On Sunday Christians around the world will celebrate Palm Sunday. Most people know this primarily as a day when students in the primary children’s department carry palm branches to the front of the sanctuary, which kicks off Holy Week.
But what does Palm Sunday mean?
Biblically, the story of Palm Sunday is found in all four Gospels, and was predicted in the Old Testament book of Zechariah. In these accounts, Jesus rode into the city of Jerusalem on a donkey’s colt. People ran ahead of him, laying down palm branches and shouting “Hosanna! Blessed is the king of Israel.” In those days, a palm branch signified victory and a king on a donkey symbolized peace.
This was an important event for the people of Israel at the time. Israel didn’t have a king, and hadn’t had a real one in about 600 years. But they really, really wanted one.
They had been living under various foreign rulers for centuries, and currently were under the jurisdiction of Rome and the Caesars (at that time Tiberius). But the people knew the Old Testament stories of the glorious kingdoms of David and Solomon, when Israel was one of the world’s superpowers. They longed to return to those days.
When Jesus came speaking with authority and performing miracles, all the while speaking of the Kingdom of God, it was a natural assumption by the people that he would depose Rome and restore the kingdom of Israel, with himself as the ruler.
But as the week following Palm Sunday went on, Jesus didn’t plot a coup and didn’t take on the Roman government. Instead, he continued to speak against the religious leaders and tell stories that many didn’t understand. When Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples, agreed to betray him, the religious leaders were able to turn the majority of the crowd from shouting “Hosanna!” to “Crucify him!”
Although the people at that time misunderstood the kingship of Jesus when they made a pathway of palm branches for him, today Christians continue to celebrate Palm Sunday because it symbolizes the beginning of Jesus becoming king of world. He just did that in a far less spectacular fashion than the first century Jews thought, but in a way that continues to have a worldwide and eternal impact.