Who Is This Riding on a Donkey?

Matthew 21:1-17
P.G. Mathew | Sunday, April 09, 2006
Copyright © 2006, P.G. Mathew

Say to the Daughter of Zion, ‘See, your king comes to you, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.'”

Matthew 21:5

The Rider on a Donkey

– His Arrival

The events of Matthew 21 take place during Passion Week, the last and most important week in Jesus’ earthly life. In Jesus Christ, God became man so that he might die for the sins of the whole world.

After revealing this purpose to his disciples, Jesus set his face like flint to go to Jerusalem, where he would be crucified, buried, and on the third day rise from the dead. So in this passage we find Jesus, the Lamb of God who would take away the sin of the world, traveling south with his disciples and other pilgrims from Galilee to Jerusalem to celebrate the feast of Passover.

It appears that Jesus and his disciples arrived in Bethany on Friday and stayed at the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. On Saturday they celebrated the Sabbath rest with Lazarus and his sisters Mary and Martha. Then, on Sunday, Jesus and the disciples joined other pilgrims to go the remaining two miles to Jerusalem.

Verses one through three describe how Jesus made arrangements to obtain a donkey to ride into Jerusalem. All his life, Jesus had walked everywhere. But now he deliberately decided to cover this short distance on an unbroken donkey, one he would not ride again. By so doing, he would be publicly declaring that he was the Messiah.

We must wonder why Jesus would be drawing attention to himself in this way. Up to this point he had avoided publicity, not wanting people to know he was the Messiah. Nor had he wanted to provoke the Jewish leaders, who for some time had been plotting to kill him. “My hour is not yet come,” he told his brothers when they wanted him to reveal himself publicly. But now Jesus knew that the hour of his death was at hand. He also knew it was his Father’s will, as revealed in the Scriptures. Zechariah 9:9 prophesies the triumphal entry of the king of Israel into the city of his father David: “Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion! Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” So as king, Jesus requisitioned the donkey and its mother to carry him into the city. We can call this donkey Christopher, meaning “Christ-bearer.”

– The Crowd’s Response

Having witnessed and heard of the many miracles Jesus performed-including that of raising Lazarus from the dead-his fellow pilgrims threw their outer garments on the donkeys’ backs and on the road in homage to him as Israel’s king. Second Kings 9:13 tells us that long ago, King Jehu was honored in a similar fashion.

As King Jesus rode the colt, seated on the saddle of garments, the crowd also cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road ahead of him. Others held palm branches and ran alongside him, shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the king of Israel! Blessed is the coming kingdom of David! Hosanna in the highest! Save us, we pray!”

What was Jesus doing? He was deliberately and audaciously provoking the unbelieving authorities to do what they had always desired to do-to kill him. The authorities could not help but notice this large crowd shouting, “You are the king of Israel!” For six hundred long years Israel had no king. Now a king was coming to Jerusalem, to his own people, though they would not receive him.

Notice, this king was not riding a horse, for he was not coming to make war. He was riding a donkey, the animal used by the poor. King Jesus was coming in peace, even as his father David had done before him.

So the donkey Christopher carried Jesus up the Mount of Olives, 2700 feet high, on the east side of Jerusalem. From its summit they could look down on Mount Zion, two hundred feet below, and see Jerusalem and the gleaming temple. Then they descended the Mount of Olives, crossed Kidron Valley, and began ascending Mount Zion, all the while antiphonally singing the Hallel Psalms, especially Psalm 118.

– His Identity

As the procession entered Jerusalem, the authorities began to ask, “Who is this rider on the donkey? Why this great celebration? Who is this Jesus to whom people are praying, ‘Hosanna!’?”

These are the most important questions we can ask. Jesus himself asked this at Caesarea Philippi: “Who do people say I am?” His disciples replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” Then he asked, “But what about you? Who do you say I am?” And by a revelation given by the Father, Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:13-16). The Father himself gave a similar answer at Jesus’ baptism: “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17).

Who is Jesus? The unbelieving authorities-the priests, Sadducees, Pharisees, and scribes-said he was a glutton, a Samaritan, demon-possessed, and a blasphemer. But here the rider on the donkey was answering by fulfilling Zechariah 9:9: “I am the righteous King of Israel who brings salvation to my people. I am coming to my city and my people in peace and to make peace.”

– His Purpose

Those who understood prophetic symbolism recognized that Jesus was fulfilling Zechariah’s prophecy, so they began to shout, “Hosanna! Blessed is the king of Israel!” The crowd picked up the cry, yet most of them did not understand Jesus’ true purpose. They were looking for a political and economic messiah, one who would set them free from the domination of Rome and improve their standard of living. When this did not happen, their enthusiasm would wane, and in a few short days the crowd would cry, “Crucify him!”

In the same way, most Christians today do not want the real Jesus, who saves them from their sins and from the domination of Satan and the world, and who delivers them from death and grants them eternal life. Jesus is merely their penultimate desire-he is the one they hope will grant them their ultimate desires of health, wealth, and power in this world.

But King Jesus comes, not to give us the things of this world, but to give us peace with God and peace of mind. He came to die as the Passover Lamb, offering himself as an atoning sacrifice in our behalf to secure this peace for all who trust in him. His name is Jesus, for he shall save the Daughter of Zion from her sins. Through the Spirit, Simeon understood this purpose of Jesus’ incarnation. When he saw the infant Jesus, he prayed, “Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you now dismiss your servant in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation which you have prepared in the sight of all people, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel” (Luke 2:29-32).

Jesus came, not to make us rich, healthy, powerful, or famous, but to save us from our slavery to sin, Satan, and death. So God says to us, “Do not be afraid, O Daughter of Zion; see, your king is coming! Your righteous king comes to you personally to bring you salvation.” (John 12:15; Zechariah 9:9). Isaiah said the same thing: “Say to the Daughter of Zion, ‘See, your Savior comes!'” (Isaiah 62:11); and, “Say to those with fearful hearts, ‘Be strong, do not fear; your God will come . . . he will come to save you'” (Isaiah 35:4).

Who Is This Rider?

Who, then, is this rider on the donkey?

  1. He is Lord.

    When requisitioning the donkeys, Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone says anything to you, tell him that the Lord needs them, and he will send them right away” (Matthew 21:3). As the Master of the universe, Jesus owns all things: “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it . . . every animal of the forest is [his], and the cattle on a thousand hills” (Psalms 24:1; 50:10). It is his right to take all we have; the Lord gives and the Lord takes away. We are simply custodians of what already belongs to the Lord, including our own lives. Our responsibility is to serve him with what he has entrusted to us.

    Jesus is Lord. Do we recognize this fact and confess him as our Lord?

  2. He is King.

    Matthew 21:5 says, “See, your king comes to you.” Jesus was born a king-the king of Israel and of all the earth. As king, he came to fight against his enemies and wage war against all rebels, but he gives peace to those who own him as their Sovereign Lord.

    In Psalm 2 God warns the rebels of earth, “I have installed my King on Zion, my holy hill. . . . [He] will rule them with an iron scepter; [he] will dash them to pieces like pottery. . . . Kiss the Son, lest he be angry and you be destroyed in your way.” And then he says, “Blessed are all who take refuge in him” (Psalm 2:6-12).

    Jesus does not beg to be recognized as king-he demands it! And we must all acknowledge his sovereignty; it is not optional. (PGM) All rightful honor will be given him on the last day, when every knee shall bow and every tongue shall confess that he is the Sovereign Lord.

    Jesus is coming to us as our king. Do we submit to him? Do we bow down before him and pay him homage? Do we obey his laws with gladness of heart? Do we, like the wise men, come to worship him and pay him tribute? Is this rider on the donkey our King?

  3. He is the Son of David.

    Matthew 21:9 says the crowds went ahead of Jesus, shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” The children in the temple shouted the same thing (v. 15). What does this mean? It means that as the anointed Son of David, Jesus Christ is the legitimate heir to the throne of his father David, and he will rule eternally. The angel Gabriel said, “He will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end” (Luke 1:33).

    The mighty failed to acknowledge him as the Son of David because Satan blinded their eyes. But blind Bartimaeus cried out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” and Jesus stopped and healed him.

    Have we asked this Jesus to have mercy on us? Have we asked him to open our spiritual eyes that we may see the everlasting reality of his kingdom?

  4. He is the Prophet.

    Matthew 21:10-11 says, “When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred and asked, ‘Who is this?’ The crowds answered, ‘This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee.'”

    Jesus is the prophet Moses spoke about in Deuteronomy 18:15: “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own brothers. You must listen to him.” We must listen to Jesus-it is not an option. On the Mount of Transfiguration the Father declared, “This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him” (Luke 9:35). Jesus is the prophet raised up by God. He is greater than Moses. His words are spirit, truth, and life.

    Have we listened to him? Have we believed Jesus the Prophet? Do we read the gospels carefully to know the truth that will set us free from all that enslaves us?

  5. He is God.

    The chief priests and the teachers of the law were indignant when they heard people praising the rider on the donkey. They said to him, “Do you hear what these children are saying?” (Matthew 21:16) and they demanded that he rebuke them. But Jesus replied, “Have you never read, ‘From the lips of children and infants you have ordained praise’?”

    This is the problem of most people; they do not read the Bible. Another time Jesus said, “You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God” (Matthew 22:29). Oh, we have plenty of time to play computer games or watch television. We make time to read everything but the word of God, even though it alone gives life, and is the window to reality.

    So Jesus asked, “Have you never read. . . .?” and cited Psalm 8:2, which says that God ordained such praise for himself. The implication was obvious. Jesus was declaring, “I am God, and these people are doing the right thing by praising me. I cannot stop it; it is God’s will. They should praise me, because I am God.”

    Jesus never denied his deity. In Luke 19:44 he warned the unbelieving citizens of Jerusalem, “They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you.” He was declaring that when he came to Jerusalem, God himself was coming. And Zechariah, speaking by the Holy Spirit before Christ’s birth, said, “Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has come and has redeemed his people” (Luke 1:68).

    God came to us in Jesus Christ to save us, help us, deliver us, and heal us. This was the visitation Joseph prophesied in Genesis 50:25: “God will surely come to your aid.”

  6. He is the Teacher.

    In a parallel passage we read, “Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to Jesus, ‘Teacher, rebuke your disciples!’ ‘I tell you,’ he replied, ‘if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out'” (Luke 19:39-40).

    The Pharisees did not share the crowd’s enthusiastic acknowledgment that Jesus was the king of Israel, the Son of David and the Son of God. They demanded that Jesus rebuke the crowd, saying, in effect, “Jesus, you know that you are not really King. You are not really the Son of David. You are not really Lord. You are not really God. You should rebuke this foolish crowd for saying such things.” Yes, they addressed him as Teacher, but they did not believe his teaching.

    But elsewhere, we read that the crowds were amazed at Jesus’ teaching, because he taught as one who had authority (Matthew 7:28-29). Jesus did not quote others, but said, “I say unto you . . . .” He did so because he is the Teacher. Jesus is the teacher we must pay attention to, for he alone teaches the way of salvation.

    Do you call him Teacher? Do you believe his teaching? As he himself said, “The words I have spoken to you are spirit and they are life” (John 6:63).

  7. He is Savior.

In Matthew 21:11 the crowd said, “This is Jesus.” The crowd also said to him, “Hosanna.” Jesus and hosanna-both words come from the Hebrew word yasha, which means “to save.” So the crowd in effect was saying, “Jesus, Savior, save us, we pray!”

There is no other savior but Jesus Christ. Salvation is not found in a bishop, in a pastor, in a guru, in a president, or in anybody else in the whole world. “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).

The angel Gabriel told the poor shepherds, “Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:11). And Matthew 1:21 says, “His name is Jesus, for he shall save his people from their sins.”

Romans 10:9 says, “If you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” This rider on the donkey is our Savior, and the Savior of the whole world. Have we recognized and confessed him as such?

The Return of the Warrior King

This One who came in peace riding on a donkey shall come again-this time riding on a white war horse-to make war and to conquer all his enemies. The apostle John writes:

I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True. With justice he judges and makes war. His eyes are like blazing fire, and on his head are many crowns. He has a name written on him that no one knows but he himself. He is dressed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is the Word of God. The armies of heaven were following him, riding on white horses and dressed in fine linen, white and clean. Out of his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations. “He will rule them with an iron scepter.” He treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty. On his robe and on his thigh he has this name written:


And I saw an angel standing in the sun, who cried in a loud voice to all the birds flying in midair, “Come, gather together for the great supper of God, so that you may eat the flesh of kings, generals, and mighty men, of horses and their riders, and the flesh of all people, free and slave, small and great.” (Revelation 19:11-18)

Today he is still coming to us in peace. But we must not despise him, though he comes now in peace. Jesus died, was buried, was raised on the third day, and ascended into the heavens. He is the Sovereign Lord of the universe whose eyes are like flaming fire and whose feet are like burnished bronze.

Now is the accepted time. Now is the day of grace. Now he is saying to us, “Fear not, O Daughter of Zion. Rejoice greatly and shout aloud.” Look up and see our King coming to us personally, as he came to Zacchaeus, as he came to the Samaritan woman, as he came to blind Bartimaeus. He is coming, not to condemn but to save. He is coming to liberate us from all our fears. He will deliver us from all our sins and set us free from the fear of death by granting us life everlasting, secured by his death on the cross.

But if we will not confess him as Lord and King, we will cause him to weep over us, as he wept over the unbelieving city of Jerusalem (Luke 19:41). There he said, “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace.” The only thing that brings us peace is forgiveness and righteousness coming to us through Jesus Christ. “But now it is hidden from your eyes. The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. And they will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you” (Luke 19:42-44).

Will Jesus weep over us today, or will he rejoice? I pray that all of us will welcome him as our Lord and King, Prophet and Teacher, God and Savior, that we may not be afraid, but may rejoice greatly.