Some of Them Got Some of It
Read Matthew 21:1-11 in your Bible. I used the NLT to prepare these remarks.
William Lane Craig is a brilliant theologian whose specialty is defending our faith from argumentative outsiders and training the faithful to be ready to answer critics. Here’s how he explains the Triumphal Entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. “Jesus is deliberately and provocatively claiming to be the promised king of Israel who will re-establish the throne of David. His action is like a living parable, acted out to disclose his true identity. The triumphal entry shows us Jesus’ messianic self-consciousness. He identified himself with the Shepherd-King predicted by Zechariah.
“The point was not lost on the crowd. People began to spread their cloaks on the road for Jesus to ride over like a red carpet, an action reminiscent of the way Jehu was anointed King of Israel. They cut palm branches or other leafy plants as Jews did at other celebrations and festivals and strewed them in Jesus’ path.”
Jesus taught the people mainly with stories we call parables. This made His teaching even more memorable and contained truths that were apparent only to those who had faith and/or sufficient understanding to get the point.
Jesus did something entirely different for the two-mile trip from Bethany to Jerusalem. Here He intended, as Craig explained, to act out the story. He literally put Himself in the middle of a big parade in order to demonstrate to the people His true identity and to provoke the civil and religious authorities to take action against Him. As we have seen throughout this series of messages, so people got the message and others didn’t get it at all.
The people had different understandings of who Jesus was.
1. Jesus fulfilled prophecy and sent a message. (1-7)
Verse one sets the scene; it is a pause to prepare. As Jesus and the disciples approached Jerusalem, they came to the town of Bethphage on the Mount of Olives. You can understand wanting to pause when you know that the trip from Jericho (20:29) was a long, uphill hike. The trail they took was 15 miles in length and rose 3500 feet in altitude.
Bethphage was a kind of “scenic overlook.” It was situated on the western slope of the Mount of Olives, and overlooked the Kidron Valley in which Jerusalem was located. Jesus paused there before entering Jerusalem. He wanted entrance to make a big entrance and needed to get things ready for His arrival. E. P. Sanders’s remarks about the Triumphal Entry are on target: “the entry was probably deliberately managed by Jesus to symbolize the coming kingdom and his role in it . . . performed . . . for the sake of the disciples.” (From Witherington, p. 393.)
Verses one to three detail Jesus’ preparations. I believe Jesus had arranged to use the donkey in advance. Jesus sent two of them on ahead. “Go into the village over there,” he said. This VILLAGE was likely Bethany (Mark 11:1 mentions both villages), which may imply the donkey was borrowed from Jesus’ friends Lazarus, Mary, and Martha, who lived in Bethany.
“As soon as you enter it, you will see a donkey tied there, with its colt beside it. Untie them and bring them to me. If anyone asks what you are doing, just say, ‘The Lord needs them,’ and he will immediately let you take them.” Why did Jesus use a DONKEY AND A COLT? Three reasons:
- The main reason, as we shall see, was to fulfill prophecy.
- A second reason was to indicate that He came in peace. When a king visited a city to wage war against it, he rode a horse. If the king came in peace, he rode a donkey.
- Third, the DONKEY may have been the COLT’s mother and the COLT wasn’t going to go anywhere it wasn’t led by its mother.
Only Matthew mentions two animals, Mark and Luke are more concerned with the fact that the COLT had never been ridden.
Verses four to five show that part of Jesus’ intended message was “Your King has come.” (4-5) This took place to fulfill the prophecy that said, “Tell the people of Jerusalem, ‘Look, your King is coming to you. He is humble, riding on a donkey—riding on a donkey’s colt.’” Matthew put this prophecy together from two sources:
- Isaiah 62:11 refers to the residents of Jerusalem as THE DAUGHTER OF ZION/ISRAEL, a common Old Testament reference. The NLT helpfully paraphrases it as PEOPLE OF JERUSALEM.
- Zechariah 9:9 refers to a coming king that will be just, bring salvation, and exhibit humility. Matthew only mentions the humility aspect.
Taken together, Jesus’ actions are meant to imply that He came to Jerusalem as King, but He was not the kind of king they anticipated or wanted. Most of the Jews of that day wanted a militarily powerful king who would free them from the Romans. Jesus may not have been the kind of king they wanted, but He was the kind of king they needed.
Zechariah’s prophecy was written in such a way on might assume the DONKEY happened to be a COLT. In that sense it was one animal, a juvenile one. But Matthew has two animals. People have come up with some odd theories on how Jesus could have literally ridden both at the same time. What’s important for our purpose is that Jesus had both a donkey and its colt so that He would meet all the requirements set by Zechariah’s vision. No detail was left to chance, nor any room left for misinterpretation.
Part of Matthew’s purpose is to show us how much of this they understood. He identified the reactions of three groups:
- The Disciples. The two disciples did as Jesus commanded. (6) The disciples understood enough to be obedient to Jesus’ commands. They brought the donkey and the colt to him and threw their garments over the colt, and he sat on it. The word IT in that sentence is a helpful paraphrase by the NLT translators to avoid the confusion of THEM, whether it refers to the two animals or the pile of garments on the COLT.
- Those entering Jerusalem (the “pilgrims”). The pilgrims saw Jesus as a King (8-9) and as a prophet (11). These are both accurate but incomplete descriptions. I hope PROPHET was not their final word as that sound to my ears like a retreat from KING.
- The permanent residents of Jerusalem. The residents of Jerusalem saw Jesus as a threat. It is they who will – at the behest of their religious leaders - call upon Pilate to crucify Jesus (27:23-25).
2. The reactions of those headed into the city was mixed. (8-11)
MOST of them received Jesus as a king entering the city. (8) Most of the crowd spread their garments on the road ahead of him, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. Their use of GARMENTS and BRANCHES is rather like our “rolling out the red carpet.” These are signs of a festive reception of a person of importance. There is historical precedent for these actions: King Solomon (1 Kings 1:32-40) and King Jehu (2 Kings 9:13) were welcomed with similar fanfare.
Before we go further, notice Matthew’s description of the scene: Jesus was in the center of the procession. As He intended, Jesus put Himself in the center of all this hubbub and thereby painted a target on His own back.
The praises the pilgrims shouted indicate they thought Jesus was a new king for Israel. (9) The people all around him were shouting, “Praise God for the Son of David! Blessings on the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Praise God in highest heaven!”
- “PRAISE GOD” is a paraphrase of “Hosanna,” which the footnote says means “Save now!” It is a cry for help and a shout of worship all in one.
- Jesus has already been called “THE SON OF DAVID” five times in Matthew’s gospel. It is a title of the Messiah, whom God promised would be of the lineage of King David, as Jesus was.
- “THE ONE WHO COMES” is also a title for the Messiah, used three times in Matthew.
- “PRAISE GOD IN THE HIGHEST HEAVEN” echoes praises offered in the Psalms 118 and 148. The use of Psalms would be typical for these pilgrims. Psalms 120-134 are known as the “Songs of Ascent,” sung by pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem.
After all this fanfare, the pilgrims disappointingly indicated they thought of Jesus as a PROPHET. (10-11) It seems they only got part of the truth about Jesus.
Matthew presents this as a conversation that was probably repeated thousands of times that day: The entire city of Jerusalem was in an uproar as he entered. “Who is this?” they asked. And the crowds replied, “It’s Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee.”
I imagine Jesus would have preferred to have the people understand the message He was trying to send with all this symbolism, but it served His immediate purpose to get the city in an UPROAR, which put pressure on the Jewish and Roman leaders to do something about Him.
These verses also point to an important difference between the residents of the city and the visitors for Passover. The residents of Jerusalem were mostly anti-Jesus. He was generally seen as an unwelcome “rabble rouser” who threatened the uneasy peace of the city.
The pilgrims who celebrated Jesus’ coming saw Jesus at least as a PROPHET and were filled with excited anticipation about what he might do during Passover.
The people had different understandings of who Jesus was.
When you want a fresh perspective on a Bible passage, ask a small child what they learned in church that day. In his blog “Wilderness Wanderings,” Jeff Abel wrote about the time he asked his son (around five years old at the time), what he learned on Palm Sunday. “He was carrying a small branch, so we expected to hear about Jesus riding on a donkey and people waving palm branches. Instead, our son said, ‘We learned not to poke anyone in the eye.’”
That was not the answer they expected. They were looking for something more like the flannel-graph version of the story. But he took it more personally than that.
Maybe the kid is onto something. While it’s obviously important to know the facts, the facts alone don’t save us. We have to take all this personally. We have to learn to use our faith as positively as we can, it is not something to be used to poke someone in the eye.
People are going to have different opinions about Jesus; we’ve been seeing it all through Lent. Most of the time, the most helpful way to approach contrary opinions is to listen politely, tell the truth gently but firmly, make an invitation to accept the truth, then help them to the degree they are willing. This week we’ve seen another tragic shooting. Those who want to extend their power use the tragedy to radicalize more shooters by hating Christians. The surest defense against lies like that is a life devoted to the truth of Jesus Christ, served up with sincerity and respect.
William Lane Craig quote from https://www.reasonablefaith.org/writings/popular-writings/jesus-of-nazareth/the-triumphal-entry, retrieved on 30 March 23.
Cornerstone Biblical Commentary, Vol. 11, The Gospel of Matthew, 2005, David L. Turner
Smith & Helwys Bible Commentary, Matthew, 2006, Ben Witherington III.
Palm Sunday kid story from https://jeffabel.wordpress.com/2013/02/22/what-can-you-learn-about-palm-sunday-from-a-five-year-old/#more-769, retrieved on 30 March 23.