A Bible Lesson on Matthew 21:1-17

Scripture taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. Copyright 2000; 2001, by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

We have here the triumphal entry to Jerusalem. Throughout the majority of His earthly ministry, Jesus did not want it widely known that He is Messiah. Even His disciples had the wrong idea of what that Messiahship was to mean and He expended much effort and time teaching them the real meaning of His Kingship. We are now essentially at the end of His earthly ministry, one week before the crucifixion, and it is time to quite openly declare that He is indeed Messiah, and to do so in Jerusalem, the capital of Judah and center of Jewish worship.

Matthew 21:1 Now when they drew near to Jerusalem and came to Bethphage, to the Mount of Olives, then Jesus sent two disciples,

They are apparently walking on the Roman military road from Jericho to Jerusalem that climbs 3000 ft in 17 miles. As one travels this road and nears Jerusalem, one hits Bethany, to the east of the Mount of Olives, Bethphage on the eastern slope of the Mount of Olives and then goes over the Mount of Olives. Crossing the Mount of Olives one goes down, in sight of Jerusalem into the Kidron Valley and back up out of it, where the road enters Jerusalem right by the site of Herod’s Temple.

This is Passover time, a time when every Jewish male living within reasonable walking distance of Jerusalem was required to go to Jerusalem to celebrate the feast. Jews from literally all over the known world did all possible to make it to the Passover celebration. From accounts of the numbers of lambs sacrificed there at about that time, people have guessed that on the order of 2.5 million residents and pilgrims crowed into a walled city of perhaps 80 acres. This place is crowded and alive with Jewish religious and nationalistic fervor. It is significant for us to know that the popular expectation was that when Messiah appeared, it would be on the Mount of Olives. And Jesus is now on the eastern slope, ready to cross over into plain view of Jerusalem.

Jesus makes a very conscious choice to reveal Himself now as Messiah, and sends two disciples to find an animal to ride into Jerusalem, not because He’s tired, or doesn’t like walking, but because of what His method of entry into the city is going to declare.

2 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.

3 If anyone says anything to you, you shall say, ‘The Lord needs them,’ and he will send them at once.”

Exactly what prior arrangements, if any, had been made by Jesus aren’t spelled out here. It may be that this is an instance of Jesus supernaturally seeing these animals and knowing that they were available. The right of “requisitioning” was recognized to belong to royalty of the day, and the Rabbi’s claimed it as well, requisitioning for “God’s service” in the latter case. But it may also have been the case that these animals belonged to a disciple and Jesus had arranged in advance for their use. However it is, Jesus is going to use this colt of a donkey as his mount as he enters Jerusalem. The other Gospels tell us that this animal had never been ridden (see Mark 11:2). That’s entirely appropriate and consistent with other Old Testament precedents. In many instances the Israelites were to put to sacred use only animals that had not been previously used for ordinary purposes. Examples are Numbers 19:2 and Deuteronomy 21:3 and 1 Samuel 6:7.

This choice of Jesus, to enter the city riding on the colt of a donkey was consciously taken to let the residents and pilgrims know who He is, to say to them “Scripture has promised you a Messiah King. I am He. Check Me out and see that indeed I have the goods, I am indeed He.”

4 This took place to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet, saying,

This is not done so that somehow Jesus will qualify as Messiah, but rather that people will be able to see that He is indeed the Messiah, God’s own Son.

5 “Say to the daughter of Zion, ‘Behold, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden.'”

The main part of the quote is from Zechariah.

Zechariah 9:9 Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

This is a statement about what kind of Messiah Jesus is. The people are hoping/longing for a political/military leader that will lead them in the overthrow of their hated Roman occupiers. They’re looking for one who will set things right for them by force. Such a person would naturally have appeared riding on a war horse, ready for battle. Jesus, however, is going to come down the Mount of Olives into the Kidron Valley in plain view of Jerusalem riding a young donkey. That should call Zechariah to their minds and let them know He’s coming in peace, not as an earthly warrior. Jewish leaders and kings sometimes rode such animals. In 1 Kings 1, when David wants to make it clear that Solomon is to be king after him, he has him set on his mule.

6 The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them.

May the same be said of each of us.

7 They brought the donkey and the colt and put on them their cloaks, and he sat on them.

Jesus sits down on the cloaks. The quote from Zechariah (and the other Gospels as well) make it clear that Jesus rides the colt.

8 Most of the crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road.

A little Jewish history and look at Scripture should tell us what these people are thinking at this point. To begin with, there is this.

2Kings 9:13 Then in haste every man of them took his garment and put it under him on the bare steps, and they blew the trumpet and proclaimed, “Jehu is king.”

Elisha has Jehu anointed as king of Israel, and the reaction of those around him is to throw their coats down for him to walk on. There is also the nation’s experience about 200 years before with the Maccabees. Antiochus Epiphanes had captured Jerusalem and desecrated/profaned the temple. He did such things as offering swine flesh as a sacrifice on the altar and turning the temple chambers into a public brothel. This led to the revolt of the Maccabees. When Simon Maccabees came into Jerusalem after one of his most notable victories he was greeted by crowds singing psalms and waving palm branches they had cut. It seems pretty clear that the crowds see Jesus in such a military leader/king role.

9 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!”

John tells us (John 12:13) that crowds went out from Jerusalem when they heard He was coming (and presumably saw Him descending the western slope of the Mount of Olives into the Kidron Valley). As they meet Him, presumably they turn around and there is a huge mob both in front of and behind Jesus. They’re shouting “Hosanna to the Son of David.” The literal and original meaning of hosanna” is “save now.” In its literal and original meaning, it’s a plea for God’s intervention, mercy and help. They’re quoting from Psalm 118.

Psalm 118:25 Save us, we pray, O LORD! O LORD, we pray, give us success!

26 Blessed is he who comes in the name of the LORD! We bless you from the house of the LORD.

The “hosanna in the highest” is roughly “Let even the angels in the highest heights of heaven cry to God ‘save now.'” Some people think that by the time of Jesus “hosanna” had lost some of its original meaning, and was more of a joyous (and more general) “hail” than a “save now.” I’m inclined to think that both meanings are at work here. The people are joyously welcoming what they hope is a military deliverer, one who will save now.

The people call Jesus the “Son of David.” Psalm 118 refers to God as the deliverer. Here the people are identifying Jesus as God’s Messiah, the Son of David, and giving Him the role of deliverer. They’ve got it right, but don’t know what kind of Messiah and deliverer He is. And the evidence is that even on Palm Sunday they’re not the most solid of supporters.

10 And when he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred up, saying, “Who is this?”

The whole city was “stirred” or more literally “shaken.” The Greek word is the one from which we get our word “seismic.”

11 And the crowds said, “This is the prophet Jesus, from Nazareth of Galilee.”

This is a pretty modest description of Jesus. They’ve hailed Him as the Son of David, the Messiah. But it’s really a pretty shallow, tenuous thing. When the jaded city residents want to know what’s going on, it seems He’s only a prophet from Galilee.

Jesus proceeds to continue to act out in prophetic fashion those things that should let honest hearts know who He is. In Ezekiel 9, where the prophet sees the vision of God’s messengers purifying Israel by slaying those guilty of idolatry, the purge begins at the temple. Malachi speaks of the Messiah’s role as a purifier and coming to the temple. Mark 11:12 indicates that this takes place on the day after the triumphal entry.

Malachi 3:1 “Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me. And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; and the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the LORD of hosts.

2 But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap.

3 He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, and they will bring offerings in righteousness to the LORD.

4 Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the LORD as in the days of old and as in former years.

5 “Then I will draw near to you for judgment. I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired worker in his wages, the widow and the fatherless, against those who thrust aside the sojourner, and do not fear me, says the LORD of hosts

Jesus purifies the temple area. Mark tells us that this happens on Monday, not Palm Sunday. Matthew doesn’t feel it necessary to give us the detail of an intervening night. Mark’s information should, however, help us keep in mind that this is something deliberately done. This isn’t something done in anger or uncontrolled passion. This is part of Jesus demonstration of His claim to be Messiah.

12 And Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who sold and bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons.

This is taking place in the “court of the gentiles” surrounding the temple proper. Jesus may be dealing with a classic case of fallen human beings “cashing in” on the honest desires of others to worship God. If you were going to worship in the temple, you needed to pay the temple tax. But you couldn’t pay it in just any coinage, since many of the common coinages of the time carried images of pagan rulers or gods. Soooo, you had to exchange your common currency for currency acceptable in the temple. The rub then was that whereas the temple tax was about 23 day’s wages for a common laborer, the changing duty amounted to another 23 day’s wage! And the situation regarding the sale of sacrificial animals was even more outrageous. You could buy a pair of doves outside the temple area for as little as 13 day’s wages. But any sacrifice had to be perfect, and there were inspectors that made sure that animals were “perfect,” and chances are that “outside” animals were going to get turned down and pilgrims directed to the “Bazaar of Annas” (the high priest) to buy their animals. There the price could be as high as 25 day’s wages. Obviously, not all of the people trading on the temple ground were unethical, but many were.

But then again, there is the “drove out all who were buying and selling.” At least some commentators see this not so much as a condemnation of the corrupt exploitation of the underdog, as a statement that the whole system of sacrifice and temple worship had grown into something no longer acceptable to God. That is something that surely only Messiah could claim to have authority to pronounce. And it is a clear claim authority beyond that of the Jewish religious officials (who sanctioned what was going on the temple grounds). The whole business just doesn’t belong here in the first place.

13 He said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer,’ but you make it a den of robbers.”

The whole of the first quote here is from Isaiah.

Isaiah 56:7 these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.”

The bazaar was set up in the court of the gentiles. That was as far as a gentile could go towards the temple proper. In the Jewish mind, it was as close as he could come to worship of the one true and living God. And what’s there? It’s this abominable scene of ripping off the religious pilgrims. It was hardly a place that could be called “a house of prayer for all nations.” Jesus says the whole of the temple area should be a place of unhindered worship, not a place of commerce.

The “den of robbers” is a quote from Jeremiah.

Jeremiah 7:11 Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your eyes? Behold, I myself have seen it, declares the LORD.

There God’s complaint is against the worshipers, who are piously coming to the temple while their lives are morally rotten. That, Jesus is saying, is the condition of those running the booths on the temple grounds. They stand in the same place as those that Jeremiah condemns.

14 And the blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he healed them.

We probably don’t really appreciate how revolutionary this is. The fact is that the blind and lame had no place in the temple. By virtue of the oral rabbinical law, they were not welcome there. They could sit outside the gates and beg, but the physically imperfect were not welcome in the temple area itself. By healing there, encouraging the lame and blind to enter, Jesus has challenged another of the extra-Biblical wrongheaded regulations of the religious leaders. And they’re surely not happy with Him.

15 But when the chief priests and the scribes saw the wonderful things that he did, and the children crying out in the temple, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” they were indignant,

They’re not happy with His prophetic actions, pointing to Himself as Messiah. And they’re not happy with the fact that he’s attracted kids into the temple area and that they’re continuing the shouting that was going on during the entry to Jerusalem.

16 and they said to him, “Do you hear what these are saying?” And Jesus said to them, “Yes; have you never read, “‘Out of the mouth of infants and nursing babies you have prepared praise’?”

The quote is from Psalm 8:2. It was not, at that time, recognized as a Messianic Psalm. The quote is about God receiving the praise that is due Him. Jesus unashamedly applies it to Himself. The message to His antagonists is clear. Yes, He knows perfectly well what is going on. No, He’s not going to stop it, because it is only appropriate, as HE is in fact the Son of the living God. At this point, they have only two choices. They can either bow the knee or determine to eliminate Him. Jesus doesn’t leave them the option of ignoring Him.

17 And leaving them, he went out of the city to Bethany and lodged there.

Jesus has declared Himself publicly by His actions and words to be Messiah and the Son of God.

Here is a .pdf of this lesson.

Scripture taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. Copyright 2000; 2001, by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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