This coming Sunday, March 24th, many Christian Churches will observe Palm Sunday by reading the story found in John 12:12-15, about how crowds of people greeted Jesus by waving palm branches as He rode into Jerusalem. However, how many sermons will explain the background of that story in order to bring out the deeper meaning of what happened?
The custom of waving palm branches to greet the coming Messiah came from the celebration of The Feast of Tabernacles. In Leviticus 23:40, God commanded His people to wave palm branches as part of that feast.
According to The Encyclopedia of Jewish Symbols, this feast “became associated with messianic redemption because of Zechariah’s prophecy that, at the End of Days, ‘all who survive of all the nations that came against Jerusalem shall make a pilgrimage year by year to bow low to the King Lord of Hosts and observe the Feast of Succot [Tabernacles].’” (p. 162)
Since the people of Jesus’ day celebrated The Feast of Tabernacles, they were aware of that prophecy and the custom of the waving of palm branches as a symbol of the coming Messiah. As a result of that awareness, when they heard the news that Jesus had performed the messianic sign of raising Lazarus from the dead and that Jesus was coming into Jerusalem; they cut down some palm branches to wave and enthusiastically welcomed their coming Messiah by crying out: “’Hosanna! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel.’” (John 12:13 NASB)
In his commentary on the Gospel of John, Raymond Brown explains that “the refrain that was chanted by those who witnessed the entrance of Jesus was taken from Psalm 118, which was also part of the Tabernacles liturgy . . . Likewise, Zechariah 9:9, cited in Matthew and John, can be related to the Tabernacles context of Zechariah 14:16. Indeed Zechariah 14:4 set in a context of Tabernacles prophesied that God was to appear from the Mount of Olives, and Jesus was making His entrance into Jerusalem by way of this Mount.” (Brown, Raymond, The Gospel according to John Chapters 1-12, p. 457)
Not only did the crowd know about the waving of palm branches to welcome the coming Messiah, they also knew about the prophecy found in Zechariah 9:9, which Jesus fulfilled as He came into Jerusalem riding on a donkey and so they did as the prophecy commanded:
“Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout in triumph, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold your king is coming to you; He is just and endowed with salvation, humble and mounted on a donkey.” (Zechariah 9:9)
In the same way that the crowds of people in Jesus’ day welcomed Him as their Messiah, let Christians welcome Him into their Palm Sunday worship services by waving their palm branches and joyfully proclaiming “’Hosanna! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord.’” (John 12:13)