Jesus enters Jerusalem on ‘Palm Sunday’ in Mark 11


This Sunday in the lectionary is Palm Sunday, the week before Easter, and here in Year B we are offered the choice between reading the account in Mark 11 and John 12. I am going to look at Mark 11, since we have been doing a lot in the Fourth Gospel in recent weeks, and the account in Mark makes some important connections back with ideas that we found in its early chapters. We perhaps ought to note from the outset that the festival of ‘Palm Sunday’ is a later construction of the church; Mark makes no mention of palms (which are only found in the account in John 12.13), and the idea that this occurred seven days before Jesus’ resurrection relies on counting back in Mark’s chronology, which is more likely to be a narrative creation of Mark than a historical schedule.

It is worth remembering the events that have immediately preceded this reading, since they put this event in its theological context. On the one hand, Jesus has just come through Jericho where he has healed blind Bartimaeus, who has unequivocally identified Jesus as ‘Son of David’, a title with clear messianic implications. As Jesus approaches Jerusalem, the secrecy around his identity is cast off, and his explicit claims to be the anointed one of God become clear. On the other hand, the episode immediately before that is the dispute between the disciples about who is greatest. Jesus puts an end to their argument with one of the most important statements in this gospel:

For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many (Mark 10.45).

As at the beginning of the gospel, where the sonship of Jesus proclaimed at his baptism wove together ideas of royal enthronement with suffering servanthood, the juxtaposition of these two episodes makes it clear what kind of king Jesus is.


Our passage begins by commenting that ‘they’ came near to Jerusalem; the language of ‘coming near’ is perhaps better than ‘approached’, since the latter terms suggests the city would be visible to them, when in fact the Mount of Olives would obscure their view. But who are ‘they’? We are given a clue by the parallel phrase in Mark 10.46, when ‘they’ come to Jericho. This would certainly have included both Jesus and the Twelve, but we know they did not travel alone (Luke 8.1–3), and by now they are accompanied by the pilgrim crowds, all heading to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover. Mark later confirms this (in verse 8) and this is important for understanding the strange dynamic of adulation and rejection that Jesus experiences once he arrives at the city.

Mark mentions both the villages of Bethphage and Bethany, where Matthew only mentions the first of these. Bethany is well known to us from the Fourth Gospel as the home of Lazarus, Mary and Martha, and it is clearly a place that Jesus knows and in which he has friends. The site of Bethphage is not accurately known (despite the fact that you can locate it on Google maps!), but perhaps it is the name of the village (‘house of unripe figs’) that is significant for Mark, given Jesus’ blasting of the fig tree as a symbol of the unfruitfulness of the temple later in this chapter.

Mark makes the unnecessary mention of the Mount of Olives as the location of the two villages (which Matthew follows, but Luke and John do not); if you knew anything about Jerusalem and its environs, you would already know this. But this is the first of several hints that Mark gives, in which he assumes that his readers will pick up on allusions to Old Testament texts. The first is the story of David’s exile and return in 2 Sam 19–20, but this mention also has messianic connotations as expressed in Zech 14.4, where on the day of the Lord, God will defeat Israel’s enemies, and ‘his feet will stand on the Mount of Olives’; the hill then becomes the location for the ‘Little Apocalypse’ in Mark 13. From this spot, overlooking the city, we get a glimpse on the horizon of the end of all things—the climax of Jesus’ ministry, and beyond that the anticipation of his final return.


Jesus sends two of his disciples out together on a mission, as he has done before in Mark 6.7 (paralleled in Luke 9 for the Twelve and Luke 10 for the 72). It is not clear which village is ‘the one opposite’ or ‘in front of you’, since we do not know the exact relation of the two villages, and which one (as they approach from the east) they will come to first. Matthew clears this up, by mentioning only Bethphage first, which suggests that the village the two disciples go to is Bethany—which makes sense from our knowledge of the Fourth Gospel that this was a home to friends and allies of Jesus. Although Mark’s account can be read as though the events here are the result of Jesus’ miraculous foreknowledge and a miraculous provision, there is no need to; it seems more likely that Jesus has already formed and communicated this plan and made the arrangements ahead of time.

Although Mark doesn’t tell us some things we would like to know—like which disciples go ahead to find the colt, exactly which village the colt comes from, who the owners are, or what they felt when the colt was taken—he does tell us about the colt being untied—five times! The disciples will find a colt that is tied up; they are to untie the colt; they might be questioned about the untying; they did untie it; they were asked about untying. And, in characteristic style, he includes some precise detail (it is tied at a door outside on the street) which the other gospels omit, much as he has told us about the green grass at the feeding of the 5,000 (Mark 6.39) and the cushion on which Jesus lays his head in the boat (Mark 4.38). Why all the focus on untying?! Because, according to Gen 49.10–11, this is the sign of the Coming One who is the true ruler of Judah, to whom the nations of the world will submit, and he is the one who ties and unties the donkey. As Joel Green comments on the parallel account in Luke, ‘the whole process is wrapped in the interpretive cloth of eschatological expectation and scriptural allusion.’

When challenged, the disciples are instructed to reply that ‘The Lord has need of it’. In this gospel, unlike in Luke, Jesus is never directly addressed as ‘Lord’, so the only possible interpretation of this term is that it refers to God; Jesus’ approach to Jerusalem on the donkey is an act of divine necessity. Yet we see, as we found in the opening chapter of Mark, that the action of God is expressed in the action of Jesus. Just as John the Baptist prepared the way ‘for the Lord’, and that Lord turned out to be Jesus, so ‘the Lord’ who has need of the donkey is Jesus himself.


Jesus emphasises that this ‘colt’ has not been ridden before, and this is confirmed by the need of the disciples to put their cloaks on it, since otherwise it has no saddle. This might suggest Jesus’ identity as king, since the king’s steed cannot be ridden by others. It might hint at an animal set apart for holy use, which cannot be used by others, or for other purposes. But the primary allusion is to be found in Zech 9.9–10, an allusion that Matthew makes explicit. (It is curious to note that Matthew, likely written for a more Jewish audience, needs to make explicit that which in Mark is implicit). In Zech 9.9, the king who comes to Jerusalem to declare the victory of God over Israel’s enemies, and bring liberation and peace to the city, rides on a ‘new colt’, polos neos, which is understood by Mark (and Jesus) to refer to a colt (Mark uses exactly the same term) which has not been ridden before.

Jesus’ act of sitting on the donkey is striking in two ways. First, he has previously walked everywhere; this is the first time the gospel records him as riding. Secondly, he would be conspicuous amongst the pilgrim crowd, since pilgrims are expected to walk to Jerusalem if they are able. (Indeed, walking would be the normal method of travel for ordinary people; the image of Mary riding on a donkey to Bethlehem at the nativity is the fantastic creation of children’s Christmas plays.) Secrecy is left behind, and Jesus approaches the city in open messianic splendour.

The practice of covering the ground is a common honour for the welcome of a dignitary—though for Jesus the covering is ordinary clothes and branches that the pilgrims have to hand. Mark emphasises that it is the travellers who acclaim Jesus in this way; it is ‘those who went before and those who followed’ who sing his praises. Contrary to the hymn ‘My Song is Love Unknown‘ (Sometimes they strew His way/And His sweet praises sing…Then “Crucify!” is all their breath…) it is not the same crowd that praised him this week who call for his crucifixion the next, but different groups responding to Jesus differently. And the Galilean crowd emphasise that this king-like person is not local, but from Nazareth (as Matthew 21.11 makes explicit); whereas Judea was ruled directly by Rome through a prefect, Galilee was a separate region ruled by Herod as tetrarch. So the political threat would have been all the more obvious.

The acclamation is drawn from Psalm 118.25–26, the last of the Hallel psalms recited on the journey up to the temple, and particularly associated with Passover. These verses are not themselves messianic, but rather a blessing of those coming to the festival, though the immediately preceding verses (‘The stone the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone’) are cited by Jesus in dispute with his opponents as well as by Peter in his exposition of Jesus’ importance in 1 Peter 2.7.

‘Hosanna’ originally meant ‘God save us’ though has become by now a general acclamation of praise. But Mark records the crowd making a specific declaration: in the coming of Jesus to the city, they see the ‘coming kingdom of our father David’, echoing the language of the kingdom of God from the beginning of Jesus’ own teaching. The question is, what kind of kingdom is this, and from what will God, in Jesus, save his people? With the political overtones of this language, many might suppose that Jesus came to deliver them from the power of Rome; but Jesus has been consistent, not least in his saying in Mark 10.45, that he has really come to deliver them from the power of sin.

The final, rather enigmatic, conclusion, appears to be an anti-climax. But it shows Jesus’ careful consideration of all that he sees, and implies that the action which follows is deliberate, calculated and informed, rather than accidental or spontaneous.


The account here is worth comparing with an earlier account of a previous ‘triumphal entry’, that of Alexander the Great entering Babylon, the old capital of the ancient Near East, in October 331 BC. The longest description is that of the Roman author Quintus Curtius Rufus, who based his account on earlier, Greek sources.

A large number of the Babylonians had taken up a position on the walls, eager to have a view of their new king, but most went out to meet him, including the man in charge of the citadel and royal treasury, Bagophanes. Not to be outdone by Mazaeus in paying his respects to Alexander, Bagophanes had carpeted the whole road with flowers and garlands and set up at intervals on both sides silver altars heaped not just with frankincense but with all manner of perfumes.note

Following him were his gifts – herds of cattle and horses, and lions, too, and leopards, carried along in cages. Next came the Magians chanting a song in their native fashion, and behind them were the Chaldaeans,note then the Babylonians, represented not only by priests but also by musicians equipped with their national instrument. (The role of the latter was to sing the praises of the Persian kings, that of the Chaldaeans to reveal astronomical movements and regular seasonal changes.)

At the rear came the Babylonian cavalry, their equipment and that of the horses suggesting extravagance rather than majesty. Surrounded by an armed guard, the king instructed the townspeople to follow at the rear of his infantry; then he entered the city on a chariot and went into the palace.

The next day he made an inspection of Darius’ furniture and all his treasure, but it was the city itself, with its beauty and antiquity, that commanded the attention not only of the king, but of all the Macedonians. And with justification. Founded by Semiramisnote (not, as most have believed, Belus, whose palace is still to be seen there), its wall is constructed of small baked bricks and is cemented together with bitumen. The wall is ten meters wide and it is said that two chariots meeting on it can safely pass each other.

Not for Jesus flowers and garlands, but ordinary cloaks and branches. Not for him the splendour of a conquered army and his own troops, but peasant crowds and even children. He rides not on a war chariot, but on a young donkey. He hasn’t come to conquer the city—he hasn’t come to conquer anything, but to be conquered, to ‘give his life as a ransom for many’. This is not a ride to victory and glory, but a ride to service and death. And yet, in this way Jesus will win a victory and draw a people to himself.


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9 thoughts on “Jesus enters Jerusalem on ‘Palm Sunday’ in Mark 11”

  1. Interesting to note that Mark uses some of the details about the colt (e.g. the door, lookouts, and Kyrios) for a callback in 13.32-37. This adds weight to the argument for 13 to be seen as already being fulfilled (even before the destruction of the temple etc).

    The servants looking out for the colt are more alert and awake than the Twelve (especially as we find them in Gethsemane). They appear to we eagerly awaiting their Lord’s return.

    It also appears the Mark has also set up the whole passion narrative within a parody of a Roman triumph. Why do we even call it a “triumphal entry”? Has the connection been lost?

    How triumphant is it anyway? Pilate would arrive with great pageant from the west, with horses. Jesus sneaks in the back door from the east on a colt.

    The Roman triumph ends at Rome’s Capital Hill. Jesus’ triumph ends at Golgotha, which Mark translates for us. Head vs Skull. Get it?!

    Reply
      • Thanks. I think Mark is a master of the callback. For instance, 13.6 resonates with both Bartimaeus in and the young man fleeing the garden in 14.

        Even Mark’s translation of Bartimaeus as “Son of Timaeus” seems set up to help us decode “Barabbas” in 15 (having also fed us a translation of “Abba” in 14).

        If you want to find penal substitution in Mark, it is right there – and Mark underlines it by exposing the word play, for those with ears to hear.

        Reply
  2. Taking just the Lexionary passage apart from it’s pregnant context and considering this time of Lent, as a time of intense preparation, reminds me of that old saying “F ailing to prepare means that you are preparing to Fail”.
    Jesus had made preparations for His entrance into the City.
    The people prepared the way of the king’s entrance.
    Preparation is a great word study
    “ALL things are prepared by my Father.”
    “I go to prepare a place for you,” “You prepare a table for me,”
    “God has prepared good works for you to walk in.”
    “Eye has not seen nor the ear heard the things that a God as prepared for them that love Him,” and of coarse “Prepared as a Bride.

    Consider David and Solomon{as types of Christ} and the building of the Temple of which only a Prayer Wall is left standing.
    David prepared all the materials for it’s construction.
    Soloman prepared them all off site,
    …it was with stone prepared at the quarry; so that neither hammer nor axe nor any tool of iron was heard in the temple, while it was being built. (1 Kings 6:7b RSV)
    That the Religeous system of the day was unfruitful and thus cursed of God, and the Temple system had “lost its savour,” as, Jesus looked upon it, it was ready to be “trodden under foot,” Devoted to destruction” by God.
    Jesus prepared his body and his followers to be a living temple for a habitation of God through the Spirit, a building made without hands.
    And one day, the only thing left of history will be this temple God has built, the church of Jesus Christ.
    Everything else — all our great buildings, all our vaunted progress — will have been lost in the dust. The only thing left will be the Church of Jesus Christ, the people in whom God dwells.
    “Prepare ye the way of the Lord!”
    “Knowing this “what manner of people ought we to be”.?

    Reply
  3. I also was struck by the “untying” theme. I wonder if you could expand on the evidence for the link to Genesis 49 – as this seems to me to only mention hitching the donkey, and not untying at all (which with its 5 mentions is the clear emphasis of Mark).

    Reply
  4. Come you thankful people come!
    I just love this prayer by Ray Stedman
    Our heavenly Father, our eyes are so often dull and dim. We so often take these figures as though they were mere words on paper. We pray that you will help us to see the living reality behind them, to see what you are doing in our lives, and how you are putting it all together,
    how you have chosen us and selected us to be stones, part of this living building which is growing together, and how we are to belong to each other and draw closer to one another, that we might fulfill your great purpose in having a place to live, a dwelling place of God.
    Our Father, help us to remember all this in times of personal difficulty, to remember how you are a Father, a great King, and that we have privileges and rights and access and resources that many of us have never even claimed.
    Help us now to being living in the fullness of the provision you have made for us — not as servants but as sons of the living God. We ask this, and thank you, in Jesus’ name, Amen.
    Our heavenly Father, our eyes are so often dull and dim. We so often take these figures as though they were mere words on paper. We pray that you will help us to see the living reality behind them, to see what you are doing in our lives, and how you are putting it all together,
    how you have chosen us and selected us to be stones, part of this living building which is growing together, and how we are to belong to each other and draw closer to one another, that we might fulfill your great purpose in having a place to live, a dwelling place of God.
    Our Father, help us to remember all this in times of personal difficulty, to remember how you are a Father, a great King, and that we have privileges and rights and access and resources that many of us have never even claimed.
    Help us now to being living in the fullness of the provision you have made for us — not as servants but as sons of the living God. We ask this, and thank you, in Jesus’ name, Amen.

    Our heavenly Father, our eyes are so often dull and dim. We so often take these figures as though they were mere words on paper. We pray that you will help us to see the living reality behind them, to see what you are doing in our lives, and how you are putting it all together,
    how you have chosen us and selected us to be stones, part of this living building which is growing together, and how we are to belong to each other and draw closer to one another, that we might fulfill your great purpose in having a place to live, a dwelling place of God.
    Our Father, help us to remember all this in times of personal difficulty, to remember how you are a Father, a great King, and that we have privileges and rights and access and resources that many of us have never even claimed.
    Help us now to being living in the fullness of the provision you have made for us — not as servants but as sons of the living God. We ask this, and thank you, in Jesus’ name, Amen.
    ray stedman.com ephesians-the third race.

    Reply
  5. Never the less I think this is a magnificent, determined entrance.
    Jesus had “set his face like a flint” towards Jerusalem.
    This time of Lent has by some “theologians “ been misunderstood and misrepresented “The Cross” It is not a cross LAID upon us, that we must bear the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”
    It is not the denying ourselves some cherished pleasure.
    There is only one cross and Jesus portrayed it as an instrument of death that he and any follower must “TAKE UP “as a definite act of the will.
    Matthew 16, verse 21: “From that time forth began Jesus to show unto His disciples, how that He must go unto Jerusalem, and suffer many things of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised again the third day. Then Peter took Him, and began to rebuke Him.” He was staggered and said, “Pity Yourself, Lord!”
    That is the sum of the world’s philosophy —self shielding and self-seeking; but that which Christ preached was not spare yourself—but sacrifice yourself.
    The Lord Jesus saw in Peter’s suggestion a temptation from Satan—and He flung it away from Him. Then He turned to His disciples and said, “if any man will come after Me—let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me.”
    In other words what Christ said was this: I am going up to Jerusalem to the cross—if anyone would be My follower—there is a cross for him. And, as Luke 14 says, “Whoever does not bear his cross—cannot he My disciple.” Not only must Jesus go up to Jerusalem and be killed—but everyone who comes after Him must take up his cross. The “must” is as imperative in the one case as in the other.
    Mediatorial, the cross of Christ stands alone—but experimentally it is shared by all who enter into eternal life.
    “ You shall indeed be baptized with the Baptism that I am baptized with and drink the cup that I drink” This cup that He drank to satisfy His Fathers thirst required a n entire submission even as H e sweat blood and cried tears and uttered strong cries.
    For Paul, having taken up his cross, could then say “Gal 6:14 But God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world.
    The cross is a wonderful emancipation for those who take it up and an occasion for
    great rejoicing; It is not just a shiny piece of furniture.
    Christ has left us an example that we should follow His steps. The obedience of Christ should be the obedience of the Christian—voluntary, not compulsory; continuous, faithful, without any reserve, unto death. The cross then stands for obedience, consecration, surrender, a life placed at the disposal of God.

    Reply
  6. “the idea that this occurred seven days before Jesus’ resurrection relies on counting back in Mark’s chronology, which is more likely to be a narrative creation of Mark than a historical schedule”

    Can you expand on this? Isn’t it more to do with the comment in John 12:1 about it being 6 days before the Passover?

    Reply

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