At the church where I grew up, Palm Sunday was often celebrated by having the children’s choir sing a song as we walked up the aisles of the auditorium waving palm branches. It was a reminder of John 12, in which Jesus entered into Jerusalem on a donkey, to the cheers and celebrations of some of his countrymen.
But why did people wave palm branches for Jesus in the first place? Doesn’t that seem like an odd way to honor a person?
Whenever I’m trying to answer a biblical question like this, I immediately ask myself if there are any other passages in the Bible that could illuminate the matter. In this case, it turns out that there are at least two other places in the Bible in which people use palm branches as a way of honoring God.
The first is Leviticus 23:40: “‘Now on the first day you shall take for yourselves the foliage of beautiful trees, palm branches and boughs of leafy trees and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God for seven days.”
The context of this passage is the Feast of Tabernacles (or Feast of Booths), one of the most important religious festivals for the people of Israel. Once a year, the people were commanded to live in “booths,” or temporary shelters constructed of branches and leaves. This festival was a reminder that God had preserved the people during their wanderings in the wilderness after He delivered them from Egypt.
It was a reminder that even in times of distress and darkness, the people could hold out hope for a bright future, based on God’s promises.
Over time, it seems that palm branches became a symbol of God’s love and care for the nation of Israel. By the time of Christ, waving palm branches was a sign of victory and joy. It was a reminder that God’s promises could be trusted, and that He would carry the people through every dark and desperate season. Eventually it appears that palm branches grew to be associated with their hopes for a Messiah, a King who would finally free them from their enemies and provide them with uninterrupted peace and joy in the Promised Land.
When Jesus arrived on the scene, then, some of His people waved palm branches to indicate that He was their King and their Savior. That’s why they shout, “Hosanna,” a phrase that probably meant something like, “Save us now!” They expected Him to begin His earthly reign immediately, and they were sorely disappointed when they found out that wasn’t His plan.
But to reiterate, waving palm branches was their way of acknowledging that He was the expected Messiah, the one who would fulfill God’s promises and lead them through their darkness into a bright and hopeful future. That’s why the crowd referred to Jesus as the one who “comes in the name of the Lord.” That was a shorthand way of saying, “This is the One, the Messiah who will save us from our enemies and establish God’s perfect kingdom.”
But there’s still one other place in the Bible where we see a group of people waving palm branches. It’s in Revelation 7:9: “After these things, I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no one could count, from every nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, and palm branches were in their hands; and they cry out with a loud voice, saying, ‘Salvation to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.’”
Theologians debate whether this group represents all of the Christians from every era of history, or only those Christians who passed through the Great Tribulation (I lean toward the latter view).
But either way, this is really significant! When Jesus arrived on the scene the first time around, it was a group of Jews who waved palm branches and cried out for God’s Messiah to save them. But this time, it’s a group of men and women from every nation on earth waving palm branches and declaring that God has accomplished their salvation through the Lamb, the Messiah who gave His life and rose again so that they can live forever.
In the first instance, the palm branches represent Israel’s national hope for a Savior, a King who would give them victory over their enemies. In the second instance, the palm branches represent the joy and hope of those from every tribe, tongue, people, and nation who have been saved from sin, death, and hell by the death and resurrection of the King.
The hope offered by the Messiah, in other words, is not merely local. It’s not confined to one nation. Instead, through God’s chosen people, the hope of Jesus has been extended to every nation on earth. In Revelation 7, we see vividly that God’s salvation isn’t only for the people of Israel, but for the entire world!
In John 12, salvation is a dim hope. In Revelation 7, it’s an active and present reality, as God wraps up all of history and prepares to establish His kingdom once and for all.
On that first Palm Sunday, the crowds who shouted, “Hosanna,” only understood a small portion of God’s salvation plan.
The next time a crowd waves palm branches for Jesus, the picture will be much clearer, and God’s plan will be nearly complete.
So this year on Palm Sunday, if you see children at your church waving palm branches, take a moment and thank God for the hope of Jesus Christ, who died and rose again so that you and I can have a perfect and bright future. Even in the darkest of times, we can remember that light and victory are coming!
“Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”