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What Are Christians Really Commemorating on Palm Sunday?

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The great danger in reading Bible passages that are tied to key events on the church calendar is that we’re often just dropped down into a scene. This is especially the case on Palm Sunday, when we may find ourselves amid waving branches and shouting children without much notion of the meaning of what we’re commemorating. Without the context of the whole Gospel story, we may fall prey to the same misunderstandings as did the celebrating crowd in Mark 11.

If we turn a few pages back in Mark’s Gospel, on the other hand, we will learn something important. Jesus had clearly told His disciples that He was going to Jerusalem to die (10:33–34); however, they didn’t seem to get it. In fact, James and John went so far as to ask for positions of prominence when Jesus would establish His kingdom (v. 37). Unsurprisingly, this incited a conflict within the envious disciple group (v. 41). In response, Jesus admonished them all: “Whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (vv. 43–45).

The story of Palm Sunday is, among other things, the story of this contrast. As Jesus entered Jerusalem, the crowd that greeted him, like the disciples, celebrated a worldly hope and expected a political sea change. In reality, Jesus was coming to bring a heavenly victory and turn the very idea of power upside down. As we read the story, we need to understand it—and understand ourselves—in the light of these opposing values.

A Purposeful Entry

Jesus sent two of his disciples and said to them, “Go into the village in front of you, and immediately as you enter it you will find a colt tied, on which no one has ever sat. Untie it and bring it.” … And they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it, and he sat on it. (Mark 11:1–2, 7)

It would have been easy for Jesus to arrive in Jerusalem unheralded. The Gospels tell us of times when He made His way around undetected and slipped through crowds. But the very fact that Jesus entered Jerusalem on a donkey tells us that He was aiming to be noticed. Passover pilgrims (which is exactly what Jesus and His disciples were in this instance) were expected to walk into the city of Jerusalem as they arrived to celebrate what God did in the Exodus. If they were physically unable to walk, tradition said they did not need to attend at all.1 And the Gospels don’t tell us of Jesus riding a mount on any other occasion.

Jesus’ arrival in this manner was therefore special. Indeed, it fulfilled the prophetic statement in Zechariah:

Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion!
 Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem!
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. (Zech. 9:9)

On this occasion in His public life, as Jesus chose to ride into Jerusalem, He was making it perfectly clear that His ministry was now coming to a great and dramatic climax. The lines of prophecy were converging as He moved toward the very reason for His incarnation.

Yet even in this deliberately public display, Jesus chose a path of lowliness and humility—so much so that the city’s Roman overlords found nothing in it to concern them, if they even knew about it. As He had told His disciples, His kingdom would come about not through self-exaltation or warfare but through servanthood—through apparent weakness conquering apparent strength. The fulfillment He pointed to would come about through His blood shed on the cross.

A Confused Response

And many spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut from the fields. And those who went before and those who followed were shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David! Hosanna in the highest!” (Mark 11:8–10)

Passover was a time of celebration. The cries of “Hosanna!” and “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” were familiar words from Psalm 118 that were recited at all the major festivals in Jerusalem. But as Jesus approached, the crowd, perhaps guessing or hoping that something greater was at hand, added a line that wasn’t in the psalm: “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David!”

Christ’s kingdom would come about not through self-exaltation or warfare but through servanthood.

The sudden chanting by the crowd likely came from a whole jumble of influences. Everybody was heading to Jerusalem for the feast. They were there to rejoice in the past of what God had done and to anticipate what God may yet do. They were there to call upon the Lord from His temple and to hear God speak. Yet there was also hope for a national and political liberation from Rome. There was desire for safety and success in family life and economic circumstances.

Jesus had spoken of the coming kingdom of God. Now here He was, riding into Jerusalem. The crowd had therefore determined that perhaps He was about to reestablish Israel’s Davidic kingdom and God’s earthly rule. Like James and John, they imagined that Jesus was on His way to a throne—and they would have something to gain!

Of course, in Jesus, the kingdom of God was inaugurated, and praise was appropriate (Luke 19:40). But the crowd didn’t fully understand what they were celebrating.

A Familiar Cry

As Palm Sunday approaches, we are in danger of being like the crowd in Mark 11. Their cries on the first Palm Sunday are contemporary cries as well. We want to be free of oppressors (our bosses, our spouses, systems in society). We want safety and prosperity. We want success. And these expectations, longings, and concerns can drive us to employ our voices in what are familiar, yet empty, chants of religious orthodoxy without ever understanding the reality to which they point.

But Jesus didn’t come to give us political liberation, safety, and success. He didn’t come to make us heads of state. He didn’t come to overthrow our governments. He didn’t come to fill our pocketbooks. He came to serve and to give His life as a ransom, paving the way for ultimate liberation and everlasting life in God’s presence.

The crowd runs after worldly hopes and flees at the sight of the cross. Jesus says, “Take up your cross, and follow Me.”

On another occasion, Jesus cut to the dichotomy between our expectations and our deepest need with a question: “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?” (Mark 8:36). What good is it to be successful, exemplary in the community, safe and happy in one’s family, business, lifestyle, finances, and reputation, and yet lost for eternity? The crowd in Mark 11 ran after all these things, and they fled at the sight of a cross. Jesus, meanwhile, says, “Take up your cross, and follow Me.”

Have you ever cried to God to save you? Jesus came to answer the “Hosanna” cries of Psalm 118:25: “Save us, we pray, O LORD! O LORD, we pray, give us success!” But His answer also came in an unexpected way. His intentional ride into Jerusalem on a donkey answers our prideful desires with an assertion of meekness, and His work on the cross gives us the kind of salvation that meets the deepest needs of the human heart: for meaning, forgiveness, freedom from sin, and hope for God’s eternal kingdom. Palm Sunday therefore reminds us that true freedom and success—the kind that lasts for eternity—come only when we lose our lives in Christ, laying down our desires, dreams, and ambitions at the foot of the cross in order that we might belong unreservedly to Him.


The article was adapted from the sermons “Palm Sunday Perspective—Part One” and “Palm Sunday Perspective—Part Two” by Alistair Begg.

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  1. See m. Hagigah 1:1.↩︎


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