Jesus’s A-Triumphal Entry, Matthew 21:1–17
When Jesus entered Jerusalem the Sunday before Passover, he took specific, detailed steps to style himself as the coming king. Matthew 21:6 says that the disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them. This was a carefully planned event. Jesus wanted a donkey to ride on with its colt (21:7). Because Solomon rode on a donkey when he came to his coronation in 1 Kings 1, where it says that the people were rejoicing with great joy and that the earth shook with their noise (1 Kings 1:39b–40).
And what is more, if the people were to see him riding like this, they would think of Zechariah’s prophecy:
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 (Zech 9:9)
But Zechariah’s prophecy didn’t just say that the king would come on a donkey. The prophecy said that a king would come, overthrow his enemies, and reign.
Zech 9:10 says,
His rule shall be from sea to sea,
and from the River to the ends of the earth.
So when the rumor goes out that Jesus of Nazareth—the one who could feed people, and heal the sick, and even the blind; the one, they say, has even raised the dead—he is coming, and he’s riding on a young donkey, no wonder they lined the streets, putting their cloaks down in his path (a sign of honor) and waving palm branches (a sign of royal victory). They really want him to be the Messiah. They want him to take control, to crush the Romans, to liberate the city, to claim their independence.
And they shout, Hoshea-na! Hoshea-na to the Son of David! Salvation! Salvation has come! The descendant of David is here!
And where does Jesus go? He goes to the temple, which is the seat of Jewish authority.
Now, Mark’s Gospel gives us the exact order of events. Jesus comes into Jerusalem late in the day on Sunday, and Mark says that Jesus goes to the temple and looks around (like he’s planning something), then leaves to stay the night at Bethany (Mark 11:11). Then he comes back the next day (Monday) and makes himself known in the temple.
But Matthew skips the part about the overnight, because he’s highlighting the significance of Jesus’s entry.
The temple represented both the priestly and the kingly vestiges of power at this time in Israel’s history. And what does Jesus do? He enters the temple, and “cleans house.” He takes charge. He asserts his own authority.
Matthew 21:12–13 says,
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. He said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer,’ but you make it a den of robbers.”
And then Jesus begins to symbolize the real meaning of the temple. The blind and the lame come to him. And he heals them (14). The priests and scribes of Jesus’s day kept people blind to their need for salvation and heaped upon them heavy burdens of works righteousness.
Jesus has come to liberate them. The temple was a place of fellowship with God. And the Son of God himself was there, in person, to renew that fellowship with his people.
And in verses 15 and 16, the Jewish leaders—those who are running the show—when they see what Jesus has done to take charge, and the wonderful works he is doing, and they hear the children still chanting “Hosanna to the Son of David!” they are really angry.
And they try to rebuke Jesus—“Don’t you hear what they are saying to you?”
And Jesus puts it right back in their face. “Yes!” As if to say, “Of course!” Haven’t you ever read, “Out of the mouth of infants and nursing babies you have prepared praise”? And that is a quotation from Psalm 8 in which Yahweh’s name is exalted!
Now, all of this sounds grand and triumphal and important. Jesus is coming to claim what is rightfully his. He is besting the religious elite who want so badly to lay hands on him, but they fear the people who are praising him. This is Jesus’s moment!
Jesus’s arrival in the temple should remind us of the manifestation of the glory of the LORD that filled the tabernacle with smoke when it was completed at the end of the book of Exodus. Or like the cloud of glory that filled the temple when Solomon dedicated it in 2 Chron 5—none of the priests could enter the temple because of the fearful, blinding presence of the Lord of Hosts.
Jesus could have entered that way, in power and glory, blinding his enemies, setting up his kingdom, reigning from his temple throne. After all, he was the LORD to whom the temple had been erected.
But, actually, Jesus is not coming in this high fashion. That’s not his motivation. In fact, compared to what could have been, his entry into the city was actually not very impressive. For one thing, it’s not like the whole city welcomed Jesus. It was probably not a very large crowd.
Also, imagine the way the Roman authorities looked at this event. If they had even an inkling that Jesus was coming as a king, they would have it in a hurry. You know it. Any uprising or royal claim against the emperor was dealt with harshly and in the moment. The pax Romana—the Roman peace—was at the price of the sword.
But the Roman garrison was located on the opposite side of Jerusalem where Jesus entered, which would have been two to three hundred yards away.
We think of this as a Solomonic event which shook the earth. But not so. The Romans may have looked up at the noise and peered into the distance to see someone—it looks like he’s riding a little colt? People seem to be excited—but after all, it is Passover week and there were lots of visitors and strange Jewish celebrations. Whatever.
Because compared to what this could have been, this was not a “triumphal entry.” It was an A-triumphal entry. A Non-Triumphal entry. There are no soldiers. There are no formal speeches. The city officials do not turn out for the event. And Jesus is not riding the traditional, high mount, but a little beast. It was a humble entry.
When Jesus enters the temple, he is not setting up a kingdom. He is challenging the Jewish leaders who had been debating how to get rid of him without upsetting the people. Jesus is presenting himself as the messianic ruler IN THEIR PLACE. He’s pushing them. He is throwing down the gauntlet. He is forcing them to action.
Because Jesus knows that it is necessary that he shed his blood so that his people will not perish. He has not yet come to rule. He has come to die.
- Jesus Enters as an Obedient Servant
Jesus will say of himself a little earlier in Matt 20:28—“even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
- Jesus Enters as a Willing Sacrifice
He is laying down his life. The hands which healed the blind that day would soon be nailed to a cross.
- Jesus Enters as a Trusting Son
Jesus went forward in his ministry—all the way to the cross—because of the promise of the Father’s love and the promise of the Father to raise him.
On the cross, Jesus uttered words from Psalm 31—“Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” That’s Psalm 31:5. In the following verses we also read,
But I trust in you, O Lord;
“You are my God.”
So Jesus enters Jerusalem and the crowds are cheering and chanting. But Jesus knows he is going to his death. It is actually a humble entry, an A-triumphal entry, marked by those virtues which we who are called to follow Jesus must imitate.
Jesus’s entrance into the temple should encourage us to follow after him as obedient servants, living sacrifices, and trusting sons and daughters.