Matthew 21:1-11

Who Is This?

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Matthew 21:1-11

Who Is This?

By Dr. Mickey Anders
“Guess who this is.” It’s a game I love to play with children of a certain age, and they love it too. I will slip up behind them, cover their eyes and say, “Guess who this is?” And they always know!

Well, that’s because they have already seen me entering the room, or even seen me play the same game with the person standing beside them. They will watch me play the game with their friends, and immediately say, “Do me! Do me!”

They know who I am! They just watched me play the game and heard me identified. But they want to play the game anyway. As I cover their eyes, they begin to giggle because they know the answer before I have asked the question. “Guess who this is.” And they scream, “It’s Pastor Mickey!”

Little children love to play the obvious, but by the time they get a little older that simple game is just too obvious for them. But I still like it. Guess who this is.

In today’s Scripture passage about the Triumphal Entry, Jesus seems to be playing a game, “Guess who I am.” This story for Palm Sunday is all about the identity question. Verse 10 makes it clear, “When he had come into Jerusalem, all the city was stirred up, saying, ‘Who is this?'”

Who is this?

I believe this question helps us understand the fickle reactions of the people present at that first Palm Sunday. The most obvious question from Palm Sunday is, “How could the same people who yelled, ‘Hosanna!’ on Sunday turn around and yell ‘Crucify Him!’ on Friday?” The cheers turned into jeers in an alarmingly short time.

How do we solve this mystery? I think we solve it by looking at how the people responded that that question, “Who is this?” Everybody was looking for something different in Jesus, and most were disappointed in who he really was.

Who was Jesus for the crowds? They wanted a Miracle Jesus. They probably loved the fact that he taught in parables that were easier to understand than the obscure reasoning they heard from the Pharisees. They were attracted to him because he was a vigorous, dynamic leader. They liked it when he put the Pharisees in their place. But of all the qualities of Jesus that the crowds loved, they loved him best as a miracle man. The crowds thronged around him when they saw him healing the lame, the blind and the sick. And they clamored for more.

On one occasion the crowds pestered him for another miracle, but “He sighed deeply in his spirit, and said, ‘Why does this generation seek a sign? Most certainly I tell you, no sign will be given to this generation.’ He left them” (Mark 8:11-12). And they must have been especially disappointed on the seven occasions in the Gospel of Mark when Jesus performed a miracle, then told them to tell no one about it. The crowds wanted a Miracle Jesus, but he disappointed them.

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Who was Jesus for the Pharisees? They wanted a Ritual Jesus. They thought the most important matter of religion was to be found, not in how they believed or prayed, but in how they dressed and washed and ate. Their greatest fear was that their whole culture would be absorbed into the culture of the Hellenistic world. So they emphasized the thousand little details that kept them distinctly Jewish. These every day rituals were the way they could keep themselves pure and unique. But Jesus came preaching that the real way to God was through having faith in God and maintaining a high ethical standard. In fact, Jesus often broke the rules that the Pharisees had set up. He broke the Sabbath, ate with the unclean, and defied the laws of purification. The Pharisees wanted a Ritual Jesus, but he disappointed them.

Who was Jesus for the Zealots? They wanted a Military Jesus. The Zealots were the radical nationalists who were ready to use force, even terrorism, to overthrow the oppressive hand of the Roman government. Many suggest that Simon was a Zealot, and perhaps Judas. The Jewish patriots were always on the edge of rebellion. These followers expected Jesus to take up a sword and call his followers to arms at any moment. They clearly wanted Jesus to be the leader of their resistance movement. When Jesus came to Jerusalem and cleansed the Temple by force, they must have whispered to one another to gather the troops.

In Luke’s description of this time, he observes, “They supposed that the kingdom of God would be revealed immediately” (Luke 19:11). But Jesus said to “Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.” He said, “All those who take the sword will die by the sword” (Matthew 26:52). The Zealots wanted a Military Jesus, but He disappointed them.

Who was Jesus for the Disciples? They wanted a Victorious Jesus. They began following Jesus when the crowds were thronging around him. Their heads were full of self-seeking dreams. They wondered aloud which of them would be allowed to sit at his right hand when he came into his kingdom. They were thinking of the prizes, not the costs. It must have been a heady time to be one of the chosen twelve. These men were the true believers. Simon Peter spoke for them all when he boldly proclaimed at Caesarea Philippi, “Thou are the Christ!” They expected Jesus to be accepted quickly by every Jewish person. He would be greater than David. But Jesus kept up his negative talk about his death. He kept hinting that persecution would be their lot, not glory. Jesus had no concept of the victorious Messiah; his was a picture of a Suffering Servant. And he made clear that following him meant taking up a cross. The Disciples wanted a victorious Messiah, but Jesus disappointed them.

All of these different groups were in the crowd that first Palm Sunday, each with their own private view of Jesus. As they waved the palm branches and shouted, “Hosanna,” they thought they were finally getting what they wanted.

The crowds assumed that he would do even more miracles in Jerusalem than he had in Galilee, and the coming days would be filled with massive crowds and a frenzy of miracles.

The Pharisees had already decided that Jesus wasn’t to their liking. They floated on the edges of the crowd trying to catch him in a misstep so they could turn the crowds against him.

The Zealots were thrilled that Jesus was finally bringing the revolution to the seat of Roman power in Jerusalem.

The Disciples expected this to be their greatest week of popularity and glory. But the expectations of all these groups were quickly dashed as the week progressed.

When we look closely at the dynamics of that Palm Sunday, we are not really surprised at the Friday outcome. On the surface, it seems like the Triumphal Entry was a grand celebration, but underneath we find the seeds of the crucifixion lying among the palms.

Fred Craddock says the Triumphal Entry was a parade, a protest and a funeral procession. We have all seen the nature of the event as a parade with the throngs shouting their praises as Jesus slowly rides into Jerusalem. Perhaps we could understand this event as a protest. But most importantly, it was also a funeral procession. Only Jesus knew that this was the beginning of the end.

Palm Sunday was a funeral procession. Jesus knew the cheering would stop very soon.

On Sunday they shouted, “Hosanna,” and treated him like the King of the Jews. On Friday, they hung him on a cross and put up a sign saying, “The King of the Jews.”

The real meaning of Palm Sunday for us can be found in that same question I asked about each of the groups, “Who is this? Who was Jesus?” Perhaps the most important question in life is the one the people asked in our passage, “Who is this?

Do we want a Miracle Jesus or Ritual Jesus? Do we want a Military Jesus or a Victorious Jesus?

Phillip Yancey begins his book entitled, The Jesus I Never Knew, by saying, “I first got acquainted with Jesus when I was a child, singing ‘Jesus Loves Me’ in Sunday school, addressing bedtime prayers to ‘Dear Lord Jesus,’ watching Bible club teachers move cutout figures across a flannel graph board. I associated Jesus with Kool-Aid and sugar cookies and gold stars for good attendance.” This Jesus, he said, was a lot like Mr. Rogers.

Who is this? Mr. Rogers?

When Yancey began to watch films about Jesus, he found that the actors often portrayed Him in stereotypical, serene fashion. Yancey says, “In older Hollywood films about Jesus, he recites his lines evenly and without emotion. He strides through life as the one calm character among a cast of flustered extras. Nothing rattles him. He dispenses wisdom in flat, measured tones. He is, in short, the Prozac Jesus” (The Jesus I Never Knew, p. 88).

Who is this? Mr. Rogers? Prozac Jesus?

In the 1960s movie Cool Hand Luke, Paul Newman sings the song “Plastic Jesus,” which says:

“Well, I don’t care if it rains or freezes,
Long as I have my plastic Jesus
Riding on the dashboard of my car
I could go a hundred miles an hour
Long as I got the Almighty Power
Glued up there with my fuzzy dice.”

Who is this? Mr. Rogers? Prozac Jesus? Plastic Jesus?

I remember a poem from “The Student” magazine back when I was in college. The poem was about a student who had his Jesus in a bottle so that he could take him out when it was convenient and then put him back on the shelf when it wasn’t.

Who is this? Do we worship the plastic Jesus or the Prozac Jesus? Do we want our Jesus in a bottle so we can control him or do we want a Mr. Rogers kind of Jesus so that he will not be a threat to us? The problem with all these versions of Jesus is that he is so much more. Jesus always has challenged people’s misperceptions of him.

If we are looking for any of those, we will be disappointed too. But note that the reason we are disappointed is that we are looking for the wrong kind of Jesus.

A friend wrote me once with a wonderful quote she heard on the radio. Each time one lady discovers someone claiming to be an atheist, she responds, “Tell me about the God you don’t believe in.” And when they do, she usually observes, “I don’t think I would like that kind of God either.” Our disappointments in God usually come from a wrong view of God.

The same thing can be said of Jesus. All these people looked for the wrong thing in Jesus and were disappointed. But when we really see Jesus, the real item, we will be amazed and certainly not disappointed at what we find.

Jesus had already played the identity game with the Disciples at Caesarea Philippi when he asked, “Who do men say that I am?” They responded that some folks think he is John the Baptist. Others say Elijah the prophet. Some say Jeremiah or one of the prophets.

Then Jesus asks the most pertinent question, “But who do you say that I am?” And Peter blurts out, “You are the Christ, the son of the living God.”

The writers of the New Testament were so taken by Jesus that they could not say enough positive about him. John quotes Jesus as saying, “I and the Father are one.” And “He who has seen me has seen the Father.”

The writer of Colossians says,

He “is the image of the invisible God,
the firstborn of all creation.
For by him all things were created,
in the heavens and on the earth,
things visible and things invisible,
whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers;
all things have been created through him, and for him.
He is before all things, and in him all things are held together.
He is the head of the body, the assembly,
who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead;
that in all things he might have the preeminence.
For all the fullness was pleased to dwell in him;
and through him to reconcile all things to himself,
by him, whether things on the earth, or things in the heavens,
having made peace through the blood of his cross.”
(Colossians 1:15-20).

The writer of Hebrews says,

“God, having in the past spoken to the fathers through the prophets
at many times and in various ways,
has at the end of these days spoken to us by his Son,
whom he appointed heir of all things,
through whom also he made the worlds.
His Son is the radiance of his glory,
the very image of his substance,
and upholding all things by the word of his power.”
(Hebrews 1:1-3).

Phillip Yancey quotes Napoleon saying these words about Jesus:

“Everything in Christ astonishes me.
His spirit overawes me,
and his will confounds me.
Between him and whoever else in the world,
there is no possible term of comparison.
He is truly a being by himself…
I search in vain in history to find the similar to Jesus Christ,
or anything which can approach the gospel.
Neither history, nor humanity, nor the ages, nor nature,
offer me anything with which I am able to compare it or to explain it.
Here everything is extraordinary”
(The Jesus I Never Knew, p. 83).

From those early days until now the Christian community has affirmed that, “We have found in this person the light in our darkness, the way that has led us from death to life, the bread of life that nourishes us even now; we have found in this person the word and wisdom of God; we have found in this person the son of God, the promised messiah; he is one with God, and we address him as “My Lord and my God.”

As Marcus Borg says, “Jesus is, for us as Christians, the decisive revelation of what a life full of God looks like. Radically centered in God and filled with the Spirit, he is the decisive disclosure and epiphany of what can be seen of God embodied in a human life. As the Word and Wisdom and Spirit of God become flesh, his life incarnates the character of God, indeed, the passion of God. In him we see God’s passion. He is the decisive revelation of God for us as Christians.”

Who is Jesus for us? Are we looking for a Savior? The real meaning of Holy Week, indeed the meaning of his whole life and death and resurrection, is that he came and died for us. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”

You know, it really doesn’t matter what the crowds were looking for. It doesn’t matter what the Pharisees or the Zealots or the Disciples were looking for. The real meaning of Palm Sunday is between us and God. What kind of Jesus are we looking for? We still ask the question, “Who is this?” And our answer makes all the difference.

Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.

Copyright, 2008, Mickey Anders.  Used by permission.