Palm Sunday

By Eric D. Huntsman
This post is excerpted from Dr. Huntsman’s blog,

Palm Sunday is not a regular part of Latter-day Saint observance, and not even all Christian churches celebrate it.  Nevertheless, recounting Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem has a long history in the Christian tradition, and it plays an important in the liturgies of the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and some Protestant churches.  For me celebrating Palm Sunday truly opens Holy Week, setting it apart from other weeks by focusing my thoughts and faith on Christ my king.

Episodes for Personal Study

Triumphal Entry (Matt 21:1–11; Mark 11:1–11; Luke 19:28–40; John 12:12–19)

Jesus Cleanses the Temple (Matt 21:12–17; Luke 19:41–48)

The Triumphal Entry

John 12:1 reports that Jesus came to Bethany, outside of Jerusalem, six days before Passover. By conventional reckoning, this would have been on the last Saturday of Jesus’ mortal ministry. While there he enjoyed a supper with Lazarus and Martha, during which Mary entered and anointed his feet. While this event is usually associated with a similar anointing recounted by Mark and Matthew later in the week (see the Wednesday post), John may have intended the symbolism to function differently: two figures were regularly anointed in ancient Israel, kings and priests, and the events of the next day seem to emphasize Jesus’ role as the true king of Israel.

This becomes apparent in all four Gospel accounts, where, on the last Sunday of Jesus’ life, he entered Jerusalem in triumph. John, for instance, notes the following:

On the next day much people that were come to the feast, when they heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem, took branches of palm trees, and went forth to meet him, and cried, “Hosanna: Blessed is the King of Israel that cometh in the name of the Lord.” And Jesus, when he had found a young ass, sat thereon; as it is written, “Fear not, daughter of Sion: behold, thy King cometh, sitting on an ass’s colt.” These things understood not his disciples at the first: but when Jesus was glorified, then remembered they that these things were written of him, and that they had done these things unto him. (John 12:12–16).

The four Gospel accounts differ only slightly. The Synoptic Gospels, for instance, give greater detail as to how Jesus obtained the donkey on which he rode during his triumphal procession. Luke depicts it as a triumphal approach to Jerusalem, with Jesus stopping some distance from Jerusalem to mourn and lament the city from afar before he entered the holy city (19:41–44).  While a donkey does not seem to modern readers to be a very regal mode of transportation, one must remember that it was commonly the conveyance of Old Testament kings, especially David. The waving of tree branches (only John mentioned that they were palm fronds) is often associated with Sukkot, the autumn festival of Tabernacles that commemorated the wandering of the children of Israel in the wilderness. Once in the Promised Land, however, it became above all a harvest festival, but it was also associated with the coronation of the Israelite king and in the intertestamental period developed messianic connections.

Palm Sunday is a good opportunity not only to recall one of the rare moments in Jesus’ ministry when he was recognized for the king he was. Depending upon the timing of Passover and the day that Jesus was crucified, this Sunday could have been “fifth day before Passover,” when the Paschal Lamb was selected for Passover and set apart for the Lord, giving special significance to crowd’s recognition of Jesus on this day—they may have been welcoming him as a hoped-for king, but in reality he had come as the Lamb of God who would die for them.

Only John gives a reason why the Jerusalem crowds seemed so united in welcoming Jesus as the possible Messiah: they had heard about the great miracle that he performed in raising Lazarus (John 12:17-12), which of course foreshadows Jesus’ own conquest of death. This explicitly connects the Triumphal Entry to Jesus’ resurrection. It also, however, gave further cause for opposition. John 12:19 notes that “the Pharisees therefore said among themselves, ‘Perceive ye how ye prevail nothing? behold, the whole world is gone after him.’” Earlier they and the “chief priests” had, as a result of the raising of Lazarus, already begun to take counsel about how they could put Jesus to death (John 11:47-53).

Consequently, Palm Sunday is also an occasion to look forward to Jesus Christ’s final, triumphal return when all the world will recognize him as Lord and King.  Having conquered death, he will, in due course, return to Jerusalem—and all the earth—in glory.

And [they] brought the ass, and the colt, and put on them their clothes, and they set him thereon. And a very great multitude spread their garments in the way; others cut down branches from the trees, and strawed them in the way. And the multitudes that went before, and that followed, cried, saying, Hosanna to the Son of David: Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord; Hosanna in the highest. And when he was come into Jerusalem, all the city was moved, saying, Who is this? And the multitude said, This is Jesus the prophet of Nazareth of Galilee. (Matthew 21:7-11)

Jesus Cleanses the Temple

In Matthew and Luke, as Jesus enters Jerusalem, he proceeds directly to the temple, where, in a familiar scene, he cast out the moneychangers and those who were selling sacrificial animals in its outer courts. Mark delays this scene until Monday for symbolic and literary reasons, while John had recorded a cleansing of the temple at the beginning of his ministry (John 2:13–25). Either there actually were two different cleansings, or John had moved it to the front end to illustrate that Jesus was always sovereign—he always had the authority and right to do what he did. For the Synoptics, however, the cleansing can be directly connected with a royal interpretation of the Triumphal Entry. From the time of Solomon until the destruction of the First Temple by the Babylonians, the temple had been, in effect, a royal chapel adjacent to the king’s palace. There he was coronated and “adopted” as a son of YHWH (see Psalm 2:7), a clear type and foreshadowing of how Christ was not only the rightful king but also the actual Son of God.

If one connects the Triumphal Entry with Jesus’ eventual return, the cleansing of the Temple can be seen as the eventual “cleansing of the earth” and especially Jerusalem and the establishment of Jesus’ reign there.

Ideas for Families: Pick one of the Gospel accounts of the Triumphal Entry and read it together, discussing the symbolism of Jesus’ entering Jerusalem as king and how he will actually return as king at the second coming. Sing “All Glory, Laud, and Honor” (hymn 69).

For Further Reading: Thomas A. Wayment, “The Triumphal Entry,” in From the Transfiguration to the Triumphal Entry, The Life and Teachings of Jesus Christ 2, edited by Richard Neitzel Holzapfel and Thomas A. Wayment (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2006), 398–416.