Palm leaves sway above the dusty streets of Jerusalem. The city, anxious with celebration, teems with the hope of a people undaunted by adversity— a nation of survivors promised abundance and freedom by a faithful, loving God. The people roar to a crescendo as a humble procession moves through the streets. These people, who were promised an everlasting kingdom, believe that their great warrior king is before them, riding into the city on a donkey, ready to defeat the Romans and make them a great nation. Days later, these same people who threw down their cloaks and waved palm branches in honor of Jesus would condemn him to a bloody crucifixion at the hands of the Romans. Death could not hold Jesus in the grave, and from this came the most glorious event in all of history, the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the biggest event in the church calendar. Yet the days leading up to the Easter celebration are important to the church as well. Christians celebrate Palm Sunday each year a week before Easter Sunday, even though it marks a day when God’s people revealed their misguided expectations of Jesus and praised him for things he never intended to bring in his first coming to earth.
I can remember being dropped off to my Sunday school class in a new yellow dress, picking up a plastic palm branch, and being ushered into the main service where smiling adults clapped and cheered on our little pastel processional of children. The worship band played energetic music, and some of the children were given tambourines to clang about the aisles. Our noisy parade was a celebration of the grace that brought Christ to earth, to people undeserving of his presence, let alone his sacrifice on a cross in order to bring those who believe the chance to be reconciled to God. Many churches celebrate Palm Sunday in a similar way, with children or adults parading before the congregation in a union of young and old to celebrate this great moment in history. At some celebrations, the story of the triumphal entry—Jesus riding in to Jerusalem on a donkey before throngs of rejoicing Israelites—is read before the church. There is no biblical command to celebrate this day of the church calendar, which is why some denominations choose not to observe the celebration; however, Palm Sunday provides a wonderful opportunity for the church to come together and recognize the life of Christ on earth and the promises for salvation and redemption set in motion by his coming.
Why does Palm Sunday hold so much significance? The people of the day were celebrating a political power, their triumphant king coming in. Christ was their victorious king, just as scripture promised, but he was also a suffering servant who would overthrow death itself. Of his life, Jesus said, “And whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matt. 20:27-28 ESV). Jesus was the promised Messiah, the savior of the Jewish people, but he was ushering in a spiritual kingdom, not a physical political kingdom as many of the Jews expected. This is not to say that there were not physical results of Christ’s first coming. He healed the sick, cast out demons, raised people from the dead, and physically fed thousands. Jesus even affected the political and social climate of his day as well, preaching things that contradicted Jewish leaders and led to suspicion and ultimately death under the Roman government. Further, his followers eventually changed the entire world through the spread of Christianity and the gospel. However, all these things were still only a taste of what Christ has promised to bring in his second coming. This spiritual kingdom is revealed in scripture to be the rule of Christ in the hearts of believers and the presence of the Holy Spirit within individuals and the Church. Through his first coming, Christ paid the penalty for the sins of the world so that those who believe in his name may have everlasting life with him (John 3:16-17). This first coming brought about redemption for all those who have sinned, which precedes the eternal kingdom that Christ will establish at his second coming (Rev. 11:15). To the Pharisees who doubted his deity as the Son of God, Jesus said, “The kingdom of God is not coming in ways that can be observed, nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you” (Luke 17:20-21). This is not to say that Jesus will not bring a powerful political kingdom as well, for the Bible makes it clear that at his second coming, Jesus will establish an eternal kingdom that will never fade away. However, Jesus came to Israel in his first coming to “seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10).
Those who believed Jesus was coming to bring about a dominant, political powerhouse had the wrong idea about Jesus as he rode before them on a donkey. And because of their disappointment when they realized Jesus was not going to fulfill their expectations in the way they wanted, they allowed the Pharisees and other political leaders to hand Jesus over to Pontius Pilate for death after only days before rejoicing at his triumphal entry. Centuries later, the same danger exists for believers. Yet though Christ is not physically with us right now, we know that he sent his Spirit to guide us to all truth (John 16:13).
Our noisy parade was a celebration of the grace that brought Christ to earth, to people undeserving of his presence, let alone his sacrifice on a cross in order to bring those who believe the chance to be reconciled to God.
As Christians today, we have the opportunity to celebrate Palm Sunday as a way to remember Jesus’ suffering on earth at the hands of those he loved, but our reasons go beyond even that. It is a celebration of Old Testament prophecy that was fulfilled. Zechariah 9:9 prophesies, “Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” The celebration of Palm Sunday is also a way of remembering Jesus’ life and ministry and of helping us to experience the theological truth of his life by acting it out, waving the branches and singing the praises just as the Jews would have done throughout Jerusalem that day.
In her book In the Company of Christ on holy celebrations, Benedicta Ward notes that during the years of the early church, the individual events of the week leading up to Jesus’ death and resurrection were less important to the church because they focused on the message of the event as a whole. Yet in the fourth century, as Christianity gained acceptance, the individual events grew in significance. “There was a need to tell a story, to walk to a place, to stand under in order to understand” (Ward 21). We need to tell the story to understand what Christ did for the world. He came to a people who rejected him and gave his life up so that they could be saved. That is love greater than anything we deserve or can fathom.
The story of Palm Sunday has spiritual relevance for us as well. We often expect things from Jesus, things that he did not promise to bring, because we have an inaccurate view of who he is. We stray far from truth because we do not devote ourselves to the study of truth, which allows sin to move us further from what God desires for us. Palm Sunday is a great reminder of our need to really know Jesus. Our intentions may be to love and serve God, but if we do not know who he is and what he asks of us, then we will be doing little but serving a false god of our own invention. As Christians go through the celebration of Palm Sunday, it should stir us to a study of who Jesus said he is in scripture so that we can rightly think about our Savior in a way that pleases him.
“I came that they may have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10).