demonstrating His kingship, because He is king. If Jesus was unintentional about stirring up all the prophesies of the coming king during the triumphal entry, then it seems completely out place for Jesus to go out of His way to intentionally ride in on a donkey.

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  3. I do think that Jesus did want to present Himself in an authoritative kind of way, yet in an unexpected peaceful way. This whole scene is a fulfillment of a prophesy in Zechariah 9 and therefore Jesus knew it was going to happen and had foretold how it would be done. I do not think He intentionally wanted to disappoint them by telling them that the Messiah was not returning in the way they had hoped. He has simply decided how it was going to be full fulled and the Israel had misunderstood, therefore they were bound to be disappointed.

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  4. Why wouldn’t that be his goal? Why would he go through the trouble of planning all of the little things, including the choosing of the donkey, if he didn’t have a plan all along? I believe that it was fully his intention to present himself as a righteous and authoritative king. However, he didn’t come in guns blazing, he came in riding a donkey. Since he didn’t come riding a war horse, it symbolizes that he’s here to bring victory through another channel other than physical and war; it was a spiritual victory. I believe that Jesus’ fulfillment of Zechariah 9:9 is the reason for the donkey as well, since it says that the king will be riding in on a donkey. So, without saying it out loud, I believe that Jesus had every intention of coming in with a humble authority.

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  5. I think that Jesus goal was to fulfill the prophecy about the messiah riding into Jerusalem on a donkey was well as to show the people who he was. “Caught up in the messianic fervor, the audience waves palms to welcome Jesus as their ancestors welcomed Simon a century earlier.” (Long) The crowds recognized Jesus as the messiah, and they welcomed him. I find it odd that the same crowd turned around and crucified him. This act displayed not only that the people thought he was the messiah, but he accepted their praise. I think that Jesus was giving the people a chance to see him who he really was. Jesus knew that the people accepted him then, but would not accept him later. “As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it 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. 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. 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 recognize the time of God’s coming to you.” (Luke 19:41-44) Jesus is displaying his messianic purpose and role by entering the city of Jerusalem as a king. In humility he displayed the Kingship and gave Israel what they wanted! He gave them an opportunity to back his role as messiah and they choose to follow him one day and betray him the next.

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  6. I find the symbolism behind the palm branches very interesting. It also ties in with the Jewish belief of what the Messiah would be like. The palm branches evoked that idea of a coming rebellion, that someone would rise up against Rome and free Israel from their captors, much like Simon when he had previously defeated Israel’s enemies (1 Macc. 13). Their incorrect views on how the Messiah would free them led them to such rebellious and nationalistic behavior. They wanted to celebrate Jesus as their Messiah, their liberator, but they did not understand how he would free them. He would die for their sins and free them from the bondage of sin. He truly was their liberator, they just celebrated with the remembrance of Simon, revealing their ignorance of who Jesus was.

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  7. The people of Israel were so set on being physically free from their masters who were the Romans at that time that I think that they often saw what they wanted to see. They chose to see Jesus as their physical leader. They probably that he would be like Simon and start a rebellion but that this rebellion would be unlike any rebellion that Israel had seen before. They wanted Jesus to be their physical leader and they could only see him like that. That is why they were so excited for Jesus to come. Now some of them probably understood who Jesus was and that his coming was not like the crowd thought. Did Jesus mean to cause such a ruckus as he entered the city I do not know but what I do know is that he came to set the captives free from spiritual bonds. He did not come to overthrow the Romans but to overthrow sin!

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  8. Waving of the palm branches. We hear this story all the time around Easter. This is where all the people gather up as they hear that Jesus was coming into town and with that they prepared and got ready to greet their term of what the Savior was to be. They thought that Jesus was coming here to save them from the Romans who overthrow them. thus, meaning they finally will be set free from the bondage of slavery that they have been for many years. This is all they have known, and they have been waiting to be set free for a long time. But they were disappointed when Jesus didn’t do that, but he did something much better by saving their souls from bondage. Jesus came to save us in a different way than what they were thinking but Jesus came to earth to be the light and to be the Savior by dying for us on the cross and saving us in a way that they never would have thought about.

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  9. I think the reason the people of Jerusalem were waving palm branches at his entrance into the city is because they were expecting Jesus to usurp the current governing bodies, and free them of any oppression that they might be experiencing, whether it be political or religious or fiscal. As many of the individuals who interacted with Jesus during His time of ministry, they were not able to perceive the spiritual authority He possessed. They assumed that He was attempting to set up a kingdom on earth, but of course this was not so. The mission of Jesus was to represent the Kingdom of God on earth, and to make it available to everyone who believed in Him. Jesus rode into the city on a donkey, I believe, to proclaim the peace of the Kingdom of God, but the hearers of the message did not receive it that way. They thought that he was attempting to establish an earthly kingdom. Ironically, considering that palm branches in the Bible are not celebratory but symbolize, rather, the cleansing and purging of the Temple, Christ did accomplish something of the like. In the Synoptic Gospels, soon after his entrance into Jerusalem, He makes an uproar in the Temple and commands that “buying and selling” be eradicated from the court. Kostenberger believes that this was because Jesus was responding to the attitude of the community when he entered the city. But the paradoxical thing is, even though Jesus was proving that He did not come to fulfill their expectations for an earthly King, He did cleanse the temple, which was symbolized by the palm branches.

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  10. The Jewish people have been waiting for the person who will free them from the rule of the Romans. We know that this was not what Jesus was going to do, but the people see him this way and so they celebrate his triumphal entry to Jerusalem with the waving of palm branches. Kostenberger refers to the meaning behind the palm branches saying, “Jesus here is portrayed as the victor who has defeated the enemies; palm branches were commonly used to convey the celebration of victory” (Kostenberger, 120). The victory that the Jewish people were looking for was not the same victory that Jesus was going to provide. Looking at the entry to Jerusalem from a more historical perspective of 1 Maccabees, it is easy to see how the Jewish people would relate Jesus’s entry to that of Simon’s and then how they would miss the true meaning of the entry. Just as Simon had led the people to a great victory, the people wanted Jesus to do the same thing. Jesus’s victory, however, was going to be over death itself reflecting Ephesians 6:12, “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” The people missed that he was the Messiah, and those who may have understood at least that still didn’t comprehend the full meaning behind that. However, Jesus accepted the praise of the people because he is still God and praise and honor are due to him, their Savior.

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  11. This is a story that almost all Christians are familiar with, and it is told around Easter time. At this time all of the people gather to greet Jesus for the savior that they wanted. They looked at him as a physical savior who they think (expect) will save them from the Romans. If that was what Jesus was there for that would mean complete freedom from the Roman government, no more bondage or slavery and they would no longer have to deal with such torture. They don’t know that what was coming was a savior in the spiritual realm, all they have been taught and know is that the Messiah is there to set them free of bondage and they were assuming that it was going to be instant in the realm of physical bondage. Rightfully so, after all the build up of being taught this their whole lives they were disappointed when it wasn’t fulfilled. But, Jesus did come to set them free, but he came to set them free of spiritual death and a life of hell filled with unwanted sickness and depression. If they believed in Christ as they were supposed to they wouldn’t be in bondage under the Romans because they would be set free in the presence and reassurance of Him.

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