[John 12:12ff] The next day the large crowd that had come to the feast heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, crying out, ‘Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!’ And Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it, just as it is written, “Fear not, daughter of Zion; behold, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey's colt!”
In with Palms, Out with a Cross – Your Savior-King
Why the palm branches? What does the palm branch mean to this crowd carrying the palms before and after Jesus as He processes into Jerusalem?
About two hundred years before this time, Jerusalem fell under the thumb of a foreign, gentile king – King Antiochus Epiphanes, who ruled a piece of what remained of the once-great Greek empire. Antiochus Epiphanes, in 175 BC, put Jerusalem under Greek occupation, built a Greek citadel, a fort, full of Greek soldiers next to the Temple in Jerusalem, and desecrated the Temple by setting up an idol of a foreign god in it.
After decades of religious oppression and persecution, a Jewish priest named Mattathias lead an uprising against these foreign oppressors. Three of his sons continued his work. His son Judas Maccabeus – whose name is most remembered – led a revolt, and another son, Simon, continued that revolt as well. In a period of time (164 BC, 141 BC) they succeeded in liberating Jerusalem, crushing the citadel, and, most importantly, Judas Maccabeus removed the desecration from the holy Temple.
The enemy crushed. The holy Temple of God made clean. False idols removed. The Maccabean family became the kings, priests, and saviors of the people of God. And those people of Jerusalem, a century and half before Christ, celebrated these Maccabean victories with palm branches:
[1 Maccabees 13:51] The Jews entered it with praise and palm branches, and with harps and cymbals and stringed instruments, and with hymns and songs, because a great enemy had been crushed and removed from Israel.
[2 Maccabees 10:7] Therefore bearing ivy-wreathed wands and beautiful branches and also fronds of palm, they offered hymns of thanksgiving to him (God) who had given success to the purifying of his own holy place.
In Roman and Greek society, palm branches were a symbol of victory. In particular, Judas Maccabeus’ victory of cleansing and rededicating the Temple was still fresh in the national mind of the Jews, even over a century-and-a-half later in the time of Christ.
That victory was commemorated every year with a feast called “The Feast of Lights” – Hannuka – or, as it’s called in Scripture, the “Feast of Dedication” – a feast that Jesus Himself had just attended in John 10:22ff, just two chapters before His triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.
From the other Gospels, we know that Jesus, directly after entering Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, did what? He made a whip of cords and cleansed the Temple – cleansed it of the idol of Mammon by driving out the money changers.
The point is this: This crowd ushering Jesus into the gates of Jerusalem today with palm branches in their hands took up their palm branches because they knew that in Jesus God had once again provided them with a great King. And, this time, it’s an even Greater King – This is a King who can even conquer death and who can even cleanse this temple of human body and soul from sin.
The crowds take up branches because they know Jesus is the King of kings. Finally, a King-forever – to sit eternally on a throne for them – conquering, not enemies of flesh and blood, but conquering sin, death, and the devil once and for all.
Our text today says, “The crowd that had been with him when he called Lazarus out of the tomb and raised him from the dead continued to bear witness. The reason why the crowd went to meet him was that they heard he had done this sign.” This crowd takes up palms and thereby proclaims Jesus their King because they have found the one who is greater than the grave.
They shout, “Hosanna! Hosanna!” – “Save us! Saves us!” – because they believe He can save them. They sing, “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel” – which is no less than to call Him God. They knew who He was for them – their true Judas Maccabeus – their true, eternal King, Priest, and Savior – once and for all.
Why do you take up your palm branches? Why do you celebrate Palm Sunday every year? Do you trust Jesus to be your King, Priest, and Savior? Do you trust Him to rule over life and death for you? Do you trust Him to be able to cleanse you from your sins and desecration, from your false trusts and idols? Do you trust that He will deliver you, even from the grave? Do you believe it? How does your belief affect how you live? Is the palm branch in your hand genuine?
Jesus has saved you from sin, death, and the devil. He did so by processing from this crowd which waved palm branches to another crowd that put Him on a cross. This crowd shouted “Hosanna! Save us!” Another crowd shouted “Crucify Him! Crucify Him!” Today’s crowd proclaims Him their King. Another crowd soon shouts, “We have no king but Caesar!”
Jesus entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday mounted on a young donkey, a beast of burden, riding among those joyous palms. He left Jerusalem a few days later with the wooden cross, carrying your burdens – carrying your sin, carrying your death in His body, bearing the devil’s assaults which should have been against you and me – He was crucified for you outside of Jerusalem’s walls. This – His cross – is what Jesus rode in for today. His cross was His triumph for which He entered. His cross is how He triumphed to save sinners.
“Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey.” He is your King. Gentle and mild. Giving rest to your soul [Matthew 11:28-30]. Having given His life as a ransom for many – for you. [Matthew 20:28]
As Jesus entered Jerusalem amongst green palm branches on that first Palm Sunday so that He could leave carrying the wood of the life giving cross, so you also today have processed in with green palms – to declare Jesus your King – and you will leave today picking up a “Palm Cross” to remember to put your trust in His cross alone.
Remember your King’s victory. He has saved you from sin, death, and the devil – once and for all [Romans 6:10]. Amen.