Pastor Kyle McIver
Sermon Text: Matthew 21:1-11
We are at this moment in the middle of one of the greatest competitions in the world: the NCAA Basketball Tournament, also known as March Madness. Especially in light of the tournament being canceled last year, fans across the country are particularly excited about the inevitable chaos the bracket brings. And I, like millions of other optimistic sports fans, always fill out some brackets with the dream of achieving the first perfect bracket on record. My strategy is more or less to be lucky rather than good - I usually fill out 15-20 brackets online and I barely think about how I’m filling them out. I aim for variety because chaos is inevitable and I’m trying to give myself the best chance at perfection. And I’m assuming many other people do the same. On ESPN’s website, there were 14.7 million brackets filled out the men’s tournament this year.
And after the first day of the tournament - just sixteen games! - only 108 perfect brackets remained. And just a few games into the second day, those 108 brackets were ruined as well. It took only around 20 games to thwart all 14.7 million brackets!
And I share this story to illustrate something significant as it pertains to our passage this evening: predicting the future is a very difficult task. We try to do it all the time with sports or with stocks or with the plans we make for ourselves. Many of us feel optimistic that we understand the world around us and therefore accurately intuit what is coming. But very often we are wrong. Even when we’re not, it’s much more luck than anything else.
In our passage tonight we’ll examine two different prophecies that are fulfilled with remarkable detail and accuracy. Contrary to created beings like you and me, the future as we consider it is not difficult for God. He knows it because he wrote it. He declares the end from the beginning. And in examining these prophecies this evening, we’ll catch a glimpse of his glory together.
Now before we jump into Matthew 21, I want to give a quick 30,000-foot view of Matthew’s gospel. We haven’t spent time here together as a church, and I want to make sure we have the lay of the land before we focus on this one particular scene in the story. The overall purpose of Matthew is to persuade you that Jesus is King. The King. The Messiah, the Promised One. And one of the ways that we see this throughout Matthew’s gospel is in the frequency with which he quotes the Old Testament, and the manner in which he does it. Our passage tonight is a perfect example - verse 4, right before he quotes from the book of Zechariah, reads: This took place to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet, saying… He’s telling us very plainly what Jesus is doing and why. And this happens all over the book. Matthew’s aim was to connect Jesus across the Old Testament and demonstrate that he is indeed the Promised One, the One foretold... the One anticipated.
Just consider the opening line of this book, Matthew 1:1: The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham. In his very first words, Matthew connects Jesus to the promises made to both David and Abraham! Jesus is immediately set up as the King on David’s throne and the offspring of Abraham who will bless the nations. It would be difficult to find a more exclamatory declaration in the opening verse of a book than this one here in Matthew’s gospel.
Now the book as a whole is organized around alternating literary units. There’s narrative - telling the story of where Jesus is and what he is doing, and there’s teaching - specific content that Jesus taught his disciples and the crowds that gathered about him. And throughout the book, we go back and forth - narrative, then instruction… narrative, then instruction… and this is the pattern all the way to the conclusion of the book in Matthew 28 when Jesus ascends into heaven.
As we approach Matthew 21, we’re coming off a section of Jesus’s teaching and back into a narrative describing His arrival at Jerusalem with his disciples. He told them this was coming too - back in Matthew 17 after Peter confesses that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, Jesus began revealing in greater detail to his disciples what was coming next. Listen to Matthew 16:21: From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. So we see that Jesus has already been working toward this moment when we arrive at this scene in Matthew 21.
And from this point on in Matthew, the story slows down significantly. The final eight chapters cover the final eight days from his entry into Jerusalem up to his resurrection. And this is a pattern across each of the four gospel narratives in our Bibles. Matthew dedicates eight chapters to this final week, and five of the 16 chapters in Mark focus on the final week. There are 24 chapters in Luke’s gospel, with the Triumphal Entry coming halfway through chapter 19, and John’s gospel is even more weighted toward this final week with the Triumphal Entry coming in chapter 12, and the entire book holding just 21 chapters. Jesus dwelt on earth among his people for approximately 33 years, and around 25% of everything we have written and recorded about his life in the Bible is dedicated to the final week of his life. The gospel writers understood Jesus’s mission and ministry, and the sheer volume they devote to the final week of his life emphasizes that Jesus is about to undertake his most important work.
So now let’s dig in to Matthew 21:1-11. We’re going to cover this in two primary movements:
First, a new prophecy fulfilled. Look with me at verse two. Jesus and his disciples are approaching Jerusalem and come to the Mount of Olives. Upon their arrival, Jesus looks at two of the disciples and delivers astoundingly specific instructions as to what they are to do next. He instructs them to enter the village and tells them exactly what they are going to find there. Now, this is not similar to a modern-day car rental… right? Jesus didn’t hop onto Expedia or Kayak and reserve the donkey tied up in parking spot number 12! No, rather this is a moment of predictive prophecy. Jesus tells his disciples in plain language exactly what they are going to find upon entering the city, and instructs them to bring the donkey and the colt back to him.
And I recognize that this is likely a very familiar story to many of you. You’ve read this passage… you’ve heard this story many times, perhaps from a very young age. But do not let familiarity in this case dull your sense of wonder. Jesus is declaring that which he has not seen with his two human eyes. Jesus knows the exact location of this donkey, and also that a colt will be tied next to it. Charles Spurgeon, commenting on this passage, said it this way: The Lord knows the position of every animal in the world, and he counts no circumstance to be beneath his office. This is a demonstration of Jesus’s identity, functioning here as a prophet in the way he declares these details to his disciples.
Skipping ahead to verse six, we see that it happened exactly as Jesus said that it would: the disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them. They brought the donkey and the colt… So in just a few verses here in the opening scene of Jesus’s journey toward Jerusalem, he makes a prophecy, and then the prophecy is fulfilled in precise detail. And we are meant to grasp that Jesus is a prophet. It sounds obvious at this point - he just made a prophecy that was fulfilled… so he’s a prophet. But the role of prophet amongst God’s people was no small thing. Prophets spoke the word of God to the people of God. And true prophets were right in their predictions 100% of the time, or else they were not God’s prophets.
God made this clear for his people Israel when he gave this instruction in the law. Listen to Deuteronomy 18:22: when a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord, if the word does not come to pass or come true, that is a word that the Lord has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously. You need not be afraid of him. And Jesus of course passes this test. This is by no means the only place in the gospel accounts that he does something prophetic or miraculous. But as I mentioned earlier, Matthew highlights moments like this one over and over again because he wants to persuade you about the true identity of Jesus - that he is the Son of God, the Messiah, the Savior of the world.
So Jesus’s own prophecy about the donkey and the colt and the way these events would unfold has been fulfilled. But there is a much deeper meaning here, an older prophecy that brings greater evidence to the identity of Jesus, while also revealing more of his character to us.
This of course is verses 4-5 in our passage, and there are a few things to notice here. Verse 4 tells us that what is taking place with Jesus in this moment is meant to fulfill a specific Old Testament prophecy, which is then cited for us from Zechariah 9:9.
Now I want to pause for a moment here and mention the profound harmony between the Old Testament and the New Testament. One of my favorite chapters in the Bible is 1 Corinthians 15, and in that chapter we read that Jesus died in accordance with the Scriptures… moments like this one in Matthew’s gospel are exactly what Paul is getting at in 1 Corinthians 15. Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection were not random… it wasn’t a knee-jerk reaction on God’s part to realize that humanity was a broken mess so he should maybe kinda sorta do something about it and “Oh! Jesus!” will you go fix this for them? No, Jesus has always been plan A and there was never a plan B. The Old Testament anticipates his coming over and over again, both in specific details and with themes running across many different books across the centuries in which they all were written.
So what we have here in Matthew 21 is one specific example from the prophet Zechariah in which we will see that Jesus is both anticipated and foretold. Here’s what Zechariah 9:9 says, as quoted in Matthew 21:5: 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. Now what we want to do with a specific citation like this is to read it both within the context where it came from, as well as the context of the current passage it is used in. Let’s take a quick look at Zechariah 9 (you can turn there with me if you like - it’s just a couple books back from Matthew), which will help us fill in and understand all that we can see about Jesus in this moment.
Zechariah is often referred to as one of the minor prophets, but he was a major shaping influence for the New Testament authors, as he is quoted or alluded to in the New Testament over 80 times. The most prominent of those quotations comes here in Matthew 21, alongside John 12:15, which also quotes this same passage from Zechariah. Looking at Zechariah 9, staring with verse 9, we see a prophecy about a coming King. Daughter of Zion and daughter of Jerusalem are both references to God’s people, who are pictured here as rejoicing at the coming of this King.
Then we read a description of the king himself. And at first, everything seems in order - it’s the kind of king God’s people have always hoped for. Zechariah describes this king, saying: righteous and having salvation is he. And God’s people very much knew their God to be righteous, the God who saves. So this fits their expectation - this is indeed the hope they have for the Messiah: one who will deliver them and rule in righteousness. So with Zechariah here in chapter 9, so far so good. But then comes the surprise that would have been perplexing to people at that time.
Zechariah continues, saying that this King will be: ...humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. Righteousness and salvation are certainly kingly, but there’s never been a king who was humble and riding upon a donkey. This is exactly the opposite of what a king ought to be in the minds of the people. Kings usually enter a city or come before a people at the head of a great procession, riding upon warhorse or a magnificent stallion… an animal that adds to their grandeur and image before the people. A donkey however is a beast of burden… donkeys were never looked on as possessing dignity or majesty or any characteristics befitting a king.
But this is who Zechariah presents. One who is kingly, but lowly. One who saves in righteousness, but at the same time presents himself with a degree of humility that may well have made some blush at the thought of a king riding on a donkey. Stepping back into Matthew’s gospel, however, we aren’t surprised at this point to find the paradox of a humble servant who will bright righteousness and salvation. This is in fact exactly who Jesus is, and his character has been on display all throughout this book.
Jesus was born in humility - coming into the world in a stable, rather than a palace. He grew up as a carpenter, obeying his parents and working as part of a family like any other boy his age. Throughout his ministry, he touched lepers, healed paralytics and blind men, called tax collectors and sinners to follow him, and spent his time with societal outcasts and those who were looked upon as unclean. He taught his disciples that he is gentle and lowly - gracious, approachable, tender, and kind. He’d been preparing his people to understand who he is all along, even as it didn’t fit with the visions they had for a warlord and political liberator.
So as Jesus takes his seat upon this lowly donkey, he triggers the fulfillment of Zechariah’s prophecy. And understanding that this prophecy is referring to Jesus allows us to confidently understand his character in this description. He is, as the rest of Zechariah 9:9 describes, righteous and having salvation… Jesus is the Righteous Savior! And all at the same time, he is the humble servant… born in a stable, spending time with tax collectors and sinners, riding on a donkey, and dying a sinner’s death in order to save his people.
Now let’s take a quick look at the rest of the passage and see how this scene plays out. As Jesus rides into the city of Jerusalem upon this donkey, a mass of people gather together in excitement because of his arrival. Jesus was known - he had a reputation as a teacher and healer, and there was a great deal of excitement about him in the hearts of the Jewish people. In verse 10 we read that the whole city was stirred up. That word for “stirred up” could also be translated more literally as “quaked.” The city was quaking upon his arrival - this was a significant event! These crowds were massive throngs of people coming out to see Jesus, who would have been just visible over the top of the crowds from his seat on the simple, lowly donkey.
And the crowds are shouting: Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest! Now, these are not randomly chosen words... the words we have recorded, spoken by these crowds, are an allusion to Psalm 118, and they fit perfectly with the prophecy being fulfilled from Zechariah 9. We’ve seen that Jesus is the Righteous Savior, and the word “Hosanna” literally means “save now.” This is a cry for salvation to the Son of David! And remember how Matthew’s gospel opened? The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the Son of David...
By entering the city this way, in connection with this prophecy, Jesus is inviting the people to understand that he is the Messiah. He is the Coming King and Righteous Savior proclaimed by the prophets. And in this moment, the people receive him with joy. Just like Zechariah predicted, the people are singing and shouting and celebrating King Jesus. And as this section comes to a close, we’re presented with a question: who is this? And the crowds answer: this is the prophet Jesus, from Nazareth of Galilee. In light of everything we’ve seen, this is the perfect response! Jesus is indeed a prophet, one who speaks truly the words of God.
Now what I want to do is take this point - the crowds’ response to Jesus - and move into a couple points of application. First, consider what happens with this very same crowd over the course of the next week. They move from shouting “Hosanna to the Son of David” upon his arrival in Jerusalem to “Let him be crucified!” less than a week later. And there is a warning here for us. Colossians 1:28 says: Him (Jesus) we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ. This is precisely what we have before us in Matthew 21 - warning and teaching.
The crowd of people over the course of this week stands as a warning. If we identify most closely with anybody in this story, it’s the crowd. They were fickle… they were caught up in the fanfare and excitement around Jesus, but as soon as he was arrested and accused by the elders and council of the Jews, they promptly turned on him and became guilty of betraying the Son of God. We too must be aware that following Jesus comes with a cost. At some point you will be unpopular… you will be mocked… you will be persecuted or discredited because of your allegiance to Jesus. And we must not turn away from him. Whatever following Jesus costs, he is a reward far greater than that cost.
We will all be tempted at one point or another to take the easy route, to tell the small lie, to take hold of the secret sin. Let this crowd stand as a warning. To sin is to turn away from Jesus, whether in public or in private. Do not be found in opposition to him!
Jesus is the Righteous King - and this ought to make us tremble. He will do what is righteous and just when he returns. This is both warning and cause for worship. Jesus alone is righteous - he lived the only perfectly righteous life, and is worthy of all of our worship. And this is a warning against loving most deeply our sin and ourselves. Do whatever it takes to turn you back on sin and flee to Jesus! Because he is also the Savior - gentle and lowly, astonishingly merciful and ready to forgive. And this ought to make us weep for comfort and joy. Our text tonight warns and teaches us that Jesus is the Righteous Savior. He alone is the exalted Lord and gentle Savior. We need both of these things from Jesus. We need both warning and teaching that we may become mature in Christ.
So Redeemer - hear the warning, and receive the teaching. Allow yourself to be shocked awake by his righteousness, knowing that sin will be punished and that there is only one Safe Refuge. And allow the warning to drive you to the Savior. Cry “Hosanna!” - “save me!” - knowing that Jesus delights to save all who come to him.
And this brings us to the table. The table is where we remember together the body and blood of Jesus, which the Righteous Savior gave to accomplish our salvation. When we eat and drink together, we proclaim that Jesus is Lord and Jesus is Savior. He is our refuge and strength!