All four of the New Testament’s Gospels recount Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem (Matt. 21:1-11; Mark 11:1-11; Luke 19:28-40; John 12:12-19). The details recorded in each account, and the events surrounding them, differ based on their respective writer’s pastoral and theological concerns. In these details and immediate contexts, the preacher finds insight on how to proclaim each text in a way that respects that author’s intent.
Psalm 118 is the backdrop against which Jesus’ entry plays out, an event that Christians continue to celebrate as Palm Sunday. This psalm is the last of the Egyptian Hallel Psalms, beginning with the 113. Israel’s sages recognized these six psalms to be appropriate for recitation on eighteen days of the year.
Psalm 118 particularly was part of the liturgy during the Festival of Tabernacles in the autumn and Passover in the spring. Faithful pilgrims sang the psalm on their way to Jerusalem each March/April while sacrificial lambs were being selected in the city.
Prior to their Babylonian exile, residents of the Holy City recited Psalm 118 annually as their king marched towards its temple as part of a re-enthronement ceremony. The priests were expected to greet him at the temple’s gates with blessing and to lead the festal procession with boughs in hand to the altar (Ps. 118:26-27). The palm branches used on those occasions later came to symbolize both victory in the Greco-Roman world and occupied Israel’s nationalistic hope for deliverance from the crushing weight of Rome’s boot upon her neck.
It has been suggested that when the people spread their cloaks before Jesus, some of them may have been thinking about more than “rolling out the red carpet” for a king (2 Kings 9:13). Ancient Romans spread out fine garments as a way of welcoming and placating their gods, especially during times of crisis. The garments cast before Jesus, though, were the wraps of the poor and working classes.
The donkey, rather than a steed, on which Jesus rode symbolized humility and gentleness. The fact that it was one on which no person had previously ridden spoke to its purity and symbolized holiness. Zechariah (9:9), echoing Isaiah (62:11) and the patriarch Jacob (Gen. 49:10-11) before him, prophesied that upon such a beast Israel’s awaited salvation and king would one day enter Jerusalem.
Of course, Jesus was not greeted by joyful priests when he finally arrived at the temple. Instead, what the Gospel writers report happened next is revealing. They each proceed to narrate a particular flow of events for a particular purpose in keeping with their own Gospel’s overall purpose.
The Gospel’s Presentation of Palm Sunday
Mark 11:1—13:1 depicts Jesus entering and exiting the temple three times (11:11 [entry and exit]; 11:15 entry [11:19 exit]; 11:27 entry [13:1 exit]). Ironically, on the day of his so-called “triumphal” entry, nothing much actually happens. Jesus enters the temple, looks around, and leaves. Talk about anticlimactic!
Interwoven in his three comings and goings are the stories of the cursed fig tree and cleansed temple. The mood here is confrontational and cautionary. Fruitlessness when the rightful king or landowner’s son (12:1-11) arrives will not go unpunished. The faithful preaching of Mark’s description of Palm Sunday will be decidedly prophetic.
Luke (19:28-40) does not technically record Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem but depicts his parade as climaxing outside her walls. There he weeps over the city’s imminent destruction, in consequence of her failure to recognize the time of her visitation (19:41-44).
The context is eschatological. The citizens’ rejection of their rightful ruler in the preceding Parable of the Ten Minas (19:11-27) foreshadows the resistance Jesus will soon meet. The colt’s owners question his disciples’ right to requisition it (19:33). The Pharisees’ react negatively to the disciples’ rejoicing over his arrival (19:39). The chief priests, scribes, and principal men look for an opportunity to destroy him (19:47). They question him regarding his authority, the propriety of paying taxes, and the nature of the resurrection, all with the intent of tripping him up (20:1-40).
In between these acts of rejection, Jesus issues words of warning. He speaks of the slaughtering of the nobleman’s enemies, of Jerusalem’s coming destruction, and of judgment upon the wicked tenants. In the following chapter (21:1-36), he foretells in apocalyptic terms both the temple’s imminent dismantling and of his personal return.
Two interesting additions in Luke’s account are his inclusion of the phrase “peace in heaven” as part of the people’s rejoicing (19:38) and Jesus’ claim that “the stones would cry out” (19:40) if the people had remained silent. The angels sang of peace on earth at the time of Messiah’s birth (2:14). Here in verse 38 the locus of that praise has shifted. Is it because Satan has been overthrown (10:18)—the heavens finally at rest because the usurper of mankind’s authority is now deposed, beginning with his defeat at Jesus’ temptation and sealed on Easter morning?
The image of talking stones may allude to Habakkuk 2:11, whose context pronounces woe upon God’s enemies on the one hand and anticipates a time when “the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord” on the other.
An air of expectancy should mark sermons from Luke’s account, with hearers being reminded that Christ will soon return with all authority both to judge and to reward.
John sets Jesus’ triumphal entry at the apex of his popularity, following his raising of Lazarus (11:1-44). Ironically, it was this event that expedited Jesus’ adversaries’ plans to get rid of him (11:45-57).
At a subsequent and hastily called meeting of the Sanhedrin, the acting high priest Caiaphas spoke the truth better than he knew when he stated that it “is better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish” (11:50). Soon after that substitutionary insight, Mary anoints Jesus’ feet in preparation for his burial (12:1-8). The plot to kill Jesus thickens (12:9-11). He enters Jerusalem (12:12-15).
Seeing the crowds at his parade, the Pharisees worry that “the world has gone after him” (12:19). Included in that multitude were certain Greeks who desired an audience with the Master (12:26). In response, Jesus prophesies of his imminent crucifixion and how it will result in “all people” being drawn to himself (12:27-50).
John depicts Jesus’ death as having universal and eternal consequence. Preaching about the triumphal entry from his Gospel should respect the full scope of that grand drama.
Matthew’s account, emphasizing Jesus’ messianic identity as “the” prophet (Deut. 18:15-19) and “Son of David” (2 Sam. 7:12-13a). It includes many of the same elements identified above when the subsequent context is considered. What sets it apart is that, as a single unit, 21:1-17 contains all the principle parts expected in a first-century triumphal entry narrative. Such narratives traditionally involving Roman generals and imperators were familiar to Matthew’s audience.
The five traditional parts of a triumphal entry story as they appear in this text are: 1) the disciples formally recognizing Jesus’ authority by placing him on their garments atop the colt (21:6-7); 2) the crowds spreading their cloaks and palm branches before him (21:8); 3) the people’s exclamations invoking God’s salvation and praise (21:9); 4) Jesus’ entry into the city climaxed by his arrival at the temple (21:12); and 5) Jesus’ activities there—negatively, in cleansing it (21:12-13), and positively, in healing the blind and lame, teaching, and receiving praise (21:14-16).
Cries of “Hosanna!” filled the air. That word, hosanna, appears to be a Greek transliteration of two Hebrew words. Together they carry a dual meaning in Psalm 118. In verse 25, hosanna is translated as a plea: “Lord, save us.” In verse 26, it’s a word of praise: “Blessed is the Lord.” One can easily imagine different individuals lining Jesus’ parade route and shouting “Hosanna!” with either meaning in mind. Some were imploring God for a national salvation, one that wasn’t the focus of Jesus’ first coming. Others were rejoicing over a personal salvation they had already experienced (compare to Isa. 35:4-6). They were, to use Jesus’ earlier metaphor (12:43-45) that Paul employs later (1 Cor. 6:19-20), cleansed temples prepared for the arrival of God.
This idea, adapted from Matthew’s account, of the purpose of Jesus’ triumphal entry being to depict his mission to cleanse and restore willing subjects into his true temple is the big idea of my Palm Sunday sermon. Notice how the message concludes with the praises of God’s children. The intent here is that congregants will view their singing as fulfilling Psalm 8:2, as quoted in verse 16. This part of Matthew’s narrative is unique to his pericope, continuing the theme of Jesus’ attention to childlike faith (18:3; 19:14) and again underscoring his deity.
Craig L. Blomberg, Matthew: The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1992).
David E. Garland, Luke: Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011).
Benjamin L. Gladd, From the Manger to the Throne: A Theology of Luke (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2022).
Karen H. Jobes, John: Through Old Testament Eyes (Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic, 2021).
Abraham Kuruvilla, Mark: A Theological Commentary for Preachers (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2012).
Tremper Longman III and David E. Garland, eds., The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Luke—Acts (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007).
Charles L. Quarles, Matthew: Evangelical Biblical Theology Commentary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2022).
Gregory Hollifield is the Associate Dean at Memphis College of Urban and Theological Studies at Union University and Book Reviews Editor for the Journal of the Evangelical Homiletics Society.