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Lesson 65: Following Jesus for the Right Reason (John 12:12-19)

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August 31, 2014

The longer that I’m a Christian, the more often I’m saddened to see people who made a profession of faith in Christ and began to follow Him, but later fell away and now are far from God. In some cases, these people have even been involved in serving the Lord in full time ministry. But something went wrong and now they are not only out of the ministry and away from the church, but they’re not even professing to believe in Jesus.

There are many causes for such spiritual failure. Sometimes, things in life or ministry did not go as they had hoped. Perhaps they got burned by other believers who violated their trust. Some had nagging doubts or difficult questions about the Bible that were fed by skeptics. In many cases, the person fell away because of serious sin.

We should not be surprised by such cases, since the Bible contains many examples of spiritual failure. Our chapter (John 12:4) mentions Judas, one of the twelve, who would betray Jesus. In Acts (5:1-11) Ananias and Sapphira, members of the early church, were struck dead for their duplicity. Then there is Simon the magician (Acts 8:9-24), who professed faith in Christ and was baptized, but who tried to buy spiritual power from the apostles so that he could impress the crowds with miracles.

Later (Acts 20:30), Paul warned the Ephesian elders that from their midst some would arise, drawing away the disciples after them. Paul warned Timothy about several men who had turned from the faith (1 Tim. 1:20; 2 Tim. 1:15). He lamented Demas, a former fellow worker, who had deserted Paul because he loved this present world (Philemon 24; 2 Tim. 4:10). Later, both Peter (2 Peter 2) and John (1 John 2:19; 3 John 9-10) warned about false teachers, who probably once were sound, but now were preying on the flock.

While there are different reasons that these and others fall away from the Lord, at the root of every case is that the person either never knew or else lost sight of who Jesus is. Understanding Jesus’ identity is crucial because your eternal destiny rests on believing the truth about who Jesus is and what He did on the cross. That’s why John wrote this Gospel (John 20:31), “so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name.” If you understand and believe in who Jesus is, you will have eternal life. But if you have false notions about who Jesus is or false hopes about what He will do for you in this life, at some point you will be disappointed and will fall away from your initial profession of faith.

Jesus’ so-called “Triumphal Entry” into Jerusalem at the beginning of Passion Week should perhaps be called His “Tragic Entry,” because it triggered events that led to His death. Luke (19:41) reports that when Jesus approached Jerusalem, He wept over it. The crowds lined the street and cheered for Jesus as the long-expected King of Israel, but they were hoping for a political king, who could lead a military victory against Rome and provide eventual peace and prosperity for their nation. They were not so interested in a Messiah with a spiritual kingdom, who would provide forgiveness for their sins and who would be Lord of every aspect of their personal lives. So within a week, the shouts of “Hosanna!” turned to “Crucify Him!” The fickle crowd was following Jesus for the wrong reasons. Such a faulty foundation inevitably collapses.

Jesus’ Triumphal Entry is reported in all four Gospels. To understand it properly, you have to recognize that it is a complete reversal of all that Jesus has done in His ministry to this point. Up till now, Jesus has mostly kept veiled His identity as Messiah. When a demon proclaimed Him to be the Holy One of God, He told him to be quiet (Mark 1:24-25). When He healed people, Jesus commanded them not to tell anyone (Mark 1:44; 7:36). Even when He raised Jairus’ daughter from the dead, He gave strict orders that no one should know about it (Mark 5:43)! When the disciples gained insight into His identity as Messiah, Jesus told them not to tell anyone (Mark 8:30; 9:9). The only exception in John so far was when Jesus told the Samaritan woman at the well that He was the Messiah (John 4:26).

But now Jesus deliberately stages a public demonstration to proclaim Himself as Messiah in Jerusalem at the most widely attended feast of them all. There were perhaps a million pilgrims in the city for the Passover (Andreas Kostenberger, John [Baker], p. 368). The other Gospels make it clear that Jesus set up this event by sending two of the disciples to get the donkey and her colt. When some of the Pharisees in the crowd objected to the people’s shouts of, “Hosanna!” rather than quieting the shouts, Jesus affirmed them by saying (Luke 19:40), “I tell you, if these become silent, ‘the stones will cry out!’” So there is a dramatic shift in Jesus’ ministry at this point. We need to understand why.

The answer lies in the Jewish concept of Messiah in Jesus’ day. “Messiah” comes from a Hebrew word meaning “to anoint.” “Christ” comes from the Greek word “to anoint.” Thus the Messiah or Christ is the one whom God anoints, sent to deliver His people from sin and rule over them as King and Lord. The kings of Israel were God’s anointed rulers of His people, but they always fell short. Even David, the greatest king in Israel, made some serious mistakes. But God promised to send one of David’s descendants to reign on his throne, who would rule in absolute righteousness and justice, crushing all opposition under His feet (Ps. 2). This political aspect of Messiah as King dominated Jewish thought in the first century as the nation chafed under Roman rule. This political aspect of Messiah’s reign is behind Psalm 118:26, which the people cite in John 12:13, “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord….” They added, “even the King of Israel.”

But the Old Testament presents a second aspect of the Messiah, namely, that He would be the suffering servant who would bear the sins of His people, deliver them from God’s judgment, and establish a kingdom of righteousness. He would not only be the King, but also Israel’s prophet and priest. This is the theme of Psalm 110, which proclaims Messiah not only as a conquering warrior, but also as a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek. The suffering servant is a theme in Isaiah 40-55, especially the great prophecy of Isaiah 53. It is also implicit in the prophecy of Zechariah 9:9 (cited in John 12:15), which presents Messiah not as a warrior mounted on a powerful horse, but as humble, mounted on the foal of a donkey. This idea of Messiah as the humble sin-bearer of His people was not dominant with the Jews in Jesus’ day. They were looking for a political Messiah.

In the Triumphal Entry, Jesus was declaring Himself to be Israel’s Messiah, but not the kind of Messiah that they expected. He did not ride into Jerusalem on a powerful war horse to lead the charge against Rome, but on the foal of a donkey, which was not thought of as a kingly animal in Jesus’ day, to offer Himself as the sacrifice for our sins. By this public demonstration, Jesus deliberately provoked the Jewish leaders. They wanted to kill Him, but not at the Passover, lest there be a riot among the people (Matt. 26:3-5). But for Scripture to be fulfilled, Jesus needed to die as the Passover lamb for His people (1 Cor. 5:7). So Jesus, knowing that His time had come, staged this Triumphal Entry to trigger the events that would lead to His death coinciding with the Jewish Passover. The Jewish leaders did not take Jesus’ life against His will; rather, He laid it down willingly for His sheep (John 10:17-18).

With all of that as a foundation for understanding this pivotal event in Jesus’ ministry, let me turn to how it applies to us:

Make sure that you follow Jesus because of who He is, not because of what you think He might provide for you.

Let’s think about the negative side of this first:

1. Don’t follow Jesus only because of the temporal benefits you think He might provide for you.

John presents various groups that took part in this Triumphal Entry. The crowd who had come to Jerusalem for the feast took the branches of palm trees and went out to meet Him (John 12:12-13). John is the only Gospel to mention the palm branches that we now associate with “Palm Sunday.” Two centuries before Christ, Judas and Simon Maccabaeus had driven the Syrian forces out of Israel. Their victory was celebrated with music and the waving of palm branches (1 Macc. 13:51), which also had been prominent at the earlier rededication of the temple (2 Macc. 10:7). Thus palm branches were a symbol of Jewish nationalism and of victory over their enemies. The crowd was hopeful that Jesus was the messianic liberator who would free them from Rome’s domination (D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John [Eerdmans/Apollos], p. 432).

Their cry (John 12:13), “Hosanna! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord,” comes from Psalm 118:25-26, which is the climax of the Hallel (Psalms 113-118), which was sung at the Feasts of Tabernacles, Dedication, and Passover (Carson, ibid.). “Hosanna” meant, “Save now!” It may have been a prayer or just a cry of praise to God. The next line (in John 12:13), “even the King of Israel,” is not from Psalm 118, but rather shows that the crowd understood Psalm 118 as referring to the Messianic King. This group largely consisted of those who gave acclaim to Jesus because they thought of the temporal benefits that He could provide for them. They thought that He would usher in the age of peace and prosperity.

Their hopes were fueled by those who had seen Jesus call Lazarus from the tomb, who were telling others about this spectacular miracle (John 12:17-18). If Jesus had done this for Lazarus, surely He could meet their needs as well. John adds (12:16) that even the disciples did not understand these things at first. It was only after Jesus was raised from the dead and ascended into heaven (“glorified”) that they connected the dots between the Old Testament prophecies and what the crowd had done to Jesus. So even the disciples were pretty much in line with the crowd that day, viewing Jesus as the political savior. As a result, their faith in Him was severely shaken until they saw Him after He was raised from the dead.

The application is that your faith will be shaken and perhaps even destroyed if you follow Jesus because of what you think He can give you in terms of financial prosperity, good health, and other temporal benefits. But what if you contract a serious illness? What if you suffer a severe financial loss? What if your marriage isn’t the storybook, ideal romance that you thought He would give you? What if your children don’t follow the Lord or if they turn against you?

As Hebrews 11:29-35a shows, God can and does give dramatic victories to His people. But right in the middle of verse 35, it shifts, as verses 35b-38 show people who trust in God but are mocked, scourged, imprisoned, and martyred. The reward is not in this life, but in the life to come. The health and wealth teaching is heresy that leads people into disappointment and destruction of their faith when things don’t turn out as the false teachers said they would. We shouldn’t follow Jesus because we think He will give us all the goodies we want in this life.

Well, then, why should we follow Jesus?

2. Follow Jesus because of who He is: God’s Messiah and King.

If your faith rests on the person of Jesus Christ as revealed in Scripture, then you will not be shaken whether you go to prison or are blessed with prosperity. You may suffer terrible health and die young or you may enjoy good health, but your faith does not rest on happy circumstances, but on who Jesus is and on what He has promised His children throughout eternity. Our text reveals several lines of proof that Jesus is God’s Messiah and King:

A. Fulfilled prophecies prove that Jesus is God’s Messiah and King.

John mentions two Old Testament prophecies that Jesus fulfilled on Palm Sunday. We have already looked at the first, Psalm 118:25-26:

O Lord, do save, we beseech You;
O Lord, we beseech You, do send prosperity!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord;
We have blessed you from the house of the Lord.

The Jews understood this to refer to Messiah (Carson, ibid.). Just before these verses the psalm cites the lines that Jesus applied to Himself (Ps. 118:22-23; Matt. 21:42):

The stone which the builders rejected
Has become the chief corner stone.
This is the Lord’s doing;
It is marvelous in our eyes.

John also refers to the prophecy of Zechariah 9:9:

Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion!
Shout in triumph, O daughter of Jerusalem!
Behold, your king is coming to you;
He is just and endowed with salvation,
Humble, and mounted on a donkey,
Even on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

John (12:15) cites an abbreviated form of the quote: “Fear not, daughter of Zion; behold, your King is coming, seated on a donkey’s colt.” “Fear not” replaces “Rejoice greatly.” Perhaps John wants to assure his Jewish readers, living after the destruction of Jerusalem, not to fear in spite of that disaster, because Jesus still is the King of Israel. John Calvin (Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker], p. 23) applies it to us: “Never is tranquility restored to our minds, or fear and trembling banished from them, except by knowing that Christ reigns amongst us.” He goes on to say that now that our King has come, we ought to contend with our fears, so that “we may peacefully and joyfully honor our King.”

John’s point in referring to Zechariah’s prophecy is to show that Jesus in His first coming was not the conquering King, riding on a war horse, but a humble King, offering Himself as the sacrifice for our sins (Carson, p. 433). Later (Rev. 19:11), John sees Jesus coming again on a white horse to judge and wage war. But in His first coming, Jesus was the suffering Messiah-King, offering peace and salvation. Psalm 118 and Zechariah 9 are just two of many prophecies that confirm Jesus’ identity as Messiah and King.

B. Jesus’ works of power prove that He is God’s Messiah and King.

John does not mention that the young colt on which Jesus rode was unbroken, which was a miracle. If you don’t think so, try riding an unbroken colt sometime! But he does again mention (12:17) that Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. In all, John gives seven of Jesus’ miracles (or signs) that He performed before His resurrection, plus the miraculous catch of fish (John 21). John reported these signs (John 20:31), “so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name.”

C. Jesus’ control of His circumstances under the Father’s timetable proves that He is God’s Messiah and King.

John does not elaborate in this story as the other Gospels do that Jesus deliberately arranged for the colt to ride on. But throughout his Gospel, he has repeatedly shown that Jesus was in control of all His circumstances, under the Father’s sovereign timetable. Since John 5, the opposition to Jesus has been mounting, with repeated attempts to kill Him, but in every case, Jesus was protected, because His hour had not yet come. After Jesus’ claims to deity in John 8, the Jews picked up stones to stone Him (John 8:59), but Jesus went out of their midst unharmed. Again in John 10, the Jewish leaders accused Jesus of blasphemy and tried again to stone Him, because He claimed to be one with the Father. But (John 10:39), “He eluded their grasp.”

After Jesus raised Lazarus, the Jewish leaders intensified their attempts to kill Him (John 11:53), but Jesus withdrew, because His time had not yet come. But now, six days before the Passover, Jesus knew that His hour had come to offer Himself as the Lamb of God (John 12:23). So, He changed His ministry strategy and openly presented Himself as the Jewish Messiah, even though He knew that the crowds had a mistaken view of their Messiah. He forced the Jewish leaders to go against their plan not to kill Him during the feast. They inadvertently killed the true Passover Lamb even as the other Passover lambs were being killed. Acts 4:27-28 sums it up well: “For truly in this city there were gathered together against Your holy servant Jesus, whom You anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever Your hand and Your purpose predestined to occur.” Jesus was in control even over His own death. He did not die as a helpless victim, but as the willing sacrifice for our sins.

So the applied message of Jesus’ Triumphal Entry is: Make sure that you follow Him because of who He is, not because of what you think He might provide for you in this life. He does provide forgiveness of sins and eternal life to all who believe in Him. But with that gift may come hardship and persecution. But there’s one final thought in our text:

3. You can oppose Jesus and succeed in the short run, but in the long run you will lose and He will win.

John 12:19 mentions the frustration of the Pharisees as they saw the crowds exalting Jesus as He rode into Jerusalem: “So the Pharisees said to one another, ‘You see that you are not doing any good; look, the world has gone after Him.’” This is another example of John’s irony. The Pharisees meant, “Everyone is going after Jesus. Our efforts to get rid of Him have failed!” But John wants us to see that although by the end of that week, the tide had turned and Jewish leaders were gloating in their victory, it was short-lived. Jesus arose from the dead and when John wrote, the gospel was going out to the whole world, to Jews and Gentiles alike. This anticipates the next paragraph, where the Greeks want to see Jesus.

Interestingly, in Revelation 7:9-10, John reports another scene with palm branches (the only other time palm branches are mentioned in the New Testament):

After these things I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no one could count, from every nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, and palm branches were in their hands; and they cry out with a loud voice, saying, “Salvation to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.”

That scene shows us the ultimate triumph of the Lamb! The Jewish leaders succeeded in crucifying Him, but He will reign over all throughout eternity. John is making the point that you can oppose Jesus and in the short run, it may look as if you’ve succeeded in your rebellion. But in the long run, Jesus will win and you will lose if you have not yielded to Him before He comes again.


So, why do you follow Jesus? Someone may say, “I am following Jesus because I want Him to give me a godly marriage partner.” That’s a legitimate need that He can supply, but that shouldn’t be your main reason to follow Jesus. Or, you may follow Jesus because you want Him to heal your marriage. Again, He can do that, but that’s not the main reason you should follow Him. Some may say, “I follow Jesus because I have many deep emotional hurts from my past, and I want Him to heal me.” Again, He can do that, but it’s not the main reason to follow Him.

The right reason to follow Jesus is because of who He is: God’s Anointed One, the rightful King over every heart and life. He died for your sins, arose from the grave, and is coming back in power and glory to reign over all. So whether you struggle with tribulation, distress, persecution, poverty, health issues, or death itself, you can overwhelmingly conquer if your faith is in Him as your Lord and Savior (Rom. 8:35-37)! Follow Jesus because of who He is, not for the temporal benefits that He might give you.

Application Questions

  1. Is it okay to appeal to people to trust in Christ so that He can solve their personal problems? Cite biblical support.
  2. What expectations did you have when you put your trust in Christ? Were they biblically legitimate expectations?
  3. Have you experienced disappointment with God? What was the source of your disappointment? How did you deal with it?
  4. Are there any areas of your life (work, finances, relationships, goals, use of time, etc.) where Jesus is not your King? What specifically do you need to do to yield these areas to Him?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2014, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Christian Life, Discipleship, Failure, Soteriology (Salvation), Spiritual Life

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