John and the Old Testament in Concert: A Biblical Theology of Palm Sunday

In John 11, Jesus’ demonstrated His deity by raising Lazarus from the dead. Despite Jesus’ greatness, the Jewish leaders sought to destroy Him. Taken together, statements from the Psalms, Isaiah, and Ezekiel portrayed the Messiah as One who would demonstrate power over life and death—yet be rejected by His people. The events of John 11-12 brought the psalmist and two of Israel’s prophets together in a concert proclaiming that Jesus was the Messiah upon His entry into Jerusalem.

The God who is Life

Ezekiel prophesied of the Lord’s grace that would come upon His people to forgive their sins and awaken them to new spiritual life. The Lord brought Ezekiel to a valley filled with dry bones and commanded him to prophesy to the bones that they would come alive by his word. While Ezekiel spoke, the bones were animated with tissue. When the prophet commanded the four winds to give breath to the bodies, the bodies came to life. The Lord told Ezekiel that He was going to open graves that the dead of Israel would come out alive. “You will know that I am the LORD, My people, when I open your graves and bring you up from them” (Ezek 37:13).

When Jesus learned that His friend Lazarus had died, He wept (John 11:35). But this was more than an emotional moment for Jesus. If Jesus were merely filled with compassion for His friend, He could have healed Lazarus from a distance. The resurrection of Lazarus is an illustration of Jesus’ sovereignty to give life. When Jesus told Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life” in John 12:25, He clarified that He was capable of what the Lord proclaimed of Himself in Ezek 37:13.

Some Rejoiced, Some Rejected

Psalm 118 portrayed the psalmist’s thanks to the Lord for empowering Israel to victory over their foes. The psalmist described the celebration that took place in Jerusalem as the gates of the Lord’s city were opened wide (Ps 118:19-20). Though the nations had rejected Israel, the Lord chose to build His kingdom through Israel, His cornerstone (Ps 118:22-23). The psalmist described God alone as the Savior of His people. It was thus altogether right for the psalmist to say, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the LORD” (Ps 118:26) heralding God’s salvation. When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the crowds rejoiced, and the Pharisees grew more frustrated (John 12:12-19). 

To Jesus the crowd exclaimed Ps 118:26, waving palm branches in their hands (Matt 21:8-9//Mark 21:8-10//Luke 19:36-38//John 12:13), proclaiming Jesus the King of Israel. The Synoptic authors noted that while Jesus taught in the temple during that final Passover celebration, He told the Parable of the Vineyard Owner (Matt 21:33-43//Mark 12:1-11//Luke 20:9-18). Jesus concluded the parable by citing Ps 118:22-23 and applying it to Himself. The stone the Jewish leadership rejected was the cornerstone of God’s program to reveal Himself and redeem His people. The author of Psalm 118 described how God’s work of deliverance would be both celebrated and rejected. The Evangelists and Jesus rooted Jesus’ Holy Week ministry in those themes of Psalm 118.

The King on a Colt

Zechariah proclaimed that God wanted the hearts of His people and urged the returned exiles to repent. The prophet announced that the Lord would avenge the sufferings of His people by judging their foes and setting a mighty king over Israel. In Zech 9:9, Zechariah said “Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion! Shout in triumph, Daughter Jerusalem! See, your King is coming to you; He is righteous and victorious, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

The Evangelists interpreted Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem riding on a donkey as a fulfillment of Zech 9:9 (Matt 21:5//John 12:15). But as Jesus entered the city, the disciples did not connect dots. John noted that only after Jesus was glorified did they understand that Jesus’ ride into Jerusalem fulfilled Zech 9:9. John’s authorial disclaimer in John 12:16 underscored Jesus’ death and resurrection as the interpretive peak upon which the New Testament writers understood the Old Testament.

To See or Not to See

In Isaiah 6, Isaiah described his call experience. He saw the Lord high and exalted and heard the angelic host proclaim God’s holiness. The Lord commissioned Isaiah to proclaim His truth to Israel but told the prophet that the people would reject his messages. Isaiah’s messages would seal Israel’s unbelief. In Isaiah 53, the prophet described the ironic state of the Lord’s Servant. He was God’s chosen, wise leader but He was not attractive in appearance and was rejected by the people. So, when the people rejected the Lord’s Servant, they were rejecting the One through whom God had willed to reveal His power (Isa 53:1).

In John 12:37-41, John collocated Isa 53:1 and Isa 6:10 to explain why so many had rejected Jesus despite the signs He did before them. Though God revealed Himself through Jesus, through Jesus’ ministry God blinded the hearts of the Jewish people. God’s revelation in His Son thus simultaneously opened some eyes to faith and sealed others shut in blindness. Isaiah’s ministry experience in Isa 6:10 anticipated Jesus’ ministry. In this way, Isaiah saw Jesus’ glory and prophesied of Him (John 12:41).