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Palm Sunday: The King Arrives

The days leading up to Easter often have an understandably somber feel to them, particularly as we contemplate Jesus’ arrest, trial, and execution. It’s easy to forget that the week begins with a joyful event: the Triumphal Entry!

Today is Palm Sunday, the first day of Holy Week. On Palm Sunday, we commemorate Jesus’ celebrated entry into Jerusalem just a few days before his arrest, trial, and crucifixion.

The “palm” in Palm Sunday refers to the palm branches waved by the adoring Jerusalem crowds who welcomed Jesus and proclaimed him King. The event is commonly referred to as the Triumphal Entry. Here’s the account from Matthew 21:1-11:

As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage on the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go to the village ahead of you, and at once you will find a donkey tied there, with her colt by her. Untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, say that the Lord needs them, and he will send them right away.”

This took place to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet:

“Say to Daughter Zion,
‘See, your king comes to you,
gentle and riding on a donkey,
and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.'”

The disciples went and did as Jesus had instructed them. They brought the donkey and the colt and placed their cloaks on them for Jesus to sit on. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and those that followed shouted,

“Hosanna to the Son of David!”

“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”

“Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred and asked, “Who is this?”

The crowds answered, “This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee.”

The Triumphal Entry is also described in the other three Gospels; see Mark 11:1-11, John 12:12-19, and Luke 19:28-44. While each account tells the same story, each provides a few unique details that, taken together, give us a complete picture of the event.

On the surface, the celebratory events of Palm Sunday make it an unusual starting point for the Easter story. Jesus’ arrival on a lowly donkey might seem almost as strange to us today as it did to the crowds who witnessed it. But Palm Sunday sets the stage for Easter in several important ways.

Most importantly, Jesus’ triumphant entry made abundantly clear Jesus’ claim to be the promised Messiah and Savior. The seemingly odd choice of a donkey as a mount was a specific fulfillment of a prophecy in the Old Testament book of Zechariah, as the account above notes:

Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion!
Shout, Daughter Jerusalem!
See, your king comes to you,
righteous and victorious,
lowly and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

Although Jesus’ contemporaries often struggled to make the connection, this was more evidence to anyone with “eyes to see and ears to hear” that He was the long-awaited Savior.

The Triumphal Entry also highlights important truths about both humanity and God. It illuminates the fickle nature of the human heart; the city that eagerly embraced Jesus one day would be calling for his death just a short while later. And it reminds us that God often fulfills His promises in ways we don’t expect: here was Israel’s promised king, but riding on a donkey, not the noble warhorse one might expect. He was a king, but not the one Jerusalem thought it needed—instead of liberating them from Roman oppression through military might, Jesus intended to liberate his people from the oppression of sin… by sacrificing himself. God fulfilled His promise but confounded human assumptions about how He would do so.

Finally, it’s important to remember that the “triumph” of Palm Sunday isn’t entirely overshadowed by grim irony. On the contrary, today is a day of genuine joy—a day when we get a brief glimpse of how things should have been. Here, Jesus is greeted with joy and celebration, praised as a king and welcomed by his people into their city and their lives. The warm welcome won’t last, but at this point in the Gospel story, it’s possible to imagine that it might.

Read the story of the Triumphal Entry and try to imagine what it would’ve been like to witness it in person. The darkness of the crucifixion looms on the horizon, but this is an occasion of celebration nonetheless—the promised king has revealed himself at last to his people! Hallelujah; praise the King!

Image: Palm Sunday fresco by Giotto di Bondone, 1266–1337.

Filed under Easter, Holy Week, Lent