April 5 – Matthew 21:1-17

by Apr 4, 2020Easter 20200 comments

Passage Intro

This week is Holy Week, the week leading up to Easter from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday. Palm Sunday gets its name from our passage this week, Matthew 21:1-17, and the use of palm branches to celebrate Jesus’ arrival into Jerusalem. Almost every year on Palm Sunday we look at the events of the Triumphal Entry out of one of the Gospels (Bible trivia: it occurs in all four). That might make this passage feel a little old hat. If so, try reading over Zechariah 9:9-17, the passage that Matthew quotes to relate Jesus’ actions to Messianic prophecy. That might be refreshing as you think through what Jesus was telling us by trotting into Jerusalem on a donkey.

Everything about this passage tells us, “Jesus is King.” It might not say that in as many words, but all the signs and symbols are there. Jesus rode into Jerusalem, the capital of Israel and ancient seat of Israel’s greatest king, David, and he did so during the Passover festival when Jerusalem was packed full of people. He rode in specifically on a donkey, calling to mind that prophecy from Zechariah. And the people responded to him as a king, laying their garments on the ground before him like the people did for King Jehu (2 Kings 9:13) and sporting freshly cut palm branches. Many of our Bibles read something like, “branches from trees,” but these were specifically palm fronds—when you live in a desert, palm trees are just trees (also cf. John 12:13). Palm branches were a national symbol for Israel that could be found on everything from coinage to synagogue decorations. If this had happened in the US it would have been like attendees busting out a bunch of bald eagles at a parade. Over and above that, the people were crying out, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” and literally referring to him as a king from David’s lineage.

All these signs and symbols point to Jesus’ kinghood. And Jesus wasn’t just declaring himself king as a bare fact, he was communicating what kind of king he was. This is one of the aspects of Jesus living out the prophecy from Zechariah 9: Jesus was showing that the one true King of Israel was humble and lowly. Were we there we might have expected a show of wealth or might, thinking a chariot or stretch limo a better fit for a king than a donkey. But riding in like a conqueror doesn’t do much for an oppressed people. Think about Israel at this time, constricted by the tight hand of Rome, just one more in a long line of oppressors. Over a few millennia their nation had seen a parade of Egyptian, Babylonian, Assyrian, Persian, Greek, and Roman conquerors, all enslaving them or subjugating them to some degree. Liberation, for them, came not as a master but as a servant.

That being said, the crowds had no idea what they needed liberation from. They’re out there in the streets, waving palm branches, ready to attend Jesus’ coronation in hopes of getting out from under Roman rule. But in just five days they’ll be disappointed to find out that Jesus has a different agenda, and they’ll go from yelling “Hosanna!” to “Crucify him!” And here’s the craziest thing about this passage to me: Jesus knew that. He’d been talking for ages about how he would be mocked and killed.(Matt. 16:21) And he let them praise him. He let them call him king.

What do you think Jesus was feeling in that moment? On one hand, for one brief moment everyone treated him like he deserved to be treated and mankind welcomed God in their midst. On the other, he knew these same people would reject him and celebrate his painful death. And at least some of them would benefit from his death on their behalf. I wonder if, in this moment, we really see the incarnation in all its splendor and heartache.

Questions for Discussion

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• Can someone read Matthew 21:1-17 for us?

• What stands out to you from this passage?

• What do you think Jesus was trying to communicate here?

• Jesus knew he was going to die that Friday. Why do you think he still let the crowds praise him like this?

• As we enter Holy Week, how are you personally relating to Easter this year?