Scripture Readings: Zechariah 9:9-10; Matthew 21:1-11 • Text: Matthew 21:1-11
Songs (you can sing along by clicking on each song): All Glory, Laud and Honor • When I Survey the Wondrous Cross
April 5, 2009 • Download PDF sermon
Environmental and political correctness has overtaken the Christian celebration of Palm Sunday, Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem before his arrest and crucifixion. About 640,000 palm fronds, harvested in Guatemala and Mexico and ordered through the University of Minnesota’s eco-palms program, will be used this Sunday in some 2,500 congregations in the United States. The program seeks to promote better environment and a more just distribution of benefits from non-timber forest products in those two countries.
When our family was a member of a big Presbyterian church in California, they dramatized the triumphal entry by having a rider dressed in Jewish garments ride a donkey through the church campus. Later, one of my first-grade Sunday school students said, “But the donkey always makes poop!”
Jesus’ triumphal entry is one of the most well-known, endearing stories in the Bible. But as often happens with most popular Biblical stories, its significance is lost in the midst of all the hype and hubbub surrounding the story. What did the palm branches on Palm Sunday symbolize? Why did he ride a donkey—and not just any donkey—but a never-ridden donkey? Why did people spread their cloaks on Jesus’ path?
All four Gospels give a short account of events leading up to and including Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem in his final week before he was crucified on the cross at Calvary. They all say he came riding on a donkey or a donkey’s colt, but Matthew alone mentions two animals: a mother donkey with her young colt. Only Luke does not mention branches, while John specifically mentioned palm branches, but Matthew and Mark say that the branches were spread on the road. Only John does not mention cloaks spread on Jesus’ path.
Two thousand years ago, Jesus entered Jerusalem in humility and peace. The Jews acknowledged him as “the King who comes in the name of the Lord” with shouts of joy and acclamation. But when he returns, he will come as the exalted and victorious Warrior who will exact complete vengeance on his enemies as the “King of kings and Lord of lords.”
This afternoon, we will dwell on the theme, “The King Comes Riding to His People.”
1. In Humility and Peace
2. In the Name of the Lord
3. In Final Victory
In Humility and Peace
The details of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, including his riding on a donkey and the crowd waving and spreading palm branches, speak of his coming in humility and peace.
Riding On a Donkey
In the ancient Near Eastern world, donkeys are the main beasts of burden used during times of peace for traveling, plowing the fields, and transporting goods. Abraham used a donkey to travel to Mount Moriah to offer Isaac as a sacrifice (Gen 22:3). One of God’s blessings on Israel for obedience is well-nourished “oxen and donkeys that work the ground” (Isa 30:24). Joseph’s brothers used them to bring grain from Egypt to Canaan during the great famine (Genesis 42:26).
On his way to Jerusalem, when Jesus reached Bethpage on the outskirts of the city, he asked two of his disciples to bring back a donkey from a nearby village. Because of his sovereign and divine knowledge, he already prepared a donkey for his own use to travel to the city.
Matthew and John both interpret this event as a fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies about a future King who will defeat Israel’s enemies and bring peace and security back to the people:
Say to the daughter of Zion, “Behold, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden” (Matt 21:5).
Perhaps the two Gospels also allude to Jacob’s prophecy about a ruler who will come from his son Judah who has a donkey tied to a vine and whom the peoples of the earth will obey:
The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until tribute comes to him; and to him shall be the obedience of the peoples. Binding his foal to the vine and his donkey’s colt to the choice vine, he has washed his garments in wine and his vesture in the blood of grapes (Gen 49:10-11).
Matthew actually introduced a 500-year-old prophecy in Zechariah 9:9 with a portion of Isaiah 62:11:
Behold, the Lord has proclaimed to the end of the earth: Say to the daughter of Zion, “Behold, your salvation comes; behold, his reward is with him, and his recompense before him” (Isa 62:11).
Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey (Zech 9:9).
Perhaps because he is focused on the triumphal procession, Matthew omitted the reference to the King as “righteous and having salvation is he.” The last phrase is actually in passive form that literally means “saved,” referring to the King himself, i. e., the King is “saved.” Not that the King needed to be “saved” from sin, but that he would be “delivered” or be “victorious” (RSV, HCSB). To be sure, the resurrection of Christ is called a “deliverance” (Psa 22:20) and a victory (1 Cor 15:54-56).
Zechariah 9 continues in verse 10 with God destroying chariots, war horses, and bows – weapons of war – which means the King will come to bring peace. This is why at his birth, Jesus is called the Prince of Peace and angels sang a song proclaiming the coming of peace on earth. What kind of peace? He brings peace not only among nations or among men, not only inner peace of the soul, but most importantly, peace between bitter enemies: God and man (Rom 5:10; Col 1:20).
The King Rode on a Donkey
How did the people sense that Jesus riding on a donkey into the city of Jerusalem means that he is entering as King of Israel? It is because they remembered the events almost 1,000 years before when Solomon was crowned as the king of Israel.
In 1 Kings 1:28-40, we read that when David was old, his son Adonijah tried to usurp the throne promised to Solomon, David’s son by Bathsheba. When David heard about this, he instructed Zadok the priest and Nathan the prophet to anoint Solomon as king. David let Solomon ride the royal mule to Gihon, a spring just east of Jerusalem, and there the priest anointed him as king over Israel. They blew the horn, and the people shouted, “Long live King Solomon!” After this, Solomon went into Jerusalem and sat on the throne of David his father amidst the great joy and acclamation of the people.
Surely the people who watched Jesus enter the city remembered King David’s coronation of Solomon, “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel, who has granted someone to sit on my throne this day, my own eyes seeing it.” On that day, the people of Israel joyfully shouted, “Long live King Solomon!” just as the people jubilantly welcomed Jesus, “Hosanna to the Son of David: Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest!”
In Scripture, branches of palms have been symbolically associated with different ideas. One of these is its use during times of rejoicing, which goes all the way back to the institution of the Feast of Tabernacles or Tents. God commanded Israel to commemorate their Exodus from Egypt by living in tents for seven days so they will remember how the people wandered in the wilderness, living in tents – with God providing for them—for 40 years. On the first day of this feast, they shall take “the fruit of splendid trees, branches of palm trees and boughs of leafy trees and willows of the brook,” and they “shall rejoice before the Lord your God seven days” (Lev 23:40).
As well, this feast is also a reminder to the people of the verdant greenery of the Garden of Eden, with all kinds of plants and trees covering the earth. Because God “tabernacled” with his people there, there was joy. Thus, the Feast of Tabernacles also looks forward to the new heaven and the new earth when the bride of Christ will have complete joy because God “will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore” (Rev 21:4).
Another idea connected with waving of palm branches is victory over the enemies of the Jews. About 140 B. C., the Jewish rebel leader Simon Maccabeus, after defeating the occupying Syrian forces, entered Jerusalem “with thanksgiving, and branches of palm trees, and with harps, and cymbals, and with viols, and hymns, and songs: because there was destroyed a great enemy out of Israel” (1 Maccabees 13:51). The same symbolism is conveyed in the waving of palm branches by pilgrims who accompanied Jesus to Jerusalem (John 12:13), who mistakenly thought that Jesus would soon bring political and military victory for Israel over the occupying Roman rulers.
In the Name of the Lord
As Jesus approached the city, multitudes of pilgrims accompanied him from behind, and the people of the city joined them in welcoming him, and together they joined their voices with shouts of acclamation. All four Gospels mention the people’s praise of God and Israel’s King. If the acclamation from the four Gospels were combined into one, it would be,
“Hosanna! Blessed is the Son of David and the King of Israel who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!”
The Hebrew word hosanna literally means “Please save!” or “O save!” which is also used in Psalm 118:25, “Save us, we pray, O Lord!” This word later became an expression of praise to God like “Hallelujah!” In hailing Jesus as the “Son of David,” “King of Israel,” and the One “who comes in the name of the Lord,” accompanied by “Hosanna in the highest!”, the crowd let it be known that they wanted him to be their military-political Messianic King promised by the Old Testament prophets. Even his disciples did not understand Jesus’ real mission of saving his people from sin until after his resurrection (John 12:16). It did not help the crowd that Jesus’ entry also took place at the beginning of the Passover celebration commemorating Israel’s freedom from bondage in Egypt.
“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” is taken from Psalm 118:26. Psalm 118, together with Psalm 113-117, is one of the “Hallel” or praise psalms sung during the Feasts of Passover and Tabernacles. This was a prayer of the Old Covenant people of God to bless them with the fulfillment of his promise of salvation and restoration through a long-expected King and his messianic kingdom. And who would better fulfill this redemption than this Solomon-like king riding a donkey who could raise the dead, heal the sick and give sight to the blind? If this Jesus has miraculous divine powers, he could easily deliver the people from Roman rule and oppression.
But for the Pharisees, heaping all these divine titles upon this man is blasphemy, so they protested,Â “Teacher, rebuke your disciples” (Luke 19:39). Before this event, Jesus always told his disciples and followers not to tell anyone about the signs that he performed. But this time, Jesus allowed his proclamation as the Messiah-King. The fullness of time had come for his identity and mission as Savior and King to be revealed.
The King’s Path Paved with Cloaks
Since the people willingly acknowledged him as their King, they “paved” his path with their cloaks as a symbol of the respect, honor and obeisance a king deserves. After Jehu was anointed king according to God’s instructions to a prophet, “every man of them took his garment and put it under him on the bare steps, and they blew the trumpet and proclaimed, ‘Jehu is king’” (2 Kings 9:13). The crowd spreading their cloaks on Jesus’ path therefore meant that they paid him respect and submitted to him as their King.
A Never-Ridden Donkey
One of the more neglected details of this event is that the colt which Jesus used is one “on which no one has ever yet sat” (Luke 19:30; cf Mark 11:2). Riding an unbroken animal alludes back to the sacrificial heifer offered for purification rites during Israel’s wilderness wanderings, “a red heifer without defect, in which there is no blemish, and on which a yoke has never come” (Num.19:2). Again, a sacrificial heifer “that has never been worked and that has not pulled in a yoke” shall be offered to atone for the slaying of a person whose murderer is unknown (Deut.21:3).
This is not only to show that he is sovereign even over untamed animals, but more importantly, to show that Jesus is the perfect, sinless Lamb uniquely qualified to atone for the sins of his people. As well, he is the only-begotten, eternal Son of God—no one comes before him, and no one comes after him. The unbroken mule thus showed that he who sat on this royal mule is greater than both David and Solomon who also sat on a royal mule.
Therefore, the events and symbols surrounding Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem point to these things: (1) Christ came in humility, (2) to bring peace, (3) to be the messianic Savior, (4) to be King, and (5) he will return in complete victory.
In Final Victory
Jesus riding on a donkey into Jerusalem is usually called the “Triumphal Entry.” But was this really “triumphant”? Did he come in a victorious procession?
Yes and no.
Yes, he was proclaimed King of Israel, Son of David, the Blessed One Who came in the name of the Lord. But the people misinterpreted this event. Christ did not come to establish the kingdom of Israel. He came to establish a kingdom of saints made up of the elect who would proclaim him as Savior and Lord of their lives. He came as the One who brought the good news of liberty to those who are slaves of Satan, sin and death. Isaiah prophesied this event when he said, “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness, who publishes salvation, who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns'” (Isa 52:7).
No, although he finished his work of salvation on the cross of Calvary, he has not accomplished a total victory yet over Satan, sin and death. Although the gospel is producing victory after victory in all nations today, total victory is yet to come. In fact, just five days later, the same people who shouted, “Blessed!” and “Hosanna!” were now screaming for blood, “Crucify him!” And when he hung on the cross, he seemed to be defeated. All his sheep scattered, mourning and weeping and hopeless.
When will this complete victory be accomplished? When he comes again. When he returns, he will not be riding a humble donkey, accompanied by lowly pilgrims, bringing the gospel of peace. Instead he will come as a Mighty Warrior riding a white warhorse, his robe dipped in blood, and accompanied by a mighty army from heaven:
Then I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse! The one sitting on it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war… He is clothed in a robe dipped inÂ blood, and the name by which he is called is The Word of God. And the armies of heaven, arrayed in fine linen, white and pure, were following him on white horses. From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron. He will tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty. On his robe and on his thigh he has a name written, King of kings and Lord of lords (Rev 19:11-16).
Christ will return as a Conquering Warrior. In his final victory ride will be called “Faithful and True” and “The Word of God.” In his righteous wrath, he will destroy all his enemies with a sharp sword from his mouth, so that even his robe will be dipped in their blood. Then, as the King of kings and Lord of lords, he will rule them with a rod of iron. Everyone, good and evil, will acknowledge him as King and Lord, “so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil 2:10-11).
And after his final conquest, he will lead all his people in a final procession to heaven, “a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands“ (Rev 7:9, emphasis added). Unlike the Jews who only welcomed him as their king because they wanted someone to lead them in their rebellion against Rome, believers in the new heaven will truly praise and acclaim him as their Savior, Lord and King.
Dear friends, as you remember our Lord’s first coming to save his people on that Palm Sunday 2,000 years ago, meditate on these things:
He came that day as a humble King riding on a donkey to sacrifice himself on the cross for your sins. He came that day to bring peace and reconciliation between God and you. He came as the Son of God bringing the good news of salvation to those of you who would believe and trust in him.
In his first coming, he willingly died on the cross for sinners like you. What “amazing pity, grace unknown, and love beyond degree”! He died for those who are undeserving of any mercy and grace from God.
But when he returns, he will be riding on a warhorse, not to bring grace and mercy to sinners, but wrath and judgment against them. And to you who would welcome him with shouts of praise and acclamation, Christ will finally reward with total victory over Satan, sin, suffering, and death.
Make sure that you will be one of those redeemed from all nations who would be waving palm branches of joy and victory in their hands on that great day of worshiping God and Christ in heaven. Amen.