Jesus shows us the importance and symbolism of Palm Sunday


Palm Branches vs. A Donkey: Why Is Palm Sunday Important?

Caleb Mathis

14 mins

Palm Sunday isn’t just a date on the calendar.

It’s a masterpiece of living art—and like every masterpiece, no detail is insignificant. From Beethoven to Basquiat, Hitchcock to Hemingway, artists are masters of choice, and they prove that every choice matters.

That’s no less true for Jesus.

Although He never painted on canvas or produced an indie film, his life was a masterwork. Every miracle, sermon, and teaching parable deliberately communicated something—and that’s especially true as He enters the last week of his life.

We call it Holy Week now, but for Jesus, it sounded like a ticking clock. Time was running very short, so like any master artist facing a deadline, His power of choice went into overdrive.

In His final days, everything Jesus says and does is steeped in meaning. It’s just that, 2,000 years later, that meaning isn’t always obvious to us. In fact, it can feel downright confusing.

Just five days before His excruciating (and very public) execution, Jesus enters the capital city of Jerusalem like a rock star. Kids are singing songs about Him. Adults are openly talking about prophecies fulfilled. As He rides by on a donkey, people are cutting the branches off trees and waving them like flags; others take off their outer garments and put them on the road for Jesus’ caravan to cross over.

This Palm Branch Parade, known to Bibley-types as The Triumphal Entry, is a keystone event in the life of Jesus and marks the beginning of Holy Week. Everything else that happens that week—Jesus tossing tables in the temple, Judas’ kiss in the garden, his agony on the cross, and more—starts here. Without understanding this, a layer of meaning is lost from everything else still to come.

Jesus’ grand entrance into Jerusalem is recorded in each of the four biblical accounts of his life—the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. If you’ve never read it before or just feel fuzzy on the details, check it out before you read on. I promise I’ll be here when you get back. You can find it in Matthew 21, Mark 11, Luke 19, or John 12. The big buckets in each account are essentially the same, so choose your own adventure.

Like an iconic scene from your favorite movie, let’s break this down into four components: the setting, the action, the props, and the conflict.

Why is Palm Sunday important? Let’s check the tape.

Ready? Sweet.


How many movies are set in New York City at Christmas time? There’s a reason for that.

The energy and magic of The City That Never Sleeps gets cranked to 11 when the string lights come out. It’s really unlike any other place in the world. In a way, that was the city of Jerusalem at Passover.

Also known as “the Holy City,” Jerusalem had been the epicenter of God’s involvement with humanity for 1,000 years before Jesus came party crashing on his pack animal. The legendary King David had established it (2 Samuel 5:6-9), and his son, Solomon, had constructed God’s first brick-and-mortar temple within its walls (1 Kings 6).

Much more than just a place on a map, Jerusalem represented the physical fulfillment of God’s promises and presence to his people. This was especially true at Passover.

1,500 years before Jesus, God dramatically rescued his people from four generations of slavery in Egypt. You might know the story—it involved plagues, the parting of the Red Sea, and Charlton Heston. Passover was a yearly celebration of this rescue and one of the Jewish calendar’s most important holidays. As one of three yearly Pilgrimage Festivals, ancient Jews marked the holiday by returning to Jerusalem for a week-long celebration that included a traditional meal (a Seder), a retelling of the Exodus story, and the sacrifice of a Passover lamb at the temple.

In Jesus’ final week before his death, Passover fell on a Thursday. Because space in Jerusalem was limited, celebrants often arrived early to make preparations—so when He rode into town on the Sunday before, the place was already buzzing. The story of the Exodus from Egypt would have been on all the people’s minds (and mouths).

God had rescued his people from a world power before, and the pilgrims wondered when He’d do it again. This time, instead of Egypt, the big baddie was Rome.

Just 60 years before Jesus, the Roman Empire had captured and annexed the Holy City. While the Jews enjoyed some level of religious freedom under the Romans, they were weighed down by heavy taxation and political division. They wanted another Moses - a messiah to free them from their pagan oppressors.

The city was buzzing for a champion. Then Jesus hit the scene.


I live in Cincinnati, so I don’t know this firsthand (yet! We still believe, Bengals! Who Dey?), but Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem feels a little bit like a we-just-won-the-Super-Bowl parade.

Except, Jesus didn’t have a ring. Or a trophy. Or any external sign of victory. All of that expectation was put on Him by the adoring crowd.

If you didn’t go and read the biblical account of Jesus’ triumphal entry as directed above (I used to be a teacher, there’s always one. Or 35.), here’s a quick version so we’re all on the same page.

After traveling around a bit, Jesus informs his followers it’s time to head back to Jerusalem, as the Passover is only four days away. Arriving at a little town along the way, Jesus sends two of his disciples ahead to get a donkey for him to ride. Whether this was a prearranged deal with the donkey’s owner or Jesus was using some I’m-God’s-Son mojo to see the future, we don’t know, and the text doesn’t specify. I’m not sure it matters—but what does is that the disciples find a young donkey, one that had never been ridden, and they bring it back to Jesus as he instructed.

Before Jesus climbs on, a few disciples toss some of their robes on the donkey’s back, and the journey begins. As Jesus gets closer and closer to Jerusalem, the city busting at the seams with worshippers and pilgrims, a crowd grows around him. Mimicking the disciples, some people start pulling off their outer robes and placing them on the road ahead of Jesus. Others cut down palm branches, wave them, or put them on the road. With every passing minute, the energy and size of the crowd are growing.

Some people start shouting an ancient Jewish song of praise: “Hosanna! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the LORD!” The book of Matthew says that by the time Jesus reached the actual city, all of Jerusalem was in an uproar about his entrance (Matthew 21:10).

With all the buzz and anticipation, who knows what will happen next? Then the story takes an unexpected turn. The book of Mark says that Jesus quietly rode through the ever-building crowd and made his way to the temple. After looking around, He noticed it was late and left for a little settlement on the outskirts of town.

If you’re feeling like that was kind of anticlimactic… well, you’d be right. The crowd’s frenzied response stands in stark contrast to Jesus’ demeanor. And that’s because what the crowd wanted and what Jesus had come to do were two drastically different things.

But to unlock what all that means, we’ll need to talk through the props.


Like masterworks of art, every detail of Jesus’ grand entrance into Jerusalem matters. When we can put ourselves in the shoes (or, I guess, maybe sandals) of the ancient Jews, this confusing scene comes into a new and astonishing light.

Let’s break down the props we find in this scene, one by one, starting with the crowd.

  • PALM BRANCHES were an ancient sign of victory…, especially a military triumph. About 150 years before Jesus, a seminal event cemented the importance of palm branches in Jewish history. A bloodthirsty Greek king, Antichious, had conquered Jerusalem and started a reign of terror. Looking to incorporate everyone into his growing Greek kingdom, he openly defied the God of Israel by stealing all the artifacts from the Temple, converting the holy altar into a shrine to Zeus, and killing anyone practicing the ancient ways of Judaism. In fear for their lives, many of God’s people capitulated to the king’s power, except for one notable family, the Maccabees, led by a young man named Judas. Affronted by such blatant defiance of the true God, Judas assembled a guerilla band of fighters that eventually retook Jerusalem and the Temple. Nicknamed “The Hammer,” Judas and his followers re-established the worship of God and, for all intents and purposes, saved the Jewish people from annihilation. The celebration of Antiochus’ death lasted eight days and became the basis for the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah. The historical book detailing Judas’ exploits says, “carrying green palm branches… [the people] paraded around, singing grateful praises” (2 Maccabees 10:7). Sound familiar?

  • “HOSANNA,” the word shouted by the crowds as Jesus passed them by, was a popular refrain in 1st-century Jewish culture. In fact, it was a word they’d, unfortunately, come to depend on. The history of God’s people is full of mountainous highs and crushing lows. Those lows often look like invading armies, conquering warriors, and exile. We already mentioned Egypt, back in the time of Moses. Then world superpower Babylon knocked on the door, pulling Israel from their homeland for 70 years. In the time period between the Old and New Testament, Jerusalem was conquered by Alexander the Great (Greek), then Ptolemy (Egypt), then Antiochus (Seleucid Empire). Eventually, the self-governing rule achieved by the Maccabees’ victory was destroyed by yet another conquering army, this time from Rome. So the Jews had grown accustomed to shouting and praying the word hosanna, which simply means, “Save us!” The crowd around Jesus directly quotes Psalm 118:25-26, an ancient song asking for God’s salvation through the hand of one who comes “in the name of the Lord.” Like the palm branches, you can probably see where this is going.

  • THE ROBES tossed on the ground at the feet of Jesus’ donkey fall right in line with the palm branches and the crowd’s shouts. This was an ancient way of signaling the heightened importance of an individual. In the stories of Israel’s ancient kings, we glimpse this practice when God chooses a man named Jehu to be the next king of Israel. Immediately upon learning this news, the men with Jehu removed their robes and placed them underneath him (2 Kings 9:13). It was a sign of respect and reverence, especially regarding a king.

All the signs (or, should I say, props) point to the crowd expecting Jesus to be their champion. The palm branches, the shouts of Hosanna, and the robes all signal a hope that Jesus, like Judas the Hammer, would overthrow the pagan rulers and reestablish Israel once again. Perhaps they were also thinking of David, their national hero. He, too, came from humble beginnings to become the most righteous king of Israel. Perhaps this rabbi, born to nobodies in the backwater town of Bethlehem, would be the same.

Jesus’ props, however, show he had something else in mind.

  • A DONKEY is not a fearsome beast. If you’re a commanding king, riding into a city you’ve just conquered, you set yourself upon a regal war horse. A donkey is simple. It’s stubborn. It’s a service animal built for work. Donkeys were the minivan of the ancient world: suitable for carrying loads, but don’t expect to impress anyone at a stoplight. And this is precisely why Jesus chose it. Anticipating the crowd’s desire to crown Him an earthly king, Jesus’ ride of choice reinforces his devotion to his mission. He came as a servant, something he explains multiple times in the gospels (Mark 10:45 for one example), and would personify a few nights later by washing the feet of his disciples. While the crowd clamored for The Hammer, Jesus knew the words of the prophet Isaiah, who’d explained that the Messiah would be a suffering servant, despised and rejected by men while bearing their punishment to make peace with God. (Seriously, go read Isaiah 53. It’s powerful. And it was written about 700 years before Jesus was born. Insert mind-blown emoji.) Jesus’ beast of burden also fulfilled another very specific prophecy, made by the prophet Zechariah some 500 years earlier. It proclaimed that Israel’s king would be “righteous and victorious, humble and riding on a donkey” (Zechariah 9:9). Hee-haw.

  • THE DISCIPLE’S ROBES, which they placed on the donkey’s back before Jesus took his little ride, seem to suggest some (or maybe all?) of them misunderstood Jesus’ mission on earth. The confusing part, of course, is that their sign of reverence was entirely appropriate. Jesus is a king—he’s just not the type of king anyone expected. This leads us to the conflict and one final question we must consider.


The swarming crowds in Jerusalem that day saw in Jesus what they wanted most—a leader, a champion, a warrior-king that could help them reclaim what was rightfully theirs.

But that’s not why Jesus came to earth. He didn’t come to reclaim political boundaries, fight physical wars, or depose foreign occupiers. Well before entering the city, He’d explained to the disciples that he would be going to Jerusalem to suffer and be killed (Matthew 16:21).

Jesus was reclaiming spiritual boundaries in a spiritual war, deposing spiritual occupiers that still fight for the hearts and souls of men.

The crowds wanted a champion. But Jesus is a servant-king.

A champion fights in your place. A servant-king fights alongside you.

A champion rescues but makes little demands. A servant-king rescues, then has the right to rule and reform.

A champion serves your purposes. A servant-king, who lays down His life for his people, is worthy of being served in return.

How many times have I made Jesus about my wants? How many times have I dressed Him up to suit my perspective? How many times have I treated Him as my champion, fighting for my desires, supporting my candidates, uplifting my way of life?

So, why is Palm Sunday important? It forces us to stare into the face of our self-absorbed presuppositions about Jesus. When I do that, I see myself in that same crowd, making Jesus into who I want him to be instead of allowing him to define himself: a king who chooses to serve, rather than exploit, his people.

The humility of the King of Heaven, riding on a donkey into the same crowd that would be shouting for his death in just a few days, knocks me off any pedestal I’ve constructed for myself.

The only response I can fathom to such an extraordinary king is to follow His example—to live as he lived and to serve him in return.

From my short-sighted expectations of who you are—Hosanna! From my self-absorbed perspectives—Hosanna! From my desire to be served, instead of serving—Hosanna!

Jesus, save us.

I don’t need a champion. I need a king.

Caleb Mathis
Meet the author

Caleb Mathis

Dad of three, husband of one, pastor at Crossroads, and at the moment would rather be reading Tolkien, watching British TV, or in a pub with a pint of Guinness.

Popular Topics