Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem on a donkey was not a casual ride to town, but an incredible fulfillment of ancient prophecy. In this sermon, R.C. Sproul continues his exposition of the gospel of Mark to unfold the rich layers of meaning behind Christ’s triumphal entry.
I ask that we turn our attention to Mark 11:1–11. I’ll ask the congregation please to stand for the reading of the Word of God.
Now when they drew near Jerusalem, to Bethphage and Bethany, at the Mount of Olives, He sent two of His disciples; and He said to them, “Go into the village opposite you; and as soon as you have entered it you will find a colt tied, on which no one has sat. Loose it and bring it. And if anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ say, ‘The Lord has need of it,’ and immediately he will send it here.”
So they went their way, and found the colt tied by the door outside on the street, and they loosed it. But some of those who stood there said to them, “What are you doing, loosing the colt?”
And they spoke to them just as Jesus had commanded. So they let them go. Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their clothes on it, and He sat on it. And many spread their clothes on the road, and others cut down leafy branches from the trees and spread them on the road. Then those who went before and those who followed cried out, saying:
“Hosanna! ‘Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!’ Blessed is the kingdom of our father David That comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!”
And Jesus went into Jerusalem and into the temple. So when He had looked around at all things, as the hour was already late, He went out to Bethany with the twelve.
We’re grateful this Christmas Eve morning to be able to hear a word that comes to us from God Himself. Please be seated. Let us pray.
Our Father and our God, give us understanding hearts to the significance of this moment in the life of our Lord and also what it means for us today. We ask these things in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Advent into Jerusalem
At the beginning of chapter 11, we start the last third of the gospel of Mark. One interesting point of this division in the text is that this third focuses attention on presumably the last seven days of Jesus’ life. In like manner, in John’s gospel, if you recall when we preached through it from start to finish, half of that gospel focuses on the last week or so of Jesus’ life. The gospel writers understood that from the time Jesus arrived in Jerusalem until the time He died, was raised, and ascended into heaven, all of the energy of God’s promise of redemption was focused in that short period of time.
It’s Christmas Eve morning, and traditionally on this day we have some way of celebrating what we call the advent of Jesus, that is, the arrival or the coming of Jesus to this world. But when He came into this world as a baby, He was born to be a king. That’s why we talk about the marvelous gifts that were spread at the feet of the Christ child and the greetings that came from on high, those angelic announcements that a king was being born, the King of the Jews, which frightened Herod so deeply.
Now, after thirty years or so, we have the advent of that king into David’s royal city. Do you see the connection between His advent into the world and His advent into Jerusalem for the purpose of fulfilling the kingly prophecies of the Christ child? Let’s look at this text.
“When they drew near Jerusalem, to Bethphage and Bethany, at the Mount of Olives.”
One technical point is that this text first mentions Bethphage, which means “house of unripe figs,” and Bethany, which means “a house of sorrow.” It seems as though they first went through Bethphage and then to Bethany on their journey to Jerusalem. Critical scholars look at the intersections of the roads today that come from the north into Jerusalem, and they say: “The order is just reversed. First you have to go through Bethany, then you go through Bethphage before you can go to Jerusalem.” What the critics overlook is that Jesus wasn’t traveling on modern highways. He was traveling on a Roman road, and we know now that the Roman road went just as Mark said it did. That’s just an aside for those of you who like those little points of dispute.
Jesus and the disciples came to the Mount of Olives, and He sent two of His disciples and said to them: “Go into the village opposite, and when you enter it you will find a colt tied there, on which no one has ever sat. Loose it and bring it.” So, you hear the instructions that Jesus gave to His disciples at this point, “Go to the next village,” which was probably Bethphage, near the house of unripe figs. He said, “You walk into that village, and you’re going to find a colt that’s tied up that has never been ridden, and you untie it, and you bring it to me.”
That sounds strange, doesn’t it? It’s almost as if Jesus was telling His disciples to go and steal a donkey for Him, but that’s not what’s going on at all. He is consciously fulfilling the prophecies of the Old Testament, where on more than one occasion the Old Testament prophecies of the coming Messiah said that the Messiah would enter the city riding on a donkey.
The other gospel writers give a much more expansive report of what happens on Palm Sunday. This is the briefest account we have in Mark, typical of Mark’s fashion of hurrying through things. But we think, for example, of Zechariah 9:9, where it says, “Rejoice Jerusalem, your King comes unto you lowly and riding on a donkey.” That prophecy was well-known among the people who were waiting for their coming king. Most kings in the ancient world rode on great steeds, magnificent horses, like Alexander the Great, but not so the King of the Jews. He was to come riding on a donkey. That prophecy we find in Zechariah has its roots much earlier in the Old Testament. Let me just take a second to refer to that.
The Messiah, the Lion of Judah
This morning I’m going to be a bit of a flipper. I sometimes hear people say, “I listened to that preacher last week, and he’s a flipper.” A flipper is one who keeps flipping between different chapters in the Bible and gets everybody confused, but let’s look for a second in chapter 49 of Genesis.
What we have in Genesis 49 is the record of the patriarchal blessing that Jacob pronounced upon his sons. The first-born son was Reuben, but he was denied the patriarchal blessing because of his sin, and Simeon and Levi were likewise denied. When he came to the great patriarchal blessing in Genesis 49:8, listen to what he said:
Judah, you are he whom your brothers shall praise; Your hand shall be on the neck of your enemies; Your father’s children shall bow down before you. Judah is a lion’s whelp.
From that day forward, throughout the rest of sacred Scripture, the coming Messiah would be called the Lion of Judah. It goes on:
Judah is a lion’s whelp; From the prey, my son, you have gone up. He bows down, he lies down as a lion; And as a lion, who shall rouse him? The scepter [that is, the sign of royalty] shall not depart from Judah, Nor a lawgiver from between his feet, Until Shiloh comes; And to Him shall be the obedience of the people. Binding his donkey to the vine, And his donkey’s colt to the choice vine, He washed his garments in wine, And his clothes in the blood of grapes. (Gen. 49:9–11)
Deeply rooted in the Jewish consciousness of the Old Testament was this future hope of the King who would enter Mount Zion riding on a donkey as their coming Messiah.
The King’s Unridden Steed
Mark tells us what was happening, and Jesus instructed His disciples, “Go and get that colt tied there, untie it, and bring it to Me.” In the ancient world, including Israel, they had a concept of eminent domain that was much more limited than we have in our country. However, one of the prerogatives of the king was to commandeer a beast of burden whenever he needed it. So, Jesus as King exercised that right and commanded His disciples to go get that colt.
Something else is in view in this text. This was a colt that had never been ridden. I don’t know if they had rodeos in Israel, where they’d ride bucking donkeys to see how good they were, but the donkeys, just like the horses, had to be broken in order to become functional beasts of burden. The principle in Jewish history was that no one was ever allowed to ride on the king’s horse or the king’s donkey. Only the king was allowed to ride on it. That’s why Jesus specified, “Get Me a colt that has never been ridden,” because he’s the colt prepared for the King.
Jesus said to His disciples: “If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ say, ‘The Lord has need of it.’ And immediately he will send it here.” There’s a certain ambiguity in this text. Jesus says, “If anybody asks you what you’re doing, you just say, ‘The Lord, the kurios, needs it.’” That word can mean simply “sir,” or it can mean “master,” or it can have the more exalted significance of the supreme ruler and sovereign over the people. It’s rare that Mark uses that term with respect to Jesus, but here, Jesus uses it for Himself.
My guess, and it’s not a wild guess, is that He’s not simply saying, “Tell them the Master needs it,” but rather: “Tell them that the Sovereign One, the King of the Jews, requires that donkey. Immediately he will send it here.”
Kings Walking on Garments
“So, they went their way, and found the colt tied by the door, outside on the street, and they loosed it. But some of those who stood there said to them, ‘What are you doing loosing the colt?’ And they spoke to them just as Jesus had commanded. So they let them go. They brought the colt to Jesus and threw their clothes on it, and He sat on it.”
Notice this detail. When they brought the donkey to Jesus, His disciples took their garments and put the garments on the back of the donkey as a saddle for Jesus. We are told in the other gospels as well that the people, when Jesus began His procession, took off their outer garments and threw them on the pathway of the donkey. So, on Palm Sunday, when Jesus makes His triumphal entry into the city, the donkey is walking over a red carpet, as it were, created by the clothes of the people. That also has its roots in the Old Testament.
If I were to ask you, “Who was the worst king in the Old Testament?” would we have to debate it? Would you hesitate? Isn’t there one name that stands above—or below—the name of every other king?
King Ahab with his consort Jezebel introduced radical paganism and idolatry into the royal court of Israel. Ahab constantly sought the life of the prophet Elisha. Ahab’s wickedness was so great that, finally, God had enough of it. God announced to Elisha that He was going to replace Ahab. So, according to the commandments of God, Elisha took a vial of oil and gave it to one of the sons of the prophets, and he said, “Go to the house of Jehu, for the Lord has commanded that Jehu be anointed the king in place of Ahab.”
So, the prophet came to Jehu and explained to him what the word of God had commanded, and Jehu, who had no aspirations of royalty, nevertheless submitted to the word of God. The prophet anointed his head with oil, and all of the followers of Jehu cried out, “Jehu is king.” Then they took off their outer garments and put them in the path of Jehu, so that as he came down the steps from his court, he walked over the garments of his people. That same principle at the anointing of the king is being used in Mark 11 when the people take off their garments and put them in front of Jesus.
Glory on the Mount of Olives
Notice that when Jesus was involved in this procession, this triumphal entry, it began at Bethany. Bethany is where the Mount of Olives is, and the Mount of Olives is something of a misnomer. There at the top of the Mount of Olives is the little village of Bethany, and it looks out across the Kidron Valley, down to the city of Jerusalem, and the Mount of Olives is three hundred feet higher than Jerusalem. It’s just a big hill. It’s not a great glacial mountain or anything like that. So, the procession started at Bethany, on the Mount of Olives; so what?
Back in 586 BC, at the time of the destruction of Jerusalem and the captivity of Jerusalem to Babylon, when Jerusalem fell, God gave a vision to the prophet Ezekiel. The vision Ezekiel had, what he could see in his mind’s eye, was Jerusalem and the temple. In that vision, beloved, he saw the glory of God rise up from the temple. The glory of God departed from the east side of the city and went up three hundred feet, then came down on the Mount of Olives.
When I was in Jerusalem, I stayed on the Mount of Olives overlooking the Holy City. I can remember standing out on the patio from our hotel one night, and all the lights were illumining the walls of Jerusalem. I looked down across the Kidron Valley, and I’ve told you before of haunting memories I had of envisioning David fleeing the old city from Absalom, his son. But on another night, I was looking across the valley and into the city, and I remembered that vision of Ezekiel. In my mind’s eye, I saw the glory of God rising up from the temple, hovering, coming from the East Gate, then going up to where I was on the Mount of Olives, then coming down and landing there.
Remember the story of Ichabod, when the glory had departed from Israel. This was a much worse moment of Ichabod, the departure of the glory of God, as the people were now taken away into captivity. For the Jewish people, it was a holocaust of sorts, all surrounding the Mount of Olives.
Then we read that Jesus began this journey, and people cut down leafy branches from the trees and spread them on the road. We look at that every year on Palm Sunday, of the waving of the palms and the people crying: “Hosanna! [Which means, “Lord, save us now.”] Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!”
Another technical point that you may or may not be interested in is that some scholars say Mark compresses the time that Jesus spends in Jerusalem before His death. We celebrate holy week as starting on Palm Sunday, then Friday is the crucifixion, and Sunday is the resurrection, but John’s gospel has Jesus in Jerusalem for four months before He’s executed. The idea is that Mark is probably compressing this event, and rather than in the spring, it really took place in the fall, during the time of the Feast of Tabernacles, where people characteristically had palm branches as part of the celebration of that particular festival. We don’t know that for sure.
In any case, all of the gospels tell us that the people took palm branches that were symbols of victory and waved them in the air, crying out, “Hosanna, Lord save us now, blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!” That song of the people, when their King came riding to them lowly and on a donkey, was the first singing of the Sanctus, which we sing almost every Sunday here at Saint Andrews: “Blessed is He who cometh, Hosanna, in the highest. Blessed is He who cometh in the name of the Lord.”
The Fulfillment of the Temple
There is something very, very strange about Mark’s version of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. After, “Blessed is the kingdom of our father David that comes in the name of the Lord, Hosanna in the highest,” we read in verse 11: “And Jesus went into Jerusalem and into the temple. So when He had looked around at all the things there, as the hour was already late, He went out to Bethany with the twelve.”
Mark’s conclusion of this episode is anticlimactic. It’s as though He came into Jerusalem, went to the temple, looked around, and went back home to Bethany, as if nothing significant had taken place. However, there’s a little detail here that is crucial to our understanding of this event in the life of Jesus.
All along, we’ve been waiting for Jesus to arrive in Jerusalem. He had set His face like a flint to Jerusalem. We’ve been looking at that since He announced to His disciples that He was going to the holy city to suffer and die. But Jerusalem was not His ultimate destination. It was the penultimate destination.
His destination wasn’t just the city in general. His destination was the temple. He was going to the temple. He was looking around at the place where, historically, the sacrifices were offered. He was going to the temple that replaced the tabernacle, which in its own structure and use was a living prophecy of the Messiah who was to come.
In John’s gospel, he begins, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). Then a little bit later in the prologue, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). That phrase, “He dwelt among us,” literally says, “He tabernacled among us.” You see, Jesus is the tabernacle. He’s the fulfillment of everything the tabernacle pointed to. He is the temple. He said, “You can tear this temple down and not one stone will be left among the others, but after three days, I will build it again” (John 2:19). He was speaking of Himself, because He is the temple.
The Glory of God Returns
Jesus went to that place that He was born for, the temple. Here is the supreme irony. In 586 BC, Ezekiel saw the glory of God leave the temple, leave the holy city, and come down on Bethany at the Mount of Olives. Now, the One whom the Scriptures define as the brightness of the glory of God comes from Bethany, from the Mount of Olives, goes into the Eastern Gate, goes to the Holy City, and goes to the temple.
Do you see it? In 586 BC, the glory of God left the temple, and now the glory of God comes back, but no one understood that the king was the King of Glory, who was about to meet the destiny to which He was called and was born. Do you see how Christmas is, in some measure, fulfilled on that Sunday in Jerusalem? Let’s pray.
Our Father, we thank You for the way in which every footstep of our Messiah was prepared in the ages and centuries before, that nothing was done without warrant or without purpose. He fulfilled all things perfectly in His person. Father, not just on Palm Sunday, or on Holy Week, but every time we celebrate the first advent of Jesus, give us remembrance of His coming to Jerusalem as our King. Amen.
This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.