Today we celebrate Palm Sunday, which is the last Sunday before Holy Week and Easter Sunday.
Palm Sunday commemorates when Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey and the people celebrated and praised him as their long-awaited Messiah. In their act of celebration they waved palm branches along the streets while he rode into town; hence the name “Palm Sunday.”
This event is also referred to as the “Triumphal Entry” because the Jews were celebrating Jesus’ anticipated triumph over their oppressors. The Jews at this time were waiting for deliverance from Roman oppression in the likeness of deliverance from Egyptian slavery at the hand of Moses. When Jesus showed up on the scene performing miracles they were sure that this is the guy they were waiting for. After Jesus fed five-thousand people they wanted to make him their king. John 6:15–15 says:
When the people saw the sign that he had done, they said, “This is indeed the Prophet who is to come into the world!” Perceiving then that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, Jesus withdrew again to the mountain by himself.
This event in John, which also took place during the time of Passover, anticipated the triumphal entry that we read about today.
One of the prophesies associated with this coming King was that he would ride on a donkey (Zech 9:9). So, as Jesus came riding into town on a donkey precisely at the time of the celebration of Passover, they were sure he was the one and this was the time. They knew with certainty that this guys was the new Moses and he would lead them in a new exodus.
This powerful little story is packed with takeaways for us.
First, the donkey. Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey so as to mock the definition of power in the human world. Powerful kings don’t ride donkeys, they ride horses. Riding a horse was a power statement. It was a power statement because horses gave you the advantage in battle, which points to the deeper truth that “power” in the fallen human world is synonymous with military might and violence. In human kingdoms, the powerful is able to force its will on people.
In God’s Kingdom, however, the powerful don’t have to force anything. In the Kingdom Christ has power because he is obedient and his people love him. They willingly follow him. They don’t follow him because they are afraid or threatened. They follow him because he’s entirely trustworthy, fiercely loyal, and incomparably loving.
Napoleon said of Jesus, “Alexander, Caesar, Charlemagne, and I have founded empires. But on what did we rest the creations of our genius? Upon force. Jesus Christ founded his empire upon love; and at this hour millions of men would die for him.”
This is the essence of Psalm 2, which says,:
Why do the nations conspire and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth rise up and the rulers band together against the LORD and against his anointed, saying, “Let us break their chains and throw off their shackles.” The One enthroned in heaven laughs; the Lord scoffs at them. He rebukes them in his anger and terrifies them in his wrath, saying, “I have installed my king on Zion, my holy mountain.” I will proclaim the LORD’s decree: He said to me, “You are my son; today I have become your father. Ask me, and I will make the nations your inheritance, the ends of the earth your possession. You will break them with a rod of iron; you will dash them to pieces like pottery.” Therefore, you kings, be wise; be warned, you rulers of the earth. Serve the LORD with fear and celebrate his rule with trembling. Kiss his son, or he will be angry and your way will lead to your destruction, for his wrath can flare up in a moment. Blessed are all who take refuge in him.
Following the example of Jesus, let us be reminded that power in the Kingdom is weakness. It’s rooted in love, faithfulness, integrity, and ultimately obedience. Are you facing an impossible scenario? Don’t force yourself on it. Don’t kick down the door on it. Just obey and God will make a way. Be meek, poor in spirit, gentle, king, and have a pure heart and the Kingdom will be yours.
Second, the palm leaves. For the Jews to wave palm branches to welcome their king was a sign of rebellion against Rome. This was a public sign of allegiance to Jesus over Caesar. This was a huge risk for these people. They could have been indicted as rebels for doing this.
The consequence for starting a rebellion in Rome was—as we know because of the cross—a painful, public death. Rome had a zero tolerance policy for rebellion. The policy of the day was “Pax Romana” which means “Peace of Rome.” What this means is that if you don’t conform to the rule of Rome then it will be forced upon you. A paraphrase for Pax Romana is “get with the program or die.”
The takeaway here is that as Christians we are part of a rebellion against the forces at work in the world today. Being a Christian means being courageously counter-cultural in the image of Jesus. When the world says to do and say one thing, we must do and say something different.
In the end, Jesus was a different kind of king. If Jesus is a different kind of king, then we must be a different kind of people. As we become one with Christ through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit we conform to his image. We have a call to obey at every point and the power of the Holy Spirit helps us to do just that. When the world is in fear, we can abide in an internal rest because the Holy Spirit helps us. We are different. When the world is enraged, we can be at peace because the Holy Spirit helps us. We must be different.
Finally, the people were both right and wrong about Jesus. They were right in that he was the second Moses to lead a second rebellion that would result in the founding of the Kingdom of God. The identity of the enemy is what they were wrong about. They thought Rome was the problem. This was no the case. The problem, the enemy, is sin. Yes, Jesus delivered them from slavery, but it was slavery from sin.
In the Triumphal Entry, we celebrate Jesus’s his triumph over the power of sin.
This Palm Sunday, be reminded that Jesus is a different kind of king and we too must be a different kind of people. We don’t serve the powers and principalities of this world, we serve King Jesus.