This is a 5 step exegetical study of Matthew 21:1-11. This passage of Scripture is usually labeled to be a narrative of “Jesus’ Triumphant Entry” and it is often times remembered the Sunday before Easter, often times called Palm Sunday or Passion Sunday. Part 1 contains Steps 1 and 2 of this 5 step exegetical study: “Text and Translation Notes” and “Literary Analysis.” Part 2 contains Steps 3, 4, and 5 of this 5 step exegetical study: “Historical-Cultural Context,” “The Broader Biblical and Historical Confession,” and “Personal and Pastoral Application.”
Step I – Text and Translation Notes
Matthew 21:1-11 ESV – 1Now when they drew near to Jerusalem and came to Bethphage, to the Mount of Olives, then Jesus sent two disciples, 2 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. 3 If anyone says anything to you, you shall say, ‘The Lord needs them,’ and he will send them at once.” 4 This took place to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet, saying,
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.’”
6 The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them. 7 They brought the donkey and the colt and put on them their cloaks, and he sat on them. 8 Most of the crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 9 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.”
21:2 The ESV translates λύσαντες as an imperative verb, yet the form is an aorist participle. Λύσαντες is followed by the aorist imperative verb, ἀγάγετέ. The ESV simply translates both verbs as commands, since the disciples obviously would have to untie the animals before they could be lead to Jesus.
21:3 The Greek reads that “their Lord [ὁ κύριος αὐτῶν – αὐτῶν is a 3rd person plural, masculine, genitive pronoun] – has need.” Whose Lord is this? The animals’ Lord is what the text reads, and this is theologically correct, since all of creation is the Lord’s and thus Jesus is the Lord of these two animals. In this context however that reading isn’t a natural understanding of this genitive pronoun. This is why Gibbs suggests αὐτῶν to be translated as an objective genitive to modify “need.” (Gibbs, p. 1032)
21:4 The ESV translates γέγονεν as an aorist verb, when it is a perfect tense verb. A direct translation should thus be, “this has happened,” but since Matthew is referring to the three verse narrative that has just taken place, the ESV translation “this took place” reads well to our ears that are accustomed to the English language. The nuance of the perfect verb relates that what “has happened still has an ongoing effect” – namely that the event of the disciples retrieving the animals has a testifying impact to the fulfillment of the words that were spoken by the prophet.
21:5 The ESV translation can easily give the impression that the donkey that Jesus is riding is the colt, as if “on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden” is modifying donkey. However, in the Greek text, there is the word “καὶ” between the two ἐπὶ prepositional phrases, which indicates that the words that were spoken by the prophet indicate a mounting/riding on both the mother and the colt.
21:7 This text says that Jesus sat on them [αὐτῶν]. This pronoun can refer to the disciples’ garments or to both animals. Turner suggests that it is most likely that the second αὐτῶν refers to the garments that Jesus sat on while he rode on the colt. (Turner, p. 496) This interpretation harmonizes Matthew’s narrative with the other Gospel narratives that only mention Jesus riding on a colt with no reference to the mother’s presence at all. Much more could be said of Matthew’s mention of two animals as opposed to the other three Gospels that only mention one which could fit nicely into Parts II and III, but due to this assignment’s restriction on word count, this interpretation of αὐτῶν will have to be suffice enough to demonstrate the importance that there is a valid interpretation to avoid a contradiction in the Gospel narratives between Jesus riding on either one or two animals.
21:8 The ESV seems to take a great license here by saying, “most of the crowd,” because the Greek doesn’t say “most of the crowd, it simply says, “a very large crowd.” In the Greek, it seems as if everyone in this multitude either laid their cloaks before Jesus or laid branches that they had cut on the path before Jesus. The text doesn’t signify that the branches were palm branches. The text simply reads: κλάδους ἀπὸ τῶν δένδρων [branches from the trees].
21:9 The ESV translates the attributive position present, active participles προάγοντες and ἀκολουθοῦντες as aorist verbs, which misses the ongoing action of the preceding and following throng of people. The ESV also merges ἔκραζον λέγοντες into “were shouting.” Since ἔκραζον is an imperfect active verb the translation that Gibbs offers, “kept on crying out, saying…” better encapsulates the commotion of the scene. The crowds are in a state of continual motion preceding and following him and their cries are carrying on and on.
21:10 The wild, on-going actions of the “very great crowd” of vs. 8-9 cause the totality [πᾶσα] of the city to be moved into a state of commotion being stirred up or shaken.
21:11 In vs. 9, the crowds “kept on crying,” and now they “kept on saying” that Jesus is the prophet from Nazareth. The ESV again translates an imperfect verb form (here it is ἔλεγον) as an aorist, which diminishes the narrative’s image of their on-going exuberance and certainty in their proclamation of Jesus, not just being the promised king, the Son of David, but also a prophet – from Nazareth of all places!
Part II – Literary Analysis
Gibbs opens up his commentary on this unit of text by describing it as “a fairly obvious whole” (Gibbs, 1035). I can’t deny this, which is why I struggle to break this unit into sections. I see no obvious breaks that demand to be labeled a new section with a new thought or idea being introduced. I see no central point or turning point in the text. Gibbs chooses to break this unit into two sections: vs. 1-7 and vs. 8-11. (Gibbs, p. 1036) I agree with his justification for this split, namely that in vs. 1-7, Jesus is in control of the action; he’s orchestrating his entrance into Jerusalem, and then in vs. 8-11 the reactions of the crowds and the people of the city take over the action of the narrative; Jesus is depicted as just being along for the ride (no pun intended). In this section unit, the disciples are not even mentioned.
I however prefer to break the unit into three sections, following Turner’s division: preparations for Jesus’ entrance (vs. 1-5), Jesus’ entrance (vs. 6-9), and the results (vs. 10-11). (Turner, p. 493). I would change the labels however to Jesus’ orchestrated preparation (vs. 1-5), the approach to Jerusalem (vs. 6-9), and the dichotomy of responses from mutually in-error parties (vs. 10-11). The following will explain my decision to break this unit into three sections.
Vs. 1-5 narrate Jesus’ very deliberate preparations and instructions to two disciples for how he is to enter Jerusalem. The intentions of these instructions, Matthew explains, were to fulfill the words of the prophet in Zechariah 9:9. This is a good breaking point, because in a study it would necessitate a look at the prophesy in Zechariah 9:9 and its context. The most important discovery to this unit’s immediate context is that Matthew doesn’t cite the verse as directed by Zechariah to be an invitation for Jerusalem to rejoice and shout; instead he opts to Isiah 62:11 as the introduction to the prophesy fulfillment at hand, which is “Say to the daughter, Zion” (21:5). This foreshadows the cluelessness of the personified city of Jerusalem in the third section who doesn’t understand that now is the time for the shouting and rejoicing encouraged by Zechariah.
A question arises in this section concerning how the disciples were expected to be able to just mosey into Bethpage and take the first animals they saw with no potential consequences for donkey-thieving. Also, how did Jesus know the animals would be there for the taking. One answer comes from John’s Gospel which records that Jesus had made several travels to Jerusalem before and “had an important ministry there, and it would seem that it was on such occasions that he made the acquaintance of people like the owners of the animals he was now borrowing” (Morris, 520). Another answer lies within this section itself. Jesus’ use of κύριος in the statement, “The Lord has need of them,” carries with it the force of a “magisterial sentence” that provides all the disciples will need to offer to resolve any objections that might arise from their taking of the animals. (Smith, 243) Couple the crowd’s response with this last answer and it seems suffice to say that the owners might have recognized Jesus to be their king as the crowds did and would gladly offer their animals to meet their king’s need.
The next section, Vs. 6-9, does not indicate if the disciples or the crowd knew if Zechariah’s prophesy was being fulfilled at the time, but what we see is that the disciples follow Jesus’ instruction without question and the crowd responded to Jesus’ entrance on the colt just as Zechariah had prophesied. Their response is shocking to the reader, because the goal in Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem has already been stated by Jesus himself – “From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life” (Matthew 16:21) – and this exuberant response that attributed Messianic titles to Jesus (“Son of David” and “one who comes” (Turner, p. 496)) doesn’t indicate an impending death at the hands of the Jewish leaders.
Vs. 10-11 close the unit and indicate that as he entered the city, the people in Jerusalem did not even know who he was. The crowds who have already declared him their king with messianic titles respond by continually saying, “This is the prophet Jesus, from Nazareth of Galilee.” Gibbs indicates that their answer that he is a prophet already indicates that they didn’t know he was the Messiah, because instead of answering that he is the prophet Jesus, they would have answered he is the Messiah Jesus. (Gibbs, p. 1041) I tend to think that the crowds were declaring him to be their Messiah through their use of Messianic titles for him. In Part III, the historical and cultural background point to their expectations of what he should do in the city as the Messiah, and in Part IV, their recognition of him being both king and prophet illustrates their misunderstanding of what he came to do and the three-fold office of the Messiah.
Gibbs, Jeffrey A. Matthew 21:1-28:20. Saint Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2018.
Morris, Leon. The Gospel According to Matthew. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1992.
Turner, David L. Matthew. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008.