“Who Is This?” (Matthew 21:1-11; 27:11-66)
“Who is this?” That would seem to be the question of the day for this day that serves as both Palm Sunday and the Sunday of the Passion. “Who is this?” That’s what the people of Jerusalem were asking about the man who came riding into town on a donkey. That’s the question that swirled around this same man later in the week when he stood before Pilate and the crowd and when he went to the cross to suffer and to die. Who is this? Who is this man, Jesus of Nazareth, the subject of so much controversy, the object of both accusation and acclaim? Who is this guy anyway?
And it’s a question that echoes down to our day, too. Who is this man Jesus? The answers that people give reveal a wide range of opinion, ranging from rank unbelief to raw ignorance to a polite dismissal, from a correct yet canned response to a heartfelt trust and worship. How about you? How would you answer this question about Jesus? “Who Is This?” It’s the most important question you will ever answer.
“Who is this?” There was no lack of opinions back on Palm Sunday and Good Friday. The buzz was going around. Jesus was the talk of the town. Jerusalem was a hopping place at the time. It was Passover week, and all the pilgrims were streaming into town to observe the great festival. Crowds were pouring in from all over. Many were coming from up north, from the area around Galilee, where Jesus had done most of his ministry. They had seen Jesus do many of his miracles and acts of mercy. They had heard Jesus’ teaching, the divine wisdom he displayed in explaining and applying the Scriptures. People marveled at Jesus’ authority, which clearly came from God. So these people, those who had witnessed Jesus in action–they welcomed Jesus as he rode into town. They hailed him, hopefully and expectantly, as their king: “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!”
Wow, there’s a lot there! Beginning with that word “Hosanna.” It’s a Hebrew word. It goes back to Psalm 118. Psalm 118 was one of the prescribed psalms for the celebration of the Passover, so it was a scripture that was on the minds of the people coming into town. In verses 25 and 26 of that psalm we read: “Save us, we pray, O Lord! O Lord, we pray, give us success! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” That little statement, “Save us, we pray”–in Hebrew that is “Hoshiana,” or, as we say, “Hosanna.” It’s a prayer to the Lord that he would save us. But over time it also became an acclamation of praise to the Lord, because he saves us. And it especially became associated with the Lord’s promise to someday send the Messiah to do that saving, to do the delivering.
That’s why the people shout, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” “The Son of David” is a way to say “the Messiah.” The Messiah, the Christ, was prophesied to come from the line of the great King David. In popular opinion, the Messiah was expected to take up David’s throne, in Jerusalem, and to deliver Israel from all her foes and to restore her greatness and grandeur. These were the hopes, then, that the people were placing onto Jesus as he came riding into town. Here is the great messianic king that we’ve been waiting for all these centuries! This is the one, finally!
“Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” They get that much right, as far as it goes. The question is, though: What kind of a king, what kind of a messiah, were they expecting? Could they imagine the counterintuitive way in which Jesus would establish his kingdom later this week? To suffer and die in shame, on a cross? This would be no throne of glory that Jesus would take up.
Who is this, this man riding into town with palm branches and cloaks spread before him? When asked that question, some in the crowds that were hailing him as king answer: “This is the prophet Jesus, from Nazareth of Galilee.” So is he a king? Or is he a prophet? Or maybe both? That people would call him a prophet is understandable. No one could do the works that Jesus was doing unless God was with him. And the powerful preaching of Jesus, calling people to repentance, bold and unafraid to speak the word of the Lord to any and all concerned–this type of ministry marked Jesus as following in the line of the prophets of old. Again, as with the acclamation as king, so also with this appraisal of Jesus as prophet: It was true, as far as it goes. But it doesn’t go far enough. For here is one greater than the prophets. Indeed, here is the very one the prophets were looking for! For instance, he is the Servant of the Lord that the prophet Isaiah predicted, the Suffering Servant, the one who would die for the sins of the people. Yet the people don’t yet fully realize who this man is.
“Who is this?” Fast forward to Good Friday. Jesus has been betrayed and arrested the night before by his enemies, the religious leaders of Israel. They hated Jesus, because he had exposed their hypocrisy and was undermining their position of prestige among the people. So they plotted, and they acted, and under the cover of darkness they took Jesus before their Council and accused him of blasphemy and decided to get rid of him. Now they take Jesus before the Roman governor, to persuade him to do their will and put Jesus to death. Before Pilate they accuse Jesus of being an upstart insurrectionist, a self-proclaimed king who would be a threat to Roman rule. This is language Pilate would understand–any potential threat to Roman power would be something he would want to squash decisively–so Jesus’ enemies think they have him now. But Pilate doesn’t see before him any rebel threat. This man doesn’t seem like the leader of a political insurrection.
“Are you the King of the Jews?” Pilate asks. “Do you not hear how many things they testify against you?” No, Jesus is not leading a political rebellion, Pilate can see that. He sees that Jesus’ religious rivals are simply acting out of hatred and jealousy and are making things up, in order to get rid of him. But eventually Pilate bows to their pressure, he wants to avoid a riot, and he lets them have their way with Jesus. Off to crucifixion.
Who is this man hanging on the cross? Over his head there is posted a sign: “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.” Yes, true, but truer in a deeper way than anyone supposed. As Jesus is hanging there, the mockers mock, “If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.” Jesus’ enemies, whose plot now had succeeded–the chief priests, the scribes and the elders–they mock him also: “He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he desires him. For he said, ‘I am the Son of God.’”
“He saved others; he cannot save himself.” No, he cannot. Oh, he had the power to come down from that cross, but he would not do it. For by staying and suffering and dying on that cross, this is precisely how Jesus will save others. This is how he will save all the sinners of the world. This is how he will save you, dear friend. Who is this Jesus? He is indeed the Son of God, come down from heaven, lifted up on a cross, shedding his holy blood, in order to save and rescue you.
Who is this? This Jesus is indeed the King of Israel, the Son of David, the Messiah. But he has more important foes to deliver you from than merely the Romans. No, there is death and the devil to overcome. And that will require the forgiveness of sins, to remove the curse hanging over you, to remove the accusation lodged against you. Your sins will need to be forgiven, so that death cannot claim you and Satan cannot control you.
And there is more than earthly glory and grandeur that this King has to give you. His kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, consisting of new life, eternal life, victory over the grave. He gives you joy and hope and purpose in this life, and eternal life in the age to come.
Who is this man Jesus? When he dies, the centurion standing there speaks better than he knows: “Truly this was the Son of God!” And truly he is! Jesus Christ is the Son of God, our Lord and mighty Savior. Jesus Christ is the King of Israel, the Messiah, who brings us into his kingdom of forgiveness, life, and salvation, his heavenly kingdom of joy and peace and pardon. “Who is this?” Fellow redeemed, you know the answer to this question. So today hail him as your king. Welcome him with the shout of faith: “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!”