“Who Is This?”
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“Who Is This?”

Matthew 21:1-17  (ID: 3541)

Who is Jesus? In this Palm Sunday sermon, Alistair Begg describes three pictures that show how Christ fulfilled prophecy and revealed important aspects of His identity. The illustrations depict Jesus as the humble messianic King entering Jerusalem on a donkey, as the Prophet weeping over His unbelieving hometown, and as the Priest cleansing the temple of empty rituals and hypocrisy. Alistair explains that it’s only in light of the Gospel message that these pictures give significance to Palm Sunday.


Sermon Transcript: Print

Matthew 21 and from verse 1:

“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, 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!’ And when he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred up, saying, ‘Who is this?’ And the crowds said, ‘This is the prophet Jesus, from Nazareth of Galilee.’

“And Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who sold and bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons. He said to them, ‘It is written, “My house shall be called a house of prayer,” but you make it a den of robbers.’

“And the blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he healed them. But when the chief priests and the scribes saw the wonderful things that he did, and the children crying out in the temple, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David!’ they were indignant, and they said to him, ‘Do you hear what these are saying?’ And Jesus said to them, ‘Yes; have you never read, “Out of the mouth[s] of infants and nursing [babes] you have prepared praise”?’

“And leaving them, he went out of the city to Bethany and lodged there.”

Amen. Amen.

Speak, Lord, in the stillness of these moments. May our hearts be filled with expectancy in hearing from you, the living God, by the Holy Spirit, and pointing us unashamedly and unreservedly to your dearly beloved Son, in whose name we pray. Amen.

Well, I invite you to turn and follow along as best you can from Matthew, although I must confess to you that the way in which the record is provided for us of what we refer to as Palm Sunday in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John has found me this week saying to myself, “Did I just read that here, or did I read it there?” and I’ve been going back and forth through each of the Gospels. And that is because this particular incident is recorded very carefully for us by each of the Gospel writers. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—each of them draw attention to the drama of this event. And each of them does it in their own way, much in the same way that, as we often say, you may read an account in one newspaper and then in another newspaper of the same incident, and while the main and central part of it probably will be the same, there may be details in one that are absent in another.

Now, for example, let me illustrate this. John tells us that even though the disciples of Jesus were present in this circumstance, they did not grasp what was taking place. In the immediacy of it all, he is honest enough, writing later, to say, “You know, when we were there and when we saw all these things take place, we didn’t get it.” He says, “It was only after Jesus was glorified that we understood these things.”[1] I find that quite encouraging, because often, when I read the Bible or when I think about these things, I don’t get it either on first reading. And you may be here, you’re here this morning, and you’ve been at many Palm Sunday services, and quite honestly, you’d have to say, “I’m not sure I’ve ever got it.” And it is the work of the Holy Spirit to enable us to see what we have looked at and yet never seen.

So John says the disciples didn’t get it. He’s unique in telling us that. Matthew tells us, as we read, that all of this took place to fulfill the words of the prophet—the prophecy of Zechariah 9. And if we had been able to move among the crowd, if we’d been able to be present on that occasion, we would have found that many of the people were there—perhaps we would have been just like them—caught up in the excitement of the moment.

Many of them were there because of what had happened to Lazarus. What had happened to Lazarus was that he’d been raised from the dead. You would think that everybody would be absolutely delighted—particularly, perhaps, the religious people. And yet the record tells us that the religious people were indignant about this; they were dreadfully concerned about it. And so it was that they were confronted by the reality of the power of this one who is now appearing on a donkey. Their animosity and their frustration spilled over into their language: “Teacher, rebuke your disciples.”[2] “We don’t like to hear this kind of thing.” And then Jesus quite masterfully responding and saying, “Well, I could ask them to stop. But if they stop, the very stones would cry out”[3]—clearly a metaphor of the magnificence of the glory of God. And so they looked upon one another, and they said to one another, the religious folks, “We’re losing the battle,” they said. “The whole world has gone out after him.”[4]

Who is Jesus? A religious man? A prophet who died? A hero? A revolutionist? No, when you come to understand who Jesus is, then none of those categories can contain him.

And in actual fact, they said more than they realized. Because the whole world was going out after him, and the whole world this morning has gone out after him. If you think about this—and I’m sure you do—you must ponder the fact that Jesus was born in a no-place place; that Jesus was born in obscurity; that Jesus was placed in a manger; that his companions were not the other people in the prenatal wards; his companions were creatures. His pulpit ministry, his public ministry, only lasted for three years. He was dead at the age of thirty-three. And yet, throughout the world today, millions of people are declaring the name of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Now, of course, those of us who have studied 2 Samuel—and that’s not many of us, but (I don’t say you weren’t here to hear it; I said studied it), we’ve studied it, and we’ve realized that there’s no surprise in this, because all these years before, the anticipation was that there would come a king from the line of David, a descendant of David, and he would establish the rule of God. And now here, in this moment, the whole city is stirred, and the people are asking one another, “Who is this?” “Who is this?”

That, incidentally, is the great question of the ages. I wonder: Have you satisfactorily answered that question for yourself? I wonder what your answer is. Who is Jesus? A religious man? A prophet who died? A hero? A revolutionist? No, when you come to understand—when you understand, when we understand—who Jesus is, then none of those categories can contain him.

And so, for that reason, all we’re going to do is, as it were, squeeze our eyes together. We’re going to try and use our sanctified imagination. I came across a quote from a schoolboy who said, “I like the radio more than TV. The pictures are better.” Now, those of you who love to read and are disappointed when you see the movie that is made about the book will understand that. Because you see it, and you say, “But no, that’s not who that person was. I know who that person was. I’ve lived with them all these weeks while I’ve been reading this book.” No, our sanctified imagination is not to fill in gaps to a picture—a picture of what God hasn’t said—but what he has said, so that as we think about it, we don’t see what isn’t there, but we see what is there.

Now, the pictures are clear. And I will spend longer on the first than I do on the other two. I say that so that when I spend too long on the first, you will at least be encouraged to know that it won’t be the same for the remaining two.

Jesus Riding on a Donkey

First of all, the picture of him that is given in each of the Gospels of Jesus riding on a donkey—on the colt of a donkey. And this colt did not come from the used donkey lot, we’re told. It was a colt on which no one had ever sat.[5]

If you think about that for just a moment: I don’t know a lot about horses, certainly not about donkeys or colts, but I would imagine if you were going to ride one, you’d probably want to ride one that has been broken in. You know, you don’t want to be the first one on the back of a thing that has never had anyone on its back before. It’s very good that Matthew tells us that the colt was with its mother. Interesting, isn’t it? Now, Jesus, of course, knew animals. He was lying in a manger, surrounded by them! Those of you who love animals can ponder this on your own when you’re having coffee. How gracious and kind to allow the mother to come along so that if the colt is a little frisky, a little animated, the donkey, the mother, who’s just along for the ride, will be able to instill a little peace, perhaps.

How do they lay hold of this colt? Well, the disciples were told, “You’ll want to go to this place, and when you get there, just simply say, ‘The Lord needs it.’” Now, that may have been the password that had been prearranged; it may be an indication of Christ’s knowledge. The Gospel writers don’t tell us. And so it is that on that donkey, on that colt of a donkey, he makes his way and approach.

Now, once again, as you ponder these things—and I hope you will check up on this later on and you will look for yourself—the variances are interesting. For example, in Luke’s account, there are no branches mentioned at all—no branches, only cloaks.[6] In the record of Matthew and Mark, there are branches.[7] Only in the Gospel of John are the branches palm branches.[8] So were it not for the Gospel of John, this would have to be called Branch Sunday, which wouldn’t really have the same ring to it at all. I’m not sure who came up with the palm as being the most significant thing of all.

But there it is. Jesus, as he makes his approach, is being greeted as the son of David, as the messianic King. He is approaching Jerusalem in a purposeful way. It would obviously have been possible for Jesus to go into the city inconspicuously, to go there quietly. The Gospel writers tell us on many occasions, he withdrew himself from the crowd. On one occasion, when they thought to make him a king, he left them directly and immediately.[9] And so he makes his entry into Jerusalem in fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. He doesn’t arrive on a chariot but on a colt. He is going to be lifted up, but not to a throne, but to a cross. This display is a display of splendor as he approaches a cross of shame.

Now, for many of us, this is so familiar. And it’s good for us to pause and say to ourselves, “Is this what I understand?”—perhaps even to be honest enough to say, “I’m not sure I get this. Very different from what I imagined.” You see, because some of us have created an imaginary Jesus for ourselves—a Jesus who, if he is anything to anyone, surely must come to fix everything for us: to grant me comfort, to grant me security, to grant me health, to bring unity to the nations, to unite our families in their disunity, to grant us progress, and so on.

And then we come across this Jesus and this expression and this statement. The crowds did not anticipate it in this way. Even those who were singing that salvation is found in him, even those who were singing “Hosanna, help us, save us,” they were the same ones who previously had tried to make Jesus the king by force, and he had left them. And here they’re confronted by this strange juxtaposition: an expression of his majesty displayed in humility.

Jesus doesn’t arrive on a chariot but on a colt. He is going to be lifted up, not to a throne but to a cross. This is a display of splendor as he approaches a cross of shame.

When the prophet anticipates the coming of the messianic King, a number of things are said about him. And one of the things that is said about Jesus in his fulfillment is that “he will not quarrel or cry aloud” in the streets.[10] When this King comes, he won’t be a protagonist. He won’t be a quarreler. He won’t be shouting. He won’t be drawing attention to himself. He won’t be extolling his virtues when he comes. In fact, the prophet says, “A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoking flax he will not quench.”[11]

Now, I think it’s very, very important that we understand this. When Jesus in the Gospels issues his great invitation… “Well,” you say, “which is the great invitation?” Well, there are wonderful invitations, but I’m referring now to Matthew 11, where, you remember, Jesus says, “Come to me, all you who are weary and heavy laden.”[12] Would you find it easy to come to somebody who is behind closed doors in a palace, so removed from you? Isn’t it fascinating—I hope you think it’s fascinating—that the only characteristic to which Jesus refers regarding himself is there? “Come to me, all [you] who [are weary] and … heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me”—here we go—“for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”[13] You see, Jesus comes to us so kindly, so graciously.

Again, you’ll have to look in the Gospels to put the pieces together as I did. But this comes on the back of his visit to Jericho, you will perhaps recall. And coming out of Jericho, he had just dealt with two individuals: one a beggar who had absolutely nothing, and the other a little man, Zacchaeus, who had absolutely everything. The beggar had to stand and hope that he could get stuff. Zacchaeus had his house loaded with stuff. And Jesus dealt with them both in his kindness, in his grace, and in his humility, in the same way that he deals with us. He knew their hearts. I wonder if those characters followed him into Jerusalem.

That’s the first picture. There he is, lowly and riding on a donkey.

Jesus Weeping over a City

And then—and you’ll have to go to Luke’s Gospel for this one, but it’s important. You’ll find it in Luke chapter 19, if you want just to turn to it, to verify it. And the second picture that we have is not a picture of Jesus riding on a donkey, but it is a picture of Jesus weeping over a city: “And when he drew near,” Luke 19:41, “and saw the city, he wept over it.” “He wept over it.”

The Lord Jesus not only wept at the grave of his friend Lazarus,[14] but he also wept as he looked upon the dissolution that was represented in the city of Jerusalem. With the city spread out before him from the vantage point of the Mount of Olives, as we’re told, he looks upon that scene. And in the thirteenth of Luke, he records the words of Jesus: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem…” (You remember how, when we studied in 2 Samuel, “O Absalom, Absalom…”[15]) “O, Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under [his] wings, and you were not willing!”[16]

“He came to his own, and his own did not receive him. But to as many as received him, to them he gave the power to become the children of God, even to those who believed on his name.”[17] “If only you had known,” he said. “If only you had known what makes for peace.”[18] They just didn’t know what made for peace. They said shalom to one another all the time. And peace is on the lips of the leaders of the world at the moment, is it not? Is there a peace? How do we find a peace? Where could the peace be put together? The United Nations sits in the company of one another, revealing its complete incapacity, ultimately, to grant any lasting peace. Never in the lifetime of humanity has there been such chaos and manifold bloodshed. And yet all of the agencies that are represented and all of the attempts and all of the meetings and all of the flights… Where is the peace?

And at the very heart of all of those discussions, not a thought for a moment in the hearts of men that the answer may lie in a Galilean carpenter who came not to stride over the affairs of man like a colossus but came as a man on a donkey, on the colt of a donkey and who wept over the very city that he longed for, that it might know the reality of the peace that only he could bring, which was a peace that was to be provided in a moment or two, as he bore sin upon the cross.

“Oh, if only you had known what makes for peace!” He says, “If only you had realized. And there won’t be one stone left upon another,” he says, “of this great edifice, because you did not know the time of your visitation.”[19] In other words, they had, clearly, all the outward trappings of religion while at the same time rejecting the Prince of Peace. They rejected his message, and their hearts were hardened.

I say to you as clearly and as kindly as I can that if you continue to hear the prompting, pleading, gracious, humble voice of Jesus—“Softly and tenderly Jesus is calling, calling [to] you and [to] me”[20]—if you continue to hear that voice and reject that voice, the passage of time will not make it easier for you to trust him. Like the people of old, your heart will become hardened.

That’s why what is unfolded for us here needs to be taken in its entirety. Jesus is the one, again, according to the prophet, who has come, the King who will speak peace to the nations. That is Zechariah. It’s the very phraseology. Where is it?

And the battle bow shall be cut off,
 and he shall speak peace to the nations;
[and] his rule shall be from sea to sea,
 … to the ends of the earth.[21]

This is inescapable, my friends, and this we have to understand.

You see, it is only the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ that prevents us from turning an event like Palm Sunday into either a form of sentimentalism or moralism that leaves us saying,
“Well, that was a nice thing. It was kind of nice for the children. I’m surprised they didn’t give out the palm branches, because that’s really what it’s all about. My old church, they gave you a special little thing so you would remember what it was all about.” Well, good. Good. I’m not against that. I’ve had those little branches as well, in different places. That’s okay.

But the gospel is the thing that allows us to understand what’s going on. Why would the King come on a colt? Why would the King weep over the city? Why would he say that he has in himself the answer to the longing of the nations for peace, that he has in himself the answer to the human heart’s quest for satisfaction and for fulfillment, a longing that can’t be satisfied by success or by sex or by achievement or by fame or by any other thing? Only in him. Only in him.

And the Gospel of John makes it unmistakably clear:

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.[22]

Do you believe? Do you believe that Christ bore our sins? Do you believe what we have just sung—that “he took my sins and my sorrows,” and “he made them his very own,” that “he bore [my] burden to Calvary,” that he “suffered” and he “died alone”?[23] Do you believe that? Have you ever said to Jesus, “Thank you for taking all my sin to the cross”? Have you ever said to him, “Help me, Jesus, not to be afraid to let you know that I have sinned, because you would not have died for me unless you loved me”? Have you ever said to him, “Thank you for forgiving me; you are a wonderful Savior”?

Jesus Cleansing the Temple

The final picture is not of him riding on this colt or weeping over the city, but it is of him cleansing the temple. Cleansing the temple. And we can be still in Matthew 21 for this: “And Jesus entered the temple.” This should be a help to us in a number of ways.

First of all, in recognizing that while Jesus is meek, Jesus is not weak, should disavow those of us who have managed to sneak out of the average Palm Sunday service with a palm branch and a feeling like “It must be nice for somebody, but it doesn’t mean much to me”—we suddenly realize that we can’t just get away from Jesus just that quickly. Because it is one thing to see him a crying Christ. It’s one thing to see him a strange rider on a donkey. But what of this one who comes in and does this to the temple?

We have a meek Jesus, but we don’t have a weak Jesus. We have a Jesus that goes to the cross to deal with the deepest dyes of human sin, and we have a Jesus who will not tolerate hypocrisy amongst the framework of his people.

Well, first of all, we should know that it is his Father’s house. You remember, when they had gone up to Jerusalem—Mary and Joseph and family members and people from their community, they had gone up for the Passover—and on their way back, as often happens in a family outing, if there’s big crowds involved, people assume, “You must have him,” or “She must be with you.” And so it was that they realized on the journey, they didn’t have Jesus. And when they come back and finally find him, where is he? Well, he’s in the temple. And he doesn’t actually say, “Well, I just thought the temple would be a good place to be.” No, he said to Mary and Joseph, in a way that must have really pinned their ears back, “Don’t you realize that I had to be in my Father’s house?”[24]

Can you imagine them going to their bed that night and saying, “What do you think about that ‘Father’s house’ thing that he said?” That’s the temple. Now “Jesus entered the temple,” and he “drove out all who sold and bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons.” And “he said to them, ‘It is written, “My house shall be called a house of prayer,” but you make it a den of robbers.’”[25]

Now, again, if you just think about turning over tables… Every so often, for some reason, I might be given the privilege of helping to move a table around here. I’m not unwilling; I’m just largely incapable. Those tables through in the Venue are jolly heavy, as some of you will know. And so, instead of just saying, “Yeah, he just went in and flipped over a few tables,” you say, “No, wait a minute. This is the guy who grew up in the carpenter’s workbench.” We don’t have a picture of Jesus going in, saying, “Excuse me? I’m just wondering if you could move some of the animals out, please”—so we’ve got a kind of wimpy Jesus. We have a meek Jesus, but we don’t have a weak Jesus. We have a Jesus that goes to the cross to deal with the deepest dyes of human sin, and we have a Jesus who will not tolerate hypocrisy amongst the framework of his people. That’s the point. He has a capacity not only for amazing tenderness but for moral indignation.

Now, Mark in his record says when Jesus entered the temple, he “looked around,” and then “he went out to Bethany.”[26] Given that, those of us who might be tempted to believe that Jesus “lost his temper,” we realize: no, he looked at it, he went home and thought about it, he presumably prayed about it, and he got up in the morning and he did something about it. And he cast them out.

Well, just as the donkey fulfilled prophecy, so did this cleanup. Jesus knew what he was doing. At the end of the Old Testament, in the prophecy of Malachi:

Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me. And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; and the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like a fullers’ soap. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, and they will bring offerings in righteousness to the Lord. And then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in [the] former years.[27]

I think what we have here is a point on the journey where all of the fullness of what is represented there in Malachi’s prophecy has yet dimensions still to it. But we daren’t miss this: as the Prophet, he unmasks religious hypocrisy. The house of God had been turned into a market. The house of prayer had become a den of robbers. Fleecing people in the name of religion is not a new phenomenon. And so Jesus tackles it, and singlehandedly, he restores the place to its original purpose.

And then what did he do? Well, we need to draw to a close, but this is what we’re told, again: that he was then “teaching daily in the temple,”[28] under the threat of death. And as people listened, two things happened: people were healed, and children sang. People were healed, and children sang. “Oh,” you say, “there you go. I told you it was about children all along.” Yeah. Because in this instance, the children reveal the hypocrisy of the establishment.

Is it too much of a reach to suggest that here we are, at this point in the twenty-first century, and we think about our church, and we think about other churches—the things that we have said are of vital importance to take place, to be done, if we’re going to contextualize, if we’re going to reach a community, if we’re going to be “the people of God”—without disavowing any of that, isn’t it quite fascinating that of all the things that we’re told about the people of God and the place of God, it said, “It is my Father’s house, a house of prayer”?

Only—only—as congregations go to God in prayer will people be healed, their lives restored, and the children will sing. “Do you hear what these kids are saying?” they said to Jesus. He says, “Yes, of course I do. Have you never read that out of the mouths of babes and children God ordains his praise?”

Three pictures: a King on a donkey, a Prophet addressing the city with tears, and a Priest cleansing the temple of empty ritual and feeble hypocrisy.

Father, we thank you that blessing abounds where’er Christ reigns, that the prisoner leaps to loose his chains.[29] The children sing, and Lord, we want to sing. We want to “sing the praise of him who died, of him who died upon the cross.”[30] Forgive us, Lord, our selfish preoccupations. Come, Lord, and meet us as a church family, so that lives coming in contact with the people of God may come in contact with Jesus; that lives may be healed and changed, forgiven, restored; and that the children that are being cared for even now will be the means of causing parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles to say, “You know, I really do need to consider this Christ—the donkey rider, the temple cleanser, the one who weeps.” Hear our prayers, O God, for Christ’s sake. Amen.


[1] John 12:16 (paraphrased).

[2] Luke 19:39 (ESV).

[3] Luke 19:40 (paraphrased).

[4] John 12:19 (paraphrased).

[5] See Mark 11:2; Luke 19:30.

[6] See Luke 19:36.

[7] See Matthew 21:8; Mark 11:8.

[8] See John 12:13.

[9] See John 6:15.

[10] Matthew 12:19 (ESV). See also Isaiah 42:2.

[11] Isaiah 42:3 (paraphrased).

[12] Matthew 11:28 (paraphrased).

[13] Matthew 11:28–29 (ESV).

[14] See John 11:35.

[15] 2 Samuel 18:33 (paraphrased).

[16] Luke 13:34 (ESV).

[17] John 1:11–12 (paraphrased).

[18] Luke 19:42 (paraphrased).

[19] Luke 19:44 (paraphrased).

[20] Will Lamartine Thompson, “Softly and Tenderly Jesus Is Calling” (1880).

[21] Zechariah 9:10 (ESV).

[22] John 3:16–18 (ESV).

[23] Charles H. Gabriel, “My Savior’s Love” (1905).

[24] Luke 2:49 (paraphrased).

[25] Matthew 21:12–13 (ESV).

[26] Mark 11:11 (ESV).

[27] Malachi 3:1–4 (ESV).

[28] Luke 19:47 (ESV).

[29] Isaac Watts, “Jesus Shall Reign Where’er the Sun” (1719).

[30] Thomas Kelly, “We Sing the Praise of Him Who Died” (1815).

Copyright © 2022, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Alistair Begg
Alistair Begg is Senior Pastor at Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Bible teacher on Truth For Life, which is heard on the radio and online around the world.