On the outskirts of the city, Jesus sends two disciples to a nearby village to fetch a female donkey and her colt. The owner of these animals, although unknown to the disciples, is on close terms with Christ, believing in His mission. Merely hearing “the Lord hath need of them” (Matt. 21:3 kjv) is enough for the man to permit his animals to be led away.
With the requisite animals in hand, the disciples and a crowd of people set about the task of investing the occasion with all possible pomp and circumstance. The disciples strip off their cloaks to provide festive draping for the donkey and make a little ceremony of setting Jesus in place for the ride into the city. The “very great multitude” (v. 8) hastily contrives a royal carpet by spreading their cloaks on the roadway, while some cut branches from nearby trees to wave, adding yet another festive touch.
Every parade needs the right music, and these Psalm-singing Jews have a fitting song to sing. Echoing Psalm 118:25–26, they sing, “Hosanna!” which is Hebrew for “Save us now,” or, as it reads in the kjv, “Save now, I beseech thee, O Lord.” As is, it is a one-word prayer for the salvation of God. But the text is spontaneously altered to become “Hosanna to the Son of David!” which is a messianic title acknowledging that God has promised to save His people by the hand of His anointed king.
Matthew reminds us that this was all done to fulfill the prophecy of Zechariah 9:9. But we should not miss the intentional paradox in the prophecy between the high station of Zion’s king and Savior and the lowly manner in which He presents Himself to His people: “meek, and sitting upon an ass” (Matt. 21:5). The king comes not with a show of force; not with a sword girt on His thigh; not on a prancing steed; not riding in a chariot of war. This king comes to make peace, not to wage war.
Even so, Christ is publicly signing His own death warrant, for this public demonstration rouses the whole city and has everyone asking, “Who is this?” (v. 10). Word of this impromptu parade quickly reaches the ears of the Jewish leaders, confirming their worst fears about Jesus. His presence in Jerusalem under these conditions threatens their power and authority; something now must be done to solve this political problem.
Christ dismounts in the city and enters the temple, where he confronts one of the unintended consequences of the Mosaic system of animal sacrifice. The animals to be sacrificed must meet strict standards of perfection, so a lucrative trade has sprung up in the courts of God’s house. The dispersion of the Jews has compounded the problem, since Jews coming to the temple from places outside Judea only have their home currency, not the currency required for purchasing the sacrificial animals. What began as a necessary service of currency exchange is now a thriving, corrupt business.
Exercising God-given authority as the Lord’s Christ, Jesus sets about the task of cleansing the temple, driving out the merchants and money-changers, and charging them with turning the house of prayer into a den of thieves. He then turns to the blind and the lame, and righteous wrath gives way to compassion as He uses that divine authority to heal. Meanwhile, bands of children go about the temple, repeating the song of the day: “Hosanna to the Son of David” (Matt. 21:12–17).
The chief priests and scribes are “sore displeased” (v. 15) by the authority Christ displays in cleansing the temple and healing the sick. But they turn their anger on the children, protesting their singing. Jesus counters their protest by quoting Psalm 8. He says that the grace and glory of the Son of man (v. 4) under whose feet God has put all things (v. 6), must evoke praise even from “babes and sucklings.”
Matthew next relates how Christ curses a fig tree for not producing fruit, and the tree withers away. The disciples marvel at the phenomenon, prompting a short, encouraging lesson on believing prayer and the power of true faith (21:21–22). The disciples apparently do not link this event with the parable of the barren fig tree that Christ has taught them earlier (Luke 13:6–9).
Christ’s cursing of the barren fig tree must be placed in context with the other demonstrations of His unique, God-given authority in this passage. The fig tree is a symbol of the barren, unbelieving church of those times, which was about to fall under the wrath and curse of God. This prompts us to wonder: What if Christ were to draw near to the city in which we live? How would He be received? What corruptions would provoke His righteous wrath? Would our barrenness call down His fatal curse? What neglected ministries of mercy and compassion would He need to restore in our churches? How will we respond when our king comes to us?