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Palm Sunday

What is the confusion of Palm Sunday?

On Palm Sunday, after Jesus appeared outside Jerusalem riding on a donkey to fulfil the messianic prophecy in Zechariah 9:9, it was telling that “at first his disciples did not understand all this. Only after Jesus was glorified did they realize that these things had been written about him and that they had done these things to him” (John 12:16).

There is further evidence as to how wrong they were in their expectations on Palm Sunday.

“Many people spread their cloaks on the road, while others spread branches they had cut in the fields. Those who went ahead and those who followed shouted, “Hosanna!’”

“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David!” “Hosanna in the highest!” (Mark 11:8-10)

If this passage was shown to a present day religious Jew, one question would be on his lips. “This happened in Passover season, are you sure?” This curious reaction is because so much about this episode screams “Feast of Tabernacles”, the feast of Israel that wasn’t to occur for another six months or so.

Firstly the words spoken. They are from Psalm 118, one of the great Psalms looking forwards to the Messiah.

“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the LORD.” (Psalm 118:26)

Secondly, their actions. They spread branches before him. From a combined reading of all Gospel accounts, it is notable that the very branches themselves echoed what happened at the Feast of Tabernacles.

So why would they do this? Because the Feast of Tabernacles was the feast most associated with the coming of the Messiah. There is a clear reference to this in Zechariah.

Then the survivors from all the nations that have attacked Jerusalem will go up year after year to worship the King, the LORD Almighty, and to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles. If any of the peoples of the earth do not go up to Jerusalem to worship the King, the LORD Almighty, they will have no rain.” (Zechariah 14:16-17) 

This was the Messiah they were expecting, the one who will rule the nations from Jerusalem. This is why they were laying the branches and chanted the Messianic psalm. They thought that this time had come, albeit six months too early! Their King had come, or so they thought. A few days later Jesus was dead and many fell away as a result of their mistaken expectations. Yet, between Palm Sunday and the Crucifixion, Jesus had spoken very publicly about this, declaring to the Jewish religious establishment,

“For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’’” (Matthew 23:39)

This is the very same Messianic Psalm chanted on Palm Sunday, so they were fully aware of its significance. He was telling them, most clearly and unambiguously, the following:

“I’ll be back!”

We have the benefit of hindsight (and 2000 years of scholarship), the Jews living at the time of Jesus just had their five senses. So they didn’t really get it until afterwards. It doesn’t mean that they were particularly thick or ignorant, in fact their knowledge of their own Scriptures would put us to shame. They had the knowledge, just not the application. Jesus came as a most unexpected Messiah and, so fixed were their ideas as to how the Messiah should have acted, further explanations were needed.

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