Unbelief in the Triumphal Entry

What do we do with the story of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem? It’s a question I’ve always asked myself, especially growing up singing the worship song “Hosanna” which has a chorus consisting solely of the words from the people in the story. For years it’s been a bit jarring for me to sing that song (and others like it) because it’s very clear that in the story these same people are soon to change their “Hosanna” to “Crucify him! Crucify him!”

What then are we to do with the story? What is the thrust of the triumphal entry narrative?

The Story in Context

As any student of the Bible acknowledges, contexts is of utmost importance. What the writers place in the story and around the story often determines what they’re trying to teach through the story. And what the biblical writers are teaching, God is.

The triumphal entry occurs in all four Gospel accounts. Here are the stories that occur before and after these accounts. See if you notice any connections:

Triumphal Entry in Matthew 21:1-11

  • Context Before:

    • Jesus heals a blind man (Matthew 20:29-34).

  • Context After:

    • Jesus cleanses the temple (Matthew 21:12-17).

    • Jesus curses the fig tree (Matthew 21:18-22).

Triumphal Entry in Mark 11:1-11

  • Context Before:

    • Jesus heals a blind man (Mark 10:46-52).

  • Context After:

    • Jesus curses the fig tree (Mark 11:12-14).

    • Jesus cleanses the temple (Mark 11:15-19).

Triumphal Entry in Luke 19:28-40

  • Context Before:

    • Jesus’ parable of the ten minas, with the last servant becoming an enemy and having his mina taken away (Luke 19:11-27).

  • Context After:

    • Jesus weeps over Jerusalem’s unbelief (Luke 19:41-44).

    • Jesus cleanses the temple (Luke 19:45-48).

Triumphal Entry in John 12:12-19

  • Context Before:

    • The Jews plot to kill Lazarus because on account of him many were believing in Jesus (John 12:9-11).

  • Context After:

    • Jesus emphasizes his coming death (John 12:20-36)

    • John explains the unbelief of the people using Isaiah’s prophecy (John 12:37-43).

The Emphasis of the Triumphal Entry from the Context

The upshot of all that data is quite clear. Notice,

  • In Matthew and Mark’s case, the stories after the Triumphal Entry are both clearly about the people’s unbelief. Jesus cleanses the temple because of their corrupt religion and faith. And he curses the fig tree to symbolize the same. (The story before about healing the blind man might have relevance in that some do believe, however.)

  • In Luke’s account, this emphasis on unbelief is even clearer. Before Luke’s account is Jesus’ scalding parable of the ten minas. But even more clear, right after Luke’s account of the Triumphal Entry he describes how Jesus weeps over Jerusalem because of their unbelief! This comes right after the people of Jerusalem cry out “Hosanna” to Jesus!

  • In John’s account, the story is predicated with the strong disbelief of the Jews who want to kill Lazarus and Jesus. Then after, Jesus emphasizes—right after being praised by so many people—that he’s about to die. And to make it even clearer, then John adds a section devoted to describing the unbelief of the people.

To summarize the contexts: unbelief is the surrounding emphasis at the Triumphal Entry.

This means, more specifically, the Triumphal Entry (which includes much apparent belief and praise) for each of these writers is a lesson in contrast, a lesson where ironic ‘belief’ and ‘praise’ is on display. Jesus’ emphasis in the surrounding stories—especially as he weeps right after for Jerusalem—was on how they did not believe in who he really was. They believed and wanted him to be their political Messiah, delivering them from the oppression of the Romans. But most didn’t believe in him as their true Savior. And remember, they were about to crucify him.

It is true, however, that they were praising Jesus, meaning, he was receiving actual praise from them as King (Luke 19:37-38). All creation is praising Jesus; they are exemplifying the same here (Luke 19:39-40). But still, I don’t think any of the Gospel writers intended this praise in the story to be a positive example for Christians; the context of each telling of the story simply screams the opposite.

Instead, each narrative of this event seems to be an example of the shocking truth that many people followed Jesus, claimed to be his disciples, even said they ‘believed’ in him, and even ‘praised him’, but then would eventually turn on him in unbelief, wanting to crucify him. It’s the overwhelming context of the Gospel story that leads us to this emphasis.

Does This Mean We Cannot Celebrate Palm Sunday?

Does this mean we cannot celebrate Palm Sunday? Absolutely not. For unlike them, we know what he was doing as he was going into that city—he was heading to the cross. We also can have hearts that can genuinely cry, “I need deliverance!”, and can rejoice that Jesus is the one who delivers. Furthermore, through the new birth, we do have genuine belief. Jesus does not weep over our unbelief, but thanks to his new birth, we see his glory and love him.

So, we can join in with the thousands of people from all over the world and worship our Christ on Palm Sunday because of what he was doing when he entered Jerusalem. We can praise him genuinely (unlike most the original praisers) because of this.

But should we use “Hosanna,” with it’s clear reference to the Triumphal Entry, in songs? It’s a matter of personal preference. With the Gospel writers’ (and God’s) clear emphasis on unbelief in the story—with the negative thrust of the Triumphal Entry where these hosanna-ing people are soon to turn evil toward him—I would personally choose not when we have plenty of other options for worship. But again, that’s personal taste. Yet if we do use the word, we can still use it to praise Christ, for he is the Deliverer in the gospel.

And as he entered Jerusalem on that Palm Sunday, he knew exactly the delivering he was soon to do.