Toward what was to be the end of his campaign, Jesus focused on Jerusalem. It was the political, economic and spiritual center of the Jewish nation, and boasted a large Jewish population that swelled exponentially around Passover. If he was going to begin an insurrection against Rome, it had to start there.
According to the Gospel of John, he preached by day at the temple and retreated to a safe house at nearby Bethany before nightfall.
He was anointed with oil. The word “messiah” means an anointed one, as does the name “Christ.” So the name Jesus Christ is referring to Jesus, the anointed one. In the Old Testament, to anoint someone was a one-time event that specifically selected the person as a king or a high priest (or maybe a prophet.) I think he wanted to be a king. By being anointed, he was publically accepting his post as the messiah, the king of the Jews.
Passover was an annual commemoration of Jewish freedom at which the city accommodated 300-400,000 pilgrims. Roman authorities were on their guard against civil disobedience. Pilate, the Roman governor, always attended to keep an eye on things. Roman soldiers were outnumbered by something like one hundred to one. The event was a tinderbox that could catch alight given the right spark.
When he allegedly rode on a donkey into the excited atmosphere in Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, throngs of jubilant Jews greeted him, so the Romans must have known he was coming. He effectively broadcasted his intentions to the crowd. Pious pilgrims were expected to walk into the Holy City, so he was deliberately doing his best to stand out from the rabble by riding. The son of David had surfaced and was staking his claim! He may have been trying to fulfill a prophesy from Zechariah, who wrote,
“Rejoice heart and soul, daughter of Zion! Shout with gladness daughter of Jerusalem! See now, your king comes to you; he is victorious, he is triumphant, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey” (Zech. 9:9, NJB,) assuming, of course, a gospel author didn’t retrofit the donkey part of the plot into the story.
Yeshua must have known that to play the part of a king was an act of treason against Caesar, and punishable by death, yet he did it right under the noses of the Sadducees and the Romans. It was a move made by a brave man. It could have been a calculated lampoon of the entrance one would expect from a Roman emperor. I think he was taking a gamble, guessing he wouldn’t, or couldn’t, be arrested because he was so popular with the people.
I think he was hoping to enlist the support of the Jewish revellers in Jerusalem, and with their help overpower the Roman garrison and thereby launch a full-scale rebellion against Rome. This was quite an ambitious agenda, and he would have been well aware of the risks, yet encouraged by the hope that his God was going to help him.
“Great crowds of people spread their cloaks on the road, while others were cutting branches from trees spreading them in his path. The crowds who went in front of him and who followed were all shouting: Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessings on him who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heavens! And when he entered Jerusalem the whole city was in turmoil. Who is this people asked, and the crowds answered, this is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee” (Matt. 21:8–12, NJB.)
“Hosanna” was a Jewish exclamation welcoming someone who “saves.” It was a cry of independence. The spectators were saluting the son of David, a legitimate Jewish king.
“Some Pharisees in the crowd said to him, ‘Master, check your disciples,’ but he answered, ‘I tell you, if these keep silence the stones will cry out’” (Luke 19:39–40 JB.) It sounds like Jesus put on a persuasive performance. He proved himself plucky and purposeful, just like a real ruler. The crowds bought it, and were excited. The whole city was in turmoil. This was a high point in his career and he would have been flushed with excitement. Everything was going to plan.
The next day he went to the temple. This was where fees were to be paid to the priests, and to the moneychangers who exchanged Roman coinage and Jewish currency. It was also where money was collected to pay for the places that offered ritual bathing, for the actual animals, and for the priests to kill them. There was rent to be collected from the hoards of visitors who had to stay over-night, and fees for feeding them. The priests had engineered things so that the temple was where all this happened. Yeshua was clearly compromising all this by turning the tables over, causing a ruckus in a city centered on, and devoted to the temple-based economy.
He must have had a crowd of Jewish supporters to cheer him on and protect him. There were no Roman soldiers allowed in the Temple, so to arrest him on the spot would have been difficult. To start a scene in the temple and test the authority of the Sadducees was making another affirmation that he’d arrived. It showed he was willing to be aggressive to achieve his aims.
That night he returned to a safe house at Bethany, yet Luke’s account makes it clear that Jewish authorities had him under surveillance.
The next day he again provoked the Temple hierarchy by debating them in public. Matthew had Jesus state that what belonged to Caesar should be returned to Caesar (Matt. 22:21;) in other words that Jews should pay taxes to Rome. I think this was written in to derail readers from reaching the conspicuous conclusion that Jesus was a zealot. It makes no sense to imagine that a man who turned over tables in the temple and thought he was king of the Jews would pay tax to a Roman Caesar.
The atmosphere in Jerusalem must have been tense. Something definitive was bound to happen soon; one of the sides was going to pick up their weapons. Consider the principal players in the evolving events.
On one side was Jesus, who was convinced he was a king and the messiah of Israel. He’d been emboldened and protected by a show of support from a pepped up Jewish populace. He was now under pressure to play his hand. At this critical time, tactics were everything. He knew there had to be a fight, but how and when to start it? He may have been waiting for divine help from Yahweh, whom he knew had helped previous prophets win wars, because that was what was written in scripture.
On the other side were the Roman army and the chief priest, the Sanhedrin and their associates. Pontius Pilate, who contemporary historians described as dictatorial and violent, supervised the soldiers who were on their guard, organized, trained, and in fine fettle. Jewish leaders knew Jesus was hoping to start a revolt. They were powerful men supported by Rome and the last thing they wanted was a zealot stirring up the people. An insurrection would threaten their positions and even their lives, because the Roman garrison couldn’t protect them from thousands of hotheaded Jews. They had to act quickly and decisively to prevent Jesus gaining the upper hand. A conflict was inevitable. The stage was set for a showdown between Rome and what Jesus believed was the true Israel.