Two thousand years ago, Palm Sunday was a day of confusion instead of comprehension. Jesus riding on a donkey threw everyone off balance.
In John 12:12-16, Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a donkey to the sound of a chanting crowd. The people are shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the King of Israel!” (12:13).
Now those shouts were full of messianic overtones. The “King of Israel” referred to God’s Anointed One (or Messiah) who would come to deliver His people. The crowd waving palm branches (12:13a) ascribed that messianic title to Jesus.
But then they saw how Jesus was entering the city: on a donkey, not a war horse. They expected their conquering king (who would overthrow the political oppression caused by the Romans) to ride in valiantly and triumphantly.
But Jesus is on a gentle donkey, an animal representing humility and peace instead of war. Talk about a disappointed crowd! This is not what they were expecting from the guy who raised Lazarus from the dead (12:17-18).
The crowd was totally confused. Palm Sunday was a day of misunderstanding, not only for the crowd, but for the disciples, too: “his disciples did not understand all this” (12:16), with “all this” referring particularly to Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem on a donkey.
What else didn’t they understand? The disciples didn’t understand that Jesus would give His life on a cross in order to defeat enemies more sinister than Roman authorities and far more oppressive than the current political powers. Jesus was to overthrow sin and death. The beginning of His enthronement would be through the cross. He would be glorified, yes, but through crucifixion.
Yes, Jesus was the king, but the crowd misunderstood the nature of His kingship. His royal rule would be established through a victory over the power of sin and death. Though they were not expecting a Messiah who would die, to the cross He went.
So, while Palm Sunday confused everyone, the day that the disciples would see clearer was coming (12:16b). Not now, but soon, they would understand. For now, the disciples watched their Teacher ride on a donkey through a confused multitude, and they all wondered, “What’s he doing now?”
In a sense, Jesus was rejecting the misunderstanding of the people. They wanted a king on a war horse, so He came in on a donkey. He would not reinforce their wrong ideas about His kingship–but He wasn’t going to pretend like He wasn’t a king either.
Oh, by the way, Jesus will be on a war horse in the future: “I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True. With justice he judges and makes war. His eyes are like blazing fire, and on his head are many crowns. He has a name written on him that no one knows but he himself. He is dressed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is the Word of God…On his robe and on his thigh he has this name written: KING OF KINGS AND LORD OF LORDS” (Revelation 19:11-13, 16).
There won’t be confusion about Jesus on that day. It will be clear who He is.