Palm Sunday (Matthew 21:1-11)
This is an iPhone 6. It has GPS, an app that lets me look at my bank account. I can check sports scores, listen to music, watch videos and it can even make phone calls. This phone is more powerful than the one the astronauts used to get to the moon. But the iPhone 6 is over two years old now. There are newer iPhones out now that… can also check sports scores, listen to music and watch videos. But they can do it… faster? This is, I think, the fourth iPhone I’ve own. Every time a new iPhone comes out my first thought is, I want that. Nay… I need that. My life won’t be complete until I get the newest iPhone.
And sometimes, when I’m not expecting a child or going through a major life event, I even allow myself to find true joy and happiness by purchasing the latest and greatest iPhone. And every time I do, the exact same thing happens. I open the box. The phone is shiny and clean and new. I turn it on and the screen is just so bright and inviting. And then I go through the process of restoring my phone from the most recent backup that I made, that way the new phone has all of my apps and contacts and whatever else. But then, as soon as I’m done setting up my new phone, I look at it and I think… now what?
And over the course of a few short hours, it always seems like my phone goes from the newest, greatest, best invention, the one that will finally make my life complete to… just an iPhone. It still does all the things my old phone did, maybe a little faster or maybe they added an extra row of apps on the bottom. But pretty quickly the newness and the excitement of the phone fades away and it’s… just a phone.
Has this ever happened to you? Maybe it wasn’t a phone, maybe it was a new car, a new job, a new house. And for a while, you were excited about the newness of the thing, but eventually, that newness faded and what you were left with was just a car or just a job or just a house. Have you ever experienced this?
Today is Palm Sunday, the Sunday we celebrate Jesus’ triumphal entry into the city of Jerusalem. Last week we finished our series Scandal: The Offensive Gospel of Jesus, but in some ways, this is still a continuation of that series. What we’re probably going to find is a lot of similar themes to what we’ve been talking about over the last nine weeks. So if you have a Bible with you or a Bible app on your phone, go ahead and turn with me to Matthew chapter 21. We’re going to read verse 1 through 11 together. If you don’t have a Bible of your own, all of our Scripture and quotes will be on the screen behind me, so you can follow along that way.
Also, if you don’t have a Bible of your own anywhere, we would love to give you one. Here at Faith Community we value Scripture and believe it’s important for everyone to have access to the Bible. So if you don’t have one, we would love to give you one for free that you can take home with you after the service. Just come up and talk to me afterwards and I'll make sure you get a Bible. Now, Matthew 21 says this…
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. Untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, say that the Lord needs them, and he will send them right away.”
This took place to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet: “Say to Daughter Zion, ‘See, your king comes to you, gentle and riding on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’”
The disciples went and did as Jesus had instructed them. They brought the donkey and the colt and placed their cloaks on them for Jesus to sit on. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 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 heavens!”
When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred and asked, “Who is this?”
The crowds answered, “The is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee.”
Jesus has been travelling to Jerusalem. In the previous chapter, we read that Jesus came by way of Jericho, which as we talked about a few weeks ago means that he took the longer six-day route through Perea and the Jorden River Valley. Now, if you were going to come to Jerusalem from this direction, your last day would have been an 8-10 hour trek from Jericho to Jerusalem, uphill the entire way. So if you’ve ever had anyone tell you that back in their day they had to walk five miles to school, uphill both ways, just tell them that’s nothing compared to the journey from Jericho to Jerusalem. Jericho sits at 846 feet below sea level while Jerusalem is 25 km away at an elevation of 2600 feet above sea level. Which means, to get from Jericho to Jerusalem, you would need to spend 8-10 hours climbing almost 3500 feet up over the course of 25 kilometres.
Because Jews don’t walk far on the Sabbath, there’s a good chance that Jesus and his disciples would have left Galilee on Sunday. This means they would have spent Friday travelling from Jericho and more than likely would have got into Bethany, on the east side of the Mount of Olives just before sundown that night. Sundown on Friday is when the Sabbath starts and Bethany is where Jesus friends Mary, Martha and Lazarus lived.
So Jesus and his disciples would have spent the Sabbath with his friends in Bethany and then on the first day of the week, on Sunday, he would have made his triumphal entry into Jerusalem. He tells his disciples to go into Bethphage, which is on the west side of the Mount of Olives, just across the Kidron Valley from Jerusalem and get him the donkey that will be tied up there. Now, if you’re going to Jerusalem from Bethphage, you’re going to go down into the Kidron Valley and up the other side and you’re going to pass right a spring called the Gihon Spring. That’s important, remember that.
Matthew tells us that this took place to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet Zechariah. He then quotes Zechariah 9:9, but he leaves a lot of it out. Zechariah 9:9 originally said, “Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion! Shout, Daughter Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and victorious, lowly and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” Now the interesting thing is that this is the only time in the Gospels where we see Jesus riding anything. Every other time he is either walking somewhere or taking a boat somewhere. But Jesus intentionally decides to ride a donkey into Jerusalem on this day. That’s because Jesus is aware of this prophecy and wants to make an intentional statement about himself. So by riding a donkey, Jesus is sort of references this prophecy in Zechariah.
But here’s the thing about the Scriptures. So much of the Bible is a series of winks and nods to other parts of Scripture. The writers will use images and phrases that will intentionally allude to other passages in the Bible. So in Zechariah, the prophet is talking about a coming king. Zechariah was written after the Babylonian exile, once the Jews were allowed to return home. However, all the Jews recognized that, even though they were home, that things weren’t the same. The Spirit of God that dwelled in the Temple in Jerusalem had not returned. So even though they had returned, the exile was, in some ways, still ongoing.
But Zechariah assures them that their king will come to them and he says that the king will be righteous and victorious. The Hebrew word here for victorious could also be translated as Saviour or one who saves. And this phrase “righteous and victorious” or “righteous and a Saviour” is only found in one other place in Scripture. It’s found in Isaiah 45:21, which says, “There is no God apart from me, a righteous God and Saviour; there is none but me.”
In Isaiah, the one who is righteous and a Saviour or righteous and victorious is God himself. And then Zechariah comes on the scene after the exile and says that your king, who is righteous and victorious will come back to you. This is a clear allusion to the idea that the true exile, the one where God is absent from us, will one day come to an end. But it will come to an end with a king who rides on a donkey. Which, once again, is a reference.
In 1 Kings chapter 1, King David is getting old and his son Adonijah has set himself up as king. However, David wants Solomon to be king. So David called in his top advisors and he told them to take Solomon, put him on his own personal mule—which in Hebrew is the same word as donkey—and take him to Gihon. There at the Gihon spring, they were to anoint Solomon, blow the trumpet and declare Solomon the true heir to David’s throne. When Zechariah claims that the king will come to Jerusalem righteous and victorious, riding on a donkey, he’s simultaneously referencing Solomon’s coronation in 1 Kings and Isaiah’s insistence that God alone is righteous and victorious. Whoever this coming king will be, he will be both the true heir to the throne of David and in some way be the embodiment of Yahweh God himself.
And with this in mind, Jesus tells his disciples to go into Bethphage and to get him a donkey. He’s going to intentionally ride this donkey from Bethphage, down into the Kidron Valley up the other side, passed the Gihon Spring and into Jerusalem. This is an obvious statement that Jesus is the long-awaited King, the Messiah and God’s chosen agent.
Or, as Ben Witherington says in his commentary, “This act is both deliberate and deliberately symbolic, for Jesus nowhere else rides in a way that places him above the others, and the choice of animal is important. Jesus chose not a warhorse, but a donkey, which was an animal associated with royal coronations and kings on parade in the city. But the choice of animal, while it has royal associations, nonetheless is associated with gentleness and humility. This acted parable or prophetic sign act was indeed meant to say something about Jesus himself. It was a symbolic and indirect calling card, but at the same time it was a repudiation of a sort of Davidic messianism that Jesus did not come to enact.”
Constantly in the Gospels, we see Jesus telling people not to reveal who he really is. He would heal someone and then say “Make sure you tell no one about this.” Or he would encounter people possessed by demons, who would recognize who he really is, and he would command them to stop talking. For most of his ministry, Jesus didn’t want me to recognize him as the true King of Israel. But now, here in this place, at this time, not only does he not care if people know, he chooses the most obvious way of declaring his royalty that he could.
This was just before Passover and every year at this time people would flock to Jerusalem to celebrate the festival. During Passover every year the population of the city would swell to five or six times its normal size. What’s more, many people expected that when the Messiah finally showed up he would do so in Jerusalem at the time of Passover. Which means every year Messianic fervour and expectation would be at its highest in Jerusalem at Passover.
Now, different people had different expectations about what the Messiah would do; what his role would be. Some thought the Messiah would be a king like Dave, others thought a prophet like Moses and others still a priest like Aaron and the Levites. No one really understood that the Messiah would be all three. But at least those looking for a royal figure picked up on what Jesus is trying to claim here. They understood he was making a claim at being the true king of the Jews. And they respond in kind. In verse 8 we’re told, “A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road.” This, much like everything else, is packed with symbolism.
In 2 Kings 9, when Jehu becomes king of Israel all the people with him took their cloaks and spread them on the ground for him to walk on. It was sort of like an ancient way of rolling out a red carpet for him; a way to acknowledge his royalty. Furthermore, Judas Maccabeus, who we’ve talked about before, led a revolt nearly 200 years before Jesus. He eventually was able to temporarily overthrow the pagans who had control of Palestine and establish a new nation of Israel. When Judas returned to Jerusalem after some of his battles the people waved palm branches and placed them on the ground for him to walk on. Palm branches, in Jewish culture, symbolized nationalism and victory. In fact, some Jewish coins from this era were stamps with the symbol of a palm frock to show that they were Jewish coins.
Cloaks form an impromptu red carpet and palm branches symbolize Jewish victory over their enemies. Jesus, this prophet from Galilee is coming into Jerusalem, riding on a donkey past the Gihon Spring. He’s acting out in a very intentional and symbolic way the claim that he’s the much anticipated king of Israel. Of course, the people respond with laying their cloaks on the ground and waving palm branches around. What’s more, they shout “Hosanna to the Son of David!” “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” “Hosanna in the highest heavens!”
These are quotes from Psalm 118 verses 25 and 26. Psalm 118 is one of the Hallel psalms. The Hallel psalms which are the six psalms from 113 to 118 are a set of psalms that would be sung at the high holidays of Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot. These psalms praise God for his salvation even as they anticipated it as a future event. So every year, as travellers would journey to Jerusalem for Passover they would sing these psalms as they went.
In which case, it’s no wonder that as Jesus came into the city of Jerusalem, they very people who have been waiting and longing and hoping for the Messiah would see him riding in on a donkey, notice the connection to Zechariah, see the connection to 1 Kings and Isaiah, they would understand the statement that Jesus was making about himself and they would cry out with the words that had most recently been on their lips.
“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” “Lord, save us!” Hosanna means save but became an expression of praise as much as a cry or plead for God to come. Lord, hosanna! Save us Son of David! Hosanna in the highest heavens! Jesus makes claims to his own royalty and his own messianic identity and the people respond with cloaks and palm branches and shouts of praise to God for salvation.
Now here’s the problem with this. The palm branches are a symbol of Jewish nationalism and victory. It would be like if we started throwing around a bunch of maple leaves everywhere. They recognize that Jesus is the king, that he’s their long awaited messiah, but they still view it through the lens of Roman occupation. They know Jesus is here to save them, but their thoughts immediately go to a king who will fight the occupiers, who will do battle with the Empire. Their expectation is that Jesus is going to fight fire with fire and be a king in the traditional sense.
So in some ways, it’s no wonder that these same people who shouted, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” on Palm Sunday, shouted “Crucify him!” on Friday. At that point, I’m sure these people felt lied to. They felt like Jesus had deceived them. That he had claimed something he’s not. But Jesus never claimed he was going to overthrow Rome. In fact, part of the irony of all of this is that Jesus rode a donkey.
Back then, the type of animal a king rode on made a statement about the state of the kingdom. If you wanted to show that the kingdom was at war or if you wanted to project strength and power, you rode on a war horse. But in times of peace, rulers would instead ride on a donkey. A donkey would portray gentleness and reconciliation. Jesus entered Jerusalem riding a donkey, but it’s as if the crowds assumed it was a warhorse anyway. The crowds wanted a warrior king, someone who would fight their enemies on their behalf. And in a way, that’s exactly what they got. But they misunderstood who the true enemy was. It wasn’t the Romans. It was their own hearts.
The problem wasn’t just Roman occupation, it was the actions and attitudes that led to the Roman occupation in the first place. It wasn’t just the exile, it was the sin and selfishness that caused the exile. The crowds in Jerusalem wanted Jesus to address the symptoms rather than the underlying sickness. And I think most of the time we do too. We typically want Jesus to change our circumstances, but usually, Jesus wants to change our hearts.
Think of it this way. You could almost imagine all of Israel as one person. Let’s call him… Israel. And Israel is terrible with his money. He doesn’t understand economics, he doesn’t know how to budget, he couldn’t exactly tell you how much money he makes every month, nor could he tell you how much he spends or what he spends his money on. Instead, Israel just gets one credit card after another and continues to rack up more and more debt. After a while, Israel would owe tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars.
And after realizing that he’s racked up so much debt and he can’t pay it off, he comes across a wealthy benevolent billionaire. Let’s call this guy Jesus. And Jesus says to Israel, “I know you’re in debt. I see how much money you owe people. I’m going to save you.” Israel’s first thought would probably be, “Great, this guy is going to give me the money to pay off all my loans.” But the first time they meet, instead of pulling out a chequebook, Jesus pulls out an economics textbook. And he starts to try to teach Israel about how money works, about finances and loans and compound interest and budgeting.
If Israel simply thought Jesus was going to pay off his loans, he would probably be upset at all of this. “Why are you trying to tell me about all the financial mumbo-jumbo? I thought you were going to save me.” In that situation, all of us would understand. We would say, “He is saving you. He’s making sure you don’t land back in this situation all over again.”
This is kind of like that old adage, If you give a man a fish you feed him for a day, but if you teach a man to fish you feed him for a lifetime. If Jesus had simply overthrown the Romans, if he had simply used force to set up a new independent nation of Israel, then, in the long run, nothing would have changed. Israel would have found themselves right back under the occupation of yet another military power someday. In fact, that’s essentially the history of Israel in a nutshell.
First Israel came in and mostly conquered the land of Canaan, but not quite all of it. And eventually, they would stop living the way God wanted them to and some nearby nation would attack and oppress them for a time. And they would cry out to God, who would raise up a judge to save them. But after a while they would go right back to their old ways, ignoring God again. This is essentially the plot of the book of Judges. Then during the divided Kingdoms of Israel and Judah, you would have people who lost the plot, God would send prophets to warn them, nearby nations would invade and the people would cry out to God again. Essentially, time and again the people would max out their credit card, cry out to daddy to pay it off and he would only to watch them max it out again and not really learn any lessons.
But the salvation that Jesus brings is a once and for all salvation from the root cause of the problem. The circumstance, the surface level problem, was that Israel kept getting into debt. They kept allowing themselves to be conquered and controlled by the nations around them. But the deeper root was their inability to follow God. It was an inability to manage their money in the first place.
Now, what kind of a good father, given this kind of situation would simply continue to allow their children to go out and frivolously spend money, not understanding the consequences of their actions? And this is what’s marvellous about God’s salvation. He doesn’t just change our circumstances, he changes our hearts. He doesn’t want to fix our marriage simply by giving us a better spouse, he wants to change us so that we are that better spouse. He doesn’t want to give us a nicer car, he wants to change our hearts so that we don’t seek the false validation that comes from owning the newest, most expensive car on the street.
God wants to address the root issue inside all of us, which is a heart that lusts and covets and gets easily angered. A heart that always wants a little bit more and is never truly satisfied with what we have. The beautiful thing is that God promises to make this change in us.
One of my favourite promises in all of Scripture comes from Ezekiel 36 where God says “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. Then you will live in the land I gave you ancestors; you will be my people and I will be your God.”
I will put my Spirit in you. I will remove your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. Then… after this is already done. Then, we will live in the land he gave our ancestors. Then, after he’s done what only he can do, then we will respond. Then we will follow his decrees and carefully keep his laws. For Ezekiel, a time is coming when God will act. A day is coming when he will address the root cause of our problems. He will put a new heart in us and put his Spirit in us, and once he does that, then we will respond.
We so often want God to change our circumstances. We want God to overthrow whatever kind of Roman occupation we’re currently living with. But more often than not, Jesus wants to change our hearts first. He wants to deal with whatever is causing the Roman occupation in the first place.
So maybe you drink too much. And maybe you’ve prayed and you’ve asked God to keep you from drinking. Or maybe you look at things online that you shouldn’t look at. And maybe you’ve prayed and asked God to give you strength to avoid looking at those things. Or maybe you find that you’re always comparing yourself to other people, either positively or negatively. You’re smarter than that person, or that person is prettier than you are and you could never be like them. And you’re tired of the comparison and you’ve asked God to help you stop doing that, and yet you keep going back to it over and over again.
But the truth is there’s a reason you keep deciding to have one more drink or look at one more site and there’s a reason you keep having those same comparative thoughts. These are the things that Jesus wants to get at. This is the heart that Jesus wants to change. He wants to set you free from these things in the first place. We want Jesus to change our circumstances, but Jesus wants to change our hearts.
So here’s the question Faith… What does Roman occupation look like in your life? Who are the occupiers that you keep crying out for salvation from? What are the circumstances in your life that you desperately want to fix?
This week, as we enter Holy Week, I want you to spend some time in prayer reflecting on those things. And as you do, try to read through Psalm 139.
Psalm 139 is a psalm of David asking God to search him, to pull up all of the junk and crud from inside him and it ends with David saying, “Search me, God, and know my heart, test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.”
This week, spend time in prayer, asking God to show you not just the circumstances that you want to be changed, but the heart behind those circumstances.