The Coming King
Soon after we are born into this fascinating but fallen world, a nurse takes our fingerprints and footprints. As you know, this is done to help our parents and the hospital to properly identify us. Today, of course, there are other high-tech ways of identifying individuals. Eye scanners are used in some workplaces, and surveillance cameras are now used almost everywhere. Some cameras, at airports and government buildings, even have the capability of taking a picture of a person and then making an accurate identification simply by noting a few unique facial features.
In the familiar story of the ‘triumphal’ entry, we have a story designed, as are all the stories in Matthew’s Gospel, to help us recognize from afar some of the distinct features of Jesus, to help us recognize and respond to him as the promised King, as the one who has come in the name of the Lord.
In our passage this week from Matthew 21:1-17, we can notice two distinct features. The first feature is that of fulfillment. In v3 we read that the ‘Lord needs them’ (i.e., these animals). It’s a paradoxical statement. Does the Lordneed anything? Does Jesus need these beasts for his overburdened legs? No. That is not the reason he needs them. The reason he needs these animals, and specifically the colt, is to reveal who he is and what his mission is all about. He needs them to fulfill a past prophecy.
In 1 Corinthians 15:3, 4 we are told that Jesus died ‘in accordance with the Scriptures’ and that he rose again ‘in accordance with the Scriptures.’ Here in Matthew’s Gospel we should notice that Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a colt, of all animals, also according to the Scriptures – in other words, to fulfill a specific Old Testament prophecy, Zechariah 9:9.
If the first feature of this story helps us identify Jesus by his fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy, the second feature of this story identifies Jesus by the boldness of his intentionality.
I have never met someone who doesn’t have some admiration for Jesus. Sure, I meet people who may disdain Christianity as a system of thought or the church as a religious institution, but everyone I know admires Jesus for any number of reasons: fearless criticism of the establishment, love of others, care for the poor and outcasts, compassion for the rejected, etc. In addition, however, most people esteem Jesus for his genuine humility.
But however much one might admire Jesus for his attitudes and actions, one still has to come to grips with his claims, claims that appear to be quite the opposite of humility, claims that, as one person noted, are ‘extraordinarily self-focused.’ In fact, what is most surprising about this story is not Jesus’ humility but his self-promotion. His actions are premeditated. By riding into town the way he rode into town and receiving the praise he received (vv. 8, 9) with no personal protest, he is announcing to the world, ‘The King has come.’ So, the irony of the triumphal entry, if you will, is our Lord’s promotion or publication of his humble reign!
No matter how you look at it, by mounting that animal and riding it into Jerusalem, Jesus is making a bold statement. He is claiming to be the Messiah. He is claiming to be the fulfillment of Zechariah’s prophecy. Indeed, a brief glance through the Gospels shows a pattern of self-promotion. For example, what are we to make of Jesus’ ‘I am’ statements in John’s Gospel? For example, he claimed, ‘I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever’ (John 6:51).
Who would dare claim, ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life’ (John 8:12)? What are we to make of such claims? If we trust in Jesus we will live forever? That he alone is light and one must follow him in order to get out of the darkness. Think about the claims of Christ! In the Gospels Jesus can’t stop talking about himself.
We usually disdain people who talk so much about themselves. And yet what is it about Jesus that makes him not only likable but also believable? There is perhaps nothing so remarkable about Jesus than the fact that he advanced himself as the object of faith, love, and obedience, and yet he comes across as the most humble man to walk the face of the earth. When Muhammad Ali claimed to be the greatest, we all just rolled our eyes and smirked. But when Jesus claims to be the Savior and Judge of the world, to be the ‘greatest’ by dying and rising again, we somehow are prone to bow our heads and agree. Why?
John Stott calls this ‘the paradox of Jesus.’ Stott writes that Jesus’ ‘claims sound like the ravings of a lunatic, but he shows no signs of being a fanatic, a neurotic or, still less, a psychotic. On the contrary, he comes before us in the pages of the Gospels as the most balanced and integrated of human beings.’ That’s the paradox of Jesus. He covers himself with disturbing claims (disturbing because they are so self-focused), and yet we see him clothed with utter humility. That is the profound paradox in this passage.
Jesus arranges the whole scene. He determines the details. He decides to ride slightly above the crowd into Jerusalem upon a foal of a beast of burden. In essence, Jesus rode into Jerusalem that first Palm Sunday announcing that Israel’s Messiah had arrived, just as Zechariah said he would.
When Jesus rode into Jerusalem we read that “the whole city was stirred up, saying, ‘Who is this?’” (v10). The city was ‘stirred up’ or ‘quaked’; the city quaked like it would ‘quake’ on Good Friday (at his death) and on Easter Sunday (at his resurrection). And the question that came out of this quaking was the right one: “Who is this?” (v10).
I hope you can join us this Palm Sunday as we open the Bible to Matthew 21:1-17 to answer the question: Who is this? Let me encourage you to invite someone to come along with you. During this season, people may be more open to your invitation.
Hosanna in the Highest,
*Article adapted from Douglas Sean O’Donnell, Matthew: All Authority in Heaven and on Earth, Crossway Books)