The crowd certainly stirred up Jerusalem with their proclamation of Jesus as anointed king: Hosanna! The Son of David. Arriving in the name of the Lord, they proclaimed (21:9).
But these proclaimers were not residents of the city. They were country people who’d followed Jesus down the Jordan from Galilee to Jericho (20:29). There’s a twist.
The capital does not recognize her king. They ask, Who is this? (21:10).
A king? Seriously? He doesn’t look regal. It doesn’t help when they hear he’s a prophet from a place of no significance in Judah’s history, a town that wasn’t even part of Judah:
Matthew 21:10-11 (my translation, compare NIV)
10 His arrival at Jerusalem shook the whole city, with people saying, “Who is this?” 11 The arriving crowds said, “This is the prophet Jesus, from Nazareth in Galilee.”
Matthew is setting up for a dark plot development. Ordinary people may call Jesus the king who answers their prayers and saves his people, but the authorities in Jerusalem are not about to recognize him as their God-sent king.
And Jesus knows. It’s clear to him that those in power resist God. That’s what’s wrong with the world. That’s how it’s been since humans declared their autonomy to decide good and evil, taking the earth into rebellion against God’s authority (Genesis 3). Ever since the nations separated from divine authority to go their own way (Genesis 10-11), God has worked through Israel to restore the blessing of his reign (Genesis 12). Ever since the nations crushed Israel, God has promised the return of a son of David to set the world right (Zechariah 9; Psalm 118). Jesus knew that the rebellion in the human heart would not allow the leaders in Jerusalem to recognize him. God’s anointed king would die at the hands of the elders, the chief priests, and the teachers of the law (16:21; 20:18).
The sin of the world is its rejection of God’s authority. The ultimate expression of the sin of the world is the assassination of God’s anointed. The conflict in Matthew 21–28 is not incidental to the story or accidental to the plot. The cross is what it looks like when the all-powerful God confronts the power claims of those who reject his authority.
Why in Jerusalem? This was the city called to demonstrate divine rule to the world, the prototype kingdom of God. But what Jerusalem does to God’s anointed is no different to how humanity in general has responded to God’s authority. God’s anointed comes to Jerusalem to bring his own people back under his reign. Then, through them, he brings the whole world under his kingship.
How Jerusalem responded when confronted with God’s king is how the world is still responding today. It’s those who have power who find it hardest to yield to God’s kingship.
Yet, the power of service does replace the power of oppression. This is how the son of David saves the world. We proclaim the king by living as his kingdom, with the same Spirit who anointed God’s Messiah.
We live as his kingdom so people will ask of our king, “Who’s this?”
What others are saying
R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, NICNT (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007), 782:
The people of the city have every reason to see trouble ahead as the unruly Galilean crowd bring “their” prophet into Jerusalem in a royal procession.
Update 2022-04-07: Original translation added (instead of NIV).