I never really understood why the people turned on Jesus, until I began to study the political situation of Jesus’ day and time. I learned something a few years ago that unlocked the story for me. It all made sense and fit together from that point on. Maybe this info will help you have a greater appreciation for what Christians celebrate on Palm Sunday.
Herod The Great
Around 47 B.C.E., Herod the Great began to oversee the region where Jesus would one day walk. He would eventually rule the region as king. He was appointed by his father, Antipater, who had strong political influence in the Roman Empire. Their family had “converted” to Judaism about 50 years earlier, making Herod Jewish. Who better to be appointed as ruler over Palestine than a Jew? Conversions can be good business moves, I guess.
The works of Josephus are highly regarded as reliable ancient history. He tells us that Herod was quite the micromanager. He ruled with an iron fist and was intimately involved in any and every means by which a group could gain or maintain control. Josephus tells us that Herod appointed the high priest of the Jewish people. The Sanhedrin and other Jewish groups that represented God to the people were nothing more than rubber stamps, many directly appointed by Herod himself. This is critical in understanding the political climate of the times. As Jesus would once state, most leaders representing God in Israel were essentially “white-washed tombs”, looked the part outwardly, but dead on the inside. This was a good-ol’ boys club. These were not people who cared about God or about His people. This was an impenetrable alliance, backed by the Roman Empire.
The people needed to get to the Temple to worship. They needed the blessing of the priestly community to be OK with God. The priestly community was controlled by Herod. Herod was controlled by Rome. No one cared about the people. The rulers had all authority. As long as they controlled access to God, the nobodies would have to just shut up and keep in line. Who could risk their standing with God by doing anything against the rules?
Herod the Great is the guy that desperately tried to have the infant Jesus murdered because he had heard about some prophecies and now a few mystics were following a star because they sensed a new king had been born.
Herod the Great died while Jesus was a toddler. His son, Herod Antipas, took over. He led the same way. Here’s the backstory that changed the way I read the gospels:
The religious leaders didn’t care about God. They were using the laws of the Scriptures to oppress people. It was all political. Now I can read Jesus’ words toward the Pharisees and realize that He was combatting people who were using religion to oppress the helpless. It wasn’t that they just interpreted things wrongly, they truly didn’t care about any of it. They were using it for power.
In the days leading up to the crucifixion, Jesus essentially marched down through the whole Palestinian territory to arrive at Jerusalem for one final dramatic entrance. He had been telling His followers that a change was near. He spoke of His coming death, as well as a Resurrection that would follow. He knew.
They stop off at Bethany before the Grand Entrance. Jesus would then work His most obnoxious miracle, which He intentionally set up as an extravagant spectacle. John 11 tells us that Jesus shows up to home of some friends, Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, four days after Lazarus had died. He yells into the tomb and Lazarus comes out. Dead four days, now alive and well. Crazy! The people go nuts with excitement, but some go and tell the Pharisees (part of Herod’s club) that there’s trouble brewing.
The Plot To Kill Jesus
If you’re reading a New International Version Bible, after the miracle of Lazarus in John 11 you’ll see the next heading: The Plot To Kill Jesus.
It’s weird to think that something so amazing could somehow result in people wanting Him dead. I never really understood that, but the backstory makes sense out of it.
When Jesus finally entered Jerusalem, He could not have have done so in a more confrontational way without the use of violence. He very intentionally brought the whole thing to a head.
A huge crowd was in town for the Passover Feast. John speaks of an incredible buzz surrounding this miracle and Lazarus himself was following Jesus around as living proof (the Pharisees wanted to kill him too!). Jesus told His followers to prepare a little donkey for him to ride on as He approached Jerusalem. An ancient prophecy in Zechariah had told the Jews that their King, their Messiah, would enter Zion not on a warhorse, but rather on a little donkey. This was the sign they were looking for! Who would rescue them from the Romans? Who would save them from their tyrant king? Who would make their God accessible again? The Messiah would come to bring God’s Kingdom to the earth! Here He is, fresh from resurrecting a guy who had begun to decay in his tomb! This was their moment!
Jesus rides into Jerusalem and their is a massive celebration in the streets as people yell, “Hosanna!”, which was their way of saying “Save us now, God!” It was hysteria! Think Cavs parade, my Cleveland brothers and sisters!
Later that week, the leaders arrest Jesus. They hold illegal trials with known false witnesses. The whole thing is a legal farce. The people are waiting. What will their Messiah do? When will He choose to use all the power of God that flows through Him to defend Himself and overthrow the evil empires?
He says nothing. He doesn’t defend Himself at all.
Matthew 26:53: “Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels?” Jesus said things like that… He told Pilate, “You’d have no authority over me unless it had been given to you by my Father.” Mostly, He just remained silent. They beat Him. They spit on Him. They mocked Him. No angels showed up. No command for any of the people to rebel and turn violent. No fire from heaven. No miracles at all, aside from actually healing one of His captors.
The people turn on Him. He’s a disappointment. He’s a fake. The whole thing is a lie, a cruel joke. “Crucify Him!” Everyone hates getting their hopes up for ultimate disappointment. Everyone hates being lied to. Ride into Jerusalem on a donkey declaring yourself to be the Messiah, then do nothing? “Crucify Him! Crucify Him! Crucify Him!”
“God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, 14 having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross. 15 And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross…” -Colossian 2
He was silent because it was time for God’s Kingdom (the Jesus lifestyle) to invade the earth. He was crucified because it was time for religious oppressors to lose their leverage over people. His Resurrection would prove good news to all people. The Savior that had been born under the tyranny of Herod the Great had just set His people free from the religious oppression of Herod Antipas. Read the book of Acts and see the outbreak of the Jesus Movement. Imagine the joy of knowing you no longer needed the approval of the priesthood to connect with God! Image watching the fulfillment spread from a lifestyle of love and generosity as it brings value to the people who had been deceived into believing they were powerless and forgotten nobodies! This was the gospel that was unleashed with the Resurrection! Jesus had set the captives free and brought redemption and a life that would never again place a priest or a mediator between us and God.
Hopefully you can take a moment on Palm Sunday and offer thanks to the One who remained silent, took our punishment, and did it all because He wants you to be free! I hope you embrace your freedom from rules, rituals, and religion. I hope you join the redemptive movement that Jesus began and find joy, peace, and fulfillment.