The Meaning of Palm Sunday

When he came near the place where the road goes down the Mount of Olives, the whole crowd of disciples began joyfully to praise God in loud voices for all the miracles they had seen: “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” “Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!” Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples!” “I tell you,” he replied, “if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.” Luke 19:37-40

Luke 19:28-40

What Was the Triumphal Entry?

Jesus’ boisterous procession into Jerusalem was not a purely spontaneous outpouring of praise. Rather, the triumphal entry was a premeditated, public proclamation to the people and pilgrims in Jerusalem for the Passover. Over a million people were in Jerusalem for the festival. Everybody loves a parade. The triumphal entry captured the attention and the imagination of the crowds. People stopped and watched. The procession forced the observers to make a decision: was this Jesus who he claimed to be?

Jesus is King

That’s the message of the Jesus parade. Of course, there was a lot of Biblical symbolism in the way they said it.

Jesus rides a donkey in conscious fulfillment of Zechariah 9:9-10. The prophet envisions a king who enters Jerusalem in peace to reign over the whole world and protect his people forever.

Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion! Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. {10} I will take away the chariots from Ephraim and the war-horses from Jerusalem, and the battle bow will be broken. He will proclaim peace to the nations. His rule will extend from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth. (Zec 9:9-10 NIV)

Zechariah’s vision is both political and eschatological. Zechariah’s king comes having established peace. He’s riding a donkey instead of a war horse. Zechariah doesn’t envision a king who refuses to fight, but one who doesn’t need to fight any more. The battle is over; the enemy has been defeated. The Lord’s victory establishes peace forever and for all. Nations will no longer need the weapons of war because the king will rule in true righteousness over all the earth.

The donkey Jesus rides is one that has never been ridden. Only an animal that has never carried a burden is suitable for sacred use.

This is a requirement of the law that the LORD has commanded: Tell the Israelites to bring you a red heifer without defect or blemish and that has never been under a yoke. (Num 19:2 NIV)

Now then, get a new cart ready, with two cows that have calved and have never been yoked. Hitch the cows to the cart, but take their calves away and pen them up. (1 Sam 6:7 NIV)

The disciples cry out in words taken from one of the Passover Psalms: “Blessed is he (the king) who comes in the name of the Lord!” (Luke 19:38, Psalm 118:26) In contrast to Matthew, Mark and John, Luke replaces “he” with “the king” to ensure that his Gentile readership gets the point.

“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” In our Great Thanksgiving during Holy Communion, we join our voices with those of the first disciples and acclaim Jesus as our king.

Psalm 118 is especially appropriate for what is about to occur. Listen to some of the words and see their fulfillment in Jesus.

I will not die but live, and will proclaim what the LORD has done. {18} The LORD has chastened me severely, but he has not given me over to death. {19} Open for me the gates of righteousness; I will enter and give thanks to the LORD. {20} This is the gate of the LORD through which the righteous may enter. {21} I will give you thanks, for you answered me; you have become my salvation. {22} The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone; {23} the LORD has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes. {24} This is the day the LORD has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it. {25} O LORD, save us; O LORD, grant us success. {26} Blessed is he who comes in the name of the LORD. From the house of the LORD we bless you. {27} The LORD is God, and he has made his light shine upon us. With boughs in hand, join in the festal procession up to the horns of the altar. (Psalm 118:17-27 NIV)

All four gospels agree on the words from Psalm 118, but Luke adds something else:

“Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!” (Luke 19:38 NIV)

With these words, the disciples echoed the words of the angels at Christmas:

Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, {14} “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.” (Luke 2:13-14 NIV)

Finally, when the disciples spread their cloaks on the ground they are mimicking the coronation of a king. Reporting on the coronation of king Jehu, the book of Kings says:

They hurried and took their cloaks and spread them under him on the bare steps. Then they blew the trumpet and shouted, “Jehu is king!” (2 Ki 9:13 NIV)

The message proclaimed in Jesus triumphal entry is clear: Jesus is king.

What is a King?

To be sure, Jesus is a different kind of king.

Luke leaves out the Palm branches which Matthew, Mark and John report (which is, of course, why we call this “Palm Sunday.” Waving a palm branch was like waving a Jewish flag. Luke doesn’t want his readers to think too narrowly about Jesus’ kingship. Jesus is not only the king of a certain piece of dirt with a capital in a certain city composed a particular ethnic group and defended by a particular army.

In fact, the gospel of John quotes Jesus as saying, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight.”

Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews. But now my kingdom is from another place.” (John 18:36 NIV)

But a king is still a king. If I say to you, “Here is your king,” I’m telling you to submit to his rule.

If the disciples had shouted, “Jesus is a great guy” or “Jesus is my religious leader” or “Jesus has some great things to say”, no one would have gotten too upset.

But they shouted, “Jesus is king.”

It happens that there was already a fellow named Herod who thought that he was the king of the Jews. And there was this other fellow with the title of “Caesar” in Rome who thought that everyone owed him their allegiance.

And then there were other folks who thought, “I don’t like Herod, and I don’t like Caesar, but I sure don’t want this Jesus to be my king, either. Have you heard some of the things that he has to say?”

In Jesus’ triumphal entry, the disciples forced the issue. People saw the parade, heard the disciples crying out and had to decide. Is Jesus king? Will you receive him as king? Will you bow before him? Will you submit your lives to him? Will you obey him?

The Stones Will Cry Out

Some people decided that the disciples were not only wrong, but dangerous. “Jesus, tell your followers to be quiet,” they said. Jesus replied, “If my followers were quiet, the rocks would cry out.”

The truth is the truth, and it will not be silent.

An old joke goes like this: “Before Mt Everest was discovered, what was the highest mountain on earth?” The answer, of course, is Mount Everest. The truth doesn’t depend on human recognition.

If Christians won’t proclaim Jesus as king, the rocks will.

Generation after generation of Christians would not keep silent. After Jesus rose from the dead, those early disciples faced angry mobs and armed officers of the government but they would not shut up. They suffered crucifixion and death in the arena, but they could not keep silent. Even today, Christians in many parts of the world suffer unspeakable torture and abuse because of their faith, but they proclaim the truth all the same: Jesus is king.

The irony is that the Church’s “success” in the western world has accomplished what critics and powerful, wicked men down through history could not. We keep silent.

Oh, it’s pretty clear in both the popular media and the academic world that the truth of Jesus Christ is not terribly welcome in our society. We blow this opposition all out of proportion, however, if we equate it with the persecution so prevalent in history.

It’s both funny and tragic. We face people who give us funny looks, or make disparaging comments, and we cower and remain silent. Jesus and his disciples faced death on a cross, and they raised their voices to proclaim the truth: Jesus is God’s anointed king, the one who will usher in God’s reign of peace for all humankind, the one to whom every knee will one day bow.

The disciples’ job on the first Palm Sunday nearly 2000 years ago was to proclaim the truth about Jesus. That’s still our job today. Some people won’t like it, but that’s the church’s job.

And we don’t just proclaim that truth within the confines of these walls. Like the first disciples, we do it out there, in the world. We proclaim the truth in ways that will catch the attention and the imagination of the people in the streets, and lead them to make their own decisions about Christ: is this fellow really the king, or does this pretender belong on a cross?