Why Palm Sunday so important to us? To understand, we have to go back to a familiar theme running through the whole New Testament—the Kingdom of God.
The phrase “Kingdom of God” is used 62 times in the New Testament, mostly in the Gospels and Acts. While the phrase “The Kingdom of Heaven,” which is a euphemism for the same thing, is used 31 times. Before Christmas, the phrase “The Kingdom of God” isn’t used at all. In Matthew 3:2 and 4:17 and in Mark 1:15, Jesus says, “The Kingdom of God is at hand” or is just about to dawn.
So, what is the kingdom of God? It’s wherever God rules, where He has authority.
A kingdom is a whole country, a culture, and a way of life. In a kingdom, a king had absolute power. If you had a good king and wise king, like Solomon or David, you had a peaceful country full of happy people. lf you had a bad king, like Nero or Caligula, then the country was cursed and you had chaos. In a kingdom, everything depended on who was king.
In the kingdom of God, God reigns supreme, bringing peace and prosperity. But unlike earthly kings, He doesn’t impose His will upon us. Instead, He becomes our king by asking for our voluntary submission. We choose to be part of the Kingdom. He gives us the choice to voluntarily submit to Him, so that we can honestly love Him. His Lordship in our lives is not by conquest but by invitation.
When we join the Kingdom of God, we join a group of people who have already submitted to Him. They become our primary family then, and our primary home group. This community becomes our new culture, and along with it a new way of life. Joining the Kingdom is to adopt the lifestyle of a new community where Jesus is Lord and King of us all.
Earthly kings impose their will upon the people by force or politics. Alexander the Great, for example became lord over Israel in 325 BC by defeating the armies of Israel. Pompey the Great became lord over the same people in 60 BC by taking sides in a local civil war. He came in on the pretense of making peace, but when he got there, he annexed Israel into the Roman Empire. That was how kings took charge in their day and in ours.
Jesus is king, but he neither uses politics or warfare. He does it through invitation and love. He could have taken over by force, but he chose not to do it. On the Mountain of Temptation, the Devil suggested a quick do quickly, by taking over or by some great public display of power. Jesus always had the ability to call down angels and fire on His enemies. That’s what earthly kings would do! But that was not Jesus’ way. He didn’t want slaves—He wanted friends. He sought to rule the world by peace, not war.
Muslims have a belief called Jihad—holy war. Though most Muslims think of this as friendly persuasion, they have the example of Mohammed, who rode into Mecca as a military general, and forced the submission of its people. Even today, Muslim groups are bent on world conquest by force, if necessary. But the whole idea of this is antithetical to Jesus. A kingdom of peace cannot begin in warfare. All efforts through the ages by Christians to use Jesus as an excuse for military or political conquest are doomed to fail, because if we win it by force, it won’t be the Kingdom. Jesus demands people’s hearts, not mere obedience.
So Jesus went around, preaching the Kingdom of God and demonstrating its benefits. He told people what it would be like to live in the Kingdom. It’s a place where people love their neighbors as themselves. It is to live in a state where you don’t have to need anything from anybody, because your Heavenly Father provides everything. In the Kingdom, you don’t have to worry, because God supplies all your needs. It is a place where the people imitate Jesus. It’s like having a Jesus on every corner, and although these little Jesuses are not perfect copies, they are getting better at it all the time. In the Kingdom, God is not your enemy, He is your friend and all of His creation is on your side as well. It’s a place where the rich serve the poor, where the strong serve the weak, where enemies learn to love each other. It’s a place where God Himself can heal our diseases and even raise the dead!
But the door to all this is to accept His rule over us. We must choose to enter the Kingdom.
For three years, Jesus traveled through Palestine, making the case for the Kingdom of God to the Jews of His day. But they still didn’t understand. Sure, they thought He was a good teacher, and that He did great miracles, but they didn’t get the idea of submitting to the Kingdom. They saw Jesus as just one more teacher, telling people how to be righteous. They kept waiting for him to become another Alexander the Great or Pompey the Great. When was He going to organize an army? They thought of Him as a teacher, but not as a king.
Jesus understood this. In order to see Him as king, they needed a symbolic act that helped them understand that He wasn’t just coming to be a teacher. He was coming to rule.
So Jesus did something they could understand. Jesus held a parade.
When we think about a parade today, we think of a community event usually held on the Fourth of July or Christmas. But in Jesus’ day, parades were much more common and significant. The pagans didn’t go to the temple for weekly worship—worship came to them in the form of parades. Priests took the temple idols up and down the streets, accompanied by music and dancers. They threw out gifts of bread and money to the people, like people throw out candy from parades today. In return, the bystanders threw flowers at their gods, and put palm branches on the road as offerings. This was supposed to bring them good luck, and the favor of the Gods. This was how the pagan gods were worshipped.
Kings and generals had similar parades. Romans called them triumphs. It started outside the gates when all the local dignitaries went out to meet the conquering hero. Then accompanied the king through the gates. You knew this guy was important when everyone important was riding with him! The conquering king was treated like a god.
What the king rode coming into town made a big difference. If the king rode a horse or a chariot, he was coming in power. Horses were war animals. If a king rode in on a horse, it meant he was ready to fight.
But if the king wanted to convey a message of peace, he rode a mule or a donkey. Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great and Marcus Aurelius all normally rode donkeys when they were not preparing for war. If a king rode a donkey, he was coming in peace.
When Jesus came into town on Palm Sunday, He rode a donkey. The people of Israel understood the symbolism. They responded by seeing him as a conquering hero, and responded as anyone of their day would do.
What was He doing? He was making an invitation, similar to the invitations that secular kings made in every city they entered. He was offering to them a chance to join Him in the Kingdom.
In any parade, there are always two crowds, not one. The first crowd is the people in the parade—the marching bands, baton twirlers, and the people on the floats. They come behind the Grand Marshal, who is the leader. The other crowd are the bystanders, who sit in lawn chairs watching, and being showered with presents. All they do is cheer and eat cotton candy. In Jesus’ day, they received money and put down palm branches. When Jesus rode into town, they shouted “Hosannah” which means “Lord save us!”
Jesus’ triumphal entry automatically divided Israel into two crowds. One crowd was just there, cheering him on and asking for handouts, and his followers, who were walking behind him.
Don’t be fooled by the shouting crowds. They were not there to follow Jesus, but to get something out of Jesus. They would have responded in the same way to any conquering hero, or maybe even to a pagan idol. The average person is always this way. They will join any crowd, praise any demagogue who offers them a free meal. Then, the next day, they will praise his enemy just as enthusiastically.
Do you know that you can make an idol out of Jesus? You can praise the Lord but not obey Him. Modern Christmas and Easter are good examples. The stores are full of eggs and bunnies. You can even see empty crosses everywhere. But it means nothing, unless we are willing to follow. The world praises, but won’t join the Kingdom. On Palm Sunday they laid down their coats and palm branches, but they did not know Him. This crowd was not the crowd that counted.
The other crowd was much more important. They were the ones who walked behind Jesus—the disciples and the early followers. They were like the dignitaries at a Roman triumph who by walking with the king were pledging their allegiance to Him. They made the effort to get behind Him and followed where He went.
It’s good to worship Jesus in church and on Easter. It’s good, but it’s not enough. We have follow Him as well.
Which crowd are you in? Jesus offers us a place in the Kingdom, but it is only for those who will go where He goes.
Imagine a parade where those in the back don’t know where it is going. Only the grand marshal knows. Those early disciple had no idea that their following Jesus would lead them to their individual crosses. But they were willing to go anyway.
The Kingdom of God is for those who follow Him. Anyone can follow but no one can experience it without following. We can’t just wait and watch, and expect to reap the benefits. We can’t be a spectator, we have to participate to know the joy of life with Jesus.