Palm Sunday: The Beginning of the End
Most Christians are aware that each year, on the Sunday before Easter, the churches celebrate a lesser-known holiday known as Palm Sunday. You likely know the story of how Jesus rode on a donkey into Jerusalem and was greeted with people shouting “Hosanna!” and waving tree branches to show their approval. If you were lucky, you might even have had the opportunity to act this out in your church’s Easter children’s program.
But, if you strip away the familiarity of the story (and the enjoyment of waving tree branches in church), you may begin to ask yourself questions about this event. Why is Jesus riding on a donkey? Why are people waving palm branches? What does hosanna even mean? And, most importantly, what difference does it make to you?
Jesus has just returned to the city of Bethany where he had previously performed one of the greatest miracles of his ministry: raising Lazarus from the dead. John 11 shows us that after Jesus raised Lazarus, he went into a self-imposed retreat to Ephraim where he spent his last days ministering to his disciples. Six days before the Passover, Jesus and his disciples return to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, and discover there is now a massive crowd seeking to lay eyes on Jesus and the risen Lazarus.
As Passover nears, everyone is heading to Jerusalem for the festival commemorating God’s triumph over the Egyptian armies and his deliverance of Israel from slavery. Everyone knew that it was very likely Jesus would make an appearance at this festival, so it gave them an extra incentive to make the journey. Little did they know, this year the Passover would take on a whole new meaning as the Lamb of God in the flesh, Jesus, would be the one whose blood was shed on behalf of God’s people. And just as God would see the blood of the lamb and pass over the Israelites in the Exodus, he would see the blood of Jesus and forgive the sins of those who trust in him.
The Triumphal Entry
As Jesus and his disciples head to Jerusalem for the festival, Jesus tells them to do something rather peculiar. Jesus sent two disciples ahead to bring him a colt of a donkey to ride into Jerusalem. Although this sounds very strange to us, this would have communicated very clearly to those around him. Jesus is blatantly stating that he is the Messiah, the King of the Jews.
To the Jews present, this would have declared Jesus as the fulfillment of Zechariah 9:9-17. Zechariah prophesies a coming day in which the King of the Jews will bring great peace to his people. Jesus riding on a donkey was the equivalent of him saying, “Everyone, turn your Bibles to Zechariah 9.” It’s no wonder that the crowd celebrated the way we see in all four of the Gospel accounts. This was the day they had longed for. This was the day promised to Abraham back in Genesis 12. This was the day that gave them hope in Jeremiah 29 in the midst of exile. This seemed like the culmination of all their hopes and dreams. And it was, just not in the way they expected.
The crowds waved palm branches and cast their coats on the road before Jesus as they would a king. Even the Greeks present would have realized that’s what they were doing. In Greco-Roman culture, a victorious warrior returning from battle would enter the city to a parade of palm-bearing spectators. In ancient Near Eastern culture, a king would ride a horse into battle, but he would ride a donkey into the city as a symbol of bringing peace. 1 Kings 1:33 shows that Solomon rode on a donkey the day he was installed as the king of Israel. All of these tropes would be playing in the minds of the crowd, and they would be expecting Jesus to do something significant.
Hosanna in the Highest!
With all of this knowledge, expectation, and hope in mind, the crowd following Jesus into Jerusalem began singing and shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”
Hosanna is a transliterated word in our English language. Transliteration means we have taken the same letters of a Hebrew or Greek word and transferred them into our language without trying to define the word itself. We have to do some detective work to discover the original intended meaning. Context clues help greatly in these situations, and we see they also say “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” With a quick search, we find out that they are directly quoting Psalm 118, the longest chapter in the Bible.
In Psalm 118:25, we see a direct request to the Lord for salvation:
“Save us, we pray, O Lord!
O Lord, we pray, give us success!
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!
We bless you from the house of the Lord.”
The word translated here as “save us” is the same word translated as “hosanna” in the Gospels.
What is interesting is that the Hebrew name of Jesus, Yeshua (or Yehoshua), and the Hebrew word for hosanna, hoshua na (“save now”), come from the same word meaning “salvation.” In crying out for Jesus to “save now,” they were imploring him to do what only he is able, the very thing he came to Earth to do.
The crowds were crying out for salvation but not in a spiritual sense. The people were expecting a political revolution. For years and years, their country had been run by the foreign government of the Romans. They thought Jesus came to bring them salvation from foreign oppressors, but the salvation Jesus brought was much greater. When Jesus did not respond in the way they had expected, they turned their backs on their one true source of peace.
The True Triumphal Entry
Jesus came to the city to cheers of celebration, but it was short-lived. At the end of this week, Jesus would be betrayed, arrested, beaten, and killed. Then, at the time when it looked the most hopeless, on Sunday morning, Jesus rose from the dead—beginning his true triumphal entry as King of kings and Lord of lords who sits on the throne of Heaven.
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Lucas Smith has served in full-time ministry since 2011 and holds MDiv and MA in Biblical Languages degrees from Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Missouri. He currently serves as Associate Pastor of Youth and Families at Eastern Heights Baptist Church in Bartlesville, Oklahoma.