Matthew (Mt.21.1) says that as Jesus and the disciples were approaching Bethphage, an outlying district of Jerusalem, Jesus sent two of the disciples ahead of them to procure a donkey and her colt. Matthew is the only writer who mentions two animals, and some scholars have suggested, in a manner insulting to Matthew, that he misunderstood the text he is about to cite from Zechariah and invented the extra animal to conform to it. Matthew was not stupid, of course. Jesus did not ride on two animals. He is merely recording a detail the other writers omit, namely, that there was a mother donkey and her foal, on which Jesus actually sat, though the clothes were spread on both. As far as the prophecy is concerned, it is an example of Hebrew parallelism in which two lines say the same thing, which Matthew certainly understood. We could translate, “on a donkey, that is, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”
Matthew records Jesus as saying, “Go into the village in front of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her. Untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, you shall say, ‘The Lord needs them,’ and he will send them at once” (Mt.21.2-3). Mark and Luke say that some people (Luke, “the owners”) did ask why the disciples were untying the animal but that they were willing to give it when they learned “the Lord” needed it (Mark 11.4-6; Luke 19.33-34).
Why did Jesus arrange to enter Jerusalem in this way? He did not need to ride. He had already walked the entire distance from Galilee. In fact, this is the only occasion when we hear of Jesus doing anything but walking. Obviously, Jesus wanted to make a statement (as we say) or, to use a biblical way of speaking, a symbolic action. He was acting like Jeremiah when Jeremiah was told to buy and then break a clay jar to symbolize the breaking of the nation (Je.19.1-15) or buy a field to symbolize God’s commitment to bring the people back to the land of Israel after their captivity in Babylon (Je.32.6-44).
The meaning of what Jesus arranged is found in the quotation of Zechariah 9.9, for Matthew says that this took place “to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet” – “Say to the Daughter of Zion, ‘Behold, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden.’”
The quotation is from a section of the book prophesying what was to happen to Israel in the future, and what it prophesies is the coming of God’s King. The quotation does not appear in Mark or Luke. John contains it, but it is not as complete nor is it emphasized. Matthew is the Gospel of the King, and this is the point at which Matthew shows Jesus coming to His capital city as the rightful King of Israel.
But what a king! Not a warlike monarch, arriving on a battle steed to marshall his armies for action. Rather, Jesus comes “humble [gentle] and riding on a donkey,” as Zechariah says (v.5). In these far-off days a donkey was not an ignoble animal. Kings did ride them. When David appointed Solomon to be his successor as king of Israel, he had him seated on his personal mule and taken to Gihon to be anointed by Zadok the priest and Nathan the prophet (I Kings 1.32-40). Yet the donkey did symbolize that Jesus was coming in peace, not for war, and that His was to be a gentle, peaceful reign. This is what Jesus indicated by His action and what Matthew emphasized by retaining the word humble [gentle] in the quote. John omits the line containing humble [gentle] in his quotation because he is interested only in the fact that Jesus’ riding on a colt fulfilled the words of Zechariah.
Is Jesus ever going to do battle? Yes, indeed. In Revelation 19 He is described as arriving on a white horse to judge and make war (v.11). His robes are dipped in blood (v.13), which probably recalls the warlike figure of Isaiah 63, who comes from Edom with his robes dyed crimson. But that is for then. For now the King comes humbly and in peace, for His is a peaceable kingdom. We sing in the hymn, Lead On, O King Eternal, “For not with swords loud clashing, Nor roll of stirring drums, But deeds of love and mercy, The heavenly kingdom comes.”
Up to this point Jesus had been keeping His messianic claim a secret lest there be a premature attempt to make Him king, and because Jesus was not the kind of king the people wanted. But now, knowing that the time of His passion was at hand, Jesus deliberately provoked this demonstration.
Jesus was always in control of the events that affected His life. He initiated His own coronation when He sent two disciples to procure the animal on which He would ride into Jerusalem. By doing so He set into motion a series of climactic events that culminated in the voluntary, sacrifice of Himself on the cross that had been divinely planned from eternity past. From beginning to end the Gospels completely belie the contention of many liberal interpreters that Jesus was carried away by the enthusiasm of the mob and became caught up in a tragic web of religious and political intrigue that caught Him by surprise. He was not a well-meaning moral teacher who went too far in antagonizing the Jewish leaders and was helplessly swept away to an untimely execution.
This coronation has been called Jesus’ triumphal entry. It was His last major public appearance before His crucifixion – seldom studied or understood for its true significance.
Pastor Steve can be reached at PastorSteve@MaranathaBibleChurch.org