Dr. R.B. McFee
12“The next day the large crowd that had come to the feast heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. 13 So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, crying out, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!”
John 12: 12 – 13 ESV
This was a triumphal entry fit for a king. Only the crowds had no idea what Jesus’ kingdom was all about. It would take another week for them to realize it.
That said, Palm Sunday is one of the most important days in the Christian calendar and instructive Sabbaths as well. It often takes on a celebratory mood, as we welcome our faith family into church with palms, much as we might have welcomed Jesus two thousand years ago.
If you are like me, we share happy memories of Palm Sunday. Perhaps by making crosses from the palm fronds we hand out to congregants as part of an annual tradition that serves to remind us Jesus went from royal welcome to crucifixion, from being honored to being betrayed. Or perhaps because family starts to visit from out of town?
This special Sunday also ushers in a sense of anticipation for the sacred Holy Week events – Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, the Saturday of Light, and ultimately our liberation day, when our relationship with God is resurrected, restored – Easter.
But Palm Sunday is much more than the verses about crowds placing their cloaks and palms along Jesus’ path as He rides from a village outside of Jerusalem towards the Holy City. It is about the powerful message Jesus was giving to the people.
Consider John 12. It very clearly references Psalm 118, and lets the reader know Jesus is coming as anointed by God.
”25Save us, we beseech you, O Lord. 26Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.”
As Christians it is important to understand the Old Testament references that Jesus often utilized, or reenacted. Otherwise it’s like eating a cake without the chocolate frosting. The richness and flavorful nuances can be missed. Put differently, it is like watching a movie, and missing some of the key references.
For example, when I first started studying the Bible, and not just reading it, I had to sometimes review the chapter or verse a couple times. The experience reminded me of my time living in London. When I saw my first play in the West End -a British comedy - right after moving over there I missed many of the funny jokes, and comedic nuances that I later “got” after living there several months.
The same effect can happen with our reading scripture, especially with texts involving Jesus. Sometimes what He said was the message. Other times what He did was far more complex, and important than would appear on first blush. Whenever He spoke, or did something, there was an inherent mystery of faith to be sought.
Moreover, reflecting on what He was saying or doing could unmask a big reveal from a parable or event involving Jesus. Going beyond the obvious to something far deeper, His words or actions reached back to the early Scriptures that His followers would be familiar with. It is in referencing those earlier Scriptures that powerful lessons can be learned.
Take for example Jesus walking on water. In and of itself a pretty impressive accomplishment. Clearly there was something special about Jesus if He could defy the laws of physics and pull off that miracle. Except here’s the thing; His walking on water went beyond a miracle. It was far more in fact.
When Jesus appeared out of the storm on the waves of a raging storm, coming to the Disciples He was revealing His true identity as written in scripture.
“God alone stretches out the heavens and treads on the waves of the sea.”
As the oldest book in the Old Testament Job holds special significance; within the chapters is the Heart and Essence of God, revealed to man. As such, Job and other Jewish scriptural references were ones His followers would recognize, along with the symbolism. Walking on water was more than a miracle. It was an act reserved to God only. Jesus was showing them He was God’s Son, Divinity incarnate.
Applying this to Palm Sunday, Jesus was living out what His followers would be familiar with, having heard the scriptural texts in synagogues for years. There was more than meets the eye.
Returning to Palm Sunday and the Passover
It was the day after Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath (which in this case was the first day of the Passover festival). As the first day of the week, not unlike the 21st century, the first day of the week, especially during a holiday season is busy. Such was the case for Jerusalem – the spiritual center of Judaism, as crowds of Jewish visitors from around the Roman Empire returned to this holy city to celebrate one of the most important holidays.
Just as Mecca is the place where Moslems are encouraged to visit at least once in their life, if you have ever read the Haggadah – the story of the Passover which is recited every year celebrating the feast days, most Jews hope to celebrate the Passover in Jerusalem. In fact, at the end of the Haggadah, everyone at the table says in unison “next year in Jerusalem!”
As Moses is to Israel, their identity, and laws, Passover also holds importance to the Jews. During the yom tov days, a special meal, called the Seder, is prepared. Teaching the story from Exodus about the deliverance of Jews from slavery, by the hand of Yahweh is considered a mitzvah or special blessing.
According to Jewish law, the Passover is observed 7 days, starting on the evening of Nissan 15, although in diaspora tradition an extra day is added.
The Passover celebrates God’s rescuing the Jews from slavery in Egypt, and involves reading the Torah and remembering the plagues and miracles that occurred.
So why did Jesus select Passover as a time for His crucifixion and resurrection? God could have set any number of holy days for Jesus to fulfill His destiny.
From a Biblical perspective Jesus came to save the Jews. What better time than at the Passover? Just as Moses led his people out of physical bondage through the Power of God in the original era of the Passover miracles, Jesus on this Passover would free His people – all of us – from the bondage of sin, condemnation, and separation from God.
Adding more symbolism, while Moses would use a perfect lamb during the original Passover as a holy sacrifice, and Jews in the first century would do so as well, Jesus would become the Holy Sacrifice for this Passover, and all eternity, resulting in freeing us to have a personal relationship with God, restoring us spiritually.
Moses’ sacrifice of a lamb would be placed on wood, so would Jesus. Only Jesus would suffer a type of wood experience that was the most excruciating form of torture Rome could impose – crucifixion.
Also Jerusalem would be extremely crowded; which means the events of Palm Sunday and the many lessons revealed that day, to Good Friday and Easter would be known to far more people than the usual population of the region. And these people would spread the word – the Good News - throughout their home territories.
21 As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage on the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, 2 saying to them, “Go to the village ahead of you, and at once you will find a donkey tied there, with her colt by her. Untie them and bring them to me. 3 If anyone says anything to you, say that the Lord needs them, and he will send them right away.”4 This took place to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet: 5 “Say to Daughter Zion, ‘See, your king comes to you, gentle and riding on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”
Matthew 21: 1 - 5
The Gospels treat the life and teachings of Jesus somewhat differently, including Palm Sunday, and Easter, and it is often in the differences that provide some instructive insights.
Consider the report on Jesus walking on water in the Gospel of Matthew. During the storm Jesus is walking towards the Disciples’ boat, whereas in the Gospel of Mark Jesus seems to be walking by the boat, as if He could have easily gone past His Disciples if they hadn’t taken notice. Spiritually one wonders how often Jesus comes to our rescue and yet we don’t always notice. There is value in the differences between Gospels.
That said what differences speak to us when we look at the Palm Sunday reports in the four Gospels?
Compared to John, notice that Matthew 21:5 was from prophecy in the well known Jewish scripture – specifically Zechariah, about an expected King, the Messiah. Consider….
9 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”
By riding in on a donkey, Jesus was arriving as a king. But while most observers expected a warrior Messiah, a liberator atop a war horse, Jesus chose to travel in a manner that said wisdom, a king of peace. Consider another scripture that aligns with Jesus’ imagery that day….
“Have Solomon, my son, ride on my own mule, and bring him down to Gihon. And let Zakok the priest and and Nathan the prophet there anoint him king over Israel. Then blow the trumpet and say, ‘Long live King Solomon!”
1 Kings 1:32-33
Palm Sunday – a time of great anticipation. Jesus was entering Jerusalem as a King. It was His birthright as a descendent of David, and Son of God. But little did the crowds know where Christ’s Kingdom was, or that the salvation they were praying for in a Savior – Messiah was nothing compared to what He was providing…far greater than liberation from Rome. And they were about to see the price Jesus would pay to save our souls, to restore our relationship with God.
Jesus went from palms celebrating His special status as revered prophet, and king, to celebrating the Passover, transforming the sacred Seder into a Christian sacrament as “the Last Supper” became our sacred meal, Holy Communion, to the pain of being crucified
Whether Prophet or Messiah, Jesus was receiving a royal entry not unlike what Solomon received centuries before. The palm was a symbol of victory in the Middle East. And “Save us” was a plea inherent in the word “Hosanna,” and implicitly the purview of God or His messenger.
Jesus went from the palms of royal welcome, to celebrating God delivering His people through Moses, and in the process creating a sacrament of love, sacrifice, remembrance, and hospitality, and then becoming the ultimate sacrifice, enduring great pain so we could enjoy great peace.
"The next day the large crowd that had come to the feast heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, crying out, 'Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!'"
John 12:12 – 13
“Hosanna in the highest” to Jesus, and may His Peace bless us all as we remember His triumphal entry – into Jerusalem, and our hearts.