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The Triumphal Entry - the first Palm Sunday

Julian Spriggs M.A.

This is a very familiar story which is remembered at the start of Holy Week each year. However, it is good to look at the significance of the event and determine what it tells us about the person and ministry of Jesus. It is an event full of prophetic meaning. It is also interesting to consider what was so special about palms and donkeys.

The event of the triumphal entry into Jerusalem is described in each of the four Gospels (Matt 21:1-11, Mark 11:1-11, Luke 19:29-39 and John 12:12-19). It occurred only a few days before the cross and resurrection. It marks the transition into the final week of the life of Jesus, the fourth main period of the ministry of Jesus. His ministry can be divided into these four periods, the early ministry in Judea (only described in John’s Gospel), the Great Galilean ministry, his journey to Jerusalem (particularly emphasised in Luke’s Gospel), and the passion week.

The setting for the Triumphal Entry

This article will focus primarily on the account in John’s Gospel, but will refer to the accounts in the other gospels too. According to John, only a little while before Jesus had performed the greatest of his signs, the raising of Lazarus from the dead. John normally described the miracles of Jesus as signs. They were far more than miraculous or supernatural events, but were signs to show his glory, demonstrate his deity and to bring people to faith.

The raising of Lazarus had caused a sensation. News of it spread rapidly so everyone had heard about it. As a result, many of the Jews who had seen what had happened came to faith.
“Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.” (Jn 11:45).

The raising of Lazarus was reported to the Pharisees (11:46), who called a meeting of the Jewish council (Sanhedrin) to discuss their response. They recognised that Jesus was performing signs (11:47). It was not possible for them to deny this. However they were fearful of the Romans (11:48). If Jesus caused a popular uprising, it would be put down with great force by the Romans. The Jewish leadership would be held responsible by them for their failure to keep the peace. Around forty years later, in AD 68, an uprising by the Jews against Roman rule led to the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in AD 70.

During this discussion, the high priest Caiaphas declared a word which turned out to be prophetic. He said that it would be better for one man to die, to prevent the destruction of the whole nation,
“You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.” (11:50).
In a comment, John explains that this proclamation had a greater meaning, that God was speaking through him, whether he realised that or not. Jesus would die to preserve the nation, but not for the nation alone, but for a greater purpose to reach the children of God, which could include dispersed Jews, but also Gentiles.
“He (Caiaphas) did not say this on his own, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus was about to die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but to gather into one the dispersed children of God.” (11:51).

The decision of the Sanhedrin was to put Jesus to death (11:53). They wanted to get rid of Jesus, as he was too much of a threat to them. The raising of Lazarus marked a turning point, which would lead to the climax of the ministry of Jesus, the cross and resurrection.

From this time on, Jesus hid away from the public eye, staying in the town of Ephraim with his disciples (11:54).

It was the time of Passover (12:1), when the Jews remembered and reenacted the Exodus from Egypt (Ex 12). They remembered that the Israelites killed a lamb and spread the blood on their doorpost, so they were literally saved by the blood of the lamb when the angel of death passed over. Jesus was staying in the house of Mary, Martha and Lazarus in Bethany, where Mary anointed Jesus (12:2-8).

When it was discovered that Jesus was staying in Bethany, a great crowd of Jews gathered, partly to see Jesus, but particularly to see Lazarus. No one had ever seen a dead man alive before, so this was a great sensation, and the major news event of the year.
“When the great crowd of the Jews learned that he was there (in Bethany), they came not only because of Jesus but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead." (12:9)

The popularity of Jesus was a great threat to the priests, who were mostly Sadducees. These had great power and wealth and dominated Jerusalem, the temple, and the leadership of the nation. They had willingly submitted to Roman rule, compromising with them to keep their power and wealth. Jesus was a threat to them in several ways.

Firstly Jesus was a political threat. As Jesus’ fame spread after raising Lazarus, they were losing their support-base. Many Jews were deserting them and believing in Jesus (12:10). As noted before, they also feared a popular uprising, seeing Jesus as a potential leader of a rebellion against Roman rule.

Secondly Jesus was a theological threat. Lazarus was living proof that their theology was wrong. Sadducees did not believe in a future resurrection, rejecting any idea of life after death (Mark 12:18).

Lazarus alive was strong evidence for the power of Jesus. It was impossible for the people to forget the sign that he had done in raising him from the dead. Lazarus was living proof that Jesus really was the resurrection and the life (Jn 11:25). Because of this, the chief priests tried to remove the evidence by killing Lazarus as well (12:10). For the chief priests and Sadducees their self-interest was more important than the truth. They were determined to destroy the evidence and suppress the truth in order to keep their social, religious and political position.

The Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem (12:12)

John notes that it was the following day that a great crowd gathered. They were in Jerusalem to attend the Passover festival, but had heard that Jesus was about to enter the city. Attendance at the Passover was required for all adult Jews (Deut 16:16). It was normal for huge numbers of Jews from many nations to travel to Jerusalem for the festivals (Acts 2:5-10). One later estimate was that there were 2.7 million Jews in Jerusalem for the Passover.

The palm branches (12:13)

The branches of palm trees are only mentioned in John’s account, and from this the day of the triumphal entry is remembered each year on Palm Sunday. God had commanded that the waving of palm branches was part of the celebration of the Feast of Tabernacles celebrated each Autumn. Branches of palms were waved so the people can rejoice before the Lord.
“On the first day you shall take the fruit of majestic trees, branches of palm trees, boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook; and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God for seven days”. (Lev 23:40).

Branches of palm leaves later became symbols of victory and kingship. During the inter-testamental period, in the year 164 BC, the Jews won a great victory over the Greek forces of Antiochus IV Epiphanes. This was the Syrian king who had abolished Judaism, killed Jews and even sacrificed a pig on the altar of the temple, making God’s temple unclean. As part of the celebrations,
“the Jews entered it (the city) with praise and palm branches, and with harps and cymbals and stringed instruments, and with hymns and songs because a great enemy had been crushed and removed from Israel.” (1 Macc 13:51).

The brothers Maccabees who had led the rebellion against Antiochus were great heroes who had regained freedom for Israel, and cleansed the temple. This victory continued to be celebrated each year in the festival of Hannukah, as the people remembered the overthrow of Antiochus.
“Therefore, carrying ivy-wreathed wands and beautiful branches and also fronds of palm, they offered thanksgiving to him who had given success to the purifying of his own holy place.” (2 Macc 10:7).

Following this victory, palm branches became a national symbol of Israel and of Israel’s freedom achieved through God’s intervention. The waving of palm branches was a sign of national liberation.

This was the significance of waving of the palm branches during the triumphal entry. They were a sign used by the people to welcome Jesus into the city as their king. Jesus was being welcomed as a national conquering hero, with the expectation that, just as the Maccabees had defeated the forces of Syria, Jesus will overthrow the Roman Empire and give Israel back its freedom.

The greeting (12:13)

As Jesus entered, the people shouted a greeting quoting from Psalm 118.
“Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord - the king of Israel” (12:11).
This was the standard blessing given to people arriving in Jerusalem for the Passover. However there was much more meaning than this. They were praising the king of Israel, and recognising Jesus as the true king of Israel.
“Save us, we beseech you (Hosanna), O Lord! O Lord we beseech you, give us success. Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the LORD. We bless you from the house of the LORD”. (Ps 118:25-26).

The word ‘Hosanna’ is a prayer for salvation, which literally means ‘Save now’ or ‘Give salvation now’. However in common usage, the literal meaning has mostly been lost.

The donkey (12:14-15)

The account in each of the gospels describes that Jesus rode into Jerusalem sitting on a donkey’s colt.
“Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it; as it is written, ‘Do not be afraid, daughter of Zion. Look, your king is coming sitting on a donkey’s colt!’” (12:14-15)

Riding on a donkey was a deliberate fulfilment of prophecy, as well as a way to correct the crowd’s false expectations about the nature of the Messiah. Jesus was king of Israel, but what sort of king?

John gives a quotation from the prophet Zechariah,
“Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey on a colt, the foal of a donkey. He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war-horse from Jerusalem and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations his dominion shall be from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth.” (Zech 9:9-10).

If Jesus had arrived riding a horse that would indicate that he was a king coming to declare war. This would probably have triggered a violent uprising against the Romans. By arriving on a donkey, he demonstrated that he was coming as a prince of peace. He was making a claim to be the Messiah, coming in fulfilment of prophecy, but not as the military Messiah of the popular expectation.

John’s comment (12:16)

The response of the disciples is described through one of John’s comments. They did not understand the real significance of his action at the time, but later, following his glorification through death on the cross, they remembered his actions and understood. This is an example of the work of the Holy Spirit, or Paraclete, who Jesus promised was coming. The Spirit will remind them of the words of Jesus (14:26) and will guide them into all truth (16:13).

The response of the crowd (12:17-18)

The crowd who had witnessed the raising of Lazarus and those who had heard about Lazarus gave a positive response, but came to the wrong conclusions. As noted before, they thought that the raising of Lazarus was a sign of the imminent deliverance from Roman occupation.

The response of the Pharisees (12:19)

The Pharisees who had previously tried to arrest Jesus (11:57) now seem to be helpless and powerless. They had wanted people to let them know where Jesus was hiding. However, their plan was not working, Jesus was far too popular with the crowds to risk the riot that would occur if they arrested him publicly.

Their statement is quite ironic,
“The Pharisees then said to one another, ‘You see, you can do nothing. Look, the world as gone after him.”.
Jesus had come into the world (3:16), now his enemies were complaining that the whole world was following him.

The irony of the Gospel is that the cross, which looked like the final defeat of Jesus, was actually a victory, and was the way that God had planned to bring salvation to the world. Throughout all the trials that followed, Jesus remained in control all the time. He allowed his enemies to take him and take him through an unjust travesty of a trial and to crucify him. Ultimately he gave up his life voluntarily so we could have life in all its fullness (10:10).

The Bible

Pages which look at issues relevant to the whole Bible, such as the Canon of Scripture, as well as doctrinal and theological issues. There are also pages about the Apocrypha, Pseudepigrapha and 'lost books' of the Old Testament.

Also included are lists of the quotations of the OT in the NT, and passages of the OT quoted in the NT.

Why These 66 Books?
Books in the Hebrew Scriptures
Quotations in NT From OT
OT Passages Quoted in NT
History of the English Bible
Twelve Books of the Apocrypha
The Pseudepigrapha - False Writings
Lost Books Referenced in OT

Old Testament Overview

This is a series of six pages which give a historical overview through the Old Testament and the inter-testamental period, showing where each OT book fits into the history of Israel.

OT 1: Creation and Patriarchs
OT 2: Exodus and Wilderness
OT 3: Conquest and Monarchy
OT 4: Divided kingdom and Exile
OT 5: Return from Exile
OT 6: 400 Silent Years

New Testament Overview

This is a series of five pages which give a historical overview through the New Testament, focusing on the Ministry of Jesus, Paul's missionary journeys, and the later first century. Again, it shows where each book of the NT fits into the history of the first century.

NT 1: Life and Ministry of Jesus
NT 2: Birth of the Church
NT 3: Paul's Missionary Journeys
NT 4: Paul's Imprisonment
NT 5: John and Later NT

Introductions to Old Testament Books

This is an almost complete collection of introductions to each of the books in the Old Testament. Each contains information about the authorship, date, historical setting and main themes of the book.

Genesis Exodus Leviticus
Numbers Deuteronomy

Joshua Judges Ruth
1 & 2 Samuel 1 & 2 Kings Chronicles
Ezra & Nehemiah Esther

Job Psalms Proverbs

Isaiah Jeremiah Lamentations
Ezekiel Daniel

Hosea Joel Amos
Obadiah Jonah Micah
Nahum Habakkuk Zephaniah
Haggai Zechariah Malachi

Introductions to New Testament Books

This is a collection of introductions to each of the 27 books in the New Testament. Each contains information about the authorship, date, historical setting and main themes of the book.

Matthew's Gospel Mark's Gospel Luke's Gospel
John's Gospel

Book of Acts

Romans 1 Corinthians 2 Corinthians
Galatians Ephesians Philippians
Colossians 1 & 2 Thessalonians 1 Timothy
2 Timothy Titus Philemon

Hebrews James 1 Peter
2 Peter 1 John 2 & 3 John


Old Testament History

Information about the different nations surrounding Israel, and other articles concerning Old Testament history and the inter-testamental period.

Canaanite Religion
Israel's Enemies During the Conquest
Syria / Aram
The Assyrian Empire
Babylon and its History
The Persian Empire
The Greek Empire
The 400 Silent Years
The Ptolemies and Seleucids
Antiochus IV - Epiphanes

Old Testament Studies

A series of articles covering more general topics for OT studies. These include a list of the people named in the OT and confirmed by archaeology. There are also pages to convert the different units of measure in the OT, such as the talent, cubit and ephah into modern units.

More theological topics include warfare in the ancient world, the Holy Spirit in the OT, and types of Jesus in the OT.

OT People Confirmed by Archaeology
The Jewish Calendar
The Importance of Paradox
Talent Converter (weights)
Cubit Converter (lengths)
OT People Search
Ephah Converter (volumes)
Holy War in the Ancient World
The Holy Spirit in the OT
Types of Jesus in the OT

Studies in the Pentateuch (Gen - Deut)

A series of articles covering studies in the five books of Moses. Studies in the Book of Genesis look at the historical nature of the early chapters of Genesis, the Tower of Babel and the Table of the Nations.

There are also pages about covenants, the sacrifices and offerings, the Jewish festivals and the tabernacle, as well as the issue of tithing.

Are chapters 1-11 of Genesis historical?
Chronology of the Flood
Genealogies of the Patriarchs
Table of the Nations (Gen 10)
Tower of Babel (Gen 11:1-9)

Authorship of the Pentateuch
Chronology of the Wilderness Years
Names of God in the OT
Covenants in the OT
The Ten Commandments
The Tabernacle and its Theology
Sacrifices and Offerings
The Jewish Festivals
Balaam and Balak
Highlights from Deuteronomy
Overview of Deuteronomy

Studies in the Old Testament History Books (Josh - Esther)

Articles containing studies and helpful information for the history books. These include a list of the dates of the kings of Israel and Judah, a summary of the kings of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, and studies of Solomon, Jeroboam and Josiah.

There are also pages describing some of the historical events of the period, including the Syro-Ephraimite War, and the Assyrian invasion of Judah in 701 BC.

Dates of the Kings of Judah and Israel
King Solomon
The Kings of Israel
King Jeroboam I of Israel
The Syro-Ephraimite War (735 BC)
Sennacherib's Invasion of Judah (701 BC)
King Josiah of Judah
Differences Between Kings and Chronicles
Chronology of the post-exilic period

Studies in the Old Testament Prophets (Is - Mal)

Articles containing studies and helpful information for the OT prophets. These include a page looking at the way the prophets look ahead into their future, a page looking at the question of whether Satan is a fallen angel, and a page studying the seventy weeks of Daniel.

There are also a series of pages giving a commentary through the text of two of the books:
Isaiah (13 pages) and Daniel (10 pages).

Prophets and the Future
The Call of Jeremiah (Jer 1)
The Fall of Satan? (Is 14, Ezek 28)
Daniel Commentary (10 pages)
Isaiah Commentary (13 pages)
Formation of the Book of Jeremiah

Daniel's Seventy Weeks (Dan 9:24-27)

New Testament Studies

A series of articles covering more general topics for NT studies. These include a list of the people in the NT confirmed by archaeology.

More theological topics include the Kingdom of God and the Coming of Christ.

NT People Confirmed by Archaeology
The Kingdom of God / Heaven
Parousia (Coming of Christ)
The Importance of Paradox

Studies in the Four Gospels (Matt - John)

A series of articles covering various studies in the four gospels. These include a list of the unique passages in each of the Synoptic Gospels and helpful information about the parables and how to interpret them.

Some articles look at the life and ministry of Jesus, including his genealogy, birth narratives, transfiguration, the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, and the seating arrangements at the Last Supper.

More theological topics include the teaching about the Holy Spirit as the Paraclete and whether John the Baptist fulfilled the predictions of the coming of Elijah.

Unique Passages in the Synoptic Gospels
The SynopticProblem
Genealogy of Jesus (Matt 1)
Birth Narratives of Jesus
Understanding the Parables
Peter's Confession and the Transfiguration
Was John the Baptist Elijah?
The Triumphal Entry
The Olivet Discourse (Mark 13)
Important themes in John's Gospel
John's Gospel Prologue (John 1)
Jesus Fulfilling Jewish Festivals
Reclining at Table at the Last Supper
The Holy Spirit as the Paraclete

Studies in the Book of Acts and the New Testament Letters

A series of articles covering various studies in the Book of Acts and the Letters, including Paul's letters. These include a page studying the messages given by the apostles in the Book of Acts, and the information about the financial collection that Paul made during his third missionary journey. More theological topics include Paul's teaching on Jesus as the last Adam, and descriptions of the church such as the body of Christ and the temple, as well as a look at redemption and the issue of fallen angels.

There are a series of pages giving a commentary through the text of five of the books:
Romans (7 pages), 1 Corinthians (7 pages), Galatians (3 pages), Philemon (1 page) and Hebrews (7 pages)

Apostolic Messages in the Book of Acts
Paul and His Apostleship
Collection for the Saints
The Church Described as a Temple
Church as the Body of Christ
Jesus as the Last Adam
Food Offered to Idols
Paul's Teaching on Headcoverings
Who are the Fallen Angels
The Meaning of Redemption
What is the Church?
Paul and the Greek Games

Romans Commentary (7 pages)

1 Corinthians Commentary (7 pages)

Galatians Commentary (3 pages)

Philemon Commentary (1 page)

Hebrews Commentary (7 pages)

Studies in the Book of Revelation

Articles containing studies and helpful information for the study of the Book of Revelation and topics concerning Eschatology (the study of end-times).

These include a description of the structure of the book, a comparison and contrast between the good and evil characters in the book and a list of the many allusions to the OT. For the seven churches, there is a page which gives links to their location on Google maps.

There is a page studying the important theme of Jesus as the Lamb, which forms the central theological truth of the book. There are pages looking at the major views of the Millennium, as well as the rapture and tribulation, as well as a list of dates of the second coming that have been mistakenly predicted through history.

There is also a series of ten pages giving a detailed commentry through the text of the Book of Revelation.

Introduction to the Book of Revelation
Characters Introduced in the Book
Structure of Revelation
List of Allusions to OT
The Description of Jesus as the Lamb
Virtual Seven Churches of Revelation
The Nero Redivius Myth
The Millennium (1000 years)
The Rapture and the Tribulation
Different Approaches to Revelation
Predicted Dates of the Second Coming

Revelation Commentary (10 pages)

How to do Inductive Bible Study

These are a series of pages giving practical help showing how to study the Bible inductively, by asking a series of simple questions. There are lists of observation and interpretation questions, as well as information about the structure and historical background of biblical books, as well as a list of the different types of figures of speech used in the Bible. There is also a page giving helpful tips on how to apply the Scriptures personally.

How to Study the Bible Inductively
I. The Inductive Study Method
II. Observation Questions
III. Interpretation Questions
IV. Structure of Books
V. Determining the Historical background
VI. Identifying Figures of Speech
VII. Personal Application
VIII. Text Layout

Types of Literature in the Bible

These are a series of pages giving practical help showing how to study each of the different types of book in the Bible by appreciating the type of literature being used. These include historical narrative, law, wisdom, prophets, Gospels, Acts, letters and Revelation.

It is most important that when reading the Bible we are taking note of the type of literature we are reading. Each type needs to be considered and interpreted differently as they have different purposes.

How to Understand OT Narratives
How to Understand OT Law
Hebrew Poetry
OT Wisdom Literature
Understanding the OT Prophets
The Four Gospels
The Parables of Jesus
The Book of Acts
How to Understand the NT Letters
Studying End Times (Eschatology)
The Book of Revelation

Geography and Archaeology

These are a series of pages giving geographical and archaeological information relevant to the study of the Bible. There is a page where you can search for a particular geographical location and locate it on Google maps, as well as viewing photographs on other sites.

There are also pages with photographs from Ephesus and Corinth.

Search for Geographical Locations
Major Archaeological Sites in Israel
Archaeological Sites in Assyria, Babylon and Persia
Virtual Paul's Missionary Journeys
Virtual Seven Churches of Revelation
Photos of the City of Corinth
Photos of the City of Ephesus

Biblical Archaeology in Museums around the world

A page with a facility to search for artifacts held in museums around the world which have a connection with the Bible. These give information about each artifact, as well as links to the museum's collection website where available showing high resolution photographs of the artifact.

There is also page of photographs from the Israel Museum in Jerusalem of important artifacts.

Search Museums for Biblical Archaeology
Israel Museum Photos

Difficult Theological and Ethical Questions

These are a series of pages looking at some of the more difficult questions of Christian theology, including war, suffering, disappointment and what happens to those who have never heard the Gospel.

Christian Ethics
Never Heard the Gospel
Is there Ever a Just War?
Why Does God Allow Suffering
Handling Disappointment

How to Preach

These are a series of pages giving a practical step-by-step explanation of the process of preparing a message for preaching, and how to lead a small group Bible study.

What is Preaching?
I. Two Approaches to Preaching
II. Study a Passage for Preaching
III. Creating a Message Outline
IV. Making Preaching Relevant
V. Presentation and Public Speaking
VI. Preaching Feedback and Critique
Leading a Small Group Bible Study

Information for SBS staff members

Two pages particularly relevant for people serving as staff on the School of Biblical Studies (SBS) in YWAM. One gives helpful instruction about how to prepare to teach on a book in the SBS. The other gives a list of recommended topics which can be taught about for each book of the Bible.

Teaching on SBS Book Topics for SBS