1 Now when they drew near to Jerusalem, to Bethphage and Bethany, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two of his disciples 2 and said to them, “Go into the village in front of you, and immediately as you enter it you will find a colt tied, on which no one has ever sat. Untie it and bring it. 3 If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ say, ‘The Lord has need of it and will send it back here immediately.’” 4 And they went away and found a colt tied at a door outside in the street, and they untied it. 5 And some of those standing there said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” 6 And they told them what Jesus had said, and they let them go. 7 And they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it, and he sat on it. 8 And many spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut from the fields. 9 And those who went before and those who followed were shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! 10 Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David! Hosanna in the highest!” 11 And he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple. And when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.
Sometimes the best characters in stories are the ones you barely notice. They play their part so well and blend so seamlessly into the story that you only realize afterwards what a truly great character they were. In movies and television these characters are known as “bit” characters because they play “bit” parts. Wikipedia defines “bit” parts like this:
A bit part is a role in which there is direct interaction with the principal actors and no more than five lines of dialogue, often referred to as a five-or-less or under-five in the United States, or under sixes in British television.
A bit part is higher than that of an extra and lower than that of a supporting actor. An actor who regularly performs in bit roles, either as a hobby or to earn a living, is referred to as a bit player, a term also used to describe an aspiring actor who has not yet broken into supporting or leading roles.
Unlike extras, who do not typically interact with principals, actors in bit parts are sometimes listed in the credits.
There is a character in Mark 11:1-11, Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, who might be described by some as a bit character. Maybe he is. I do not know. That idea is debatable, in my opinion. His role is, in some respects, small. He does not have any lines to speak of. But he does interact with the main character in a way that is profound. In fact, I would like to suggest that his character is much more significant than it first appears. At the very least, he deserves his name in the credits. But I think this character’s role is even more important than that. I think this character is actually a model for Christians today, though an unlikely one.
I am speaking of the donkey.
True enough! I am! The donkey!
Perhaps I will be accused of allegorizing this text. That accusation means nothing to me in this case for, as we will see, the donkey on which Jesus rode into Jerusalem is actually quite significant and his character is deeply tied to Old Testament prophecies concerning the coming of the Messiah. He is, in other words, actually an important character and one that is worthy of our consideration.
Before we begin I would like to make sure we understand that it was, in fact, a donkey that Jesus rode into Jerusalem. The word we find in Mark 11 is “colt” and that normally conjures images of a horse, but, in this case, that is not so. William Lane explains that the Greek word translated as “colt” is polon. The word itself “designates simply a young animal” and can, “when it stands alone” mean “a (young) horse.” Lane goes to explain, however, that in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures in use at this time, the word “is used of the colt of an ass…and on the basis of Zech. 9:9 the ass was understood to be the beast of the Messiah.” He concludes that “it is inconceivable that [polon] should be understood as ‘horse.’”
We are talking, then, about a donkey, a donkey that Jesus rode into Jerusalem setting into motion the events that would lead to His crucifixion. The object of our study is, of course, always Jesus, but let us consider what the choosing of this donkey tells us about the coming of Christ.
The donkey is a model in that a prior claim of ownership had to give way before a higher calling for service.
We begin with the fact that Jesus needed to acquire the donkey in the first place. To that end, He gave instructions to the disciples.
1 Now when they drew near to Jerusalem, to Bethphage and Bethany, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two of his disciples 2 and said to them, “Go into the village in front of you, and immediately as you enter it you will find a colt tied, on which no one has ever sat. Untie it and bring it. 3 If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ say, ‘The Lord has need of it and will send it back here immediately.’”
On the “ground floor” of this story, as we might put it, this seems somewhat commonplace. Yet, at that time, it was no small thing to take a persons animal. Interestingly, some atheist critics of Christianity, in a desperate attempt to find some reason to find fault with Jesus, point to this story as evidence of theft. Indicative of this approach would be the following words from an online atheist:
What are we to glean from this sparse account? Looking at this with an eye on known human behavior modes, here is what it looks like to me. Jesus and his crew stopped outside a small town to scope it out and make some plans. Apparently these plans involved the removal of a horse (colt) from the town without prior approval or notification of the owner. Today, this is known as ‘theft’ and is a hanging offense. Jesus told two of his men to go into the town and where they would find a horse. He told them to get the horse and bring it to him without being seen, but if they were seen, to inform the guy that they were taking his horse to their boss, a guy who apparently had enough of a rep (and 12 mindless “followers”, work hardened and ready to do whatever the “son of God” might require of them) that people would simply hand over their loot without a struggle.
So they went to town, located this guy’s horse, and started to make off with it when the guy spots them and comes running out to find out what the hell they think they are doing. So, they ‘splain to the guy how it’s gonna be. I guess you could say they made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. Long story short, the guy caves and they depart with what, for many people in that part of the world in those days, would have been a large and indispensable part of their net worth. Sounds like he was acting out of fear…
Boiled down, this has conspiracy, coercion, and grand theft written all over it. I’m not sure exactly how the ancients viewed such questionable activities as horse thievery, but where I come from, that would have gotten a person hanged a lot faster than religious scammery.
Well, that is certainly one way to look at this, uncharitable and silly though it is. In point of fact, it is very possible that Jesus had made prior arrangements with the owner of colt. That may be reflected in the fact that he tells the disciples to answer “anyone” who objects and not “the owner” if he objects.
Even so, let us remember that the name and fame of Jesus had spread far and there is no reason to doubt that the owner of the donkey might have been more than thrilled for Jesus to use it. On top of all of this, of course, is the fact that Jesus promised to return the donkey when he was through.
But all of this really does miss the point, does it not? The fact is that the call of Jesus represented a higher calling on that donkey than did the claim of the current owner. Adela Yarbro Collins suggests that Jesus’ words “may imply that, as the Messiah, he has the right to requisition anything he needs.” This makes it sound almost like what we know as the lawful commandeering of a vehicle by a civil authority in a time of emergency. It is a humorous thought, but it is not totally off. More accurately we would put it like this: the claim of God on anything and anyone supersedes and eclipses all previous claims of ownership.
Thus, the donkey is a model in that a prior claim of ownership had to give way before a higher calling for service.
The donkey was owned, but a greater owner had come!
The donkey had a claim on him, but a greater claim had come!
So it was for the donkey. So it is for us. We are born with a claim on us. We are bound by a cursed tie to the kingdom of darkness and the fall and decaying order of this world. We feel that claim on us. We feel that we must do what our cruel master bids us do. We are tied to his door and are bound to his bidding. Like a donkey waiting for orders in a dusty street, we are enslaved to every impulse and that springs up within us and every temptation that presents itself to us.
But then we hear another call, the call of love and the call of freedom. Our nature revolts, instinctively, at this idea. We have been conditioned to think that the papers Satan has on us must win the day. But then Jesus comes and says to us, “My claim is greater than the claim of your current order. I hold the papers on you from eternity past. I made you. You are created in my image. My claim is older. My claim is stronger. The King is calling you!”
Jesus said that they were to find and bring to him a donkey “on which no one has ever sat.” Why does that matter? It matters because in the Old Testament scriptures we find God working sacred works through animals that had never been worked.
We see this, for instance, in the sacrificial red heifer of Numbers 19.
1 Now the Lord spoke to Moses and to Aaron, saying, 2 “This is the statute of the law that the Lord has commanded: Tell the people of Israel to bring you a red heifer without defect, in which there is no blemish, and on which a yoke has never come. 3 And you shall give it to Eleazar the priest, and it shall be taken outside the camp and slaughtered before him.
We see this in the red heifer of Deuteronomy 21 which was to be offered in the case of unsolved murders.
1 “If in the land that the Lord your God is giving you to possess someone is found slain, lying in the open country, and it is not known who killed him, 2 then your elders and your judges shall come out, and they shall measure the distance to the surrounding cities. 3 And the elders of the city that is nearest to the slain man shall take a heifer that has never been worked and that has not pulled in a yoke. 4 And the elders of that city shall bring the heifer down to a valley with running water, which is neither plowed nor sown, and shall break the heifer’s neck there in the valley. 5 Then the priests, the sons of Levi, shall come forward, for the Lord your God has chosen them to minister to him and to bless in the name of the Lord, and by their word every dispute and every assault shall be settled.
And we see this in 1 Samuel 6 with the two cows who are called to pull the cart bearing the ark of the covenant.
7 Now then, take and prepare a new cart and two milk cows on which there has never come a yoke, and yoke the cows to the cart, but take their calves home, away from them. 8 And take the ark of the Lord and place it on the cart and put in a box at its side the figures of gold, which you are returning to him as a guilt offering. Then send it off and let it go its way
In other words, this donkey was being called for sacred work. The call of God was on Him! And when the call of God is on you to do His bidding, you dare not allow lesser claims to keep you bound.
Coming to Jesus and accepting Jesus depends to a certain extent on recognizing the superiority of His claim on your life. His claim is greater! Do not let whatever has mastered you keep you there! Talk back to your former master. Tell him that you are done with him because a greater one has called you!
3 If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ say, ‘The Lord has need of it…’”
The people of God must ever and always say this to those calling them to remain in bondage: “The Lord has need of me!”
The donkey is a model in that, through the command of Christ, he was untied to act in service of the King.
What is more, the donkey is untied for service.
4 And they went away and found a colt tied at a door outside in the street, and they untied it. 5 And some of those standing there said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” 6 And they told them what Jesus had said, and they let them go. 7 And they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it, and he sat on it.
It is helpful at this point to remember that Mark’s gospel is not necessarily overflowing in details. It is a fast-paced gospel. Thus, when Mark employs repetition, we should pay special attention. Consider:
- “you will find a colt tied” (v.2)
- “Untie it and bring it.” (v.2)
- “a colt tied at a door” (v.4)
- “they untied it” (v.4)
- “What are you doing, untying the colt?” (v.5)
Mark makes strong use of the literary tool we call “repetition” and he does so with the word “tie.” We have observed numerous occasions of Mark harkening back to the Old Testament. This particular scene is replete with Old Testament connections. The repetitious use of forms of the word “tie” points to just such a connection. We find this in the “Oracle of Judah” of Genesis 49:8-12. In this passage of scripture, Jacob calls his sons to gather around so that he might bless them. His blessing of Judah has messianic overtones. It points to a great ruler who will come in time as a savior and deliverer.
8 “Judah, your brothers shall praise you; your hand shall be on the neck of your enemies; your father’s sons shall bow down before you. 9 Judah is a lion’s cub; from the prey, my son, you have gone up. He stooped down; he crouched as a lion and as a lioness; who dares rouse him? 10 The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until tribute comes to him; and to him shall be the obedience of the peoples. 11 Binding his foal to the vine and his donkey’s colt to the choice vine, he has washed his garments in wine and his vesture in the blood of grapes. 12 His eyes are darker than wine, and his teeth whiter than milk.
What is interesting is that the word for “street” (amphodon) used in Mark 11:4 (“And they went away and found a colt tied at a door outside in the street”) has a phonetic similarity to the word for vine (ampelon) used in Genesis 49 (“Binding his foal to the vine and his donkey’s colt to the choice vine”).
In Genesis 49, the coming King ties his donkey. In Mark 11, the King who has come unties His donkey. Genesis 49 is a promise. Mark 9 is its completion.
The donkey was untied for service to the King!
This is the promise of the gospel: we too can be untied for service! The donkey is once again a model for us. Christ has come to proclaim us free and to untie us! We are reminded of Jesus’ astonishing actions in the synagogue of his hometown Nazareth. Luke writes of this in Luke 4.
16 And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he stood up to read.17 And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written, 18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, 19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” 20 And he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21 And he began to say to them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Christ has set you free for service! You are tied no longer! Come and serve a better Master and Lord!
Russell Saltzman has pointed to an unfortunate omission from a powerful hymn that celebrates the triumphal entry of Jesus on this donkey.
This is all a roundabout way of calling to mind John Mason Neale (1818–1866). Neale translated into English the Latin hymn Gloria, laus et honor written by the hymnist, St. Theodulph of Orleans (d. 821). We know the hymn today as All Glory, Laud, and Honor, a traditional Passion Sunday entrance hymn.
While otherwise faithful to the Latin, Neal nonetheless thought it prudent to omit one verse from his translation:
Be Thou, O Lord, the Rider,
And we the little ass,
That to God’s holy city
Together we may pass.
While there is evidence the line was in use until the seventeenth century, the verse was perhaps too rude for the more refined worshipers of later centuries. No American hymnal has ever included it—wisely, I think. There is little point giving small boys reason for snickering in church; they can usually find their own reasons without any assistance.
I suppose it is the case that certain words are simply lost to us given how the meaning has changed over time, but it is indeed a shame. It is a shame because that is a beautiful and important stanza! Christ is the rider and we are the donkey. We have been called to serve a great King! And the miracle of the gospel is that, through it, “Together we [Jesus and us] may pass.”
Do not stay tied. Do not be bound any longer! Your chains have been broken through the death and the resurrection of Jesus.
The donkey is a model in that his ordinary and embarrassing nature became extraordinary and regal in the hands of Jesus!
And through Christ, our shame comes to an end and our sense of worthlessness melts away before the glory that we behold and the glory into which we are caught up through faith in Jesus.
7 And they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it, and he sat on it. 8 And many spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut from the fields. 9 And those who went before and those who followed were shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! 10 Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David! Hosanna in the highest!” 11 And he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple. And when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.
One moment he is just a common donkey tied in the street. Now he is playing his part in bringing glory to Jesus Christ as he approaches His great and saving work.
It has been observed that, whereas the donkey did play a regal role in the centuries before the birth of Jesus, in the first century it was simply a commonplace animal. Donkeys were for commoners. Horses were for the rich and powerful. Even the fact that the disciples could simply go up and take this animal speaks of its common nature. Joel Marcus writes that “[d]onkeys were much more apt to be left unattended in village squares than were horses, which were rare, expensive, and generally reserved for military or elite use.”
But the prophet Zecharaiah had foretold in Zechariah 9 that the Messiah would come on a donkey.
9 Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. 10 I will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall speak peace to the nations; his rule shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth. 11 As for you also, because of the blood of my covenant with you, I will set your prisoners free from the waterless pit. 12 Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope; today I declare that I will restore to you double.
Even so, this prophecy was problematic for some early interpreters. It was problematic because a donkey seemed to be a bit beneath the grandeur of the promised and coming Savior. William Lane observes that rabbis interpreting Zechariah 9:9 were “embarrassed to explain how the Messiah could be content with so humble an entry” and therefore concluded that if the coming Messiah entered on a donkey it was a statement on Israel’s sinfulness:
Behold, the Son of Man comes “on the clouds of heaven” and “lowly and riding an ass.” If they (Israel) are worthy, “with the clouds of heaven”; if they are not worthy, “lowly, and riding upon an ass.”
How fascinating! If Israel was righteous, the rabbis said, the Messiah would come on clouds. If Israel was wicked, the Messiah would come on a donkey. This speaks of the low esteem in which the donkey was held.
It is true, of course, that Israel and the whole world—every last one of us—were and are wicked, but I think the rabbis failed to see the point: that the promised King would come on a donkey not in order to demonstrate how lowly we were before Him but rather to demonstrate how lowly He had come before us. The point was not that we were wretched and unworthy (though we are!). The point is that Christ on the cross would become wretched for us! He came lowly to reach us in our lowliness.
The point, in other words, was not our shame but rather that He, the King of Kings, would take our shame to give us glory! The point is that He came on a donkey to reach us donkeys! The donkey is a model in that his ordinary and embarrassing nature became extraordinary and regal in the hands of Jesus!
I have mentioned the so-called Alexamenos Graffito a number of times.
Discovered in 1857 in a building in Rome, this image, scratched in a wall and dating from the 1st or 2nd century is probably the oldest rendition of the crucifixion in existence today. It just so happens that it is a piece of anti-Christian graffiti in which a boy, Alexamenos, who was a Christ is mocked by his non-Christian friends for worshipping Jesus. Whoever created the graffiti decided that the greatest insult he could come up with would be one of Alexamenos worshiping the crucified Christ with the head of a donkey.
That is telling, is it not? This young bully, whoever he was, decided that the most insulting thing he could do was call Jesus a donkey and then depict Alexamenos as worshiping this deluded charlatan.
Yes, it is telling. And it is ironic. For Jesus rode a donkey into Jerusalem to make the point that this anti-Christian graffiti artist missed: that He rode a common beast to show that he was reaching down to lowly humanity, that the powerful men who might snicker at such needed Him as much as the common man who was shouting out praises and laying down their palm branches, and that through Jesus even a silly donkey can be transformed into a regal steed.
Jesus came for embarrassing creatures like us. He reaches to us in our awkwardness and our unworthiness and our common-place stature. He does not come on a royal steed. He comes lowly on a donkey. The little donkey plays his part. His embarrassment is transformed into value and worth! He is serving Jesus! He has a part to play.
And so it is with us, donkeys all! We too have a part to play.
You are not too common.
You are not too lost.
You are not too embarrassing.
You are not too worthless.
The King has come for you! The King calls for you! The King has a job for you! Will you come? Come to the King who transforms the lowly into something great!
In 1927, G.K. Chesterton wrote his poem, “The Donkey.” In it, the donkey that Jesus rode into Jerusalem speaks of what it meant for him
When fishes flew and forests walked
And figs grew upon thorn,
Some moment when the moon was blood
Then surely I was born.
With monstrous head and sickening cry
And ears like errant wings,
The devil’s walking parody
On all four-footed things.
The tattered outlaw of the earth,
Of ancient crooked will;
Starve, scourge, deride me: I am dumb,
I keep my secret still.
Fools! For I also had my hour;
One far fierce hour and sweet:
There was a shout about my ears,
And palms before my feet.
Come. Jesus is calling you!
 William L. Lane, The Gospel According to Mark. The New International Commentary of the New Testament. Gen. Ed., F.F. Bruce (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1974), p.391, n.2.
 Adela Yarbro Collins, Mark. Hermeneia. Ed., Harold W. Attridge. (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2007), p.518.
 Joel Marcus, Mark 8-16. The Anchor Bible. Vol.27A (New Haven, CT: The Anchor Yale Bible, 2009), p.779.
 Joel Marcus, p.772.
 Lane, p.394, n.9.