A Jewish Roots Perspective on Palm Sunday (Matthew 21:1-22)
By Ed Vasicek, Midrash Detective
Disciples and Rabbis
Hundreds of sages or rabbis in the first century called disciples who would follow them to receive instruction in the Torah (the Law of Moses) and the oral interpretations of that Law propounded by notable rabbis. It was not unusual for a devout Jewish man to take a hiatus from his career for a month or two to follow a master teacher, traveling with him to minister in small towns and villages.
It seems that The Twelve followed Jesus part time for about two years and full time the last year and a half of his earthly ministry. This was an unusually long –but not unheard of – period of time.
There was nothing odd about a Jewish sage asking men to follow him as his disciples. The culture acclimated people to open their homes to traveling rabbis and their disciples. Jewish leaders established rules to regulate discipleship. For example, a married man could not leave home to follow a rabbi for more than 30 days without permission from his wife.
When Yeshua told his disciples (talmidim) to borrow a donkey and explain that, “the Lord needs them” (Matthew 21:3) — this was not unusual either. The Jewish ethic taught individuals to do what they could to support training disciples, thus promoting Torah study (during that time one studied Torah, he entered “the Kingdom of God”).
As a matter of fact, the Talmud instructs the disciple to prioritize his Rabbi even above his own father:
When one is searching for the lost property both of his father and of his teacher, his teacher’s loss takes precedence over that of his father since his father brought him only into the life of this world, whereas his teacher, who taught him wisdom [i.e., Torah], has brought him into the life of the World to Come. But if his father is no less a scholar than his teacher, then his father’s loss takes precedence…
If his father and his teacher are in captivity, he must first ransom his teacher, and only afterwards his father — unless his father is himself a scholar and then he must first ransom his father. (Bava Metsi’a 2:11) [Jerusalemperspective.com]
Thus Jesus’ command to love him more than family (Matthew 10:37) or to “let the dead bury their dead” (Matthew 8:21-22) take on new meaning when we understand that these particular teachings were more or less already in circulation.
What singled Jesus out from the pack was his Messianic claim which was substantiated by his miracles. The other sages claimed to be nothing more than Bible scholars who were out to train others; Christ claimed this as well, but he implied that he was the promised Messiah. Although a direct claim to be the Messiah would disqualify his authenticity to the Jewish ear (if one claimed to be Messiah, he was ruled out as a fraud), Yeshua admitted to being the Messiah in John 4:25-26 privately. Although he never mouthed the words, “I am the Messiah,” his claim was clearly understood by the religious leaders who sought his crucifixion.
PALM SUNDAY: The Crowd and Their Recognition of Jesus
The rabbis had a difficult time harmonizing how the First Testament presents the Messiah as coming “with the clouds of heaven” in Daniel 7:13 while coming on a donkey in Zechariah 9:9. They chose an either/or interpretation because they did not understand that the Messiah would come twice. In the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin 98a, we read:
...it is written, And behold, one like the son of man came with the clouds of heaven while elsewhere it is written, behold, your king comes to you … lowly, and riding upon a donkey — if they are meritorious, [he will come] with the clouds of heaven; if not, lowly and riding upon a donkey.
Palm Sunday offers us a picture of Christ as King, and, in a sense, it relates to both comings. Let us explore this special day. Palm Sunday was prophesied in Zechariah 9:9 and Psalm 118:24-27 . Zechariah 9:9 reads,
Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem!
Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he,
humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
Psalm 118:24-27 reads,
This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it. Save us, we pray, O
Lord! O Lord, we pray, give us success!
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! We bless you from the house of the Lord.
The Lord is God, and he has made his light to shine upon us.
Bind the festal sacrifice with cords, up to the horns of the altar!
Whereas Zechariah prophesies directly of Palm Sunday, Psalm 118 is an indirect reference; it is thought to picture The Feast of Tabernacles. Yet its implications could easily be understood as prophetic. The Seven Feasts of Leviticus are prophetic of God’s program of redemption. The last of the seven, Tabernacles, is associated with the millennial reign of Jesus (Zechariah 14:17-21). Palm Sunday was a preview – in modern terms, we might say a “commercial”– for his coming millennial reign.
The phrase “Hosanna” is a transliteration (two Hebrew words that are copied into Greek letters) meaning “save us now.” The Palm Sunday crowd connected “he who comes in the name of the Lord” with the Messiah; perhaps they thought of this Psalm and brought palm branches with them in their attempt to fulfill it.
The crowd that hailed Yeshua had merged from two sources: the large group that came from Bethany, where Messiah had just resurrected Lazarus and the crowd of disciples from Galilee, the home of most of his disciples.
When I was a student at Moody Bible Institute, I was blessed to have a class in the Synoptic Gospels with Dr. Paul Benware. I never forget how my mind cleared when he explained that the crowd who hailed Jesus on Palm Sunday (mostly from Galilee) was not the same crowd who yelled, “Crucify Him!” (from Judea). This information ruined some potential sermons on human fickleness!
Dr. Benware also informed us that it seems eleven of the Twelve disciples hailed from Galilee. Only one – Judas – was Judean.
Palm Sunday was an attempt to recognize Jesus as the rightful King of Israel, the Messiah, and the “Son of David.” This title would have been clearly understand as a synonym for the Messiah. There can be little doubt that the Palm Sunday crowd believed that Jesus was indeed the promised Anointed One.
PALM SUNDAY: The Kingdom of God
So this raises the question, “How is Yeshua King, and what is his kingdom? I will offer eight considerations regarding the Kingdom.
- In a sense, he came to set up his Kingdom when he told his disciples that the Kingdom of God was among them (Luke 17:21). His Kingdom rule within the family of faith is the Kingdom of God, in one sense of the term. In the Jewish mind (at least within the School of Hillel), one entered the Kingdom whenever one studied Torah.
- In a sense, his Kingdom visited earth and transcended time on the Mount of Transfiguration (2 Peter 1:16-18). The Transfiguration is one of the most under-appreciated events in the life of Jesus. Peter refers to the Transfiguration as the “coming” of our Lord. Matthew 16:28 ends with a promise that some standing there would see the Kingdom, and Matthew 17 begins with the account of the Transfiguration, the fulfillment of that promise. It was a time warp into the Millennium, a preview of what will one day be for a thousand years.
- In a sense, Jesus was crowned King on Palm Sunday by the remnant of faithful Jews who were both Jews without and within (Romans 2:29).
Daniel 9:25-27 leads some scholars (Harold Hoehner, Thomas Constable, et al) to conclude that Palm Sunday occurred on March 30, AD 33.
- In a sense, his Kingdom began when Yeshua instituted the New Covenant the evening before his death, for the New Covenant is the Kingdom covenant.
- In a sense, the Kingdom began at Pentecost (Acts 2) when the Spirit came with power and young men dreamed dreams.
- The Millennium. In the Lord’s Prayer, reference to “thy Kingdom come” was yet future; his presence alone did not fulfill the promised kingdom. One day, we will hear, “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever“ (Revelation 11:15). His feet will touch down upon the Mount of Olives when he returns to reign on earth (Zechariah 14:4, Revelation 19:11-16).
- In yet another sense, the Kingdom comes when the Millennium gives way to the New Heaven and New Earth (Revelation 21-22).
- Sometimes the Kingdom of God may refer simply to heaven. Nicodemus may have been directed toward that Kingdom (John 3:1-21). The thief on the cross asked to be part of Jesus’ Kingdom, and Jesus agreed to allow him to participate, but he would participate in “paradise” (Luke 23:43).
The phrase “Kingdom of God” is a fluid phrase. Hillel believed one entered the kingdom whenever one studied Torah (David Bivin, New Light on the Difficult Words of Jesus, pp. 17-21). Our best summary might be that God’s Kingdom is unfolding in various aspects, all racing toward the eternal version of that Kingdom, the eternal New Heaven and New Earth.
Although hundreds of people recognized Jesus as Messiah on Palm Sunday, they were a small minority. By the end of the 1st Century, perhaps 20% of the Jewish population had accepted Christ, but the leaders and the majority did not
[Source: An essay by Dr. Louis Goldberg found in the book, The Enduring Paradox, John Fischer, editor, Messianic Jewish Publishers, 2000, p. 114].
To those of us who follow Jesus, he is our King wherever we might be, in heaven or on earth, mortal or immortal. We are part of the Kingdom of God. Within the same week, the King of Glory (Psalm 24:10 with I Corinthians 2:8) would be crucified to atone for our sins; he would leave the ashes of our sins behind in the grave, and rise triumphant. His resurrection would declare him to be the Son of God (Romans 1:4). He ascended to the Father’s throne on high from whence he shall return to reign.
What a marvelous Kingdom, and what a King! Have you bowed the knee to King Yeshua?