Palm Sunday

Palm Sunday





With Peter Veysie

Luke  19:28 -48


The feast of Palm Sunday is a recreation of the historical events immediately preceding Jesus’ death and resurrection. It’s a prelude to Holy Week and, in particular, the suffering of Good Friday. The Feast of Palms is a reminder of the victory to come in the resurrection, a victory achieved through the cross.

14th day of Nissan was the day that the lambs were brought into the city in preparation for the sacrifice of Passover. This year Passover starts on 19th April and is celebrated until 27th April (sunset to sunset.) Obviously when Jesus died and the curtain was torn from top to bottom there was no longer a place to sacrifice and this came to an end. Jesus fulfilled all righteousness and ultimately all that is in the law is made complete in HIM.

Historical background to waving Palm Branches

Why wave palm leaves? There are a couple of explanations. One is that it was common practice in the ancient world to welcome home a king or war hero by laying out a path of branches for him to ride/walk on – similar to rolling out the red carpet today in the ‘western society’. Others suggest that Romans honoured champions of the games and the military with palm branches. Another explanation is that it is a reminder of the Festival of the Booths commanded in Leviticus and Deuteronomy. For this festival the Israelites were commanded: “And you must take for yourselves on the first day the fruit of splendid trees, the fronds of palm trees and the boughs of branchy trees and poplars of the torrent valley, and you must rejoice before Jehovah your God, seven days.” The palm branches were used as a mark of rejoicing. The temporary booths were a reminder that Jehovah had saved his people out of Egypt, to live in tents in the wilderness. ‘The alien resident and the fatherless boy and the widow’ shared in this festival. All Israel was to ‘become nothing but joyful.’ Leviticus 23:40; Deuteronomy 16:13-15.

Two centuries before Palm Sunday, we have historical documentation in the book of Maccabees, part of the Apocryphal writings, that with the collaboration of some of the Jewish leaders, the Seleucid king, Antiochus Epiphanies, had defiled the Jewish temple by erecting a statue of Zeus, in it, as part of an attempt to ‘Hellenise’ Jerusalem. Those who would not follow pagan custom were summarily arrested and executed. One of the Jewish priests, Mattathias, along with his family, decided to resist the king’s orders. Though a thousand of his followers were slaughtered at their desert retreat, Mattathias survived, and with his sons, organised a fighting force which today we would call a guerilla army. Following Mattathias’ death, his son, Judah Maccabees, led the resistance. Through a series of raids and military campaigns, the Maccabean forces killed thousands of foreigners and eventually regained the temple, which they repaired, cleansed and re-consecrated. The remembrance of this event was instituted as the annual feast of Hanukkah. Interestingly enough, part of the celebration of Hanukkah involves the waving of palm branches.

Those welcoming Jesus to Jerusalem certainly had a vivid memory of the Maccabean uprising. Many were hoping for a messiah who would deliver them from Rome the way the Maccabees had delivered their ancestors from the Greeks. Judas Maccabees was viewed as a new Saul or David, even praised as “the saviour of Israel.” This is what the people wanted on that first Palm Sunday: another David, another Judas Maccabees. For many of those in the crowds, this was why they waved palms and shouted, “Hosanna!”


Biblical background

Palm Sunday began with Jesus and His disciples traveling over the Mount of Olives. The Lord sent two disciples ahead into the village of Bethphage to find an animal to ride. They found the unbroken colt of a donkey, just as Jesus had said they would (Luke 19:29–30). When they untied the colt, the owners began to question them. The disciples responded with the answer Jesus had provided: “The Lord needs it” (Luke 19:31–34). Amazingly, the owners were satisfied with that answer and let the disciples go. “They brought [the donkey] to Jesus, threw their cloaks on the colt and put Jesus on it” (Luke 19:35).

  1. Physical honour of Jesus

As Jesus ascended toward Jerusalem, a large multitude gathered around Him. This crowd understood that Jesus was the Messiah; what they did not understand was that it wasn’t time to set up the kingdom yet—although Jesus had tried to tell them so (Luke 19:11–12). The crowd’s actions along the road give rise to the name “Palm Sunday”: “A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road” (Matthew 21:8). In strewing their cloaks on the road, the people were giving Jesus the royal treatment—King Jehu was given similar honour at his coronation (2 Kings 9:13). John records the detail that the branches they cut were from palm trees (John 12:13).

  1. Verbal honour of Jesus

On that first Palm Sunday, the people also honoured Jesus verbally: “The crowds that went ahead of him and those that followed shouted, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David!’ / ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!’ / ‘Hosanna in the highest heaven!’” (Matthew 21:9). In their praise of Jesus, the Jewish crowds were quoting Psalm 118:25–26, an acknowledged prophecy of the Christ. The allusion to a Messianic psalm drew resentment from the religious leaders present: “Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to Jesus, ‘Teacher, rebuke your disciples!’” (Luke 19:39). However, Jesus saw no need to rebuke those who told the truth. He replied, “I tell you . . . if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out” (Luke 19:40).

Some 450 to 500 years prior to Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem, the prophet Zechariah had prophesied the event we now call Palm Sunday: “Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion! / Shout, Daughter Jerusalem! / See, your king comes to you, / righteous and victorious, / lowly and riding on a donkey, / on a colt, the foal of a donkey” (Zechariah 9:9). The prophecy was fulfilled in every particular, and it was indeed a time of rejoicing, as Jerusalem welcomed their King. Unfortunately, the celebration was not to last. The crowds looked for a Messiah who would rescue them politically and free them nationally, but Jesus had come to save them spiritually. First things first – mankind’s primary need is spiritual, not political, cultural, or national salvation.

  1. Adventures in missing the point!!!

Even as the coatless multitudes waved the palm branches and shouted for joy, they missed the true reason for Jesus’ presence. They could neither see nor understand the cross. That’s why, “as [Jesus] approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it and said, ‘If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes. The days will come upon you when your enemies . . . will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognise the time of God’s coming to you” (Luke 19:41–47). It is a tragic thing to see the Saviour but not recognise Him for who He is. The crowds who were crying out “Hosanna!” on Palm Sunday were crying out “Crucify Him!” later that week (Matthew 27:22–23).

There is coming a day when every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord (Philippians 2:10–11). The worship will be real then. Also, John records a scene in heaven that features the eternal celebration of the risen Lord: “There before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands” (Revelation 7:9, emphasis added). These palm-bearing saints will shout, “Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb” (verse 10), and who can measure sum of their joy?

  1. Why he came in on a donkey.

Jesus knew what they wanted but didn’t give it to them – at least not the way they expected.

See now, your king comes to you; he is victorious, he is triumphant, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. (Mt 21:5)

This prophecy is from Zechariah. But what a difference between this king and a worldly king entering Jerusalem astride a war horse! Jesus chooses to ride a humble donkey. In doing so he is showing the people and especially his disciples that he is a different kind of king.

Writing in the fourth century, St. John Chrysostom noted: “[Jesus] is not drawn in a chariot like other kings, not demanding a tribute. Nor surrounded by officers and guards. Then the people ask: ‘What king has ever entered Jerusalem riding upon an ass?’”

His entry seems to border on theatrical. It is almost comedy. Jesus knows how weak and ridiculous he looks riding on a donkey as he makes his “triumphant” entry. It is the triumphal entry of a king such as the world has never seen before.

His act calls to mind his earlier words: “You know how the gentile rulers lord it over their subjects… It is not to be so among you.” (Mt 20:25)

Jesus wants his followers to understand what true kingship is. It is humble. It serves. As Zechariah makes clear, it does not oppress or kill. Zechariah says in the very next verse after this Palm Sunday prophecy: He will banish the chariot from Ephraim and war horses from Jerusalem. The bow of war will be banished. He will proclaim peace for the nations. (Zech 9:10)

The chariot and war horse are instruments and symbols of war. The new king banishes both. He proclaims peace to the nations.

In three of the four Gospel accounts, after his entry, Jesus goes to the temple and cleanses it of its defilement as did the leaders of the rebellion recorded in the first Book of Maccabees, but unlike the Maccabees brothers, Jesus does it without harming anyone. His whip serves to drive out the cattle.

  1. No violent uprising.

If ever there was an opportunity for Jesus to lead a violent uprising, this was it. The people were available and aroused. They were ready for violent action if called upon. But Jesus made no such call. His teaching was clear: destruction of enemies is not His way to freedom and liberation from oppression. In a few days he will show them – and us – His way. His way is the way of love, suffering and martyrdom. His way is not the violent love of slaughter and warfare but the nonviolent path of self-giving love. And although his way looks weak, “a folly to the Greeks and a stumbling block to the Jews,” it doesn’t end with martyrdom and the grave. Beyond martyrdom is the resurrection. The victory of Jesus’ way of love is resurrection.

  1. Revelation 7

Another place where palm branches are waved is recorded in Revelations, chapter 7. Here we see the Christian martyrs standing in front of the throne of the Lamb, holding palms and shouting “victory” to the Lamb. This is the victory of love over hate, the victory of love in the face of murderous enemies. This kind of love leads to resurrection. This, the martyrs experienced. In Christian art, the palm is a symbol of the martyrs.

There is a juxtaposition here. The people led by the Maccabees are waving palms after reclaiming the temple through slaughter and bloodshed. In contrast, Jesus and the martyrs reclaim the living temple, not through shedding the blood of others, but by shedding their own blood. The heroes of the Maccabees are military fighters. The heroes of the Church are the martyrs, the spiritual fighters. Jesus is offering a choice on Palm Sunday: the way of seeking freedom that leads to the misery and horror of warfare or the way of freedom that leads to the cross and resurrection: the victory of love over evil. The Hosanna-shouting crowds in Jerusalem wanted the way of the Maccabees, but Jesus says to his disciples, “Follow me, take up your cross and follow me.” There is life and victory and freedom beyond the cross, but for the Christian in the fallen world, there is no way around the cross.

The way of worldly kings is different than the way of Jesus the king. The Maccabees won back the temple from their Greek overlords through violence but they eventually lost it again to the Romans. The results that worldly kings and leaders offer are, at best, temporary. Jesus offers a way to put an end to evil permanently. He gives a choice, but if our decision is to be His followers, our choice must be His choice: the cross and martyrdom.

So as we wave branches on Palm Sunday, we would do well to keep in mind that we are crying “Hosanna” for the victory that comes through the cross, in whatever form the cross may take in our lives. The way of the cross that Jesus chose, is our way too. We bear the cross that He asks us to carry and we also share in the joy of resurrection.



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