We know from the apostle John why Palm Sunday happened:
The crowd that had been with [Jesus] when he called Lazarus out of the tomb and raised him from the dead continued to bear witness. The reason why the crowd went to meet him was that they heard he had done this sign. (John 12:17–18)
The Sunday parade of palms was a celebration of a resurrection.
A Confusing Providence
But that resurrection was preceded by a confusing death.
Lazarus had died. We don’t know what he died of, only that he was “ill” (John 11:1). The Bible rarely provides grisly details. But death by illness in the first century, with none of the medical aids we modern Westerners take for granted, was no doubt horrible.
His death brought profound grief to his sisters, Martha and Mary, who had nursed him as best they could. And Jesus, their dear friend, who also happened to be the greatest healer in the history of the world, had not come. This added grief upon grief for the sisters (John 11:21, 32). Jesus had not even made it for the funeral. When he finally did show up, Lazarus’s corpse had already begun to decompose.
“Why?” “Where were you?” These were the implied agonizing questions both sisters expressed to Jesus. They weren’t the only ones asking. Others present were muttering, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man also have kept this man from dying?” (John 11:37) He had saved others. Could he not have saved Lazarus? To Martha, Jesus gave an ambiguous hint of his purpose (John 11:23), but he was too troubled in spirit to say much to Mary (John 11:33).
And then within a matter of minutes Lazarus, Martha, and Mary were in a tri-fold embrace, weeping together with unexpected, ineffable, awe-filled joy! Jesus had done exactly what he foretold: “Truly, truly, I say to you, an hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live” (John 5:25).
A Plan of Prescient Precision
But so much more was going on than the happy siblings, or the stunned observers, or even Jesus’s disciples understood. Not only did this resurrection demonstrate with unprecedented power the reality of who Jesus was; it also set in motion the fulfillment of biblical prophecy.
Word of Lazarus’s resurrection naturally spread like wildfire. The Jewish authorities’ serious concern over Jesus escalated to alarm. They plotted to murder him (John 11:47–50).
Jesus laid low for a few weeks, and then reappeared in Bethany to share one last and remarkable supper at the Bethany home of Lazarus, Mary, and Martha. The remarks got out quickly, and soon a large crowd gathered to get a glimpse not only of Jesus but also of the newly resurrected and probably reluctant celebrity (John 12:9). Being a celebrity for rising from the dead was ironically proving to be deadly, since the authorities were planning to take Lazarus out along with Jesus (John 12:10–11).
But Jesus knew exactly what he was doing. The timing of Lazarus’s horrible death, of his astonishing resurrection, of Jesus’s laying low, and now of his public reappearance was all coordinated with a prescient precision that would not be noticed until later (John 12:16). His hour had come at last. He would no longer lay low. The news must spread. It was time for the ancient gates to raise their heads, and the ancient doors to lift in homage. The King of glory was on his way (Psalm 24:7).
A Prophetic Procession
And so the news spread, and so the crowd swelled to receive in procession the One who had raised a man from the dead. Could there be any doubt that he was the Messiah? Doubts would come, but few doubted it that day. People grabbed palm branches, a symbol of Jewish nationalism, and cried out, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!” (John 12:13).
Few if any recognized in the euphoric moment the fulfillment of Zechariah’s prophecy:
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. (Zechariah 9:9)
But Jesus recognized the moment. And so he “found a young donkey and sat on it” (John 12:14).
I said few doubted Jesus that day. But the few who did wielded a lethal amount of earthly power. As the Pharisees watched this potent moment with unmistakable implications unfold, they said to each other, “You see that you are gaining nothing. Look, the world has gone after him” (John 12:19). But this was not resignation. The crowd’s jubilation only hardened the authorities’ resolve to kill the dead-raising Son of God.
A Prophetic Precursor
And Jesus knew this. In the midst of the prophetic, palm-waving party, Jesus knew it would trigger the fulfillment of another prophecy:
But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. (Isaiah 53:5)
Jesus knew Lazarus’s expiration would result in resurrection; he knew this resurrection would result in the crowd’s celebration; he knew this celebration would result in the council’s homicidal determination; he knew this determination would result in his unjust condemnation; and he knew this condemnation would result in his own brutal expiration by crucifixion.
And he knew that his innocent, yet guilt-imputed expiration would result in the imputation of his righteousness to many (Isaiah 53:11; 2 Corinthians 5:21), and in a resurrection far more glorious and world-shaking than Lazarus’s.
Palm Sunday was a celebration of a resurrection. But it was only a prophetic precursor. One week later, a resurrection occurred whose celebration has continued two millennia hence.
And look, the world has gone after him.