“Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!” cried the people as Jesus rode into Jerusalem on that first triumphal entry (Mt. 21:9). “Hosanna to the son of David!” cheered the children as Jesus drove out those who were buying and selling in the temple and healed the blind and lame (Mt. 21:12-15). And the chief priests and scribes were indignant (Mt. 21:15-16). It’s a wonderful tradition to wave palm branches on Palm Sunday, but we must never forget the meaning of Palm Sunday.
Open the Gates of Righteousness
The crowds are quoting from Psalm 118. This psalm is a hymn of praise following a harrowing battle (Ps. 118:8-18). The king is riding home in triumph to offer sacrifices of praise in the temple and calls out for the gates of the city to be opened (Ps. 118:1-7, 19-29). But the psalm is constructed with praise and worship as bookends, holding both the battle and the worship together. In other words, the battle and the gates stand for that which could keep you from worship. In the psalm, the king is calling out to Israel, the house of Aaron, and those who fear the Lord to sing with him, “Oh give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever!” (Ps. 118:1-4, 29) And you can tell that they are willing to do this because they greet him with the cry, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! We bless you from the house of the Lord!” (Ps. 118:26). But the enemies who surrounded him on every side and the builders who rejected the cornerstone stand for those who would keep the king (and people) away from the house of the Lord (Ps. 118:10-12, 22). So it is no accident that Jesus enters Jerusalem with this psalm being shouted by the crowds, goes into the temple and drives out the moneychangers, and begins healing (Mt. 21:12-14). Just like in the psalm, there are new enemies preventing true worship. Jesus is the new king making room for true worship, opening the gates of righteousness, so that all may go in.
Enemies in the Temple
Of course the striking thing is that the chief priests and scribes and moneychangers didn’t think they were preventing worship. They thought they were promoting worship. They were indignant and objected to what the children were shouting because they thought that Jesus was distracting from faithful worship. Who’s to say? The answer is found in understanding righteousness. It’s knowing the difference between what God requires, what God permits, and what God prohibits. The law did not prohibit selling sacrificial animals. In fact, it was explicitly permitted that tithes (of animals/produce) might be turned into money and repurchased in Jerusalem (Dt. 14:24-25). Nevertheless, the particular way this had been practiced became a barrier to worship. It appears this buying and selling was taking place in the court of the gentiles, preventing the nations from having access to God (Is. 56:1-8), and it appears that there was not a little financial motive either (Mt. 21:13). Likewise, the blind and lame had been excluded from serving as priests (Lev. 21:18), but Matthew’s language suggests that Jesus’ ministry is changing that. The indignation of the priests and scribes indicates that the far deeper problem was that they thought they were in charge.
Palm Branches & Life & Death
Biblically speaking, palm branches mean obedience to God even to death. We see this in the Feast of Booths, where the people commemorate coming out of Egypt and living in palm branch tents in the wilderness (Lev. 23:40-43). We see this vividly in Revelation: “After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number… standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits upon the throne, and to the Lamb!’… ‘These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb…’” (Rev. 7:9-14). Like the ancient Israelites, this new Israel has gone through the wilderness of persecution, and those who have stood firm even to death now stand before the Lamb singing His praises forever. But the most vivid image of this is Jesus who was welcomed with palm branches and obeyed God even unto death in order to open the way for all to draw near to worship.
In other words, loyalty and obedience to God must be clear in our hearts and minds. And in the first instance this means understanding that our obedience is a response to Christ’s saying obedience for us. We do not obey in order to get access to God; we obey because Christ won our access through the Cross. But having established that, what must we do to follow our King? And you can draw a pretty clear line by asking: What would you die for? Or turn it around: What would God kill for? Death was the penalty for Adam’s sin in the garden (Gen. 2). Nadab and Abihu were struck dead for offering strange fire (Lev. 10). Uzzah touched the ark and God killed him (2 Sam. 6:7). Ananias and Sapphira were struck down for lying to the Holy Spirit (Acts 5:1-11). Paul says that many in Corinth were sick or dead for eating and drinking the Lord’s Supper in disobedience (1 Cor. 11:29-30). Hebrews says, “see that you do not refuse him who is speaking. For if they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, much less will we escape if we reject him who warns from heaven… let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire” (Heb. 12:25-29). So, what must we do? What must we die for? How must we follow Jesus?
Conclusion & Applications
One way to think about Palm Sunday is like Jesus as Peter Pan leading the children and the crowds like the Lost Boys against Captain Hook and his pirates. The chief priests and scribes are indignant because they’ve grown up and become old like that old dragon, their father the devil. But Jesus came as a Child King to kill that old dragon and save the world (Rev. 12). Jesus came so that the whole world might become young again, so that we might become children of His Father and never grow old (Jn. 1:12-13). This is eternal life: unending life, un-aging life, life that never gets old.
And so all of our obedience is based on this fact: we have become the children of God. And therefore, if someone comes along getting indignant, claiming that we must do something which Jesus has not required, we throw it down. These palm branches are wonderful, but if someone starts getting cranky about the palm branches, we ditch the palm branches. We use purple during the season of Lent. It’s a great color that fits the themes, but if someone starts getting cranky about purple, we can toss it out. This is why I wear a robe. We are the children of God, and children love to dress up. I’m dressing up like the angels and saints in heaven; it’s the truest make-believe in all the world. But I don’t have to wear a robe. I’m wearing a robe for fun because we are the children of God.
Jesus rode into Jerusalem to open the way back into the presence of God. So the question to ask yourself this morning is: what are the barriers between you and God? Jesus rode into Jerusalem to make room for you. And He did not fail. Do you want His peace, His joy, His presence, His help? He went to Jerusalem for you, to open the gates of righteousness for you. He is not far off. He is here with us now. Do you believe? This is the work that God requires: believe in the One that He sent for you (Jn. 6:29). But if you would come to Him, you must let Him heal you. The blind and lame are welcome. He has made room for you, but He will change you. And when He does, you will join His palm branch parade.