The Triumphal Entry


Matthew 21:1-11

Text Comment

Matthew has not related Jesus’ previous visits to Jerusalem.  John, for example, records visits to Jerusalem made at the beginning and in the middle of the Lord’s ministry.  Matthew has concentrated on the Lord’s ministry in Galilee where, all the Gospels agree, the Lord spent most of his time, where he performed most of his miracles, and where he delivered most of his teaching.

But since 16:21 Matthew has been preparing us for the Lord’s arrival in Jerusalem and the events that must occur there:  his arrest, trial, death, and resurrection.  From 19:1 we have been following Jesus on his southward tour through Samaria and the Trans-Jordan, a part of the ministry covered in much greater detail in the Gospel of Luke.  Throughout this period of at least several months the Lord prepared his disciples for the events to come, though, caught up in his seeming popular triumph, they almost willfully failed to understand what he was telling them.

Matthew has just narrated the remarkable healing at Jericho where Jesus restored sight to two blind men.  The miracle was witnessed by a large crowd of Passover pilgrims and must have stirred already immense enthusiasm for Jesus into a settled conviction among many that he was, indeed, the long-awaited Messiah.  In the Gospel of John, as you know, we learn that in the days immediately prior to the Lord’s entrance into Jerusalem on that fateful Palm Sunday, he had performed what was perhaps his most dramatic, most breathtaking miracle, the raising of his friend Lazarus from the dead.  We read in John 11 that the popular frenzy for Jesus caused by that astonishing demonstration of divine power was the tipping point for the religious authorities.  They felt their control over the people, their honored and favored place in Jewish society, slipping away from them, and so they laid formal plans to kill Jesus at the earliest opportunity.

As that Sunday morning dawned, the city was abuzz with excited talk about Jesus of Nazareth.  And as Jesus rode toward the city on the road from Bethany – where Lazarus, Mary, and Martha lived and where he had been staying – surrounded by his own small entourage and the crowds of Passover pilgrims, Jesus, quite intentionally, staged a “demonstration,”  a “sequence of symbolic actions designed to have an unmistakable impact on the already [hostile] Jerusalem authorities.” [France, 296]  Remember, in John, we read the Lord saying to his disciples that no one would take his life from him, that he would lay it down of his own accord.  He came, he said in Matt. 20:28 to “give his life as a ransom for many.”  And so he did.  He orchestrated the events that would lead to his arrest, trial and execution.  Far from being a helpless victim or a pawn in forces beyond his control, events unfolded as he intended, to fulfill the purpose he had in coming into the world. However much he may have used the hatred and the envy and the unbelief of the religious leadership to accomplish his purpose, no one took his life from him.  He laid it down of his own accord.

As Jesus entered Jerusalem that fateful Sunday, he was fully aware that his hour had come and he was, as one great preacher put it, by arriving in Jerusalem that way, to the thunderous hosannas of the crowds, putting his own hand on the latch of the door that leads into the house of sorrows.  [Schilder, Christ in His Sufferings, 101]

v.1       Bethphage was a Jerusalem suburb, the site of which is not now known.  But, at most, it lay not more than two miles from the city on the normal route into Jerusalem from the east.

v.2       Jesus had walked all the way from Galilee.  Obviously he did not need to ride the last mile or two.  This is the only occasion in the Gospels when Jesus is recorded traveling other than on foot.

v.3       Perhaps the Lord knew the owners of the animals  In any event in Luke we learn that the disciples were, in fact, stopped by the owners of the animals and the disciples said what Jesus had told them to say and that satisfied the owners.

v.5       The citation is from Isaiah 62:11 and Zech. 9:9.  Matthew tells us that Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey precisely to fulfil these prophecies of Israel’s coming king.  The important point of the prophecy here is that the king is gentle and comes riding on a donkey.  It is a picture far removed from “the aggressive militarism of popular Messianism.”  [France 298]  He rides not a war horse but the foal of a donkey.  In antiquity a king would not normally enter his capital on a donkey but on a steed, or perhaps marching at the head of a column of troops.  Jesus had a very different view of what the messianic king would be and do than did his contemporaries, who were waiting for a powerful man to lead them in victory against the Roman oppressors and throw them out of the country.

v.8       This custom is not unheard of much later.  In 1834, the inhabitants of Bethlehem, who wanted help from the British government greeted the consul who was arriving on horseback by spreading their garments in his path. [Vincent, i, 114-115]

The picture is of Jesus surrounded by people as he rode down the road that led from the summit of the Mount of Olives to the bottom of the Kidron Valley and then up again to the city gate.  Some of these people had been walking with him before he began to ride the donkey’s colt and some of the people had heard of his arrival and came out of the city to greet him.  There was great noise and happy excitement as they greeted the miracle worker and began to believe that he would proclaim himself king and deliver them from the Roman army.

“Hosanna to the Son of David” means “Hail to the Messiah” and indicates that the people were ready to proclaim Jesus the one whom the prophets had told them to expect.  The day Israel had been waiting for centuries had at last arrived.  The citation is from Psalm 118:26 and then is followed by another acclamation.

v.10     The city was stirred up by the commotion and people were asking what it was all about.  Remember there were thousands of Passover pilgrims jamming the streets of the capital – many of whom had come from a distance, even from foreign lands – who would not know as much about Jesus and Jesus was much less familiar a figure in Jerusalem than he was in Galilee, though by this time it is doubtful anyone had not heard of the miracle-worker from Galilee, all the more since the raising of Lazarus only days before.

v.11     It may seem that “prophet from Nazareth” is an anticlimax, coming after “Hosanna to the Son of David,” but remember that Moses had foretold the coming of a great prophet in Deuteronomy 18 and the arrival of that prophet was a significant part of the expectation of many Jews who were looking for the fulfillment of the OT promises of the messianic age.  Remember in John 6:14 we read that after Jesus had performed the miracle of the feeding of the 5,000, the people who witnessed that miracle began to say, “Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world.”  And immediately they tried to make Jesus king by force!  So it was no small thing for the Jews to say that Jesus was “the prophet.”  After all, every Jew knew – as even Josephus tells us – that there had been no prophet in Israel since Malachi, more than 400 years before.

We can view the Lord’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem in two ways, for it was two things at once.  It was first a public declaration of his Messiahship, a throwing down of the gauntlet to the religious leadership.  While before this he had customarily attempted to keep claims that he was the Messiah quiet, so as not to provoke a confrontation with the priests and elders before it was time, now he openly received the adulation of the crowds and let them proclaim him the Son of David at the top of their lungs.  He came into Jerusalem as a King and was, in fact, daring the religious authorities to do something about it.  His hour had come; there was no longer any need to mute the witness to his Lordship.

But, at the same time, it was also and for the umpteenth time a declaration that Jesus was not the Messiah that the people were expecting, that he had not come to do for them what they thought the Messiah would and should do, that he had come to give his life a ransom for their sins not lead them in victory over the Romans on the field of battle.  He entered Jerusalem as a king, to be sure, but as a meek and lowly king, riding a donkey not a war horse, at the head of a little company of disciples, ordinary men all, not at the front of a column of heavily armed infantry.

The blood that would redeem God’s people from their sins was about to be shed.  It would be shed by the King of Kings.  Such a great thing was not to be done in a corner but in full view of the world.  But it was the very last thing the crowds expected the Messiah to do. The triumphal entry is the revelation, therefore, of the lowly, the suffering king!  We are the only people in the world who worship and serve a God with wounds!  And how important is that understanding and that conviction to everything!

It is important, absolutely important to know that Jesus Christ is the king of kings.  The crowds were exactly right in what they shouted as Jesus rode slowly past:  “Hosanna to the Son of David!”  “Hail to the Messiah!”  He had proved that he is, indeed, the king countless times over the past three years.  He had done so very recently in the most remarkable ways.  He gave sight to two blind men near Jericho.  He raised his friend Lazarus to life after he had been dead for three days.  And these were not the only times by any means that Jesus had exercised authority over nature itself.  Most kings struggle to control their subjects.  Jesus controlled the earth itself with the mere utterance of his mouth. He multiplied food on two occasions to feed great crowds of people.  Imagine a modern ruler who could do such a thing.  Imagine how popular he would be with his subjects!  Jesus silenced a storm with a command.  Imagine a modern ruler who could control the weather, whether a hurricane or global warming.  Jesus was more a king than any king before or since.

Nothing can explain why the great crowds on that day welcomed Jesus as a king into Jerusalem except for the fact that he had done things that had convinced them that he was no ordinary man.  He was a man who had divine power at his disposal to wield on their behalf.  How else could an obscure amateur rabbi from Galilee be welcomed into the capital to the thunderous hosannas of immense crowds of people.  They knew a king when they saw one.  They knew power when they saw it, sovereignty when it stood before them.

And more than a king; a prophet.  He not only gave instructions in advance about the location of the donkeys, what people would say when they untied them and the like; more than this, his life, his ministry, even his arrival in Jerusalem was following a script that had been written down centuries before.  He not only knew the future himself, he was the subject of the predictions of the ancient prophets, the man they said would come from God.  The future had become the present in the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth.  He was the Prophet!

Mere human kings or rulers would give anything to be able to predict the future.  Ancient kings spent fortunes on soothsayers and diviners whose job it was to predict the future so that the king could adjust his policies accordingly and, with advanced knowledge, take full advantage of opportunities and avoid catastrophes.  Eighty per cent of the library of the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal was devoted to texts dealing with divination, the discovery of what was to happen in the future.  Nothing has changed.  Modern governments spend millions to generate military intelligence and economic forecasts and, so it has seemed even recently, they aren’t much more successful predicting the future than the astrologers were or the diviners of Ashurbanipali court, who cut up animals to inspect their livers.  In fact the CIA has, in recent years, not performed much better than your average psychic hotline!  Predicting the future has always been difficult.  But it was not for Jesus.  He was the prophet.  The people were right about that too.

And with that knowledge and with that power they naturally expected that Jesus would do what other kings had done and what kings always did.  He would raise an army, he would lead it into battle, he would conquer his enemies, he would make his nation powerful and prosperous.  Let a modern ruler promise such things and large numbers of people will be prepared to vote him into office in hopes that he will deliver on his promises.  Let him deliver on those promises and he will be elected again and again.

So it is not so terribly surprising that the Jews were deliriously happy that morning to see Jesus approaching the capital and that they laid their garments and palm fronds on the road before him as a symbol of their respect, their delight in welcoming him, and their hope that he would do great things for them. They expected Jesus to behave as a king, to do what kings did, and to lead them to victory and to prosperity, to reestablish the nation of Israel as first among the nations of the earth.  And what is more, they were completely right about Jesus in one respect.  He could have done all the things they wanted him and expected him to do.  He could have broken the back of Roman power in Judea.  He could have unseated Tiberius and become emperor himself.  He could have restored Jerusalem’s place as the center of the world.  These are, in fact, the very kinds of things Jesus will do when he comes again.

I say, it is absolutely important to know that Jesus deserved every bit of the homage and reverence he was paid that day.  He was a king.  He was more a king than any king had ever been or would be.  He had far greater power and far greater wisdom than any king who came before him or would come after him.

But how completely different a king!  How utterly unexpected a prophet!  He comes on a donkey; no, not even on a donkey, on a donkey colt!  Have you ever seen a grown man riding a little donkey?  There are lots of donkeys in Cripple Creek, Colorado where we go each summer.  I’ve seen donkeys being ridden.  It looks faintly ridiculous.  A grown man’s feet almost reach the ground.  He seems too large and heavy a load for the little animal to carry.  It looks as if the little donkey is struggling to manage his load.  And this was a donkey colt, the first time it was ever ridden we read in Mark 11.  Jesus was a king and he had no army, so it was necessary for him to ride into the capital; but what a ride!  What a mount!  And this too was his mission as the prophets said it would be.  He would be a king but come to us gently, meekly.  Luke tells us that as Jesus clop clopped his way along the road, with the crowds yelling their praise and the disciples gleefully enjoying the public triumph of their master, Jesus was actually weeping.  He was weeping, Luke tells us, for the people’s unbelief, for their hardness of heart, for what he knew they would do and for the judgment that would befall them for their sin.  His heart was broken at the very moment when even his friends thought his greatest day was dawning, when the day of his coronation had come.

Charles Simeon, the great Anglican preacher of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, says in one of his letters that he had some proud, unsubdued spirits in his congregation.  Had he scolded them from the pulpit for their pride, he said, they would have endured it.  They probably would have congratulated him for the powerful sermon.  But when he wept over them and pitied them they became very angry with their preacher and promptly left for another church.  [Moule, Charles Simeon, 188-189]  Why was it that this crowd, so enthusiastic about Jesus on Sunday, was screaming for his crucifixion on Friday?  Was it not for something similar.  A king might have scolded his subjects and they would have taken it from them – after all he is a king! – and if he granted them peace and prosperity, what is a tongue-lashing now and then?  But to pity them, to weep over them is make public his conviction that they were sinners who had offended God, that they desperately needed redemption, that they had far greater problems than Roman occupation or a depressed economy or poverty.  And for Jesus to pay attention to their real problems instead of the problems they wanted him to solve not only offended them it disappointed them.  Their expectations had been so high and then Jesus did nothing to fulfill those expectations.  He didn’t demand a crown; he didn’t cause the Roman military barracks to collapse; he didn’t make Pontius Pilate bow before him.

And is this not what the Lord was revealing to this people on that fateful Sunday?  He came on a donkey not a war horse; he came meekly, not proudly.  He came not to impose his will upon Rome but to suffer and die for his people to save them from their sins.  This is what he had told his disciples times without number and even they, who knew and understood so much more about Jesus, could not accept what he was saying, could not make heads or tails about his coming to Jerusalem to die and to rise again.

This king comes to us not upon a great steed breathing fire, but upon a cross of agony. He comes not to impress us with his power but to love us at great cost to himself.

This is history, absolutely.  Had you been on the road outside Jerusalem that morning during the reign of Tiberius, emperor of Rome, during the governorship of Pontius Pilate, the Roman procurator of Judea, during the high priesthood of Caiaphas, you would have seen the very events being described by Matthew and the other Gospel writers.  Had you a camera you could have taken a picture of Jesus riding by on that donkey’s colt and, had it been a very good camera with a zoom lens, you could have caught the tears in his eyes.  You could have captured for posterity on film what Matthew – who was there and saw everything – has described in a few words:  the excitement of the crowds, the smiling faces of the twelve disciples, the garments and the palm fronds strewn upon the road, the mother donkey walking beside her colt, her presence no doubt calming the nerves of the little animal who had never been ridden before, much less through a crowd of people as large as this one and making so much noise.

This is history.  But it is also theology.  It is truth about life and about salvation.  It is truth about man.  It is truth about ourselves.  We are all of us always looking for the king the people thought they were welcoming that day.  We want a king – we still want Jesus to be a king who will do for us what kings are supposed to do:  give us peace, prosperity, and victory over our enemies, whatever those enemies might be.  There are multitudes today who are quite prepared to welcome Jesus with hosannas if they believe he will make them healthy, wealthy, happy, or successful.  There are still a great many so-called disciples of Jesus who, like the Lord’s disciples that day, are sure that is precisely what Jesus will do if only we ask him to.

The way of his suffering they do not know and don’t want to know.  The idea that God should suffer – either the Father in sending his only and beloved Son to suffer or the Son in bearing the ignominy, the rejection, the fear, the physical suffering of the scourging and the cross, and the far greater spiritual suffering of his rejection by his heavenly Father – all of which was the price to be paid for our sins, the punishment that we deserved for them – I say, the idea that God should suffer is anathema to Islam and it is a matter of no interest or importance to secular Westerners.  They want a God who delivers and what they want him to deliver is personal peace and affluence now!  And if they are high-minded they will say they want also justice for the poor and the helpless in the world.  Such were those on that road that led from the Mount of Olives into the City of Jerusalem.  After all those were religious people, moral people on the road that day.

They didn’t want and people today don’t want a Savior who comes gently to them, who weeps for them, who is humiliated, scourged, and executed for them.  They don’t imagine that they need that!  Just like those great crowds on Palm Sunday, they think they can handle the salvation part by themselves – it’s the good marriage, the better job, the bigger house, the healthy body, the pleasures of this world, or it’s the end of poverty, want, and injustice – that is what they want their king to provide.

But this king knows better.  He who knew where the donkey would be found and whose ministry had been foretold by Isaiah and Zechariah centuries beforehand, this prophet knew what they really needed.  They needed peace with God, they needed the forgiveness of their sins, they needed eternal life, none of which could they obtain by their own efforts.  He must give it to them, he must purchase it for them, and so to the battle he rode: not at the head of an army, not in a chariot pulled by two great stallions, but astride a little donkey, looking a bit silly as he made his way to the cross.

For the proud who are thinking only of better things in this world, this king is a grand disappointment.  But for those who know themselves sinners, who know God to be holy, who know heaven to be hard won, to know eternal life to be vastly more important to obtain than anything in this world, Jesus Christ on his donkey, a king coming to suffer and die for his people, is a king they will follow, they will put their hope and confidence in, a king they will worship with glad hearts.  Knowing this Jesus, the real Jesus, they say from their hearts, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”

Some of you have been to Rio de Janeiro, others have seen pictures of the enormous statute of Christ, the Christ of Corcovado,” that towers above the city.  A Brazilian writer, Rolf Italiaander, imagined a poor man – one of the billions of very poor people in this world, destitute people – climbing laboriously the 2,310 feet from one of the city’s slums, one of the favelas, to the base of the colossal statue.  He imagines the man saying,

“I have climbed up to you, Christ, from the filthy, confined quarters down there…to put before you, most respectfully, these considerations:  there are 900,000 of us down there in the slums of that splendid city…. And you, Christ, … do you remain here at Corcovado surrounded by divine glory?  Go down there into the favelas and live with us down there.  Don’t stay away from us; live among us and give us new faith in you and in the Father.” [from Stott, Cross of Christ, 333]

But, of course, the statue is all wrong and the poor man is all wrong. He is wrong in just the same way that the crowds were wrong on Palm Sunday.  They too were politically powerless and wanted Christ to help them; there were numbered among them many poor people who wanted a greater measure of prosperity.  They too wanted someone to take away their suffering and grant them peace and happiness in this world.  But Christ did not come to do that for them, not yet.  Something else had to be done first. Christ did not come to lord it over the city, to make all men look up to him at a great distance.  He didn’t separate himself form mankind.  He came among us, he took upon himself our suffering, far greater suffering than even they know in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro. He came into Jerusalem not on a war horse, but a donkey; not to take control but to give himself up to death for his people

And the promise of the Gospel is that if one comes to Jesus Christ and confesses this King as Lord and Savior, he will get the first things – forgiveness, peace with God, and eternal life – and, in time, will get the second things too:  health, wealth, and unimagined happiness.  But first things first.  It was so with Christ; it must be so with us as well.