Charismatic leaders have deceived entire nations into following them. They have stirred up support to enter into unjust wars. They have tortured and slaughtered innocent people (oftentimes their own citizens) in order to extend their wealth and power. History is full of leaders of that sort.
The King of Kings was radically different. Rather than earning wealth and power, the second person of the Trinity was willing to empty himself of his heavenly prerogatives. He humbled himself taking on flesh, and coming in the likeness of man. And he did it at a time when his family had to flee for safety from one of the most notorious examples of evil, namely King Herod the Great. Rather than forcing his way into the limelight, clamoring for attention, Jesus remained in relative obscurity for most of his life and ministry.
But the knowledge of his identity took a drastic turn in our passage this morning. Many will declare him to be the Messiah, but their expectations of what he would do were significantly misinformed. They will acknowledge Jesus to be the Son of David, the Messiah of Israel — which is true — but a week later, he will be rejected and condemned.
Instead of the cruel exercise of power, Jesus submitted himself to the excruciating torture and death of the Roman cross. Between today and next Sunday, I encourage you to read the accounts of the death of Jesus. That will prepare us all for the celebration of Resurrection Sunday next week!
Matthew was a Jew writing to fellow Jews with the purpose of convincing them that Jesus was the Messiah. He makes it clear throughout the gospel that Jesus fulfills Old Testament prophecy about the Messiah. One of the ways this impacts Matthew’s gospel is his frequent quotes and allusions from the Old Testament to show that Jesus not acting arbitrarily. He has a redemptive purpose behind his actions. Another feature of Matthew’s gospel is its highlighting of Christ’s royal or kingly role. The title “Christ” in Greek is the translation of the Hebrew word “Messiah” which means “Anointed One”.
Jesus is now entering his final week, and he knows it. In terms of redemptive history, everything leads up to or points back to this week. There was absolutely no more significant time in history. Those who declare Jesus as Messiah must know the implications of making that declaration.
We can sing easily enough. We can take a few hours out of our morning to attend a parade. For some, Church has become little more than an annual pilgrimage made around this time every year… Those who declare Jesus as Messiah must be willing to follow him as their King. That implies that have been subdued by him and have submitted themselves to his sovereign rule.
Pray and Read Matthew 21:1-11.
1. The King’s Preparation (1-7)
Instruction (1-3) As they near Jerusalem, while passing over the Mount of Olives at Bethphage, Jesus can see the temple a few miles in than distance. He instructs two of his disciples to get the donkey and colt. He tells them where to find them and what to say if someone asks them anything.
This seems to be related to the right of requisitioning that was practiced by kings and sometimes by Jewish rabbi. Jesus probably made arrangements during the few days he had already been in Bethany (according to John). This “password” (“The Lord needs them”) was given for the exchange when Jesus was ready to enter Jerusalem.
Jesus entering Jerusalem on a donkey reveals his identity and purpose (4-5)
Matthew breaks up Jesus’ instruction to the disciples and their obedience with an explicit reference to the Old Testament. Matthew, again, makes Jesus’ Messianic identity explicit by quoting how this instruction was given in order to fulfill Zech. 9:9, a section of prophecy that promises Israel’s liberation.
Why a donkey? Donkeys were associated with royalty and wealth (Jdgs 10:4; 12:14 see sermon notes). Social elites traveled on donkeys. However, they were also considered “beasts of burden” used for transporting luggage or those who had difficulty walking.
After walking everywhere for three years, Jesus didn’t suddenly need a donkey to make the last two miles of his journey. This was all intended to fulfill the Messianic promise.
The crowd of pilgrims may have recalled the triumphant return of King David after he fled Absalom, ascending the Mount of Olives, weeping (2 Sam 15:30; Lk 19:41). He also entered riding upon a donkey (2 Sam 16:1-2). Ziba, the servant of Mephibosheth, met David saying, “The donkeys are for the king’s household to ride on.”
The primary reference here seems to be the distinction between donkeys which are ridden by kings in times of peace, as opposed to the war horse. Jesus was indeed the King, but he did not represent the warrior-king that so many were anticipating. The humble king mounted on a donkey is contrasted in the next verse.
Zechariah 9:10 ESV
I will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall speak peace to the nations; his rule shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth.
Obedience (6-7) The disciples obeyed, which means that the donkey and colt’s owner also obeyed the Lord’s command. They placed their cloaks upon the backs of the donkey and colt. Although it is clear from the other gospel’s that Jesus only rode upon the colt (“them” refers to the garments), the colt’s mother was likely present to keep the unweaned colt calm.
The highlight of this passage is the recognition that Christ had come to fulfill the redemptive purposes of the Old Testament that none of the previous prophets, priests, and kings could accomplish. Jesus came in humility, but this is not necessarily implied by the donkey. It’s not as if Jesus chose to drive a Yugo when he could have pulled up in a Mercedes. His choice of a donkey was prophetic fulfillment. It symbolized his kingly authority as well as his peaceful mission.
Jesus is the one who was meek (5:5) and gentle (11:29) and lowly, not the colt. But the pinnacle of Jesus’ humility is found in his death on the cross (Php 2:7-8). The triumphal entry of this king quickly lead to the humiliating death of a criminal.
Jesus knew that his entrance into Jerusalem was effectively the beginning of the end of his ministry. There was nothing uncertain or hesitant about his decision. He was in complete control.
The King we serve is all-knowing and all-powerful. The decisions he made could not have been more thoughtfully calculated. He took the necessary steps which led to the ultimate sacrifice. There was nothing reckless about his decision, but it did setup an irreversible chain of events that led to his death on a cross.
Have you humbled yourself before this King? Have you yielded your life to the King of kings? This is the kind of King we should be grateful to follow. When we submit to him we are protected by a leader who ultimately triumphed through sacrifice. Unfortunately, that was not on the minds of those who were about to receive him with joyous praise.
› Having considered the King’s Preparation, let us now consider…
2. The King’s Reception (8-11)
Crowds gathered to properly usher Jesus into the city. Most of them laid their cloaks on the ground as they did when the people reacted to the news that Elisha had anointed Jehu to be king over Israel (2 Kgs 9:13). Others cut palm branches, which symbolized victory (Rev. 7:9), and spread them along the road. There were people before him and after him shouting out praises belonging to their Messiah.
During Passover season Jerusalem’s population increase drastically, likely 2-4 times its average population! The city was incapable of accommodating so many visitors. Many of them setup camp outside the temple walls. As Jesus and his entourage traveled toward the temple, they would have meandered through these makeshift campsites. Surely, their own group grew as onlookers joined in to make sense of the commotion.
The crowds before him may have come from Jerusalem (Jn 12:13). In typical fashion, they were there to usher into the city a visiting dignitary. Thousands of Galileans would be on the same route making their annual pilgrimage to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover. These probably represent the bulk of those following him now.
This is supported by information we gain from John that Jesus had stayed in Bethany. As news spread, there was anticipation for his entrance into Jerusalem. They were eager to declare one of their own as Messiah. With the increasing excitement of the crowd, it was all the more important for Jesus to show he had come in peace. He was not about to lead a revolt against Rome.
As the Son of David they were acknowledging Jesus as their true King, but their view of Christ was wholly inadequate. The crowds shouted a statement of praise “Hosanna”, which means “Save us!” (Ps 118:25-26), but they were not aware of precisely how that must take place.
Psalm 118 is the final Hallel (Praise). Psalms 113-118 were chanted at all of their annual festivals. Psalm 118 was typically sung while the pilgrims ascended the steps of the Temple Mount. They were naturally prepared to sing the psalm at this time. It includes the familiar line about the stone that the builders rejected becoming the cornerstone. Now the crowd anticipates its fulfillment, but they did not realize it was the Messiah himself who was about to be rejected.
As people in the city were stirred up by all the commotion they asked about Jesus. There is an interesting parallel here with all Jerusalem being troubled by the arrival of the Magi (Mt 2:3). The arrival of Jesus has the whole city “stirred”, literally “shaken” (‘seismic’).
Their questions probably hint at a bit of skepticism. “Who is this prophet from the northern precincts? What is he doing here?” The crowd responded that he was the prophet Jesus from Nazareth (of Galilee). Those who considered Jesus to be a prophet (Mt 21:46) will be at odds with those who want to crucify him (Mt 27:20f).
Jesus is both prophet and king. The people mostly had a political Messiah in mind, but Matthew emphasizes the spiritual reality. Jesus will suffer and die — which is the beginning of the fulfillment of redemptive history. Triumph through suffering. Later on the Pharisees asked Jesus to rebuke his disciples (Lk 19:39-40) and the chief priests and scribes became indignant at the crowds praise of him (Mt 21:15).
The crowd that escorted Jesus into the city is not necessarily the same crowd that shouted for his crucifixion. But neither group appears to have had a proper view of Jesus’s purpose. This crowd wanted to overthrow Caesar. The crowd depicted later in the week wanted to squelch the uprising of an imposter. Jesus came to bring eternal life by suffering the penalty of our sin, but the people were seeking temporal relief.
Jesus is no longer keeping his identity quiet. He’s fully aware that the excitement of this crowd today will contrast sharply with the outrage of another crowd five days later. But Jesus was ready to face his humiliation.
The fact that the people did not grasp all that Jesus came to accomplish is evident from his reaction. After all the praise that had been lavished upon him, Jesus looked upon the city and wept over it (Lk. 19:41-44).
Are we not like these shallow and fickle followers of Christ? It’s not difficult to follow Jesus when everyone is excited about his reign. Even though they acknowledged Jesus to be their Messiah, it would seem they had abandoned him when he didn’t meet their expectations.
We can all be like that sometimes. We don’t get what we want from God, so we hold that against him. Instead of ease we reap hardship because of our faith, so we give it up altogether.
How can we rightly respond? They weren’t wrong to give him praise as their King, but it’s what they did from there that determines if their praise was genuine. Did their praise really matter — did it make any difference — after the parade was over?
If we do not possess a personal faith in Jesus, then we are exactly like the crowd – simply gathering a group to inquire what the commotion is about.
If you truly believe that Jesus is the promised Messiah — not only for the world, but for you personally — then you will not be content to leave him in the background. You will not return to life as normal. When you submit to Jesus as your King, you give him free reign over your life.
Those who declare Jesus as Messiah must be willing to follow him as their King.