When I was a little girl, there was one Sunday a year when my sister and I really ramped up our efforts to get out of going to church: Palm Sunday. You know – the Sunday before Easter, when in so many traditional churches the children process into the sanctuary waving palm branches and singing a pretty song they’ve been working on for weeks. Maybe this happened at your church yesterday. My sister and I didn’t appreciate this ritual at all, which didn’t make sense to us and simultaneously horrified our introverted sensibilities.
As I got older I realized that those palm branches did fit into the story of Easter and Holy Week, but that they were just a very small part of a much greater story that we often didn’t hear about: the relationship between ancient Jewish history and the events of Holy Week.
To begin today’s journey, read the “Palm Sunday” story in Matthew 21:1-11, noting the reference to Zechariah’s prophecies. Are there any details in this story that you may have overlooked in previous readings? Is there anything you don’t understand?
Using any of your additional resources (commentary, concordance, Bible dictionary, etc. Check out our list of resources if you don’t have your own), what can you discover about the word “hosanna” as used in verse 9?
The events of Holy Week as we know it cannot be separated from the ancient Jewish celebration of Passover. Before we go any further into the significance of these two events, read Exodus 12, giving special attention to verses 1-14.
What was going to happen to the houses of Egypt?
What did God accomplish through the obedience of His people in their observance of this Passover meal? And why would He want them to continue to observe the meal according to those specific instructions in the future?
Throughout the Old Testament, God often gave the Israelites the instruction to observe certain feasts and festivals in remembrance of what He had done. He desired that the generations to come would know of His faithfulness. Can you think of any other instances when God instructed His people to remember what He had done?
Read Luke 22:1. Given what you read in Exodus 12, what might that have meant for the people of Israel? What might they have been doing (or preparing to do)?
Read John 11:55. Where were the people expected to go for the Passover? Why was that city significant? (Deuteronomy 16:5-6 gives us clues.)
In Exodus 12:3, when would the Israelites select the lamb for their families?
Reading ahead to verse 6, how long would they have the lambs before the sacrifice?
Because of the careful observance of the Passover festival in Jesus’ day, the Jewish people would make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the celebration. Most people would want to get to the city a week in advance of the actual observance of the Passover feast, for two reasons.
Traditionally, according to the rituals set forward in Old Testament law, the Jewish people had to be ritually clean to be allowed to participate in temple ceremonies. In going to the temple a week beforehand, the people could ensure that they would be allowed to participate when the time for Passover came.
In addition, many of the poorer Jews likely would not have had a lamb to sacrifice. Instead, they would purchase a lamb once they came to Jerusalem. Doing so on the tenth day of the month would require an advance arrival to have the required four days with their lamb before the sacrifice (on the fourteenth day, as mandated by God).
In John 12:1, when was Jesus in Bethany?
From that, when did Jesus arrive in Jerusalem in John 12:12?
The tenth day of the month was an important one, as every year on that day, hundreds of priests would line the streets of Jerusalem to find the most perfect sacrificial lamb for the temple Passover sacrifice. Flocks of lambs – by the thousands – would be entering the city on that day. As the high priest selected the lamb to be offered, he would announce, “Hosanna to the Highest!” On hearing this, the Jewish people would rush into the streets, wave palm branches, and echo the shouts of the priest.
Looking again at Matthew 21:1-11. What do you notice? What is implied?
Exodus 12 gives specific qualifications of the lamb that would be chosen for the Passover meal. What are they?
What is interesting about Pilate’s words to the crowd later in the week, as recorded in Luke 23:4?
What are you beginning to understand about Jesus’ identity?
The ancient calendar indicates that the 10th day of the month would always fall on the first day after the Sabbath, which – for us – is Sunday. Palm Sunday. Moving ahead to the fourteenth day – or the day of the Passover feast – we fall on Thursday, the day acknowledged in the modern church as the day of Christ’s last supper with His disciples.
Read the account of Jesus’ final Passover celebration in Luke 22:7-19. Given what you have already read and learned, what is the significance of Jesus’ words in verse 19? What was He hinting at? Use a commentary to confirm your answer.
To close today’s (extensive) study and prepare for the next segment of our journey to Easter, read 1 Corinthians 5:7b.
You may also find it helpful to make a timeline of the week leading up to the crucifixion, including both events of the traditional Passover celebration and of Jesus’ passion. You may also refer to one online, like this (quite in-depth) version.
For deeper study:
Exodus says that the Israelites were to “take care of [their lambs] until the fourteenth day of the month.” What might have occurred on a personal level as families lived with and cared for their lambs for that length of time?
History says that before the Jews of Jesus’ day were allowed to make their Passover sacrifice in the temple, the priest would ask the head of the household, “Do you love your lamb?” three times. They had to convince the priest that they loved their lamb before they could go forward with the sacrifice.
Read John 21:15-17, noting significant parallels.