Palm Sunday's Story and Meaning in the Bible
The Bible Story of Palm Sunday
The biblical account of Christ's entry into Jerusalem on the Sunday of Holy Week is found in each of the four Gospel books. You can read the full scripture text of this Bible story below as seen in John 12:12-19, Mark 11:1-11, Matthew 21:1-11, and Luke 19:28-44.
Palm Sunday was foretold and prophesized in the Old Testament, saying, "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" (Zechariah 9:9)
Palm Sunday: The Messianic King
Christ's triumphal entrance into Jerusalem is celebrated by Christians on Palm Sunday. By the time of Christ, Jewish nationalism had led to the expectation of a political Messiah to deliver them from Roman control and to re-establish David's kingdom. In humility, Jesus shows that He has not come to establish an earthly kingdom. He does not ride on a horse or chariot, but on a donkey: a sign of humility and peace.
This entrance into the Holy City declares the establishment of the Kingdom of God. It is also a promise of Christ's final entrance into the heavenly Jerusalem with all believers and of His accepting the New Jerusalem as His pure Bride (Revelations 21:2).
The name "Palm Sunday" comes from the crowds of Jerusalem laying down palm leaves joyfully celebrating and revering the arrival of their King. The people who spread their clothes and leaves before Jesus did so as paying reverence to a King. It is spiritually interpreted as our need to lay down our lives for Christ.
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Importance of Palm Sunday
Most of us who grew up attending church have some memory of Palm Sunday. Maybe it’s memories of carrying palm branches to reenact Jesus entering Jerusalem. Perhaps it’s asking what the palm branches were for in the first place. Whatever it was, most of us came away thinking it was one of the Bible’s cheery stories. Returning to the Gospels, we find that it was far more exciting and shocking.
What Is Palm Sunday?
Palm Sunday is the start of Holy Week, which also includes the following days: Holy Monday, Holy Tuesday, Holy Wednesday (sometimes called Spy Wednesday), Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday.
Since the date that people celebrate Easter Sunday shifts each year depending on the seasons, the date when people observe Palm Sunday also shifts. Easter is observed the Sunday after the first full moon occurring on or after the spring equinox (usually March 21). So, Easter Sunday is usually observed between March 21 and April 21, which means Palm Sunday is usually observed between March 14 and April 14.
Each day in Holy Week corresponds to a day that Jesus spent in Jerusalem, culminating in his death on Good Friday and resurrection on Easter Sunday. Traditionally, different events are assigned to earlier days in Holy Week. For example, Spy Wednesday is when Judas took a bribe from the religious leaders to betray Jesus, and Maundy Thursday is when Jesus was arrested.
What Happened during Palm Sunday?
The events of Palm Sunday are found in the four Gospels: Matthew 21:1-17, Mark 11:1-11, Luke 19:28-48, and John 12:12-50. Details are generally the same between the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke), although, in some spots, the accounts diverge. The following is a composite of what all four Gospels say, with notes about unusual details in different Gospels:
The events of Palm Sunday began with Jesus and his disciples approaching Jerusalem. Once they reached Bethphage on the Mount of Olives, Jesus told two disciples to go to the next village. There they would find a donkey with her colt, which they were to bring back. If anyone asked what they were doing, they would say, “the Lord needs them, and will have them returned soon.” Luke’s version notes that the colt had never been ridden before (Luke 19:30). Mark and Luke state that people did ask as the two disciples got the donkey and colt, but let the disciples go on their way after they received Jesus’ message (Mark 11:6) (Luke 19:32-34). John leaves out this scene entirely, simply saying that Jesus found a donkey and rode on it (John 12:14-15).
Once they had gotten the donkey and colt, the disciples put their cloaks on them, and Jesus rode the colt into Jerusalem. As Jesus entered Jerusalem, a people put palm branches on the road and shouted quotations from three Old Testament books:
- “Hosanna! Blessed if he comes in the name of the Lord!” (Psalm 118:25-26)
- “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David!” (Isaiah 56:7)
- “Hosanna in the highest!” (Jeremiah 7:11)
Luke states that some Pharisees were in the crowd and told Jesus to rebuke his disciples for creating a commotion. Jesus replied, “if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out” (19:40). Luke also states that when Jesus entered Jerusalem, he wept for the city and talked about how the city couldn’t see what it needed and dark times would come (Luke 19:41-44).
John’s version diverges heavily from the Synoptic Gospels here. It describes some Greeks wanting to speak with Jesus, Jesus talking about how the hour has come for him to be glorified, and a voice from heaven speaking to confirm Jesus will be glorified (John 12:20-33). Afterward, people asked Jesus about some things he had said about the Son of Man, and Jesus replied that they would only have the light for a little while longer, then left (John 12:34-36). John ends by describing the confusing reactions that the Jewish people had to Jesus, some believing and others scorning him, and Jesus describing himself as the light and God’s mouthpiece (John 12:37-50).
In Mark’s version, Jesus went to the temple after entering Jerusalem. He looked around, noticed it was late, went to Bethany for the night, then returned to the temple and cleared it the next day (Mark 11:11-19). In Matthew and Luke’s version, Jesus went to the temple that day and cleared it, declaring that people had made the temple into a “den of robbers” (Matthew 21:12-13) (Luke 19:45-48). John describes Jesus clearing the temple at an earlier visit to Jerusalem at the start of his ministry, where people pressed him to prove he had the authority to do this. Jesus claimed he would raise the destroyed temple again in three days (John 2:12-22). For this reason, some scholars claim that Jesus cleared the temple twice, first early in his ministry and then at the end of it.
After clearing the temple, Matthew records that Jesus performed miracles and taught in the temple. Religious leaders were upset by his temple clearing, and the children were yelling, “Hosanna to the Son of David.” When they asked Jesus if he heard what the children were saying, Jesus replied, “have you never read, ‘from the lips of children and infants you have ordained praise?” (Matthew 21:14-17). According to Matthew, Jesus left after saying this to spend the night in Bethany (21:17). Luke’s version doesn’t make it clear how Jesus ended the day, transitioning to a summary of what he did over the next few days.
From Palm Sunday to Crucifixion Friday
There’s debate on how precise the Holy Week countdown is. Luke describes events traditionally listed as happening on Holy Monday and Holy Tuesday as happening “one day as he was teaching the people” (Luke 20:1), not specifically “the day after” Palm Sunday. John describes Jesus’ anointing at Bethany taking place before he enters Jerusalem, not two days later (John 12:1-10). So, taking all four Gospels together, we can safely say these events happened close together, but it’s hard to tell if the events happened exactly in one week. Granting that Holy Week is partly a tradition we’ve built, things still turned around pretty quickly. Within a week (give or take a few days), Jesus goes from being praised as he enters Jerusalem to crowds urging Pilate to have him killed. It’s interesting how quickly the public’s reaction changed.
Part of this reaction is due to the fact that Jesus wasn’t universally liked. Some people were cheering him as he entered, but there were religious leaders in the crowd who didn’t like the attention he was getting. The terms that people were shouting at Jesus (he who comes in the name of the Lord, the coming kingdom) had messianic overtones, suggesting that they expected him to come in and conquer the Romans. That explains why religious leaders were troubled by what the children and adults were shouting. These religious leaders later goaded the latter crowd into asking for Jesus’ death (Matthew 27:20, Mark 15:9-11).
Adding to the controversy, Jesus accepted how people were calling him the Messiah and did things that publicly declared he had authority no one could contain. When he said, “the hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified” (John 12:23), he claimed a title from Daniel 7:13, a man with God-given authority to establish an everlasting kingdom. When Jesus cleared the temple and talked about raising it in three days, he was claiming authority to judge how the temple was used. When he accepted children calling him the Son of David, he accepted the title of David’s son (i.e., the Messiah).
At the same time, Jesus didn’t behave in a way that fit what anyone expected. Most Jews expected the Son of David to enter Jerusalem like the Maccabees, a Jewish soldier on a warhorse coming in to overthrow invaders. Instead, Jesus came into the city riding a donkey (a symbol of peace) and talked about how the city was doomed to destruction because it had missed the truth.
In short, Jesus came to Jerusalem as a divisive figure. He claimed Messianic status without the warrior overtones or the “kill the Romans” agenda that the masses wanted. He claimed authority to criticize religious leaders but talked about it cryptically (raising the temple in three days, etc.), which meant those leaders couldn’t understand his agenda. His attitude meant that leaders couldn’t negotiate or “agree to disagree” with Jesus—that would require understanding his full agenda and crafting a response. Jesus made it clear that he was challenging people, putting them in a position where they either had to listen and follow or reject him. Much like earlier instances (for example, talking to the Samaritan woman at the well), Jesus behaved in a way that made it impossible to be neutral about him. In light of that, it’s not totally surprising that people’s attitudes shifted so quickly about him. Jesus was someone that people could love or hate, but no one could be neutral about.
Why We Should Celebrate Palm Sunday
We should all pay more attention to Holy Week, particularly the days leading up to Jesus’ arrest, which we don’t talk much about. That being said, here are three particular reasons why we should pay more attention to Palm Sunday:
It’s just as interesting in its own way. It’s tempting to focus on later parts of Holy Week (Judas accepting a bribe, Jesus’ trial and death) because they have the most drama and violence. Once we look at Palm Sunday’s Messianic and apocalyptic overtones (Jesus prophesying the end of Jerusalem, claiming the name “Son of David”), we see that Palm Sunday actually has plenty of drama of its own.
It sets up what follows. While some events of Holy Week don’t immediately seem central to the narrative, every moment of Holy Week has some significance and connects to later events in some way. This is especially true of Palm Sunday, which is where Holy Week starts.
It helps us understand why people wanted Jesus dead. As shown in the above section, Palm Sunday is full of interesting moments where Jesus played against expectations, showing how deliberately provocative he could be. Recognizing that side of Jesus helps us understand why, as shown in later events, he attracted deep devotion from the humble and hatred from the proud.
Read the full scripture quotes of Palm Sunday in the Bible verses below. Also, find related articles, videos, and sermons about Jesus' triumphant return to Jerusalem.
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G. Connor Salter is a writer and editor, with a Bachelor of Science in Professional Writing from Taylor University. In 2020, he won First Prize for Best Feature Story in a regional contest by the Colorado Press Association Network. He has contributed over 1,200 articles to various publications, including interviews for Christian Communicator and book reviews for The Evangelical Church Library Association. Find out more about his work here.