As we celebrate Palm Sunday and begin the journey of Holy Week, let's take a look at Stephen Procopio's drawing of Jesus entering Jerusalem, from Come See A Man, our illustrated Gospel of John. The palms and the donkey frame a figure of Jesus, who appears again in negative space. The negative space reflects the question all Jerusalem was asking that week: "Who is this?" (Matthew 21:10).
All four gospels depict Jesus' "triumphal entry" to Jerusalem, but John is the only one to describe the palms and the adulation of the people before describing the donkey. In John, it is almost as if Jesus' decision to ride the donkey is a response to the acclamation of the people, a spur-of-the-moment decision to fulfill an ancient prophecy and thereby show the people the meaning of the moment. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus is just as intentional in selecting a donkey, but seems to be planning it out further in advance.
That ancient prophecy comes from Zechariah, and as in the gospel of Matthew, John quotes from it directly: "Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey” (Zechariah 9:9 ESV).
The correlation between kingship and a procession on a donkey runs deep in the Hebrew tradition. Most notably, when King David wished to designate Solomon as his heir over the pretender Adonijah, he ordered Solomon to ride David's own mule in a procession (a mule is the offspring of a horse and a donkey), to have the people shout "Long live King Solomon," and then to be anointed and sit on the throne (1 Kings 1:34). Jared Boggess illustrated this moment in With the Wisdom to Rule, our illustrated book of 1 Kings 1-11.
Like Solomon, Jesus' kingly vocation was a matter of dispute. There were many who would not receive this religious teacher to be their king (let alone to be their God). In mounting the donkey, Jesus staked his claim to the throne of David and Solomon, yet with a different task. As Peter Leithart writes,
"SOLOMON ENTERS JERUSALEM TO BE ENTHRONED AS THE TEMPLE BUILDER, WHILE JESUS ENTERS JERUSALEM IN ORDER TO PREENACT THE TEMPLE'S DESTRUCTION."
Or to put it another way, Jesus came to Jerusalem that the temple might be torn down, and then raised up in three days. For the true temple was "the temple of his body" (John 2:21). In Jesus, "all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell" (Colossians 1:19). And so on Palm Sunday choirs shout "Hosanna" to this man on a donkey, believing that here is a king and a God who can save.
Commentary by Peter Johnston
Come See a Man is our illustrated paperback edition of the Gospel of John. Read the unabridged text alongside over 30 illustrations by Stephen Procopio. Now Available.