Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Matthew 21:1-11
In the Palm Sunday “triumphal entry” we see the clash of two worlds: the enthusiastic supporters of Jesus (or who they think Jesus is supposed to be), and the concerned religious establishment. Judging from how we live our lives, on which side are we? What are we doing to help other accept Jesus as He is?
[Editor's note: this Bible study supplement started as a printed newsletter for teachers, which is why it is so text-heavy. I am slowly adding older lessons to our website.]
Getting Started: Things to think About
Most jobs involve some sort of task of preparing. If you work in a hospital, you’re usually preparing for the next patient’s arrival—the room, the supplies, making sure the records are correct. Police and security are often called in to prepare for the arrival of a VIP, and if that person stays at a hotel, the hotel has to be ready. Teachers and school staff have to be ready for the arrival of students each morning. Custodians prepare office buildings for the work day. Secretaries make sure everyone knows what they need for that day. Lots of preparing!
Think about a big event in your workplace or family. What is your particular role in preparing for that event? What do you have to make sure is ready? I think about what I do on Sunday mornings to make sure that everything is ready for the music and tech teams to rehearse, and then also that the building is ready to receive our church members and guests. Here’s the point: there were preparations to be made for Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem. People have complained about these preparations, but just think about everything you go through in your own life to prepare. Jesus’ arrival would have required as much!
Ticker Tape Parade. I found this quite interesting. The first ticker tape parade was held in 1886 to dedicate the Statue of Liberty. There have been 206 such parades (all in NYC), but only 24 in the last 50 years. 4 presidents have been honored with one (including Washington on his centennial), 1 pope (John Paul II), 4 astronauts, and 19 sports teams. The last parade cost NYC $2M. It was called a “ticker tape” parade because they used the scrap pieces of stock tickers (now they just use shredded paper). The 1945 Allied victory parade used 5,500 tons of ticker tape.
Here would be the point: parades are fun and exciting, and after a while they take on a life of their own as people get caught up in the energy of it. Jesus was a celebrity. He had raised people from the dead, put the religious leaders in their place, and miraculously healed countless individuals from the surrounding areas. When He came to Jerusalem, it was an event. It just took a few people to start waving palm branches and spreading their cloaks on the ground for everybody to get in on it. I’m sure not everybody knew what was going on! Kinda like parades today.
This Week's Big Idea: “Living Parables” in the Bible
Every good communicator knows that there are multiple ways to get a point across. Sometimes the most effective lessons aren’t “taught” in the lecture sense—they are demonstrated, enacted, modeled, or even turned into some kind of art (drama, painting, music) for people to realize the lesson for themselves. As the One who created us, God is very aware of the ways to teach people lessons. Essentially, the entire Jewish system is one giant teaching tool. The rules for kosher were designed to get the people thinking differently about day-to-day life than their neighbors. The sacrificial system is one giant life lesson about the cost of sin. And the different festivals are basically learning experiences for children to internalize the truths of Jewish history (Passover teaches about the Exodus in a very memorable way; the Feast of Booths teaches about the wilderness wanderings in a very memorable way; and so on). Is it any wonder that Jesus was a master communicator and teacher, taking those Old Testament methods and spreading them to an entire new world?
Jesus certainly taught truth in a classroom sense—”This is a true statement. Learn it.” What are some of the truths Jesus taught or some of the commands Jesus gave? The Great Commission. The Golden Rule. The Beatitudes. What made them such great and memorable truths? (You might think of lessons a parent or teacher gave that they still remember—why did they perhaps remember that one above all the rest?)
Jesus also taught truth in parables. Name a few parables (and then also explain what the parable was about and what the point was). The parable of the Unmerciful Servant, the Four Soils, the Prodigal Son, the Workers in the Vineyard. Parables are amazing because we remember the whole thing and the point. That’s an effective teaching method!
But Jesus also taught truth without explanation. Sometimes these were intentional object lessons. Sometimes these were just actions with a deep meaning. Sometimes they were how Jesus handled circumstances. The Gospel writers usually put an explanation in there to make sure we didn’t miss it. The very act of associating with tax collectors and sinners was a lesson the disciples did not forget. But the final week of Jesus’ earthly life was filled with powerful “living parables”:
The Triumphal Entry. The method of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem was itself a deliberate teaching tool. In addition to being the fulfillment of prophecy, it was Jesus showing the people how the Kingdom of God was going to conquer the world. Sadly, Christians soon forgot that message . . . (We will talk more about this one throughout the lesson.)
Cleansing the Temple. This was a powerful, not-soon-to-be-forgotten lesson about God’s Temple! It demonstrated Jesus’ zeal, but mostly it reminded the people of the real purpose of the temple. It had become a place of usury, of extorting money from the poor, of taking advantage of foreigners, and conducting otherwise secular business. Jesus’ actions taught His disciples exactly what God thought about all of that!
The Withered Fig Tree. Even though we tend to skip over this one, it was still a powerful lesson for the disciples. Essentially, Jesus enacted what He had taught in parables. The fig tree represented Israel—Israel had failed to bear fruit, and now judgment had come. That lesson would stick with the disciples!
The Events in the Upper Room. Just as Passover was a life lesson, so to was the Last Supper. Every part of it was designed to communicate an important truth. To prove that, simply ask your class what it means. See? Effective! But don’t forget that Jesus also washed His disciples’ feet. That was a very powerful and even confusing lesson for them, so much so that Jesus explained what it meant. I know that such a symbol has stuck with me throughout my time in ministry that my job is to serve, no matter in how menial a way.
Part 1: The King’s Prerogative (Matthew 21:1-5)
When they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage at the Mount of Olives, Jesus then sent two disciples, telling them, “Go into the village ahead of you. At once you will find a donkey tied there, and a colt with her. Untie them and bring them to Me. If anyone says anything to you, you should say that the Lord needs them, and immediately he will send them.” This took place so that what was spoken through the prophet might be fulfilled: Tell Daughter Zion, “Look, your King is coming to you, gentle, and mounted on a donkey, even on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden.”
There are so many major topics in this short passage that it essentially blows my mind. I can’t cover it all. The Gospel writers give us the very distinct impression that this event takes place one week before Easter (Resurrection Sunday); we now call it Palm Sunday. Let’s start with Old Testament prophecy. You might remember from last year that Matthew heavily emphasized the fact that Jesus fulfilled the Old Testament prophecies of the coming Messiah-King. The Jews understood that the Messiah would be associated with a number of key things, such as Bethlehem, John the Baptist/Elijah, giving sight to the blind, and so on. One such prophecy is drawn from Zechariah 9:9 (Matthew augmented it with words from Isaiah 62:11): the Messiah-King would enter Jerusalem triumphantly on the colt of a donkey. When Jesus did this, all of the people knew exactly what was going on.
The details of this verse are well-covered in other locations, so let me focus on some controversial proposals by skeptics of the Bible.
Jesus manipulated His way into fulfilling prophecy. Here’s how to shoot that one down: did Jesus manipulate His way into being born in Bethlehem? I don’t think so. Instead, I put this in the category of Him telling John that certain things must be done “to fulfill all righteousness”. Jesus knew He was supposed to enter Jerusalem on a donkey, so He did.
Matthew conflated two prophecies because he didn’t know them and made a mistake. I’ve heard this about several passages in Matthew. Here’s my response: Matthew knew the Old Testament extremely well; he added allusions to it throughout his Gospel. I don’t know why Matthew didn’t quote Zechariah 9:9 exactly as written; my guess is that like me, he had some phrases he liked. For whatever reason, he wanted to emphasize the messenger part of it, not Zion’s part. What Matthew said is still correctly applied; Isaiah 62 is also a prophecy of the coming Messiah.
Jesus encouraged theft. You can see where I would be going with this. I believe that Jesus arranged to have that donkey and colt ready for Him. He would not take anything without permission. And I don’t think that such a prearrangement takes anything away from the power of the event!
We don’t know if there were one or two donkeys. It’s amazing what people will try to criticize in the Bible. These people say that the Zechariah passage prophesies one donkey: a young colt or foal. But Matthew reports that there was both a donkey and a colt. Ergo, Matthew’s clearly a moron! Or . . . it’s as simple as the young colt being much safer having its very first ride with its mother present. I don’t see a problem.
Anyway, according to John, the disciples had been in Bethany (the home of Lazarus). Bethphage was a small town between Bethany and Jerusalem. Jesus sent two disciples (I like what the leader guide said about an object lesson for James and John) ahead to collect this all-important donkey (see the sidebar). And they continue to Jerusalem (or Zion—see the sidebar) together.
For discussion, talk about why it was important for Jesus to be on a donkey (humility, peace). Just for fun, if they had to be associated with an animal, what would it be and why? I think I would pick an elephant—wise and faithful. Then apply that to our lives today: the church should exist on earth now as humble servants, not as conquerors and coercers. Jesus will reign when He returns. How does that affect how we do ministry as a church or as Christians?
Aside: Donkey and Horse
Peace and war. It really is that simple. Why did God send the Messiah into Jerusalem on a donkey? Donkeys have always been beasts of burden, along with the llama, ox, camel, buffalo, and mule, serving a critical role in human civilization since the beginning (if you have to, remind your class that we haven’t always had trucks). Some male donkeys were wild and useless for anything but reproduction. Young and strong male donkeys were favorites for nobility to ride as a demonstration of their position (donkeys aren’t as fast as horses, perhaps making them safer?). But the female donkey was the favorite of all. Often gentler, more personable, and more predictable, warriors and wealthy people rode female donkeys to prove how secure they were in their position. As a note, the donkey Jesus rode was called a purebred.
Why did God send the Messiah into Jerusalem on a donkey? Donkeys were used in war, but they are not war creatures like the horse. A leader only rode a donkey in a time of peace or diplomacy. It was his way of saying, “I have not come to harm you; come, let us reason together.” Although donkeys were certainly easier to ride than full-sized horses, I think the much bigger picture here is the difference between a time of war and time of peace.
Bonus Aside: Zion
We have a lot of “Zion” references in our hymnal, and the name “Zion” appears in lots of Christian settings. It is perhaps ironic that we really don’t know where the word came from or what it means. Apparently the Jebusites (the people who built Jerusalem) first called that location “Zion”. They fortified a plateau with a steep slope in between two valleys—it was an excellent defensive position, and the Gihon Spring actually comes out of the plateau. The word “zion” is loosely related to the Hebrew word for “dry”, a Mesopotamian word for “brook”, and an Arabic word for “ridge”.
In 2 Sam 5, David’s army conquers Jerusalem, even though the Jebusites thought it was impregnable. In that narrative, it seems like the hill itself is called Zion and the city is called Jerusalem. After David moves the ark there and Solomon builds the Temple, “Zion” is used for the hill, the city, and the entire plateau/mountain. It became a word used for God’s dwelling place. Eventually, it becomes used for the entire Israelite nation. Eventually, that would not be a good thing as “Zion” had rebelled against God and would be conquered in judgment. In the exile, “Zion” became the word for the hope of God building a new city for His dwelling place and it took on an end-times/heaven feel. Christians have taken a much more symbolic approach to it.
Part 2: The King’s Celebration (Matthew 21:6-9)
The disciples went and did just as Jesus directed them. They brought the donkey and the colt; then they laid their robes on them, and He sat on them. A very large crowd spread their robes on the road; others were cutting branches from the trees and spreading them on the road. Then the crowds who went ahead of Him and those who followed kept shouting: Hosanna to the Son of David! He who comes in the name of the Lord is the blessed One! Hosanna in the highest.
That map really helped me understand what was going on. (Important note: not including the scale. Something is strange with the scale. Bethphage/Bethpage is indeed about a mile from the temple, and Bethany is indeed about 1.5 miles from the temple, but ancient Jerusalem wasn't remotely that big. I think that the scale should be about one-fifth mile, and Bethphage should be a lot further away.) There are two groups of people in the Passion Week events: the people who followed Jesus in from the countryside into Jerusalem, and the people who were already in Jerusalem and connected to the religious establishment. The people on the outside had seen Jesus’ miracles and heard His teaching and many loved Him. The people on the inside saw Him as a threat. This particular crowd (in the Palm Sunday event) loved Jesus. But it won’t be long before Jesus is in the “territory” of the establishment who will be able to condemn Jesus to death. I think the leader guide got this wrong—there are two crowds and the people caught in the middle didn’t have much say. But it correctly explains the source of these acclamations. The crowd is definitely proclaiming Jesus to be the Messiah-King, calling Him the Son of David and quoting a festival psalm (see the sidebar). And yes, it seems they also misunderstood Jesus’ mission. Jesus had to conquer death and Satan before conquering our earthly enemies would make any real impact.
You want to make it clear that there are two distinct groups: the people coming in with Jesus and celebrating Him, and the people coming out from Jerusalem being very confused (the next section). Is a “mob pep rally” an effective means of evangelism? Well, it certainly gets the word out, but we see here that it doesn’t convince the outsiders, and it doesn’t build any bridges. “Excitement” does not equal evangelism. But let me add this: if we’re not excited about Jesus, that’s an effective way to turn people off from Jesus!
Aside: Hosanna and More Creative Controversy
“Hosanna” means “save us” and comes from Psalm 118:25-26. It was an important part of the Feast of Tabernacles, the reminder to the Jews that God protected them in the wilderness. Those tabernacles were often built out of palm branches because palms were thickest in October (when the feast was held). This has led some skeptics to say that the Gospel writers got this wrong—that it really happened in the fall, not the spring. (Figs mainly appear in June and September, meaning that the withered fig tree probably happened in October, too.) While those things are true, Psalm 118 was also used in the Feast of Dedication and the Passover. Further, figs are known to appear much earlier and much later depending on the weather. And palm branches themselves remain green for much of the year. Consequently, there is no reason to believe Palm Sunday didn’t happen the week before Easter.
Part 3: The People’s Confusion (Matthew 21:10-11)
When He entered Jerusalem, the whole city was shaken, saying, “Who is this?” And the crowds kept saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee!”
As you can see from that map, the journey would have taken an hour or so—plenty of time for an uproar to build. It follows our lesson from last week. The crowd coming in with Jesus was more rural, certainly less educated, somewhat lower class, definitely more enthusiastic. The crowd opposing Him from Jerusalem was urban, highly educated, upper class, formal and traditional. Both demographics have their strengths and weaknesses—have those differences been the source of any arguments/disagreements in our world today? We know what happens. Saying “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth” wasn’t enough. Likewise today, we need to be able to explain who Jesus really is and what Jesus has done in our lives if the people on the outside (who think we’re religious nuts) are ever going to listen to us. Yes, Jesus was (is) the coming Messiah-King, but He came to Jerusalem that day to put in motion His own death as a sacrifice for sin—including the sin of His own betrayal and murder. That’s no ordinary king. And likewise we shouldn’t be ordinary followers. We should be servants, willing to suffer, utterly devoted to the cause of Christ, precisely for the sake of those who oppose us.
I would summarize the lesson like this: what do people find confusing or controversial about Jesus today? There are lots of things. But I’ll tell you one big one—when Jesus’ followers misunderstand what it means that Jesus is King of Creation. It is not for us to dominate the world around us or to lord over our neighbors. We are to be servants, servants of God and servants of the world on God’s behalf. One day Jesus will return. When He comes back, it will not be as the suffering servant but the Conquering King. And in that day, we will reign with Him. But not today. Today we serve.
How strongly do you believe that Jesus is King of the Universe? How strongly do you believe that Jesus is coming back one day to destroy His enemies and set the universe right again? Does your life and actions reflect that? As our King, Jesus’ command to us is to follow, obey, serve, and be willing to sacrifice anything and everything for His kingdom. Point out that this is a crucial step for being a true Christian. There is only one Mediator between God and man, and there is only one Savior. We can’t trust Jesus and anything else—only Jesus.
Closing Thoughts: Getting Ready for Easter
(This Bible study took place the week before Easter.) Let’s make this as simple as possible. Please be sure to assign this out to the people in your class (so you don’t have to do it by yourself):
Pray for all the people on your roll. Make a plain list (no numbers or addresses) that people can fit in their wallet/purse easily.
Contact your inactive members by phone or in person and invite them to Sunday School on Easter Sunday.
Identify a few families who are not members of the church that you can invite to Sunday School (i.e. prospects).
Plan a class get together in late April or early May as a follow-up to Easter. Make it fun and non-threatening.
Follow up with everyone who attends class on Easter. Have a plan for cards, calls, and maybe even little gifts.
Assign the following “jobs”: the welcome wagon person who will sit with and travel with any guests in your class; the recordkeeping person who will make sure we get contact information on everyone (and copies that to the roll); the prayer chain coordinator who will distribute the names and needs of everything that comes up on Easter morning.
Prepare your class space. Does it look clean and tidy? Are there physical problems that you need our maintenance staff to check out? Write those on your roll for us to get on our maintenance list!