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Matthew 21 - IVP New Testament Commentaries

Jerusalem's King Enters Its Gates

Despite the prevalence of skepticism in our culture, there is little reason to question the substance of this account. Later storytellers would probably not have thought to have invented accurate allusions to Jerusalem Passover customs, such as an acclamation from Psalm 118 (which was recited during festivals); this suggests genuine historic tradition in the triumphal entry. If Jesus rode an ass into Jerusalem, he himself probably intended an allusion to Zechariah (E. Sanders 1993:254). And why not, if Jesus both read the Hebrew Bible and knew himself to be descended from David?

More important, this narrative both portrays Jesus as a king and defines the significance of his kingship. Because his kingship was so different from worldly models of authority (20:25), Jesus subverts the worldly understanding of kingship to suggest a reign of a different order.

All Our Possessions Belong to Our King (21:1-3)

Matthew devotes less space than Mark to Jesus' "impressing" or commandeering an animal, but in both Gospels Jesus exercises a prerogative of royalty. Although household servants could think of the Lord as the donkey's absent earthly owner, the borrowing more likely testifies to Jesus' status. Whether or not the owner is a disciple, he has heard of Jesus, and Jesus foreknows his response; this testifies first of all to the man's respect for Jesus. More important, the passage testifies to Jesus' foreknowledge (that he would have prearranged the situation with the man without the knowledge of his disciples-who would have been his agents-is unlikely; compare 26:18). Thus Matthew is making a statement not so much about possessions here as about Christ: as the rightful King he has the right to anything in creation, certainly among his people (compare Gundry 1982:408; Blomberg 1992:311-12).

Jesus Chose to Define the Kind of King He Is (21:4-6)

Mark seems unaware of Zechariah 9:9 (see Gundry 1975:197-98), but Matthew and John, the Gospels bearing the most Palestinian flavor and most apt to recognize the source of the allusion, explicitly cite this text. Although later teachers and probably Jesus' contemporaries regarded this prophecy as messianic (b. Sanhedrin 98a; 99a; Gen. Rab. 75:6; Edgar 1958:48-49), it was not such a popular text that his first followers need have grasped the full significance of his actions immediately. Jesus was announcing that he was indeed a king, but not a warrior-king (Moule 1965:87; E. Sanders 1993:242). Jesus was the meek one (11:29; 12:18-21; compare 5:5).

Many of Jesus' People Did Offer Homage (21:7-11)

Even many who did not understand the nature of Jesus' kingship paid him royal homage. Matthew specifically upgrades the Christology of Mark's crowd; his coming leads not only to cries that the Davidic kingdom must be imminent but to hailing Jesus himself as Son of David, the promised King. Yet even in Matthew, Jerusalem itself does not know Jesus (v. 10; compare 8:27); the crowds of Passover pilgrims (presumably from Galilee) must announce him (21:11).

Although the crowds had to honor Jesus by casting something before him (2 Kings 9:12-13) and branches were appropriate to the festal setting (Ps 118:27; compare Rev 7:9; 2 Macc 10:7), another Gospel's specific mention of palm branches (Jn 12:13) is significant, for they normally were more in use at the Feast of Tabernacles-or for triumphal entries. Whereas Jesus by riding the donkey implies his renunciation of revolutionary aspirations, the crowd's use of palm branches, an allusion to the Maccabean triumphs, implies that they still see him in more revolutionary messianic terms (1 Macc 13:51; 2 Macc 10:7; Rev 7:9; Cullmann 1956b:38; Stauffer 1960:110).

Jesus now accepts such public homage, which is appropriate (Mt 21:16). Nevertheless, the crowds understand the meaning of his messianic identity no more than the disciples had (16:20-22; 27:20); Son of David reflects a true but inadequate Christology (22:41-45). Even today many people call themselves Christians but have not pressed far enough in Jesus' teachings to understand the real character of his lordship or his demands on their lives. The praises of the masses are good, but it is the disciples who truly submit to Christ's will-those who read his kingship in light of the cross-who will carry out his purposes in the world.

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Judgment on the Temple Establishment

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