MATTHEW 21:1-11. THE CONTEXT
Earlier, because Jesus’ time had not yet come, he withdrew when Pharisees conspired against him and ordered the crowds “not to make him known” (12:14-16). However, we have seen a progressive unveiling of his identity. Peter said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (16:16)—even though he did not understand the full meaning of Jesus’ identity. Then Jesus was revealed in all his glory to Peter, James, and John at the Transfiguration (17:1-9). Jesus predicted his Passion three times (16:21-23; 17:12; 20:17-19). Then, immediately before his entry into Jerusalem, two blind men identified Jesus as “Lord” and “son of David (20:30-31). Now a great crowd greets him as “son of David” as he enters Jerusalem.
John helps us to identify this as the Sunday prior to the Passover at which Jesus will be crucified (John 12:1, 12) (Blomberg).
MATTHEW 21:1-3. SAY, “THE LORD NEEDS THEM”
1When they drew near to Jerusalem, and came to Bethphage, to the Mount of Olives, then Jesus sent two disciples, 2saying to them, “Go into the village that is opposite you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her. Untie them, and bring them to me. 3If anyone says anything to you, you shall say, ‘The Lord (Greek: kurios) needs them,’ and immediately he will send them.”
“When they drew near to Jerusalem, and came to Bethphage, to the Mount of Olives” (v. 1a). The Mount of Olives is a 2.5 mile-long (4 km) ridge, composed of three peaks, located just east of Jerusalem and separated from the city by the Kidron Valley. The center peak (2684 feet—818 meters) is the traditional site of Jesus’ ascension. Bethphage “has been identified with the Moslem Kefr et-Tur on the southeastern slope” of this center peak (Pfeiffer, 135-136; Myers, 779).
“Go into the village that is opposite you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her. Untie them, and bring them to me” (v. 2). Jesus gives the disciples precise instructions regarding the donkey and its colt—including how they should respond if someone challenges them. Is his confidence based on pre-arrangement with the donkey’s owner or on supernatural foreknowledge? Most scholars agree that it is the latter.
“If anyone says anything to you, you shall say, ‘The Lord (kurios) needs them,’ and immediately he will send them” (v. 3). Kurios can mean Lord, master, or owner. Some scholars suggest that Jesus intended to convey the idea that he is the owner of the donkeys. There is a sense in which this is true—Jesus is Lord of all, which gives him rights over all. However, we do not see Jesus exerting this kind of claim over private property elsewhere, so it seems more likely that he intends “the Lord” to refer to a true Lordship instead of mere ownership of donkeys.
MATTHEW 21:4-5. ALL THIS WAS DONE, THAT IT MIGHT BE FULFILLED
4All this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken through the prophet, saying,
5“Tell the daughter of Zion,
behold, your King comes to you,
humble, and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”
“All this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken through the prophet” (v. 4). Jesus usually walked wherever he went. This is the only recorded instance of him riding an animal. Doing so is a deliberate act (see vv. 2-3), so it is obvious that there is a purpose behind Jesus’ action. Verse 4 spells out that purpose. It is to fulfill a prophecy.
Fulfillment of prophecy is a major concern of Matthew (1:22; 2:15; 5:17; 8:17; 12:17; 13:35), who is writing for a church composed largely of Jewish Christians. Because of their Jewish roots, they would be especially receptive to the authority of fulfilled prophecy. The fulfilled prophecy in this case is Zechariah 9:9, which reads as follows:
“Rejoice greatly, daughter of Zion!
Shout, daughter of Jerusalem!
Behold, your King comes to you!
He is righteous, and having salvation;
lowly, and riding on a donkey,
even on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”
“Tell the daughter of Zion, behold, your King comes to you” (v. 5a). By identifying Jesus as a king, this verse sets the stage for Pilate’s concern that Jesus plans to establish himself as a king, which would by Roman standards constitute a treasonous act (27:11). On the cross, they will mock Jesus, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” (27:29), and the plaque mounted to the cross specifying the charges against Jesus will say, “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews” (27:37). The crowds will mock him, saying, “He saved others, but he can’t save himself. If he is the King of Israel, let him come down from the cross now, and we will believe in him” (27:42).
“humble, and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey” (v. 5b). In writing this Gospel, Matthew uses Mark’s Gospel as a primary source, but Mark, Luke, and John refer only to one donkey. Some scholars interpret this verse to mean two donkeys, one full grown and the other a colt. They do this in part because it is possible to interpret Zechariah 9:9 to mean two donkeys, and Matthew intends his account to be a fulfillment of that prophecy.
However, there is no reason that this verse can’t refer to one donkey, which happens to be a colt, the foal of a donkey.
Note that Matthew omits a significant line from the Zechariah prophecy—i.e., “He is righteous, and having salvation.” Matthew intends Jesus’ appearance on a donkey (a humble steed) instead of a horse (a larger and faster animal suitable as a mount for a soldier) to convey an essential element of his messiahship. He is the kind of messiah who was born in a stable rather than a palace—who has nowhere to lay his head (8:20)—who “came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (20:28). His appearance on a donkey proclaims his servant ministry rather than a triumphal entry.
MATTHEW 21:6-9. HOSANNA TO THE SON OF DAVID
6The disciples went, and did just as Jesus commanded them, 7and brought the donkey and the colt, and laid their clothes on them; and he sat on them. 8A very great multitude spread their clothes on the road. Others cut branches from the trees, and spread them on the road. 9The multitudes who went before him, and who followed kept shouting, “Hosanna to the son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!”
“The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them” (v. 6). Jesus’ disciples have not always responded with unquestioning obedience, but recognizing Jesus as Lord they do so in this instance.
“and brought the donkey and the colt, and laid their clothes on them; and he sat on them” (v. 7). Sat on what? The donkey? The colt? Both animals? The cloaks?
Jesus would hardly sit astraddle two animals. Mark 11:2, 4, 7, Luke 19:30, 33, 35, and John 12:15 all identify the animal that Jesus rides as a colt, and Mark identifies it as a colt “that has never been ridden” (Mark 11:2). When Matthew says that Jesus “sat on them,” the nearest antecedent to “them” is “cloaks”—so we can assume that Jesus sat on the cloaks that the disciples placed on the colt.
“A very great multitude spread their clothes on the road. Others cut branches from the trees, and spread them on the road” (v. 8). We call this Palm Sunday, but only the Gospel of John identifies the branches as palm branches (John 12:13. See also Mark 11:1-10 and Luke 19:28-40).
“The multitudes who went before him, and who followed kept shouting, ‘Hosanna to the son of David!'” (v. 9a). “Hosanna” comes from a Hebrew word that means “Save us.” By Jesus’ time, it was commonly used in worship as a word of praise.
“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” (v. 9b). This phrase comes from Psalm 118:26—a Hallel Psalm (song of praise) that is traditionally sung at Passover and is frequently quoted in the New Testament (see Psalm 118:22).
MATTHEW 21:10-11. WHO IS THIS?
10When he had come into Jerusalem, all the city was stirred up, saying, “Who is this?” 11The multitudes said, “This is the prophet, Jesus, from Nazareth of Galilee.”
“When he had come into Jerusalem, all the city was stirred up” (eseisthe) (v. 10a). Jesus does not enter Jerusalem until verse 10. The acclamation he received (vv. 8-9) took place outside as he approached the city.
Earlier, a large crowd followed Jesus as he left Jericho (20:29). Jesus then healed two blind men, who then followed Jesus (20:34)—apparently joining the crowd that was already following Jesus. A very large crowd honored Jesus outside Jerusalem (vv. 8-9). It is possible, then, that the large crowd that welcomes Jesus outside Jerusalem is composed primarily of pilgrims who joined Jesus’ entourage at Jericho. It is also possible that many of these pilgrims were Galileans.
France contrasts the welcoming behavior of the “outside Jerusalem” crowd with the turmoil of the questioning crowd that Jesus encounters inside Jerusalem. He emphasizes the sharp divide between the people of Galilee and the people of Judea, and concludes that the welcoming crowd outside Judea is composed largely of Galileans, while the questioning crowd inside Jerusalem is mostly the people of that city (France, 5-7, 773). The text doesn’t make that explicit, but it would explain the very different reception that Jesus got outside Jerusalem and inside it.
Eseisthe is the word from which we get our word “seismology”—the study of earthquakes. Matthew is saying that Jerusalem is “all shook up.” Matthew uses this word, eseisthe, on two other occasions in this Gospel—when the earth shook at Jesus’ death (27:51) and when a great earthquake preceded Jesus’ resurrection (28:2).
Matthew tells us “all the city was stirred up.” There is in these words “stirred up” a hint of Jesus’ enemies lurking in the background—angry (v. 14)—preparing to challenge Jesus’ authority (v. 23)—planning to entrap him with trick questions (22:15-40)—plotting to kill him (26:1-5).
“Who is this?” (v. 10b). This is the great question with which Matthew has been dealing from the very first verse of this Gospel—beginning with the genealogy that identified “Jesus Christ” as “the son of David, the son of Abraham” (1:1). He is “Jesus Christ” (1:18)—”Immanuel, which means ‘God is with us’ ” (1:23)—”king of the Jews” (2:2)—a prince and a shepherd (2:6)—”the Lord” (3:3)—the one “who will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire” (3:11)—”my beloved Son” (3:17)—etc., etc., etc. Peter has recently declared Jesus to be “the Christ, the Son of the living God” (16:16), but does not realize the full implications of his confession (16:21-28).
“This is the prophet, Jesus, from Nazareth in Galilee” (v. 11). The crowd outside Jerusalem greeted Jesus as “the son of David” and “he who comes in the name of the Lord” (v. 9), but this crowd inside Jerusalem identifies him only as “the prophet, Jesus, from Nazareth.” If this “inside” crowd is, indeed, composed primarily of Judeans, they would tend to look down on anyone from Galilee, which they would consider to be the hinterlands—the “sticks”—lacking sophistication—far from the Holy City and the temple. Their identification of Jesus as a prophet from Nazareth could be a disparaging remark—in line with Nathanael’s earlier question, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46).
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Blomberg, Craig L., New American Commentary: Matthew, Vol. 22 (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1992)
Bruner, Frederick Dale, Matthew: Volume 2, The Churchbook, Matthew 13-28 (Dallas: Word, 1990)
Craddock, Fred B.; Hayes, John H.; Holladay, Carl R.; Tucker, Gene M., Preaching Through the Christian Year, A (Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1992)
Gardner, Richard B., Believers Church Bible Commentary: Matthew (Scottdale, Pennsylvania: Herald Press, 1990)
Hagner, Donald A., Word Biblical Commentary: Matthew 14-28, Vol. 33b (Dallas: Word, 1995)
Hendriksen, William, and Kistemaker, Simon J., New Testament Commentary: Exposition of the Gospel According to Matthew, Vol. 9 (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1973)
Keener, Craig S., The IVP New Testament Commentary Series: Matthew, (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1997)
Myers, Allen C. (ed.), The Eerdmans Bible Dictionary (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1987)
Pfeifer, Charles F., Baker’s Bible Atlas (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House Co., 2003)
Senior, Donald, Abingdon New Testament Commentaries: Matthew (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1998)
Copyright 2009, Richard Niell Donovan