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The Triumphal Entry - the first Palm Sunday

Julian Spriggs M.A.

This is a very familiar story which is remembered at the start of Holy Week each year. However, it is good to look at the significance of the event and determine what it tells us about the person and ministry of Jesus. It is an event full of prophetic meaning. It is also interesting to consider what was so special about palms and donkeys.

The event of the triumphal entry into Jerusalem is described in each of the four Gospels (Matt 21:1-11, Mark 11:1-11, Luke 19:29-39 and John 12:12-19). It occurred only a few days before the cross and resurrection. It marks the transition into the final week of the life of Jesus, the fourth main period of the ministry of Jesus. His ministry can be divided into these four periods, the early ministry in Judea (only described in John’s Gospel), the Great Galilean ministry, his journey to Jerusalem (particularly emphasised in Luke’s Gospel), and the passion week.

The setting for the Triumphal Entry

This article will focus primarily on the account in John’s Gospel, but will refer to the accounts in the other gospels too. According to John, only a little while before Jesus had performed the greatest of his signs, the raising of Lazarus from the dead. John normally described the miracles of Jesus as signs. They were far more than miraculous or supernatural events, but were signs to show his glory, demonstrate his deity and to bring people to faith.

The raising of Lazarus had caused a sensation. News of it spread rapidly so everyone had heard about it. As a result, many of the Jews who had seen what had happened came to faith.
“Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.” (Jn 11:45).

The raising of Lazarus was reported to the Pharisees (11:46), who called a meeting of the Jewish council (Sanhedrin) to discuss their response. They recognised that Jesus was performing signs (11:47). It was not possible for them to deny this. However they were fearful of the Romans (11:48). If Jesus caused a popular uprising, it would be put down with great force by the Romans. The Jewish leadership would be held responsible by them for their failure to keep the peace. Around forty years later, in AD 68, an uprising by the Jews against Roman rule led to the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in AD 70.

During this discussion, the high priest Caiaphas declared a word which turned out to be prophetic. He said that it would be better for one man to die, to prevent the destruction of the whole nation,
“You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.” (11:50).
In a comment, John explains that this proclamation had a greater meaning, that God was speaking through him, whether he realised that or not. Jesus would die to preserve the nation, but not for the nation alone, but for a greater purpose to reach the children of God, which could include dispersed Jews, but also Gentiles.
“He (Caiaphas) did not say this on his own, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus was about to die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but to gather into one the dispersed children of God.” (11:51).

The decision of the Sanhedrin was to put Jesus to death (11:53). They wanted to get rid of Jesus, as he was too much of a threat to them. The raising of Lazarus marked a turning point, which would lead to the climax of the ministry of Jesus, the cross and resurrection.

From this time on, Jesus hid away from the public eye, staying in the town of Ephraim with his disciples (11:54).

It was the time of Passover (12:1), when the Jews remembered and reenacted the Exodus from Egypt (Ex 12). They remembered that the Israelites killed a lamb and spread the blood on their doorpost, so they were literally saved by the blood of the lamb when the angel of death passed over. Jesus was staying in the house of Mary, Martha and Lazarus in Bethany, where Mary anointed Jesus (12:2-8).

When it was discovered that Jesus was staying in Bethany, a great crowd of Jews gathered, partly to see Jesus, but particularly to see Lazarus. No one had ever seen a dead man alive before, so this was a great sensation, and the major news event of the year.
“When the great crowd of the Jews learned that he was there (in Bethany), they came not only because of Jesus but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead." (12:9)

The popularity of Jesus was a great threat to the priests, who were mostly Sadducees. These had great power and wealth and dominated Jerusalem, the temple, and the leadership of the nation. They had willingly submitted to Roman rule, compromising with them to keep their power and wealth. Jesus was a threat to them in several ways.

Firstly Jesus was a political threat. As Jesus’ fame spread after raising Lazarus, they were losing their support-base. Many Jews were deserting them and believing in Jesus (12:10). As noted before, they also feared a popular uprising, seeing Jesus as a potential leader of a rebellion against Roman rule.

Secondly Jesus was a theological threat. Lazarus was living proof that their theology was wrong. Sadducees did not believe in a future resurrection, rejecting any idea of life after death (Mark 12:18).

Lazarus alive was strong evidence for the power of Jesus. It was impossible for the people to forget the sign that he had done in raising him from the dead. Lazarus was living proof that Jesus really was the resurrection and the life (Jn 11:25). Because of this, the chief priests tried to remove the evidence by killing Lazarus as well (12:10). For the chief priests and Sadducees their self-interest was more important than the truth. They were determined to destroy the evidence and suppress the truth in order to keep their social, religious and political position.

The Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem (12:12)

John notes that it was the following day that a great crowd gathered. They were in Jerusalem to attend the Passover festival, but had heard that Jesus was about to enter the city. Attendance at the Passover was required for all adult Jews (Deut 16:16). It was normal for huge numbers of Jews from many nations to travel to Jerusalem for the festivals (Acts 2:5-10). One later estimate was that there were 2.7 million Jews in Jerusalem for the Passover.

The palm branches (12:13)

The branches of palm trees are only mentioned in John’s account, and from this the day of the triumphal entry is remembered each year on Palm Sunday. God had commanded that the waving of palm branches was part of the celebration of the Feast of Tabernacles celebrated each Autumn. Branches of palms were waved so the people can rejoice before the Lord.
“On the first day you shall take the fruit of majestic trees, branches of palm trees, boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook; and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God for seven days”. (Lev 23:40).

Branches of palm leaves later became symbols of victory and kingship. During the inter-testamental period, in the year 164 BC, the Jews won a great victory over the Greek forces of Antiochus IV Epiphanes. This was the Syrian king who had abolished Judaism, killed Jews and even sacrificed a pig on the altar of the temple, making God’s temple unclean. As part of the celebrations,
“the Jews entered it (the city) with praise and palm branches, and with harps and cymbals and stringed instruments, and with hymns and songs because a great enemy had been crushed and removed from Israel.” (1 Macc 13:51).

The brothers Maccabees who had led the rebellion against Antiochus were great heroes who had regained freedom for Israel, and cleansed the temple. This victory continued to be celebrated each year in the festival of Hannukah, as the people remembered the overthrow of Antiochus.
“Therefore, carrying ivy-wreathed wands and beautiful branches and also fronds of palm, they offered thanksgiving to him who had given success to the purifying of his own holy place.” (2 Macc 10:7).

Following this victory, palm branches became a national symbol of Israel and of Israel’s freedom achieved through God’s intervention. The waving of palm branches was a sign of national liberation.

This was the significance of waving of the palm branches during the triumphal entry. They were a sign used by the people to welcome Jesus into the city as their king. Jesus was being welcomed as a national conquering hero, with the expectation that, just as the Maccabees had defeated the forces of Syria, Jesus will overthrow the Roman Empire and give Israel back its freedom.

The greeting (12:13)

As Jesus entered, the people shouted a greeting quoting from Psalm 118.
“Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord - the king of Israel” (12:11).
This was the standard blessing given to people arriving in Jerusalem for the Passover. However there was much more meaning than this. They were praising the king of Israel, and recognising Jesus as the true king of Israel.
“Save us, we beseech you (Hosanna), O Lord! O Lord we beseech you, give us success. Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the LORD. We bless you from the house of the LORD”. (Ps 118:25-26).

The word ‘Hosanna’ is a prayer for salvation, which literally means ‘Save now’ or ‘Give salvation now’. However in common usage, the literal meaning has mostly been lost.

The donkey (12:14-15)

The account in each of the gospels describes that Jesus rode into Jerusalem sitting on a donkey’s colt.
“Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it; as it is written, ‘Do not be afraid, daughter of Zion. Look, your king is coming sitting on a donkey’s colt!’” (12:14-15)

Riding on a donkey was a deliberate fulfilment of prophecy, as well as a way to correct the crowd’s false expectations about the nature of the Messiah. Jesus was king of Israel, but what sort of king?

John gives a quotation from the prophet Zechariah,
“Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey on a colt, the foal of a donkey. He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war-horse from Jerusalem and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations his dominion shall be from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth.” (Zech 9:9-10).

If Jesus had arrived riding a horse that would indicate that he was a king coming to declare war. This would probably have triggered a violent uprising against the Romans. By arriving on a donkey, he demonstrated that he was coming as a prince of peace. He was making a claim to be the Messiah, coming in fulfilment of prophecy, but not as the military Messiah of the popular expectation.

John’s comment (12:16)

The response of the disciples is described through one of John’s comments. They did not understand the real significance of his action at the time, but later, following his glorification through death on the cross, they remembered his actions and understood. This is an example of the work of the Holy Spirit, or Paraclete, who Jesus promised was coming. The Spirit will remind them of the words of Jesus (14:26) and will guide them into all truth (16:13).

The response of the crowd (12:17-18)

The crowd who had witnessed the raising of Lazarus and those who had heard about Lazarus gave a positive response, but came to the wrong conclusions. As noted before, they thought that the raising of Lazarus was a sign of the imminent deliverance from Roman occupation.

The response of the Pharisees (12:19)

The Pharisees who had previously tried to arrest Jesus (11:57) now seem to be helpless and powerless. They had wanted people to let them know where Jesus was hiding. However, their plan was not working, Jesus was far too popular with the crowds to risk the riot that would occur if they arrested him publicly.

Their statement is quite ironic,
“The Pharisees then said to one another, ‘You see, you can do nothing. Look, the world as gone after him.”.
Jesus had come into the world (3:16), now his enemies were complaining that the whole world was following him.

The irony of the Gospel is that the cross, which looked like the final defeat of Jesus, was actually a victory, and was the way that God had planned to bring salvation to the world. Throughout all the trials that followed, Jesus remained in control all the time. He allowed his enemies to take him and take him through an unjust travesty of a trial and to crucify him. Ultimately he gave up his life voluntarily so we could have life in all its fullness (10:10).

The Bible

Pages which look at issues relevant to the whole Bible, such as the Canon of Scripture, as well as doctrinal and theological issues. There are also pages about the Apocrypha, Pseudepigrapha and 'lost books' of the Old Testament.

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