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Triumphal Entry of the King
Spring Quarter: God Frees and Redeems
Unit 2: Liberating Gospels
Sunday school lesson for the week of April 3, 2022
By Dr. Hal Brady
Lesson Scriptures: Matthew 21:1-11
Key Verse: Matthew 21:5
- List the details of the triumphal entry.
- Explain Matthew’s use of Zechariah 9:9
- Express worship to the Lord by writing a poem, prayer, or devotional thought.
A teenage acolyte was standing with the cross at the head of the Palm procession. He turned to the minister and said, “I don’t understand what I’m supposed to be feeling.”
Admittedly, Palm Sunday is a strange day. And this young acolyte may have captured some of our own thoughts. What am I supposed to be feeling? Now, we may be attracted by the seeming festivity of Palm Sunday and then wonder why we later get hit over the head with the crucifixion. In this lesson, we’ll see if we can make some sense of it.
New Testament scholar T.W. Manson said that “Jesus went up to Jerusalem to claim His kingdom, which is the Kingdom of God, to call men and women to enter the Kingdom, to break their allegiance to the kingdom of the world, and to bring them to their one time loyalty and their one true peace, all this lies behind the resolve to go to Jerusalem.”
Matthew 21-28 is devoted to the final week of Jesus’ life through the resurrection and post-resurrection appearances. That week left the world changed forever.
Today’s lesson text comes from Monday of that fateful week and covers the triumphal entry. Note that this event is recounted in all four Gospels (see Mark 11:1-11; Luke 19:28-49; John 12:12-19). Matthew, Mark and Luke frequently overlap in their presentations, so we are not surprised by their shared information. However, to have an event also shared by John is less expected. But the fact that the triumphal entry is shared in all four Gospels speaks to its importance.
Several months before, Jesus had warned his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things, including his own death, at the hands of the elders, chief priests, and scribes (Matthew 16:21-28). At that moment, Peter strongly resisted such an idea. He even rebuked Jesus. The idea of Jesus dying was completely foreign to what Peter and the other disciples understood Jesus’ mission to be. Consequently, when Jesus entered Jerusalem, the disciples must have believed that their hopes of establishing Jesus as their earthly messiah were about to become reality.
Though the disciples did not yet understand, Jesus’ death would fulfill the Scriptures – just not as they had expected. As we are taught, the theme of fulfillment of Scripture permeates Matthew’s Gospel. From Jesus’ birth, Matthew both alluded to prophecy (Matthew 1:1; compare Isaiah 9:7; Jeremiah 23:5; etc.) and outright quoted it (Matthew 1:22-23). What Matthew spells out in his account of the triumphal entry is that this event fulfilled prophecy once again and paves the way for other fulfillments to come.
- The Preparation (Matthew 21:1-5)
According to the traditional account of the final week, Jesus and the traveling band of disciples arrive in Bethany on Friday afternoon and celebrate the Sabbath there, beginning at sundown on Friday evening through Saturday at sundown. A celebration with many of his closest followers in the Jerusalem area may have taken place on Saturday evening in Bethany. On Sunday morning Jesus directs the disciples to prepare for his entry to Jerusalem.
Near Bethany, where Jesus had spent time in the home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus, is the town of Bethphage (21:1), which Matthew tells us is the place from which Jesus directs his entrance to Jerusalem. Bethphage, like Bethany, is located on the eastern side of Jerusalem and means “house of unripe figs.” The Mount of Olives is a north-south ridge that flanks the eastern side of Jerusalem. Bethphage and Bethany were small towns on the far side of this Mount, somewhat isolated from the city yet conveniently close to it.
Jesus sends two disciples into Bethphage where they are to obtain the donkey and colt for Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. While the disciples are not named, the expectation that the female donkey was tied with her colt indicated that the donkey was not out grazing or involved in work, but ready and waiting for Jesus’ purposes. She may have been fitted with some type of halter that allowed her to be tied to a post, readily available for being led back to Jesus. All four of the Gospels mention the younger donkey, but only Matthew includes the detail that there was an older female donkey as well.
Jesus’ knowledge of the availability of the colt may have come supernaturally or it is entirely possible that the Lord made prior arrangements for the use of the animals.
In verse 3, Jesus anticipates the disciples being asked about taking the donkeys and told his followers how to answer. “The Lord needs them” functioned as a password or code. This gives us the impression that Jesus had prearranged the availability of the two animals.
The term “Lord” kyrios can designate one’s earthly master or one’s deity. It is used both ways in scripture (see examples, Matthew 9:38; 10:24). Consequently, it is difficult to say what either the disciples or anyone else would have intended “kyrios” to mean in this context. However, Jesus plainly intends it to refer to himself as the one who sovereignly superintends the events. At this climactic time of his earthly ministry, Jesus reveals himself with increasing clarity.
Now, I have a question for the guy who gave his donkey to be used by the master on Palm Sunday, “Was it difficult to give something for Jesus to use?” As Max Lucado reminds us, “The guy who gave the donkey is just one in a long line of folks who have given little things to a big God. The scripture is simply full of donkey-givers:” Moses’ staff, David’s sling, Rahab’s rope, Mary’s expensive ointment, and the list is endless. Very important, donkey-giving has to do with how we see our life as a gift and trust of God. And there is power in donkey-giving.
Many commentators believe that the owner of the colt was quietly making a contribution to Jesus’ ministry in his own way. And there may have been thousands of such followers in Palestine at that time. For sure, the Lord needed some to serve publicly in front, but he also used many donkey-givers where ministries were performed quietly behind the scenes.
In verse 4 Jesus alluded to the prophet Zechariah, who prophesied concerning the “king” coming into Jerusalem (Zechariah 9:9). His prophecies and others were not fulfilled by random chance. The events they foresaw were pieces of God’s deliberate plan, a plan carried out by Jesus.
A key verse in understanding this is Matthew 5:17, which sets the tone for the entire book in the area of prophecy: Jesus did not come “to abolish the Law of the Prophets…but to fulfill them.” There is a perfect connection between the prophets – who were given a glimpse of God’s plan – and the Messiah, who enacted the plan centuries later (examples: Matthew 1:22-23; 2:5-6; 8:14-17).
So there would be no mistake or confusion, Matthew recorded an abbreviated version of Zechariah’s prophecy. Zion is equivalent to Jerusalem (the daughter part comes from Isaiah 62:1). Through some claim that Jesus never saw himself as the prophesied Messiah, or Christ, scripture shows otherwise (example, Matthew 16:17; Luke 24:25-27; John 4:25,26).
The Zechariah prophecy indicates the nature of Jesus’ arrival. He comes as the righteous one who offers salvation, not as a conquering military leader. He comes with reconciliation, as did rulers who sometimes rode a donkey in time of peace (Judges 5:10, I Kings 1:33). Through this event, Jesus delineates that he is not coming to bring military conquest.
To be sure, Jerusalem was overflowing with Passover pilgrims at this time. This feast temporarily would cause Jerusalem to more than double in size. And even though their king riding on his donkey was an object of much praise, it was his humility that was actually on display. It is easy to image Jesus’ legs sticking out from the donkey’s round belly and his feet barely clearing the ground. He is a humble king – a contradiction of terms in the ancient world, but perfect in God’s plan.
- The Procession (Matthew 21:6-11)
A triumphal procession in the city of Rome could take weeks to prepare. The Roman general or emperor receiving “the triumph” rode in a ceremonial chariot specially crafted for the event. The Roman triumph consisted of long parades of dignitaries, captured enemy soldiers and kings, and wagons heavy with the spoils of war. Such carefully planned spectacles sometimes included the erection of a new triumphal arch. In contrast, Jesus’ entry was much more impromptu.
Note also that saddles as we know them were not commonly used in the ancient Near East. Instead, “the disciples” laid some of their clothing on the back of the animal to cushion Jesus’ ride. And it’s not a given that the colt would remain docile as Jesus rode it. Perhaps this animal recognized Jesus as the ruler of the universe and behaved accordingly.
The description of “a very large crowd” can be understood as “the largest of crowds.” This is the biggest thing happening in Jerusalem that day, with perhaps 10,000 or more people lining Jesus path to the city. It is likely that many were from the Galilee region.
Speculation was buzzing about if and when Jesus would come (John 11:55-57). Jesus did not stir up the crowds; their celebration was a spontaneous act by the people who had been anticipating his arrival. The event itself was contagious and the people responded by paving the triumphal path of Jesus with their own cloaks and with freshly cut “branches.” John identifies these as coming from palm trees (John 12:13).
John tells us that the crowd also cut palm branches or fronds and waved those as they went out to meet Jesus. And since palm fronds grow at the very top of the trees the people must have gone to considerable trouble or effort to cut them for this occasion. This action is the basis for observing the day of Jesus’ triumphal entry on Palm Sunday.
Both Matthew and Mark indicate that two groups made up the crowd that accompanied Jesus; those that “went ahead” came out from Jerusalem to meet him (John 12:12-13) while “those that followed” had come from Bethany with him.
The word “Hosanna,” a Hebrew term that means “save,” is associated with Hallel (“praise”) psalms (113-118), especially Psalm 118:25-26. These particular psalms were associated with the Festival of Tabernacles, which celebrated the Lord’s delivering Israel from Egypt. Echoes of deliverance permeated the people’s celebrating Jesus as he entered Jerusalem. They hoped he would save them from Rome in a way similar to their historic deliverance from Egypt.
The crowds further cry out to Jesus as “Son of David” (21:9). Linked with Hosanna, the title “Son of David” is unmistakably messianic. The crowds acknowledge what Jesus has already stated in his fulfillment of Zechariah 9:9: He is the Davidic Messiah on whom they call to save them out of their oppression.
“The highest heaven” (also in 21:9) refers to God’s dwelling place (example, Luke 2:14). The people were asking God to hear them from his home and to act on their behalf. Little did they know that Immanuel was with them, not far removed.
Now as Jesus enters the city, “the whole city was stirred, filled with commotion. The expression “the whole city” indicates that the religious establishment is once again paranoid of this One whom they believe may attempt to usurp their power and they want an explanation of who Jesus intends to present himself to be. So the question of the day was not “what’s happening?” but “who is this?”
Despite the previous exclamation of Jesus as “Son of David,” the crowds give a somewhat tamer answer to the question of Matthew 21:10. The crowd identified him by name (Jesus), by hometown (Nazareth in Galilee), and by special vocation (prophet), but there is no language of Jesus as messiah or king.
It is critically important to understand that Jesus has undertaken a different kind of “triumphal entry” from what many among the crowd expected. Jesus will triumph over the enemy of sin, bringing salvation to his people through his righteous sacrifice on the cross that looms ahead. Many in the crowd can only think of physical and military liberation. They cry “Hosanna” now, but soon will see that Jesus is not bringing the freedom they desire and will ultimately cry out “Crucify him.” (Matthew 27:22). And although the crowd gives great acclaim, Jesus knows why they are really welcoming him. He knows their nationalistic ambitions and fickleness and Luke tells us that Jesus weeps over the city (Luke 19:41-44).
Hearing the story of Jesus always leaves us with a question: who is he? Is he just a good teacher, basing his lessons on God’s laws? Is he just a prophet, given insight from the Lord? Or is he the Son of God, the promised messiah, sent to save the world from sin and death? Based on our answer, we also have a decision to make: will we follow Him? Will we follow Him in life and even in death if necessary?
Thus, Jesus says to each of us, “what about you? Who do you say that I am?” (Matthew 16:13-16).
Resources for this Lesson
- Does your knowledge of the Old Testament bolster your faith? Why or why not?
- How does it encourage you to be with a crowd of people who are praising Jesus?
- What situations cause you to cry out for God’s deliverance?
- Explain the meaning of Palm Sunday.
Dr. Hal Brady is a retired pastor who continues to present the Good News of Jesus Christ and offer encouragement in a fresh and vital way though Hal Brady Ministries (halbradyministries.com).
- “2021-2022 NIV Standard Lesson Commentary, Uniform Series, International Bible Lessons for Christian Teaching,” pages 265-272.
- “The NIV Application Commentary, Matthew” by Michael J. Wilkins, pages 684-689.
- “Interpreter’s Bible, Volume 7, Matthew, Mark” pages 500-503.