The Donkey and the Palm (Matthew 21:1-11; 1 Kings 1:6-10, 28-40)

Good morning! Welcome to worship on Palm Sunday!

If you have your Bibles you can go ahead and turn to Matthew 21. Although the story of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem is told in all four gospels, I want to look at it in Matthew this morning. Also, go ahead and find 1 Kings chapter one, and put a bookmark or an offering envelope or something there as well.  

Let me talk just a little bit about what’s coming up this week. This is the beginning of Holy Week—the most significant week on the Christian calendar. For thousands of years, Christians have taken the week between Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday to reflect on the last week of Jesus life. His entry into Jerusalem. The last meal He shared with His disciples. His arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane. His torture, trial, and crucifixion. And His glorious resurrection.

On Good Friday, I’d like to invite you to watch “The Passion of the Christ” with me. I told you a few weeks ago that this is a tradition I’ve done by myself every Good Friday for the past several years. And I was planning to do it by myself again. But one thing I learned in the disciple making conference we hosted last week is that a lot of what it means to be a disciple maker is simply inviting the people around you to do life with you, and to invest in those relationships in order to lead others into a growing relationship with Jesus.

And so, if anyone would like to watch the Passion with me, we will be upstairs in the youth room, starting at 3:00 pm. We will watch the movie, and afterwards take some time to process and discuss the experience. I should warn you that it is a very, very graphic depiction of the suffering of Jesus. There’s a reason its rated R. And for that reason, if you are in the youth group and want to watch the movie with me, I need your mom or dad to text me and let me know you have their permission to watch the movie with me.

So that’s Good Friday, at 3:00, up in the youth room.  

Then on Easter Sunday, we will celebrate Jesus’s resurrection and come alive to His power to change our lives. Please be thinking about who you can invite to church that day! I hope you were paying attention to the invite video we showed during the announcements. Don’t underestimate the impact of a personal invitation!

Because here is the gospel truth:  The life we have in Jesus because of His death, burial, and resurrection is reason to celebrate! It is reason to respond to God’s open arms and His invitation to draw near to Him. We are going to begin our Easter Service in the waters of the baptistry, as we celebrate with one young man who surrendered his life to Jesus last week. And if there is anyone else that has been holding off on the decision to be baptized, let me encourage you to set up an appointment with me or one of our ministers this week, and let’s have a great baptism celebration next week!

Okay—enough preview. Good Friday—The Passion. Easter Sunday, Baptism.

But today, Palm Sunday. Your Bibles should be open to Matthew 21. Let’s read this together. And if you are physically able, let’s stand to honor the reading of God’s Word.

21 Now when they drew near to Jerusalem and came to Bethphage, to the Mount of Olives, then Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village in front of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her. Untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, you shall say, ‘The Lord needs them,’ and he will send them at once.” This took place to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet, saying,

“Say to the daughter of Zion,
‘Behold, your king is coming to you,
    humble, and mounted on a donkey,
    on a colt,[a] the foal of a beast of burden.’”

The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them. They brought the donkey and the colt and put on them their cloaks, and he sat on them. Most of the crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. And the crowds that went before him and that followed him were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” 10 And when he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred up, saying, “Who is this?” 11 And the crowds said, “This is the prophet Jesus, from Nazareth of Galilee.”


This morning, I want to talk about two of the symbols we associate with Palm Sunday. The donkey and the palm branches.

Now, you get what these have to do with Palm Sunday, right? Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, and the people cut palm branches from the trees and spread them on the road. By the way, I’m so thankful that my neighbor decided to trim back the palm tree in his back yard this week! That gives us an amazing visual going right down the center aisle!

But there’s actually more to these two details to this story than you might have realized, and so I want to look at each of them.

First, the donkey.

Verse 1 says that Jesus and His disciples “drew near to Jerusalem and came to Bethphage.” This was a little village on the mount of Olives, a little over half a mile from the Temple Mount.

Jesus instructs two of his disciples to go into Bethphage and borrow a donkey and a colt. Which couldn’t have been a great assignment. They were supposed to just say “The Lord needs them” if anyone questioned them about why they were stealing these animals. But they do, and verse 7 says that Jesus sat on “them,” which has caused problems for commentators ever since, not to mention artists and movie makers, because nobody can figure out how Jesus sat on a donkey and a colt at the same time. One commentary I read suggested that Jesus used the adult donkey for the steep descent down the Mount of Olives, and then switched to the colt to go into the city. This makes sense to me. We walked down the path Jesus would have taken when we were at the Mount of Olives back in February, and the whole time I remember thinking, “Man—I feel sorry for that donkey!”

But why a donkey in the first place? This is the first record we have of Jesus not walking. So why would he choose a donkey? The top Roman soldiers of Jesus’s day rode on fancy, majestic horses—now those were a show of power and position. Those said power, strength, authority. The donkey? Not so much.

I mean, this is supposed to be the Triumphal Entry, right? Not the meek and mild entry.

But no, the meaning of Jesus riding on the donkey went above and beyond the immediate or the practical. Even this detail—and this lowly animal—was part of God’s bigger plan.

Way back in Zechariah 9:9, in the Old Testament, there was a prophecy that the Messiah would come riding on a young donkey. In verse 5, Matthew quotes Zechariah.

Jesus knew the Bible. So He specifically wanted a donkey because He needed to fulfill the prophecy of Zechariah 9:9. What might seem to us like a “plan B” practical solution to the immediate situation was actually a specific fulfillment of thousands of years of promise.

So while the donkey can represent the humility of Jesus, the ironic twist of the story is that by riding on this donkey, Jesus was also proclaiming that He was the Messiah, the King! The dedicated Jews gathering in Jerusalem at this time for the celebration of the Passover feast would have known this Old Testament prophecy. So this simple act demonstrated a connection to the past by fulfilling the prophecy. And it also pointed to the future of Jesus as king—not an earthly king as some imagined, but as the true King who would reign forever in God’s story of love, forgiveness, grace, and redemption. The Messiah, whom the Jews had been waiting for throughout the centuries.

There’s another link to the Old Testament. Notice that the crowds are shouting out, “Hosanna to the Son of David” in verse 9.

In 1 Kings 1, you have the story of Solomon, the son of David, being crowned as the King of Israel. Now, David had already determined that Solomon would succeed him as king. But one of David’s other sons, Adonijah, had put himself on the throne instead. And he did it with a lot of pomp and ceremony. In 1 Kings 1:5, we read that

Now Adonijah the son of Haggith exalted himself, saying, “I will be king.” And he prepared for himself chariots and horsemen, and fifty men to run before him. 

Verse 6 goes on to say that Adonijah was a very good looking man. He looked like a king. His older brother Absalom was already dead, so he just figured he was next in line.

So look how he entered Jerusalem. Chariots! Horsemen! Fifty men running in front of him!

The only problem was, he was not who God had in mind to be king. God had already determined that Solomon would succeed David as king. So no matter how impressive Adonijah looked; no matter how many horses and chariots and footmen paraded in front of him to announce his coronation, he wasn’t the rightful king. Solomon was.

So David instructed Zadok, the high priest, and Nathan, the chief prophet of Israel, to take Solomon down to Gihon springs, right outside the walls of Jerusalem, set him on David’s own donkey, and have him ride into Jerusalem.

Then Zadok anointed him king, of Israel. 1 Kings 1:39 says that

Then they blew the trumpet, and all the people said, “Long live King Solomon!” 40 And all the people went up after him, playing on pipes, and rejoicing with great joy, so that the earth was split by their noise.

Now let’s pause and think about this question: is there someone else seated on the throne of your life? Maybe you’ve put yourself there, like Adonijah did. Or maybe you’ve placed your trust in political power, or military might, or celebrity status. Listen—the one who has the right to sit on the throne did not have any form or majesty that people would be drawn to him because of the way he looked (Isaiah 53:2). He didn’t come forcing us to bow down to Him—announcing His arrival with a lot of fanfare.

Jesus comes into someone’s life the way He came into Jerusalem that day—gentle and humbly. He rode on a beast of burden because He came to bear our burdens. He bore our burden of sin all the way from the Mount of Olives to the Mount of calvary.

Now back to Matthew, and let’s talk about those palm branches. Go back to verse 8:

Most of the crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 

Why did they wave palm branches?  Well, palm branches were a symbol of victory. From about 400 BC onward, a palm branch was awarded to the victor in athletic contests.

The palm became so closely associated with victory in ancient Roman culture that the Latin word palma could be used as a synonym for victory itself. A lawyer who won his case in the forum would decorate his front door with palm leaves.[13] 

When Julius Caesar secured his rise to sole power with, a palm tree supposedly sprung up miraculously at the Temple of Nike, the Greek goddess of Victory.

So the people cut down palm branches and wave them while they shouted out Hosanna, which comes from a Hebrew phrase meaning, “Save us, we pray.” This was a deliberate challenge to the Roman empire, which at that time occupied Jerusalem and all Israel. The Jews hated the Roman occupation. They longed for freedom from Roman rule. And so, here comes Jesus. They’d heard about His miracles, His teaching, His authority over demons, His calming the storm. His walking on water. And so they thought, “This is the one we’ve been waiting for!”

They could almost taste their freedom. Finally—finally!—their Messiah, their rescuer, had come. Finally, He was going to kick some Roman tail and overthrow their oppressors and set up the perfect kingdom for the Jews. Right?

Let me try an illustration, and see if it helps you:

Imagine that for weeks your kids have been talking non stop about wanting to go to the Launch trampoline park. They are obsessed with it. Every day, they’re whining—Mom, Dad, we wanna go to the trampoline park” We want to meet Joey, the giant green kangaroo!

And so one day, you get in the car, and you start driving toward the trampoline park. And your kids are sooooo excited. But instead of turning in to the trampoline park, you keep right on going past it. You get on the Interstate. You go to the airport. You fly to Orlando, and you surprise your kids with tickets to Disney World!

In other words, you’ve taken their heart’s desire, and you’ve responded to it with more than they could ever ask or imagine!

That’s the difference between what the people wanted and what Jesus came to give them. Jesus wasn’t here to set up an earthly, political kingdom. Instead, He went above and beyond what the people imagined. He was a spiritual king, not an earthly one. And His victory—the ultimate victory over sin and death—would be more than freedom from their current oppression. It would be the victory that restored all of creation and made a way for every person to have a right relationship with God. He would throw off and defeat the oppression of their souls.

But none of them understood the magnitude of what Jesus was preparing to do. Even Jesus’s disciples didn’t get it. John told us in his account of the triumphal entry story that

John 12:16 (ESV)

16 His disciples did not understand these things at first, but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written about him and had been done to him.

And maybe this explains why the crowds were so quick to turn on Him. Only days later the same crowd that was shouting “Hosanna” would shout “Crucify Him.”

Turns out they would rather have the trampoline park than the Magic Kingdom. When Jesus didn’t swoop into town and kick the Romans out, they rejected him. They didn’t want an eternal kingdom. They wanted to set up their own kingdom.

And, oh, beloved church, how often do we do the same thing? How often are we more interested in building our kingdom and asking Jesus to be a part of it, instead of truly and wholeheartedly saying to Jesus, “Thy kingdom come! Thy will be done!” We want Jesus to join us in what we are doing, instead of saying, Lord, show me what you are doing, and let me join you there!

Jesus’s purpose was to offer the ultimate sacrifice—His own life—so that everyone and all of creation could worship God in new freedom and truth. Whether the people approved or disapproved, recognized or had no idea what was going on, Jesus’s purpose never changed.

Jesus’s life purpose was to bring God’s love and life to the world. His love bridged the gap and provided a way for us to cross over into the holy presence of the God of the universe, to know Him and relate with Him.

If you are here today wondering what this journey of Holy Week means for you, don’t miss God’s invitation. He loves each one of us and invites us on the journey through Holy Week and into relationship with Him.

Jesus came into Jerusalem humbly and gently, riding on a donkey. And in the same way, He doesn’t force Himself into our lives. Matthew 11:28-30 shows us how Jesus enters into a relationship with us:

Come to Me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy, and my burden is light.

Matthew 11:28-30

Just as Jesus entered that city to the shouts of “Hosanna—Pray, save us,” let’s invite Him to enter our hearts and lives. Let us shout Pray Save Us to the one who came as a gentle humble servant, yet won the ultimate victory.





2 responses to “The Donkey and the Palm (Matthew 21:1-11; 1 Kings 1:6-10, 28-40)”

  1. Stacey Slack Avatar
    Stacey Slack

    Thank you Pastor James
    For such a wonderful and thought provoking commentary for Palm Sunday!!!
    God bless you and your family!!!

    1. James Avatar

      Thanks, Stacey. God bless!

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