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.
The week before Easter Sunday is known as Palm Sunday because of the events we read about in this passage. We have been reading about Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem and now we find him on the outskirts of the city. But three times he has predicted that he will die there, so with that anticipation looming over the passage, we are surprised to read about Jesus’ “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem. For a man who has come here to die, it seems to be an odd way to arrive. The excitement with which he arrives at the city gates will disappear when he leaves the city about a week later.
So what does Mark want us to see in his telling of this story? Let’s trace three major aspects of the story to find out. We will look at the preparations for Jesus’ arrival, the predictions of his arrival, and the presentation of his arrival.
The first thing we might notice about the story is the detail and precision that is narrated in verses 1-6.
Mark tells us that this all happened as “they drew near to Jerusalem, to Bethphage and Bethany, at the Mount of Olives” (v. 1). Jesus has been travelling southwest from Jericho toward the royal city. Bethphage and Bethany were two Jerusalem “suburbs;” Bethany was about two miles from Jerusalem while Bethphage was only about a mile away. So Jesus is near Jerusalem, at the Mount of Olives to be exact. This elevated place along the eastern side of Jerusalem was to be the place where God would return to recapture Jerusalem and reclaim his dominion over all the earth.
On that day his feet shall stand on the Mount of Olives that lies before Jerusalem on the east, and the Mount of Olives shall be split in two . . . . And the Lord will be king over all the earth. On that day the Lord will be one and his name one. (Zechariah 14:4, 9)
From there Jesus dispatched two of his disciples to a nearby village with these instructions:
Immediately as you enter [the village] you will find a colt tied, on which no one has ever sat. Untie it and bring it. If anyone says to you, “Why are you doing this?” say, “The Lord has need of it and will send it back here immediately.” (vv. 2-3)
The disciples followed Jesus’ instructions and found everything to be exactly as Jesus had said. They found the colt and brought it back to Jesus, after telling the bystanders what Jesus had told them to say.
This was no random instruction that Jesus gave to these two disciples. Both Jesus and Mark see significance in this carefully laid out plan.
What gives Jesus the right to send two of his disciples into the village and take the colt? It may be that this was a prearranged deal. The disciples are instructed how to respond to anyone who asks what they are doing by saying, “The Lord has need of it.” And amazingly, with this simple explanation, the bystanders let them go without any objection. So perhaps Jesus has already arranged with the citizens of this village for the renting of the colt, and the phrase “The Lord has need of it” is the password that lets them know that these two disciples are there to carry out the plan that had been agreed upon.
But why does Jesus say “the Lord has need of it”? Some say that Jesus is referring to the owner of the colt who presumably was with the crowd in Jesus’ entourage. Or, it may be a reference to himself. Mark seems to refrain from using the word Lord in reference to Jesus (Mark 5:19 being the only other possible place he does so). But this seems to be the most straightforward understanding of what Jesus told his disciples to say.
Whether or not the bystanders were surprised by these disciples’ taking of the colt, the act itself indicates a bold move on Jesus’ part. The right to seize the property of another was reserved in ancient times for kings only. That Jesus intends this act to be understood imperially is seen also in the fact that the colt was to be one “on which no one has ever sat.” For Jews, unbroken animals were used for religious sacrifice (Num 19:2), and later tradition specified that no one else could ride a king’s horse. So when Jesus orders the taking of a young, unridden donkey, he is making royal claims for himself.
What is most surprising about Jesus making these sorts of claims is that up to this point he has tried to remain as anonymous as possible. He frequently silences those who see in him more than a Galilean rabbi (Mark 9:9). Why now will he risk bringing attention to himself by riding into Jerusalem like a king? It seems that Jesus is now willing to present himself as exactly that. He has made provisions so that we will not miss it: Jesus is the king, and his arrival in Jerusalem is to be his “triumphal entry” into his kingdom.
Mark wants his readers to come to the same conclusion, to see the significance of this “triumphal entry.” This story is filled with Old Testament allusions. Jesus is not just acting in a way that a contemporary king might act; he is acting in a way that a promised king would one day act. Let’s consider three Old Testament allusions and prophecies in this passage.
One interesting allusion that we might infer from this passage is found in the detail that the colt the disciples found was tied up (vv. 2, 4). Many commentators point to Genesis 49, a highly prophetic passage in which Jacob assembles his twelve sons to bless them and to tell them what would happen to them in the days to come. His fourth-born son, Judah, is the ancestor of King David as well as Jesus, and look at what was foretold of him in verse 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.
The scepter and the ruler’s staff indicate kingship, and this is made even more apparent in the prediction that all people will submit to him. But it is the next verse where we find the similarity to the triumphal entry.
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.
Mark, of course, does not point out this similarity, and neither do the other Gospel writers. Yet the prophecy has enough in common with the Gospel’s account of the triumphal entry to suggest a connection between the two.
Another passage we find alluded to in Jesus’ triumphal entry is found in Zechariah 9. There the prophet assures Israel that God will one day deliver them from their oppressors. A promised king will arise to deliver them. And in verse 9 the people are summoned to welcome him.
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.
Zechariah’s prophecy is a clear messianic passage. Matthew (21:4-5) and John (21:14-15) both point out that Jesus’ actions here were a fulfillment of Zechariah’s prophecy. Mark does not do so explicitly, but surely he understood it in this way. When Jesus mounted the donkey to ride in to Jerusalem, the crowd following him saw the connection to the ancient prophecy. The Messianic King was promised to bring a restoration of the great Davidic kingdom. So the crowed began to cry out, “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David!” (v. 10).
When David’s son, Solomon, became king, he rode on a mule to his inauguration (1 Kings 1:38-40). Anticipation is building as Jesus assumes this same royal posture. Pilgrims coming to Jerusalem for Passover were expected to walk into the city unless they were physically unable to do so. So the meaning of Jesus’ actions here cannot be missed. Finally, there is hope once again for a nation that has clung to an ancient prophecy for centuries.
The third Old Testament reference we find in this passage is in the words of the crowd as they celebrate this triumphal entry of Jesus. Mark tells us that those who went before and those who followed Jesus were shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” (v. 9). They are reciting from Psalm 118.
Psalm 118 is the last of the so-called “Hallal Psalms” or “Praise Psalms” which began in Psalm 113. This group of psalms was recited at most of the main Jewish festivals, so it would not have been unusual to hear these words being sung by pilgrims making their way to Jerusalem near Passover. But coupled with the royal symbol of Jesus riding on a donkey, the song of the people took on a much greater significance this year.
Psalm 118 has been described as a “royal song of thanksgiving for military victory” as the nation rejoices on their way back to Jerusalem from their conquest. It begins with the king leading the people in praise to God for his “steadfast love” that “endures forever” (vv. 1-4). The king then recounts the basis for this praise: God had delivered them from their enemies in spite of the fact that these enemies had surrounded them like bees (vv. 10-12).
When the king reaches Jerusalem, he requests permission to enter the Temple. “Open to me the gates of righteousness, that I may enter through them and give thanks to the LORD” (v. 19). The king and all the people are filled with joy: “This is the day that the LORD has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it” (v. 24). But what they long for the most is for God to bless them, for God to receive their praise and to look favorably upon them. So they cry out in verse 25, “Save us, we pray, O LORD!” This is what the excited crowd proclaims in Mark 11:9. It is what the word hosanna means.
The crowd in Mark is not so much requesting salvation as they are welcoming salvation. Hosanna eventually became more a shout of praise than a request for salvation. In Psalm 118 it was a request for God’s blessing, and it is followed by the granting of the request. The priests reply with God’s answer, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the LORD! We bless you from the house of the LORD” (v. 26). In Mark 11 the answer is part of the praise: “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the LORD!” (v. 9). In other words, the people see in Jesus the answer to their request.
So hosanna used to be a request, “save us, please!” but it has been transformed into a praise, “you have saved us!” This crowd celebrates because their king has arrived in the royal city.
But one of the most interesting aspects of the triumphal entry of Jesus is how Mark actually presents it.
First of all, there is the crowd, “those who went before and those who followed” after Jesus. We have already been introduced to this crowd, back in Mark 10:46. As Jesus left Jericho he was accompanied by “a great crowd” that had begun to form as he travelled from Galilee toward Jerusalem. In Jericho this crowd witnessed the healing of blind Bartimaeus, who apparently is also among them. The crowd is eager to agree with Bartimaeus in his identification of Jesus as the “Son of David” (v. 47). They believe that this Jesus is the Messiah.
So as Jesus mounts a donkey in fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy, they give him the royal treatment. Many of them spread their cloaks along the road along with leafy branches they had cut down from the fields, forming a rudimentary “red carpet” for Jesus. This is not the same crowd that will in a few days eagerly call for his crucifixion (Mark 14:14-15). This is a crowd of disciples who have come with Jesus to Jerusalem to witness the inauguration of his kingdom.
Now consider for a moment the implications of what the crowd was saying. They proclaim, “Hosanna in the highest!” a call for the angels in heaven to join in their praise and adoration of the one sitting on the donkey. If Jesus is not the promised Messiah, this is blasphemous. This is why the other Gospel writers point out the offense that the Pharisees and religious leaders took from the shout of this crowd.
But when the chief priests and the scribes saw the wonderful things that he did, and the children crying out in the temple, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” they were indignant, and they said to him, “Do you hear what these are saying?” (Matthew 21:15-16)
And some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples.” (Luke 19:39)
So the Pharisees said to one another, “You see that you are gaining nothing. Look, the world has gone after him.” (John 12:19)
As we mentioned earlier, this kind of presentation of Jesus stands out in light of the fact that up to this point Jesus has been eager to squelch this kind of enthusiasm about his identity. We’ve been saying that the reason Jesus so often wanted to quiet his fan base was because he wanted sincere worshipers and not hyped-up fans. Now he seems to be comfortable with the accolades being heaped upon him.
But what is unique to Mark’s account is that he mentions nothing in the “triumphal entry” of the offense of the religious elite. They seem to take no notice at all. Instead, in verse 11 when Jesus actually enters Jerusalem, the story is rather anticlimactic. “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.” That’s the end of Mark’s “triumphal entry” account.
In other words, it isn’t much of a “triumphal” entry at all! And that seems to be the point that Mark want to make. The kingdom that Jesus has come to inaugurate is quietly ignored. No one seems to take notice of the King. Even the crowds that accompanied him to Jerusalem have left. The party is over. Jesus departs to Bethany alone, accompanied only by his twelve disciples.
And in just a few days, Jesus will be mocked and ridiculed and crucified. The King of the Jews will appear to be an abysmal failure.
By planning for his own “triumphal entry,” Jesus has proclaimed himself to be the king, and he does not rebuke his followers from shouting out their agreement in this. Yet three times he plainly declared that he had come to Jerusalem to die. What then is the purpose of the so-called “triumphal entry” if his coming to Jerusalem does not conclude with a throne but with a cross?
The answer to this question is what Mark wants us to see. According to Mark, this indeed was Jesus’ “triumphal entry,” in spite of the fact that it ended unceremoniously. Yes, Jesus has come to die, but his death does not lie “along the way” toward his coronation. His death is his coronation! His death is the establishment of the kingdom that he came to inaugurate.
This is why Jesus has gone to great lengths to be noticed. Now he wants to be seen. The purpose for which he has come to Jerusalem is the purpose of his life. “The mission of a lifetime of thirty to thirty-five years was to be accomplished in its last twenty-four hours, indeed, its last six.” This is, in fact, why a disproportionate amount of the Gospels is focused on the final week of Jesus’ life, beginning with this “triumphal entry.” It’s the reason why the Apostles’ Creed skips from his miraculous birth to his sufferings under Pontius Pilate. Jesus has literally lived for this very moment.
The greatest moment in human history is one that continues to be ignored by millions of people simply because we struggle to see it as the moment of triumph that it is. Do you, like me, find yourself often unsatisfied in this life? Here’s the question to ask yourself today. Are you still waiting for God to deliver the salvation you need? Are you crying out to him, “Hosanna!” as a request? Do you feel like he has yet to give to you all that you need?
There is another way to proclaim, “Hosanna!” When you see that he has already delivered your salvation by his cross. When you can see that he is gracious and so you do not have to prove yourself in any way at all. When you come to his Table to receive the benefits of the kingdom he has already inaugurated. When you by faith see that his death is the triumph, then you can proclaim “Hosanna!” as a praise. He has already saved us now!
 James R. Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark, The Pillar New Testament Commentary, ed. D. A. Carson (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2002), 336.
 R. T. France, Mark: A Commentary on the Greek Text, The New International Greek Testament Commentary, ed. I. Howard Marshall and Donald A. Hagner (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 2002), 428-29.
 G. K. Beale and D. A. Carson, eds., Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007), 207.
 G. Schneider, Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament (EDNT), ed. Horst Balz and Gerhard Schneider, 3 vols (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1990), 3:509.
 John R. W. Stott, The Cross of Christ, 20th Anniversary ed. (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2006), 69.