Palm Sunday: The Unexpected King

Abstrac etxotic background. Palm leaves. Retro toned.

Now when they drew near to Jerusalem, to Bethphage and Bethany, at the Mount of Olives, 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. If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ say, ‘The Lord has need of it and will send it back here immediately.’” And they went away and found a colt tied at a door outside in the street, and they untied it. And some of those standing there said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” And they told them what Jesus had said, and they let them go. And they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it, and he sat on it. 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!”

And he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple. And when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.

—Mark 11:1–11


Every year on the day we call Palm Sunday, Christians remember the occasion of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. It took place while a great multitude of Jewish pilgrims were gathered in the Holy City to celebrate the Passover. When they heard that Jesus would be coming down from where He’d been staying at Bethany, they quickly gathered palm branches and greeted Him with celebratory words that would have been familiar to any Jew at the time. The hallel is a series of psalms that were sung every morning during the Feast of Tabernacles, beginning with Psalm 113 and going through Psalm 118, wherein we find these words:

Save now, I pray, O Lord;
O Lord, I pray, send now prosperity.
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!
We have blessed you from the house of the Lord.
—Psalm 118:25–26

The word hosanna is derived from a Hebrew word meaning “save now,” taken from these verses in Psalm 118. The people shouted this along with, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord,” adding the additional description, “the King of Israel!” They rightly recognized Jesus as the promised king to reign on the throne of David, but they likely had in mind an earthly king—a military strongman who would drive out the Romans from the land of Israel. In Jesus’ day, palm branches were waved to celebrate and welcome home Jewish war heroes. So when Christ was welcomed into Jerusalem with shouts of hosanna and the waving of palm branches, the crowds clearly had high expectations of what what Jesus would accomplish when He arrived. They would soon be greatly disappointed; not because they had expected too much, but because their expectations of Christ had been far too low.

As the crowds eagerly watched Jesus descend the Mount of Olives toward Jerusalem, slowly fading into view, they would have seen a somewhat odd sight. Jesus rode a young donkey, and donkeys in the Middle East are different than donkeys in America. They’re much smaller; so much so that a grown man has to bend his knees and hold his feet up to ride one. To us it would have looked like a man riding a tiny tricycle—not exactly the image we might have of a conquering king on a valiant steed.

Jesus had chosen a young donkey, likely one who had never carried anything before, and this was significant because of the way His ancient culture valued things that are new. A king would have the luxury of new robes, a new chariot, and a horse that had never been used for any prior task. Jesus likewise rode a young animal, but a lowly animal, just as He wore a crown, but one made of thorns. In this way He is identified to us as a king, but a different kind of king.

When Jesus had passed through the fanning palms and finally entered the Holy City, He did not stop but continued to the temple; His ultimate destination that day. Mark records that He went inside, looked around for a while, and then went back to Bethany with the disciples. This would seem to be a rather anti-climactic end to a triumphal entry, but only to the one who views Jesus a merely another earthly king.

When we step back and consider the triumphal entry in light of the grand story of redemption, an ancient vision that was given to the prophet Ezekiel comes to light. In Ezekiel 10 and 11, the prophet saw the glory of the Lord depart from the temple as a cloud, ascending up over the Jerusalem and coming to rest atop the Mount of Olives. Centuries later, Jesus descended from the very same mountain and entered into the temple Himself, signifying that He is the true temple of God and glory of heaven. Through the work Christ was about to accomplish, in paying the full penalty for our sins, God will once again dwell among His people.

Just like the multitudes waving palm branches, expecting a political rather than a spiritual savior, we also often have too low an expectation of Christ. We look to Him to bless us with comfort, safety, or material wealth, and we get frustrated when He doesn’t. On Sunday we may offer praises with our lips, but by Friday we find ourselves among the crowds shouting, “Crucify Him!” We forget that God doesn’t always work in the way we expect Him to. Who would have thought that the same God Isaiah saw “high and lifted up” in the celestial throne room would come down to earth only to be lifted up onto a cross? And who could have imagined that by His wounds we would be healed not merely of political oppression, but of the oppressive reign of sin in our hearts?

Praise God this Palm Sunday that He has not failed us when our requests seem to go unanswered. May we raise our expectations of Christ and trust that He is working in us in ways far greater than we could ever ask or imagine!

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