Palm Sunday's Window
By Marc Turnage
April 17, 2011
Palm Sunday begins Holy Week for millions of Christians around the world, a time when Christians’ attention focuses on Jesus’ last days, His crucifixion, and triumphant resurrection. It serves as the prelude to the redemptive events that changed human history.
Many Christians view Palm Sunday from “this side” of the Cross and interpret it through the lens of 2,000 years of Christian tradition. However, when read within its historical and cultural context, the events of Palm Sunday provide an important window into the faith of Jesus, His world and the days leading up to His crucifixion and resurrection.
Although Jesus knew His final journey to Jerusalem would lead to the Cross (Luke 13:31-33), it was the pilgrimage festival of Passover that brought Him to the city.
God commanded Moses, “Three times a year all your males shall appear before the Lord your God in the place which He chooses: at the Feast of Unleavened Bread [Passover], at the Feast of Weeks [Pentecost], and at the Feast of Tabernacles [Sukkot]; and they shall not appear before the Lord empty-handed” (Deuteronomy 16:16, NKJV; see also Exodus 23:17 and 34:23).
Jesus grew up in a family that annually made the Passover pilgrimage to Jerusalem: “His parents went to Jerusalem every year at the Feast of the Passover” (Luke 2:41).
In the first century, the dispersion of the Jewish people throughout the world made it impractical for many to travel to Jerusalem and the temple three times a year. The biblical command was interpreted in the Mishnah to mean that whenever one made a pilgrimage to the temple in Jerusalem he was not to appear without an “appearance” offering, i.e., empty-handed.
For someone living outside of Jerusalem in the first century, pilgrimage was very expensive and time-consuming. Therefore, the commandment of pilgrimage was considered “a command which has no limit” meaning “a positive action to be encouraged but not demanded.” For this reason, a person may observe it only every few years or only once in his lifetime. Joseph and Mary’s annual Passover pilgrimage — a practice apparently continued by Jesus as an adult — underscores their exceptional devotion and piety.
During the festivals, Jewish pilgrims streamed into Jerusalem from the surrounding country, Judea, Galilee, and outside the land of Israel. The population of Jerusalem — probably between 30,000-50,000 people — could triple.
Religious and political sentiments ran high during the pilgrim festivals. Each of the three pilgrim festivals connected with the exodus from Egypt and God’s covenant with Israel. Passover especially recalled God’s deliverance of the Children of Israel from slavery and oppression.
In the first century, the Roman Empire ruled the land of Israel and its Jewish inhabitants. The Jewish historian Josephus notes when the Jews recalled God’s redemption at these festivals that riots routinely broke out against the Roman government because of heightened religious and political emotions. In order to maintain a show of imperial power, the Roman Prefect Pontius Pilate, who usually lived in the coastal city of Caesarea, came to Jerusalem for Passover.
Pilgrims traveling from Galilee to Jerusalem journeyed via three routes. The first route, which we have no mention of Jesus ever following, led from the western Jezreel Valley through the foothills of Mount Ephraim to Antipatris (see Acts 23:31), ascending the Beth-Horon ridge to Jerusalem.
The second, and shorter route, taking only three days, passed through the central hill country along the watershed route. Not only was this route the shortest, it eliminated the climbs and descents of the other routes, and it passed through populated areas supplied with water. However, it traveled through the land of the Samaritans (John 4:4-6), which at times led to violent conflicts between the Jewish pilgrims and the Samaritan population.
Jesus used a third route on His final journey to Jerusalem, passing between Galilee and Samaria (Luke 17:11) via the Beth-Shean (Scythopolis) Valley across the Jordan River into the Transjordanian region of Perea south toward Jericho. From Jericho (Matthew 20:29; Mark 10:46; Luke 19:1), pilgrims on this route ascended to Jerusalem near the biblical Ascent of Adummim (Joshua 15:7) until they crested the Mount of Olives (Luke 19:29) and saw the Holy City, Jerusalem.
As Jesus approached the eastern slopes of the Mount of Olives, He came to Bethany, the home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus (John 11:1), and Bethphage, which marked the outer limits of the city of Jerusalem. He sent two disciples to retrieve a donkey that He mounted and rode into Jerusalem. As He entered the city, the crowds greeted Him with “Hosanna!” and a verse from Psalm 118: “Blessed is he who enters in the name of the Lord!” (118:26).
On pilgrimage festivals the words of this psalm were sung and used to greet pilgrims as they arrived in Jerusalem: “The people of Jerusalem used to say: ‘Save us O Lord! (Hosanna!),’ and the pilgrims replied: ‘So be it Lord!’ The people of Jerusalem used to say: ‘Blessed is he who comes in his name!’ And the pilgrims responded: ‘We bless you from the house of the Lord’” (Midrash on Psalm 118).
With Jesus’ arrival, the crowds laid their garments in His path showing honor to the prophet from Galilee (Matthew 21:8-11). John’s Gospel records that the crowds welcomed Jesus with palm branches (12:13), a sign of rejoicing also noted in such historical sources as 1 and 2 Maccabees.
While modern pilgrims to Jerusalem walk a “traditional” Palm Sunday processional route, the historic route Jesus took into the city is unknown. Most certainly He did not follow the modern pilgrim route since the modern path crosses a first-century cemetery that would have rendered Jesus ritually impure and kept Him from entering the temple.
Points of Decision
Most Christians have heard at least one sermon stating, “The crowds that cried, ‘Hosanna’ on Palm Sunday cried, ‘Crucify’ on Good Friday.” But there is evidence in the Gospel narratives that Jesus’ death was primarily incited by Jerusalem’s religious leaders. Many of the common people would be receptive to His teaching in the temple during Passion Week and would mourn His arrest and crucifixion.
Jesus’ actions during His last week in Jerusalem were intentionally directed against the chief priests, their scribes and the Sadducean leaders (Luke 19:46,47; 20:1-40). His popularity with the masses protected Him against the chief priests, who sought to destroy Him (Luke 19:47,48; 20:19; 22:2). According to the Book of Acts, this same group opposed and persecuted the disciples in Jerusalem (Acts 4:1-7). Yet the disciples of Jesus, like their Master, were popular with the people of Jerusalem.
Eventually when the chief priests and the officers of the temple (Luke 22:52) came to arrest Jesus, they had to do so under the cloak of darkness. Jesus pointed this out to them: “When I was with you daily in the temple, you did not try to seize Me” (Luke 22:53).
The obvious reason they could not arrest Jesus when He was in the temple was due to His popularity with the crowds and the chief priests’ fear of the masses. In Luke, upon seeing the Romans brutalize Jesus, the crowds mourned what happened to Him (23:27,48). Those who stood before Pilate condemning Jesus were primarily the chief priests and members of the Sadducees, who used darkness and hid behind the doors of power to cover their clandestine activities with the butcher Pilate.
While Palm Sunday served as a prelude to the momentous events of Jesus’ last week, it provides a window into the life and faith of Jesus. Over the centuries this window has been clouded, and at time Christians have used Palm Sunday to separate Jesus and the Jewish people. Yet, when read against its historical and cultural backdrop, Palm Sunday offers a remarkable story of pious devotion and submission to the will of God.
Palm Sunday confronts us with the living Messiah who faithfully followed His Father’s laws. In those tumultuous days of Jerusalem’s feast, the soon-to-be condemned Savior elicited both worthy praise from the humblest classes and the hatred of those who clung to their own self-importance.
Even today, He draws the same reactions. Each of us must make the ultimate choice of where we stand in regard to the One who entered Jerusalem on a donkey with a mission to save the world.
MARC TURNAGE directs the Assemblies of God Center for Holy Lands Studies.
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