Why Do We Celebrate Palm Sunday?

I remember the drive home from the hospital after the birth of our first child. While the drive to the hospital was obviously a significant moment, there was something much more weighty about that first drive home. On the way there, the car seat was still empty. He was there, but he wasn’t, you know? On the way home, though, little newborn Jude was there, lying down snugly in his little Marlins onesie wrapped in a blanket . . . and I was very aware of it.

Our Jeep now had a new passenger, one whose life depended on me, whom I had been entrusted with loving, providing for, and raising up to be a productive member of society and a surrendered follower of Christ. Again, this car ride carried some serious extra weight to it, not just the extra seven-pound bundle of joy, but the immensity of what it meant for the rest of my days.

I’m sure at some point in your life, you’ve taken a similar ride traveling down the road on your way to something you knew would be a significant moment in your life. Maybe you were on your way to your first day of college or to an interview for your dream job. Or maybe you were driving to your wedding or speeding to the hospital for the birth of your child—or driving back from the hospital, but much slower than when you drove there.

Undoubtedly, this type of car ride is different from your usual trip to the grocery store! It usually involves your heart racing as your mind plays out every possible scenario. Your entire life flashes before your eyes as you realize that, after this moment, everything is going to change!

Imagine how Jesus must have felt as He traveled down the road about to enter Jerusalem. While He knew this road would ultimately would lead to His betrayal, imprisonment, torture, and death, He also knew the world would never ever be the same again. You see, “the hour [had] come that the Son of Man should be glorified” (John 12:23 NKJV).

What does this mean? Well, the most important moment in human history had come. It was time to tear down the great divide between God and man (2 Corinthians 5:18), to restore what was broken in the Garden of Eden (Romans 5:12–21), to render sin powerless (Romans 6:6), to defeat death (1 Corinthians 15:55), and to set mankind free (Galatians 5:1). This trip into Jerusalem was the most important trip ever taken.

What Is Palm Sunday?

Every year, Christians around the world celebrate Jesus triumphal entry into Jerusalem on the Sunday before Easter. We call it Palm Sunday. As a kid, I remember going to a Methodist church that went all out for Palm Sunday. We’d have a big celebration, everyone would get palm branches (which are very accessible when you live in Miami), kids would sometimes get to enjoy donkey rides, and we’d sing a variety of songs that said, “Hosanna.”

But what exactly happened on this all-important trip into Jerusalem? There are various things we see in the story, all with deep, purposeful, and powerful significance.

Coming to Jerusalem

“On the next day, when the large crowd that had come to the feast heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem . . .”—John 12:12 (NASB)

There are many prophecies that relate to the Messiah in the Old Testament. One such prophecy is found in Daniel 9:20, when the angel Gabriel comes to the prophet to reveal to him what his vision of the future meant. You see, Daniel had been given a vision about the Anointed One, and Gabriel had come to explain what these things meant and when they’d take place. So, in Daniel 9:24–27, we’re given a timeline and told when the Messiah would appear as King: “Now listen and understand! Seven sets of seven plus sixty-two sets of seven will pass from the time the command is given to rebuild Jerusalem until a ruler—the Anointed One—comes” (Daniel 9:25 NLT).

The word used here for sets (some translations have it as sevens or weeks) is the Hebrew shabua, which describes a time period of seven. So, literally, this passage speaks of 70 sets of seven years. So, from the time the decree to rebuild Jerusalem is given until the Messiah’s arrival into the holy city, 69 sets of seven years would pass. Now, for the Jews and Babylonians, the calendar year was only 360 days. So, if we add this add in terms of days, it’s 173,880 days. In the now standard 365 calendar year, 173,880 days equals 476 years and 38 days.

This prophecy clock began ticking in the twentieth year of Persian King Artaxerxes’ reign (Nehemiah 2:1) when the command to rebuild the wall of Jerusalem was given in Nehemiah 2:1–8. Scholars believe this occurred in either 445 or 444BC—there is debate as to whether his reign began in 465 or 464BC— in the month of Nisan. This would put the arrival of the Messiah in Jerusalem at either 32AD or 33AD. This corresponds perfectly with the time of Jesus’ coming to Jerusalem.

Note: As far as the final set of seven, it has not yet come to pass, as that “week” deals with the tribulation and the end times.

The Noble Donkey

“As he approached Bethphage and Bethany at the hill called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples, saying to them, Go to the village ahead of you, and as you enter it, you will find a colt tied there, which no one has ever ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, “Why are you untying it?” say, “The Lord needs it.””—Luke 19:29–31 (NIV)

Jesus and His disciples were heading to Jerusalem for the Passover, but in reality, He was going to become the Passover Lamb for us. For three years, Jesus had been travelling the land of Israel preaching revolutionary messages with remarkable authority, healing the blind, sick, and lame, raising the dead, doing things that completely defied all the laws of nature, casting out demons, forgiving sins, and giving hope to the hopeless. There’s no doubt He was the most famous and infamous person in all of Israel. And more importantly, the people had begun to wonder, hope, and believe that He was the coming Messiah, the anointed One, the Son of David, who would establish an everlasting kingdom.

Now, if I were to ask you, what do you imagine the greatest king would ride when making His grand and triumphal arrival? Today, you’d probably imagine a top-of-the-line jet or the most expensive, amazing car—something like a Rolls Royce, Bentley, or Ferrari. You probably wouldn’t expect Him to pull up in a reasonably priced Toyota Corolla or Honda Civic. Back in the first century, you’d probably picture the finest, most regal stallion—or maybe a dragon or Pegasus or something epic like that. But not the Jews . . . They expected their king to arrive riding something else. You see, everyone knew Zechariah 9:9 (NASB), which says, “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout in triumph, daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; He is righteous and endowed with salvation, humble, and mounted on a donkey, even on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

So imagine their jubilation, their joy, their uncontainable excitement when Jesus arrives so humbly, as only Jesus knows how, on a donkey. They knew what this meant, and they thought they knew what it meant for them—more on that later.

The Royal Palms

“Many people spread their cloaks on the road, while others spread branches they had cut in the fields.”—Mark 11:8 (NIV)

In a 2015 Time magazine article, Charlotte Alter wrote, “Christians carry palms on Palm Sunday because according to the Gospels, Jesus’ followers covered his path in palm fronds on the day he entered Jerusalem after the custom of placing palms in the path of a high-ranking person.”

In the Gospels, when the people saw Jesus making His entry into Jerusalem on the young donkey, they excitedly began to pay homage to Him by praising the Lord and laying their cloaks and palm branches on the road in front of Him. According to Alter, “The palm branch also signified victory in Greco-Roman times, so the waving palms would have resembled a triumphal procession.”

Blessed Is He . . .

“Then those who went before and those who followed cried out, saying: ‘Hosanna! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!’ Blessed is the kingdom of our father David that comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!’”Mark 11:9–10 (NKJV)

The phrase “in the highest” implies to the utmost, highest degree or in the highest heavens. Many scholars believe the Jews were most likely calling on the angels of heaven to participate in glorifying the inbound Messiah with cries of salvation, to confirm their growing suspicion that the One had finally arrived.

These shouts of adoration showed that at least some of the Jews, who had seen miracles, listened to revolutionary teachings, and heard rumblings and rumors about Jesus all around the Jewish world for the past three years, believed their Messiah was finally riding in to free them from their Roman captors. And as is typical with large crowds, excitement and expectation began to spread, and soon the masses began to shout in unison.

However, what they got wasn’t exactly what they had wanted. You see, a brief look into the history of the Jewish people would show you that after the time of David and Solomon, there was a lot of subjugation. From the Babylonians to the Persians to the Greeks to the Romans, the Jews had grown tired of being ruled. They were anxious to see the time of David’s heir come, to see the promises of God to the great king fulfilled. But what they envisioned was not a spiritual kingdom, which is what Jesus came to establish with His first coming (John 18:33–37). They wanted a physical kingdom—they wanted to see the Anointed One overthrow the Romans and establish an empire like the world had never seen.

And so, as Jesus rode in, they became excited. The people believed their time had finally come. And when this didn’t happen, only a few days later, the same multitude that shouted, “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord” would also shout “Crucify Him” (Luke 23:21 NKJV).

Final Thoughts

I hope this overview of Palm Sunday gives you a greater scope of what this celebratory day means. I pray it gives you a greater appreciation for all that Jesus did for us. And I pray each year you will experience renewed joy and celebration as you remember that our King has come, and He’s made a way for us to enter His kingdom and be with Him for all eternity

About the Author

Danny Saavedra

Danny Saavedra is a licensed minister who has served on staff at Calvary since 2012, managing the Calvary Devotional and digital discipleship resources. He has a Master of Arts in Pastoral Counseling and Master of Divinity in Pastoral Ministry from Liberty Theological Seminary. His wife Stephanie, son Jude, and daughter Zoe share a love of Star Wars, good food, having friends over for dinner, and studying the Word together as a family.