The entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem at the Triumphal Entry is a thoroughly surprising event. Every bit of it is unexpected, not quite conforming to anyone’s expectations–except, of course, to the expectations of King Jesus himself. On Palm Sunday, Jesus entered Jerusalem as the unexpected King, riding an unexpected war horse, coming to claim his unexpected kingdom.
Luke records the event in his gospel this way:
28And when he had said these things, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem. 29When he drew near to Bethphage and Bethany, at the mount that is called Olivet, he sent two of the disciples, 30saying, “Go into the village in front of you, where on entering you will find a colt tied, on which no one has ever yet sat. Untie it and bring it here. 31If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ you shall say this: ‘The Lord has need of it.'”
32So those who were sent went away and found it just as he told them. 33And as they were untying the colt, its owners said to them, “Why are you untying the colt?” 34And they said, “The Lord has need of it.” 35And they brought it to Jesus, and throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. 36And as he rode along, they spread their cloaks on the road.
37And as he was drawing near–already on the way down the Mount of Olives–the whole multitude of his disciples began to rejoice and praise God with a loud voice for all the mighty works that they had seen, 38saying, “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!”
39And some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples.” 40He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out.” (Luke 19:28-40)
The Unexpected King and His Kingdom
The context of v. 28 (“And when he had said these things”) is important. Jesus had just finished the parable of the ten minas, a parable he opened by saying:
11As they heard these things, he proceeded to tell a parable, because he was near to Jerusalem and because they supposed that the kingdom of God was to appear immediately. 12He said therefore, “A nobleman went into a far country to receive for himself a kingdom and then return…” (Luke 19:11-12)
As the words of v. 28 make clear, this parable clarifies to some extent the meaning of what Jesus is doing as he rides into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. First, those who were following and listening to him “supposed that the kingdom of God was to appear immediately.” Jesus directed his parable (as well as his triumphal entry) toward dispelling this notion. Yes, Jesus is the King who was to receive a kingdom, but no, the kingdom would not appear immediately.
But second, Jesus is about to receive his kingdom, although he would be an entirely unexpected king with an entirely unexpected kind of kingdom. Within two months, Jesus would ascend to a far country (heaven) to receive for himself a kingdom, going to be seated at the right hand of his Father. He would receive the kingdom, even if the kingdom would not appear in its fullness until his return.
This is not the kind of kingdom that the people expected. While Jesus did not stop them from hailing him as King as the Pharisees demanded, he in no way intended on becoming their King in the manner that they expected.
The Unexpected War Horse of the Unexpected King
When a King rides into battle, he does so on a horse fit for the task. Thus, when Jesus returns to conquer his enemies once and for all, we read in Revelation that he will return riding on a white horse (Rev. 19:11-21).
But here, Jesus again takes the role of the unexpected king, riding into Jerusalem on the opposite of a war horse, a colt (or, as other gospels explain, a donkey). This animal was too young, too common, and too feeble for the rigors of battle. Today, this would be like riding an old bike into a battle zone to face tanks.
By his choice of animal, Jesus conveyed something about the nature of his conquest. He had no plans to ride into battle with his guns blazing. A donkey was a common labor animal that was used in times of peace for normal, everyday work. Jesus’ entry into the city signified that his reign would bring peace to the city. Indeed, Jesus’ entry into the city would not lead to the shedding of others’ blood, but of his own.
Still, no one had ever sat on this colt. Just as Jesus’ tomb had never received a corpse, so this animal had never taken a rider. Jesus did come in on a common mount; however, his Kingship nevertheless demanded exclusivity for his mount.
Here, Jesus surprises us from multiple angles: on the one hand, he rejects the normal war horse of a conquering king. But on the other hand, he insists upon a special honor of an un-ridden horse. Even though his kingdom is not what we expect, Jesus still demonstrates its uniqueness, honor, and glory.
The Unexpected Reception for the Unexpected King
As Jesus rides into town, the people of the city come out to welcome their King. We read that his disciples (not just the 12, but “the whole multitude of his disciples”) honored him by spreading their own cloaks over the donkey, by spreading their cloaks on the roll (rolling out the red carpet for him, as it were), and by rejoicing and praising God and shouting “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!”
What is so shocking about this reception is the fact that these very same people will turn against Jesus in less than one week, following the lead of the religious leaders in demanding that Pilate crucify him. Knowing the rest of the story, this reception is an entirely unexpected and surprising.
The Unexpected Rebuke of the Unexpected King
The whole event begins to grow beyond the control of the Pharisees. Frustrated that the people are hailing Jesus as King, they order Jesus to rebuke his disciples. There is something ironic about their order: they recognized that they had no power over the situation, and so they appealed to Jesus, whom they insisted did not have any power himself, not being the King that everyone made him out to be!
Knowing the expectations that the crowd carried into this event, we might expect Jesus to take this advice. After all, they were hailing him as a warrior king, a king who could march into Jerusalem, overthrow the Romans, and free the people from their bondage. Jesus had no intention of doing this, and so he might have rebuked them for their cries of Hosanna (“Save us now!”). I have even read some Christians recently argue that we ourselves should not cry Hosanna on Palm Sunday because of the deep misunderstanding of the nature of Christ’s Kingdom; however, when they do so, they unwittingly echo the words of the Pharisees here.
Jesus, though, does not rebuke the people. As mistaken as they were about the nature of his kingship and of his kingdom, he accepted their praise as their rightful King. And indeed, he would “save them now” as they asked, but not in the way they expected.
Instead, Jesus turns to rebuke the Pharisees: “I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out.”
No, Jesus would not become the King that the people were imagining on Palm Sunday. But make no mistake: Jesus was–and he is–the rightful King. His Kingdom came not through military might or conquest, but through laying down his life on the cross.
As much as the world expected Kings to be mighty warriors and criminals to die on the cross, Jesus completely inverted the categories: the King purchased his kingdom through submitting to his own execution. As foolish as his method was in the sight of the world, he nevertheless accomplished exactly the purpose for which he came into the world.
And if we were silent, withholding our praise from Jesus, such is the absolute nature of Jesus’ kingdom that the rocks themselves would cry out to supply Jesus the praise he deserves.
Rather than abnegating our role to inanimate rocks, let us praise our unexpected King for his unexpectedly glorious kingdom.