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What Really Happened on Palm Sunday?

March 29, 2021


Dr. Craig speaks to a congregation on the historical events that lead up to Easter and the profound meaning in what happened.

DR. CRAIG: I love this time of year. Easter season is such a joyous season of the year, and it is a privilege to be sharing the Word with you this morning. Today we are celebrating the day called Palm Sunday, which is the day of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem during the week of his crucifixion and death. In case some of you are wondering why we call this Palm Sunday, it is because the crowds who came out to meet Jesus from Jerusalem did so carrying palm branches which they either waved in the air or laid in his path as he came into the city. We are going to be looking at this event in some considerable historical detail this morning, so I want to invite you to put on your thinking caps so that you’ll be able to follow along as we look at this event.

We have in the New Testament two independent accounts of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem – one in the Gospel of Mark, and the other in the Gospel of John. Historians realize that this is very important. If you have two independent records of an event then that is highly likely that that event is actually historical. Marcus Borg, who is a prominent New Testament scholar, explains it this way. He says: “The logic is straightforward: if a tradition [or story] appears in an early source and in another independent source, then not only is it early, but it is also unlikely to have been made up.” Now, of course, as Christians we believe that the New Testament is inspired by God, and therefore we know wholly apart from historical evidence that it's not made up. Still, it's nice to know, I think, that when you consider the Gospels even as ordinary historical records they pass the tests of reliability which even secular historians use. And this can strengthen our confidence in their truth, and it also gives us a way of demonstrating their truth to our non-Christian friends. In the case of the triumphal entry, this event is, as I said, related in one of our earliest sources in the New Testament (namely, the Gospel of Mark), and then also independently in John's Gospel. Moreover, although Matthew and Luke's accounts of the triumphal entry are to a good degree dependent upon Mark, nevertheless many scholars think that Matthew and Luke also had other independent sources for this event besides the Gospel of Mark. So the historical case for Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem during Passover week is pretty solid.

Now, although Mark and John's accounts of the event differ in the circumstantial details, they fully agree on the core of the story: that during the week before his death, Jesus of Nazareth rode into Jerusalem seated on a colt and was hailed by the crowds who had come to Jerusalem for the annual Passover feast with shouts of “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” in anticipation of the coming of the Kingdom of God.

Today I want to focus on the earliest account of this event as found in the Gospel of Mark, chapter 11 verses 1 to 11. So if you have your Bibles with you, I invite you to turn with me to this passage, Mark 11:1-11. If you're new to Bible study, this is the second book of the New Testament sandwiched in between the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke. Mark 11:1-11:

As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage and Bethany at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two of his disciples, saying to them, “Go to the village ahead of you, and just as you enter it, you will find a colt tied there, which no one has ever ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ say, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here shortly.’”

They went and found a colt outside in the street, tied at a doorway. As they untied it, some people standing there asked, “What are you doing, untying that colt?” They answered as Jesus had told them to, and the people let them go. When they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks over it, he sat on it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, while others spread branches they had cut in the fields. Those who went ahead and those who followed shouted,

“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”
“Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David!”
“Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

Jesus entered Jerusalem and went into the temple courts. He looked around at everything, but since it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the Twelve.

Before we look at this passage in detail, let's set the scene chronologically and geographically. It's the spring of the year, the time of the great Passover feast in Jerusalem during the Jewish month of Nisan. I'm not referring here, of course, to the Japanese automaker. Rather, the month of Nisan is a month of the Jewish calendar which corresponds to early April on our calendar. Passover always began on the 14th of Nisan which that year fell on a Friday. So scholars have determined that the date of the Passover feast during which Jesus was crucified was either April [7], AD 30 or else April [3], AD 33.

Jesus and his disciples are on their way up to Jerusalem for the Passover feast like thousands of other pilgrims coming to the feast. They've just passed through the ancient town of Jericho where, according to Mark 10, Jesus healed the blind man Bartimaeus on the way out of town. Jericho is located off our map to the right 17 miles east of Jerusalem, and the Roman road ascends from Jericho up over the Mount of Olives to an elevation of about 2,600 feet directly opposite the Jewish temple across the Kidron Valley. Pilgrims from Galilee in the north where Jesus was from typically followed this Roman road through Jericho to Jerusalem and so would pass by the villages of Bethany and Bethphage which Mark mentions in verse 1 of chapter 11. Bethany lies on the south slope of the Mount of Olives somewhat off the Roman road while Bethphage was probably located on the western slope of the Mount of Olives just across the Kidron Valley from Jerusalem. It was virtually an extension of the city of Jerusalem itself.

As you read Mark's account, you might wonder why Mark even bothers to mention Bethany since Jesus wouldn't actually pass through it on his way to Jerusalem. You might suppose that it's the unnamed village referred to in verse 2 where the disciples are to go to find the colt, but that would make Jesus’ triumphal procession about two miles long which might seem a rather long distance for people to strew with branches and garments as they did. So it might seem odd that Mark would bother to mention Bethany. Once you read the Gospel of John, however, we discover a very interesting fact that sheds light on this. Jesus and the disciples actually spent the night in Bethany on their way from Jericho to Jerusalem, for Bethany was the home of Mary and Martha whose brother Lazarus Jesus had raised from the dead. John reports (in John 12:1-2): “Six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus lived, whom Jesus had raised from the dead.” So they gave a dinner for him there. Having set out from Jericho early in the morning, Jesus must have arrived in Bethany sometime late in the afternoon and then enjoyed supper with his friends. It was during this supper that Mary anointed Jesus’ feet and wiped them with her hair. It's interesting that Mark also knows of this event with Mary and Jesus but he tells about it in another context in chapter 14.

It's interesting that in chapter 11, in verses 11 and 19, Mark says that Jesus did not spend his nights in Jerusalem during the final week of his life but he would go back out to Bethany each evening. So the triumphal entry didn't actually occur on the same day that Jesus set out from Jericho. John says that Jesus spent one or two days in Bethany and that the crowds, once they learned of his arrival, were already coming out to Bethany from Jerusalem to meet him.

So when did Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem occur? Well, John says that Jesus arrived in Bethany six days before the Passover. According to John, the Passover was eaten Friday night. John repeatedly says that the Jewish leaders wanted to eliminate Jesus before the Passover meal was eaten.[1] According to Jewish regulations, the slaughter of the Passover lambs in the temple began at three o'clock in the afternoon on the 14th of Nisan and then they were to be eaten after nightfall. Now, listen to this. That means that by John's reckoning when Jesus died on the cross Friday afternoon at three o'clock he died at precisely the same hour that the temple priests began sacrificing the Passover lambs in the temple. They had no idea that by instigating Jesus’ crucifixion at the hands of the Romans that they were actually in effect offering a sacrifice to God that would once and for all do away with the animal sacrifices that they were at that very moment offering in the temple. As Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 5:7, “For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed.”

So if we count back six days from John's date of the Passover we have Jesus arriving in Bethany on Saturday night, the 9th of Nisan. Depending on how long he stayed in Bethany, he entered Jerusalem either the following day on Sunday, or else on Monday. I. H. Marshall, who is a prominent New Testament scholar, offers this reconstruction of Jesus’ final week. He arrives in Bethany on Saturday. On Monday is his triumphal entry into the city. On Tuesday he goes back into the city and cleanses the temple. Thursday night is the date of the Last Supper, Jesus’ betrayal, and arrest. On Friday he is then tried and condemned before Pilate, crucified, and then buried by Joseph of Arimathea in a tomb.

So having set the scene now, let's look more closely at Mark's account in chapter 11. The first part of the story (verses 1 to 7) deals with Jesus obtaining a colt on which to ride into the city. Since in order to enter Jerusalem from Bethany, Jesus and his disciples would have to return to the Roman road, that means that the village where the colt is tied is probably Bethphage. Jesus sends his two disciples on ahead to Bethphage to obtain the colt and bring it back to him so that he can then ride down the descent of the Mount of Olives across the Kidron Valley and in through the so-called Golden Gate in the eastern wall of Jerusalem and then into the temple court. Mark doesn't tell us what kind of a colt it was, but we know that there were three members of the horse family that were in use in Palestine at that time: horses, donkeys, and mules (which are hybrids of a male donkey and a female horse). The other Gospels, however, say that Jesus chose a donkey. Donkeys are strong pack animals that were used in Palestine as beasts of burden. And, as we'll see, Jesus’ choice of a donkey is deliberate and significant.

In Mark's story, Jesus displays an uncanny foreknowledge of highly peculiar events which the disciples will experience in connection with getting the colt. The simple explanation that they're supposed to give (“the Lord has need of it”) illustrates Jesus’ sense of sovereign mastery. Somebody might say, “Well, maybe Jesus had simply made prior private arrangements with the owner of the colt and didn't tell the disciples about this.” But I think this seems to miss the lesson that Mark is trying to teach us here, namely, Jesus’ foreknowledge and control over the events leading up to his suffering and death. Mark wants us to see that Jesus is not the hapless victim of events which are spinning out of control. Rather, he remains the sovereign master of his fate as he chooses to go to the cross. This emphasis is even more evident in Mark 14:12-16. In response to the disciples’ question about the Passover meal, Jesus tells two of them the following:

”Go into the city, and a man carrying a jar of water will meet you. Follow him. Say to the owner of the house he enters, ‘The Teacher asks: Where is my guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?’ He will show you a large room upstairs, furnished and ready. Make preparations for us there.”

The disciples left, went into the city and found things just as Jesus had told them. So they prepared the Passover.

It seems even less likely that such an encounter with a man carrying a jar of water was pre-arranged. Rather, Mark is again illustrating Jesus’ supernatural knowledge and authority. What Jesus is doing here is displaying the credentials of a true prophet. For example, in 1 Samuel 10, when Samuel anoints Saul as king over Israel he says to Saul the following:

When you go from me today, then you will find two men close to Rachel’s tomb . . .; and they will say to you, “The donkeys which you went to look for have been found.” . . . Then you will go on further from there, and you will come as far as the oak of Tabor, and there three men . . . will meet you, one carrying three kids, another carrying three loaves, and another carrying a jug of wine; and they will greet you and give you two loaves of bread . . . (1 Samuel 10:2-4)

In 1 Samuel 10:7 it says that the fulfillment of these predictions given by Samuel were signs to Saul that God was with him. In a similar way Jesus’ predictions and instructions are signs to his disciples and to us of Jesus’ sovereign control over his fate. To treat these predictions as just natural arrangements, like somebody's planning to go on a trip, is to miss the theological lesson that Mark wants us to learn.

You see, the events of Jesus’ Passion didn't catch him by surprise. On the journey from Galilee to Jerusalem he had taken the twelve disciples aside, and he told them,

Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem; and the Son of man will be delivered to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death, and deliver him to the Gentiles; and they will mock him, and spit upon him, and scourge him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise (Mark 10:33-34).

In fact, it's something of an understatement to say that these events didn't catch Jesus by surprise. On the contrary, he provoked them as we see in the second half of Mark's story, verses 8 to 11. With his triumphal entry into Jerusalem Jesus set the ball rolling that would by the end of the week crush him under its weight.

In order to appreciate what happens next you need to understand something of Jewish feelings toward Rome. In 63 BC, Roman legions under Pompeii had put an end to an independent Jewish state, conquering Jerusalem and deposing the Jewish king. Although Israel had returned from its exile in Babylon hundreds of years earlier, the golden age predicted by the prophets had failed to materialize. Instead, Israel labored under the oppressive military dictatorship of a pagan nation. The Jews chafed under the yoke of Roman rule. Within 35 years of Jesus' death, Jews would be in full-scale rebellion against Rome, finally resulting in the catastrophic destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. In the meantime, Israel was a seething cauldron of unrest. Jews yearned for a messianic deliverer who would once and for all restore to Israel the throne of David and establish God's Kingdom in the land.

The Old Testament prophets had spoken of the coming of such a Davidic king, and Jews longed for the fulfillment of their prophecies. Jesus, during his ministry, had shunned the public pronouncement that he was the promised Messiah. New Testament scholars have discussed for a long time the so-called messianic secret theme running through the Gospel of Mark; that is to say, in Mark Jesus never publicly claims to be the Messiah. When people do recognize him as the Messiah – as in Peter's great confession in chapter 8:29, “Thou art the Christ” (or, “You are the Messiah”) – then Jesus strictly charges them to tell no one about him.

But now in Mark 11 with his triumphal entry into Jerusalem everything changes.

You see, Jesus was steeped in the Old Testament as we know from his discussions with the Jewish scribes. He knew and understood the prophecies of Israel's coming King who would restore the throne of David. In particular he had absorbed the prophecies of the prophet Zechariah. Zechariah had spoken of a shepherd appointed by God over his people. In the 13th chapter of his prophecy, Zechariah says that the shepherd will be struck and the sheep will be scattered. Jesus in Mark 14:27 applies this very prophecy to himself in telling the disciples that they will all desert him. He says, “You will all fall away for it is written [and now quoting Zechariah 13] ‘I will strike the shepherd and the sheep will be scattered.’” Jesus is applying to himself Zechariah's prophecies.

So what is Jesus doing when he mounts a donkey's colt and rides down the Mount of Olives into Jerusalem? Notice that this is the only recorded incident in the Gospels where Jesus rides rather than walks, and pilgrims coming to the Passover normally came on foot. So Jesus is doing something singular here. But what does it mean? What is going on here? What's this all about? Well, the answer is that Jesus is deliberately fulfilling the prophecy of Zechariah 9:9-10. Listen to this:

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.

Jesus is deliberately and provocatively claiming to be the promised King of Israel who will re-establish the throne of David in Jerusalem. His action is like a living parable acted out in order to display his true identity. The messianic secret is now open news. The triumphal entry shows us Jesus’ messianic self-consciousness and who he took himself to be. He identified himself as the shepherd king predicted by the prophet Zechariah.

And the point wasn't lost on the crowd. People began to spread their cloaks on the road for Jesus to ride over, an action which is reminiscent of the way people spread their cloaks on the ground when Jehu was anointed the king of Israel in 2 Kings 9:13. They cut palm branches or other leafy plants from the fields and they strewed them across Jesus’ path along with their garments, and then people (perhaps remembering how Bartimaeus in Jericho had cried out to Jesus repeatedly, “Son of David! Son of David!”) now begin to chant the words of Psalm 118:25-26: “Hosanna [or God saves]! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David! Hosanna in the highest!”

You see, the crowd believed that at last God's anointed King had come – the teacher and prophet and miracle-worker from Nazareth, who would cast off the pagan rulers of Israel and re-establish God's true Kingdom, centered not in Rome but in Jerusalem. And so amid shouting and singing, with the crowd pressing all about him, Jesus rides in through the eastern gate of Jerusalem into the very precincts of the temple. And he does – nothing. He does nothing. When you read the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, the story of Jesus’ cleansing the temple comes on the heels of the triumphal entry which might lead you to think that these were consecutive events. But in Mark 11:11 we read, “And he entered Jerusalem, and went into the temple; and when he had looked round at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.”

Talk about an anti-climax! Jesus doesn't cleanse the temple. He doesn't lead the mob against the Roman fortress. He doesn't even give a stirring speech. He just looks around and leaves. That probably explains why Jesus wasn't immediately arrested on the spot by the Roman authorities. His triumphal procession into the city wasn't something that the Romans would have expected or understood, and a man unarmed mounted on a slowly moving donkey probably wouldn't have presented much of a military threat. So Jesus’ procession probably just melted into the Passover crowds once he got into the city.

But what a disappointment for those who had hailed his entry. What kind of a Messiah is this? What kind of a King is this? In the ensuing days, Jesus did cleanse the temple, but he didn't raise a finger against the Romans. In fact, he didn't even raise his voice against them. Instead he said, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's” (Mark 12:17). Who needs a deliverer like this?

By Friday, the multitudes were sufficiently disenchanted with Jesus that the Temple priesthood who had engineered his arrest and delivered him over to the Romans for execution on the treasonous charge of claiming to be “King of the Jews” were able to turn the crowd against him. And now they chanted, not “Hosanna!” but “Crucify him! Crucify him!” And so to the cross he went, to die as he knew he must.

What lessons can we learn from the story of Jesus’ triumphal entry? Let me mention two.

First, we see the Lordship of Jesus. The crucifixion of Jesus wasn't an accident that befell him unawares while visiting Passover in Jerusalem. Rather, Jesus understood and embraced his calling to undergo so excruciating a death. In fact, he deliberately provoked the events that would lead to his arrest and execution. He understood himself to be the shepherd king prophesied by Zechariah and openly assumed this role by his provocative triumphal entry into Jerusalem. And throughout the process he demonstrated his foreknowledge of the events of his Passion – the finding of the donkey, the arrangements for the Last Supper in the upper room, Judas’ betrayal, Peter's threefold denial, the disciples deserting him, his deliverance to the Gentiles, his scourging, humiliation, and execution. He announced all these things in advance. He thereby showed himself to be the Lord of history.

There's a theology today that is making inroads into the Christian church called the Openness of God. It claims that God cannot and does not foreknow the free acts of human beings, and therefore can only guess at the future. He is said to be a God who takes risks, who gambles, and who sometimes loses. But the Passion predictions such as the ones we've looked at today show that Openness of God theology is wrong. Jesus knew, and knew in sufficient detail, that it couldn't have been guessed exactly what was going to happen to him during that week in Jerusalem. Openness of God theology therefore inevitably depreciates the person of Christ. In the story of the triumphal entry we see disclosed Jesus’ sense of Lordship as he directs events toward their foreseen ends.

The second lesson is related to the first. Jesus doesn't always meet our expectations. The Jews were expecting a King who would be a great military leader like David who would throw off the yoke of Rome and establish God's Kingdom by force. And when you read some of the Old Testament prophecies, I think we can understand why they held such expectations. They weren't at all unreasonable. But Jesus was radically different than their expectations. When he rode into Jerusalem he didn't do so on a horse – the symbol of warfare and the choice of conquerors as Pompey had done. He didn't even pick a mule – the steed of Jewish kings like David himself. Rather, he chose a donkey, a pack animal, a beast of burden, as his royal mount. As Zechariah had promised, he came humbly and bearing peace. The Kingdom of God which he preached and inaugurated was not an earthly political kingdom but the rule of God in the hearts of those who love and serve him, and this was not the kingdom that the people wanted or expected. And so they rejected Jesus as their Lord.

In our Christian lives, as we grow older we all encounter situations in which God does not fulfill our expectations. Perhaps he doesn't bring a marriage partner into your life, or your marriage may not have worked out according to your expectations, or maybe you've been passed over for a promotion or a position that you really deserved, or maybe illness or tragedy has struck your life in an unexpected way.

The temptation in all of these situations is to bail out of the Christian faith and to try to do things your own way. You marry that non-Christian who's in love with you, you file for divorce, you grow resentful or bitter over missed opportunities, you give up confidence in God's love for you and no longer trust him. As I've grown older as a Christian I've seen these kinds of situations happen again and again in the lives of friends and family. When God doesn't live up to our expectations then we jettison God and we do things the way we think they should be done or we resent him for not giving us what we want.

What I want to say here is what the first lesson taught us – Jesus is Lord. He's under no obligation to live up to our expectations. If he chooses to give you a life of suffering and hardship, of failure and disappointment, he is Lord. So many of us seem to think that if Christ doesn't fit our expectations then we'll just reject him as the crowds in Jerusalem did. But Christ is Lord, and he doesn't have to fit your expectations of him. Christ never promised his followers a happy life. The disciple is not above his master, and the master has chosen the road to Golgotha. If you are called to tread that same path then that is the master's prerogative.

What I'm basically saying is that we must tailor our expectations to what God decrees, and not try to tailor God to fit our expectations. Christ is Lord, and he knows what’s best. If we try to make him fit our expectations, what’s acceptable to us or else we’ll reject him, then brothers and sisters that is the path to self-destruction. Let us not be like the people in Jerusalem who hailed Christ as their King just so long as he fit their expectations of what a king should be. Let us acknowledge him truly as our King, our Lord, our Sovereign, and receive from his hand whatever he decrees.[2]


[1] cf. John 18:28; 19:14

[2] Total Running Time: 34:18 (Copyright © 2021 William Lane Craig)