The events of the Easter period are celebrated universally by Christian churches all over the world. Palm Sunday commences Holy Week. Many believers re-enact this event, particularly the children. I recently asked my little sister who, like myself, is a veteran of such celebrations what it all meant. She admitted she hadn’t a clue. I do not blame her because neither was I taught its significance at her age. So what is Jesus’ “Triumphant Entry” all about?
If we are to understand the event we need to head back to the biblical narrative. I have stated that Jesus along with other biblical prophets often acted symbolically. Now the symbolic imagery they used was always deeply rooted in the story of the Jewish people contained in the scriptures. The Bible is a Jewish book and we need to interpret events in the light of the people of God.
Now we have indicated the interpretative grid for what the Messiah did, I need to stress the importance of the event itself. In all the gospels accounts it is mentioned. Even John, who takes a different approach to the Synoptics, mentions this event. Now each gospel is different. I will focus on Matthew’s account because of its narrative and also for the sake of brevity. We cannot analyse all the accounts!
Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. I will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall speak peace to the nations; his rule shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth. As for you also, because of the blood of my covenant with you, I will set your prisoners free from the waterless pit. Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope; today I declare that I will restore to you double. – Zechariah 9:9-12 ESV
In Matthew 21:5 the author comments that Jesus’ choice of the donkey was in fulfilment of Zechariah 9:9. Fulfilment of prophecy in Matthew is far more complex than simulating things written in the Old Testament. So what was Jesus trying to communicate? The line about the Messiah, King of Israel, riding on a donkey, harks back to Solomon. In 1 Kings 1:32-34 the heir of David rides on a donkey in his coronation. Apparently, in the ancient Near East the donkey was used by emissaries of peace. This is contrary to our picture of Jesus entry as triumphant. The animal that was used for that was a horse, the principal animal of war, which is evident in the vision of Jesus in Revelation 19. In the rest of the quote from Zechariah the prophet declares God will end the instruments of war and speak “peace to the nations.” What is said in these verses is very similar to Psalm 72 and other psalms. It speaks of the Messiah’s reign over the nations from “the River to the ends of the earth.” God had chosen Abraham’s family to rescue the world. The ascension of the Messiah, God’s chosen leader, to power from the family of Israel meant God’s vision for the world was being fulfilled. Through the Messiah true order would be brought to the people of the world, signified be the end of warfare, also oppression would end.
Zechariah and his contemporary Haggai, were prophets during the return from Babylonian exile. Their ministries were essential during a critical period of national restoration. Important elements of the national identity were being recovered. They were re-inhabiting the Promised Land. The worship was being restored through the construction of the Second Temple. Now the prophecy of a new Messiah was a key sign of the revitalised national agenda. God had promised David that his heirs would always rule Israel (2 Samuel 7.) So the prophecy regarding the re-emergence of the monarchy fell perfectly in place. The immediate referent of that prophecy might be Zerubbabel. He was a descendant of David and he was the courageous leader of the Jewish people. Earlier prophecies in Zechariah point to him as the anointed of the Lord.
The years waned and history tells us that these prophecies were only partially fulfilled. Though they had brief respite during the Hasmonean dynasty, by the time of Jesus Israel was still under foreign occupation courtesy of Rome. Reading through the gospels it is apparent that even though centuries had passed, hope still had not died. The people in Jesus day were living in an atmosphere of high expectation. If not from their language it is evidenced by the number of rebellions that happened during the Second Temple period. Like the stories of old, God would give them victory over unassailable foes. Paradoxically, as Rome consolidated its cruel power over the ancient world, they knew that pagan foreign powers were being primed to be utterly overthrown. Daniel 7 offers that kind of prediction.
Now the reason why they went off into exile was because of their sin. Now sin here is not any old act of immorality. They had broken their covenant relationship with YHWH serving false gods. The penalty for this was clearly outlined in the curses of Deuteronomy which involved expulsion from the land and foreign oppression. Forgiveness of sins actually meant the restoration of this covenant relationship. Therefore, for them to be ruled by the Messiah in their own land instead of being under the thumb of foreign oppressors, their sins had to be forgiven. We rightly see the entry of Jesus entry into Jerusalem as the beginning of Holy Week. However, we fail to see the connection between it and the crucifixion. When Jesus rode on the donkey, declaring that he was the Messiah, the true King of Israel, he was declaring God was no longer hostile to his people. Peace with God meant the forgiveness of sins which is not just a personal feeling of moral absolution. It meant the end of their punishment, the restoration of the covenant relationship and the fulfilment of the promises of God regarding his people. This an important theme in the gospels beginning with John the Baptist who quotes Isaiah 40, an important passage in the Old Testament regarding this (Matthew 3:1-3.)
Jewish national history and expectation converged in the Nazarene on a donkey. As Matthew presents it, he wants the reader to interpret the events of the final mortal week of the Messiah in the light of it. You cannot fully appreciate Good Friday without Palm Sunday. Not only do the events of the climactic week in the history of covenant begin with it, it sets into motion the fulfilment of Jesus’ earthly mission.
It is not surprising that soon after his entry into the city, as Matthew tells us, Jesus causes an uproar in the temple. According to N.T. Wright any historical picture of Jesus we come up with must be “crucifiable.” Not only was this a sharp critique of the priesthood of his day but he was deliberately challenging the powerful leaders of the temple. Similarly his chosen mode of entry into Jerusalem was a direct counter to the rule of King Herod. He literally behaved as a man with a death wish. Though he came on a meek animal he was making overt claims of authority to the powers of his time. Furthermore, like Solomon the Messiah was to build God’s temple. In John 2:22-25 Jesus’ explains his actions as the prophetic overthrow of the current temple and the erection of a new one built on his person.
The Prince of Peace came with a particularly Jewish perspective. Jerusalem is the City of Peace and the Jewish vision of Shalom was more than a greeting or a personal sense of wellbeing. It was the future age where God will rule, through his Messiah, and bring justice and prosperity to the world (Isaiah 2:1-4.) The centre of this new global age was Jerusalem. This good news of peace (Isaiah 40:9) was a counter narrative to another gospel.
Pax Romana the so called good news of peace and prosperity that had come upon the world through the power of Rome was the official imperial propaganda. (The parallels and differences between the Christian gospel and the Roman gospel make for a fascinating study.) Jesus riding into Jerusalem declaring peace was a subversion of the Empire. Instead of heathen ways of doing things, Jesus was declaring the one true God was in charge. By simultaneously criticising temple leadership and the Empire he was saying the leaders of his people had somehow colluded with foreign pagan principalities and powers. John hints at this dual critique when he mentions the Jewish leaders feared Rome would take away their position (John 11:47-48.)
Contrary to popular opinion the Pharisees did not wield much political power even though they held sway with the masses. Jesus spends a lot of time critiquing the popular Judaism of his day which was sympathetic towards Pharisaism. However, he had to antagonize the “right people” to execute the plan of redemption through the ultimate capital punishment of the era, crucifixion. In the final week of Jesus’ life he challenges the powers that be which begins with his ascent to Jerusalem.
People in Jesus’ day immediately realised what he was doing and erupted in loud, raucous praise. Many dared to believe this controversial young Galilean prophet was the divine instrument for national renewal. They called him the Son of David in recognition of his messianic claims and sung psalms of praise (Matthew 21:9; Psalm 118.) Hosanna is actually a plea to God which means “Save us now!” (Psalm 118:25.) Even though they acknowledged what was being said little did they know how God was going to accomplish this daring rescue. A few days later Jesus was killed ignominiously with a cruel sign hanging over his head. The Romans in typically brutal fashion let the world know what they thought of this would be king. Jesus did not ascend to power but rather to a cross on Calvary. The story, as we all know, was certainly not over.
Let there be no mistake, Holy Week is part of a coronation narrative. The Gospel is about the Kingdom of God, that is, how YHWH becomes king over the world in and through Jesus the Messiah. Jerusalem is often referred to as Zion, the hill the temple is founded on. The City of Peace was where God dwelt and it is from there that he rules the world (Psalm 110:1-2; Micah 4) The coronation of the Messiah in Jerusalem was a literal ascent to power since the city stood on rocky elevated ground. Jesus’ symbolic and prophetic actions were not a statement that he was a mere human ruler. He was the living embodiment of Israel’s divine king. However, he was captured and murdered outside the city gates, being rejected by his people. God had however orchestrated these events and instead of it being a tragedy Jesus became the sacrifice that would ransom his people. This is in line with Isaiah who in chapter 40 declared the gospel of peace but in chapter 53 revealed it would be accomplished through the sacrifice of God’s faithful anointed servant. It was through this sacrifice that he would gain power (Isaiah 53:12) and on the third day Jesus rose from the dead.
The resurrection and the ascension are often treated as two separate events. However, the New Testament interprets them in the same light (Ephesians 1:19-21, 4:8-10.) The expected outcome of the donkey ride was that he would rule in Jerusalem. Instead, God exulted Jesus to heaven, crowning him Lord of the cosmos. He was rejected by Zion but was chosen by heaven. His exultation vindicated his message and his mission. (In a sense it was a round trip from Mt. Olivet to Mt. Zion and back to the Mount of Olives.)
Ascension Day is the conclusion of Palm Sunday, the climax of the narrative of how God became king. We must understand it in terms of the larger biblical narrative as the royal procession of a new king. This is where Jesus made his move. All the strands of his life and ministry came together to fulfil his divine vocation. It is not just the beginning of Holy Week. Palm Sunday is integral to the Easter story and we must not forget this.