Why Palm Sunday?

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on Mar 25, 2018

Matthew 21:1-11

If you have your Bibles, I’d invite you to turn with me to Matthew chapter 21. We’ll be looking this morning at the first eleven verses and I’m going to be doing something that I’ve never ever done before, which is preach a Palm Sunday sermon! I was always working through some Bible book when Palm Sunday came around. I grew up, like many of you, in churches where there would be children with palms on Palm Sunday and all sorts of music associated with that. Ralph called me, or texted me, about three months ago to ask if I could preach on this Sunday while David was away, and in about a second I wrote back, “Yes!” And so I’ve been looking forward to it for a long time.

But about a month and a half ago I looked and I noticed, (A) It was falling on Palm Sunday – and it’s always hard to decide what to preach on a one-off message. You know it’s a lot easier when you’re preaching through a Bible book you know you’ve got to preach the next passage. But when you’re coming in one-off, what are you going to do? I noticed it’s Palm Sunday. And then, I noticed that the Psalm reading was Psalm 24, which is begging the question. Isn’t it? Right? It’s the psalm about the king coming into Jerusalem. And the psalm says, “Hey gates! Look! Who’s the king? The guy coming through the gates is the king! Who is he?” So this Sunday was crying for a Palm Sunday sermon. And so I texted Bill Wymond and I said, “What do you think? Could we do some Palm Sunday hymns and do a Palm Sunday text?” And after Dr. Wymond checked off, I said, “Okay, here we go.” And so then, you only have to decide, “Okay, is it going to be Matthew, Mark, Luke or John?” Because this is one of those, this is one of those gospel stories that’s found in every single gospel, which tells you this must be pretty important.

But then I started to think back to my own time when I was one of those little kids holding a little palm. I wonder if I had any clue what all that was about. Other than just sort of being part of the crowd when Jesus came into Jerusalem, what’s all that about? Why Palm Sunday? And it gave me a chance to go back to this passage and look at it closely and frankly, to read some things that – I preached on this text over eleven years ago at First Pres. And it gave me a chance to go back and study some more. And I was blessed in studying it. And here’s what I want you to see. What is Palm Sunday about? It’s about Jesus saying to everybody there in Jerusalem, “Okay, all eyes on Me. It is vitally important for you to know who I am.” Now that’s so significant because if you will remember, in Jesus’ ministry, He had kind of a parallel track approach to that issue with His disciples and with the multitudes. With His disciples, He took pangs to tell them who He was and what He was here to do. I mean, think of Matthew 16. Right? The same thing is happening in this passage. The question is, “Who is this?” when Jesus comes into town. “Who is this?” Well in Matthew 16, the people were saying the same thing and they had different theories. “Well, He’s Elijah. He’s John the Baptist, raised from the dead.” And Jesus says to His disciples, “Who do you think I am?” And Peter, remember, he barks out, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God!” And Jesus says, “You’re exactly right, Peter. And the Father showed you that.”

But when people from the crowds that Jesus ministered to would make similar kinds of confessions – “You’re the Christ! You’re the Son of the living God!” – Jesus would say, “Don’t tell anybody that.” Have you ever wondered why? The answer “why” is, Jesus knew when the claim got abroad that He was the Messiah, the Son of David, the promised Prophet, the one coming in the name of the Lord, it was going to provoke an immediate confrontation with the religious authorities that was going to end up in His death. Now He knew that was the plan for His life, but the time was not yet. When you get to this passage, the time has come. And so now, Jesus is making a public declaration about things that He has been teaching His disciples for a long time. In other words, He wants everybody in Jerusalem to know what He has been telling to His disciples for three years now.

By the way, a wonderful exercise this afternoon would be for you to go read the parallel passages in Mark, Luke, and John because each of them bring out such delicious things. For instance, John is the one who tells us that there were palms here. This passage tells us they took branches but it doesn’t tell us what kind of branches. John tells us it was palms. And so you’ll pick up different things from the different passages. But one of the things you’ll pick up is that even in this passage it tells you the disciples don’t quite know what’s going on. So Jesus is trying to help everyone understand very clearly who He is and what He’s come to do. That’s what Palm Sunday is about. And by the way, it was a Palm Sunday. This is five days before Jesus’ crucifixion. They had spent the Sabbath Day, they had spent Friday night all the way to Saturday evening in Bethany, just a few miles away. And now it’s Sunday, what we call Sunday – the first day of the week they would have called it – and now Jesus and His disciples are headed up to Jerusalem. So it’s literally the first Palm Sunday.

And in this passage I want you to see three things. The first thing, if you'll look at verses 1 to 3, Jesus makes it really clear He is coming as King. That's what He's going to make clear. It is very deliberate. He is deliberately making a claim to be King by the way He comes. You'll see this in verses 1 to 3. Then in verses 4 to 7, you will see that Jesus deliberately comes as King according to Scripture. That is, everything that Jesus does here and plans to do in advance is deliberately purposed to fulfill Scripture. That is hugely important to understand. So He’s coming as King, verses 1 to 3. He’s coming deliberately as a fulfillment of Scripture, verses 4 to 7. Then verses 8 to 11, there’s a response to His coming, which reminds us that everybody has to decide how you’re going to respond to the coming of this King. So He’s coming as King, 1 to 3, He’s coming according to Scripture, 4 to 7, and we’re going to see the response in verses 8 to 11.

Before we read God’s Word, let’s pray and ask for His help and blessing.

Heavenly Father, this is Your Word and we do not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. So speak, Lord, Your servants listen. We ask this in Jesus’ name, amen.

This is the Word of God. Hear it, in Matthew 21, beginning in verse 1:

“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 fulfill 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,

on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden.’’


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 to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!’ And when he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred up, saying, ‘Who is this?’ And the crowds said, ‘This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth of Galilee.’”

Amen, and thus ends this reading of God’s holy, inspired, and inerrant Word. May He write its eternal truth upon all our hearts.

Jesus, in this passage, clearly directs our attention to the question, “Who is this?” Even Matthew’s question from the crowds tip you off to that. The great point of this passage is – take stock of who Jesus is. And He is going to make very deliberate pre-planned claims in this passage in order to make crystal clear who He is. Because the question of who Jesus is, is an eternal question, a question of eternal moment; a question of life and death. It’s the difference between heaven and hell. And He is focusing our attention on that question. He is asking you to sit here today and think, “Who do I really believe that Jesus is? Am I prepared to stake my life on who He claims to be?”

Claim to be King

And in this passage, the first thing that you’re going to see is Jesus’ claim to be King. And you see this in verses 1 to 3. He tells the disciples to go – look at verse 2 – “Go into the village and find a donkey tied, and a colt with her, and untie them and bring them to Me.” And Jesus, who has walked all the way from Galilee down to Bethany, has walked all the way from Bethany to within two miles of Jerusalem, suddenly is going to get up on an animal. Now He does not do this because He’s tired. Okay? He would have already gotten tired walking from Galilee down to Bethany! Okay? He’s doing this for a very specific – He is deliberately choosing to ride into Jerusalem.

Donkey as Kingly Symbolism

Now here’s one thing that we often get wrong with this passage. We think, “Okay, donkey. That means humble.” And there’s a certain truth to that. It’s even emphasized in the quotation that you read in verse 5. “Your king is coming to you, humble and mounted on a donkey.” But you need to understand this first. Before you get there, you need to understand that in the Biblical world, for 2,000 years, it had been very common for kings and rulers and judges to ride donkeys. A donkey was not considered – you know, if a great military American hero showed up in Washington, DC riding a donkey, we’d think something was wrong. That would not have occurred to them as being wrong. There are examples in the Old Testament of judges and other rulers who rode donkeys. A donkey was considered a perfectly appropriate royal animal. Okay? And so Jesus is making a claim to kingship by riding this donkey. And it’s clear that the crowd gets it. So they cry out, “Behold, your king is coming to you, Zion!” The crowds say, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!” It’s clear that the crowds get the kingly symbolism here. Jesus is claiming to be King.

Not the King They Expect

But what He is when He does this, what He is doing is saying, "I'm not the kind of king you expected. I'm not a militaristic Messiah who's going to come and kick out your political oppressors, the Romans, and reestablish the Mosaic, ceremonial law. I'm not that kind of Messiah. I'm not the Messiah you're expecting. I'm the Messiah you need. I'm not the King you're expecting. I'm the King you need. Because you need, far more than you need deliverance from the Romans, you need deliverance from yourselves; you need deliverance from your sins. And the only kind of King that can give that to you is the kind of King that I am. A military king can't give that to you. But a King who is humble enough to die for your sin can give you the kind of deliverance you need."

According to Scripture

Now it’s very interesting. Jesus has clearly planned this. And you see it in how it plays out. He tells the disciples that they’ll go into Bethphage and they’ll find a donkey and a colt tied together and to bring them. And here’s the second thing that we see in the passage. Jesus is doing this, He’s coming as the humble King, according to Scripture. He is very explicitly doing this according to Scripture. Now the passage reads a little strange. He says, “Go into the village and tell them if anyone says anything to you, tell them the Lord needs these animals.” And it almost has a miraculous feel to it. It’s almost like, “These are not the droids you’re looking for!” But I think that’s not how we’re supposed to read it. I think Jesus has planned this Himself without the disciples’ knowledge, just like He will make arrangements for the Upper Room four nights later. Right? But what it lets you know is Jesus isn’t – this is happening exactly the way that Jesus wants it to happen. One of the things that you start learning on the Sunday of Passion Week is that none of this that’s going to happen during Easter Week is out of Jesus’ control. He’s planning it all.

Jesus is in Control

In fact, if you turn over, turn over just a few chapters in Matthew to Matthew 26. Jesus will say to the disciples, and this is on Wednesday. So we’re on Sunday now in chapter 21. In chapter 26, you’re on Wednesday. He says, “In two days the Passover is coming and the Son of Man will be crucified.” Now listen to what happens next. Look at verse 5. The chief priests who were gathered together with Caiaphas and plotting to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill Him, said, "Not during the feast or there will be an uproar among the people." Now, do you get that? Jesus says, "In two days, I'm going to be arrested. I'm going to be tried in a kangaroo court. I'm going to be beaten. I'm going to suffer. I'm going to die." And the people who are planning to do it, say, "Oh, we're not going to do it this week." And if I could put this way, reverently, Jesus says, "Yes you are, because I've planned it this way. My time has come." Jesus is not the victim of the Romans. He's not the victim of the high priests. He's not the victim of the Sanhedrin. He's not the victim of the Pharisees. Jesus is in complete control. And notice what He's doing – He's fulfilling Scripture. So the reason He tells them, “Go get that donkey and colt that are tied together in the village. I’ve already talked to their owners, so if any of the servants say, ‘Hey, what are you doing with our master’s donkey and colt?’ you just tell them, ‘The Lord has need of them.’ That’s the password that their owners and I have agreed on and they’ll let you take those animals away.”

Fulfilling Prophesy

Here’s one more thing. If you look at verse 5, look at the parallel between the second part and then the “and” part of the verse, “mounted on a donkey and on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden.” Now that’s what is called a Hebrew parallelism. You know in Hebrew, not just in poetry but in other kinds of even prose, Hebrew likes to say the same thing twice using slightly different words. So Zechariah is not prophesying about two animals apparently. He’s talking about a donkey and then he’s recalling the donkey a colt, a young donkey that’s never been ridden before, the foal of a beast of burden. And many liberal, critical scholars at this point will say, “Ah, ha, ha, ha! You poor Matthew! He doesn’t even understand how to read Hebrew. Matthew makes up this story of Jesus being brought both a colt, a foal, and a donkey, because He doesn’t understand that this is just Hebrew parallelism.”

Well, when deciding who can read Hebrew best, I usually think 1st century Jews would have a slight edge over 18th century liberal Germans. Okay? If you’re going to force me on that, I’m going to go with the 1st century Jew every time! Okay? Matthew knows how to read Hebrew. And by the way, which one of these does Jesus end up riding? The other gospels tell you. He rides the colt. So He rides the young, unridden animal. That’s the one that He’s one. Matthew’s not telling you that He rode both of them. He says that both of them had garments spread on them but He sits on the garments. Which one is He on? He's on the colt. By the way, it makes perfect sense if you're going to ride a colt that's never been ridden before to have the colt's mother with him. It makes perfect sense. But here, I think, is what Matthew is saying. Well, what do you know? All these years, because of Hebrew parallelism, we just thought it was going to be one animal. Well doggonit, if Jesus didn't call for both a donkey and a colt to make it crystal clear that He was fulfilling this passage of Scripture. You see, Jesus is saying, “I’m going to live by the Book, I’m going to minister by the Book, I’m going to suffer by the Book, I’m going to die by the Book, I’m going to be resurrected from the dead by the Book.” Jesus is conducting His life and His ministry strictly in accordance with the Word of God.

Rooting Claims in the Bible

Can I just pause and say that is so important for us to understand? Because in our day and time, there are all sorts of persuasive, influential voices that claim to be Christian that say, “Listen to my appealing, thinking and authority over against the Word of God.” Or, they’ll do things like this. “I believe in Jesus rather than the Bible.” Or, “We need to be led into a new, fresh understanding by the Holy Spirit and away from this wooden commitment to the Word of God.” And here is Jesus, and He does this over and over, living His life by the Book. Saying, “Down to minute detail, I’m living in accordance with God’s Word.” If the Spirit is the author of the Word, and He is, He’ll never speak against the Word. If Jesus is the author of the Word, He’ll never speak against the Word. Jesus’ ministry is done by the Book. He’s very deliberate here. He’s making a claim to be King, but He’s rooting that claim in the Bible. “I am King and I’m fulfilling what the Bible said the King would do!” That’s what’s going on here on Palm Sunday. He’s making a claim to be King, but He’s rooting that claim in the Bible. Anytime people point you to Jesus and away from the Bible, you can be sure that who is behind that is a person whose name starts with an “S” but doesn’t continue with a “p.” The Spirit doesn’t point you to Jesus and away from the Bible. He points you to Jesus with the Bible. Satan points you away from the Bible. Jesus, here, is rooting His claim in the Bible.

The Response

Now, what’s the response? It’s really remarkable. First of all, notice how Matthew is careful to talk about there being not just a crowd or a great crowd, but “crowds” here. Look, for instance, at verse 8. “Most of the crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others, cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road.” So he’s already drawing to you distinctions within the crowd. Some people did this; others did that. Then, he says this. Look at verse 9, “The crowds that went before him and that followed, were shouting.” So he even distinguishes the people that were in front of Jesus already in the city, and the people that were behind Him, following. Why is that important? Because sometimes here’s how we preachers will preach Palm Sunday. On Palm Sunday, everybody in Jerusalem said, “Blessed is Jesus! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!” And doggonit, if not five days later they’re all shouting, “Crucify Him!”


And interestingly, the gospel authors never tell us that. The gospel authors do not tell us that the entire city blessed Jesus. In fact, if you’ll look in the passage, look at verse 10. Here’s how Matthew characterizes Jerusalem. By the way, this shows you how the gospel writers – they’re not just making up a story; they are recounting as carefully as possible what actually happened. Look at what he says. "When He entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred up." Isn't that interesting? You remember when the magi showed up and worshiped Jesus and news got back to Jerusalem? Remember the word Matthew uses there? He says, "All Jerusalem was troubled." Now, he says, "Everybody's all jittery about this." He doesn't say, "Everybody's pro-Jesus." There's a lot of upset about this. So not everybody is responding the same way. Now some of these people are probably people from Jerusalem and the environment who have heard about Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead in Bethany. And you know, talk gets around. "Is this the guy who raised a guy from the dead a couple of miles from here?" And then some of these people following Him, probably, are pilgrims coming down from Galilee on the same route that Jesus took. In fact, they're the ones who answer – when the city is stirred up, Matthew says the question they were asking is, "Who is this?" And the answer comes from the crowds who were following Him and they say, "This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth of Galilee." So you almost get the idea like the Galileans are going, “Yeah, this is our boy! This is our boy coming into town on the donkey! Representing for Galilee! Here we are!” I mean they’re proud! So it’s not everybody who’s pro-Jesus. There’s a lot of confusion in Jerusalem over who this is.

The Son of David

Now the answer that they give – He’s a prophet, that’s true, but it’s not enough. You’ve got to say more than that. Right? And yes, He’s Jesus of Nazareth. Yeah, He grew up mostly in Nazareth. By the way, He’s from Bethlehem. Jesus grew up mostly in Nazareth, did most of His life and ministry in Galilee, yeah, that’s true, but it’s even truer that your King is coming to you. This is your King. This is the Son of David. This is the Messiah. That’s what they need to get, because that is the question upon which all of history and our lives hinges.

“Who is This?”

You remember just a few nights later, John tells us that one of the disciples will say to Jesus, “Jesus, we love all this stuff that You’re telling us about how You’re going to build mansions in glory for us and all of us are going to live in an extended, Mediterranean villa, but we don’t know how to follow You there.” And you remember how Jesus answers that question? Sure you do. Sure you do. Let me tell you. "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father but by Me." Now, do you realize why the "Who is this?" question is so important? Jesus is saying, "Nobody gets to glory except by Me. Nobody gets to glory except by believing Me. You embrace Me – glory. You reject me – perdition." 

My friends, that’s a question for every single of one us today. You know if you’re a member of this church, at some point in time you said these words, “I believe in the Lord Jesus Christ as the Son of God and Savior of sinners. And I rest and receive Him alone for salvation as He is offered in the Gospel.” And Jesus, on Palm Sunday, is saying this. “If you don’t know who I am, if you don’t believe My claims, if you don’t trust in Me, there’s no hope for you.” He’s not the kind of King they were expecting. He’s not even the kind of King they wanted. They wanted somebody who would come in and clean house with the Romans and set up the Mosaic law again. But isn’t it interesting, Jesus comes to people who don’t know who He is or why He’s coming or what it means to give them exactly what they need. And you know what friends? Sometimes it’s like that in the Christian life. You have no idea what Jesus is doing, you have no idea what it means in your life, but He’s coming because He’s the Savior you need; He’s the King you need. And so all of us have to answer that question. “Who is this? Who is this King of glory? The Lord! Who is this? The Lord Jesus Christ! The King! The Messiah! The only name under heaven by which we may be saved.” That’s what Palm Sunday is about.

Let’s pray.

Heavenly Father, thank You for Your Word. We ask that You would enable us to believe on Him in whom to believe is life eternal. And we ask this in Jesus’ name, amen.

© 2018 First Presbyterian Church.

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