On Palm Sunday; at Pilate’s Palace; and at the Cross
Sunday March 25, 2018 — Mount View Baptist Church
On the Christian Calendar Palm Sunday marks the beginning of the week that is now called Holy Week or Passion Week. This is the week in which Jesus the Christ was crucified and buried. It begins with Palm Sunday, marking the triumphant entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. The palms in church today, and the march through the community before the service, celebrate and commemorate the joy of that first Palm Sunday. On Good Friday we will remember and recall Jesus’s crucifixion. The mood and the memory will be entirely different. Next Sunday, Easter Sunday, we will rejoice in the glorious resurrection of Jesus, the risen and living Lord.
This morning I wish to lead our mediation on the three different crowds of Holy Week: The crowd on Palm Sunday, the crowd at Pilate’s palace, and the Crowd at the cross. Each is different in its composition and mood. Each tells us something different about Jesus, about human nature, and about crowds. Each should lead us to reflect. Before examining these three crowds, it is instructive to look at what a crowd is, and to do a brief survey about the place of crowds in the public ministry of Jesus.
Let us pray. Eternal God and Father of us all, guide our thoughts, increase our understanding, lead and guide us so we may to continue to love and serve you, through Jesus Christ our Lord and great Savior.
FEATURES OF CROWDS
Crowds are gatherings of people in public spaces. They vary in size. Crowds are usually impersonal because many people in a crowd do not know each other. People in a crowd often do not know what is going on or why the crowd is gathered. Crowds can form spontaneously, or can be planned, or a mixture of both; as with the crowds in Half-Way-Tree when Bolt or other Jamaican athletes ran in events in the Olympics or World Championships. Some crowds quietly watch incidents, accidents, performances, or events, while others are unruly and rowdy. Crowds can be orderly and joyous, or they can get out of hand. People in crowds sometimes shout. A common shout of crowds in Jamaica is, “We want justice!” Crowds can disperse in an orderly fashion or they can cause harm by rampaging. Generally, crowds form spontaneously, vary in size and composition, are impersonal and unpredictable. Crowds form mainly in cities and towns, because they are population centers. Crowds rarely form in rural areas, except at special events.
JESUS AND CROWDS
Crowds followed Jesus. His ministry over the last three and a half years of his life was public. Jesus was popular. People came from everywhere to hear him teach. Some came for the chance of seeing one of his miracles. Many came to be healed. Matthew 4:25 (NKJV) states, “Large crowds followed Him from Galilee, Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and beyond the Jordan”. This would suggest that Jews and Gentiles were part of these crowds.
Some crowds followed Jesus for fish and bread. After the miracle of the feeding of about 5,000 men, women, and children, that crowd wanted to make Jesus king. This has always been the world’s criterion for political office: providing fish and bread, especially for free and enough to be filled. When the crowd caught up with Jesus the next day, on the other side of the Jordan, Jesus chastised them saying that they were following for food that would perish, but that they should seek the food that leads to everlasting life. When some in the crowd invited Jesus to give them always of this bread, Jesus declared “I am the living bread which came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread that I shall give is My flesh, which I shall give for the life of the world” (John 6:51, NKJV). A discussion ensued. John 6:66-69 (NKJV) states:
“From that time many of His disciples went back and walked with Him no more. Then Jesus said to the twelve, “Do you also want to go away?” But Simon Peter answered Him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. Also, we have come to believe and know that You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
A general conclusion that can be drawn from Jesus and the crowds that followed him during his three and a half years of public ministry is that Jesus seems to have had a measure of ambivalence towards crowds. Jesus did not drive away the crowds that followed him, but on several occasions he escaped them or made himself difficult to find. He did not seek crowds. Crowds sought him. The difficulty Jesus seemed to have had with crowds was that some crowds formed to see the spectacular, others to hear His new doctrine, and still others to derive benefits. Few followed because they recognized him as God incarnate: The Way, the Truth, and the Life. Jesus sought personal ongoing relationships. Crowds are fleeting impersonal aggregations of people.
Our focus this morning is on the last three crowds that followed Jesus. Each was a special crowd that left a permanent mark on history.
THE ORIGINS OF THE JESUS CROWD ON PALM SUNDAY
To get a reasonably full picture of the crowd on Palm Sunday it is necessary to put the event in context, and because the Gospels report different perspectives, references must be drawn from all four Gospels. The big event on the Jewish Calendar was the celebration of the Passover. Jews and proselytes were coming from far and near. Jesus planned to attend. Much of his public ministry had been in Galilee, hence Jesus started from there.
Crowds on the Journey from Galilee to Jericho
Matthew Chapter 19:1-2 (NIV) states: “When Jesus had finished saying these things, he left Galilee and went into the region of Judea to the other side of the Jordan. Large crowds followed him, and he healed them there”. From this we learn that Jesus started his journey to Jerusalem with a large crowd coming out of Galilee. Jesus planned to take the shortest route, which would have been through Samaria. Luke 9:52-53 (NIV) states that, “…he sent messengers on ahead, who went into a Samaritan village to get things ready for him; but the people there did not welcome him, because he was heading for Jerusalem”. In contemporary terms, notwithstanding the tourist dollars that could be earned, the Samaritans would not allow Jews to pass through Samaria on the way to the Passover in Jerusalem. James and John, the sons of Thunder, wanted Jesus to “burn them with fire”.
Jesus came to seek and to save all who are lost in sin, not to take sides between historical enemies. Mark 10:1 (NIV) states, “Jesus then left that place and went into the region of Judea and across the Jordan. Again, crowds of people came to him, and as was his custom, he taught them”. Jesus chose the alternative route: through Perea, Judea beyond the Jordan; across the Jordan river, down the Jordan valley; across the Jordan desert into Jericho, the oasis city. The road from Jericho went down, then up to Jerusalem, an eighteen-mile journey. Crowds were there in Galilee and some left with Jesus. Crowds were there when Jesus took the alternative route. Not everyone was going to the Passover. Most likely not everyone who was in each crowd was going to Jerusalem. Some were just people who formed crowds to see and hear Jesus wherever he went. Jesus was well-known in both Galilee and Judea beyond the Jordon. On this leg of the journey Jesus met and stayed at the house of Zacchaeus, the chief tax collector of Jericho. Because of the crowd Zacchaeus, a short man, climbed a tree to get a glimpse of Jesus. However, even after Jesus dined and stayed at his house, and his expression of conversion, Zacchaeus did not join the crowd that left Jericho with Jesus.
The Crowd on Leaving Jericho for Jerusalem
The road from Jericho to Jerusalem bordered the tribe of Benjamin to the North and Juda to the South. Mary and Martha lived in Bethany, a village off this road. It was an ancient road — the road of the parable of the Good Samaritan whose journey was in the opposite direction to that of Jesus: from Jerusalem to Jericho. It was also a dangerous road, infamous for robbery. There was safety in numbers, especially for pious Jews and proselytes going to celebrate the Passover in Jerusalem. Treasure was not only needed for the stay but also for the purchase of sacrificial birds and animals.
Matthew 20:29 (NIV) states: “As Jesus and his disciples were leaving Jericho, a large crowd followed him”. There were crowds on the way from Galilee to Jericho, but when Jesus and his disciples left Jericho for Jerusalem, a large crowd followed him.
The Gospel of Mark 10:32-34 (NKJV) tells us, “Now they were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was going before them; and they were amazed. And as they followed, they were afraid. Then He took the twelve aside again and began to tell them the things that would happen to Him: “Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and to the scribes; and they will condemn Him to death and deliver Him to the Gentiles; and they will mock Him, and scourge Him, and spit on Him, and kill Him. And the third day He will rise again.”
This is a remarkable snapshot. Jesus was in the lead. This is one of the few times that Jesus led a crowd going anywhere. The disciples were following but were amazed and afraid at the same time. They were amazed because they had not seen Jesus do this before. They knew that there was danger for Jesus in Jerusalem, but Jesus was eager to get there. He confirmed their fears by giving them a graphic summary of what was going to happen to him in Jerusalem. However, they did not quite get it. Even though Jesus was repeating Himself, what He said was contrary to their expectations, inconsistent with their hopes and aspirations, outside of their lived experience, beyond foresight, and was only understood in hindsight. Yet, in faith they followed Him. The crowd had no notion of what they were a part of. For all they knew they were going to the Passover in Jerusalem with Jesus the miracle worker, the healer, the teacher with a different message who could well be a prophet.
Jesus was not only leading the crowd coming from Jericho, but He was choreographing His pre-planned entry into Jerusalem. Jesus was not entering Jerusalem incognito. He organized a grand entry.
Mark 11:1-10 (NKJV) states: “Now when they drew near Jerusalem, to Bethphage and Bethany, at the Mount of Olives, He sent two of His disciples; and He said to them, “Go into the village opposite you; and as soon as you have entered it you will find a colt tied, on which no one has sat. Loose it and bring it. And if anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ say, ‘The Lord has need of it,’ and immediately he will send it here. So, they went their way, and found the colt tied by the door outside on the street, and they loosed it. But some of those who stood there said to them, “What are you doing, loosing the colt?” And they spoke to them just as Jesus had commanded. So, they let them go. Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their clothes on it, and He sat on it. And many spread their clothes on the road, and others cut down leafy branches from the trees and spread them on the road. Then those who went before and those who followed cried out, saying:
Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!
Blessed is the kingdom of our father David
That comes in the name of the Lord!
Hosanna in the highest!”
This is the crowd, some of whom had started out from Galilee. They came directly from Jericho. They were all outsiders coming into Jerusalem. Country people come to town. Visitors to the big city. Pilgrims visiting the Temple at Jerusalem for the most sacred rituals of the Jewish year.
The Crowd from inside Jerusalem
However, there was also a crowd that came from within Jerusalem. This crowd was comprised of two sets of people. There were those who had come from Galilee, Perea, and Judea who knew Jesus and had arrived before him; and there were those from within Jerusalem who knew of Jesus particularly because of the miracle of raising Lazarus from the dead. Several people from Jerusalem had become followers of Jesus because of this miracle.
John 12:12-13 (NKJV) tells us that “…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, and cried out:
‘Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!’
The King of Israel!”
It was the crowd from within Jerusalem that brought the palms and based their shouts on Zechariah 9:9.
The Jesus Crowd on Palm Sunday
The crowd following Jesus to Jerusalem and the crowd in Jerusalem coming to greet Jesus met as Jesus entered Jerusalem riding on the colt of a donkey, symbolizing peace. The two crowds merged into a bumper crowd. This was probably the largest crowd of Jesus’s time on earth. Moreover, this huge crowd was ecstatic. People laid down clothes, broke branches with green leaves and palm leaves and spread them on the path as Jesus made his way on the colt. It was a Jesus Crowd that was huge and righteously joyous. It was a noisy crowd that shouted and acclaimed Jesus. I hope you do not mind me making this contemporary comment — the Palm Sunday crowd was a Pentecostal crowd.
Matthew 21:10-11 (NIV) states: “When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred and asked, “Who is this?” The crowds answered, “This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee.” Jerusalem, the big city accustomed to crowds, stopped. It took note of what was happening and wanted to know who caused this was stir in the city. Jesus made a grand entry into Jerusalem and the city knew that the prophet from Nazareth had arrived.
As with all crowds, the Palm Sunday crowd was mixed. Not all persons who made up the crowd were followers of Jesus. Luke 19:39-40 tells us: “Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples!” “I tell you,” he replied, “if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.” Nature kept silent because the crowd spoke eloquently for their creator.
Jesus was being hailed as King of Israel, and for coming in the name of the Lord. Some Pharisees interpreted this as blasphemy. Jesus defended the crowd. This was his crowd. This crowd recognized Him for who He was: King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Their exuberant worship was well founded. If this crowd was silent then nature itself would cry out.
A general conclusion that can be drawn from the Jesus crowd on Palm Sunday is that it is proper and appropriate to worship Jesus with spontaneous joy and loud adoration. Some occasions are not contrived by man but evoked by Jesus as we celebrate Him for who He is: God incarnate, King of Kings, and Lord of Lords. Here I chide myself for the staid and placid way that I worship in public and in private. Generally, I am not given to emotional outbursts; and am less embarrassed by worshipping in tears than with unrestrained emotion. Yet, such outbursts have come in sports as a player or spectator when the team wins. I thank God for those who are not so constrained. Lord Jesus, help me to be less self-conscious in showing that I love you and adore you.
The Jesus Crowd of Palm Sunday shook the Jerusalem establishment to its core. It demonstrated the popularity of the outsider who was now inside the city. This threatened the political status quo. The response was to plan to kill him. Palm Sunday set the stage for what followed in Holy Week.
THE POLITICAL CROWD AT PILATE’S PALACE
The crowd at Pilate’s Palace was different from the Jesus Crowd on Palm Sunday. Matthew 27:15-18 (NIV) tells us: “Now it was the governor’s custom at the festival to release a prisoner chosen by the crowd. At that time, they had a well-known prisoner whose name was Jesus Barabbas. So when the crowd had gathered, Pilate asked them, “Which one do you want me to release to you: Jesus Barabbas, or Jesus who is called the Messiah?” For he knew it was out of self-interest that they had handed Jesus over to him.”
There are seven important facts to note about the crowd at Pilate’s palace:
- It was a crowd at a designated annual event.
- The Roman Governor in Jerusalem staged the event during the week of the Passover festival, at which he released one prisoner. This was the Roman’s way of showing his power, magnanimity, and cunning: winning support from an imprisoned adversary.
- The crowd was critical to the custom because this was the crowd that chose which prisoner would be released, hence the event could not proceed until the crowd was gathered. The Governor approved and implemented the crowd’s choice.
- There were factions in the crowd who came to support the release of a favored prisoner based on self-interest.
- The crowd voted by voice. The name being shouted loudest and by most, as judged by the Governor, was released.
- In all probability this custom was best known, understood, and attended by people living in Jerusalem. Surely, some outsiders attended but many may have done so to watch the spectacle.
- The crowd at the Governor’s palace was a political crowd attending a political event designed by Rome. Factions in the crowd came with their agendas concerning the prisoner to be released. Self-interest prevailed based on the voice vote as heard by the Roman Governor and consistent with his self-interest.
The report in the Gospels recorded the crowd that was gathered at this customary annual event where Pilate was the Roman Governor in Jerusalem when Jesus was convicted and sentenced to be crucified. The Gospel accounts can be distilled into four elemental facts:
- There were four prisoners of which one would be released. We do not know the names of two but know that they were crucified with Jesus. If they had factions advocating their release, those voices were drowned out in the shouts for release.
- The choice came down to Barabbas or Jesus. Barabbas was a rebel who had led an uprising in which at least one person died. He was convicted for leading an insurrection and for murder.
- There was a back and forth between Pilate and the chief priests and elders in which the chief priests and elders advocated and agitated for Jesus to be crucified. At first they asked politely for the release of Barabbas but later were adamant and vociferous in demanding that Jesus be crucified. In the end Barabbas was released by default. In several exchanges, Pilate expressed reservations about crucifying Jesus on several grounds. Pilate’s deepest reservation was “I find no fault in him”.
- Pilate caved when the crowd joined the loud chant to crucify Jesus and the chief priests and elders called Pilate’s loyalty to Rome into question. As John 19:2 states: “Pilate tried to set Jesus free, but the Jewish leaders kept shouting, “If you let this man go, you are no friend of Caesar. Anyone who claims to be a king opposes Caesar.”
In reflection, I could not prevent my mind from wondering what impact the Palm Sunday crowd had on Pilate. He was in Jerusalem. He could not have missed the stir caused by the Jesus crowd of Palm Sunday. He knew that the people comprising those crowds were still in Jerusalem. Could he have been concerned that at least a riot would have resulted by not releasing Jesus? Or did he assume that many from the Palm Sunday crowd were present in the crowd before him at his palace,, but had lost out in the political process?
Jesus’s private answer to Pilate put an end to my speculating reflection. Pilate had no power over Jesus except it was granted from above. Jesus submitted himself to the political process because neither Pilate, nor Rome, nor arrogant religious leaders, nor any crowd could deter him from His mission to reconcile us to God. The humility of our Lord and Savior is mindboggling.
THE MIXED CROWD AT THE CROSS
The crowd at the cross was mixed. Prominent were the Roman soldiers commanded by a Centurion. They were responsible for the crucifixion. This was their show. Romans were the actors, everyone else was a spectator. Watching were elements of the Palm Sunday crowd and the political crowd at Pilate’s palace. There were probably some people that were not at either but had come to watch the spectacle of the crucifixion. Executions were public events. Executions set examples for the public — they attracted their own crowds.
Let us look briefly at the different perspectives of those gathered in this mixed crowd watching Jesus and the two prisoners being crucified.
- In addition to carrying out the execution, some of the Roman soldiers mocked Jesus. They carried out their duties with a sense of superiority. Derision is a favorite expression of the ascendance of those carrying out acts of execution. The four soldiers that carried out the crucifixion combined arrogance with irreverence. They divided the spoils of His garments between them and gambled for His seamless undergarment. The ruthless and callous aspects that reside in human nature were in full display at the cross.
- In contrast, the Centurion, who commanded the soldiers carrying out the execution, watched the entire proceedings and concluded with the confession: “Surely, He was the Son of God.” The crucifixion of Jesus evoked conviction and conversion of a man skilled in taking human life. He was not the only one. One prisoner being crucified on a cross next to Jesus was another. There have been others. The cross of Jesus redeems whosoever believes in the Lamb of God.
- The provocateurs and agitators of the crowd at Pilate’s palace were triumphant. The chief priests, elders, and their supporters had prevailed. Limited to reason alone, they argued what appeared obvious. With disdain and contempt, they ridiculed Jesus. “He saved others, himself he cannot save. “If thou be the son of God come down from the cross”. “Come down from the cross and we will believe you.” Reason and logic alone are an insufficient basis on which to live. Eliminating transcendence is a fatal flaw. Life is more than reason and logic, especially when contending with God. Jesus was dying on the cross, but it was His enemies who were dead wrong in their argument, disdain, contempt, and ridicule.
- The spectators who came to watch a spectacle left the crucifixions deeply moved. They left beating their breasts. The crucifixion of Jesus was no ordinary crucifixion. They had never seen anything like it before. Jesus died, after a shout of victory and a prayer. “It is finished” (John 19:30, NIV). In Aramaic “it is finished” is one word, finished. This shout of victory was followed by a prayer: “Father into thy hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46, NIV). Jesus was finished because the work of salvation had begun. John Bowring is right. The cross of Christ towers over the wrecks of time.
- The followers and family of Jesus were forlorn. Mary his mother, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James the younger and Joseph, and Salome — wife of Zebedee, mother of James and John, along with John — the youngest of the apostles, were close to the cross. The other disciples and many women who had followed Jesus were there but watching at a distance in stunned silence. They loved Jesus. They had followed Jesus from Galilee. In their minds, this was not how it was supposed to end, irrespective of the fact that on several occasions Jesus had told them what would happen to Him in Jerusalem. They were disappointed, dismayed, and in the depths of despair. The disciples left the crucifixion, went to Jerusalem, and locked themselves in a room. How easy it is to love Jesus, to follow Him but not fully understand His words. But Jesus never fails to live up to His words. The resurrection of Jesus confirmed that you can trust His words.
The crowd at the cross was mixed. It was the most diverse of the three crowds of Holy Week. The moods in the crowd covered a range of emotions. Watching the crucifixion held that crowd spellbound. Apart from the Roman soldiers at the beginning, they were all spectators. What transpired was out of their hands. God was working His purpose out. The Living Bible translation of John 3:16 says it most plainly and simply: “For God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son so that anyone who believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life”.
The assertion that human nature is fickle, especially when in crowds, is commonly illustrated by referring to crowds that shouted Hosanna in the highest on Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, followed by shouts of “Crucify him!” at Pilates palace on Good Friday. This assumes that the crowds were the same. However, the crowds were not the same, even if some people may have been in all three crowds in this first Holy Week. The three crowds were different. Jesus was not in all three crowds. Jesus led the crowd on Palm Sunday. He was in Pilate’s palace, but not outside with the crowd. He was chosen for execution by the crowd in absentia. He was executed before the crowd at the cross.
Only two crowds continue to exist. The crowd recognizing and accepting Jesus as the risen Lord and the crowd that rejects Him consciously or by neglect. In which crowd are we? The answer cannot be found in a crowd response. Jesus seeks a personal relationship. If you hear His voice today, harden not your heart. Living in personal relationship with Jesus is the only life worth living.