READ : Matthew 21:1-11
Today we focus on Palm Sunday, the beginning of Holy Week. There is no more important season for Christians than these days when we remember Jesus’ suffering, death, and resurrection, and it all started with a parade.
Jesus was on his way into Jerusalem for the very last time. It was just a few days before the Feast of the Passover, and a festive atmosphere hung over the city as pilgrim throngs from Jewish communities across the ancient world crowded into the city to celebrate. Only Jesus knows that this will be a Passover unlike any other. It is to be the true Passover, of which all the hundreds of Old Testament celebrations were merely shadows.
All the thousands of lambs whose blood had been shed under the terms of the old covenant were but types and symbols of the real Lamb of God, Jesus himself, who would now be offered up for the sins of the world. And so our Lord entered the city of David in a triumphal procession that was worthy of his royal ancestor. Here is the familiar story of Palm Sunday as Matthew tells it.
Now when they drew near to Jerusalem and came to Beth-phage, to the Mount of Olives, then Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village in front of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her. Untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, you shall say, ‘The Lord needs them,’ and he will send them at once.” This took place to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet, saying,
Say to the daughter of Zion,
Behold, your king is coming to you,
humble, and mounted on a donkey.
The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them. They brought the donkey and the colt and put on them their cloaks, and he sat on them. Most of the crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. And the crowds that went before him and that followed him were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!”
This is the event we know as the Triumphal Entry, and it’s been celebrated by the Christian church in its worship today, on Palm Sunday, for many centuries. Let me point out three distinctive things about the action Jesus took in order to carry out his public entrance into the city of Jerusalem at the beginning of the last week of his life on earth.
First, this was a deliberate act. As we read the gospel account, we can’t help but noticing a sense of careful planning about the whole day. There is nothing accidental or haphazard about it. For one thing there was that business with the animal on the way in to the city. As they headed towards Jerusalem on Palm Sunday morning, Jesus sent a couple of disciples on ahead to pick up a donkey for him to ride. “If anyone asks, just tell them the Lord needs it,” Jesus said.
I wonder, what would you say if Jesus asked to borrow your donkey. I’d probably want to know what he was going to do with it, and how long he wanted it for, and would it be returned to me in good condition, fully fed and watered. The only explanation Jesus offered was, “I have need of it.” And apparently, for this owner, that was enough. At any rate, these are not last-minute, impulsive actions on Jesus’ part. Jesus had a definite plan in mind for entering the city, and he very carefully managed all the details.
I don’t believe his disciples recognized it at the time, or realized the significance of every action the Lord performed during this whole holy week, but it struck them afterwards. They remembered all the little things he said and did, every word, each gesture, and what especially impressed them looking back was the air of deliberateness about the whole business. Peter, preaching after the resurrection, said that Jesus died “according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God” (Acts 2:23).
The remarkable thing about Christ’s suffering and death is that it’s all done according to plan, not his enemies’ plan, but God’s plan. With tragic human deaths we have a painful sense of avoidability, of the contingency of it all. We think, “if only. . .” If only Lincoln hadn’t gone to the theater that night; if only Kennedy had changed the motorcade route. But there is no “if only” feeling about Jesus’ crucifixion. It was all undertaken deliberately, right down to the way he publicly entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. Reading the story you almost feel as if Jesus were following a script that he and his Father had written together ahead of time.
Secondly, this triumphal entry was a symbolic action. This was a royal entrance, and all the details would have sent that message to the crowd. It was carefully staged to emphasize Jesus’ identity as Israel’s true King. And the key sign of this was the animal he chose to ride (the only time, by the way, that we read of Jesus riding any animal). We think of the donkey as a humble beast, but in fact, it was a royal animal in the context of the Old Testament. This is brought out most clearly by Zechariah’s prophecy, which was quoted by Matthew: “Behold, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey” (v. 5). So Jesus’ symbolic act revealed to everyone his real identity. He’s the king, but a humble king, riding on a donkey, not a warhorse. He is not just another earthly conqueror replacing one violent system with another. He is the Prince of Peace, the King whose crown is thorns, whose coronation is by crucifixion, who is exalted by being humiliated, who ascends his throne by being lifted up on a cross.
Thirdly, the triumphal entry was a public act?”dramatically so. This is in striking contrast to what had formerly been Jesus’ public behavior. Throughout his ministry he was always trying to keep the crowds quiet, as though he wanted to hide his Messianic identity. Often, you might recall, when he performed some mighty work we read in the Gospels that “he strictly charged them to tell no one about this.” But now Jesus goes out of his way to make a big splash, carefully choosing the time, place, and manner of entry that is calculated to draw maximum attention to himself. Now that the time for his sacrifice had arrived, Jesus wants all eyes to be focused on the cross.
So that’s Jesus’ action on Palm Sunday ?” it’s deliberate, it’s symbolic and it’s public. But now think about the people’s reaction to this event. They definitely responded positively and favorably. They acclaimed Jesus, welcoming and cheering him as their king. They got the message all right. And they reacted accordingly. They spread their clothes in his way to make a royal carpet for him to ride over. They waved palm branches, the universal symbol of triumph, joy, and honor. They shouted praises to him: “Hosanna” (a word that was originally a prayer meaning “Save us now,” but turned by popular usage into an exclamation of praise). “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the Highest!” (v. 9). But I can’t help but hearing even now an echo of the cries that the crowd would issue just a few days later. You remember how they went from “Hosanna to the Son of David” on Palm Sunday to “Crucify him! Crucify him!” on Good Friday. How could that have happened in less than a week?
Reflecting on this question might point us toward the most useful lesson of all about our Lord’s triumphal entry. It’s obvious, isn’t it, that many who shouted in that crowd did not really mean what they were saying. I think we can all imagine how that happens; we’ve been there before. The crowd starts buzzing as a note of excitement spreads through it, then a few pick up the shout, and pretty soon everybody’s yelling their heads off. Excitement is contagious in that sort of atmosphere.
But afterwards many are puzzled. “What was it that we were yelling about anyway? Who was that that we were shouting for?” (see vv. 10-11). Those who only go along with the crowd never have a very deep commitment. And remember, crowds are notoriously fickle. Cheers can turn quickly to boos. So it was a sort of crowd psychology that took over, both positively on Palm Sunday and negatively on Good Friday.
People will say and do things in a crowd that they would never do on their own. And that’s a sobering thought. It’s easy to deny Christ, to betray him, mock him, reject him. Just run with the wrong crowd.
But remember, it’s also easy to join in acknowledging Christ with the crowd. Some people go through the motions of church membership, droning the hymns, mumbling the prayers, repeating the creeds, but it’s all nothing more than imitative behavior. When you confess Christ as Lord and Savior, be sure you know what you’re saying. Be sure you mean it. Do it, by all means; for your salvation depends upon it! But do it for yourself, not just to please wife or husband, parents for friends, or to go along with some crowd.
Remember that there is another, and greater, triumphal entry yet to come. Our Lord came once into the world to suffer and die; he is coming again to reign in glory and majesty. Once he came to the sound of cheers that turned quickly to shouts of rejection; but he is coming again with the cry of command and the sound of the trumpet of God, and those who are his will greet him with everlasting joy. Make sure you are a part of that crowd.