When God Rides a Donkey
Dr. Jim Denison
In February of 1996 a limousine driving down the New Jersey expressway got a flat tire. The limo driver got out to change the tire, only to discover that the spare was also flat. Before he could call for roadside assistance, a man in a pickup truck and an air tank stopped to help.
When the man and the driver finished the repair, the car window slid down and the man was shocked to see Donald Trump sitting inside. “That was very nice of you to stop and help,” Trump said. “What can I do to thank you?” The man thought for a moment and said, “Tomorrow is Valentine’s Day. My wife would really get a kick out of receiving a dozen roses from you.” Trump agreed and drove off.
The next day a messenger arrived with a box. Inside were two dozen roses and a note: “Happy Valentine’s Day from a friend of your husband. (signed) Donald Trump. P.S. Thanks for helping us out. By the way, I paid off your mortgage.”
While that’s a great story, I found out it’s not true. You never know where help is coming from. It may be driving a truck. It may be riding in a limousine. It may even be riding a donkey…and that’s a true story which withstands close examination..
Let’s see why God did, and why that fact is so important to our lives today.
Why did God ride a donkey?
On Sunday, April 12, in the year AD 29, Jesus of Nazareth entered Jerusalem for the last week of his earthly life and the most monumental week in all of human history. The next day he would drive the moneychangers from the Temple. On Tuesday he would confront the religious authorities, and be anointed by Mary. He spent Wednesday in solitude and in spiritual preparation for the cross. Thursday led to his Last Supper, his betrayal, and his arrest and night of trials. On Friday he was crucified at 9:00 a.m., and died at 3:00 p.m.. On Sunday he rose from the grave.
And he chose to begin all of that on a donkey. Why? He has just walked fifteen miles from Jericho to Jerusalem, up an elevation of some 3,000 feet, through some of the most barren and dangerous landscape to be found anywhere in the world. I’ve been over this road twice in an air-conditioned bus, and wouldn’t want to walk it even today. If Jesus could walk this distance, he could walk into the city itself. But he rode on a donkey instead. Why?
It was a most unusual choice.
Roman conquerors rode into their cities in a parade procession, riding in a chariot drawn by four horses, with a slave holding his crown above his head.
But when the King of Kings and Lord of Lords came into his Holy City, he chose to ride a donkey. In fact, he arranged the whole thing. He sent his disciples to a certain house in a certain village, to bring a particular donkey back to him. Either he had made these preparations earlier, or his divine omniscience knew that this donkey would be available to him. Either way, riding that donkey that day was his explicit and deliberate choice.
It was something like the American President riding to his inauguration in my 1974 Chevy Vega. An odd choice at best.
Why did he make it? Matthew gives us part of the answer: “This took place to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet” (v. 4). And Matthew proceeds to quote from Zechariah 9:9-10. But why did God tell the prophet to make this prediction, 567 years before it was fulfilled?
Zechariah answers our question:
The donkey was a beast of suffering. He was used to carry burdens that no other animal would. And he would endure a great deal of suffering and pain. So would his rider: “See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey” (v. 9). “Gentle” means to be humbled before God. “Having salvation” means that he is our Savior. The One who would suffer for us to purchase our salvation. The donkey symbolized the suffering his rider would endure.
The donkey was a symbol of peace as well. Horses were ridden in Jesus’ day almost exclusively for war purposes, but a donkey was used during peacetime and for peaceful purposes. In the same way, his rider “will proclaim peace to the nations” (v. 10a). Peace between us and God, and between each other. The peace found only in Jesus.
And the donkey was paradoxically a promise of glory. Solomon rode to his coronation on David’s donkey; Mephibosheth, grandson of King Saul, rode a donkey as well. And so the prophet promised, “His rule will extend from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth” (v. 10b). One day every knee will bow before this rider. Pilate will bow before the Lord he condemned; the religious leaders before the Messiah they crucified; this crowd before the Savior they mocked; these soldiers before the Creator they beat and pierced. All will worship him. We can start now.
So God rode a donkey on Palm Sunday, to show us what his coming crucifixion and resurrection would mean: our salvation, our peace, his glory.
Why did he ride a donkey into Jerusalem?
A second question: why did he ride this donkey into Jerusalem, during Passover? He could not possibly have chosen a more dangerous time to enter a more dangerous city.
Nearly three million people were crowded into Jerusalem for the Passover week. Many of them thought he was the military Messiah who would overthrow the Romans and set their nation free. “Hosanna to the Son of David!” meant, “The Messiah has come to set us free!”
This was a powder keg, and he was the match. The religious authorities would do anything to put down revolt, and the Romans would punish rebellion instantly. An American entering Afghanistan just as our war against the Taliban began would fare no better than he would that week.