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A Conquering Messiah
by Dr. Johnny O. Trail, LMFT
The Bible records Jesus entering the city of Jerusalem just a few days prior to His crucifixion. This is hailed as the “triumphant entry” by people who study scripture. When one does a close examination of the event and the symbols present at the time of Christ’s entry, some harsh irony becomes evident regarding their understanding of the Messiah and His complete rejection just a few days later.

Matthew records Jesus’ entry into the city. He says, in Matthew 21:8-11, “And a very great multitude spread their clothes on the road; others cut down branches from the trees and spread them on the road. Then the multitudes who went before and those who followed cried out, saying: "Hosanna to the Son of David! 'Blessed is He is who come in the name of the Lord' Hosanna in the highest!" And when He had come into Jerusalem, all the city was moved, saying, "Who is this?" So the multitudes said, "This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth of Galilee."

In the similar account, John’s gospel reveals the specie of tree that was laid before the Messiah as He rode into Jerusalem on a donkey. John 12:12-13a says, “The next day a great multitude that had come to the feast, when they heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem, took branches of palm trees and went out to meet Him…”

What is the significance of the branches of a palm tree being used in John’s account? Until recently, these palm trees had become extinct.1 At one time, Palestine was known as the land of palms and the area was lauded for the fruit that the tree produced. Pliny the elder famously wrote about the fruits stating that some were one cubit in length. In addition to the palm trees in Palestine, he identified forty-nine different varieties of the tree.2 The palms that were used to adorn the entrance of Christ into Jerusalem were either growing in the location or being used in celebration of the upcoming event.

The palm was a symbol of national conquest and the phrase that was being uttered by the ones lining Christ’s path into the city was a request to God for freedom from oppression. In their situation, the Jews wanted freedom from the oppression of the Roman empire. While there are other passages that deal with the use of the palm in various settings, this most likely harkens back to the Maccabean period and their overthrow of their Greek oppressions. I Maccabees 13:51 says, “And entered into it the three and twentieth day of the second month in the hundred seventy and first year, with thanksgiving, and branches of palm trees, and with harps, and cymbals, and with viols, and hymns, and songs: because there was destroyed a great enemy out of Israel.”

The Prince of Peace riding on a donkey stands in stark contrast to palm branches laid along His pathway into the city of Jerusalem. Sellars Crain writes,

It could well be that the difference between the views of Jesus and the crowd is seen here. By riding the donkey, Jesus implied He had no revolutionary aspirations; while the crowd’s use of palm branches, an allusion to the Maccabean triumphs, implied that they saw him still as a revolutionary messiah.3

This might inform their understanding of the Messiah. By their way of thinking, He was supposed to be a conquering Messiah who would release the Jewish nation from Roman captivity. Jesus’ earthly ministry was aimed at releasing all people from the captivity of sin and death. This would be greater and much more complicated than any earthly military conquest.

When it became apparent that Jesus was about to be crucified, their expectations did not match the reality of the situation. At one time, the common people heard Him gladly (Mark 12:37), the multitudes followed Him (Matthew 15:30), and they watched Him heal their sick and infirm people. Now, the attitude of the people would change.

They hailed Him as a conquering King (John 12:13), but just a few days later, they would cry out for Jesus to be murdered. Matthew 27:20-23 says, “But the chief priests and elders persuaded the multitudes that they should ask for Barabbas and destroy Jesus. The governor answered and said to them, "Which of the two do you want me to release to you?" They said, "Barabbas!" Pilate said to them, "What then shall I do with Jesus who is called Christ?" They all said to him, "Let Him be crucified!" Then the governor said, "Why, what evil has He done?" But they cried out all the more, saying, "Let Him be crucified!"

In a bloodthirsty conspiracy, the Sanhedrin orchestrated the events that led to Christ’s unjust trial and capital punishment. The multitudes would be complicit in offering a continual, harmonious cry for the release of Barabas and the murder of Christ. These same multitudes of people were among those who welcomed Jesus a few short days ago as a conquering King.

This shocking turn of public sentiment happened in less than a week. They would go from praising Him to calling for His execution during the time of Passover. One wonders if people in our age treat Christ in the same way.

If Jesus meets our expectations of what He should be like, people are happy to follow Him. However, if following Christ means that we must change ourselves to reflect Him living in us, it causes some for forsake Jesus and stop following Him.

To what extent does Christ reign in your life? Is He sovereign just so long as it is convenient for you? Luke 9:23 says, “Then He said to them all, "If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me.”

33 Crain, Sellars (2011). Truth for Today Commentary, Eddie Cloer, Gen Ed., Resource Publications, Seary.