Palm Sunday: What Does It Mean?

Jesus begins His final week of ministry by entering Jerusalem amidst a jubilant celebration. Multitudes greet Him, shouting “Hosannas” and waving palm branches in their hands, as He enters the city. For this reason, Christian tradition refers to this day as “Palm Sunday”—the day of Jesus’ triumphal entry. The fact that Christians through the centuries have commemorated this day suggests that it’s a day of great importance and significance. Notably, all four Gospel writers include this event in their Gospel account. Obviously God intended this event to reveal gospel truth. In light of the importance of this occasion, I thought it would be useful for us to consider the biblical meaning of Palm Sunday. You’ve probably seen it on your calendar. Perhaps you grew up in a church that celebrated it as a special day. But as happens with so many special days, it’s easy to lose sight of the original meaning.

What is the biblical meaning of Palm Sunday?

Palm Sunday Proclaims Jesus as the Promised Messiah

There are two indications that lead to this conclusion:

The multitudes interpreted Jesus’ entry as a messianic fulfillment and greet Him as their long-awaited Messiah (John 12:12-13, 17-18)

The week preceding the Jewish Passover was a time when Jews from all over the civilized world would make their pilgrimage to Jerusalem.The Jewish historian, Josephus, estimates that the pilgrims who gathered for Passover numbered somewhere above two million. The nationalistic hope for a Messianic liberator ran especially high during this time.

It shouldn’t surprise us, therefore, to find these multitudes flocking to Jesus of Nazareth as he approached the city, in order to hail him as the long-awaited Messiah. His miraculous deeds and authoritative teaching was already well known in Palestine. Moreover, the news of His raising Lazarus from the dead had reached the city. When it was heard that Jesus was approaching, the multitudes fled the city to greet their approaching Messiah.

And they greeted him with a royal victory celebration. John tells us that they “took the branches of palm trees and went out to meet him.” The waving of palm branches was a common way of celebrating the victory of a great king or deliverer (1 Macc 13:51). For this reason, Cicero refers to the victor as “the man of many palms.” This is also why Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem is commonly referred to as His “triumphal entry.” The synoptic Gospels also tell us that the people also laid some their garments in the way before him, which in our day would be the equivalent of “rolling out the red carpet” (cf. 2 Kings 9:12-13). They were clearly preparing the way for the king.

To these symbolic gestures of royal celebration, they “began to shout, ‘Hosanna! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the LORD, even the King of Israel.” The majority of that chant of praise is lifted from Psalm 118:25-26—a Psalm commonly sung during the Passover. The final words, “even the King of Israel,” are added. Up to this time, the Jews had interpreted that Psalm messianically. That is precisely the way the crowds seem to take it. Without question the great multitudes that thronged Jesus of Nazareth were hailing Him as the promised messianic king.

What’s even more important is that

This is how Jesus wanted them to interpret His entry into Jerusalem. He was purposely presenting Himself as the promised Messiah.

This is seen, first of all, in the fact that He carefully planned and executed the triumphal entry into Jerusalem in order to fulfill an OT messianic prediction (Matt 21:1-6; John 12:14). According to the synoptic Gospel writers, Jesus had commanded His disciples to go ahead of Him and secure it for His entry into Jerusalem (Matt. 21:2-5; Mark 11:2-7; Luke 19:29-38). He didn’t merely chance upon a donkey, but He knew about this donkey in advance. Jesus had pre-planned this whole event.

It was no accident that He chose a donkey. In Bible times, a donkey or a mule was often the preferred mount of royalty. King David commanded his servants to have Solomon ride the king’s mule as a sign that David had chosen Solomon to be his successor (1 Kings 1:33, 38). Thus, when Jesus chose to enter Jerusalem mounted upon a donkey, He purposely presented Himself as a king.

And not just any king. Both John and Matthew indicate that Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey in order to fulfill the promise of Zechariah 9:9: “Fear not, daughter of Zion; behold, your King is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt.” Jesus wasn’t merely presenting Himself as a king, but as the promised Messianic King of Israel.

Second, Jesus condones the praises and accolades of the multitudes. Luke tells us that there were some Pharisees in the crowd who, when they heard the multitude hailing Jesus as king, said to Him, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples.”  They didn’t agree with the way the crowds were treating Jesus. They refused to acknowledge Him as the Messiah. Therefore, they want Jesus to correct what they perceived to be the mistaken notions of the multitudes. Instead, Jesus replies to them, “I tell you, if these become silent, the stones will cry out”which is another way of saying, “I am the king, and I must be acknowledged as such” (see Luke 19:39-40).

In summary, Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem obviously reveals Jesus to be the Messiah, the King of Israel. God promised Israel that He would establish one of David’s sons upon the throne forever. Jesus is the fulfillment of that promise. Palm Sunday, therefore, is a day when we acknowledge Jesus of Nazareth to be the promised Messiah. That’s the obvious meaning of Palm Sunday.

If that’s all we gleaned from this passage, however, we would not be grasping the full meaning of this event as Jesus intended. In fact, there is good evidence that the multitudes who praised Jesus as king of Israel—including His own disciples—did not really grasp the full significance of this event. Their understanding was, to varying degrees, superficial. This is proved by the fact that many who were hailing Him as Israel’s king would five days later condemn Him as Israel’s enemy (Matt 27:15-17, 20-23; cf. Acts 2:22-23). We already find their opinion of Christ changing the next day as He teaches in the temple. In John 12:37, we read, “Though Jesus had performed so many signs before them, yet they were not believing in Him”—at least not in the right way. They didn’t perceive the meaning of His messiahship. By Friday, the day of His trial, their opinion of Him had completely changed.

Furthermore, Jesus confirms their superficiality when he weeps over Jerusalem (Luke 19:41-44). Luke tells us that as Jesus was approaching Jerusalem amidst all the shouts of Hosannas, he looked at the city of Jerusalem and began weeping. Can you imagine?  Here, in the midst of His victory celebration, the king begins to mourn!

Why does He weep? Jesus Himself tells us—He was weeping, because the very multitudes that were praising Him did not recognize “the time of their visitation.” Even though they were praising Him as King, Jesus knew that they would turn around in just a few days and denounce Him as a criminal. As a result, divine judgment would fall upon Jerusalem. Jesus was weeping because the full meaning of His triumphal entry was “hidden from their eyes.”

Does this account not highlight the often shallowness of human praise? If you’re tempted to seek the honor and praise of men, think again. Often such praise and honor is superficial and short-lived.

What is more, even the disciples did not understand the nature of his kingship at that time. John tells us, “These things His disciples did not understand at first” (12:16). They had already confessed Him as the Christ. No doubt they were joining the multitudes in the royal celebration. Nevertheless, even His beloved disciples at this point did not truly perceive the full meaning and significance of what we call Palm Sunday.

Palm Sunday Proclaims the Nature of Christ’s Kingship

According to the NT writers, Jesus deliberately entered Jerusalem upon a donkey in order to fulfill the OT promise of a coming messianic king found in Zechariah 9:9. A close examination of this promise in its context reveals not merely a prediction of a coming Messiah, but also a description of His coming kingdom. In other words, Zechariah did not merely predict that the Messiah would come, but that He would come and establish His kingdom in a particular manner. This is the part of that prophecy that was missed both by the multitudes and by Jesus’ disciples.

Read Zechariah 9:9-11. From the immediate context of Zechariah’s prophecy, we learn at least three things regarding the Messiah’s reign:

The Messiah’s reign would be ushered in peacefully and not by military force

Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion!  Shout, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; He is just and having salvation, lowly, and riding upon a donkey, a colt, the foal of a donkey. I will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off.  He will speak peace to the nations (Zech 9:9-10a).

As this prophecy indicates, the Messiah would not initiate His kingdom by using carnal weapons of warfare. This is why He rode into Jerusalem upon a young donkey, rather than upon a chariot and war-horse. The difference would be analogous to the President of the United States traveling to China on “Air-force One” (a simple passenger plane) as opposed to traveling on B2 bomber with an entourage of F22 Raptors at his side.

By entering Jerusalem upon a donkey, Jesus presents Himself not as a Jewish revolutionary leader, but rather as the Prince of Peace! He was making the same statement here symbolically that He would later state in plain words to Pilate: “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, then My servants would be fighting so that I would not be handed over to the Jews; but as it is, My kingdom is not of this realm” (John 18:36).

But the people missed this. Their understanding was clouded by worldly ideas of the Messiah and His reign. Their idea of salvation was primarily political and economical and physical.

The Messiah’s kingdom would bring peace not just to Jerusalem but to all nations

He shall speak peace to the nations; His dominion will be from sea to sea, and from the River [Euphrates] to the ends of the earth (Zech 10b).

Initially, the Messiah would offer peace to the nations. Now there were prophecies in the OT that represented the Messiah overcoming the enemies of God’s people in battle. But there were also passages, like this one, which represented Him as making peace with the nations. The problem is that most of the Jews—even Christ’s own disciples—could not see how these two ideas fit together. In fact, the tendency was to overlook or ignore those passages that represented the Gentiles as partakers of Jehovah’s salvation.

This OT prophecy predicts the extension of gospel blessing to the Gentile nations. Initially, the Messiah would offer peace to the nations. In the words of John 3:17, “God did not send His Son to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him.”

Messiah’s kingdom would be ratified by the sacrifice of blood

As for you also, because of the blood of your covenant [the covenant which the Lord made with them], I have set your prisoners free from the waterless pit (Zech 9:11).

Literally, “the waterless pit” is a dry cistern. You may recall that Joseph’s brothers had thrown him into such a pit. Figuratively, it’s a reference to the bondage of captivity into which God’s people had fallen. Spiritually speaking, it’s a reference to the bondage of sin. God promises that He will set His people free from this bondage because of [or on the basis of] the blood of His covenant with them. And that phrase looks backward and forward.

First, “the blood of my covenant” looks backward to the ratification of the Mosaic Covenant. In Exodus 24:8, we find Moses ratified the Old Covenant by sprinkling sacrificed blood upon the altar and upon the people of Israel. Israel could only enter into covenant with Jehovah God through the shedding of blood.

Second, “the blood of my covenant” also looks forward to the ratification of the New Covenant. When the Messiah would come to deliver His people from bondage there would once again be the sacrifice of blood. Jesus Himself would explicitly refer to this four days later in an upper room with His disciples:

And when He had taken a cup and given thanks, He gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you; for this is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for forgiveness of sins” (Matt. 26:27-28).

The Jewish people missed this. Even Jesus’ own disciples failed to understand this until after He had been glorified (John 12:16).

Some “Take-Aways”

What then is the significance and meaning of Jesus’ triumphal entry, which we celebrate as Palm Sunday? What can we learn from this event?

(1) Palm Sunday assures us that Jesus really is the true Messiah and that God’s OT promises have come true.

It’s popular today among liberal scholars and unbelievers to deny that Jesus’ ever presented Himself as the promised Messiah. Some argue that it was only the opinion of the multitudes. Others admit that Jesus may have got caught up in the excitement of the moment, but that He never intended the people to view Him as the Messiah. Still others assert that it was a title that was only later ascribed to Him by the early church.

But the biblical account reminds us that Jesus deliberately preplanned and presented Himself to the people as the promised King of Israel. It was no accident. It was no mistake. If the multitudes had not testified, the rocks would have born witness that Jesus is Lord to the glory of God the Father.

Child of God, is it not a blessing to know that you have placed your faith in the right man! You’ve not mistakenly put your trust in a mere prophet or Jewish Rabbi. You’ve not followed an imposture. You’ve entrusted your soul to Him who is God’s true Messiah—the very One He promised in His Word!

Does this not also encourage your faith in the accuracy and reliability of the Bible. Five hundred years before it happens, the Old Testament prophet predicts that God’s Messiah will come into Jerusalem upon a donkey. It happens just as he said! This should encourage us to believe that the yet unfulfilled promises of Scripture will be fulfilled in like manner. The same Bible teaches us that this same Messiah will come again. Except at His Second Coming, He will be mounted upon a war-horse (Rev. 19:11). Furthermore, it tells us that He will be totally victorious and that there will be a future victory celebration very much like the one celebrated on Palm Sunday. Listen to Revelation 7:9-10:

After these things I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no one could count, from every nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, and palm branches were in their hands; and they cry out with a loud voice, saying, “Salvation to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb” (Rev. 7:9-10; emphasis added).

This is an allusion to the Abrahamic promise of Genesis 12:1-3 in which God predicts that all the families of the earth will be blessed through Abraham’s Offspring. And we can be assured that just as the Prophet Zechariah’s prophecy was fulfilled, so too the Apostle John’s prophecy will be fulfilled. If, as some commentators believe, those described here in “white robes” and with “palm branches … in their hands” are representative of all believers who enter the kingdom through much tribulation (Acts 14:22; 2 Thess 1:5-6; 2 Tim 3:1, 12), then you and I will some day take part in this glorious victory celebration!1

(2) Palm Sunday reminds us that Jesus went to the cross on our behalf deliberately and willingly.

As most commentators point out, it was Christ’s public presentation of Himself as Messiah that precipitated His death. Before this time, He avoided too much public exposure. Now He openly identifies Himself as Messiah and approves of the multitudes doing the same. This infuriates the Jewish religious leaders. Their remark to one another in John 12:19 should be interpreted as bitter sarcasm—it’s as if the more radical Pharisees are saying to the milder ones: “Don’t you see that your delay is getting us nowhere. The whole world has gone after Him.” The implication is that “we must do something quickly if we are to thwart his ministry.”

When Jesus told the disciples to get that donkey, He knew what would eventually happen. He knew that the praises of the multitude would be empty praises. He knew that He would infuriate the Jewish leaders. He realized that such an open, public declaration of His identity would result in His betrayal and arrest. He was fully aware that the Passover was approaching when He, the Lamb of God, would have to shed His blood to take away the sin of the world.

Jesus knew all that, and yet he willingly and deliberately followed through! He Himself put it this way in John 10:11ff:

I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep…. I have other sheep, which are not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they will hear my voice; and they will become one flock with one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life so that I may take it again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of myself. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again.

Jesus was not duped. Jesus was not coerced. Jesus was not forced into this situation against His will. No. Palm Sunday reminds us that Jesus willingly and deliberately threw himself into the hands of the Jews and Romans in order to become our sacrifice for sin. Why? Because of “love”! “Greater love has no one than this,” Jesus would say to His disciples, “than to lay down one’s life for his friends.” Jesus so loved that Father, and He so loved you and me that He was willing to do whatever it took to redeem us from our sins.

(3) Palm Sunday teaches us the far more glorious and spiritual nature of Christ’s kingdom.

Worldly weapons and military might too easily awe us, as they did the people of Jesus’ day. Perhaps we, like them, would have been more impressed had Jesus been an earthly warrior who led a mighty rebellion and crushed the Roman forces.

But Palm Sunday reminds us that Jesus was about a far greater victory than any earthly battle could afford. That victory had already been foreshadowed a few days earlier when Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. And that victory would be secured just a few days later when He Himself would rise from the dead.

Palm Sunday anticipates Christ’s victory over the greatest enemy of all. The Roman Empire was nothing. Russia and China combined would be mere child’s play. Jesus the Messiah conquered death!

“O DEATH, WHERE IS YOUR VICTORY? O DEATH, WHERE IS YOUR STING?”
. . . thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

That wonderful truth may not seem so precious today. But the day is coming when on our death bed that promise will become exceedingly precious. On that day, it will not so much matter whether Jesus will protect us from the Romans or the Chinese or the terrorists. What will matter more than anything else is Jesus’ victory over death!

(4) Palm Sunday reveals the sad reality that many who today profess Jesus as Lord may tomorrow prove not to be His true followers at all.

The great majority of those who hailed Jesus as their king didn’t have a clue what they were doing. They did not really understand what it meant to profess Jesus as the Christ. Their lack of true understanding and lack of true commitment was later confirmed when they joined the Jewish leaders in calling for His crucifixion.

In the same way, there are many people today who may next week celebrate Palm Sunday and following week Easter Sunday, but they don’t have a clue what it all means! They may profess Jesus as their Lord and Savior. But they don’t understand what that really means. In fact, they believe things that go directly contrary to the gospel. Jesus was just a man. Good works will get a man to heaven. Submission to Christ’s lordship is optional.

I am afraid that if these people were to come face-to-face with the real Christ, they, like their predecessors, would shout for His death.

Let us not be too impressed with the large numbers of fellow Americans who profess to be true followers of Christ. Many who call Him king in our day, as it was in that day, do not know what it means to hail Jesus as king.

What about you? Are you a genuine follower of Jesus Christ? Or are you like the multitudes who gave him lip service one day but who wanted Him out of their life the next day?

May the Lord grant us all the grace and knowledge to perceive the true meaning of Palm Sunday!

B.G.

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  1. See Gregory Beale, The Book of Revelation, NIGTC (Eerdmans, 1999), 426-39; Vern Poythress, The Returning King: A Guide to the Book of Revelation (Presbyterian and Reformed, 2000), 119. On the other hand, some commentators limit those identified in the passage to believers who will be martyred during a short period of time preceding Christ’s Second Coming. See John Walvoord, The Revelation of Jesus Christ: A Commentary (Chicago: Moody Press, 1966), 144-47. []
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