The Triumphal Entry of Jesus into Jerusalem

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There is an incident in the concluding days of Christ’s earthly ministry that is likely to be passed over with but little attention if the Bible reader is not careful. And yet, it is brimming with treasure, ready to be mined if the student is diligent enough to appreciate the task.

The significance of the event is underscored by the fact that the circumstance is recorded in all four Gospel accounts. For brevity’s sake, we will produce only Matthew’s record.

“And when they drew near to Jerusalem, and came unto Bethphage, to the mount of Olives, then Jesus sent two disciples, saying unto them, ‘Go into the village that is just ahead of you, and straightway you shall find a donkey tied, and a colt with her: untie them, and bring them to me. And if any one says anything to you, you shall say, The Lord has need of them; and immediately he will send them.’ Now this is to happen that it might be fulfilled which was spoken through the prophet, saying, ‘Tell the daughter of Zion, Behold, your King is coming to you, Meek, and riding upon a donkey, And upon a colt, the foal of a donkey.’ And the disciples went, and did just as Jesus had instructed them, and brought the donkey, and the colt, and put on them their garments; and he sat thereon. And most of the crowd spread their garments in the road; and others cut branches from the trees, and spread them in the road. And the crowds that went before him, and that followed, cried out, saying, ‘Hosanna [save now!] to the son of David: Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord; Hosanna in the highest.’ And when he was come into Jerusalem, the entire city was stirred, saying, ‘Who is this?’ And the crowds said, ‘This is the prophet, Jesus, from Nazareth of Galilee’” (Mt. 21:1-11; cf. Mk. 11:1-11; Lk. 19:29-44; Jn. 12:12-19).

It would be of considerable value if the student would consult a work such as the one by William Stevens and Ernest Burton, A Harmony of the Gospels (New York: Scribner’s Sons, 1932), as an aid in seeing each of the Gospel accounts, with their complementary elements, side-by-side.

The setting of this episode takes place on the Sunday, just prior to the crucifixion later that week (cf. Jn. 12:1,12), as the Lord and his disciples made their way toward Jerusalem. This day is commonly called “Palm Sunday,” the appellation being taken from the events that occurred subsequently on this notable occasion.

As they approached a village called Bethphage (“house of figs” — specific site unidentified) on the western slope of Olivet, Jesus dispatched two (un-named) disciples into the community to obtain a donkey for use in the remainder of his journey into the sacred city.

Evidence of the Supernatural

Christ informed the disciples that as they entered the village they would find a female donkey secured by a “tie.” With her would be a colt, also hitched. The disciples were to “unloose” and bring back both animals. They would be questioned by the animals’ owners (plural — Lk. 19:33) as to what they were doing. Their response was to be, “The Lord has need of them.” Immediately permission would be granted. This was not a pre-arranged agreement; rather, it provides a dramatic example of the Lord’s exercise of supernatural knowledge whenever the circumstances demanded such (cf. Lk. 19:32). It is worthy of note as well that the owners of these donkeys were obviously disciples of the Master, as indicated by their unhesitating response to the designation “Lord.”

When the Savior’s men returned, donkeys in tow, the two animals were adorned with the outer garments of the disciples, reflecting perhaps the fact that they did not know which of the two beasts of burden he would choose. Jesus selected the colt, upon whose back no man had ever sat (Mk. 11:2; Lk. 19:30). It is not without significance that the young animal made no resistance (cf. divine sovereignty over the animal kingdom — Num. 22:28; 2 Kgs. 2:24, etc.).

The Adoring Crowds

As the Savior rode down the road toward the capital city, two throngs of people converged upon him – a massive crowd coming out of the city; another group following him (Mt. 21:9; Mk. 11:9). These were mostly disciples who had been awed by the effect of the Lord’s miracles – especially the recent resurrection of Lazarus (Lk. 19:37; Jn. 12:17).

Some “paved” the road with their garments; others with layers of leaves, at least some of which were from palm trees (Jn. 12:13), hence the expression “Palm Sunday.” Spreading garments before a dignitary was a symbol of submission (see 2 Kgs. 9:13). Palm branches were employed also as token of victory (Suetonius, Caligula, 32). Some Jewish coins from the first century had palm leaf engravings with the accompanying inscription, “the redemption of Zion.” Note the “palm” symbolism that is portrayed in the book of Revelation (7:9). The Jewish disciples doubtless were expressing the hope that Jesus would be the one to lead them to victory over their oppressor (Rome).

Fulfilled Prophecy

Both Matthew and John contend that this incident was the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. The former cites Zechariah 9:9 specifically; the latter alludes to it more generally.

The prophet Zechariah was among the 50,000 or so Jews who returned in the first wave of Hebrews released from Babylonian captivity in 536 B.C. He wrote about five centuries before the birth of Jesus (520 B.C. – cf. Zech. 1:1). The prophet’s main emphasis was to rekindle spiritual fervor in Israel’s hearts after they had fallen into a state of listlessness. Chapters 9-14 are heavily Messianic in argument. The prophecy under consideration reads as follows:

“Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion; shout, O daughter of Jerusalem: behold, your king coming unto you; he is just, and having salvation; lowly, and riding upon a donkey, even upon a colt, the foal of a donkey” (Zech 9:9).

In the original context (9:1-8), Zechariah had declared that there would be an invasion of certain neighboring nations, which would affect even portions of Canaan. He foretold the Greek assault under Alexander the Great, two centuries yet into the future (see 9:13). In spite of the seeming threat, Jerusalem was to be protected – in view of her coming King (9:8). The New Testament writers focus upon incidents that are to occur in connection with Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem.

Under the guidance of the Spirit of God, Matthew alters the OT text somewhat. He substitutes a phrase from Isaiah (62:11) as an introduction – “Tell the daughter of Zion.” In addition, he omits the descriptive “just” and “having salvation.” John, in his paraphrase, added “Fear not.” The Bible student must ever be aware of the fact that the Holy Spirit had every right to adjust his own language, from one context to another, to implement a special theological point. And no criticism is warranted from fallible men who may not fully see the significance. Consider the following important points in the prophecy.

(1) Zechariah declares that Israel’s “king” is “coming.” The verbal tense suggests that he is “on the way” – even five centuries before his birth. The sense is this. The supernatural and providential provisions for the Messiah’s arrival are well under way already. He would arrive precisely in “the fullness of time” (Gal. 4:4), and die when his “hour is come” (see Jn. 7:30; 8:20; 12:23; 17:1).

(2) The OT prophet described the Messiah as “just.” He was to be righteous in life, and just in his dealings with man (cf. Jer. 23:5). Too, he is depicted as “lowly,” a term that generally is believed to suggest his “meek” or “humble” disposition (cf. the LXX rendition of Isa. 53:8, as found in Acts 8:33; see also Phil. 2:8). However, the Hebrew word also can connote one who is “poor,” and is used elsewhere in this book in that very sense (cf. 7:10; 11:7,11). Every NT student knows that a part of Christ’s “humiliation” was that of material deprivation (Lk. 9:58; 2 Cor. 8:9).

Some take the expression “having salvation” to mean that the king would bring a plan of salvation for fallen humanity. And certainly he accomplished that goal. In the Hebrew text, though, the term literally is, “saved” (ASVfn). The participle “saved” (a passive form) appears to refer to Christ himself. Not that he needed to be “saved” from sin, because he never committed any sin (2 Cor. 5:21; Heb. 4:15; 1 Pet. 2:22). Rather, the language seems to denote that he would experience a “deliverance” – a “victory.” The Lord’s resurrection from the dead was seen as a “deliverance,” or a “salvation” of sorts, in Psalm 22:20-24. R.C.H. Lenski surmised that Matthew chose not to include this portion of Zechariah’s prophecy because it did not pertain specifically to the procession into Jerusalem The Interpretation of St. Matthew’s Gospel, Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1961, p. 804).

It is appropriate, however, to note also that Christ’s deliverance was “a sure sign of the deliverance of his people,” and thus the active sense is embraced in the passive (W.J. Deane, “Zechariah,” The Pulpit Commentary, Spence & Exell, Eds., Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, p. 92).

(3) Zechariah’s emphasis upon the King’s selection of a donkey for his journey into Jerusalem is by no means incidental. There is a point to be made about the nature of the King’s conquests and administration. The Messiah would not seek to subjugate by means of military force (as Islam traditionally has done); rather, he is the “Prince of Peace” (Isa. 9:6), and his achievements are not by means of bloody conquests (Jn. 18:36; 2 Cor. 10:4-5). Horses were instruments of war (cf. vs. 10; Isa. 2:7; 31:1; Mic. 5:10). As J.G. Baldwin has observed, the donkey “was an appropriate mount for one who came on a mission of peace” (Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi — Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries, Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1972, p. 166).

E.B. Pusey once observed that this entrance into Jerusalem by donkey would never have been done by a “false Messiah,” for “their minds were set on earthly glory and worldly greatness” (The Minor Prophets, Grand Rapids: Baker, 1974, II, p. 404).

A Moment of Sadness

Unique to Luke’s record is the fact that as Jesus came near to Jerusalem, he looked across the Kidron valley and “wept over” the city (Lk. 19:41). This is one of the three instances mentioned in the NT where Christ shed tears (see also Jn. 11:35; Heb. 5:7). The Man of Sorrows grieved over the fact that so many of his people had closed their eyes to the truth of his identity and mission (cf. Jn. 1:11). The very peace they sought would be taken from them and, in its place, would come their enemies, the Roman armies – actually God’s armies (cf. Mt. 22:7). The devastation would be terrible indeed, but deserved entirely because they “knew not” the time of their “visitation” (Lk. 19:44).

Visitation derives from the Greek episkope (literally “oversee”); here, it is a visitation of favor. Most of the Jews of this city of fifty to a hundred thousand souls (swelling to a million or so at Passover time) would not see the Messiah’s visit as one offering salvation. Instead, they would cry, “Crucify him; crucify him,” and “let his blood be upon us and our offspring.” As a result, divine judgment would engulf them with a fury unparalleled in all history (Mt. 24:21).

Diverse Reactions

There was a mixed reaction to the Savior’s procession toward Jerusalem. By far the majority of those in the crowds seem to have praised the Messiah with manifold adulation. Would many of them later change their sentiment?

If we may combine testimonies of the divine accounts, the people chanted: “Hosanna [‘save now’ — cf. Psa. 118:25], Son of David: Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel; Blessed be his kingdom. Peace in heaven and glory in the highest” (Mt. 21:9; Mk. 11:9-10; Lk. 19:38; Jn. 12:13). The varying phrases cited by the Gospel writers obviously reflect different expressions from the multitudes, yet the combined chorus is one of exaltation.

Several important truths may be gleaned from these narratives.

(a) Jesus was identified as the promised heir to David’s throne (cf. 2 Sam. 7:12-13).

(b) His mission was “in the name” of, i.e., by the authority of God himself.

(c) Salvation would accompany his work.

(d) He would be enthroned as king and usher in his kingdom (cf. Lk. 1:32-33). H.A. Ironside, a millennialist, was positively wrong when he wrote: “Never for one hour has he occupied the throne of David which is yet to be His” (Notes on the Minor Prophets, Neptune, NJ: Loizeaux Bros., 1909, p. 393). Peter declares otherwise (Acts 2:30ff).

(e) Peace would result, and God would be glorified.

While these exclamations were wonderfully true, the full significance of them was not fathomed until after the Savior was glorified (i.e., he was raised from the dead and ascended back to the father — cf. Lk. 24:26). Unfortunately, from their limited vantage point, the disciples (even some of the closest) still viewed the kingdom as a political entity – reminiscent of David’s regime (cf. Jn. 6:15; Acts 1:6).

As the Lord entered the city, the multitudes exclaimed: “This is the prophet, Jesus, from Nazareth of Galilee” (Mt. 21:11). The expression “the prophet” is most likely an allusion to the declaration of Moses concerning “the prophet” whom Jehovah would raise up, and who, in some ways, was foreshadowed by Israel’s great deliverer of fifteen centuries earlier (Dt. 18:15ff).

By way of contrast, however, the Pharisees (most of whom had set themselves against the Son of God), urged Jesus to silence the worship of these disciples (Lk. 19:39). In despair, they lamented that it appeared that “the world is gone after him” (Jn. 12:19). O that it had; and yet would!

But Christ retorted: “I tell you that, if these [people] should hold their peace, the stones will cry out” (Lk. 19:40). One scholar thinks that this “personification of nature recalls Isaiah 55:12, where the mountains and hills ‘burst into song’ and the trees of the field ‘clap their hands,’ rejoicing at God’s deliverance. There may also be an allusion to Habakkuk 2:11, where the prophet announces that ‘the stones of the wall will cry out’ in judgment against Babylon” (Mark Strauss, Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002, Vol. I, p. 469). In a manner of speaking, the “stones” of the Temple, as they were “thrown down” by the Romans, did testify of Heaven’s judgment upon a people that crucified their Messiah (cf. Mt. 24:2).

Thus, the Savior’s “Triumphal Entry” into the city of Jerusalem, one week before “Resurrection Sunday,” signaled both deliverance and doom. The former would obtain for those who acknowledged Jesus as the Messiah and surrendered to his will; the latter would prevail for those who rejected him. The same (in principle) and in a final, ultimate sense, applies today as well.

Study this account of the “Triumphal Entry” of the Savior with pleasure and profit.