Why the Change in the Crowd?

Palm Sunday Procession in the Streets of Jerusalem

A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 9The crowds that went ahead of him and those that followed shouted,
“Hosanna to the Son of David!”

“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”

“Hosanna in the highest!” Matthew 21:8-9

22″What shall I do, then, with Jesus who is called Christ?” Pilate asked. They all answered, “Crucify him!”

23″Why? Whatcrime has he committed?” asked Pilate. But they shouted all the louder, “Crucify him!” Matthew 27:22-23

(Originally posted May, 2008)

What a difference a week makes! In one week, the people have gone from shouting “Hosanna” to shouting “Crucify him!” Unfortunately, in almost every sermon I have heard on the topic, the pastor gets it wrong. (Not picking on any particular pastor here, I have heard this preached badly six or seven times.) The Pastor assumes that the crowd in Matthew 21 is the same as the crowd in Matthew 27. But this is not the case.

In Matthew 19 we find Jesus way north of Jerusalem, in Galilee, his home turf so to speak. This was where Jesus had grown up, based his ministry, and performed most of his miracles. Like most others he starts to make his way south to celebrate the passover in Jerusalem.

First he heads down to Judea, to the far side of the Jordan (possibly on the route that skirted Samaria.) He crosses back over the Jordan into Jericho, which we find him leaving in Matthew 20. He arrives at Bethpage and Bethany which he makes as his headquarters for Passover week (Matthew 21 & 26). Jerusalem was filled with pilgrims, and Jesus did what many others did who lived outside the immediate area, they slept in the towns surrounding Jerusalem, and then came into Jerusalem for the events of each day.

So when Jesus has his triumphal entry that we read about in Matthew 21, he is surrounded by his supporters from the north. They had also camped outside the city and were also coming in for the day.

In Jerusalem awaits the political elite, the leaders of the temple, who are quite happy with their lifestyle and the degree of autonomy that they have under Roman rule. Someone who might upset their applecart would need to be dealt with quickly.

So what does Jesus do? He drives the money changers and sellers from the temple, directly challenging the leadership of the temple. Then he heads back to Bethany for the night.

He comes back in the next morning, curses the fig tree on the way in, and then spends the day telling parables that insult the chief priests and pharisees. It is then that they decide to arrest him (Matthew 21:45-46). Note that the passage says that they were afraid to arrest him because of the crowd.

Christ continues to clash with the teachers of the law and the pharisees in Mattew 22 & 23. Jesus continues to teach in Matthew 24 & 25 and heads back to Bethany where we find him again in Mattew 26.

Meanwhilethe chief priests and elders meet to plot against Jesus.

3Then the chief priests and the elders of the people assembled in the palace of

the high priest, whose name was Caiaphas, 4and they plotted to arrest Jesus in

some sly way and kill him. 5″But not during the Feast,” they said, “or there may

be a riot among the people.” Matthew 26: 3-5

Notice that the plot involved getting Jesus away from his followers. That is the ones who camped outside the city.

Jesus comes back into town to pray on the Mount of Olives at night. It is at the Garden of Gethsemene that he is arrested at night (Matthew 26:47). Jesus himself comments (verse 55) that he was in the temple all day, why didn’t they arrest him then? Why, because his supporters were all in the temple area during the day!

He is immediately taken before the sanhedrin for his first trial. Again, this was still in the middle of the night, and the sanhedrin had gathered for the express purpose of getting rid of Jesus.

Matthew 27 opens by saying that “early in the morning” he was taken before Pilate. It is when he is before Pilate that the crowd shouts “crucify him”.

This is not the same crowd that shouted “Hosanna”. The “Hosanna” crowd are still camped outside the city or making their way in. The “Crucify crowd” is made up of the priests, elders, and pharisees, and those that they have assembled, who wanted nothing to do with Jesus and just want him out of the way.

So why the change in the crowd? Two different crowds. The second crowd planted at a time when the first crowd could not be there.

So why does this matter?

What struck me about this story is that the chief priests, temple leaders, and pharisees represented what society would have considered to be among the most spiritual people in society. Yet these people were the ones that were most threatened by the new wave of the Spirit that had come in the form of Jesus Christ. It is a natural inclination to be suspicious of change, to be resistant to ideas that might threaten your place in society, and to be wary of a new religious movement.

Then I thought of us today in our churches. Are we suspicious, resistant, and wary of new things. Do we like things just the way they are? “If it ain’t broke. Don’t fix it.” Over the last couple of years I have heard a couple of astute church leaders suggest that if the congregation is quite happy with the status quo, then some faith stretching exercises are in order. What happens when a new Pastor comes into our church (I am speaking generically here) and suggests that significant change is necessary in order for the church to move beyond its plateaued state? Are we part of the crowd that shouts “Hosanna!”, or are we part of the crowd that shouts “Crucify him!”

That is not to say that resistance to change is necessarily wrong.  I do think however it is important for us to examine ourselves, and make sure we are responding with the right motivations.

As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome.

30 thoughts on “Why the Change in the Crowd?

  1. Also, symbolically in the New Testament, I believe that Peter is represented as a kind of leader and central figure among the apostles, and so all disciples, and his words seem to me often to be spoken for all; if this is true, then his denial would be viewed as symbolic of the denial of the whole group of Jesus’ followers. Of course, this requires a literary rather than literal reading of Peter as a symbol as well as a historic personage.


  2. Desertion and denial are not the same as calling for crucifixion. “I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will scatter.” The women at the foot of the cross were women, and so, in that society, beneath the radar of both the Temple authorities and the Romans as people to be concerned about; John was very likely young enough to be considered a boy, and so also not considered a threat. In any case, there is no reason to believe that this small group of disciples stood out from the crowd of gawkers and tormentors, and publicly identified themselves as brothers and sister of Jesus Christ as he endured crucifixion. And to have his cowering disciples watch his slow torment and death would not have been something the authorities would have been averse to, as long as they did not publicly condemn what was happening.


  3. I’ve always assumed that it was more or less two different crowds, without realizing that it was a topic of debate.

    There was probably a lot of overlap, with some fickle-minded people, and some who were disgruntled at the defeated revolutionary leader, and some who merely liked to be on a winning team. But, the second crowd in my opinion was largely whipped up, possibly paid off in shekels or denarii, and essentially cheerleaders for the religious leaders who had engineered the conspiracy.

    I can think of only two people, documented in the bible, who had been for Jesus and then turned against him: Judas and Peter; but I don’t think either of them were shouting “Crucify him.” Judas had hung himself by then and Peter was too busy being ashamed of himself after he heard the rooster.

    As for the two-crowd model, the women at the foot of the cross certainly hadn’t turned against him, nor had John. Documented names for that theory.

    I think the same-crowd model is a children’s Sunday-school lesson that people have never questioned in adulthood. It is, however, a good illustration of sin, but not very practical historically.


  4. I also number myself among the Lutheran/Reformed because I’ve become convinced that the first few centuries of the church exhibited far more variety in religious practice than used to be thought, and that much of the unanimity that was formerly thought to exist in those centuries was projected back onto them by church historians using a paucity of evidence to cobble together a vision of unanimity that the evidence does not justify. The greatest degree of unanimity was the result of actions taken by the church in more-or-less the second part of the first millennium, and it ended with the Great Schism.


  5. “This is my only hope..,” and this is what sets me free to strive, even knowing that I will make mistakes along the way, both mistakes born of ignorance and those born of a wicked heart. I repeat, this is why I count myself among the Lutheran or Reformed (not sure which), though, again, I hope with more humility and less arrogance than is sometimes found in these traditions.


  6. Neither the revolutionary crowd nor the collaborationist crowd understand the character of the kingdom that Jesus is ushering in, so I, too, can see myself in either or both crowd. All it takes is believing that violence of one kind or another is essential and instrumental in establishing God’s reign, and since this is the default setting of the human race, either crowd is a natural fit for homo religiosis.


  7. Tom, isn’t that already being done? Only it’s happening more like every five minutes. It’s called Protestantism, and I say that as a convinced Protestant.


  8. Relationship has a very high priority in any humane vision of life together, whether in the church or outside it. It’s important to strive toward competency in relationship, while at the same time knowing that competency in relationship is only episodically, and never permanently, reached in this life, partly because the goal is dynamic, and partly because my motives in this life are always mixed.

    But in my striving, it is important to me to remember that redemption, my own redemption and the redemption of everyone and everything else, does not depend on my striving, and especially, it does not depend on success in my striving, but only on the finished work of Jesus Christ. This is my only hope.


  9. Maybe “church” should be “reset” about every 50 years so that the accretions are brought under scrutiny and a spring cleaning is anticipated…Oh wait! Isn’t that something akin to Jubilee?


  10. > The problem arises when there is such a mixture that you can’t really tell.

    It is always an oversimplification of history to believe this has not always been true – especially given the information dearth which existed for people making decisions even decades ago [relative to now], let alone a thousand years ago. People often have [or had, certainly] very very little other than their own immediate perceptions and rumor to make decisions on.

    It is one thing I appreciate about the good chaplain’s interpretations – they almost always exist in a careful context. Because when you read this story – all the actors seem familiar, we have likenesses of them today, and what people did and the choices they made [even the “bad guys”] have a reasonableness to them. I can understand myself being, at different times of life, in either crowd. That makes me more hesitant to condemn them, and much more hesitant to myself-today join a fevered crowd.

    It seems ages ago but the first real in-depth `Bible study ` I was involved in was Nehemiah – and the history was included, who the players were, where they were, where they had come from… it made the scripture explosively more informative, because the cardboard `bad guys` – they made sense, what they wanted was understandable. Here and now [ironically, for an ancient text] – daemons-not-required [although I’m not saying they aren’t there].

    > he Church used to be the wider society.

    Or, at the very least, respected as a representative of it. But she is not anymore – generally everyone agrees on that. IMO this In part because large regions of the The Church because obsessed with Revolution – destroying and recreating and destroying and recreating those “accretions” – a battle that had and has nothing to do with the lives of her people. It feels often like a slow, boring, and bloodless rendition of the periods of the French Revolution(s)


  11. > I don’t think these accretions can be avoided,

    +1, and every other point I have.

    > I’m not saying that to accuse anybody, but just to underscore the difficulties in
    > living at that prophetic a level.

    Difficult, no matter how many underscores, is an understatement. And is it even a useful goal? As a goal it appears to yield more mental illness than virtue.


  12. > My salvation, the salvation of the church, does not depend on human competency,
    > private competency or institutional competency

    All true. But to a very large extent the quality of my life and the lives of my neighbors, friends, family, and fellow citizens, and many many things and places and people I love depends entirely on these things.

    “Spirituality” as easily becomes the shouting mob in disregard of others as does the calculating politicians or those gathered outside the walls.


  13. From the article:
    But don’t damage your credibility by confidently proclaiming “facts” from the pulpit that are not true.

    This will wipe out a lot of sermons as it seems so many preachers are more willing to quote “urban Christian legends” than spend any time checking to see if they are true.

    And this does not ever begin to address the science being “preached” to support YEC.


  14. It is actually quite a hopeful revelation that there were two crowds while still not nullifying the basic truth that we as humans are of a changeable nature. Ask any social psychologist or Madison Avenue market man. Heck, ask Peter. We are a weak lot, subject to powerful forces. Only love will do.


  15. Hey Clark,

    Great link.

    I am actually going to be talking about Jesus’ age next week.

    Something I totally missed about the second crowd I heard in our scripture reading today from Luke

    “22:66 At daybreak the council of the elders of the people, both the chief priests and the teachers of the law, met together, and Jesus was led before them…. 23:1 23 Then the whole assembly rose and led him off to Pilate.”

    Pretty much says right there who the second crowd was!


  16. I recently read a Christianity Today article highlighting 5 errors preachers should avoid during their Easter sermon. #1 on the list was not to say that Jesus was 33 1/2 years old (of which I’m still not fully convinced) and #3 was this exact thing about the crowd not changing their minds.


    I have to admit this lesson makes a lot of sense, and is better presented here than the CT article linked to; but to me this is brand new information. I am sure that I heard Michael Spencer, my Bible teacher and mentor for a number of years, share that “same crowd” message. All I can ask is that you bear with me as my new book comes out in a few weeks, in which I declare the same crowd that shouted “hosanna” also shouted “crucify him” just a few days later. It is a well established teaching in evangelical Christianity and in the 25 odd years or so I’ve been studying the scripture I’ve never heard it contradicted.


  17. I think you make very good points, Mule. Everybody does make the same claim about their own group, and every church makes the same claim. I think that’s why I’ve come to the conclusion that there is not One True Church that can, with settled certainty, point to its own history as adequately contiguous with the working of the Holy Spirit to claim uniqueness in faithfulness. My salvation, the salvation of the church, does not depend on human competency, private competency or institutional competency, but on Jesus Christ alone, and his competency. That, by the nature of the limitations I discern, puts me in the Lutheran or Reformed camps, though I hope with less Triumphalism, and more humility, than is sometimes exhibited by those traditions,


  18. I don’t think these accretions can be avoided, unless we all become far better men and women than we are. I’m not saying that to accuse anybody, but just to underscore the difficulties in living at that prophetic a level.

    One thing I learned about Tradition in the Orthodox Church, is that these “accretions” are considered to be the outworking to the Work of the Spirit in the Church. That’s a big, big, ballsy claim, but deep down, everybody makes the same claim about their own group, whether its the Reformed Academy, the Vanguard of the Proletariat, or whatever.

    Unless I am mistaken, I think that the Jews of the Second Temple were acutely aware of the withdrawal of the prophetic charism from the Jewish people. That may have explained a lot of their insecurity. They were truly On Their Own in a way the Church, even the most damned of damned cessationists, has never been in.


  19. But I differ with you, Mule. Part of Jesus’ criticism of the Temple leadership, and the Temple cultus that had developed, is that that it had replaced God’s commandments with man-made rules, in other words, that it had changed and added to the Law, putting emphasis on human religiousity at the expense of the weightier things of the Law. I think the Church of the first 500 years did the same thing, the Western and Eastern branches included, even as the churches continue to do the same things today.


  20. A la doble mierda with the Wider Society.

    The Church used to be the wider society.

    If the Wider Society as heading in the proper direction, it’s a good idea to leave the Church and get out in front. If the Wider Society is heading for a cliff, there’s great virtue in digging in your heels. there’s even more in impeding others’ courses, even if they call you rude names.

    The problem arises when there is such a mixture that you can’t really tell.


  21. Yes, Mule. There has been nothing but revolution and change in the church in the last few hundred years, and what has it wrought, other than a church that prides itself on catching up with social changes a century or two decades after they have overtaken the wider society.


  22. The Revolution will always clamor for more change. The Revolution will always appropriate the imprimatur of the Spirit. Always. It cannot NOT do it.

    The Revolution also has no Omega Point short of entropy.

    I belong to a church that doesn’t change quickly and is suspicious of it. The Orthodox Church is the absolute best target for anyone wielding that Jesus-vs-the-Temple-crowd metaphorical blade. In times like the last three hundred years that have seen change accelerated to dizzying levels, she continues plodding along in the course she believes is set for her. Dostoevsky was too hard on the Latin Church. I could easily see a Grand Inquisitor scenario playing out at just about any period in the long history of the Orthodox Church.

    The Jewish sacrificial system had been in place for centuries. The Second Temple had been standing for more years than separate us from Bosworth Field. Given the amount of hoary antiquity and legitimacy that surrounded the Temple cultus, I am convinced that I would have almost certainly been in their favor over against that upstart preacher from half-pagan Galilee, and I suspect that, let to their own powers of discernment, just about everybody else I know would have as well. Or maybe I would have run after Theudas and Judas the Galilean as well.

    Except that I always had the suspicion that Temple worship was instituted to protect the people from God, to keep Him at a safe distance, rather than to reconcile them to HIm.


  23. “Neither placed their faith in what God was actually doing — mostly because they had not imagined it. ”

    Yes. But we don’t have the same excuse, do we? And yet we persist in the same lack of ” faith in what God was actually doing”, and refuse the way of the cross in our hearts and actions. How are we different from the crucifiers and deserters, the violent rebels and the temple politicians? The last sin is worse than the first, because we have, many of us, been shown a different way, but refused to follow it.

    Lord, have mercy.


  24. I had just heard about the people praising, and then a week later cursing Jesus, alluding to the fickleess of the heart.

    That is the usual interpretation you hear from the pulpit. Usually as a lead-in to a guilt beatdown on the congregation for THEIR fickleness/lukewarmness.

    The “two crowds” interpretation makes a LOT more sense, and adds depth to the narrative.


  25. I think Mike is correct about the two different crowds. I think you are correct, Robert, in your reframing the calculus employed by the religious leaders. In their mind (I think), they were doing what was necessary to protect the nation, to survive. The Galileans placed their hope in violent overthrow. The Sanhedrin placed their hope in appeasement of the ruling power. Both believed they were trusting God to take care of them. Neither placed their faith in what God was actually doing — mostly because they had not imagined it.

    Mike, your question about how we resist change today is troubling. I think we may not be a whole lot better at discerning the Spirit here and now than they were there and then. Good thing He doesn’t depend on our approval.


  26. Living under the heel of a brutal occupying foreign power like Rome must not be an easy thing. I’m not sure it was simply a matter of the religious leaders in Jerusalem resisting change. Their historical memory was long enough to recall how previous rebellions led by charismatic messianic figures had been crushed by foreign occupying power, and how all of Israel had suffered for it. Within two generations after Jesus death, such messianic aspirations would play a huge part in sparking the rebellion that provoked the total destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 CE, so the fears of the Jewish leaders were not being unrealistic.

    The Jewish religious leaders knew the power of religion, it was their business to know its power, and they understood how powerfully, and destructively, religion can touch on political passions, something they share in common with many of the writers and commentators on this blog. The fatal flaw they exhibited which led to a willingness to destroy Jesus was their fear of a radicalism that would draw the fire of destruction down on Israel, and themselves, and their inability to even perceive the way of the cross that Jesus was walking and commending to all of Israel, leaders and subjects alike.

    Even if the crowds on Palm Sunday and Good Friday were two different crowds, do you really think that the former crowd was readier than the latter to embrace the way of self-sacrifice that Jesus was showing them? The very fact that the religious leaders were afraid of the Hosanna crowd, and so sought to do their dirty deed furtively, indicates that the Hosanna crowd was in the grip of a wrong messianic idea, one that accepted violence as a means of establishing the Kingdom of God.

    Even the Apostles, up to the very last minute before Jesus trial and execution, held onto the hope of a messianic Kingdom brought in by coercion and violence if necessary; indeed, this is partly why they feared him when he first appeared to them after his death, knowing themselves as deserters and deniers, and no doubt expecting what deserters and deniers expect in any coup by a revolution that uses violence as its strategy.

    So, I’m not so sure that, even if the two crowds were different in certain respects, they were different in the most essential respect: they both rejected the way of the cross (Jesus’ cross) as the way of salvation. This is the way it’s always been, and is even today. In our hearts and our actions, we quite naturally believe and follow in the way of the sword, not the way of the cross.

    Christ, have mercy.


  27. Good insight Mike – Thank you for this post. I had just heard about the people praising, and then a week later cursing Jesus, alluding to the fickleness of the heart.

    “I do think however it is important for us to examine ourselves, and make sure we are responding with the right motivations.”

    Examine ourselves indeed. Complacency is at the top of a very slippery slope.


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