The Triumphal Entry (Matthew 21:1-11)
21 Now when they drew near to Jerusalem and came to Bethphage, to the Mount of Olives, then Jesus sent two disciples, 2 saying to them, “Go into the village in front of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her. Untie them and bring them to me. 3 If anyone says anything to you, you shall say, ‘The Lord needs them,’ and he will send them at once.” 4 This took place to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet, saying,
5 “Say to the daughter of Zion,
‘Behold, your king is coming to you,
humble, and mounted on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden.’ ”
6 The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them. 7 They brought the donkey and the colt and put on them their cloaks, and he sat on them. 8 Most of the crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 9 And the crowds that went before him and that followed him were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” 10 And when he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred up, saying, “Who is this?” 11 And the crowds said, “This is the prophet Jesus, from Nazareth of Galilee.” 
Triumphal entry of Jesus Christ: Thematic Outline
Jesus Christ rode into Jerusalem on a colt, royally yet humbly, to the rejoicing of his followers, but provoking opposition from the Jewish religious leaders.
- The colt used in Jesus Christ’s entry into Jerusalem
- Jesus Christ’s instructions to his disciples
- Lk 19:29–31
- Luke 19:29–31 (ESV) — 29 When he drew near to Bethphage and Bethany, at the mount that is called Olivet, he sent two of the disciples, 30 saying, “Go into the village in front of you, where on entering you will find a colt tied, on which no one has ever yet sat. Untie it and bring it here. 31 If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ you shall say this: ‘The Lord has need of it.’ ”
- The obedience of the disciples
- See also Mt 21:6
- Matthew 21:6 (ESV) — 6 The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them.
- Jesus Christ’s entry into Jerusalem
- Jn 12:14–15
- John 12:14–15 (ESV) — 14 And Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it, just as it is written, 15 “Fear not, daughter of Zion; behold, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt!”
- See also Is 62:11 ; Zec 9:9
- Isaiah 62:11 (ESV) — 11 Behold, the Lord has proclaimed to the end of the earth: Say to the daughter of Zion, “Behold, your salvation comes; behold, his reward is with him, and his recompense before him.”
- Zechariah 9:9 (ESV) — 9 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.
- The response of the crowd to Jesus Christ’s entry into Jerusalem
- Proclamation of Jesus Christ’s kingship
- Mt 21:8; 2 Ki 9:13 Spreading cloaks on the road was an act of royal homage.
- Matthew 21:8 (ESV) — 8 Most of the crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road.
- 2 Kings 9:13 (ESV) — 13 Then in haste every man of them took his garment and put it under him on the bare steps, and they blew the trumpet and proclaimed, “Jehu is king.”
- Proclamation of Jesus’ messiahship
- Mt 21:9
- Matthew 21:9 (ESV) — 9 And the crowds that went before him and that followed him were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!”
- See also Ps 118:26
- Psalm 118:26 (ESV) — 26 Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! We bless you from the house of the Lord.
- Proclamation of Jesus Christ’s victory
- Jn 12:13 Palm branches were used in celebration of victory.
- John 12:13 (ESV) — 13 So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, crying out, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!”
- See also Le 23:40 ; Ps 118:27 ; Re 7:9
- Leviticus 23:40 (ESV) — 40 And you shall take on the first day the fruit of splendid trees, branches of palm trees and boughs of leafy trees and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God seven days.
- Psalm 118:27 (ESV) — 27 The Lord is God, and he has made his light to shine upon us. Bind the festal sacrifice with cords, up to the horns of the altar!
- Revelation 7:9 (ESV) — 9 After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands,
- The response of the Pharisees to Jesus Christ’s entry into Jerusalem
- Lk 19:39–40
- Luke 19:39–40 (ESV) — 39 And some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples.” 40 He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out.”
The Triumphal Entry: Commentary
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 by her. Untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, tell him 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 the Daughter of Zion,
‘See, your king comes to you,
gentle and riding on a donkey,
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, placed their cloaks on them, and Jesus sat on them. 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!”
When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred and asked, “Who is this?”
The crowds answered, “This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee.”
The most important life ever lived was that of Jesus Christ, and the most important part of that life was the momentous week that ended it. The week began with Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. It included a second cleansing of the temple, the final teaching, the institution of the Lord’s Supper, and the arrest, trial, and crucifixion. It ended with Jesus’ resurrection from the dead on Easter Sunday. Eight momentous days in all.
This final week is so important that the Gospels give a disproportionate amount of space to it. Jesus lived thirty-three years. His active ministry occupied three years. But large portions of the Gospels are given over to the events of just the last eight days. Matthew devotes one-fourth of his Gospel to it (chaps. 21–28). Mark uses one-third of his Gospel (chaps. 11–16). Luke gives a fifth of his chapters to the events of this last week (chaps. 19:28–24). Most remarkable of all, John gives half of his Gospel (chaps. 12–21). Taken together, there are eighty-nine chapters in the Gospels, but twenty-nine and a half of these (exactly one-third) recount what happened between the triumphal entry and Jesus’ resurrection. Such is the case because these are the climactic events not only of Jesus’ life but of all history. They were planned from before the foundation of the world, and our salvation from sin and wrath depends on them.
It is not just the Gospels that emphasize these events either. We can think of the one verse summary of Christianity that Paul gives at the end of Romans 4: “He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification” (v. 25). Better yet is the outline Paul provides near the start of 1 Corinthians 15:
For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.
This is the outline followed by the early preachers, whose sermons are preserved in the Book of Acts: “You killed the author of life, but God raised him from the dead. We are witnesses of this” (Acts 3:15).
Final Break with Judaism
From Matthew’s perspective, Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem also marked the Lord’s final break with Judaism. We can remember from earlier studies that the presentation of Jesus as Israel’s king is a major theme of the Gospel, which I have highlighted by subdividing the book along these lines: part 1: “The Coming of the King” (chaps. 1–4); part 2: “The Sermon on the Mount” (chaps. 5–7); part 3: “The Power of the Kingdom” (chaps. 8–10); part 4: “Is Jesus Really God’s King?” (chaps. 11–12); part 5: “The Parables of the Kingdom” (chap. 13); part 6: “The Withdrawal of the King” (chaps. 14–17); part 7: “The Citizens of the Kingdom” (chaps. 18–20); and now, part 8: “The King’s Final Break with Judaism” (chaps. 21–23).
There will be two more significant divisions after this, part 9: “The Sermon on the Mount of Olives” (chaps. 24–25) and, finally, part 10: “Death and Resurrection” (chaps. 26–28). The death and resurrection of Jesus have already been anticipated by three specific predictions: Matthew 16:21; 17:22–23; 20:17–19.
A Planned Demonstration
This climactic week begins, then, with what we call the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. Each of the Gospels records this event, and the first significant detail they record is that Jesus arranged what was to happen. In other words, this was not merely a case of some spontaneous outburst of excitement on the part of the people, though there was obviously some spontaneity about it. Rather, it was something about which the Lord himself carefully planned to make a statement.
Matthew says that as Jesus and the disciples were approaching Bethphage, an outlying district of Jerusalem, Jesus sent two of the disciples ahead of them to procure a donkey and her colt. Matthew is the only writer who mentions two animals, and some scholars have suggested, in a manner insulting to Matthew, that he misunderstood the text he is about to cite from Zechariah and invented the extra animal to conform to it. Matthew was not stupid, of course. Jesus did not ride on two animals. He is merely recording a detail the other writers omit, namely, that there was a mother donkey and her foal, on which Jesus actually sat, though the clothes were spread on both. As far as the prophecy is concerned, it is an example of Hebrew parallelism in which two lines say the same thing, which Matthew certainly understood. We could translate, “on a donkey, that is, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”
Matthew records Jesus as saying, “Go to the village ahead of you, and at once you will find a donkey tied there, with her colt by her. Untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, tell him that the Lord needs them, and he will send them right away” (vv. 2–3). Mark and Luke say that some people (Luke, “the owners”) did ask why the disciples were untying the animal but that they were willing to give it when they learned “the Lord” needed it (Mark 11:4–6; Luke 19:33–34).
Why did Jesus arrange to enter Jerusalem in this way? He did not need to ride. He had already walked the entire distance from Galilee. In fact, this is the only occasion when we hear of Jesus doing anything but walking. Obviously, Jesus wanted to make a statement (as we say) or, to use a biblical way of speaking, a symbolic action. He was acting like Jeremiah when Jeremiah was told to buy and then break a clay jar to symbolize the breaking of the nation (Jer. 19:1–15) or buy a field to symbolize God’s commitment to bring the people back to the land of Israel after their captivity in Babylon (Jer. 32:6–44).
The meaning of what Jesus arranged is found in the quotation of Zechariah 9:9, for Matthew says that this took place “to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet” (v. 4).
“Say to the Daughter of Zion,
‘See, your king comes to you,
gentle and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’ ”
The quotation is from a section of the book prophesying what was to happen to Israel in the future, and what it prophesies is the coming of God’s King. The quotation does not appear in Mark or Luke. John contains it, but it is not as complete nor is it emphasized. Matthew is the Gospel of the King, and this is the point at which Matthew shows Jesus coming to his capital city as the rightful King of Israel.
But what a king! Not a warlike monarch, arriving on a battle steed to marshall his armies for action. Rather, Jesus comes “gentle and riding on a donkey,” as Zechariah says (v. 5). In these far-off days a donkey was not an ignoble animal. Kings did ride them. When David appointed Solomon to be his successor as king of Israel, he had him seated on his personal mule and taken to Gihon to be anointed by Zadok the priest and Nathan the prophet (1 Kings 1:32–40). Yet the donkey did symbolize that Jesus was coming in peace, not for war, and that his was to be a gentle, peaceful reign. This is what Jesus indicated by his action and what Matthew emphasized by retaining the word gentle in the quote. John omits the line containing gentle in his quotation because he is interested only in the fact that Jesus’ riding on a colt fulfilled the words of Zechariah.
Is Jesus ever going to do battle? Yes, indeed. In Revelation 19 he is described as arriving on a white horse to judge and make war (v. 11). His robes are dipped in blood (v. 13), which probably recalls the warlike figure of Isaiah 63, who comes from Edom with his robes dyed crimson. But that is for then. For now the King comes humbly and in peace, for his is a peaceable kingdom. We sing in the hymn “Lead On, O King Eternal,”
For not with swords loud clashing,
Nor roll of stirring drums,
But deeds of love and mercy,
The heavenly kingdom comes.
Up to this point Jesus had been keeping his messianic claim a secret lest there be a premature attempt to make him king, and because Jesus was not the kind of king the people wanted. But now, knowing that the time of his passion was at hand, Jesus deliberately provoked this demonstration.
The People’s Praise
Jesus had sent two disciples for the donkeys. When they arrived, the disciples spread their clothes on both. Jesus sat on the colt, which was probably led by the mother donkey since it was a young animal that had not been ridden before (Mark 11:2; Luke 19:30). The entire band then made its way down the steep descent of the Mount of Olives in full sight of the city of Jerusalem, attracting people as they went. As the crowd came near, others who were in Jerusalem saw what was happening and went out of the city to join the group that was arriving (Matt. 21:9). The people began to cry out,
“Hosanna to the Son of David!”
“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”
“Hosanna in the highest!”
Luke adds the cry “Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!” (Luke 19:38), and John adds, “Blessed is the King of Israel!” (John 12:13).
These were spontaneous praise chants, but they were not arbitrary words. Two of these sentences come from Psalm 118. The first is verse 25: “O Lord, save us.” The second is verse 26: “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” In the psalm the words “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” are found exactly as we have them in our English versions. Verse 25 is quoted differently, but we can see the connection if we know that the words “save us” (from “O Lord, save us” in the first half of the verse) are literally “Save us now” which is the Hebrew word Hosanna. This is what the people were shouting when they exclaimed, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” and “Hosanna in the highest!”
The significance of this is that Psalm 118 is the last psalm of the Egyptian Hallel (Psalms 113–118). Hallel means “praise,” and the Egyptian Hallel was the collection of praise psalms sung at the great Jewish feasts: the feast of dedication, the feasts of the new moons, and by families at the yearly observance of the Passover. At Passover two of the psalms were sung before the meal and four afterward. In fact, they were probably the psalms sung by Jesus and his disciples in the upper room just before Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion (Matt. 26:30; Mark 14:26).
Jesus entered Jerusalem during Passover week, probably at the very time the thousands of Passover lambs were being brought into the city, later to be killed and eaten as part of the Passover observance. It is natural, then, that lines from Psalm 118 were on the people’s minds and tongues on this occasion.
Did the people understand that Jesus was the Son of God and that he was coming to save his people from their sins? Of course not, though a few, such as Mary of Bethany, seem to have understood that he was about to die (John 12:7). But whether the masses understood it or not, these verses describe what Jesus was doing and was about to do. He had indeed come “in the name of the Lord” to do the will of his Father in heaven, and what he had been sent to do was save his people from their sins.
Who is This?
Matthew ends his account of the triumphal entry by telling us that when Jesus entered Jerusalem, “the whole city was stirred,” as it had been thirty-three years earlier when the Magi came to inquire, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews?” (Matt. 2:2–3). Here they ask, “Who is this?” The crowds answered, “This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee” (vv. 10–11).
That does not seem to be a very profound answer, but it is probably more significant than it appears. We should remember that the crowd was calling the man who was entering Jerusalem on a donkey the Messiah, for that is what the shouts of praise meant. John tells us that they called him “the King of Israel” explicitly (John 12:13). Therefore, when the people in the city asked, “Who is this?” they meant, “Who is this person you are calling the Messiah?” The answer identified Jesus as the Messiah. The words recorded in Matthew as the crowd’s answer seem to mean, “Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee, is the messianic Son of David, the King of Israel.”
Significant? Yes, but not good enough for two reasons.
First, they were still thinking of a powerful political ruler, the kind who could marshall an army and drive out the occupying Romans. The disciples were thinking along these lines themselves even after the Lord’s resurrection (see Acts 1:6).
Second, the people were shallow even in their confession of Jesus as the King and Messiah of Israel. We cannot help but remember that the triumphal entry took place on Sunday, and by the following Thursday (my dating) or Friday (the traditional day for Jesus’ execution) they would be singing an entirely different tune as they beseeched Pilate, the Roman governor, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” (Matt. 27:22–23).
What is Your Answer?
Who is Jesus? This is the time to get your answer to that question straight, in case you have never done it before. Matthew has presented Jesus as God’s King. We have seen him rejected by many but believed on by a few. Where do you stand on this issue? Is Jesus the King? Is he the Son of God? Is he the Savior? Have you trusted him for the salvation of your soul?
If you are still hesitating with your answer, let me take you through the possibilities. There are only three of them, once we eliminate the one truly impossible idea that Jesus was merely a good man. Whatever he might be, he was certainly not just a good man, for no good man could honestly make the claims he made. Jesus presented himself as the Savior of the human race, claiming to be God. Is he? If so, he is more than a mere man. If not, then he is at best mistaken (consequently, not “good”) and at worst a deceiver. What are we to do with his claims? John R. W. Stott wrote, “The claims are there. They do not in themselves constitute evidence of deity. The claims may have been false. But some explanation of them must be found. We cannot any longer regard Jesus as simply a great teacher, if he was so grievously mistaken in one of the chief subjects of his teaching, namely himself.”
C. S. Lewis wrote similarly, “You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool; you can spit at him and kill him for a demon; or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”
Thinking of Jesus merely as a good man or a good teacher is impossible, but what are the alternatives? The quotation from C. S. Lewis lists the actual possibilities clearly.
First, Jesus may have been insane or suffering from megalomania. Hitler suffered from megalomania. Napoleon probably did as well. Was Jesus like them? Before we jump too quickly at that explanation, we need to ask whether the total character of Jesus as we know it supports that speculation. Did Jesus act like a person who was crazy? Did he speak like one suffering from megalomania? As we read the Gospels, we see that rather than being mad, Jesus was actually the sanest man who ever lived. He spoke with quiet authority. He was in control of every kind of situation. He will not fit that first, easy classification.
The second possibility is that Jesus was a deceiver, that is, he set out intentionally to fool people. Before we settle on that answer, we need to examine what is involved in it. In the first place, if Jesus was a deceiver, he was the best deceiver who ever lived. Jesus claimed to be God, but that claim was not made in a Greek or Roman environment where the idea of many gods or even half gods was acceptable. It was made at the very heart of monotheistic Judaism. The Jews were ridiculed, even persecuted, for their belief in one God, but they stuck to their conviction fanatically. In that climate Jesus made his claims, and the remarkable thing is that he convinced people to believe in him. Lots of people—men and women, peasants and sophisticates, priests, rulers, eventually even members of his own family.
On the other hand, if Jesus was a deceiver, if he was not God, he should be judged a devil, for he did not merely say, “I am God,” and let it go at that. He said, “I am God come to save humanity; I am the way of salvation; trust me with your eternal destiny.” Jesus taught that God is holy, that we are separated from him because of our sins, and that he came to be our sin bearer. That is good news, even great news—but only if it is true. If it is not true, then his followers are of all human beings the most miserable, and Jesus should be hated as a devil from hell. If it is not true, Jesus sent generations of gullible followers to a hopeless eternity.
Is he a deceiver? Is that the explanation we have for one who was known for being “meek and lowly,” who became a poor itinerant evangelist in order to help the poor and teach those whom others despised? Somehow the facts do not fit. We cannot face the facts of his life and teaching and still call Jesus a deceiver. What then? If he was not a deceiver or insane, only one possibility is left. Jesus is who he said he is. He is the one the Gospels, including Matthew, proclaim him to be. He is the Christ, the Son of God, the Savior. Do you believe that? If you do, now is the time to turn from your sin, trust Jesus for your salvation, and follow him.
 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2001). (Mt 21:1–11). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.
 Boice, J. M. (2001). The Gospel of Matthew (pp. 432–440). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.