In contemporary storytelling, especially in popular movies, wisdom dictates that the final scene is one of popular acclaim or triumph where everyone gets to witness the ‘feel-good’ climax. Whether it’s a wedding scene at the end of a love story, a medal ceremony at the end of a space drama, or everyone miraculously coming back to life for a party at the end of a ship-sinking disaster movie. Whatever the genre, the crescendo is normally at the end of the film. What we have before us today though, is a departure from our modern conventional scripts. The gospels record Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem before he actually completes his earthly mission. In other words the victory scene of celebration takes place before the events that lead to that victory are revealed. And so, the human celebrations begin, but no one knows fully at that stage why they are celebrating.
So as we follow through this Palm Sunday account we’ll need to put ourselves in the sandals of those who were observing the action at the time. The key is v.10 which asks “Who is this?” Who is Jesus? And Jesus wants to answer that question. I’ve four main headings. So my first heading:
1. The deliberate fulfilment of prophecy
Matthew begins Ch 21 with the phrase ‘Now when they drew near to Jerusalem….’ and it almost sound like an insignificant aside - but it's loaded with meaning. It’s rather like saying, ‘that almost 69 years ago to the very day, Allied forces drew near to Berlin'. At the end of WW2 in 1945 the Allies did indeed ‘draw near’ to Berlin. But it was far more symbolic than just ‘drawing near’ to it – because something huge was about to happen! The Battle of Berlin was about to begin, the war was going to end and a new order of things would be established. As Jesus ‘drew near’ to Jerusalem, the scene is laden with significance – something huge / seismic is about to happen…a new order of things is about to be established – the like of which the world had never seen and which won’t be seen in completion until Jesus returns. Let’s read on…
Now when they drew near to Jerusalem and came to Bethphage, to the Mount of Olives, then Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village in front of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her. Untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, you shall say, ‘The Lord needs them’, and he will send them at once.” This took place to fulfil what was spoken by the prophet, saying, “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.’” (v2-5)
Our Old Testament reading was the specific passage Matthew mentions here. Jesus is “staging” his entry to Jerusalem deliberately to fulfil what Zechariah wrote. Throughout his earthly ministry Jesus, through his teaching and preaching, had claimed to be God’s promised King, but now the time is right for him to make that claim in a much more unveiled manner - the covers can come off - and the time is right for his identity to be shouted and proclaimed in the city by thousands and thousands of people.
So why now and not before? Well Jesus knew that his time of earthly ministry was drawing to a close. He knew that the hour was fast approaching when he needed to complete the mission he was sent to do – by dying for our sins on that cross. JC Ryle writes
“It was not fitting that the Lamb of God should come to be slain on Calvary privately and silently: before the great sacrifice for the sin of the world was offered up, it was right that every eye should be fixed on the victim. It was suitable that the crowning act of our Lord’s life should be done with as much notoriety as possible….The atoning blood of the Lamb of God was about to be shed: this deed was not to be ‘done in a corner’.”
And what happens? 550 years and it comes to pass exactly as Zechariah had foretold it would. v.6:
The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them. They brought the donkey and the colt and put on them their cloaks, and he sat on them. Most of the crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. And the crowds that went before him and that followed him were shouting, “Hosanna (save us) to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!”
Now, by God’s grace we who live ‘post-cross-and-resurrection’ have the privileged vantage point of looking back on these events and understanding them more than those who lived through them did. We know that although the crowds were expectant of Jesus’ victory, they didn’t know exactly what that victory would look like. If you were watching this as a movie and you knew nothing of Jesus’ story you’d be right to critique the film for having its scenes out of sequence! In all fairness the crowds were probably expecting something a world away from what was about to unfold - the agony and humiliation of the cross. But even if they spoke better than they understood, look at their response! Look at the passion and devotion these crowds, even with their limited understanding, show to Jesus. Allow me to turn the spotlight onto ourselves for a moment. How is our passion, devotion, gratitude to our Saviour King? How much more should we - we who live ‘post-cross-and-resurrection’, we whom have the enlightenment of the Spirit, we who understand more fully – how much more should we praise and bless Jesus for the victory he achieved for us? Back to the crowds at the time though, and my second point
2. The crucial question: Who is this?
v.10 And when he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred up, saying, “Who is this?” Well Jesus has been trying to tell them and show them the answer. He is the Messiah – and if you’re not familiar with that word, try not to get hung up by it – it simply means that Jesus was claiming to be the long promised Saviour, the King who the Old Testament had predicted would rescue God’s people. He is the Messiah. And again, it’s easier for us to understand that now, in 2014, than it would have been then, because the cross and the resurrection of Jesus reveal the truth behind the symbolic acts of Jesus that day. And so the crowd laid the equivalent of a red carpet with cloaks and branches. The branches themselves were symbolic of a great Jewish victory. The people cry out in praise “Hosanna (save us) David’s son….you can do it!” And Jesus accepts this public validation of his power, authority, strength and majesty that is being proclaimed by the crowds.
Yet Jesus sits on a donkey, not a war horse!
This is a picture of meekness, humility and patience. A patience that will ultimately see it’s outworking in Jesus willingness to suffer and be sacrificed in our place on the cross – taking the punishment of God’s wrath for our sins. Elsewhere in Scripture this odd juxtaposition is summed up by John in Revelation who sees a vision of Jesus as both Lion and Lamb. In one of the best known sermons of all time Jonathan Edwards refers to these contrasting descriptions as ‘diverse excellencies’ which wonderfully come together in the God-man Jesus. Infinite majesty and complete humility. Perfect justice and boundless grace. Absolute sovereignty, yet utter submission. All sufficiency in himself and yet entire trust and dependence on God. Friends this is the true identity of our wonderful ‘Saviour-king’ who rode into Jerusalem on a donkey!
But what about the crowds at the time? What was their answer to the question that was buzzing around the whole city? v.11 And the crowds said, “This is the prophet Jesus, from Nazareth of Galilee.” Commentators are divided on what the crowds actually meant by this. Is it a good answer? Is it a bad answer? Honestly I don’t know, but what we can say is that it is an inadequate answer. It only goes so far. You see it’s perfectly possible to proclaim something true, without fully understanding why you do so. I had first-hand experience of this recently on a trip to the Beamish living museum. There was a re-enactment in the pit village of some tenants being evicted from their cottages by the landowner. As the modern day crowd gathered to witness it, history blurred and they were encouraged to join in with the chanting against the authorities. “Shame on you!” All of a sudden, my then six year old son (who was on my shoulders for a better view) suddenly starts chanting and punching his fist in the air “Shame on you!” I was gob-smacked and said to him – “Thomas what are you shouting for?” His reply? “Don’t know – but everyone else was!” My point is simply this – that on that occasion my son’s understanding was incomplete. He did not know all the facts, but from what he saw before his eyes (and by being swept along with the majority no doubt) he joined in. And whatever all the reasons for the Palm Sunday crowds to say what they said, whatever they actually meant by it, we can say that the answer they gave was incomplete.
And today many people, likewise, have inadequate or incomplete answers to the question “Who is Jesus?” Maybe you’re still making up your mind about Jesus, maybe you’re not sure and at the moment you’re tempted to think of him as just a good man or a wise teacher. Let me tell you that Jesus doesn’t leave that option open to you. He claimed to be far more than that…
• He claimed to live a sinless life (John 8)
• He claimed to be the only way to God (John 14)
• He claimed to have shared in the glory of God in heaven (John 17)
• He claimed to be able to forgive sins (Luke 5 & 7)
• He claimed to be a Heavenly King (Luke 22)
• He claimed to be able to give everlasting life (John 6)
• He claimed that he would die and then come back to life (Luke 18)
• He claimed that he would return to judge the world (Matthew 24 & 25)
Do you believe him? Only the cross and the resurrection validate these claims Christ made. Only the cross and resurrection reveal the kind of messiah Jesus is. Without an appreciation and thankfulness for that cross and resurrection, without a life turned around in repentance and lived in obedience to the Messiah – there are only inadequate answers to the question of Jesus’ identity. Thirdly then, this passage shows us the
3. The divine authority of Christ
And Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who sold and bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons. He said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’, but you make it a den of robbers.”
And the blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he healed them. But when the chief priests and the scribes saw the wonderful things that he did, and the children crying out in the temple, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” they were indignant, and they said to him, “Do you hear what these are saying?” And Jesus said to them, “Yes; have you never read, “‘Out of the mouth of infants and nursing babies you have prepared praise’?”(v12-16)
The way Matthew records Jesus activity in the temple in v12-16 amounts to a massive claim of authority – indeed divine authority – that puts him on a collision course with the Jewish leaders. Just jump ahead to v.23 of Ch. 21 for a moment. There we read that The chief priests and the elders…said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” In other words, who gave you authority to reform the temple? (v.12&13), who gave you authority to touch the unclean and heal the sick (v.14), who gave you authority to apply Scripture (in this case Psalm 8 which we read earlier) to yourself? (v.16) And Jesus is in effect saying “you know what? I do these things to show you that I am God. Therefore I am doing them by my own authority!”
And what Matthew records next is a contrast which shows how people respond to that authority. The contrast is between the children and the religious leaders and it takes place in the temple. The children recognise Jesus as King by proclaiming – as the crowds had done – “Hosanna to the son of David”. The leaders though, are so committed to their own Godless ways that they won’t even entertain the idea of Jesus having any authority or claim over their lives. And v.15 tells us they became indignant.
Ultimately all of us belong in one of these two camps. Either we accept Jesus as being who he said he was and live with him as our King or we don’t, and we reject him and continue to live in rebellion. Either we humble ourselves or we continue to live in pride. I guess that most of us here like to think of ourselves as the children in this contrast – those who recognise Jesus as King – so let me ask you: How are you doing at the moment? Are you really humbly accepting Christ’s authority in every of your life? Are you obeying his commands and putting him first?
• Maybe you’re struggling with resentment towards God or others this morning?
Jesus says love me with all your heart and love your neighbour as yourself.
• Maybe you keep entertaining that secret sin?
Jesus says ‘get rid of whatever it is that causes you to sin.’
• Maybe you don’t think that you should talk to some people about Jesus.
Jesus says go – make disciples of all nations – let your light shine
• Maybe you’ve convinced yourself that regular time with God isn’t necessary.
Jesus says remain in me and I will remain in you.
• Maybe all you can think about at the moment is your next holiday, car, phone upgrade or home purchase.
Jesus says store up for yourself treasure in heaven, not on earth!
• Maybe you keep putting your head down and avoid the gaze of the homeless man at the end of Northumberland Street.
And Jesus says I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat. I was thirsty and you gave nothing to drink.
Oh with our heads we can say we’re like the children, but with our actions and hearts we are often more like the religious leaders, indignant at the intrusion that Christ’s authority makes into how we want to live our lives.
Elsewhere Jesus says “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord’ and not do as I say?” (Luke 6) To accept Christ’s authority is to obey him. Not because we have to, to earn our salvation – but because we want to out of deep, humble and sincere gratitude for what Christ did in taking our place on that cross.
So this passage shows the deliberate fulfilment of prophecy, it asks and answers the crucial question, and it demonstrates the divine authority of Christ. Let’s just zoom out from the detail for my fourth and very brief final point. And that is, we have…
4. Future assurance
It was predicted that the messiah would come – and he did. It is predicted now that the Messiah will come a second time. The Bible promises that Jesus will return. As Ryle notes, “from the fulfilment of God’s word in time past, we are surely intended to gather something as to the manner of its fulfilment in time to come.”
Friends we can take assurance for the future from the fact that he came literally once – he will come again just as literally a second time. He came first in humiliation to suffer – next time he’s coming in glory to reign. And actually it turns outs that God’s real final scene in creation will be a scene complete and utter and absolute triumph as all of creation is redeemed and made new - it will be the most triumphant, euphoric scene the world has ever known – and the best bit is the celebration will last forever! I pray that he finds all of us ready, accepting his authority and living in anticipation of final but eternal euphoric scene.