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What Is the Significance of the Timing of Palm Sunday?

Like all those celebrating then, it is for us, for our sins, that Jesus would be crucified mere days later. And knowing what we know now, we celebrate and praise Jesus for his love, his grace, his sacrifice, and for his triumphal entry into our lives.

Published Mar 23, 2023
What Is the Significance of the Timing of Palm Sunday?

The palm processional — or what we now know as the “Triumphal Entry” — is one of the few events of the life of Jesus that is spoken of in all four gospels. Obviously, the authors thought it was important.

Descriptions of the event are found in Matthew 21:1-11, Mark:11:1-11, Luke 19:28-40, and John 12:1-17. At the time, of course, no one realized this would be his final entry into Jerusalem, so the event became even more compelling.

Today, we can only imagine how his disciples must have felt and what they must have been thinking. It had to be overwhelming. They had followed this teacher for three years.

They had witnessed all of the miracles, but more importantly, they had been with him virtually every hour of every day.

They knew this man. Peter had declared him to be “…the Messiah, the Son of the Living God” (Matthew 16:16). While some, or many, still questioned, still doubted, they knew the man was something special.

And now telling them to find the colt of a donkey that no one had ever ridden. Then finding it exactly as he had told them, in direct fulfillment of the prophecy found in the Book of Zechariah:

Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion! Shout, Daughter Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and victorious, lowly and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey (Zechariah 9:9).

Their hearts were overflowing with expectation. The disciples were the first to throw their cloaks on the donkey and on the ground in front of Jesus.

But they were indeed not alone in their celebration. Many people celebrated the King's coming into Jerusalem, throwing their own cloaks on the ground. Many others grabbed branches of palms — to place on the royal pathway.

During those ancient times, kings who came in triumph rode on white stallions or in chariots. Those who rode mules came in peace, much like Solomon, when he became king (1 Kings 1:38).

The term “triumphal entry” then is perhaps a bit misleading and not quite foretelling the events to come the following week but seems appropriate to the expectations of the people that Jesus came as a conquering king to free them from enslavement to the Roman rule. They were expecting a military hero.

When Did Palm Sunday Actually Happen?

While the date of when this event was first celebrated is not known for certain, it seems a description of a palm celebration was recorded perhaps as early as the fourth century. This seems to be the earliest record of what we now know as “Palm Sunday.”

Palm Sunday is what is often referred to as a “moveable” celebration, meaning the date will change every year based on the liturgical calendar, but always celebrated one week before Easter.

Palm Sunday is also known as “Passion Sunday” by the Catholic, Anglican, and some Orthodox denominations — in reference to the start of Jesus’ passion week.

The three Synoptic Gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, tend to describe the event in similar fashion, but John seems to throw a bit of a monkey wrench into the exact timing of the event.

In chapter 11, after telling us of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead and the resentment among the Pharisees — John goes on to mention that due to the plots to kill him, Jesus “…withdrew to a region near the wilderness, to a village called Ephraim, where he stayed with his disciples” (John 11:57).

Then, in 12:1, the very next verse, John says, “Six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany…” and relates the story of Mary pouring very expensive perfume on the feet of Jesus and wiping it with her hair. Wait, what? Six days before Passover?

Following that, in verses 12-13, we are told, “The next day the great crowd that had come for the festival (the Passover festival) heard that Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem. They took palm branches and went out to meet him, shouting, ‘Hosanna!’ ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’ ‘Blessed is the king of Israel.” This seems to place the Triumphal Entry only five days before Passover.

Why is that significant? Well, it goes directly to when the Day of Passover occurred and when Jesus made his entry into Jerusalem.

For many, the assumption is simply that Jesus and the disciples ate the Passover meal on Thursday night before he was crucified on Friday, the Day of Preparation. But the day of preparation was for the Sabbath, as is every Friday. When was Passover?

Perhaps the most commonly known school of thought is that Passover in the year of Jesus’ death also fell on Saturday, making that day a “high day,” a celebration of both Passover and the Sabbath.

But if true, it would also mean that, per John’s timing, six days prior to that would have been Sunday, meaning Jesus had come to Bethany on Sunday, and entered Jerusalem the next day, Monday.

John 18:28 tells us, “Then the Jewish leaders took Jesus from Caiaphas to the palace of the Roman governor. By now, it was early morning, and to avoid ceremonial uncleanness, they did not enter the palace because they wanted to be able to eat the Passover.” 

Yet, as we now celebrate it, Jesus and his disciples ate the Passover meal the night prior — meaning on Thursday.

Inasmuch as we do not know the year of the crucifixion of Jesus, it is not difficult to find a multitude of arguments and schools of thought, with references from Scripture to support each case.

There are thoughts that within Jerusalem, the Passover meal was celebrated a day later than in other areas — like Galilee. There are other opinions that the Passover was on Friday or even Thursday.

There is one argument that in AD 31, the presumed year of Christ’s death, Passover fell on a Wednesday. Then, after eating the Passover supper with his disciples on Tuesday night, Christ was crucified midday Wednesday — the Passover (Philadelphia Church of God)

Passover falling on Thursday could certainly make sense. Passover is celebrated for an entire week. Is it possible that Passover proper fell on Thursday, and Jesus celebrated that Passover meal that night?

Yes. Could the Pharisees not have wanted to be defiled for other Passover celebrations to be held later? Again, yes. And then John’s six days reference also fits right into place.

Is it also possible that Passover indeed fell on Saturday, a high holy day in conjunction with the Sabbath? Perhaps, also, yes.

All of this, though, comes with a but…

Does the timing fall perfectly into place? Maybe not as we see it today. That said, it is quite likely that there will be some who are convinced one way or another that they have the timing clear. There is certainly nothing wrong with that — and they may be correct.

On this side of heaven, we may never know the actual chain of events. And yes it can get confusing — and easy to get wrapped around the axle over.

But…

What Is the Truth?

What we do know is this — we can discard any theory or thought that the writers of the gospels made a mistake.

To suppose or theorize that all four gospel writers got the chronology wrong of such a noteworthy — no, monumental — event in their lives is quite intentionally wrong-minded.

The problem is not theirs — it is ours. It is a mystery that we know will be resolved when we step into eternity.

What is important to remember is that Jesus came to Jerusalem to save the lost. To save us (Zephaniah 3:15-17).

Many of these people singing out praises to Jesus on that day had either witnessed or heard about Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. They were celebrating his triumphal entry into Jerusalem with palms and many cloaks.

Yet only a few days later, these would be the very same people who would be calling for his crucifixion. The meaning of Jesus’ death on the cross — his sacrifice for us — obviously lost on them. As a result, Jesus wept — just as he wept for Lazarus:

 As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it and said, “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes. The days will come when your enemies…will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you” (Luke 19:41-47).

Indeed, we can continue to search and dig and pick apart the words in a prideful, vain attempt to figure out the exact dates and exact chronology of the events of that time.

But when it comes right down to it, does it have anything at all to do with what we truly celebrate today? I agree — it does not. Does it really matter? Not one bit.

Like all those celebrating then, it is for us — for our sins — that he would be crucified mere days later.

And knowing what we know now, we, too, celebrate and praise Jesus for his love, his grace, his sacrifice, and for his triumphal entry into our lives. 

For further reading:

What Is Palm Sunday?

Jesus' Triumphal Entry: The Bible Meaning of Palm Sunday

Palm Sunday Scriptures: Bible Verses on Jesus' Triumphal Entry

Photo Credit: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/Kara Gebhardt


SWN authorGreg Grandchamp is the author of "In Pursuit of Truth, A Journey Begins" — an easy-to-read search that answers to most common questions about Jesus Christ. Was he real? Who did he claim to be? What did he teach? Greg is an everyday guy on the same journey as everyone else — in pursuit of truth. You can reach Greg by email [email protected]  and on Facebook

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