This weekend, in churches worldwide, Christians will celebrate Palm Sunday, the first day of Holy Week (the last week of Lent, commemorating the final week of Jesus' earthly life). Falling the week prior to Easter, it commemorates the Savior's triumphal entry into Jerusalem only days before his arrest and crucifixion — an event recorded in all four New Testament Gospels.
According to John 11, Jesus had just raised Lazarus from the dead in the small town of Bethany. This stunning miracle had captured the attention of many, including the evermore uneasy Jewish aristocracy in nearby Jerusalem.
Jesus and his disciples returned to Bethany and Bethphage, slightly east of the Mount of Olives. He sent two of them ahead to a nearby village for a donkey and, after the disciples had placed some of their clothes upon the animal's back, mounted it and rode into the city.
"All this was done," says Matthew (21:4-5), always eager to mark prophecies, "that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet, saying, Tell ye the daughter of Sion, Behold, thy King cometh unto thee, meek, and sitting upon an ass, and a colt the foal of an ass." "And a very great multitude spread their garments in the way; others cut down branches from the trees, and strawed them in the way" (Matthew 21:8).
"And when he was come nigh, even now at the descent of the mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to rejoice and praise God with a loud voice for all the mighty works that they had seen; saying, Blessed be the King that cometh in the name of the Lord: peace in heaven, and glory in the highest" (Luke 19:37-38). "Blessed be the kingdom of our father David, that cometh in the name of the Lord: Hosanna in the highest" (Mark 11:10).
The Old Testament background to these events is clear and can be found in Zechariah 9:9-10:
"Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion," wrote that prophet of the late sixth century B.C. "Shout, O daughter of Jerusalem: behold, thy King cometh unto thee: he is just, and having salvation; lowly, and riding upon an ass, and upon a colt the foal of an ass. And I will cut off the chariot from Ephraim, and the horse from Jerusalem, and the battle bow shall be cut off: and he shall speak peace unto the heathen: and his dominion shall be from sea even to sea, and from the river even to the ends of the earth."
It's easy to understand why some hoped or feared that they were witnessing the launch of a messianic revolt against Roman domination.
In 141 B.C., triumphant Jewish liberators under Simon Maccabeus, after defeating the Seleucids, had "entered the citadel of Jerusalem with shouts of jubilation, waving of palm branches, the music of harps and cymbals and lyres, and the singing of hymns and canticles, because a great enemy of Israel had been destroyed" (1 Maccabees 13:51).
"Some of the Pharisees from among the multitude," reports Luke 19:39-40, "said unto him, Master, rebuke thy disciples. And he answered and said unto them, I tell you that, if these should hold their peace, the stones would immediately cry out."
They had already been worried about a revolt; this mass demonstration did nothing to reassure them.
Still, although he was more powerful by far than any of the Maccabees, the mortal Jesus was no military liberator — he had ridden a donkey, not a warhorse — and his sober feelings that day were very different from the crowd's enthusiasm:
"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 upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God's coming to you'" (Luke 19:41-44, NIV translation).
Yet, in fact, true liberation was about to come. Jesus would shortly defeat the greatest enemy of Israel and all humanity: death.
Daniel C. Peterson is a native of southern California and received a bachelors degree in Greek and philosophy from BYU. He earned a Ph.D. in Near Eastern Languages and Cultures from UCLA after several years of study in Jerusalem and Cairo. He is a professor of Islamic Studies and Arabic at BYU and is the editor of the twice-annual FARMS Review, the author of several books and numerous articles on Islamic and Latter-day Saint topics. Peterson is also director of outreach for BYU's Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship. He spent eight years on the LDS Church's Gospel Doctrine writing committee and is the founder and manager of MormonScholarsTestify.org.