A Foreshadowing of Judgment, Part 1: The Triumphal Entry

Series: Matthew

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on Mar 14, 1999

Matthew 21:1-11

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If you have your Bibles, I’d invite you to turn with me to Matthew chapter 21. Today we’re beginning a new, the final section, of the gospel of Matthew. You will notice that in each of the synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke, a disproportionate amount of time is spent on the last week of our Lord Jesus’ life. And in John’s gospel, even more. Half of the words of John’s gospel are devoted to a study of the last week of the Lord Jesus’ life. And a quarter of the other gospels are devoted to that point because the gospel writers are not so much interested in giving you a biography of Jesus. In fact they don’t give you a biography of Jesus. If we were writing a biography or if we were editing a biography, we’d want a biographer to tell us a whole lot more about certain times in Jesus’ life. They’re writing more than a biography. They’re writing a gospel. And a gospel in particular is to set forth before us two very important fundamental issue: Who is Christ and what did He do. The person and work of Christ is the focus of the gospels. And as we enter into this last section of Matthew, we see Matthew who is always been focusing our eyes on the person and work of Christ, now even more zero in on those two questions in the final days of our Lord Jesus’ life as He describes for us the events of the passion week. And so let us turn to God’s word here in Matthew 21. Hear the word of God:

Matthew 21:1-11

Our Lord, we ask for spiritual eyes to see the truth and ears to hear it and hearts ready to submit to it. Open our eyes that we may behold wonderful things from Your word through Jesus Christ we ask it. Amen.

It is the week of the passion. That is, it is the week that our Lord Jesus Christ would go to Jerusalem to suffer and die for our sins. And the disciples seem to be unaware again of the significance of the things surrounding these days. And so Jesus very deliberately begins to make His way into the city of Jerusalem. I want you to note that all of Jesus’ actions are deliberate. Jesus had always been deliberate, He had always been emphatic in what He did, He always had demonstrated to the disciples His own conscientiousness that He was the son of David, the Messiah, the Son of the living God come to seek and save lost sinners. And that each of His actions were significant in that ministry. But now more than ever more, there are indications that every single action that He takes during this final week is chocked full of significance for the disciples and for us. Because Jesus knows that the time appointed from before the foundation of the world has now arrived. And He wants to make it very clear who He is and what He has come to do. He is once again telling us the significance of His suffering and death before it actually happens.

Now I’d like you to see two or three things with me this morning in this passage. In the first three verses we see Jesus focus our attention on His person and His work. In the fourth and the fifth verses, we will see Jesus remind us that who He is and what He does is rooted in the prophecy of God even in the scriptures of the Old Testament. And then in verses six through eleven, He will force upon us the question “Who am I?” And we see it in Matthew’s words there in verse ten when the people of Jerusalem ask the question “Who is this?” about Jesus Christ. So I’d like you to see two or three things as we study this passage together.

I. We must live in the light of Jesus' kingly knowledge.

First of all in verses one through three you will see Jesus give a kingly command. That is, He makes a command. He sends His disciples on an errand that only a king could send them on. And, in fact, in the process of giving that command, He also gives them a prediction as to what is going to happen when they carry out His words. And as we study this passage, I think we will also learn that we need to live our lives in light of the knowledge of Christ. We need to live our lives in the light of the knowledge of Christ.

Now hold that thought, I’ll come back to it in a minute. Let’s look at the passage together. The day is Sunday. And Jesus and His disciples are making their way into Jerusalem. Many other pilgrims are coming to Jerusalem too. It’s Passover time and it will seem like half of Israel is in Jerusalem in these days. The city will swell with pilgrims coming for the Passover. And so Jesus is coming to Jerusalem in a time in which most of Israel is going to see or hear about the events of these days and it’s not going to have to be sent back by word of mouth to the villages around them because so many of them will be right there in Jerusalem.

Now the triumphal entry of Jesus, and that’s what this passage records, is done by Jesus for some very specific purposes. He has, in His design, at least four things that He wants to do by entering into Jerusalem in this way and I’d like to rehearse those things with you very briefly. First of all, by entering into Jerusalem this way, Jesus is evoking a display of enthusiasm on the part of the crowds for Him. And He knew that the enthusiasm of the crowds was going to provoke the religious leaders. Jesus, throughout His ministry, and through many of the last chapters in Matthew that we have studied, has attempted to push away attention from Himself by the religious leaders. When people would be converted to Him and would confess that He was the Messiah, the Son of God, what would He say? “Don’t go and tell that out loud to people.” He’d say, “Go back and witness to what God has done for you in your city.” But He did not court the attention of religious leaders. Now in this final phase of His ministry, He is provoking the attention of the religious leaders. That’s one reason He enters into Jerusalem this way.

Now secondly, and connected to that, Jesus by entering into Jerusalem this way, is provoking a crisis response on the part of the Sanhedrin. The Pharisees and the Sadducees had long been jealous of Jesus, they felt that His teaching was heretical, they thought that His claims about himself were blasphemous, and they were determined to stop him. But they didn’t have a tight timetable for stopping Jesus and they actually had never come up with a coherent plan for stopping Jesus. And by entering into Jerusalem this way, Jesus is forcing the Sanhedrin to respond to him on His own terms and on His timetable. The Lord Jesus knows that now is the time appointed by His father that He should be offered up as a sacrifice for the sins of the world. And note how the Lord Jesus is forcing the Sanhedrin into operating on that timetable.

Thirdly, Jesus by going into Jerusalem this way, fulfilled messianic prophecy recorded about him in Zechariah chapter 9 verse 9. Jesus does not attempt to restrain the crowd from saying to him “Hosanna to the son of David, blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” He doesn’t attempt to stop them from quoting messianic psalms, like Psalm 118 as they cry out to him. He had always done that before but now His time has arrived. And what is He doing? In this time when all of Israel is gathered in Jerusalem, He wants everyone to see very clearly who He claims to be and what He has come to do. And so by entering into Jerusalem this way, and drawing attention to His person in the work, He is actually advertising who He is and what He has come to do.

And finally, Jesus as He enters in this way to Jerusalem, is once again showing us that what Israel expected their Messiah to be like was not going to be what they got when He came. Once again, as Israel expects a great conquering military leader to come into Jerusalem with his mass armies to expunge those filthy Gentile Romans from the land to set up a rule of righteousness; to cast out those who are oppressive and wicked and corrupt in government to set up a rule of justice for all the people from the least to the greatest; to expand the boundaries of Israel to the former bounds of the Solomonic empire; to rule once again and set up a nation and a kingdom that would never fail; as they were expecting that, they get the Messiah riding into the town on a donkey. Once again, Jesus is teaching us that He is a King indeed, but He is not going to fit the expectations of the people of Israel. And so for all those reasons, Jesus enters into Jerusalem in this way.

Now perhaps it will help us to recount the events that led up to Jesus entering into Jerusalem and actually to describe the process of His entering into Jerusalem so we’ll have a very clear picture of it in our mind’s eye. On Friday evening, Jesus had arrived in Bethany at the home of Mary and Martha and Lazarus. He arrived there before sundown of the Sabbath and had a meal with them and spent the Sabbath from sundown on Friday till sundown on Saturday with them. We know from John chapter 12 that on Saturday night a party, a dinner, in honor of Jesus Christ was held at the home of Mary and Martha and Lazarus, and we know that that was the time when Mary anointed Jesus’ feet with oil.

The next morning, Sunday morning, Jesus and His disciples made their way to Jerusalem. They left Bethany and as they got towards Jerusalem, they were passing the little village of Bethphage. And Jesus said to two of His disciples, “Look, I want you to go into that little village, and you’re going to find a colt there. In fact, you’re going to find a donkey and her colt. There’ll be a foal of a donkey and her mother there together. Now I want you to bring them back to Me. And if someone stops you, if the owner or one of his servants stops you and says “Wait thief, what are you doing with my donkey and foal, you just tell them this. You tell them, ‘The Lord, not your Lord, but the Lord said that He required this.’ And they will send you on with it.” And so the disciples do as He says and they bring back this colt and the foal and they spread their garments on both the donkey and the little colt.

Now Mark tells us that Jesus rode on a foal that had never been bridled, had never been ridden. And that lets us know that He rode on this little foal. The garments were spread on both the colt and the foal. Jesus rode on the foal into the city. As He drew near the city, the multitude that was with Him began to sing some of the songs of ascent and began to sing out the praise “Hosanna to the son of David” from Psalm 118, one of the Psalms of Ascent. John tells us that there was a group of people who had known Jesus’ ministry in Galilee, they had already arrived, they come out and they converge with this crowd. And there were people there who had seen Jesus raise Lazarus from the dead in Bethany a long time ago. And so, they had all converged as they were approaching Jerusalem. And suddenly as they converged, the enthusiasm of the crowd begins to build and people start throwing their garments before the Lord Jesus and breaking branches off of trees and waving them and throwing them before them receiving Him as some sort of a triumphant, conquering monarch. And calling out to Him messianic phrases like “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord,” “Blessed is the one that God has sent to us,” and “Hosanna , you who are the son of David.” Acclaiming Him as the Messiah come to Israel .

Now we also know that as they get into the city of Jerusalem, the people of Jerusalem are stirred up by this. Now that doesn’t mean that they were all enthusiastic as well. It means that they were wondering ‘What in the world is this commotion going on?’ And in verse 10 we learn that in fact, the big question that they were asking was ‘W ho is this? Who is this guy coming into town that all the fuss is about?’ And the crowd responds to the people who are asking that question by saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth of Galilee.” That is the setting for the story that we see in Matthew 21 verses 1 -11.

But the focus of it is this. Jesus earthly ministry is drawing to a close and He no longer is seeking obscurity and secrecy. He is doing everything in the open. He is making His claims openly known and He is drawing attention to His person and work. Why? Because He wants it to be widely known. He wants His claims to be widely known and He wants the events of the next few days to be widely known. Do you remember that a number of years later when Paul would be testifying before the Roman authorities, he will lean over and he’ll say these words: ‘You know these events. They weren’t done in a corner.’ Jesus wants Paul to be able to say that a few years from now. Jesus wants just about everybody in Israel to have some sort of a first or a second hand account of the events that are going to go on that week. J.C. Ryle says it this way: “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.” Jesus is focusing our eyes on His person and His work.

And even by requisitioning that donkey and that foal, Jesus is making a claim that He is a king. You know, kings sometimes come in and requisition things when they’re in the process of conquering. The Scots to this day remember the fact that when Oliver Cromwell come north, he stabled his horses in St. Giles’ Church in Edinburgh. Don’t you think they liked that one bit. But conquering monarchs often do those sorts of things. They requisition things and by requisitioning things, they are saying what? “I am the ultimate authority here. I can stable my horses in your housing. I can house my soldiers in your houses.”

But notice here that Jesus, by requisitioning this donkey, requisitions the donkey in such a way that the master willingly gives it and He chooses not a warhorse, but a donkey, an ass. The foal of a donkey. That will be the instrument. That will be His ride as He comes in to Jerusalem. He is claiming royalty. But He is saying, ‘I am not the kind of kingly Messiah that you have been expecting. I’m not riding in on a warhorse. I’m not riding in on a white stallion. I’m not riding in with armies behind Me. I’m coming with this multitude of poor folk and disciples and I’m coming on a donkey before us.’ Jesus is focusing our attention on His person and work. And let me say that I’ve been excited for a long time about getting to these chapters in the gospel of Matthew, because Matthew sets before us the person and work of our Lord in glorious ways. Now I don’t know what the Lord is going to be doing in our hearts individually and as collectively as a congregation in the days to come, but I expect great things because these things are great things that are being recorded in this passage of Matthew. And Matthew is going to focus on who Jesus is and what He is doing on our behalf.

But this passage also reminds us that we always live under the gaze of the Lord Jesus Christ. This is really extraordinary, isn’t it? Jesus saying to the disciples, ‘You go into such and such a village and there will be a donkey and a foal waiting for you. Now you just take them and bring them back to Me and oh, by the way, if one of the servants stops you, you tell them that I need them.’ This is really remarkable, isn’t it? Jesus knowing this, how does He know this? Because He’s the Son of God and Savior of sinners.

But do we realize that His eyes are on us just like His eyes were on the disciples and even on those beasts of burden? You know, if He knows even the position of domestic animals, we can be sure that He knows our hearts. Do we see our lives in light of that kind of knowledge? Do we live our lives in light of that kind of knowledge of Christ? He knows everything. I would suggest to you that sometimes we live as if He doesn’t know where we are, what we’re doing, what we’re saying, and what we’re thinking. But this passage reminds us again that our Lord is omniscient. He knows everything. And so we must live that way.

I had the privilege of serving while a teenager in Washington D.C. as a senate page for Strom Thurmond of South Carolina many many years ago. And Strom was known as a pretty hard worker and required his staff to be in the office very punctually in the morning. He wanted them right at the phones when the 8:00 bell rang. He wanted those phones being answered. You were to be in your seat at 7:59 and he set a good example himself getting up early in the morning and exercising and coming into the office early. And I was there in 1976 when his youngest son, now you have to remember Strom was already in his late 60s, his fourth child was born in 1976. And when Paul Reynolds was born, the phone call came from Columbia, South Carolina, “Senator Thurmond, uh, Nancy is in labor in a hospital in Columbia.” You see, Strom sent his wife home to South Carolina to have those children. He didn’t want children born in Washington, DC. He wanted children born in South Carolina, and so she would be sent home to Columbia to have the child. And the phone call came in the afternoon, “Strom, Nancy is in labor.” And so he got on a private plane and flew home and there was a wild party that erupted in the office. This is great! Senator Thurmond won’t be here for a couple of days. We’ll ease in late in the morning. No problem, we’ll have a big time. Throw an office party, etc. Well the next morning, I was in as usual, because Senator Thurmond required his pages to come in and file pink slips. These weren’t notes that you were being fired, but they were copies of letters that he had written back to his constituents. He required us to file those before we went to the senate floor and as I walked in at my usual time, Catherine who ran that office, and she ran a tight ship, was there and she was in a real tizzy fit. Because about half of the office wasn’t there. And as I walked in she said, “Ligon, could you go back and help me do such and such. Half the office isn’t here and he’s been here since six a.m.!” He had gone, he had been there at the birth of the child and gotten back on his plane and flown back in the middle of the night and came back in the office a little early just to get a little extra work done. And he knew everybody that wasn’t there yet and he was ticked off. And Catherine was absolutely beside herself. Well, Strom, the eyes of Strom were upon us. Whether we knew it or not. But a lot of times we don’t remember that they eyes of the Lord Jesus are upon us. He knows our thoughts, He knows our words, He knows our deeds. Do we live in light of that?

Jesus is focusing us here on His person and work but don’t we also see the lesson to remember of our Lord’s knowledge. He knows what we’re doing. J.C. Ryle says this: “The sense of our Lord Jesus’ perfect knowledge of all our ways ought to have the same effect on our hearts. Let us do nothing we would not like Christ to see and say nothing that we would not like Christ to hear. Let us seek to live and move and have our being under a continual recollection of Christ’s presence. He is present with us.” Do we live that way?

II. Scripture proves His claims and reveals His person and work.

There’s a second thing I’d like for you to see in this passage in verses 4 and 5. Not only do we have that kingly command and prediction of the first three verses, but we have this fulfillment of the Scriptures in this action of taking the foal and Christ riding on that foal into Jerusalem. We see a fulfillment of the Scriptures and we note again that Scripture proves Jesus’ claims and reveals His person and work. Let me say that again a little bit differently. Scripture not only proves Jesus’ claims, it also reveals His person and work so that when we attend Scripture, our idea of the Savior is changed so that we understand Him like He wants to be understood. We all have our preconceptions of Jesus. But Jesus wants to define Himself to us and even as we see Him fulfill Scripture, He is defining Himself to us.

Now hold that idea for a minute and let’s look at the passage together. Here in verses 4 and 5, Matthew tells us what messianic prophecy Jesus fulfilled by this action. By riding into Jerusalem on this foal, He is fulfilling Zechariah chapter 9 verse 9. And so that passage testifies that Jesus is in fact the Messiah. That passage provides evidence proof that Jesus is the Messiah promised by the Lord. But it also reveals some unexpected qualities about the Messiah. Look at it closely. First of all, it says, “Say to the daughter of Zion,” verse 5, “behold your king is coming to you.” The first thing that is stressed is that He is the people’s king. He is your king. He does not come as a conquering tyrant from abroad, He comes as the people’s king, He comes to them, He comes for them, for their benefit. And even the picture of Him riding on a donkey stresses this. He doesn’t come on a warrior steed to conquer them. He comes as their king for them. For their benefit.

Secondly, notice that it says that He comes gentle. He comes in gentleness and peace and graciousness. Not in war and in judgement. He comes to be a blessing to them. Not to oppress them. He comes to set them free. Not to enslave them. And so again, the picture of Him coming on a donkey as opposed to a warhorse, stresses this reality.

Notice also that He comes mounted on a donkey even on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden. In other words, He comes as a king, but He comes in humility. He comes on a humble beast of burden riding on a borrowed donkey’s colt. Catch that picture folks! This is the Lord God of the universe. The one who sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty. Riding into Jerusalem on a beast that He didn’t own, with no bridle and no saddle, only garments spread over the back of this beast. It is a picture of humility. And as we study Scripture, we not only gain confidence in who Christ claims to be by seeing Him fulfill prophecies like this, but our preconceptions about Christ are changed and shaped according to the word.

Have you talked with someone who said, “Well you know my God wouldn’t do such and such.” And, you know, you sort of look down at your Scripture and you say, “Well its real funny, you know, because the guy in the Bible says He does that.” Your God must not be that same God of the Bible. There are a lot of people who do the same thing about Jesus: “Well, you know, I don’t think Jesus would have done such and such.” “Well, you know it’s real interesting that Matthew says right here that He does.” And Jesus, even as He fulfills these passages, is saying to Jerusalem and to us, ‘I am not the kind of king that you want to make Me to be. I am the kind of king that I am and you need to stand up and take note and heed the word of God.’ He is defining Himself to us in Scripture. And we must not mold Him to our thoughts but we must submit our thoughts to His own definition of who He is.

III. Jesus’ coming demands a response.

And then lastly, you see in verses 6 through 11, Jesus’ kingly but lowly and humble entrance into Jerusalem. Jesus, by coming into Jerusalem this way, is demanding a response. We said in the first three verses that He was drawing attention to His person and work by making a claim to be a king. In verses 4 and 5, He is further drawing attention to that person and work by rooting His claim in the fulfillment of the Scripture. He is saying, ‘Not only am I a king, but I am fulfilling in this action predictions made by the prophets of the God of Israel about the Messiah.’ Now He is forcing a response to who He is. He’s saying, “I’m not satisfied with you just saying, ‘O.K., well, so what.’ I am going to force you to take a position on Me.’ He is demanding a response from the people in Jerusalem and of course, He’s demanding a response from anyone who reads this passage: Us, today.

As Jesus actually enters into the city, the crowds join, they converge and they begin singing to him in terms of Psalm 118. Now Psalm 118 is not only one of the Psalms of Ascent which the pilgrims sang as they went up to Jerusalem, it is also a messianic psalm and it is one of the six psalms most frequently quoted in the New Testament and applied to Jesus. So this is a big deal that these people are singing from Psalm 118 to Jesus.

Now the crowds are initially enthusiastic. They are all joining together and singing very popular and positive things about Jesus. You have to remember that this same crowd at the end of the week is going to be shouting, “Crucify Him.” Now that among other things ought to remind us of this: Living life according to polls is not a very bright thing to do. J.C. Ryle puts it this way, “This is proof of the utter folly of thinking more of the praise of man than of the praise of God.” Jesus knew exactly what was going on with these crowds and He was not allowing Himself to be drawn along by them. He was conducting His father’s business.

Now there were three basic responses in this crowd to Jesus. Two of them we see explicitly in our passage and then we’ll see another one when we come to the passage next week. But let me rehearse each of these three responses to you. Some people were very positive about Jesus but they were superficial in their knowledge in this support. The crowds. The crowds were very positive about Christ. They were excited but they were superficial in their knowledge of Him and in their support. How do we know that? When they are asked who He is, what is the answer? He’s the prophet from Nazareth, Jesus. Now, they may have meant that He was the prophet promised by Moses in Deuteronomy 18. But clearly, as their support melts away later in the week, we see that their knowledge of who Jesus is, is superficial.

It is important for us to understand the lesson that we learn from this. It is not enough to think positively about the Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus, when we get to the last days, is not going to say “Did you have positive thoughts about Me?” But the question is, “Have we embraced Him as the Son of God and Savior of sinners? Have we acknowledged who He claims to be and more than that, have we personally admitted that we are sinners in need of grace and we have trusted in Him alone for our salvation as He has offered in the gospel?” That is what is going to matter in the last day. Positive thoughts about Jesus are nice, they will get you nowhere on the last day. And that’s what we learn from these crowds. You see, you might think, “Well, you know the crowds, at least they were better than the Pharisees.” But in the end, if this is all these crowds believed about Jesus, they too will be consigned to partition with all those who mocked and scourged and crucified our Lord and who refused to believe in Him. We must think more than positive thoughts about the Lord Jesus. We must embrace him as our Savior and trust in Him alone for salvation as He has offered in the gospel. That’s the first response, the crowd’s superficial knowledge and ignorance.

The second response comes from Jerusalem itself. The people in the city. And what’s the response? Ignorance! What’s their question? Verse 10.: “Who is this?” Jesus had been in Jerusalem before and yet the people are saying, “Who is this?” There’s ignorance. There’s superficiality. What are the other responses? Well we know that there were Pharisees amongst these multitudes. We’ll find that out in just a few verses. Their response was, of course, devious and deliberate opposition to the Lord Jesus Christ. Now it is tempting for us to think, “Well, you know in the end, that is the only thing that gets you in trouble. Devious and deliberate opposition to the Lord Jesus Christ.”

But Matthew is making it clear that all three of those responses are inadequate responses and they will get you nothing but hell. Superficial knowledge of Christ. Positive views of Christ. Ignorance about Christ. Opposition to Christ. All of those will bring us condemnation. We must deal with Jesus. Indifference to Jesus is defiance. Superficiality about Jesus is dangerous. Opposition to Jesus is fruitless.

We must bow the knee. That’s the fourth response and that’s the only saving response to the Lord Jesus Christ. We bow the knee, we acknowledge Him to be the King, our King. We acknowledge him to be the Lord, our Lord. We acknowledge him to be the Savior, our Savior. We acknowledge that in Him alone can we find salvation. That is the only saving response to the Lord Jesus Christ. If we are ignorant about Jesus, if we are apathetic about Him, we are in the same fix as those who are opposed to Him because He is your King. He’s the only King. He is the only hope of salvation. Every time this passage is read, the question is put, “What do you think of Jesus?” “Who is this?” “Who do you say that I am?” There is only one saving response to that and that issue is pressed on all of us today.

If you think well of Jesus, but have not embraced Him as your Savior, and all across this land there are many many churches thriving with lots of people in them, but we suspect that there are still people in those churches that think well of Jesus but they’ve never embraced Him as their Lord and Savior. On the last day, only those who have embraced Him and bowed the knee will find the mercy and the blessings and the eternal salvation for which He died. May God help us to choose this day. Let us pray.

Our Lord and our God, we do bow the knee of our hearts to the one Savior who entered that Sunday into His city and yet those to whom He came knew Him not. O Lord, may there be room in our hearts for the Lord Jesus. Or better yet, may there be room in His kingdom for us by grace we ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.

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