When Jesus enters Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, everything changes. As Mark tells it, Jesus has been moving about in secret, teaching in private, refusing to draw attention to his miracles, and speaking in coded parables. He cleanses a leper but then warns, “See that you say nothing to anyone” (Mark 1:44). Peter confesses that Jesus is the Christ, but Jesus instructs him “to tell no one about it” (8:30), and after the transfiguration he “gave them orders not to relate to anyone what they had seen, until the Son of Man should rise from the dead” (9:9). It’s an anti-PR campaign.
Jesus hasn’t sought out the power centers of Israel. He’s been in the despised backwater of Galilee and the outskirts of the land. He has not visited Jerusalem or the temple. He has been walking everywhere, always on the move but always on foot.
Palm Sunday, though—that is no secret. Jesus stages an advent to the city, accepts the acclaims of the crowd, and heads straight for the temple. Even his mode of transport changes: He rides enthroned on a donkey, as disciples lay down a carpet of clothes and branches in his path. It’s a piece of “public street theater” (David Garland), a self-conscious fulfillment of the prophecy of Zechariah 9, which tells of the arrival of a conquering king to Zion. Jesus’s hour has come, an hour of confrontation that he knows will lead to his arrest, trial, and death.
For all the spectacle of his entry, Palm Sunday ends in anticlimax. He is proclaimed as king, but there is no coronation or anointing. He enters the temple, glances around, and then quietly leaves to spend a night in nearby Bethany. Anticlimax is part of the point. When he finally does take his throne, it’s a cross.
Yet as events unfold over the following days, it becomes clear that Palm Sunday isn’t as anticlimactic as it first appears. Though not crowned as king, Jesus assumes the role of priest with his examination of the temple. According to Leviticus 14, houses as well as people could contract “leprosy.” To determine whether the house is defiled, a priest inspects the house and then returns a week later to see if the infection has spread. Eventually, if the house is leprous, it has to be ripped apart, “its stones, and its timbers, and all the plaster of the house” (Leviticus 14:45).
Jesus’s first visit to the temple is a priestly inspection, and when Jesus returns the following day, he finds a spreading defilement. The temple is supposed to be a house of prayer for all nations, but Jesus charges that the Jews have turned it into a safe house for bandits and brigands. The temple is supposed to be a refuge for widows, but the temple authorities prey on widow’s houses (Mark 12:40–44).
This time Jesus does act, dramatically, overturning the tables of the moneychangers and driving them out. In another piece of prophetic theater, Jesus acts out the destruction of the leprous house. A few days later, standing on the Mount of Olives, he warns his disciples that soon “not one stone shall be left upon another which will not be torn down” (Mark 13:1).
Like the other Gospel writers, Mark interweaves the narrative of the temple cleansing with the story of the fig tree. As Jesus comes back to Jerusalem the day after his entry, he looks for fruit on a fig tree, finds none, and curses the tree. The next morning, the tree is “withered from the roots up” (Mark 11:20). It’s a figure of the temple’s destruction, and Jesus immediately adds an encouragement about the power of prayer: “Whoever says to this mountain, Be taken up and cast into the sea, and does not doubt in his heart, but believes what he says is going to happen, it shall be granted him” (11:23). This mountain is the temple mount, and the sea is the sea of Gentiles, which will swallow up the polluted temple within a generation. As Jesus’s curse withered the tree, so the disciples’ prayers will move temple-mounts.
“Hosanna! Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” Through the centuries and today throughout the world, Christians sing the song of Palm Sunday every Sunday. By this song, we acknowledge that Jesus the King has come among us. Jesus the conquering King is also Jesus the inspecting Priest, who comes to examine the temple of the Spirit that is his church. If he finds that we’ve turned his house of prayer into a robbers’ den, if he sees the blood of widows and orphans on our hands, he’ll declare our house desolate and remove our lampstand.
Every Sunday is Palm Sunday. We acclaim Jesus with joy, reverence, and awe, for our Priest is a consuming fire.
Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute. He is the author most recently of Traces of the Trinity. His previous articles can be found here.
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