Why is Palm Sunday Important?
While many people know the basic story of Palm Sunday, most don’t understand it’s significance in the events of “Holy Week.” One day thousands of people were praising Jesus, throwing palms on the street to celebrate his entry into the city; less than a week later they hung him on a cross. What could possibly have happened to cause this sudden change?
The Bible provides some important details of the events leading to and following “Palm Sunday.” To fully understand what happened, we need a basic understanding of where the Jewish nation stood at that point in time. The Jews were a captive people, suffering under heavy oppression from their Roman conquerors. Taxes were high, laws were strict, and judgement was swift and brutal. So the Jews, longing for relief, were looking to the age-old prophecy of a coming Messiah as their best hope for deliverance. They believed this man, promised by their God, would be a king who would sweep into the city, overthrow the Romans, and set them free.
At that time, Jerusalem was the center of Jewish religious and political activity. Estimates of the size of the crowd gathered there that first Palm Sunday range from 100,000 to over 2 million. The people had come to Jerusalem from all over the nation to celebrate the Passover. On the way they probably heard about Jesus raising Lazarus from the grave, so they probably already associated him with Messiah.
Importance of Passover
As always, God’s timing was perfect. Passover was the celebration of a time, centuries earlier, when God saved the Jews from Egyptian oppression. The last of the plagues God visited on Egypt to get his people released involved the death angel killing the firstborn son of every Egyptian family. But the angel passed over Jewish homes which had lamb’s blood on their door frames. Thus, the Passover was a clear foreshadowing of the coming sacrificial death of Jesus, the one John the Baptist introduced as, “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” (John 1:29).
Why a Donkey?
Into this setting heads Jesus. It was his final public offer to the Jews to recognize and accept him as their Messiah. But, of course, Jesus didn’t enter the city as they expected--on a huge white stallion like a conquering king. No, this king rode in on the colt of a donkey.
Now, first of all, this was a fulfillment of prophecy (Matthew 21:5), but it also had a deeper significance to the people of the day. Jesus didn’t enter Jerusalem on a horse (a symbol of power), but on a donkey, a symbol of humility and peace. This was a clear indication that he came as the peaceful King of the Jews, not a revolutionary intent on seizing political power.
The Palm Connection
Still, the excited crowd rushed to meet him, laying a carpet of palm branches at his feet. As Jesus entered the city, they shouted, “ekrazon” or “Hosanna.” This comes from the Hebrew for “Save/deliver, we pray” [taken from Psalm 118:25]. It was a cry for deliverance (though they probably were seeking salvation from the Romans, not from their slavery to sin).
A Big Misunderstanding
In Luke 19, Jesus says they really didn’t understand how he would bring peace to the people of God. The Jewish people there that day totally misunderstood what Messiah would be. Before he could come as a king to reign, he had to come as a Savior to die. The greatest need of every person in that crowded city wasn’t freedom from the Roman legions. Their greatest need was one they didn’t realize: they needed freedom from the bondage of their own sin. Jesus had to pay sin's penalty on the cross for them to have this freedom.
Marching Toward the End
When the crowds dispersed and the shouting was over, Jesus didn’t gather an army to lead the people in a revolt. He didn’t confront the Romans and demand they leave the city. Instead, he was concerned with cleansing the temple! I’m sure this disappointed many of the people assembled that first Palm Sunday. But there was another group disappointed in a different way – one that would move the story forward to end at the cross.
The Jewish religious leaders, who were charged by the Romans with keeping peace in the city, had a whole different take on the arrival of Jesus. They were concerned about the huge noisy crowd welcoming Jesus. Fearful that it would provoke the Roman legions to crack down on the Jews even more, they felt the need to act. So now we see that Palm Sunday was the event that finally led the Jewish religious leaders to act. When they met to discuss the “Jesus” problem, they decided removing him from the scene was the only way to save the city. Jesus had to die, “for the good of the nation.”
From that moment, they started plotting a way to capture him, away from the adoring crowds, so they could get the Romans to crucify him. (If the people stood up for their “king,” it would be impossible to try and convict the man.) Their opportunity arrived a few days later when Judas led them to Jesus, who was alone in a garden, praying. With his arrest, trial and crucifixion, the religious leaders thought they had saved the nation from more Roman oppression. But we know the story didn’t end that Friday afternoon. God’s Messiah rose from the grave! In the end, Jesus was a conqueror after all.