Several weeks ago, at a rally in Toronto, a man drove close to the crowd and set himself on fire inside his van. The firemen were near and when he did this, they broke the windows of his van and doused him with water and he was arrested. One of the questions which was asked of this incidence was, “why?” He did this at a farmer’s protest and they were wondering if his actions had something to do with the protest, but apparently they did not. Such an action was unusual and people’s attention was drawn to it and the purpose of it was questioned.
Last summer, a woman in Winnipeg who was opposed to fogging for mosquitoes stood in the way to prevent the fogging. She and others with her were arrested for their actions. Her actions last summer were unusual, people’s attention was drawn to them and she had a purpose in what she did.
These are acted parables. We may disagree with the purpose for which people do such things, but we cannot deny that they cause us to sit up and take notice and interact with the issue. They are a visual way of drawing attention to a point.
Such acted parables also appear in the Bible. For example, Ezekiel lay on his left side for 390 days to illustrate the sin of the people and then on his right side for 40 days. By doing this, he drew attention to what God was saying to the people. Jesus also did such acted parables. One of them is the one we are celebrating today. The triumphal entry is a dramatic act used to present a message from God. Jesus gathered his props - the donkey and her colt - and then chose the occasion and setting to enact his drama and make his point.
As Jesus did so, he was expecting a response from the people. As we remember this drama today, we must also respond to the message of this drama. It is not a story told for entertainment, it is a story told for response. What is our response?
I. Look And See!
There were three elements to the presentation Jesus made in the triumphal entry. One is the picture itself of Jesus riding a donkey and the people spreading garments and branches in the way; another is the prophetic statement about the meaning of the event and a third is the shout of the people. What was Jesus trying to say with this event?
A. The Picture
Jesus did this at a time when there were many people coming to Jerusalem for the annual Passover festival, as was required. Those near to Jerusalem made this an annual pilgrimage, but those who had been scattered all over the world, would try to come as often as possible and at least once in their lifetime. William Barclay says that a census taken 30 years later found that 250,000 lambs were slain at Passover. A regulation existed that 10 people needed to share one lamb which would mean that there were as many as 2.5 million people in Jerusalem for Passover. Jeremias, another writer, suggests that the number was more like 150,000. In either case, the way to Jerusalem was filled with pilgrims making their way to the city for Passover.
Jesus chose to enter Jerusalem at this time on a donkey with her colt. He deliberately chose this imagery in fulfillment of the prophecy in Zechariah 9:9, which we will examine in a few moments. The picture itself, however, had a history and a meaning which the people would have understood.
The concept of a king riding a donkey in procession had precedence in Israel. When David was getting old and the question of succession to the throne arose, David told the officials to take Solomon and make him king. We read in I Kings 1:33,34, "(David) said to them: "Take your lord's servants with you and set Solomon my son on my own mule and take him down to Gihon. There have Zadok the priest and Nathan the prophet anoint him king over Israel."
The idea of placing cloaks and celebrating with branches was also not a foreign idea to the people. When Jehu was received as king we read in II Kings 9:13, "They hurried and took their cloaks and spread them under him on the bare steps. Then they blew the trumpet and shouted, "Jehu is king!"
When Jesus mounted the donkey, entered the city and people started spreading palm branches and garments before him, the people would have thought of a coming king because these things had happened before.
The idea of a king coming for Israel was deeply embedded in scripture and in their expectations. When Jacob made his prophecies regarding his sons, he said of Judah, "The scepter will not depart from Judah, nor the ruler's staff from between his feet, until he comes to whom it belongs and the obedience of the nations is his." God promised David in II Samuel 7:16, "Your house and your kingdom will endure forever before me; your throne will be established forever." The people took this as a promise of a coming eternal king. This is reflected later when Jeremiah prophesied regarding a king coming from the line of David. We read in Jeremiah 23:5-6, "The days are coming," declares the LORD, "when I will raise up to David a righteous Branch, a King who will reign wisely and do what is just and right in the land."
The visible action of Jesus spoke deeply to the heart of people's expectations. They expected a king and Jesus acted parable demonstrated that he was that king.
B. The Prophecy
Matthew 21:5 indicates that this picture fulfills Zech 9:9.
Zechariah 9:9 is set in the context of a prophecy about the destruction of the nations. It tells in the first part of that chapter of the coming destruction of Tyre, Ashkelon, Gaza, Ashdod and the Philistines. At the same time, it also speaks about the promise of victory for the people of God. It tells of a time when God would redeem his people from their enemies. We read in Zechariah 9:8, "But I will defend my house against marauding forces. Never again will an oppressor overrun my people, for now I am keeping watch." Verse 9 then goes on to call for celebration because that victory has come through a king who comes into Jerusalem triumphant and bringing salvation.
All of their history, Israel had longed for God's salvation from their enemies. In Zechariah the promise was given that a coming king would bring that salvation. Jesus action was a deliberate announcement of the fulfillment of that promise.
But interestingly the prophecy also speaks about the method of the coming king. He would come not in might and power, but in humility. In the early part of the history of Israel, donkeys were commonly used in war and in royal processions. Later, especially after Solomon built a large herd of horses, donkeys were not used and horses were used more. By the time of Jesus, a donkey would have been looked at not as a powerful animal of war and conquest, but as a more lowly animal. Jesus was deliberate in the choice of animal which he used to ride into the city. He was making a statement that he came not in power, but in humility. The passage in Zech 9:9 reflects this idea when it says, "gentle and riding on a donkey." The word gentle means bowed down or lowly, or even suffering. It reminds us that the coming king would gain victory in the manner of the suffering servant of Isaiah 53. “He came not to destroy, but to love; not to condemn, but to help; not in the might of arms, but in the strength of love.”
This passage provides the immediate background for what Jesus did. Jesus knew that this picture would remind the people of this passage. The context of the passage would cause great rejoicing for the people because it implied the presence of their coming king and the promise of salvation.
C. The Praise
Did the people understand these connections? The words of praise which they shout certainly suggest that they did. Matthew 21:9 is a quote from Psalm 118:26.
Psalm 118 is a Psalm which celebrates the victory of God's people out of imminent defeat. It celebrates God as Savior. We read in verse 14, "The LORD is my strength and my song; he has become my salvation." In this context, we also have several pictures which relate to what Jesus was doing. In vs. 25 we have a prayer, "O LORD, save us; O LORD, grant us success," which relates to the word "hosanna" which means "save now." In verse 27 we have a mention about boughs in hand in the procession to the presence of God. "The LORD is God, and he has made his light shine upon us. With boughs in hand, join in the festal procession up to the horns of the altar."
Between these two verses, we have the main part of what is quoted by the people. It says, "Blessed is he who comes in the name of the LORD. From the house of the LORD we bless you."
The Psalm was used as people came to the temple in Jerusalem. They spoke it in hope, but when Jesus acted this parable, it was evident that they did not need to speak it in hope, but in acceptance of fulfillment. In their proclamation, the people were declaring what Jesus was picturing. They were declaring salvation from God. They were declaring Jesus as the son of David and they were declaring him to be the one who came in the name of the Lord. They were saying as they proceeded to Jerusalem, this is the coming one. This is Messiah. This is the expected Son of David; this is the king who comes to save.
When Jesus rode into Jerusalem on what we call “Palm Sunday” he was acting out a parable. He was making a statement. It is a powerful statement about who he is and what he came to do.
III. Response To Jesus
A. Who Is This?
Some have suggested that this picture was done in a corner with little commotion. There were so many pilgrims entering Jerusalem and if a bunch of them coming from one direction would make a little extra noise it would hardly be a big deal. But that is not the case. We read in Matthew 21:10 that "When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred..."
Jesus presented this picture loaded with historical and prophetic significance. The whole city became aware of this event and there was enough information present to recognize Jesus for who he was.
When Jesus entered the city, the people of Jerusalem asked, "Who is this?" The asking of the question is good. It may have been asked in the spirit of Psalm 24 which is another Psalm of entrance to Jerusalem. The entering pilgrims shout, "Lift up your heads, O you gates; be lifted up, you ancient doors, that the King of glory may come in." This is something like what the entering pilgrims were doing to Jesus. The residents in the city would respond, "Who is this king of glory?" Perhaps they were playing this celebration out but it is also a key question which must be answered.
In Psalm 24, the response to the question is, "The LORD strong and mighty, the LORD mighty in battle." The arriving crowd could have said this about Jesus. They had seen enough and could know enough to realize that this is who he was. They had declared as much as they went in procession. They could have answered: He is the one who has come to save! He is God's anointed one whom we have been waiting for! He is the Son of David who has come to be our king! All of theses statements would have been a right answer to the question "Who is this?" All of these statements had been demonstrated in picture language and in scripture to the crowd.
This is how the crowd could have answered, but how did they answer?
They answered, "This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee."
What a let down! This was a much weaker response than was possible. They emphasize that Jesus is from Nazareth and there was no expectation of anyone of importance coming from Nazareth. In John 1:46, we have the words of Nathaniel who when he was told about Jesus said, "Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?"
A powerful image had been presented to the people, a wonderful announcement which should have caused great rejoicing and celebration. Jesus had been presented as the fulfillment of all that the people hoped for - the coming of their king, but when the opportunity came, they did not recognize him or respond appropriately. They saw him only as "the prophet from Nazareth." Their answer is weak in comparison to the reality. They had truth in front of them and they went “hmm??”
B. We Need You!
But not everyone responded to Jesus in such a feeble way. As Jesus entered the city and then the temple, we read about other responses.
We read about the blind and the lame who came to him and he healed them. They did not reject him or what he was doing. They needed help and they came to Jesus and found the help they needed. What he had done all his ministry, he continued to do in the temple.
C. Who Do You Think You Are?
As he entered the temple, we find Jesus doing another acted parable. It was the most intense acted parable of his whole life to this point. He came in fulfillment of the prophecy of Malachi 3:1 which says, “suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple.” When he arrived there, he found it a travesty of what God intended it to be. There were money changers who were cheating poor people. There was commotion in this court of the Gentiles preventing the Gentiles from worshipping God because of all the noise. Jesus drove out the money changers and called them a bunch of robbers. He corrected what was going on indicating that this was to be a house of prayer.
When the chief priests and scribes saw this and everything else that was going on, verse 15 tells us they were “indignant.” Here we have another response to Jesus. The text is actually quite amazing when it says that “they saw the wonderful things he did and the children shouting in the temple…” They saw good. They saw blessing. They saw that everything godlike was happening and yet they responded with indignation. They could not stand that God was at work. They rejected Jesus at this point and in the days which followed, their rejection increased until they killed him.
D. We Praise You!
But in the midst of this rejection, we have another picture of acceptance. The crowds had answered feebly - “he is Jesus of Nazareth.” The priests had rejected him in indignation, but the children, the precious children continued to know who he was and continued to praise him. They continued to shout “Hosanna to the Son of David.” They continued to recognize and accept Him.
Jesus quotes Psalm 8 to remind the leaders and us that it is children who in their innocence and trusting nature recognize the truth. They don’t have propriety and preconceptions to cloud their vision. They simply recognize the truth and accept it.
A powerful drama is enacted for us in the triumphal entry. How will we respond?
Jesus has been presented to us as king. We see not only the triumphal entry, but we also know that he has become king and is seated at the right hand of the father. We know that he became king through his death on the cross and that he was declared king in his resurrection and ascension. We know that he will appear again as conquering king, not riding a donkey, but riding a white horse, the symbol of complete victory. In Revelation 19:11 we read, "I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True. With justice he judges and makes war. His eyes are like blazing fire, and on his head are many crowns. He has a name written on him that no one knows but he himself. He is dressed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is the Word of God."
But how do we respond to the truth of who Jesus is? I hope that there is no one who responds like the Pharisees - utterly rejecting Him? These people had full knowledge and all the equipment to understand what was really going on here, but their hatred of God, their self centeredness caused them to say a strong and firm “no” to Jesus. The following words are from an old engraving on a cathedral in Labeck, Germany. It illustrates rejection like that of the Pharisees.
Thus speaketh Christ our Lord to us:
You call Me master and obey Me not.
You call Me light and see Me not.
You call Me the Way and walk Me not.
You call Me life and live Me not.
You call Me wise and follow Me not.
You call Me fair and love Me not.
You call Me rich and ask Me not.
You call Me eternal and seek Me not.
If I condemn thee, blame Me not.
Perhaps our response is more like that of the crowd. They saw the power of who Jesus was in the acted parable, but responded feebly. They were not rejecting Him, but not really accepting Him as the King and Lord He is? When we live our lives self centeredly, when we make decisions without reference to God’s will, when entertainment and the pleasures of this world are more important to us than serving God, then our response is like that of the crowds. I hope that such a feeble response will not enter into our hearts.
Rather, I hope that we will respond like the lame and blind. They knew that they needed Him. Do we know that we need Him? Do we come to him for strength and hope and power to be holy and forgiveness? At a meeting the other day, one of the ministers was saying that they were having a dessert evening in their church. The posters, however, had announced a desert evening. We were commenting that this would be quite appropriate for this season of the year, the season before Easter when many people spend time recognizing the desert, the place of need, the place of knowing that we need God. The lame and the blind knew their need of Jesus and came to Him. Will we?
I hope that we will respond like the children. Not only recognizing who Jesus is, but celebrating that reality with our whole life, proclaiming to all, whether they want to hear it or not, that in Jesus there is salvation. Children are often told to act properly in church and perhaps this impropriety is what he Pharisees objected to, but like David when he danced with all his might, these children knew the glory of who Jesus was and celebrated it. Have we become stifled by propriety so much that we are unable to truly celebrate Jesus?
May the power of the acted parable of the triumphal entry cause us to renew the response we truly want to make to Jesus.