Now when they drew near Jerusalem, and came to Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, then Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village opposite you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her. Loose them and bring them to Me. And if anyone says anything to you, you shall say, ‘The Lord has need of them,’ and immediately he will send them.” …
This Sunday is Palm Sunday. It’s called that because of the palms, which are a visual reminder of the branches which the crowd waved around Jesus as He rode into Jerusalem on a donkey. The people there said, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” a rallying cry for a new king. This was something of a welcoming party for the heir to the line of King David, that family dynasty which had been promised back in the Old Testament but had seemingly fallen away. Was Jesus the promised king from that line? If He was, why in the world did He proceed to the temple and cause such trouble there? Are these things connected?
What we will see this morning is that the triumphal entry was the fulfillment of prophecy. In it, Jesus did the work of the victorious messiah of Zechariah 9, the son of David who restored the kingdom. But he also did something surprising and more than a little offensive. He combined the messiah of Zechariah 9 with the prophet of doom from Jeremiah, particularly Jeremiah chapter 7. This means that the victorious messiah actually pronounced judgment on the temple, which meant judgment on Israel. In this we see that Jesus’ victory comes by way of judgment, a judgment on the covenant people. This is what so angered the leaders of the Jews and is the reason they conspired to put Jesus to death. And in this we learn some important lessons, especially that we must be faithful and obedient to God, even when it looks like He has turned against us.
The Triumphal Entry
The first half of this dramatic action is Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. It may not immediately seem so special to us, but you have to pay attention to the details and the way in which they are connected to earlier Scripture. Jesus rides a young donkey. What’s the big deal there? Well, we are told that the big deal is that it is connected to the prophet Zechariah:
All this was done that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet, saying:
“Tell the daughter of Zion,
‘Behold, your King is coming to you,
Lowly, and sitting on a donkey,
A colt, the foal of a donkey.’” (Matt. 21:4-5)
In fact, you can see that there’s a bit of a production about all of this. Jesus tells two disciples where they will find this donkey in the village. And He tells them if the donkey’s master protests to say, “The Lord has need of them.” When Jesus gets the donkey, He rides it from the Mt. of Olives into Jerusalem, and the disciples set their clothes on top of the donkey, with Jesus sitting on top of the clothes. This is dramatic and symbolic action.
As Jesus gets closer to town, a crowd shows up. One reason there’s such a big crowd is because the news about Lazarus’ resurrection has been spreading (John 12:17). The Passover is also around the corner, and faithful Jews traveled to Jerusalem to celebrate it. When you put this together, you’ve got a big scene.
Mathew tells us that this crowd saw Jesus riding into town and made some sort of connection. They began to spread their clothes on the road and to cut down branches from the trees and lay them down on the road too (Matt. 21:8). This was a symbolic act of lifting Jesus up, of him being “atop” the people and the trees. And then a group of the crowd ran in front and behind Jesus shouting:
“Hosanna to the Son of David!
‘Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!’
Hosanna in the highest!”
Those lines are from Psalm 118, and they were originally about the God of Israel coming to save His people. When we combine that with the prophesy from Zechariah 9, we can see that the people around Jesus that day believed that He was the promised messiah from God, the true son of David, who was coming to deliver them. He would defeat their enemies, especially foreign oppressors, and He would restore the kingdom that had been lost so many years ago, the kingdom of David and Solomon.
Cleansing the Temple
Now just having hear this much, you would probably expect Jesus to put together some sort of army and lead a revolt against the Romans. You would expect Him to do something like the men from the Maccabean War had done about 175 years earlier. This would have been immediately appealing to patriotic and zealous Jews.
But Jesus did something very different. Indeed, He did something that would have been disappointing and shocking. He went to the temple, and He began to attack all of the folks who worked in the temple, Jewish folks who were probably associated with the religious leaders:
Then Jesus went into the temple of God and drove out all those who bought and sold in the temple, and overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves. He said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer,’ but you have made it a ‘den of thieves.’” (Matt. 21:12-13)
What are we to make of this? Instead of leading an army of faithful Jews into battle against the Romans, the son of David brought judgment down on the temple, upon the center of Jewish worship and identity? Why did Jesus do this?
The explanation is that line “den of thieves.” It’s a quote from another Old Testament passage, and yes, from a prophecy. It comes from Jeremiah 7. In Jeremiah 7, God tells the prophet Jeremiah to go the temple and to preach against it. Jeremiah preaches against the leadership of Israel in his day, and he accuses them of being hypocritical and self-righteous and of cheating the poor and taking advantage of them. In fact, Jeremiah accuses the leaders of Israel of using holy things like the temple in a perverse and abusive way. They have desecrated the temple by using it in a way to hurt the poor.
Jeremiah 7 says this:
Do not trust in these lying words, saying, “the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord are these.”
…Behold, you trust in lying words that cannot profit. Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, burn incense to Baal, and walk after other gods whom you do not know, and then come and stand before Me in this house which is called by My name, and say, “We are delivered to do all these abominations”? Has this house, which is called by My name, become a den of thieves in your eyes? Behold, I, even I, have seen it, says the Lord. (Jer. 7:4-11)
There’s a lot going on there. Jeremiah accuses the religious people of his day of using the temple in a blasphemous way. He says that they are oppressing the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow. He says they are walking after other gods. He even says that they are stealing, murdering, committing adultery, swearing falsely, and burning incense to Baal—and then they have the nerve to come into the temple and brag about it.
Now, were these folks literally bragging about these sins in the temple? It’s possible. But probably not. Probably what they were doing is being hypocrites. They were coming into the temple and pretending to worship God, pretending to be religious, all the while having no desire to actually repent and change. They were doing lip service to the true God while still being proud, and they were deceiving themselves by saying that it was ok and that they could keep doing it. And when they did this, God said they turned the whole thing into a fraud. They made the temple, which was supposed to be a house of true prayer to God, into “a den of thieves.”
The rest of Jeremiah 7 promises judgment if this continues. God says, “look what I did in the older days when people turned my worship into idolatry.” Those places, like Shiloh, were destroyed. If you try to play around with God, to pretend to do church, He will eventually turn against you. Finally, Jeremiah says:
“Therefore behold, the days are coming,” says the Lord, “when it will no more be called Tophet, or the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, but the Valley of Slaughter; for they will bury in Tophet until there is no room. The corpses of this people will be food for the birds of the heaven and for the beasts of the earth. And no one will frighten them away. Then I will cause to cease from the cities of Judah and from the streets of Jerusalem the voice of mirth and the voice of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom and the voice of the bride. For the land shall be desolate.” (Jeremiah 7:32-34)
This passage—this passage where God promises to judge His own people for being hypocrites—this is what Jesus quotes when He “cleanses” the temple. He rides into town as a conquering king, but then He goes to the temple and says God is about to bring judgment and destruction upon the Jews, upon the supposedly holy covenant people. That is what happens on Palm Sunday.
Prophecy Comes Together
So we’ve seen two parts to Jesus’ actions and two prophecies. But these prophecies don’t seem to go together. Zechariah 9’s prophecy was supposed to be victory and deliverance for God’s people. Jeremiah 7 was judgment against God’s people for being hypocrites and idol-worshippers. How can Jesus do both at the same time?
Again, think of how strange it would have been to see the site. In rides a man, sitting atop coats, riding a donkey over more coats and palm branches, all while people are cheering around Him and saying that He is the son of David come to bring the salvation of the Lord. But then this son of David rides right up to the temple and begins pronouncing judgment against it! He says that the people who work there are thieves and that God is about to bring desolation upon it!
When we try to imagine this and then combine the prophecies of Zechariah 9 and Jeremiah 7, we reach a profound conclusion. The enemies of Israel—the enemies the messiah is supposed to vanquish—include the religious leaders, even the people who run the temple! These people have corrupted the true worship of God, and so God Himself is going to bring judgment upon them. As this happens, the faithful will be saved.
Now, look at the different reactions on that day. “Then the blind and the lame came to Him in the temple, and He healed them” (Matt. 21:14). The children too are crying out. But then look at the leaders: “But when the chief priests and scribes saw the wonderful things that He did, and the children crying out in the temple and saying, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David!’ they were indignant” (vs. 15). Those are two very different reactions, and they show the way in which the actions and words of Jesus carried a different “message” depending on who you were and what your life was like.
If you were rich, powerful, and in a position of religious leadership, then this was bad news. Instead of a finally getting your chance to take full control of the kingdom, what you got was God saying that you were part of the problem. He was going to judge you. But if you poor, if you were sick, if you were in need, then you cheered. God had remembered you, and He was not going to let people take advantage of you and cheat you. He was not going to let phony religious people keep abusing the temple and making a profit off the people they were supposed to be helping. God had finally showed up, and He was cleaning out His house. Salvation had arrived, and it was starting on the inside!
The same action—the Word of God—turned out to be both judgment and salvation, and it did this at the same time. The difference is whether you receive Jesus with humility and repentance or whether you are proud and rebellious.
And in God’s providence, it turns out to be nearly impossible to receive Jesus with humility and repentance if you think you are strong, wise, and rich. “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 19:24). Instead, folks who think they are poor, folks who think they are sick, folks who think they are in need are the ones who can accept Jesus and be saved by Him.
Palm Sunday meant victory for the true Israel, but it meant judgment for the false Israel. It was victory for the humble and honest sinners. It was judgment for the proud and idolatrous hypocrites. And it continues to be the same thing for us today. Palm Sunday teaches us that Jesus is the messiah, the king, and that He is here to save us. But He does it His way, not the way we thought He would. He judges all of our pride, our claims to power, and our claims to be in control of our destiny.
We also learn that God tends to separate the proud and the humble, the true and the false, by doing something that they don’t expect. He judges them—He judges us—and the same action has different effects, depending on whether we have faith. To those who are open to God, they see it as salvation. But to the proud, they see it as condemnation.
What has God brought into your life that looks like judgment? Has He challenged your assumptions? Has He attacked your hypocrisy and pride? If He has, then good. You should accept that. Humble yourself and see it as grace. Because it is salvation. Let Jesus cleanse you, and you will be saved. Hear His word and repent. Humble yourself to see that God is keeping all of His promises. He always does.
Sin causes us to want to be in control. We want to tell God how He should be acting. We tell Him what a blessing is supposed to look like, what salvation and deliverance ought to be. But God is not in the business of taking directions from us. No, He surprises us. He confuses us. He does things backwards. He brings us low in order to lift us up. He tells us to leave everything in order to gain more. He tells us to die in order to life.
Palm Sunday teaches us this lesson, and it will show us this lesson even more powerfully when it leads to Good Friday. Because Jesus isn’t asking us to do anything that He wasn’t willing to do Himself. He was willing to carry out salvation through judgment, judgment on Himself. He was willing to grant life through death, through His death on the cross. He was willing to be our victorious king by sacrificing Himself and allowing others to look like they were defeating Him. This is the gospel. Palm Sunday takes us to Good Friday which takes us to Easter Sunday. The tragedy becomes a celebration as God shows us His amazing grace and great strength in the love of Jesus Christ.
This is what He continues to do even now. He who has eyes to see, let Him see. Trust in the Lord, and He will continue to save His people.
Let us pray.