Palm Sunday is the Sunday before Easter and is an annual commemoration of Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem one week before the Sunday of His resurrection. Palm Sunday is a celebration in its own right of Jesus as Messiah and king, but for most Christians who celebrate it, it also marks the beginning of a week-long remembrance of Jesus' final days and especially His sacrificial death and Resurrection. Thus, Palm Sunday is generally regarded not only as a day of commemoration and celebration but also one of anticipation for Easter itself and the celebration of the cross, the empty tomb, and Jesus' ultimate victory of sin and death on our behalf.
Why "Palm" Sunday
A week before the Sunday of Jesus' resurrection, He entered Jerusalem to celebrate Passover, which would begin later that week. Jesus rode in on a donkey, in fulfillment of prophecy (Zechariah 9:9), and was welcomed with much excitement and anticipation. John tells us that:
"On the next day the large crowd who had come to the feast, when they heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem, took the branches of the palm trees and went out to meet Him, and began to shout, 'Hosanna! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel,'" (John 12:12-13).
Matthew and Mark mention that the branches were laid down on the path in front of Jesus as He entered:
"Most of the crowd spread their coats in the road, and others were cutting branches from the trees and spreading them in the road. The crowds going ahead of Him, and those who followed, were shouting, 'Hosanna to the Son of David; Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord; Hosanna in the highest!' When He had entered Jerusalem, all the city was stirred, saying, 'Who is this?' And the crowds were saying, 'This is the prophet Jesus, from Nazareth in Galilee,'" (Matthew 21:8-11).
"And many spread their coats in the road, and others spread leafy branches which they had cut from the fields. Those who went in front and those who followed were shouting: 'Hosanna! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord; Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David; Hosanna in the highest!" (Mark 11:8-11).
Though neither Matthew nor Mark specifically said that they were palm branches, the fact that they were spread flatly on the ground for Jesus to walk over fits best with palms, which is, of course, made plain in John's account. It may also be true that palm branches were not the only branches that were cut a laid at Jesus' feet, but that John emphasized the palm branches because of their particular associations. In ancient Jewish and Roman literature alike, the palm branch was a symbol of victory and was also often given, along with a crown, as an honor to a king. In some Jewish writings, we likewise see palm branches connected with praise to God for delivering His people:
"On the twenty-third day of the second month, in the one hundred seventy-first year, the Jews entered it with praise and palm branches, and with harps and cymbals and stringed instruments, and with hymns and songs, because a great enemy had been crushed and removed from Israel," (1 Maccabees 13:51).
At any rate, the branches are obviously not the primary focus of the event. Luke's account doesn't mention the branches at all:
"As He was going, they were spreading their coats on the road. As soon as He was approaching, near the descent of the Mount of Olives, the whole crowd of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the miracles which they had seen, shouting: 'Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord; Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!'" (Luke 19:36-38).
Clearly, the most important fact is not a detailed list of what they laid in front of Jesus but rather the fact that they honored Him and recognized (for the moment anyway) that Jesus was, indeed, the promised Messiah to come. We see similar behavior in 2 Kings when Jehu was first announced as King:
"Then they hurried and each man took his garment and placed it under him on the bare steps, and blew the trumpet, saying, 'Jehu is king!'" (2 Kings 9:13).
Still, while the palm branches are a relatively small detail in the narrative, over time they became the symbol of the whole event, an outward physical expression of honoring Jesus as King Messiah. This notion seems to have been enhanced by the similar imagery of the great crowd of every nation honoring Christ in the book of Revelation:
"After these things I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no one could count, from every nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, and palm branches were in their hands; and they cry out with a loud voice, saying, 'Salvation to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb,'" (Revelation 7:9-10).
Revelation (also written by John) speaks again of honoring Jesus (the Lamb) and crying out His praises while bringing palm branches. Whether or not the use of palm branches in Revelation 7 was specifically intended to hearken back to Jesus' triumphal entry is a subject of debate. But the overlap of imagery helped solidify in the minds of many Christians of later generations the symbol of the palm branch as a representation of praise for Jesus as the victorious Christ who conquered sin and death and will reign forever over all nations. So, rather than something more straightforward like "Triumphal Entry Sunday," the annual commemoration of this event came to be known through this symbol as "Palm Sunday," though the meaning is, in fact, the same.
Should Christians Celebrate Palm Sunday?
The Bible nowhere commands or even implies that Christians must annually commemorate the event of Jesus' triumphal entry. Indeed, there is no evidence that Palm Sunday was conceived of in the first few centuries of the church. It seems to have developed over time as traditions surrounding the celebration of Easter grew longer and more elaborate, not taking form until much later in history. So, there is no burden on the conscience of any Christian to celebrate Palm Sunday. It is simply a tradition.
Still, there is nothing wrong with the idea of dedicating a day every year to celebrate Jesus as the triumphant king and long-awaited Messiah who sits on the throne of David forever as Son of God and Lord of all nations. While we should remember and honor Jesus as our victorious Lord and King all the days of our lives, there is certainly nothing sinful and perhaps something quite healthy about holding a regular public celebration and commemoration of that fact, especially as part of our overall rememberance of Jesus' sacrificial death and glorious resurrection around Easter. The "Triumphal Entry," in its context in the passion narrative, should also serve as a reminder to us that:
"He came to His own, and those who were His own did not receive Him. But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God," (John 1:11-12).
Mere days after Jesus was hailed in the streets of Jerusalem as the victorious king, He was put to death on a cross. Yet through the cross He indeed conquered. By dying He slew death, and when His tomb was found empty, it was found that no tomb could ever hold those who are in Him. Jesus is the victorious King indeed, and Palm Sunday is a celebration of that. It should not be construed as a mandatory obligation on Christians nor as a meritorious work before God in any way, but as far as voluntary human traditions go, Palm Sunday seems to be a pretty good one.