By Dr. Hal Brady
Lesson Scripture: Zachariah 9:9; Matthew 21:1-11
Whenever there is a celebrity awards event the crowds gather. The red carpet is extended, limousines are numerous, interviews are plentiful, photographers are busy taking pictures and the television cameras are rolling. The onlookers are filled with joyful excitement as they spy one or more of their favorite actors passing by. For sure, the motives of the crowds gathered are different, but they are all focused on seeing the celebrities.
But today we are dealing with Palm Sunday and a parade to remember. Up to this point, Jesus had stayed out of the limelight. He had tried to keep a low profile, always urging those he had assisted to “tell no one.” But the time had come for some recognition, and it had nothing to do with Jesus’ conceit. Rather, it had everything to do with who Jesus was, the love He represented, the mission He came to fulfill and the task He wanted His followers to accomplish.
What about the crowds? We are told that the crowds on that Palm Sunday in Jerusalem were larger than usual. It was the season of a major Jewish festival, and so the population of an already large city was inflated with visitors and pilgrims. Yet we know almost nothing about any of them. But they were lining the streets, cheering, waving palm branches and throwing their clothes before the man riding on the donkey. Shouts were heard throughout the crowds, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” (Matthew 21:9).
What was the motivation for these people to praise and honor Jesus on that Palm Sunday in Jerusalem?
First, at the Passover season, Messianic excitement always ran high. With pilgrims crowding into Jerusalem both from settlements inside and outside of Palestine, hope for the appearance of the Messiah was ready to be ignited.
Second, Jesus’ miracles, especially the raising of Lazarus from the dead (John 11:43), stimulated renewed interest in Jesus. Some in the crowds imagined Jesus as a miraculous liberator while the religious leaders saw him as a threat to the nation.
Third, additional excitement was caused by Jesus riding on a colt, fulfilling Zachariah’s prophecy of the messianic king who comes to liberate his people (Zachariah 9:9-13; Matthew 21:4,5).
The prophet Zachariah lived and preached during the last quarter of the sixth century B.C. At that time, Jerusalem was still a city in ruins. It was only beginning to emerge from the crisis of the Babylonian conquest and exile. The Jews had begun to return and rebuild for only 20 years. Yet in the midst of all that bedlam, Zachariah foresees a reason for Jerusalem to rejoice. Zachariah looks forward and says, “Lo, your king comes to you!” It was a powerful, hopeful promise, which Matthew later understood to be fulfilled by Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.
After walking more than 100 miles from Caesarea Philippi, Jesus’ decision to ride the last mile on a donkey could only be a deliberate attempt to make his claim as the messianic king.
Fourth, the crowds were excited because some identified Jesus as a prophet and being a prophet in ancient Israel was a very exalted rank. A person did not become a prophet by birth or ambition or election. A prophet was chosen by God. Specifically, the crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee” (Matthew 21:11).
Fifth, some in the crowds on that Palm Sunday were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! ...” (Matthew 21:9) Scholars help us understand that the word “hosanna” generally doesn’t mean “praise” or “welcome” but rather is a cry for help: “Save, we pray.” Then these scholars added that the “Son of David” title is a significant affirmation of the faith that Jesus is the one promised through centuries of Scripture, the Messiah.
In a sermon preached years ago, I discussed the makeup of the Palm Sunday crowds and why they were there. Though not original with me, I mentioned four groups gathered there – the religiously curious, the religiously incorrect, the religiously admiring, and the religiously authentic.
Now, we have been reminded that the acclaim of the crowds on Palm Sunday came form their own expectations of what they wanted Jesus to be. But for Jesus, the meaning of his arrival on Palm Sunday was much more.
Jesus and Palm Sunday
New Testament scholar T.W. Manson says 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 kingdoms of the world, and to bring them to their one true loyalty and their only true peace, all this lies behind the resolve to go to Jerusalem.”
And, of course, Jesus didn’t come to Jerusalem riding a great white horse symbolizing that He was a mighty conqueror (earthly warrior king). Instead he entered Jerusalem riding a donkey, a little beast of burden, symbolizing that we was altogether a different kind of king.
A key phrase here is “humble and mounted on a donkey” (Matthew 21:5). Underline it! Jesus entered on a donkey. Scholars inform us that this style of arrival was deliberately arranged by Jesus; as it had been from the very beginning. Surely the incarnate Son of God, whose word controlled the wind and the waves, could have entered Jerusalem anyway he pleased. Yet he entered Jerusalem in the very same way he had entered and lived in the world – born in a stable and “taking the form of a slave…he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:7, 8).
As I said, Jesus is altogether a different kind of king. Jesus’ kingdom is a kingdom of peace and love and non-violence, and not as the crowds expected a kingdom of might and prejudice and violence.
Hear me now! By His coming to Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, Jesus is compelling people to make up their minds about Him and His kingdom. To love God and your fellow human being may be difficult to do alright, but it is not complicated to understand. Jesus had illustrated it as every point. Palm Sunday was/is the time for people to make up their minds about Jesus and his kingdom.
That He Came
Concerning Palm Sunday, we have considered the motivations of the crowds as to why they came, and we have looked at Jesus for the reason as to why He came. Now, we focus on the fact that He came.
Matthew sounded the prophet Zachariah’s declaration: “Look your king is coming to you” (Matthew 21.5; Zachariah 9:9). Scholars make clear that in this simple phrase we discover a glorious truth about our God: He comes to us.
The reasonable thing is for us to come to God. We should seek God and approach his throne with an attitude of prayer, humility and trembling. But astonishingly, it happens the other way around: that God should come to us. Jesus states it in Revelation, “I am standing at the door knocking, if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you… (3:20). No question, that’s a cause for us to greatly rejoice.