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.”
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
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
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”.
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
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
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
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
“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
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).