At several times in Jesus’ ministry, he attracted crowds of people who wanted to make him king, but he refused. He sent them away, or he slipped away, because if thousands of people started to proclaim him king, there would be a confrontation with the Romans and the Jewish leaders, and it was not yet time for that. But eventually the time came.
It was less than one week before his crucifixion, on what is now called Palm Sunday. Jesus told two of his disciples where they would find a donkey, and what they were to do with it.
As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage on the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, ‘Go to the village ahead of you, and at once you will find a donkey tied there, with her colt by her. Untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, tell him that the Lord needs them, and he will send them right away. (Matthew 21:1-3)
The Lord needs them — this is what a king might say when conscripting supplies from the people. We are taking this because we need it. In this case, Jesus needed the donkey. What did he need it for? It was just for show — a very special show — a symbolism that would tell the people that Jesus was the Messiah, the king.
A king of peace
Verses 4-5: “This took place to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet: ‘Say to the Daughter of Zion, “See, your king comes to you, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”’” Jesus was doing this to fulfill a prophecy of Zechariah 9:9. Zion’s king was predicted to come on a donkey.
At first glance, this does not seem like a very kingly way to come into the city. In the Roman world, kings rode horses,sitting up high, leading their armies. The military parade showed how powerful a king they were.
But this was not the sort of king that Jesus was, and it was not the sort of king that Zechariah had predicted. Zechariah did not predict a military hero coming back from battle. He was predicting a king of peace, a king who did not need to show off his army.
The context of Zechariah makes it clear. The very next verse in Zechariah says: “I will take away the chariots from Ephraim and the war-horses from Jerusalem, and the battle bow will be broken. He will proclaim peace to the nations. His rule will extend from sea to sea and from the Euphrates to the ends of the earth.”
This king will have peace. Weapons will not be needed. War horses will not be needed. The king rides on a donkey as a symbol of peace.
The problem is that many people in Jesus’ day didn’t keep this part of the prophecy in mind. They knew from Zechariah that the Messiah would ride into town on a donkey, but they also expected the Messiah to wage war, to bring peace through military victory.
Jesus had another plan in mind, and that is part of the story. Let’s pick it up again in Matthew 21:6-7: “The disciples went and did as Jesus had instructed them. They brought the donkey and the colt, placed their cloaks on them, and Jesus sat on them.” Jesus sat on the cloaks.
Verse 8: “A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road.”
This parade must have gone at a slow pace. The donkey wasn’t galloping. It was a leisurely procession that gave people enough time to cut tree branches and line the road with branches and cloaks. This was a sign of great honor in that society. People don’t throw their clothes into the street just for fun. It meant a great deal. It showed great honor and deference. The people knew that the Messiah would come into town on a donkey, and Jesus was practically blowing a trumpet and saying, I am the Messiah.
This event is commonly called “the triumphal entry” into Jerusalem. But there is little indication of triumph here. There are no spoils of war, no military parade. Jesus is using ordinary things — little things. He uses a donkey and a colt. He uses the clothes that people take off on the spur of the moment. Jesus uses little things.
“The crowds that went ahead of him and those that followed shouted, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David!’ ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!’ ‘Hosanna in the highest!’” (verse 9).
The people were singing Psalm 118, a messianic psalm, and they sang it for Jesus. Hosanna means “save us.” It was a prayer that said, “We need to be saved.” It was praise because it said, “You are capable of saving us.” They called Jesus the Son of David —the Messiah. They said he was coming in the name of the Lord. This is the King God had sent them.
“Save us now, O King of Israel! We welcome you. We honor you with our palm branches. We pave the streets for you with the clothes off our backs. We praise you and look to you for the salvation we need.” It must have been an air of tremendous excitement. People had this sense that the most exciting moment in their life was just around the corner.
But not everyone liked the party. The Pharisees complained. “Jesus,” they said, “tell your people to stop this. They are getting too excited. Tell them to be quiet.”
And Jesus said, “If these people didn’t do it, then God would raise up stones to sing praises for me. This is something thathas to be done in God’s plan. I have to be hailed as a king.”
Verses 10-11: “When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred and asked, ‘Who is this?’ The crowds answered, ‘This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee.’”
Who is this man who rides into town on a donkey, who claims to be the Messiah fulfilling Zechariah’s prophecy? It is Jesus.
A great disappointment
If we fast forward a few days and a few chapters, to chapter 27, we will find that the crowds were yelling something quite different. They were yelling “Crucify him, crucify him!” They were jeering: “If you are the king of Israel, then save yourself.”
One day, the crowds were praising Jesus as a hero. Not long after that, they were so angry at him that they wanted him to be killed. What happened to turn the tide of public opinion? The Gospel writers don’t tell us right here, but we see the picture in other parts of the Gospels. The people were looking for a king who would drive the Romans out of Judea. They were looking for a king who would give them food, safety, and prosperity – material things.
But Jesus just wasn’t that sort of king. The people had wanted to make him king before, and he had refused, because they had the wrong idea about what a king is. Even his own disciples had the wrong idea. Jesus was the Messiah, but not the sort of Messiah they were looking for.
The people hailed him as a hero, but he wouldn’t perform the way a hero was supposed to. He wouldn’t do what they wanted. They called him a Savior, but he didn’t bring the kind of salvation they wanted. Instead of kicking the Romans out of Judea, he kicked the Jewish moneychangers out of the temple — and that’s all. This was not a hero — this was a disappointment.
Then, in chapter 21, Jesus told the parable of the tenants, and his conclusion was definitely not a way to win a popularity contest: “The kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit” (verse 43).
Jesus is saying that the main problem around here is not the Romans — it is you. You are not producing the fruit you should be for the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God comes by conquering sin, not by conquering foreign armies. Sin is not conquered through physical power, but through righteousness, meekness, and submission. Death, the ultimate enemy, can be conquered only through death.
So Jesus did not do what the people expected. The people were disappointed, and many were angry. That kind of emotional roller coaster can happen sometimes after an intense emotional high. This guy won’t be a hero, so get rid of him. Crucify the imposter.
All according to plan
Ironically, this is the very reason that Jesus had come to Jerusalem, because this is the kind of hero he was. He was a hero who would be crucified. He wouldn’t do what the people wanted — he was heroic enough to do what the people needed. The people’s biggest enemy was not the Romans — it was sin. The Romans were a temporary problem; sin was a problem with eternal consequences.
The people were concerned about the quality of life; Jesus was concerned about life itself – eternal life. He came that the people might have life, and the only way they could have it was through his death as a sacrifice for their sins.
The people were singing psalms. They were involved in religious activity. They were preparing for Passover, in worship of God, and yet they were completely unaware of what God was doing in their midst. They were missing the spiritual reason God had come. Even as Jesus rode on a lowly donkey, the people were thinking of power and pageantry. They wanted their king to be like Gentile kings.
Jesus knew all this as he was riding the donkey. He knew that the praises of the people would soon pass away. He knew that he would soon be thrust into public ridicule and shame, pain and death. He knew the people needed exactly that, and he was hero enough to ignore their desires and instead, do what they needed.
What kind of king were the crowds looking for? Someone someone who would give them what they wanted? They were willing to follow Jesus only if he was going in the direction they liked, only if he was going to save them in the way they wanted to be saved — a physical salvation, a peace achieved through violence, and a material prosperity.
They were not willing to follow Jesus, because he was not going the way they wanted him to go. They called him king only as long as he was traveling in the direction they thought was right, but they were not willing to let him re-direct their expectations.
It still happens today
The people had a different priority, a different god. They wanted a god in their own image, instead of God the way he reveals himself to be. Instead of serving God, they wanted God to serve them. That happens today, too. People hail Jesus as their Savior. They sing hosanna. They praise Jesus. They participate in the parade — and yet in time they disappear. Their enthusiasm fades, and they fade away. Jesus is not what they wanted him to be.
When Jesus came into Jerusalem riding on a donkey, people thought he was a king riding into his capital city, where he would sit on a throne. But Jesus was riding into Jerusalem where he knew he would be crucified.
It is the same today. When we follow Jesus, we take up our cross to follow him. If our life is pleasant sometimes, then thank the Lord, but we should never forget that we are following in the footsteps of a crucified hero who disappointed his own people.
We did not become Christian because it was the popular thing to do, or it’s what our parents or friends expected us to do. We joined this parade because we believed in Jesus. We believed in a man who saves us through his death. We did not join this parade to get power. We did not join in order to tell Jesus what we want him to do for us. We joined it because we were willing for Jesus to tell us what to do, even if it cost the clothes off of our backs, even if it cost us our lives. We have to be willing to follow Jesus to shame and death, because we know that by doing so, we will also follow him to glory and life forever.
The whole world will someday praise Jesus Christ. Revelation 7:9-10 says,
After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice: “Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.”
That is a victory song. Salvation belongs to the Lamb who was slain. This will really be a triumphal celebration. Who are these people? The book of Revelation tells us: The people who gave their lives in service to Jesus Christ. The victory celebration is reserved for people who gave their lives. This is the victory of Jesus Christ. This is glory and power and life forever.
But not everyone can see this. In Matthew 21, we see what some people do with Jesus. They praise him, and soon fall away. The disciples were not much different than the crowds, were they? They all fell away. They all lacked faith. They all refused to follow where Jesus was going.
Supernatural help needed
How can we be sure that we are not one of them? We are no better than the crowds, no better than the disciples who fell away. Human strength and power cannot overcome sin and unfaithfulness. That is why Jesus came on a donkey instead of a war-horse. Human strength cannot overcome sin. Spiritual victory comes through meekness, through reliance on God.
It is only through the Holy Spirit that we can have the spiritual strength to be faithful. It is only through the help of the Spirit that we can have faith in a resurrection, so that we can see beyond the things of this world. We have to see beyond the fame that the world can give, and we have to see beyond the shame that the world can give. One is just as fleeting as the other.
And it is only through the Holy Spirit that we can see beyond the wealth of this world, or the good things of this life. Only through the Spirit can we believe in promises of a new heavens and new earth, promises that are so real to us that we are willing to give up the promises that humans make. When we see the beauty of God, the things of this world seem like cheap plastic. When we see the glory of God, the trials of this world seem like momentary troubles.
When we see the joy set before us, only then will we be willing to follow Jesus to his cross. Only then will we let him crucify our sinful desires, to put to death the deeds of the flesh. We have to ask the Holy Spirit to help us see more clearly the things he wants us to see.
It is only through the Holy Spirit that we can understand that we need a hero like Jesus. It is only the Holy Spirit who convicts us of sin, who convinces us that we are sinners in desperate need of spiritual salvation. It is the Holy Spirit who enables us to believe the gospel that we can live only because Jesus died for us, that our sins are forgiven only because he died for us.
It is only the Holy Spirit who convinces us that a crucified hero is exactly the sort of hero we need. It is only then, only when we recognize him for the kind of Savior that he is — and that we need that kind of Savior — that we will be willing to follow him wherever he goes.
People like a Savior full of love and forgiveness. People like a Savior who answers prayers as soon as we ask. But when we find out that our Savior also allows pain in our lives, we are disappointed — even though that pain can help us mature in the faith.
When we find out that our Savior sometimes disciplines us, we don’t like it as much, even though his discipline is always motivated by love. When we find out that the Savior also punishes, when we find out that the one who forgives is also one who condemns, we have a Savior that not everybody likes.
But we cannot pick and choose what sort of Savior we are going to welcome. We have to welcome the only Savior that exists, the Savior who is revealed to us in the Bible. We cannot demand a Savior who serves our desires — we have to accept a Savior who takes care of our needs, and he lays his life on the line to take care of those needs. We have to trust him in everything else, and we have to follow him wherever he goes, even if he goes into pain and shame.
It is good to sing hosanna. If we didn’t do it, God would raise up others to do it. Hosanna must be sung. But we need to remember what it means: “Save us!” We need a Savior, and we need to sing about him. But Jesus wants us to do more than sing — he wants us to follow him, even to the cross, even to where it hurts. We have to give up our expectations of what a Savior should do for us, and be willing to accept what Jesus actually gives us. We can’t do this on our own. It must be done by the Holy Spirit working in us, living in us, changing us to be more like Christ.
Join the parade
In the first century, people in Jerusalem had the privilege of participating in a historic parade, now known as the triumphal entry of Jesus Christ. They didn’t know it at the time, but they got a chance to see God, and to welcome him. Some of them never knew what had passed them by.
This happens today, too. People hear something about Jesus, and don’t realize what an opportunity is passing them by. But others have the chance to praise God, and to welcome him. Can you join the parade? Can you sing Hosanna to the king? Can you follow him even when he goes into the valley of the shadow of death? Can you welcome this king into your life? Can you let him take your life and shape it the way he wants to?
Jesus can use little things. That is his method of triumphal entry. He can say, The Lord needs this. The Lord needs this person. He has a job for this person to do. The Lord needs praise, and he invites us to join this parade — not just for a moment, but for life…eternal. The Lord needs this person. The Lord needs you, and he needs what you have. It may not be much, but it is what he needs.
Are you willing to praise him? Are you willing to follow him? Is he the sort of hero you are willing to follow? Is he the sort of hero you need to follow? If you can accept it, the answer is yes. This is our hero. This is our Savior. This is our King, gentle, riding on a donkey, hearing the people cheer as he rides toward his death.