Politics and Palm Branches
Updated: Mar 30, 2021
By J. Aaron White
This coming Sunday is known as Palm Sunday. In many churches across the world, Christians will incorporate palm branches into their worship services to commemorate Christ’s triumphal entry into the city of Jerusalem. Jesus came in paradoxical fashion (i.e., riding on the colt of a donkey) just days before he went to the cross outside the gates of that same city. Matthew captures the scene in the 21st chapter of his Gospel:
“The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them. They brought the donkey and the colt and put on them their cloaks, and he [Jesus] sat on them. Most of the crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. And the crowds that went before him and that followed him were shouting, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!’ And when he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred up, saying, ‘Who is this?’ And the crowds said, ‘This is the prophet Jesus, from Nazareth of Galilee’” (Matt. 21:6-11).
Seems Legit to Me
At first glance, the scene appears to be one of appropriate jubilation in the Person and work of Jesus Christ. However, a closer examination reveals that Christ’s entry into the city was marred by politics. Pastor and author John MacArthur offers the following insight:
“The Hebrew word hosanna is an exclamatory plea meaning ‘save now.’ But the crowd on that day was not interested in Jesus’ saving their souls but only his saving their nation. Like the Twelve [disciples], they had long wondered why, if Jesus were truly the Messiah, he had not used his supernatural powers against the Romans. Now at last, they thought, he will manifest himself as Conqueror. They were about to celebrate Passover, which commemorated the Lord’s miraculous deliverance of Israel from Egyptian bondage. What better occasion could there be for the Lord’s Anointed, the Messiah, to make the ultimate and final deliverance of his people from tyranny? . . . The multitude acknowledged Jesus as the Son of David, which was the most common messianic title. They were crying out for the Messiah’s deliverance, pleading, in effect, ‘Save us now, great Messiah! Save us now!’ . . . The multitudes knew who Jesus was, but they did not understand or truly believe what they knew. They were right in their belief that he was the Messiah, the Son of David, and that he had come in the name of the Lord. But they were wrong in their belief about the sort of Deliverer he was. They knew he was a king, but they did not understand the nature of his kingship or kingdom.” (The MacArthur New Testament Commentary, 1988, p. 261)
Right Meaning, Wrong Motive
In light of MacArthur’s exegetical and cultural insights, the cringe factor of Matthew’s account becomes exponentially increased. It was already awkward to see the King of the universe riding a colt. It becomes exceedingly awkward to hear the crowds shout Hosanna! once we realize that it was a plea for political action rather than salvation. They were thrilled at the prospect of Jesus coming in military power to rid Israel of those pesky, unclean, idol-loving Roman pagans. The people worked themselves into a lather of excitement as they anticipated a political showdown between Jesus and Caesar.
They were right to declare Christ as the Son of David, the true King and heir. Moreover, the whole scene took place under the sovereign direction of God as it fulfilled the prophecy of Zechariah 9:9. Nothing in God’s economy is ever wasted. Yet, despite shouting words with the right meaning, the people were propelled by the wrong motive. Jesus came to give his life as a sacrifice for sin (2 Cor. 5:21). Jesus came to be the ultimate and final Passover lamb (Jn. 1:29). Jesus entered the city only to exit it carrying a cross and wearing a crown of thorns. He came as the King, but his mission was to redeem his people from their greatest threats: sin, death, and judgment.
Don’t Throw Away Those Palm Branches!
Even though the scene in Jerusalem was soured by selfish political motives, we need not be ashamed to wave our palm branches. As we gather on Palm Sunday, we rejoice in the knowledge that King Jesus humbly and willingly laid down his life to redeem us from eternal wrath (Rom. 8:1). We lift our hands and hearts in praise to the King who conquered the grave so that we might have the assurance of salvation and the hope of resurrection from the dead (1 Cor. 15:35-49). We shout Hosanna! to our King who saved us from the punishment our sins deserve and brought us into the presence of a satisfied, eternally happy God and Father (1 Pet. 3:18).
In a beautiful act of providence, the Lord reclaims the dignity of the palm branch by placing it in the hands of his redeemed people at the end of the ages:
“After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, 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 on the throne, and to the Lamb!’” (Rev. 7:9-10, emphasis added).
Politics and palm branches don’t mix. As redeemed sinners, we will gather this Sunday and shout Hosanna! in response to the salvation that Christ has already won on our behalf and for the promise that our King will return and banish every remaining enemy from his kingdom. Come, Lord Jesus!